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Growers' champagne - Centurion Mag

JEFFREY T IVERSON IN CENTURION-MAGAZINE.COM on Independent champagne makers (Dec2012):

Last year’s record champagne exports offered a salient reminder that bubbly has lost none of its mystique for wine lovers the world over. The great champagne houses, led by prestigious cuvées like Moët & Chandon’s Dom Pérignon or Louis Roederer’s Cristal, have engendered over time an aura of exclusivity that still surrounds champagne to this day. But recently dozens of new coveted cuvées have emerged, and they’re not only coming from the cellars of Krug or Perrier-Jouët. Grower champagne is titillating the imagination of oenophiles like never before, as independent, avant-garde producers are redefining rarity in their image, with ultra-limited, single vineyard bottlings. “More and more growers are making authentic wines,” says the grower-producer Emmanuel Lassaigne. “It’s a return to our roots, to an era before mass production, with small cuvées that are definitely confidentiel, yet without a luxury label.”

Whatever the label, anyone who has savoured a bottle of champagne by Cédric Bouchard (champagne-rosesdejeanne.com) has glimpsed one of the wine world’s shooting stars. Bouchard’s micro cuvées – from foot-crushed grapes, fermented with natural yeasts, and disgorged without dosage – have left a seasoned critic like The Wine Advocate’s Antonio Galloni “literally shaking my head in awe”. Bouchard left behind a wine sales career in Paris to open his own champagne house in 2000, buying mini-plots around Celles-sur-Ource in Champagne’s southernmost Côte des Bar region to create Roses de Jeanne, the smallest wine property in the province. Bouchard brought a Burgundian notion of micro-terroirs along with a winemaking philosophy of “one parcel, one grape variety, one harvest”. His astonishing rosé champagne, Le Creux d’Enfer, originates from a .071ha parcel of pinot noir which yields an infinitesimal annual 300-500 bottles and which Galloni calls “one of the greatest champagnes ever made”.

The extolling of Côte des Bar wine is, to say the least, a recent phenomenon. Historically treated by wine authorities as a second-tier subregion, the majority of grapes are still sold off to big houses. Yet some always believed the area held exceptional terroirs: a former oenologist for Charles Heidsieck once christened the chardonnay slopes of Montgueux, with its pure chalk soil 15 million years older than that of Côte des Blancs, “the Montrachet of the Champagne country”. Emmanuel Lassaigne (montgueux.com) has strived to unlock this potential since taking over his father’s 4ha Montgueux vineyard in 1999. At every stage, Lassaigne patiently draws out the aromas of his terroir: harvests at optimum maturity; fermentations of several months in oak and steel; an elongated, low-temp prise de mousse phase conceived to create elegant, fine-grained bubbles. Cuvées like the barrel-fermented La Colline Inspirée, rich with notes of brioche, citrus and mineral elegance, have redefined Montgueux. Indeed, today Lassaigne is the toast of wine cognoscenti and hipsters alike in Paris, and his champagne appears on half the menus of the 100 best restaurants in the world.

This new generation’s peculiar mix of avant-garde thinking and traditionalism is epitomised by a grower like 29-year-old Alexandre Chartogne (chartogne-taillet.typepad.fr). Chartogne-Taillet, located in the northern Montagne de Reims, has been in his family since 1683. Chartogne spurns chemical fertilisers and  erbicides, and has studied centuries of vineyard journals his ancestors kept to find solutions to daily problems: he lets sheep roam his vineyards to keep cover crops in check, prefers horses to tractors, which compact the soil, and maintains a parcel of rare, ungrafted pinot meunier using an ancient vinetraining method called  rovignage. Yet Chartogne isn’t backwardslooking.  Like his mentor Anselme Selosse – who first brought Burgundy winemaking techniques to Champagne – Chartogne vinifies in oak his rich, highly-coveted micro cuvée, Les Barres (500-2,000 bottles annually). Yet a delicate wine like his Beaux Sens, a 1,000-3,000-bottle singleparcel cuvée of pinot meunier, Chartogne vinifies in space-age-looking egg-shaped concrete vats. He draws on the expertise of France’s most esteemed soil microbiologists, Claude and Lydia Bourguignon, to tend to each vineyard parcel as unique individuals whose personalities he seeks to channel into wine. And that means putting his champagne’s integrity ahead of his clientele and their  unquenchable thirst – trying to satisfy demand only leads to the kind of artificial intervention that effaces terroir, he says. “I find it more interesting to taste the  differences between soils, than the difference between oenologists.  What I appreciate about wine is discovering what nature gives us.” What it gives Chartogne is magnificent – and maddeningly meagre in quantity. But that’s also what makes such cuvées so compellingly covetable.

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