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New fizz on the block: meet the experimental grower Champagne producers

The grower Champagne revolution shows no sign of slowing, with a wealth of confident, experimental producers challenging traditional lore through an increased focus on single-vineyard wines. Essi Avellan MW pays a visit to six of them

Words by Essi Avellan MW

Photography by Michaël Boudot

champagne producer opens bottle, spraying fizz
The Collection
Emmanuel Lassaigne's family plot sits on the hillside of Montgueux, known by some as 'the Montrachet of Champagne'

The sweeping changes of the past 20 years have loosened the previously tight grip of the great historical brands on the traditionally stable Champagne scene. Growers have been able to tilt the age-old balance in their direction, attracting media attention and an avid following. With their newly developed sexiness, grower Champagnes have seen their prices rise to a new level, competing equally with the grandes marques but via a completely different profile.

The sustainably minded new wave of grower-producers makes up a small yet visible part of Champagne’s overall army of 3,200 growers making their own Champagne. These producers place less value on Champagne’s classic art of blending, instead focusing on reflecting the characteristics of terroir in the glass.

Alexandre Chartogne of Chartogne-Taillet Champagne label
Alexandre Chartogne (pictured) is one of many young producers taking a low intervention approach to making Champagne

‘Understanding of place is the key to any great wine,’ says Alexandre Chartogne of Chartogne-Taillet. The grower-producer goes on to outline his winemaking philosophy. ‘When making a wine, I think not about myself but about the place where I am. And then I listen to what nature tells me to do.’ Chartogne is not alone in his approach. Old vines; sustainable, organic or biodynamic viticulture; minimal intervention; low-sulphur regime; and low or no dosage are a common recipe of ‘terroir’ Champagnes. Many growers have also dropped the Champenois habit of producing a vintage cuvée only in the best years, instead allowing the terroir to express itself every year, as Mother Nature intended – and as the winemakers of almost every other region do all around the world.

Single-vineyard Champagnes have become the most telling tool to bring terroir to the fore. It was the majestic Philipponnat Clos des Goisses that started the single-vineyard story in the 1930s, but since then, individual plots have increasingly become the preserve of growers seeking to express their site. Since the 2000s, leading names such as Egly-Ouriet, Jacques Selosse and Georges Laval have paved the way, and today hundreds of single-vineyard grower Champagnes are being made.

Special sites, intriguing stories and wines with individual character

Single-vineyard Champagnes offer no shortcut to success, however. The singularity of such wines is both a strength and a weakness. It takes a great plot and a skilled grape grower and winemaker to produce superior, high-definition Champagne from a single site that is more interesting than a blend. There are, though, sites in Champagne that simply demand a single-vineyard wine: the monumental Clos des Goisses by the Marne Canal; the secluded Clos Ste-Sophie on top of Montgueux; Clos du Mesnil inside the village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger; Les Barres in Gueux growing rare ungrafted Meunier. Special sites, intriguing stories and wines with individual character – that’s what the best single-vineyard Champagnes are made of. Here are six to look out for…

grower Champagne producers ulysse collin in the winery

Ulysse Collin

Olivier Collin adored Burgundy wines as a student, and Burgundian ways have much influenced his wine philosophy. Crafting only single-vineyard, varietal Champagnes, this Val du Petit Morin star has avoided beaten paths ever since he launched his family winery in 2004. ‘I was lucky to start from scratch. My parents had been selling the grapes to négociants, so I had carte blanche when I started to vinify the grapes myself,’ the enthusiastic Collin explains.

Success was instant, allowing him to keep back more and more plots and introduce more new wines to the range. In 2010, he made the first cuvée of Les Enfers from a gently sloping, east-facing vineyard near the winery in Congy. ‘The first mention of Les Enfers we found was from 1812. Its name literally means “the hells”, which may derive from the red colour of the top soils and the particular mesoclimate, which made it feel hellish,’ Collin guesses.

My winemaking is highly instinctive

‘I wasn’t completely happy with my first attempt with Les Enfers. It lacked precision,’ Olivier confesses. And it is precisely his never-ending quest for perfection that has taken him and his wines to the heights they enjoy today. ‘Olivier might not look it, but inside he is deeply precise,’ his wife and winemaking partner Sandra says. Collin nods; ‘I always feel I have another step to make to improve the wines. More, more, more.’

