France 2018 – Part 1, Champagne
“We began at Orly Airport and drove east, covering a large backwards “C” of mostly Kimmeridgian limestone vineyards in Champagne and the Loire Valley. We traversed over 1600 miles and visited 17 wineries.
Champagne impresses with its wide range of terroirs, styles, wine types and domaine sizes. Most wineries make a variety of wines, creating different blends and quality levels. Despite this wide diversity, many people—both trade and consumers—tend to lump all Champagne into a single category. This is an error; it misses out on the significant nuances of these brilliant wines and diminishes the importance of terroir in the region. My guess as to why: it is in the interest of the Grands Marques to downplay terroir and to promote House Image/Style. These large operations need to gobble up fruit from all across the interesting micro-climates of Champagne in order to produce the 100s of thousands of cases each year they need to supply their vast supply chain. This mentality is in direct contrast to the single estates we work with that connect directly with their terroir and try to express it in each cuvée.
Our first stop was in the Marne Valley, where they were celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the important battle of the Marne: the decisive allied victory which helped bring WWI to a close.
Baron Fuente owns 50 HA and buys another 100HA worth of grapes. This is a good-sized operation, producing 150,000 cases of Champagne/year. Ignace Baron runs the operation. His mother, Dolores Fuente, is of Spanish origin. He is the 3rd generation winemaker of Baron Fuente. His mother came from Spain and met Gabriel Baron. They married in 1961 and created the estate in 1967.
The Chante-Manche vineyard is 100% chardonnay. 8600 vines/HA dense Chablis training goes into their Blanc de Blancs.Champagne must be hand-harvested by appellation rules.
Pinot Meunier starts its development later which is good for this area as that way there is less risk of frost damage. Also, PM takes less time to ripen. It’s the Merlot of Champagne, though it oxidizes easily.
Here they employ sur lattes 36 to 96 months. By law, just 15 months is required.
In gyro-pallette there are 504 btls/cage, each bottle disgorged manually. A good worker can do 2500 bottles per hour; that is less than 1.5 seconds per bottle!
We tasted a wide range of wines, here are the standouts:
Brut Tradition is 70% PM, 30% Chard, 2 years sur lattes. Very Meunier, big forward fruit.
Extra Brut Grande Reserve with its low dosage was a standout for its balance and complexity. 3 years sur lattes, 60% PM, 40% Chardonnay.
Brut Grande Reserve has a dosage of 9 grams/litre is an easier drinking version of the Extra Brut. While the Extra Brut stands out in complexity this wine excels in fresh fruit.
Millesime 2009 is a terrific vintage Champagne. Disgorged last November, 45% Chardonnay, 40% PM and 15% PN. Balanced and complex with long, flavors of brioche.
Grand Cru, a very harmonious Champagne noted for its roundness and range of flavors.
These are well made, accessible wines, if a bit rustic. PM is the important grape here and it works well. They do best when they stick to this grape in a blended wine.
7, called such because it rests on the lees for 7 years. It is the domaine’s top wine and deservedly so. An elegant wine with notes of brioche, it is a wonderful combination of power and finesse. Disgorged last October.
We were all taken aback when we met the ebulliently charming Delphine Cazals in front of her house in the Côtes des Blancs; she seemed to be equally excited to meet us as well. Actually, her house is attached to the winery and we literally walked through what looked like a secret door of her kitchen into her winery. Very convenient for dinner parties I imagine, when another bottle is needed quickly.
Cazals is a small family operation; Delphine’s mother lives in the Château inside the Clos de Cazals. Her grandfather was Catalan, hence the name, same as the renowned cellist, Pablo Casals (pronounce the “s”). This RM owns 10HA and produces 5-6 thousand cases/year. Delphine’s father was a very talented tinkerer and invented the gyropalette in 1969, which has now become the accepted standard for riddling bottles in Champagne. The Clos Cazals is the largest of the 21 clos in Champagne at 3.7 HA. It was planted in 1957, years after Olivier Cazals bought the house from United Nations Founder and Nobel Peace Prize winner Léon Bourgeois. However, it was Delphine who noticed that this walled-in vineyard was consistently their best, obtaining a full degree higher than their other parcels, so she petitioned the Comité to have this vineyard designated a clos and won the right for her 1995 vintage. She was especially proud because no one else in the family supported her efforts. The Clos Cazals is divided in two parts with the oldest vines in the Clos Cazals and the younger vines—about 25 years of age—in the Chapelle du Clos, a parcel which surrounds an ancient chapel on their property.
