Perhaps because it’s the holiday season (almost), perhaps because the weekend of November 6th, 7th, and 8th is the Fête du Champagne, perhaps because I keep seeing pictures on Instagram of Raphaël Bérèche and Alexandre Chartogne bopping around New York, perhaps because some phases of my professional life bring me closer to this region while others pull me away. Whatever the reasons, Champagne has been much on my mind, of late. To be fair, Champagne is never far from my mind, but recently, happily, Champagne has been often in my glass as well.
Last week I accepted a new job for next year working for MFW, which — for those unfamiliar — is a small importer specializing in lots of French regions I love; MFW is also the New York distributor of Portovino (great Italian wine), and Jose Pastor Selections (great Spanish wine). I didn’t proclaim or advertise this news; I didn’t discuss the decision ad nauseam. I just took the job, and, by degrees, began sharing my news with friends and acquaintances.
One friend, a sommelier at restaurant Daniel, asked me (apropos of my news) if I’d read the post on Wine Terroirs about Ruppert-Leroy. I promptly read the piece and was, as usual, blown away by Bert Celce’s tone, which finds an exquisite balance of humor and information. We feel that Bert is subjective, a reporter, but we also feel the subtle weight of his politics. When, for example, he tells us that due to various aspects of Champagne fabrication: barrels to malolactic fermentation to lees stirring to second fermentation to high acidity, “Champagne should have it easy to make wines without any added sulfur”, we feel that — from a technical standpoint — Champagne is as good a place (if not better!) than any to practice this style of winemaking.
I thought about this over and over, because some of the very best sans soufre wines I’ve tried have been from Champagne: Lahaye’s Violaine, Marie-Courtin’s Concordance, Couche’s Cuvée Chloe, the entire collection from Benoït Marguet, Sapience, Charles Dufour’s Bulles de Comptoir, and more. Conversely, some of the very best Champagnes I’ve tried have been sans soufre (see aforementioned list). Bert goes on to taste the lineup from Ruppert-Leroy, and when he gets to 2012 Fosse-Grély Autrement, the wine made without added sulfur, he tells us that “obviously there’s more complexity in this SO2-free wine”. While I don’t believe this is “obvious”, his statement does echo my own experience, namely that there is incredible energy and vivacity in sans soufre Champagne. I imagine that sloppy, messy, mousey sans soufre Champagne is out there, but I haven’t come across it. This is not the Languedoc, the Loire Valley, the Jura, or heaven forbid Italy, where flawed natural wines seem to be a dime a dozen these days. This is a region where the dollar value of the product is high; the CIVC regulates incredibly strictly. The region itself is a brand, and wines that risk tarnishing this brand identity simply aren’t permitted.
As luck would have it, our friendly neighborhood oyster and sea urchin merchant had this particular Ruppert-Leroy bottling on hand, and so we drank it. From the 2012 vintage, the wine is 100% Pinot Noir, grown on limestone soil, biodynamically farmed. This is my kind of wine: vivid and energetic in a way only sans soufre Champagne can be, with a layer of additional nuance across the mid-palate, round with the creamy texture of a wine bottled under fewer atmospheres of pressure, and with the particular, rocky, sea shell-y minerality of the Aube.
This brings me to my next rumination, which is about the Aube in general. In Bert’s article, one gets a taste of the relationship between the Aube and the Marne. The common narrative goes like this: the Aube was a sort of second class citizen to the Marne, and yet the Marne relied on the Aube to provide cheap grapes in difficult vintages. At times the Aube was allowed to make “Champagne”; at other times, the Aube was expected to sell grapes to the Marne, but not to make “Champagne” (again, concerns of brand identity). The gist is that the Aube has always been deemed inferior to the Marne … until about a decade ago, when the Aube began, miraculously, to be cool. Cédric Bouchard came along; people started drinking Vouette et Sorbé; Emmanuel Lassaigne gained recognition. Despite the fact that the Fleury family have been making beautiful, organic (and then biodynamic) Champagne in the Aube since the 1970s, it took a few hipsters with the right credentials to make these wines popular. It also took a certain climate within the market. Aube Champagne came into vogue at a time when consumers were seeking the kind of terroir specificity in their Champagnes that they found in their Burgundies. What better place to produce this kind of site-specific Champagne than a region that is, in fact, closer to Burgundy than to the heart of Champagne? Thus a taste for wines of the Aube was born.
