The rags-to-riches story of Champagne Ulysse Collin perfectly epitomises the rocketing rises to fame we are now witnessing in the grower Champagne world. But even if, from afar, the Ulysse Collin saga might come across as an overnight success, it has taken blood, sweat and tears to build the domaine from scratch into one of the most coveted and critically acclaimed grower brands around.
‘Never could I have imagined 20 years ago that one day my wine would be featured at a dinner event like this’, says Olivier Collin, at a celebration of his estate’s 20th anniversary that took place this spring at Two-Michelin-starred Parc Les Crayères in Reims. The very beginning was particularly gruelling for the brand, as Collin had to fight hard to get back his family’s 8.7-hectare domaine, which had been rented out. It was an opportunity to put his legal studies to the test and a breakthrough finally came in 2003, after months of persistence.
However, it was his viticultural education that would prove most key to the growth of his nascent Champagne brand. Right before setting up the business, his studies took him to the iconic domaine Jacques Selosse for a six-week apprenticeship. Even if Collin didn’t work with Anselme Selosse himself, the reputation of such a prestigious traineeship helped achieve instant interest in Ulysse Collin.
If I don’t make strong decisions about the wines, they will drown in the ocean of Champagnes
‘I started with a minimal €2,500 investment, buying a ploughing machine and a broken tractor, which I fixed,’ says Collin of the domaine’s humble beginnings. ‘For the first two years the wines were made off-site before I got the cellar back from the rental agreement. I bought second-hand barrels from Limoux for €50 and didn’t even have a pump to fill them.’
Collin chose a Chardonnay plot to start production – Les Pierrières in nearby Vert-Toulon – and made his first bottling from the 2004 harvest. Collin is careful to note the rough start: ‘I did not keep the 2003 harvest due to the unbalanced character of the vintage and the small yields caused by frost’. A couple of years later, he added a Blanc de Noirs to the portfolio, made from Pinot Noir grapes from the Les Maillons plot in Barbonne-Fayel. At the time, his Burgundy-influenced wine philosophy meant he went for single-vineyard and single-varietal wines only, exclusively vinified in oak barrels, which was something of an exception for the region at the time.
‘I understood that if I don’t make strong decisions about the wines, they will just drown in the ocean of Champagnes on the market,’ says Collin. His vineyards are located in the lesser-known Coteaux du Sézannais and Coteaux du Petit Morin sub-regions of Champagne, the latter of which Collin has single-handedly put on the Champagne map.
Although inspired by many great wines, Olivier Collin didn’t go around copying other maker’s styles and has remained loyal to his own individualistic ways. Against the current grower fashion, his wines are non-vintages, made as blends of three harvest years. ‘Blending vintages together is an asset, as you can limit problems that occur from Champagne’s variable climate’, Collin explains.
Neither has he hopped on the bandwagon of bone-dry brut nature Champagnes. ‘One of the hardest things in life is to be yourself but this is what we are trying to do at Ulysse Collin.’ Here, Collin is careful to credit the support of his wife and partner, Sandra Zaragoza, giving praise to her and the team.
Over the years, Ulysse Collin has gradually grown its yearly production to 60,000 bottles but still sells an important share of the grapes to négociants. The fact that there is potentially more to come is good news for the Ulysse Collin fans, who find themselves increasingly frustrated by the difficulty of procuring bottles. Lately, the thirst for the Champagne has become inexhaustible, with prices rocketing on the secondary market. Collin tries to fight this by being highly selective in his distribution and selling increasingly to the on-trade. ‘I want my wines to be accessible to consumers at restaurants at sensible prices’, he states passionately.
One of the hardest things in life is to be yourself but this is what we are trying to do at Ulysse Collin
One could imagine that Ulysse Collin’s immense success has made Olivier Collin a rich man but he keeps on investing it back into the company, with a particular focus on fine-tuning the quality of the wines. A new Coquard PAI press was acquired in 2018, which made a big impact on the precision of the wines according to Collin.
And lately, the biggest investment at this ever-improving domaine has been put into lengthening the lees ageing times. For example, Les Enfers, Les Roises and Le Jardin d’Ulysse now rest 60 months in bottle before disgorgement. And Collin has plans to further lengthen some of the bottlings. The Ulysse Collin cellar is now home to some 300,000 maturing bottles, which is an extraordinary investment if you consider that over the course of 20 years, a total of 500,000 bottles of single-vineyard Champagne have been sold. ‘It is not a question of the longer the better. The decision is about what the wine needs and what it merits.’ It’s this kind of perfectionist approach that has helped seal Olivier Collin’s status in the region and has no doubt served as a great inspiration to the next generation of aspiring growers.