Definition: An estate inherited from one’s father or ancestors.
Forewarning: those of you who read because you enjoy my incisive comments about wine and poetic tasting notes, stop now; this post lacks both. While my gums and esophagus recover from a deluge of vin clair, please indulge me in a handful of anecdotes that are principally about culture rather than wine. Isn’t it part of the joy of writing a blog that one writes what one wants?
A friend planted the word “patrimony” in my brain a few months ago, but the nebulous idea behind this post began to germinate over a year ago when I was sitting beside Aurélian Laherte at dinner in Champagne. A few years younger than me, when I first met Aurélian in 2012, he wasn’t a father yet. He had taken over the vineyard management and winemaking at the family Domaine after finishing school, and an internship in California at Kendall-Jackson (where he learned to speak English, and not to allow malolactic fermentation). I imagine it’s challenging handling the Domaine because the land (75 parcels in total spread over a wide variety of terroirs), is owned by many family members, necessitating the creation of a micro-négociant operation that allows the purchase of grapes for the common cause: Domaine Laherte Frères. Undaunted, Aurélian took on this task, then he began to work the land organically, and in some cases biodynamically, then he started a family. He’s making really superb Champagne right now, and our most recent tasting confirms that his wines are getting better and better. (This is the view from Chavot.)
I don’t remember exactly what we were talking about at dinner, but the feeling began to creep over me that this young man had already done a lot with his life! ‘Not only am I an ambition-less loser compared to this dude,’ I thought, ‘but he’s getting something out of life that I’m missing.’ I tried to fathom what it was, something along the lines of an intimate sense of past and future far bigger than oneself, a sense of family history, place, and work that transcends one’s own selfish, short little life, putting it into context, as it were. I wondered if Aurélian ever considered not being a winemaker; did he ever consider – say – moving to Paris to play guitar in a rock band, or going into investment banking? Chances are he did as a child; we all dream when we’re young. When did reality set in for him? When did he realize that he was going to take over the family business? Marry a woman from Champagne who would contribute her own patrimony to the Laherte holdings? I started to realize that there’s a very real cultural difference between myself and my American friends, and these Champagne vignerons I’ve been getting to know over the past few years … and it has to do with patrimony. (The 2009 Laherte Empreintes made from Pinot Noir, Meunier, and Chardonnay “Muscaté.”)
I felt empty after my conversation with Aurélian (of course this had little to do with him, and was basically just me contracting an acute case of “thinkies”). Where was my sense patrimony? Two memories sprang to mind, one of walking in the woods behind our house in North Carolina with my parents. It was a crisp fall day and my dad turned gleaming hazel eyes to me and said “one day, Sophie, this will all be yours.” I smiled, tight-lipped, vaguely weighed down by responsibility, the desire to unburden myself. A few years later, in my one attempt to learn the family business (construction), I asked my dad to let me work for him over the summer. The answer was a resounding “no.” He didn’t want me wielding hammers, saws, and nail guns, and thus any notion of taking over the family business disappeared.
Amongst my American contemporaries, there are plenty who have started families. For the most part they don’t live in New York City, a place that lends itself especially well to protracted youth. However even amongst my friends who have gotten on with it and settled down, none have taken on their parent’s business. Why? My theory is that it’s because American culture relentlessly encourages the concept of the self-made person, the person who follows youthful dreams, the person who indulges endless, selfish quests to do exactly what they want in life. I’m intentionally painting a negative picture, here, because I think that in living this way, we miss something. However, I also think that it’s basically impossible for us not to live this way. The cultural fabric of our being as Americans lacks a strong sense of patrimony.
Benoït Tarlant took the reigns at his family Domaine circa 1999. There have been Tarlants making wine in and around Oeuilly in the Vallée de la Marne since the 17th century. Like Aurélian, Benoït works with many different parcels and soil types (around 40-ish parcels comprising ten hectares in total). Due to the nature of French inheritance laws, land is divided between children, and then traded or sold: small yet valuable morsels in an age-old game. (Tarlant’s delicious Brut Zero bottling.)
