Back in the day, Coteaux Champenois – that’s to say regular Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, no bubbles – was the wine of choice in Champagne; but by 1850 still-wine production had been outstripped by that of sparkling. Despite the fashion for fizz taking hold, Louis Roederer was among a handful of Champagne houses which continued to commercialise a still wine pre-war, though as the 20th century wore on, enthusiasm for the style cooled with the climate. By the 1980s, production of Coteaux Champenois – white in particular – had all but died away.
Just recently, however, there has been a light bubbling of interest in the style; maybe even a trend, with several houses taking up the mantle. At the vanguard is Roederer, which has just released the second vintage of its Coteaux Champenois “Hommage à Camille”, named in honour of Camille Olry-Roederer, who helmed the company from 1932-75.
“It was impossible to make Coteaux Champenois in the 1970s,” remarks Roederer’s cellar master Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon. “We were harvesting in October with unripe grapes. When people ask why there is more grower champagne today – well it’s the same reason why we see more single-vineyard Champagne and more Coteaux Champenois; the climate has changed. From the 80s onwards, we had riper, healthier fruit.”
The gestation for Roederer’s still wines was kickstarted in the late 1990s, when Lecaillon began studying the terroir during the house’s conversion to organic and biodynamic practices. He discovered several parcels with a high clay content, notably in the lieu-dit of Charmont within the cru of Mareuil-Sur-Ay, which looked promising for a still Pinot Noir.
“It is very usual to find clay,” says Lécaillon, “It’s the opposite of chalk, which is our DNA in Champagne, but clay is necessary to give body, depth and substance to a red wine.” As a result, in 2000 Roederer pulled out the existing vines and re-planted with Pinot Noir clones from Burgundy and Alsace. The incoming vines were planted to expose the grapes to the sun via taller, more open canopies (vines in Champagne are usually trained in a way that shelters the bunches to retain their acidity).
When the search began for a chalky parcel suitable for a white counterpart, Lécaillon made trials from the best crus for Champagne production, Cramant and Avize, but found the wine simply tasted like the vin clair (base wine) for the house’s prestige cuvée Cristal. The breakthrough came in the guise of a 1961 bottle of Coteaux Champenois from Mesnil-Sur-Oger. It tasted “exceptional”, says Lécaillon, prompting him to focus his energies on the region’s lieu-dit of Volibarts. The Chardonnay is fermented and aged in oak, limestone eggs and stainless steel.
“We have a very pure expression of Chardonnay. In the Chablis style, but specifically Champenois for its purity,” says Lécaillon.
While Lécaillon is clearly enjoying experimenting with different winemaking techniques, Pinot in particular is proving a process of trial and error. In 2014, Lécaillon confesses he picked too late; 2015 was much better, very fruity, but “too crowd-pleasing”. In 2016 he experimented with stems – painstakingly re-introducing the best examples, which were selected by tasting them. In 2017 the vineyards were affected by botrytis, so Lécaillon didn’t make a wine. Roll on 2018, in which 40% of the grapes were fermented as whole bunches.
“Tasting stems was a good way to learn, but we want the carbonic maceration which happens in the whole berries attached to the stems”. The fruit is fermented in tiny vats, gently pushed down by hand and then aged in a mixture of amphora and oak barrels of various sizes. Lécaillon uses some new oak for both red and white. “The new oak is important to stretch the finish,” he says, though he is keen to minimise the impression it leaves, which he considers too Burgundian in style.
Instead, the aim with the wines, explains Lécaillon, is to showcase Champagne’s terroir – without bubbles – using a single varietal from a single vineyard. “Every step we take is to move away from Burgundy. Burgundy is larger, richer, more concentrated and firmer textured. We have to find our complexity from somewhere else.”
This specific identity of Coteaux Champenois is linked to its vitality. “Even if we have climate change and ripeness, we have wines that are full of energy. Our low pHs mean the wines react to things. They are full of energy.” He seems concerned this character can sometimes be too extreme. “We want to domesticate them and make them more relaxed.”
This is just the beginning. Work is in progress on several new parcels with the intention to expand the existing cuvées to become a collection of single-vineyard wines. For now, while eschewing a Burgundian style, Roederer is embracing the region’s pricing (the Pinot goes for £155 a bottle, the Chardonnay £130) but with a tiny production (2,880 bottles of the white and 1,631 red), they will appeal to collectors.
It’s intriguing to taste wine from a single vineyard in Champagne which is not obscured by bubbles, autolysis and dosage, and all in all, I was pleasantly surprised by the two cuvées, which I found lively, stylish and elegant. They are certainly not wannabe Burgundy. I would like to see more depth, intensity and complexity in both wines, but it’s early days.