At this point in time, I believe that wines of the Aube have been in fashion long enough that a backlash has also been born. I often hear comments such as “there’s no terroir in the Aube” or “that’s not real Champagne”. Regardless of the region’s decision to allow the Aube to make “Champagne”, it must be conceded that the Aube is not the Marne in terms of terroir, history, over all personality … and price! Aside from the handful of Aube poster children whose wines have escalated to (in my opinion) unconscionable prices and ludicrous scarcity, Aube Champagnes represent significant value.
I made my first solo pilgrimage to Champagne around half a decade ago, and was immediately struck by how different the Aube both feels and looks from the Marne. The two sub-regions are separated by 1.5-2 hours of agricultural land, and driving through Bar-sur-Seine could not be more unlike cruising the Grand Rue in Epernay. These places have nothing to do with one another. To make a sweeping generalization, there’s more experimental spirit in the Aube, though perhaps this is changing as more and more Marne growers let go their shackles and take flight.
To those who drink lots of Champagne, the wines also taste very different. We often say that Aube Champagnes taste like “Chablis with bubbles”, which sort of makes sense given how close many Aube producers are to Chablis, and how similar the soils, but Chablis is made from Chardonnay, while the majority of Aube Champagnes are made from Pinot Noir, which renders this statement somewhat suspect. Still, there’s an undercurrent of stony, seashell-iness in good Aube Champagne that bears family resemblance to Chablis; Aube Champagnes tend to be fuller and riper, which allows them to (perhaps, possibly …) find balance more naturally without dosage. Personally, I find more family resemblance between the red and rosé wines of Ricey, and the red wines of Vézélay and Irancy, than between Bouchard and Dauvissat. I like to taste great Aube Champagne next to great Marne Champagne, which allows me to 1) drink more Champagne, and 2) discover how different the wines really are …
What actually got me pondering Aube versus Marne in Bert Celce’s Ruppert-Leroy article was the house, built by the vigneron, Emmanuel Leroy. It looks (from the photos) like my house in rural North Carolina, which my dad built over thirty years, out of excess lumber from various construction jobs. You know what I’ve never seen in the Marne? A handmade wood house built by the vigneron. This is a statement, not a judgement. I’m looking forward to meeting the Ruppert-Leroys. I have a feeling we’re going to get along.
Continuing my week of pondering (and drinking) Champagne, I watched this movie. It’s not the best documentary in the world, but it delivers an accurate step by step account of the way Champagne is made. If you watch its companion piece called “A year in Burgundy” you begin see that Champagne is truly unusual. For example, in Burgundy, harvest date is of paramount importance. Visiting Burgundy right after the harvest, which I did recently, it became second nature to ask every grower vous avez commencé la vendange quand, exactement? In Burgundy, the date of harvest is always a gamble, and the growers choose when they begin, after careful analysis of the grapes, and scrutiny of the weather. In Champagne, the CIVC dictates for every village when the harvest begins and ends, along with how much juice can be squeezed out of the grapes, and what percentage of that juice is cuvée (first pressed juice) and what percentage is taille (second pressed juice).
Two things leapt out at me watching “A Year in Champagne”. The first was that there was no mention whatsoever of the movement toward better farming, which probably stands to reason given it’s a microscopic percentage that farms organically. There were several depictions of vine treatments, including a comment about the outlawing of crop-dusting helicopters, which happened in (I think) 2012 or thereabouts. It seemed taken for granted that vines would be treated conventionally. An example: apparently, according to this film, one of the big problems with rain close to harvest is that it washes away the pesticides covering leaves and grapes. It didn’t bother me that the makers of this film passed over the wave of better farming taking place in the region. However, I do feel that not to mention those who make great Champagne through good farming (rather than through extensive blending), is not to touch what makes the region exciting today. Champagne is changing; in 2015 it’s a thrilling place to seek out new domaines because there are so many more growers than there were ten years ago who are working their soils and respecting their terroirs.
The second thing that leapt out at me was that there was absolutely no mention of the Aube; the camera focuses in on a map of the Champagne region, a map that conveniently ends a few inches below Vertus.