While the land, winery, and spacious, museum-like tasting room are Benoït’s patrimony, he – like all of my favorite Champagne vignerons – leaves his imprint on the wines. Serious and innovative, he works the land, plowing, using biodynamic treatments, catnip for hale and frost, decoction, tisanes. He has ungrafted Chardonnay planted by his grandfather growing on sand, the texture of which keeps phylloxera at bay. From these vines he makes the superb Tarlant “La Vigne D’Antan.” Curious about the so-called “forgotten” Champagne grapes, he planted a vineyard by the winery in Oeuilly to Arbanne, Petit Meslier, and Pinot Blanc. He makes a cuvée called “BAM” from these grapes that will be released soon. Based on the 2008 and 2007 vintages, it’s a stunning wine, floral and full of soaring white and green fruit on the nose, ripe and primary on the front palate with the bracing, biting acidity of Arbanne on the finish. The most stately and aged wine Tarlant releases is the Cuvée Louis. From a vineyard called “Les Crayons” with just a few centimeters of topsoil above the chalk, the wine is based on the ’99, ’98, ’97, and ’96 vintages. Long lees aging in the bottle gives it savory, nutty aromas, and butteriness; the palate is amazingly rich and yet totally dry with two grams dosage, and the finish closes in with chalky minerality. Louis is the pensive counterpart to BAM’s electricity. Mightily impressed by the man’s brains as well as his wines, in Benoït Tarlant, I perceived an excellent balance of adherence to tradition and an impulse to put one’s own personal touch on the wines. (Experimental amphorae in Tarlant’s cellar.)
Because of the successful branding (if you will) of Champagne as a luxury product, the region’s land, grapes, juice, are incredibly valuable. I assume this creates more of an incentive to do the job. How often have we worried that Marc Ollivier will have no successor at Domaine de la Pepière in Muscadet? When the wines sell for peanuts and the land isn’t worth very much, where will the children find motivation to continue the work? They have to know they’ll make a living. Of course the reverse of the coin is that there’s widespread lazy vineyard work in Champagne, as demonstrated by the dead soils that cover the region’s gently rolling hills, every now and then a patchwork of green indicative of a grower who doesn’t use herbicides. If Grand Cru vineyard land in Champagne is part of your patrimony, you can do basically nothing in the vineyard, sell your over-cropped, chemical-laden fruit to the négoce, and earn a reasonable annual salary. I’m inspired by growers who work the land, many of whom have mightily improved upon the work of their parents before them, who grew up in the prime era of herbicides, pesticides, and trash being dumped in the vineyards.
Toward the end of my trip I went to a tasting of Champagne vintages going back to the 1960s. Held in the courtyard of the Castel Jeanson in Aÿ, it was a beautiful spring evening in Champagne, and the party was complete with oysters and a local food truck serving crudo, fish stew, prawns, etc … More dressed up than I’m used to seeing them in their native habitats, some of the growers were wearing jackets, fine leather shoes, button-down shirts, sweaters. They were dressed for the occasion in the lightly preppy manner of French men. Many mind-blowing wines were poured, the vintages explained by the grower presently at the helm of Domaine, though the older vintages were made by the previous generation. Mid-way through to tasting, a 2007 “L’Apôtre” from David Léclapart was poured (Chardonnay from the village of Trépail), and David took the microphone. The summer that year, he explained, was cold; the wine was precocious. He’d decided to prepare a few songs to illustrate the character of the vintage. What followed was a 15 minute long musical montage featuring oldies as well as pop hits from Daft Punk and other presently ubiquitous songs from Virgin radio, NRG, and Skyrock. David’s pensées overlaid the music, and by the end everyone was clapping, dancing, hands in the air. It was an amusing and jubilant production, and David’s 2007 “L’Apôtre” was fabulous, expressive, leafy, and ripe. (In this picture: Dominique Moreau, Pascal Doquet, Aurélian Laherte, Fabrice Pouillon, Françoise Bedel, Benoït Tarlant, David Léclapart, Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy, Raphaël Bérèche, Vincent Bérèche (and two I don’t know).)
Champagne is an odd and interesting place, at a fascinating time in its evolution. I field a lot of criticisms of Champagne (as a category) from colleagues in the wine world, but I truly think there’s a group of people who are making remarkable wine there, who are rescuing their patrimony while incorporating their own ideas and talents. And on a personal level – as a self-obsessed American – I’m glad when the notion of my own patrimony floats, unbidden, to the forefront of my mind.