The morning is met with a rescheduled appointment, a series of unfortunate orienteering, but alas… unforgettable snapshots of memories that may not have been had we not gone off course. Not far from Ay, we visit Hautvilliers–home to the L’Abbaye of Dom Perignon. Though he did not invent these beads of beauty, he did learn how to perfect them and really grab hold of the method itself.
As we enter the cathedral, the same intoxicating smell of wet, chalky cellars fill my nostrils. I think to myself that churches should always smell so inviting. Perhaps I would frequent them daily! Classical music resounds in the space. Thin wooden benches are stacked left and right. There are massive wood cuttings one one side of the room, while renaissance murals line the other. Slate tombstones at the front before the altar commemorate the famous monk along with his scribe Dom Ruinart. I light a candle in the sanctuary and say a short prayer to my mom. I smile knowing this is as close as I might get to sharing Champagne with her. And it feels heavenly.
The church has a remarkable history, filled with strife, vulnerability and change. Since its erection in 650 AD by St. Nivard, it began its turbulent journey. Destroyed in 882 by the Normans, then restored in 1411 only to be burnt down 35 years later by the English in the 100 years war. It was consecrated in 1518, then burnt in 1562 by the Huguenots, rebuilt in 1603 and finally really restored with Dom Perignon’s presence beginning in 1672.
We press on to Verzenay, a blessed region in the Montagne des Reims that sees all Grand Cru vineyards. We meet with the consultant for Pehu-Simonet along with the son (who spoke little English). Here, we learn about their philosophies and methods. We begin to put together just how varied each vigneron really is, even if their common goal to produce high quality, small quantities are the same.
Like Geoffroy, they block malolactic. In doing so, they do not force the natural acidity to lessen. Both would agree this allows the fruit to be more pronounced, less obscured. I would agree, there was a difference to be sure– a lightness on the palate. Malolactic, much like it sounds, promotes a creamier milky body in the wine by inciting a lactic bacteria to convert the more tart malic acid levels. So here, in these wines, a linear quality is preserved. Apparently less than 1% of vignerons in Champagne block malo according to our guide, so this was very unusual that we met with two in a row!
Where they differ is yeast cultures. Geoffroy insists upon the native yeasts found on the skin and in the cellar to carry out the first fermentation. They believe it maintains the terroir of the region. Pehu-Simonet, though organic and in the process of becoming biodynamic, proudly stand by their choice to use non-native strains that are indigenous, however, to the Champagne region. For one thing, it is much less risky, and they feel confident they can repeat quality first fermentations time and again without the fear of interruption or, God forbid, a ‘stuck fermentation.’ When I asked him about possibly losing ‘terroir’, as the last winemaker insisted upon, he explained that while it may affect aromatics, that is not to be confused with terroir. Terroir, he continued, is felt on the palate. You cannot smell a region, you must taste the difference. One thing I found fascinating was that they selected much of their oak from the nearby Verzy forest (note: only their highest end wines see time in oak–most are steel or concrete). In doing that, he explained, there was another sense of local terroir added to their wines. It was all very poetic, and one thing was certain after all this ambiguity: both were phenomenal producers with distinctive styles. Where there was a note of opulence and restrained oxidation in Geoffroy’s bubbles, while a linear, tasteful reductive quality shined through in Pehu-Simonet’s wines.
We tried several wines at Pehu-Simonet, but the standouts for me were the NV Blancs des Blancs (thing lemon sorbet on a hot, sunny day) and the Blancs de Noir (100% Pinot Noir–a rare, rare thing to see), taken from the tenderloin of the slopes, beaming with dark berried fruit and coming out salty on the finish. It was difficult not to have the word ‘terroir’ beat through my brain with melodic persistence.
That, I think, is the true meaning of terroir.
Though hard to leave, we knew our next appointment would be equally interesting: Chartogne-Taillet, recently taken over by the ‘next’ generation: Alexandre Chartogne–handsome, gentle giant. He was very tall, good-looking, and he had the kindest eyes. His English was unbelievable, but he spoke with such humble hushed tones, you had to smile. Despite his quiet demeanor, however, he had an equal portion of fierce ambition to turn this 800 year old estate into something different. He seeks to shake things up in Merfy, a small village just north and west of Reims. How? In a region rampant with philosophies of blending, Alexandre is insistent that true terroir speaks through each parcel. Though he makes a famous cuvee–St. Anne– his focus is single vineyard expressions.
We spend the first part of the appointment getting to know one another. This was very important to do before meeting his cellar–a detail that I find important, as so many vignerons do it the other way around, tasting at the end. He showed us old journals of everyday notes his family has kept since 1700! He basically explained that this was important for him to understand his family’s tradition in taking over for future generations. He has a little guy of his own. Whether or not he takes over one day will be his decision. It is not forced on anyone. His son is two! Here’s hoping!
The most eye opening experience, really on this trip thus far, was sitting with Alexandre and being blind of 3 varying dosages on the same exact wine. Not only did it change the wine’s character remarkably, all four of us had extremely different preferences. One was dosed with 0 grams of sugar (Brut Nature), the others at 2 and 4 grams (Brut). Strangely, the first was the most appealing to me (and I usually like a dab of sugar to balance the acidity). The nose was almost nutty and fully enticing. The second took on a much fruitier presentation. It was favored by most. It had a fresh, vibrant quality without being too linear. Finally, the one with 4 grams, while interesting and well-received, left a very slight trace of residual presence on the palate–not in the lingering finish kind of way. To be clear, a dosage does and should vary dependent on zillions of reasons. Even a house style should listen to a vintage if something, like acid, has changed. For example, thought the sugar was noticeable in the one with 4 grams, we shortly thereafter had another wine of his–the 2006 Blanc de Blancs from the Heurtebise parcel–at a whopping 5 grams (yes, I am joking, as most ‘Brut’ in Champagne is 8-12 grams), and there wasn’t a trace on the palate. Time really integrated it, plus the acid was pretty rippin’! If you EVER have an opportunity to do this exercise, I recommend it. Tasting is truly the best teacher.
He showed us around the cellars, tasted us on pre-phylloxera 100% still (not fizzy) Pinot Meunier, and showed us old bottles from his personal non-bubbles collection. He then sat down with us, and really delved into his personal passion and vigor for maintaining single vineyard labels. His training in Cote des Blancs really affected him, changing his perspective forever. Though it goes against the norm, it creates yet another thought-provoking process in a region of such history and varied opinions.
As we drove away, we just couldn’t get over his passion– a passion so genuine, it was granular. You could touch it. Even if we understood the overarching technique and purpose for blending, his enthusiasm made it so you wanted to throw it out the window and hop on his bandwagon. His love was infectious.
Exhausted, we took our grubby, unkempt selves to a little pizzeria in Epernay. It was exactly what we needed. A bottle of Chianti and a couple of pies at 9 euros each. Epernay, while not over the top in its gastronomic options, was solid, quaint and right on the money. It was not overcome with tourists, overpriced as Reims or cheesy. It has a very local feel, many speak no English and your food is just very unassuming and well made. Even today, we sat at a simple corner Brasserie and had croque monsieur. It was sensational for 3 euro and full service. For real. Not to mention, yesterday we stopped at a couple little shops for bread, cheese and fresh salami to feed 4 people for about 12 euro. The same food at Whole Foods? Easily $45. It’s pretty awesome.
Stay tuned for the rest of Champagne in tomorrow’s blog…
In the meantime, on our way to Alsace today!