Sophie's Glass

My first stop in Champagne was at Domaine Jacques Lassaigne in Montgueux, and I have fond memories of Emmanuel Lassaigne and the wines we drank together. Some may be familiar with the anomalous village of Montgueux, five kilometers from the city of Troyes in the Aube. Montgueux is a unique terroir, and it’s essentially a viticultural island, an isolated outcropping of chalk some distance south of the Côte des Blancs, yet still north of the Côte des Bars. In theory, this should be Pinot Noir country, but chalky soil prompts Montgueux’s growers to plant Chardonnay, which acts as an ideal conduit for chalky minerality. In fact, Montgueux does not have a history of viticulture and was only planted to vine in the 1960s. Peter Liem tells us that the Chardonnay from Montgueux, with its broad, almost tropical character, was popular with négociants, particularly Piper-Heidsieck. Now, there are a handful of independent growers in Montgueux; amongst them, Lassaigne is the best.

I arrived in Montgueux on a glorious afternoon after having found my way from Charles de Gaule to Troyes with just enough time to drop my bags at the hotel and scarf down a croissant. Unfortunately my GPS was not familiar with the village and I looped it in its entirety several times before finding Emmanuel’s Domaine, a large and modern white house and winery overlooking an extreme south-facing slope on the edge of town. Emmanuel – a high-energy, slightly sarcastic guy – greeted me and insisted upon speaking English, which was fine. As eager as I am for opportunities to speak French, I prefer to default to the language that best facilitates communication. Emmanuel spent six months studying in New York; he lived in the West Village. After just a few exchanges it became clear that his English was better than my French.

As a general rule of thumb, if a winemaker asks if you want to see the vineyards, say “yes!” It’s been my experience that vignerons don’t always seem to grasp that we want to see their vineyards. They spend lots of time in the vines, after all, and may not comprehend the thrill it gives us poor, urban wine folks, who spend our days looking at pavement, to be in the countryside communing with plants. Looking at vines is important as it reveals much about a winemaker’s philosophy, and it often happens that he or she will wind up with their hands in the dirt, drawing your attention to a particular rock or soil type.

Lassaigne and I strolled to his vines, across the street from his house, overlooking the valley between Montgueux and Troyes. I saw plant life between the rows and Emmanuel proffered the information that he does not work with chemicals, particularly herbicides, the most pernicious. To the question “why not become certified?”, he replied “the French are masters in the art of paper.” I laughed; I knew what he meant. Many growers who work without chemicals prefer to remain uncertified because they resent having to ascend the bureaucracy and pay the fee to be certified in what they have been doing of their own accord for years. I respect this position. Also – and I think I may have mentioned this in my notes about Vincent Laval – there are quite a few “lutte raisonée” Champagne growers who don’t like the fact that copper is the prescribed treatment for rot under organic viticulture. They view copper as dangerous and would rather treat with one anti-fungal chemical if needed, than a lot of copper. Again, not so easy to be organic in Champagne…

Lassaigne has four hectares; he also buys some grapes within the village of Montgueux. Thus he is categorized as a “Négociant Manipulant,” but he’s the good kind of NM, the kind who buys small quantities of grapes, very selectively from vineyards where he can control the farming methods. His vineyards come to him from his father, Jacques, one of the growers originally responsible for the planting of Montgueux. Jacques sold to négociants; Emmanuel pushed to make more estate bottled wine. Emmanuel hasn’t always been a vigneron and he didn’t go to winemaking school. I believe, though I didn’t jot this information down and could be remembering incorrectly, that he was an industrial engineer and a factory manager before be returned home to work in the vineyards and winery. He clearly has some breadth of experience; he’s very bright with an endearing touch of insolence, and he teased me periodically during our conversation.

We surveyed the vines. Interestingly, “Le Cotet,” one of Lassaigne’s single vineyards, a parcel planted in ’64 and ’67, is right next to a vineyard that contributes to his “basic” Blanc de Blancs de Montgueux bottling. Standing between the two vineyards, it was difficult to comprehend how they could produce distinct fruit. Emmanuel explained that Le Cotet has ten meters of flint (silex) and clay (argile) topsoil with pure chalk underneath. Apparently year in and year out there is a chemical difference between grapes from the two vineyards, a difference in potential ripeness. I marveled at this information. Terroir! Because Champagne has historically been such a “made” wine, cellar work and the Art of Blending emphasized, instances of terroir-driven, single-vineyard Champagne are exciting.