The Collins are not followers but trailblazers and, above all, aesthetes. Not for them the trendy wave of brut nature Champagnes or, indeed, vintage wines. ‘We’re not interested in vintages. We are stronger because we have the reserve wines,’, Collin states. ‘My winemaking is highly instinctive – I look for vibrations and energy.’ Instinctive it may be, but there is nothing accidental in the resulting quality.

Alexandre Chartogne leaning against barrels at his Champagne winery

Chartogne-Taillet

Merfy, northwest of Reims, might not be one of Champagne’s most celebrated terroirs, but Alexandre Chartogne is certainly one of the region’s most admired vignerons. Hugely influenced by the approach of Anselme Selosse, with whom he undertook an internship, this profound vine grower also draws from history.

‘Viticulture was initiated here in the 7th century by the monks of the St-Thierry monastery. We have over a thousand years of experience here,’ he says – even if Merfy’s vineyard area has shrunk from 105ha to just 46 in the face of the expanding city of Reims. ‘But when I started at Chartogne-Taillet in 2006, I knew very little of this place,’ Chartogne recalls.

After carefully studying his land and vines, Chartogne found the plots to be particularly versatile and expressive despite most of them being located in just one village. Not all of Champagne’s plots come with similar definition, he says, especially in the newer cultivation areas that do not benefit from the long experience of the monks.

I want to have the truth of the place in the bottle

‘I want to have the truth of the place in the bottle. That is why today half of our production is single-vineyard Champagne,’ Chartogne says. It all started back in 2006 with Les Barres, a rare plot growing ungrafted vines. Its sandy topsoil has allowed the vines to survive phylloxera, and Chartogne works part of it with the laborious and ancient en foule growing method.

In the cellar, Chartogne aims to tame the strong aromatics of Les Barres’s Pinot Meunier by vinification and maturation in small barrels, without frequent topping-up, yielding a veil of yeast that protects the wine from oxidation. ‘To be true to the place, I try to bring forward the mineral and salty charm of our chalky subsoils’, he says. He achieves his goal beautifully.

Jacques Lassaigne sprays his Champagne

Jacques Lassaigne

With most of its vines planted in the 1960s, the hillside of Montgueux, overlooking Troyes in the Aube, is a relative newbie within the Champagne appellation. But its chalky soils are actually among Champagne’s oldest, dating back 90 million years. The resulting Chardonnay is so grand that Charles Heidsieck’s legendary chef de cave Daniel Thibaut nicknamed Montgueux the ‘Montrachet of Champagne’.

Its wines have been important components in the offerings of Charles Heidsieck and many others, yet the name Montgueux remained largely unknown to consumers until Emmanuel Lassaigne picked up a cult following, especially among those who crave natural wines. In 2010, Lassaigne first visited the secluded Clos Ste-Sophie vineyard. ‘I fell for the ambience of the place, its calm and energy, and persuaded the owners, the Valnon family, to sell some of their grapes to me,’ Lassaigne says.

I rarely travel, not even to Reims

Aside from the quality potential, the place also has a story to tell. ‘It used to belong to Marcel Dupont, a professor of agriculture who used it as a plant nursery. In the late 19th century, he received two students visiting from Japan who took back cuttings from the plot. These were the first Vitis vinifera cultivars planted in Japan, and even today the Koshu Valley vineyards carry names like Montgueux and Clos Ste-Sophie,’ Lassaigne explains.

The wine from the 0.4ha plot, planted between 1968 and 1975, receives special treatment in the Lassaigne cellars, where Mâcon, Jura and even Cognac barrels are used to ferment and age it, and it is made with indigenous yeasts, minimal sulphur and no dosage. It could be defined as very ‘natural’, but Lassaigne eschews any natural or biodynamic wine movement. Nor is he part of any Champagne growers’ association. ‘I rarely travel, not even to Reims,’ Lassaigne says. Luckily, the wines do.

Cédric Moussé and his daughter in their winery

Moussé Fils

The Moussé Fils winery in Marne Valley’s Cuisles is impressive. Not in terms of ‘look at me’ architecture, but through a quieter, more altruistic purpose. Its solar panels produce more electricity than the winery consumes, it takes its water from natural wells, and it recovers carbon dioxide from the fermentation for reuse in the protection of the wines.