The Cuvée Vive is all from 2011 though not marked on the label. 3g dosage means it is an Extra Brut and is a blend of fruit from Oger plus some young vines’ fruit from the Clos. This vibrant wine is 100% Grand Cru and represents the second level of their Champagnes.
We then tasted a Millesime 2009, a beautiful wine from a great year for Champagne. Yeasty notes mixed with flowers and pear—supremely elegant. The wine was disgorged just last July, so it spent a significant amount of time sur lattes. It is round and flavorful with a very long finish. 7g dosage. There are only 80 cases left in her stock. A vintage must be declared during the tirage (sur lattes period); 2011 will not be a declared vintage. Delphine says that she is searching for the differences in her cuvées, that she is not trying to create a uniform house style like the Grande Marques. However, I must say that there is a definite connection amongst her wines. Their vibrant, pure fruit that is a clear expression of the Côte des Blancs. The wines are accessible yet still show layers of complex flavors so they work on many levels of pleasure, both visceral and cerebral.
We then tasted a few back vintages of her Clos wines, all made Extra Brut. She only produces about 250 cases/year of this cuvée. We were wowed by each wine, though each was as different as the vintages which produced them.
The 2006 Clos Cazals had 5g of dosage and exhibited a palate of flavors that was both honeyed-rich and ephemeral, light as a feather with a finish that went on forever. 10% of this cuvée was raised in barrel.
The 2005 was a warmer year and exhibited broader, more powerful flavors if not as complex as the 2006. It received a Gold Medal at Vinilies, a prestigious, winemaker-judged competition. The dosage was lower than the 2006, around 3g, which kept the wine lively on the palate. It is a wine that grows in the glass.
The vintage of 2003 was marked by extreme weather conditions in France: exceedingly hot and dry. This wine exhibits very ripe fruit, as one would expect for the vintage, but due to the old vines, it is clean with good balancing acidity. Because of the ripeness of the fruit, the dosage was kept to a low 2.5 g/l.
When we arrived in the small town of Bouzy, Benoît Lahaye suggested we drive straight to his vineyards. This is the focus of 99% of his efforts so it only made sense to start here. Lahaye is all about seeking out and expressing the terroir of each cuvée. The first thing you notice when walking among his vines is how vibrant and alive they look; the leaves gleam and shoots stand tall. These are very healthy plants being very well tended. Benoît showed us how to identify Pinot Meunier by the white leaves at the top of the vine tendrils. His vineyards are filled with old vines planted by his family, generations back. His father planted the vineyard we were walking in 66 years ago by massal selection, so that all of the grape varieties are mixed and interplanted. Benoît employs Chablis pruning with three canes. He noted that the soils in Bouzy are compact, making it difficult to plant. Of course, as this village is 100% Grand Cru, the effort is well worth it.
Benoît is a man who never stops working; he needs to as the operation is virtually a one man show. We were grateful that he squeezed us into his busy day, as he was scheduled to spray a natural treatment that evening. Champagne is wet and rain is his #1 challenge, one of the reasons it is so difficult, and rare, to work organically in Champagne. Over the course of April, May and June, he may need to spray up to 16 times, and each time lasts around 6 hours to cover all of his vineyards. Tonight he will start at 6PM and finish at midnight. Benoit showed us the two treatments: infusions, like teas. The first one was made from long aged fresh nettles, which smelled something like the sewer on a mid-summer day. The other was made from a blend of dried chamomile, nettles and something called reine des prés (meadowsweet). We actually drank the latter, and it was delicious. He blends these two together and sprays his vines to protect them. When you see this kind of hard work up close, you can appreciate the cost and challenges of working biodynamically.
We returned to his beautiful, simple, tasting room/ aging cellar to review his lineup. We noticed some amphorae which he had mixed feelings about. He said they worked much better for certain wines than others.
Brut Nature is 90% Pinot Noir and 10% Chardonnay all grown on chalk soils. Base wine is from vintages 2012, 2013 and 2014. Lahaye has always worked with indigenous yeasts, but now he is working smarter and more sure-footed by making a yeast “mother” (think of bread) 2 weeks before the harvest from a select parcel of his vines. He adds this mother to the fermentation (all of his fermentations take place in barrel now). The wines rest in barrel until the following July at which point reserve wines are added and the wine is prepared for tirage (sur lattes). The Brut Nature is a bold wine, with big Pinot Noir fruit and great acidity. There is so much fruit that you do not at all miss the dosage. This is the brilliance of organic farming: earlier and organoleptically ripe/mature fruit that is perfectly balanced. Throughout this trip we kept hearing about the challenges of global warming; it seems that organic farming has some of the answers to the current problems for vignerons.