In the cellar, Lassaigne vinifies all parcels separately and most of the fermentations are done in stainless steel, though he uses a bit of oak for Le Cotet and more oak (including oak for fermentation) for “Colline Inspirée” with superb results. I’d say there’s a faction of Champagne vignerons who believe that pure terroir is better expressed without oak à la Cedric Bouchard, though, for my part, I find it hard to see how old barrels disrupt terroir expression. Lassaigne adds sulfur at harvest but not afterward. Like many Champagne vignerons, he wants to work with pristine juice, hence the sulfur at harvest to keep the fruit from oxidizing. Always looking to minimize chemical intervention, Lassaigne seemed very pleased with the fact that they had been disgorging without sulfur at his Domaine for 32 years. We spoke briefly about oenologists. Lassaigne is not a fan. He believes that oenologists are constantly trying to convince vignerons that something will go wrong in the winery if they don’t use sulfur. “We don’t use very much sulfur, and still nothing goes wrong.” The first fermentations are completed with native yeast and the second fermentations accomplished with the “Fleury” yeast, a neutral yeast strain developed by the Fleury family in the Côte des Bars several decades ago. Fleury’s yeast is quite popular for second fermentations because it imparts no aroma to the wine and promotes a very long, cool second fermentation. This long, slow, cool second fermentation develops fine bubbles, an integral part of good Champagne.

We began to taste Vin Clair, all the while Emmanuel explaining the composition of his various wines. Often this entailed the current composition as well as his plan for a future, more complex rendition of the wine. For example: Vignes de Montgueux, which has been a blend of two vintages, will soon be a blend of three: ’09, ’10, and ’11. We tasted some of the component parts out of tank: steely, chalky, yet fruity and vivid Chardonnay, Montgueux in a nutshell.

We tasted wines in barrel that as yet have no finished version, odd brain-children of this innovative man, such as “Clos Saint Sophie,” comprising grapes from a very old, 1.2 hectare Clos in Montgueux where the topsoil is hard chalk. For more information, consult Peter Liem, the ultimate expert. The story goes that two Japanese guys spent time in Montgueux in the 19th Century and took cuttings from Clos Saint Sophie back to Japan with them. This is a story Emmanuel Lassaigne seemed particularly taken by. Emmanuel’s 2011 Clos Saint Sophie is presently aging in four different barrels: one from Fan-fan Ganevat in the Jura, one from Macon-Solutré, and two from Cognac. The wine had an odd petrol-y character and I couldn’t wait to taste the finished product. We tasted a barrel of 2010 Clos Saint Sophie that was resting in a Ganevat Vin Jaune barrel! It was herbaceous, vegetal, and every so slightly reminiscent of Vin Jaune. Then there was an experimental blend of Clos Saint Sophie and “Colline Inspirée,” a cuvée that combines several parcels and exclusively vines over 45 years old.

Lassaigne’s delivery was rapid-fire and a bit frenetic, meaning that it could be difficult to keep up, as well as to find the connection between what was in my glass and what he was describing. By the time we had adjourned from the cellar to his very civilized tasting room, I had learned quite a bit about Lassaigne including the fact that he essentially never makes the same wine twice. The forward-thinking, experimental spirit was everywhere. Emmanuel Lassaigne is friends with quite a few natural winemakers. Of the Champagne vignerons I met, he seemed to be the one most influenced by the natural wine movement (with Cedric Bouchard, who worked in Parisian wine stores for years, a close second), though I would not call him a “natural winemaker.”

