It was quite a start to my birthday to hang out with Anselme Selosse, and the day continued to get better after a 50 minute drive to Merfy for my visit with Alexandre Chartogne. Fortunately for me Alexandre is a winemaker who believes in drinking. I was nursing a hang over from the previous night, so a glass of Cuvėe Ste Anne was a welcome way to start this appointment.
Alexandre was a fascinating and passionate guy. I enjoyed my time learning about him, his winery, his village, and champagne. We started by talking about the history of Merfy, which is long and compelling. Long ago it was a Grand Cru, but due to wars, politics, and many growers giving up, the village didn't retain it's standing in the classifications. Chartogne feels history is very important, but "history doesn't make wine" so we moved on to discuss the soils, terrior and farming methods.
Merfy is in the Massif St. Thierry, which I hadn't realized, I always thought it was part of the Petit Montagne, but this isn't the case. The vines are south facing, planted north to south with all three grapes growing in the village. Alexandre believes in organic farming because it encourages the roots to grow deep and hit the variety of subsoils in Merfy rather than growing horizontally. Horizontal roots are harder on the plants during summer and winter because accessing water and nutrients becomes much harder. He uses horses to plow and sheep in the vineyard to maintain the cover crops. Like many of the other winemakers I met with, Chartogne talked a lot about how he doesn't like tractors because they compress the soil which prevents water from draining and encourages erosion. It was interesting to see his plots vs his neighbors. His were well drained, flourishing, and green. While his neighbors' plots were brown, compacted and had pools of water between the vines. Finally he believes in low yields for his plants, 2-3 clusters rather than 10+ per plant. He feels too many clusters for too many years burns out the plants, just like too much work burns out people.
We tasted though his wines which was a fascinating experience to taste the terrior of Merfy. He told me more about the single vineyard wines he makes, and how rare they are. I didn't realize that so little is available, only 250 bottles come to the US of many of these wines so I feel lucky to get them. He was impressed that I had already enjoyed all 4 previously. It was interesting to taste some of these in barrel or bottle and examine the differences between clay which brings power, sand which brings ripe fruit and acid but is less integrated, and the chalk which brings mineralogy and precision.
The 2013 Les Barres from barrel was a particular revelation. I've had the wine in bottle and thought it was good, but in barrel I understood more about it bold, dense, lots of blueberry fruit, intense acid a powerful wine coming from ungrafted rootstocks!
After the tasting we walked the vineyards where I saw the pools of water between his neighbors rows. We talked more about the history of the village which dates back to the 800's. During WWII the village was heavily bombed, driving away many growers. However, it had much less phylloxera than other areas due to the sandy soils. These facts combined with the difficulty of using tractors in the area meant that Merfy was much different than many other villages. They had to charge more for the their grapes, making the negociants were less interested in the fruit. The Chartogne family managed to capitalize on this and bought plenty of vineyards in Merfy over the years that others no longer wanted. They now own 10 of the 45 ha in Merfy. As the conversation and walk continued we reached a cemetery in the middle of the vineyards. I thought this odd, but Alexandre was. He is looking forward to eventually being buried amongst his vines and watching future generations care for them. What an interesting worldview knowing where you'll be buried. Very fascinating visit.