Blanc de Noirs is another bold expression of pure Pinot Noir fruit. The low dosage of 3-4g attests to the ripeness and balance of the fruit at Lahaye’s vineyard.
Blanc de Blancs is a new cuvée for Lahaye as he decided to no longer make the Naturessence (one of my favorites). He took this decision from a sense of “terroir purity”; it struck him as wrong to blend terroirs. This Blanc de Blancs is made in the same style as his other wines, broad and powerful yet with pure fruit delineation. He makes this wine without any additional sulfites from a vineyard in Voipreux, on the very limits of the Côte des Blancs between Vertus and Mesnil-sur-Oger. The clay soils give this wine its power and style, so Lahaye has truly achieved his goal of a pure terroir wine. The base wines were from 2014 and 2015.
Violaine is one of Lahaye’s micro-production beauties. 2014 base wines and zero dosage and no sulfur. It is a 50/50 blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the chalky, rocky soils of Tauxières, where there isn’t any topsoil—just rock. Not surprisingly this is an intense, dense, mineral-driven wine that takes some time to open in the glass. He finds that without the addition of sulfur, the wines exhibit more purity.
Jardin de la Grosse Pierre is the other gem he produces in ridiculously small quantities, just 100 cases per year. The name is apt as the wine does come from a “garden” interplanted with numerous ancient varietals, many no longer found, against a base of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. He officially declares the following varietals but he discretely mentions that there are others no longer allowed by the INAO: Arbanne, Chasselas, Gros Plant, Petit Meslier, Pinot Blanc and Teinturier. The mousse is fine and persistent, the flavors complex and the finish never-ending.
The 2007 Extra Brut was recently disgorged and comes from a southwest exposition single parcel, Le Mont Tauxières. It is interplanted in the ancient way with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. A very expressive wine with layers and layers of complex flavors going from mushroom, forest floor, a bit of pine leading to pine-lemon notes. A very long finish. Fascinating.
The 2002 Blanc de Noirs was an interesting trip. The presence of red-berry fruit was so forceful that if you closed your eyes you would think that you were drinking a red wine. Delicious.
Next up was his Rosé de Macération from the 2015 vintage. Lahaye likes how the amphorae interact with his Rosé Champagnes. Half of this wine was raised in amphorae, the other half in barrel. Lahaye employs whole-cluster fermentation. The wine comes from a single parcel called Le Julien which is not particularly good for red wines but perfect for Rosé. The wine is lighter in color than when he raised 100% of the wine in barrel, with an emphasis on the savory characteristics. Very vinous, as is typical of the Rosé from Lahaye.
And finally, we got to taste three vintages of his still red Bouzy Rouge. He always makes a very serious rendition of this wine and it was a treat to taste back-to-back-to-back vintages, the 2014, 2015, and the 2016, which he handled in a very different way. First, we tasted the 2016 which is not yet in bottle. It was fermented in amphorae and was simply gorgeous as it jumped out of the glass with juicy red-berry flavors. Succulent and round, open-knit structure. 100% destemmed. 2016 was the first year he used amphorae for this cuvée and it was a real success; Lahaye feels he will continue in this mode for his still red. He was extremely happy with the results, as were we. The 2014 and 2015 were more classically structured, dense and dark wines that are lovely today but will certainly benefit with time.
It was really nice for winemaker/owner Rudy Hutasse to open the winery for us on a Sunday, Mother’s Day in France. Rudy is married to Nathalie Tornay, who is very involved with the operations of the winery. Rudy made wine for 17 years at Laurent Perrier, so he brings a very high level of professionalism and consistency to the task of crafting Champagne. He loves showing off his “toys” in the winery and makes the most of them, making a number of micro-cuvées. The Tornay winery produces 3 Grand Cru cuvées and 7 1er Cru wines from their 22 HA of vines. Like everyone we met in Champagne, except for Benoît Lahaye, he sells off a portion of his crop each year. This is good for both quality and cash flow. He makes about 8,000 cases per year and holds back 20% of his wines each year for Reserve wines.
It was a pleasure to taste the Carte d’Or here, a wine we have stocked for years, a blend of Grand Cru and 1er Cru vineyards. It is 70% Pinot Noir and 30% Chardonnay with 8g dosage. This wine is a clear representation of the house style: accessible fruit, clean, bold flavors with an emphasis on Pinot Noir.
The Reserve Champagne comes from the 2006 vintage and the longer age shows beautifully in the wine, with rich, brioche flavors, medium finish. Well crafted.