We adjourned to the tasting room and began a leisurely tasting as afternoon became evening in Montgueux. I had learned in the vineyards that Lassaigne did have some Pinot Noir vines; they went into a wine called “Les Papilles Insolites,” the first finished wine we tasted. The wine was good, savory, with fine bubbles, but it paled in comparison to Lassaigne’s Chardonnay-based Champagnes in my opinion. A wine in existential crisis, Papilles tasted as though it couldn’t make up its mind whether it wanted to be Pinot from the Aube or Chardonnay from the Côte des Blancs. He told me it was his least favorite of Champagne they make, with Rosé a close second. Consequently Lassaigne’s Pinot vineyard has been uprooted and he’ll plant a Franc de Pied Chardonnay vineyard in its place, the fledgling vines for which are taking root behind the winery.

After Papilles Insolites came 2008 Le Cotet, which lingers in my mind as one of the best wines of my trip to Champagne. This may partly be in virtue of the vintage. 2008s, and blended Champagnes based on the 2008 vintage, are superb. Oddly, as we were tasting 2008 Le Cotet, Emmanuel told me that it had been a strange vintage for him. He had hail in the vineyards and showed me a few pictures from the hail storm. He clearly triumphed nonetheless. The wine had baked apple, quince, and mushroom notes on the nose, with a quality that reminded me of white wine from the Jura, not wine made sous voile, but wine that is very lightly oxidative yet pure with great, bracing acidity. (My notes read “freaking awesome.”) I should mention that another interesting choice Lassaigne has recently made is to add older bottles back to Le Cotet. I have never heard of another vigneron doing this. The next release of this wine, Lassaigne told me, will include bottles of ’01, ’04, ’06, and ’08, all finished wines added back to the barrel. Go figure!

Following Le Cotet was Colline Inspirée, based on the 2008 vintage with 28% 2007. The name of this wine means “inspired hill,” and it takes its name from a poem, which Lassaigne told me is about Montgueux. Colline Inspirée sees more barrel than Lassaigne’s other wines, something like two thirds. I suspect because of the older vines, this wine supports the wood quite well and offers more masculine character than Le Cotet. It used to be that Colline was only bottled in magnum. For the first time, we have 750s arriving at Chambers Street. While I liked Colline Inspirée, it didn’t speak to me quite as loudly as Le Cotet, which I returned to again and again as spitting came to an end and conversation veered to matters other than wine.

We tasted 2005 vintage. This wine is a blend of three vineyards and is aged all in stainless steel. The wine had a green, vegetal note and was slightly smoky with mellow acidity that is indicative of the vintage. Emmanuel told me that he doesn’t especially like 2005, neither do I.

Lassaigne’s Rosé at 85% Chardonnay and 15% Pinot will cease to exist because of the uprooting of the Pinot vines. Also – and I encountered a number of Champagne vignerons who feel this way – Rose is a weak link in the lineup, a wine that exists because the market demands it. I liked Lassaigne’s Rosé, with its herby Pinot character overlying zippy Chardonnay, but when we tasted Rose in Lassaigne’s tasting room after a parade of superb single vineyard wines, it seemed simple, like a Vin de Soif after an array of Serious Wines.

Perhaps best of all, Emmanuel invited me to dinner the following night in Troyes at Aux Crieurs du Vin, one of the first natural wine bars in France. This is a place that every wine geek who visits Troyes should seek out. In classic French wine bar fashion, you can pick any bottle from a retail display to drink and the menu is rustic and written on a chalkboard. We began with Lassaigne’s Coteaux Champenois Blanc: Chardonnay bottled as a still wine. With it, we ate andouillette: intestines made into a delicious sausage that is pan cooked or grilled. It’s a Burgundian food; then again southern Champagne is quite close to Burgundy and Troyes seems to have adopted some of Burgundy’s culinary traditions. The aroma of andouillette can be off-putting, especially to Americans who are unaccustomed to eating intestines. It’s been my experience that French people enjoy watching us squirm when presented with a plate of this stinky food. It gave me pleasure – not only not to squirm – but to eat my intestines with great gusto, an easy feat when accompanied by the rich yet chiseled Chardonnay of Montgueux. We ordered a bottle of Ganevat Trousseau, a plate of smoked trout, bowls of turnips braised in beef broth, and chatted into the night about winemakers, wines, the business, and anything else that struck our fancy…