The winery’s two shiny Coquard PAI presses (known as the Rolls-Royce of Champagne presses) boast a capacity far beyond the needs of Cédric Moussé’s 16ha sourcing. ‘Here, the presses wait for the grapes, not the other way around,’ Moussé explains. Pinot Meunier is a fragile grape and quick handling is essential. ‘We recently started using small, 15kg boxes for picking instead of the usual 50kg crates. Since the grapes won’t get crushed by such a modest weight on top of them, we lose no wine, avoid oxidation and are able to retain juice with more sugar and a better pH,’ he says.

I want to be true to this particular soil

Moussé carries out the vineyard work for both his own vineyards and rented ones in order to ensure the best possible result. ‘Our estate has been growing unique Meunier on a green clay terroir since 1923. I want to be true to this particular soil, and thus we limit our production to Cuisles and the neighbouring villages that possess it,’ he says.

The grandest embodiment of his terroirs is cuvée Spécial Club, a single-vineyard, 100% Meunier Champagne from Les Fortes Terres plot on the south-facing, clayey slopes of Cuisles. ‘Meunier is challenging both in the vineyard and the winery,’ says Moussé. ‘But I cherish the surprise element: many an unsuspecting taster is lured into thinking it a Chardonnay.’

Champagne producer Dhondt-Grellet/Adrien Dhondt sniffing from glass

Dhondt-Grellet

Adrien Dhondt is one of Champagne’s rising young stars. He took over the family winery of Dhondt-Grellet at the age of 21 upon returning from his oenology studies. The ascent in the ten years since has been rapid – but then, Dhondt has a great patchwork of Champagne terroirs to draw from.

The domaine consists of 5.85ha, with the majority of the vineyards set in Cramant and Cuis in the Côte des Blancs and the Sézanne. The family’s crown jewel, however, is its precious six rows on Butte de Saran’s celebrated Le Bateau, one of Cramant’s finest vineyards.

‘My great-grandfather planted it in 1951, so it grows our very oldest vines. It is also our chalkiest terroir,’ Dhondt explains. ‘Its wine has always differed from the rest of ours, which is why I decided to make a single-vineyard cuvée from it.’

I want to keep some freedom for myself and use my intuition

High ripeness is the soul of this largely south-facing terroir; today Dhondt seeks to prevent it from going too high by leaving large foliage to protect the grapes from excessive sun. ‘It’s always the first plot to be picked, with generous sugar content,’ he says. Dhondt practises organic and biodynamic viticulture but seeks no certification. ‘I want to keep some freedom for myself and use my intuition. I never use chemical herbicides or pesticides though.’

In the glass, the structured and generous Le Bateau always needs time. ‘The wine is made in used oak barrels, with natural yeasts. It’s always timid in the beginning, and I like to give it at least a year of post-disgorgement time,’ Dhondt adds.

Marie and Simon Normand fooling around in Domaine La Borderie

Domaine La Borderie

It is less than ten years since sister-and-brother duo Marie and Simon Normand set up their family winery to build on their parents’ existing grape-growing operation. When their parents first began discussing the sale of their 11ha of vines, Marie had already chosen a career as a teacher, while Simon was intending to pursue nature protection and management. Of the five siblings, only Marie voiced opposition to the idea, but soon Simon also found a calling for wine during his studies in Burgundy.

Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that Domaine La Borderie wines show some Burgundian touches. ‘Here in the Côte des Bar, its influence is obviously felt, and we feel close to out Burgundian cousins,’ Simon explains. Even the winery name has a Burgundy echo to it. ‘The name Champagne Normand would not have really worked. La Borderie refers to a small farm, and this, in essence, is what we are: an estate that does not purchase grapes.’

It is the antithesis of Aube blanc de noirs

The transition to a domaine takes time, and today La Borderie vinifies the grapes from just 2.3ha of vines for itself, with the rest still going to the négociants and cooperatives. In line with the Burgundian philosophy, single-vineyard Champagnes play a large role here, with De Quoi Te Mêles-Tu? leading the way. ‘It is the antithesis of Aube blanc de noirs,’ Simon says of this pure, racy, elegant Pinot Noir. Its name broadly translates as “What’s it got to do with you?” – apparently what the vigneron said to his neighbours who were ridiculing his choice to plant Pinot Noir on a north-facing clay terroir. Today, De Quoi Te Mêles-Tu? is the official name of the plot. And here, the technically skilled and meticulous siblings harness its quality to make something beautifully precise and deliciously fruit-driven.

Find wines to try from each of these grower Champagne producers in the winter issue of Club Oenologique magazine

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