We jumped to another quality level with the Millésime 2008, which received one of my highest scores at this tasting. Turns out the judges at Vinalies agreed, giving this wine a Silver Medal. 50/50 Pinot Noir/Chardonnay, the wine has excellent balance and a long finish. The wine rested sur lattes for 9 years, developing an incredible flavor profile.
The Palais des Dames was the winner of the day, just nosing out the 2008. Makes sense as this was Mother’s Day after all. An equal mix of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Bouzy and Ambonnay (the town next to Bouzy), this wine is a blend of 2005, ‘06, ‘07 and ‘08.
We finished the day with a brilliant 2002 Vintage. This Champagne won a Gold Medal at Vinalies and had all the great qualities of an aged wine.
From Tornay we took the long, 100 mile drive south to the Côte des Bar in the Aube Department. We made a lunch stop at the ancient town of Troyes and visited the Cathedral where Joan of Arc stopped with Charles, future king of France, on their way to Reims for his coronation. Quite a beautiful, Gothic pile of rocks.
We met winemaker Alain Pailley at the winery in Les Riceys, one of the most important villages of the Côte des Bar. Here they have the unusual appellation for a still Rosé, of which Bonnet is the largest producer. Alain is super fit, a marathon trekker (200km at a clip), and has been the winemaker at Bonnet since 1985, defining the house style of minerality, power, and purity of character. He vinifies plot-by-plot and prefers low-temperature fermentation. He eschews oak in order to bring forth the pure aromas and distinctiveness of each plot, which a barrel may hide. The region is more prone to frost than in the north, so the best vineyards, like Bonnet’s, are on the hillsides high above the Laignes River. The Bar was traditionally colder than the Côte des Blancs but now it swings back and forth with global climate change. This year, the vineyards are a week ahead of normal and they expect to harvest early. Since 2000, five harvests have started in August; previously it was un-heard of to start before mid-September. Instead of the typical 100 days from flower to harvest, they seem to be successful with 90 days. This was a story we heard repeated throughout our trip, both in Champagne and the Loire. The vignerons can accomplish this through better vineyard management and it seems to be working. Pailley employs a process called HVE, Haut Valeur Environmental, a system that takes the entire ecosystem of the vineyard into account including the areas around it. The idea is to reinvigorate the entire region, not just the vineyards, and to lower the overall carbon footprint. Champagne is a leader of HVE but we did see domaines in the Loire also following this practice.
The region has an interesting history since it is geographically separate from the rest of Champagne, actually much closer to Chablis with the same vein of Kimmeridgian limestone in its soils. Though Troyes was the historic capital of the Champagne region, it was excluded from the appellation at the turn of the last century. This led to bloody riots in 1910 in which wineries were burned down and a thousand citizens died when the army was called out. This happened in spite of the fact that the Champagne houses in the north were buying plenty of grapes in this region to put into their sparkling wines. In 1927 the Côte des Bar finally became accepted as part of the Champagne region.
We drove to the La Forêt vineyard, which contains the oldest Pinot Noir vines on the estate, used for their Rosé de Riceys and the Blanc de Noirs old vines. The vines root down a full 26 feet here. We all gathered around a picnic table in front of a “cadole” to taste through the Champagnes. A “cadole” is a traditional stone hut that was built for vineyard workers. You find these kinds of small structures in vineyard regions throughout Europe. What made this structure so interesting is that it was built like a Trulli, the beehive stone structures that are found throughout Puglia.
We tasted through a dozen of their cuvées (and we had even more at dinner that night in the charming vaulted basement of Le Marius Hotel). In general, Pailley likes a generous 8-10 g of dosage in his wines, giving them an ease and accessibility with rounded fruit flavors balanced by a pure minerality. For me the standouts were:
Harmonie – a 50/50 Pinot Blanc/Chardonnay blend that makes for a delightful aperitif; fruity but dry and fresh.
Noir Extra Brut – 50% from the 2013 vintage and the rest reserve wines. Only 3-4 g dosage. This is a parcel selection of best Pinot Noir vines. Low sulfites.
Grande Réserve Brut – 85% PN, 15% Chardonnay. Big and balanced.
Millésime 2010 – an exceptional wine that had 5 years of tirage, and was disgorged in 2016. There was terrific energy to this wine with a long finish. Elegant.
Noir Extra Brut Rosé – old vines Pinot Noir with just 3g dosage, it had the perfect balance of fruit. Also a great package.
Rosé de Riceys 2014 – this is a rosé that benefits from time but right now this wine is perfection.
We tasted some wonderful wines out of Magnum that evening, but I was too busy playing snooker with Alain after we broke into the hotel’s bar to write any notes!”