It’s a welcome sensation that no matter how many times I come to Champagne and how many wines I taste, there is still so much to learn about this place, new farmers to meet, new terroirs to discover, new revelations to relish. Each time I visit, I’m struck by what an exciting time it is for the region. There’s much more organic farming happening than ever before (up from 1% when I started in the trade to 3-4% now; Roederer is working something like 1/4 of their land organically and soon their Tête de Cuvée ‘Crystal’ will be sourced entirely from biodynamic vineyards). A group clustered around long-time organic farmer Vincent Laval are adamantly petitioning the CIVC to outlaw herbicides. They hope to succeed by 2020. Climate change has brought riper vintages, but no lack of acidity for those who work their soils, which means balance at lower dosage.
If I had one criticism of Champagne, it would of course be the prices. There’s a disconnect between what my market wants to buy (something decent they can put on the retail shelf for $50 or under), and what the Champenois want to make (intense, single parcel wines made from their oldest wines, vinified in barrel, and aged on lees for twice as long as the requisite costing $100 and often much more on the retail shelf). When I think about Burgundy, how much those wines cost, how weird and corrupt it’s becoming there due to big money interests, I’m inclined to forgive the Champenois their wish to make something great out of their prestigious soils. We sometimes find ourselves trying to frame Champagne as a “value” wine in relation to Burgundy. This is in some sense valid given that the top of the line in Burgundy costs far more than a great bottle from Marguet or Laval, but Champagne remains a luxury product that people with humble salaries cannot afford to drink on a regular basis. We will keep trying to find value in Champagne; we promise.
But I didn’t start this post to comment on the price of Champagne. My first major revelation of the trip is that I’m back on board with rosé Champagne. I loved rosé Champagne about 8 years ago; then I gave up because so much rosé Champagne is less good and pricier than its white counterpart. I gave up because Champagne vignerons were telling me they make rosé for the market not for themselves, its own brand, like the crap people guzzle summer-long in New York. However, a few people I met this trip are making exquisite, authentic rosé.
Benoït Marguet has always made great rosé, and his 2012 Shaman is no exception. The wine is 2/3rds Chardonnay, and 1/3 Pinot, a blend that gives the rosé plenty of verve and vivacity from chalky Chardonnay, with richness and intensity from Pinot grown in the brawny Grand Cru of Ambonnay. Benoït uses 5-8% still red wine, and 3 grams of dosage because for him its psychologically challenging to make a Brut Zero Champagne. He does not use sulfur during any stage of the process, and the result is pure as the driven snow, onion skin color, like wild strawberries swimming in fresh cream with a rigid backbone of chalk, texturally stunning. This wine is usually obtainable for between $50 and $60 on a retail shelf, which is certainly a fair price for the wine.
Sébastian is the 9th generation Mouzon to farm vines in Verzy, and the 4th to bottle his own wine. He farms 7.5 hectares divided between roughly 50 plots, organically with biodynamic treatments. He is a lovely and talented young man whose wines get better every vintage; when we spend time with Sébastian, we feel that he’s incredibly passionate, but also kind and subtle, someone who loves to be in the vines, hands caked in dirt, sharing his love of what he does with those around him. My cohorts on the trip were kind enough to offer to chip in on some ares in Verzenay for a dowry if I wanted to marry him; I was touched.
In general the wines of Verzy are more delicate and elegant than those of Ambonnay. The vineyards face north and east rather than south, and the most mineral, acid-driven parcel Sébastian farms called “Les Coumaines” goes into his rosé “L’Incandescent”, which is a saignée of Pinot Noir from the 2012 vintage. It’s made 50% in barrel with an 18 hour maceration, giving it pale, luminous color, and ethereal whispers of aromatic red berries melding with the cashew note I typically find in Sébastian’s wines. The texture is suave, fine, and creamy. At 3.5 grams dosage, it’s a pretty, easy going wine, a wine made of joy, inviting the drinker to take another sip, and another, and another.
Moving south the Coteaux Sud d’Epernay, Aurélian Laherte has consistently made gorgeous saignée rosé from a plot of 80 year old Meunier called “Les Beaudiers”. This is a terroir of soft clay, sand, and chalk, fertile, warm, giving a meaty, fruity, savory wine, vinous, smelling sometimes of sausages and cheese (in the best possible way), always quite vinous with deep, ripe cherry fruit.
Aurélian has recently crafted a new rosé of Pinot Meunier. Having been discontent for some time with his rosé “Tradition”, looking to make a wine he can be proud of, he did many experiments, and finally found a recipe that works. For the new rosé de Meunier, based on the 2012 and 2013 vintages, he used primarily grapes from Boursault in the Vallée de la Marne, the south side of the river. He did 30% maceration, used 10% still red wine, and 60% Meunier vinified white. This wine is vivid magenta in color with some of the sweet, bright cherry of Beaudiers, but less vinous and fruit forward on the palate, with more tangy sour fruit such as sumac and cranberry on the palate, a wine that is digeste as the French say … drinkable as Americans say. Words like “digestible” and “drinkable” may not sound like compliments, but they are. We mean that we keep coming back for more, the wines are energizing rather than exhausting, and amongst wine professionals, this is the greatest compliment one can pay; it’s like saying “instead of making a beeline for the nearest refreshing pilsner to renew my palate and soothe my teeth after countless tastes of enamel-stripping wine, I kept sipping the contents of my glass because it refreshed me”. Needless to say this new rosé from Aurélian is far better than the old.
Moving still further south, 2 hours by car, we come to a place so radically different from the Vallée de la Marne that it’s tough to think of it as “Champagne.” Historically, and I suppose financially, it makes sense that the Aube and the Marne are part of the same larger region, but the Aube has its own character, and feels utterly singular and distinct from its chic, wealthy neighbor to the north. The landscape is marked by green rolling hills; the parcels are bigger and it’s easier to farm organically; the soil is kimmeridgean limestone rather than chalk; grapes get riper; the list goes on.
Ruppert-Leroy is a remarkable domaine that deserves its own post, but since Bert Celce has recently written about them on Wine Terroirs, I’ll refrain for the moment. I’ve never met anyone in Champagne like Emmanuel Leroy, and I’m extremely proud and excited that MFW (“MF-double-V” as Emmanuel pronounced it) carries his wines in New York. This was the kind of gratifying visit that makes all the schmoozing and schlepping, the sacrifice of one’s liver and teeth, the pavement pounding and agonizing over sales worthwhile, the kind of visit you leave marveling, smiling wide, thinking “this is why I do what I do”.
Ruppert-Leroy’s Saignée de Cognaux is the most unusual cuvée in the lineup. Cognaux is a Pinot Noir vineyard with lots of gray clay and tiny sea shells, or coquillages. The soil here is very fertile and dotted all over with daffodils, which Emmanuel makes into a tisane to treat mildew. The vineyard is about 70 ares, certified biodynamic as of 2014. As in all the Essoyes plots we saw, there are patches of forrest cordoning off larger slopes and chunks of vineyard land, creating true biodiversity, something sensitive Marne growers crave but will never have.
The 2013 rosé macerated for four days with pumpovers; the grapes are de-stemmed only 25%, and fermentation is partial carbonic, which (as I learned from Olivier Horiot) is obligatory for Rosé de Ricey, not far from Essoyes. We nicknamed this wine “Cuvée Buck Wild” for its rustic, almost horse-y aromatic note, mingling with flavors of kirsch, amaro-like bitterness, spice, forest floor, and perfectly stunning, juicy red fruit that satisfies like a Gamay or very light Bourgogne Rouge. As of 2013, Emmanuel has stopped using sulfur completely, and so this wine has incredible vibrancy on the palate and finish. We took a bottle back to the gîtes to drink with our comrades, and they loved it.
I’ll try to write some more posts soon about the fantastic new treats this trip to Champagne has brought. A special thanks to my dear friends at Transatlantic Bubbles for allowing me, a second year in a row, to moonlight on their trip.