June 5 Francis Boulard
After a day of trekking as far west as we could, today we went north to the Massif Saint-Theirry to visit Francis Boulard. I expect you’ll see more champagnes from this region in the coming years. The leadership of Boulard and Chartogne-Taillet in the area will help encourage others to show what this diverse area has to offer. The Massif itself is a large hill that creates lots of microclimates and protection for the vines with the hill and forest. The Vesle river also runs just to the east of the area also adding to the climate. The soils are mostly sandy, but you can certainly find chalk, clay, marl, and more depending on the parcel. Vignerons have planted all three grapes here due to the varied nature of microclimates and soils.
Unlike some wineries we visited, Boulard’s was not nestled in the vines. Instead, it was on the D944, which is a stretch of road that everyone, including truckers, haul ass coming and going from Reims. The turn into Boulard definitely feels like a death trap. Once our pulses returned to normal, we exited our blue car and had a look around. Boulard is not one for lots of fancy trinkets or ornate anything, he and his daughter Delphine are clearly, and proudly, farmers. It always makes me happy to see the farmer side of a vigneron rather than the pomp and circumstance.
After a quick introduction, Francis took us up to the vineyards and gave a great tour and background on the area. Along the way, he had to stop and chat with the folks in the village including one of the first coopers in Champagne, plus some other farmers. Francis reminded me greatly of a fun uncle or grandfather that shoots the breeze with everyone and is a pretty jovial guy. We started the vineyard tour at the Rechais parcel, which makes some of Boulard’s best wine.
While we looked at the vines, and very alive soils, Francis told us about the region. It was abandoned about 100 years ago due to phylloxera and lack of producers buying fruit. It wasn’t until the 1960’s and 70’s that it was replanted, partly by Francis’ family. Francis began experimenting with organic and biodynamic farming the late 1990’s and Rechais was certified organic in 2001. Round this time Francis broke off from the family and took his share of the vines because he wanted to convert all of them to organic and biodynamic practices but the family wanted to make more money by staying conventional and using less labor. It’s a shame because Francis only has some of all the great old vines his father planted in the 1960’s. It’s a double shame because most Champagne vines are replanted after 25 years for maximum yield rather than longer age that brings depth of flavor, so finding old vine Champagne is rare.
As we walked around the parcels, including the ones for Petraea and Pinot for the Rechais Rosé, Francis gave us his thoughts on the vines, their age, many of which dated back to the 1960’s and more were planted in the 1980’s. He feels that the grapes from Rechais are more complex and full bodied than his vines in the Grand Cru of Mailly. Certainly this flies in the face of traditional Champagne wisdom, but during the tasting his point was certainly proved. He also told us about his love of still wines, particularly white Burgundy, which for him is heaven. Francis showed himself to be one of a handful of producers that actually would prefer to make still wine, but they are bound by the tradition of the region to make sparkling. Pretty funny how the grass is always greener even if you have grand cru and old vine fruit in Champagne.
On the way back to town, we discussed his conversion to organic and biodynamic practices. He decided to go that direction after seeing a chemical analysis of one of his wines. The chemicals he sprayed in the vines were present in the wines, some of which are possible carcinogens. He has found that after the conversion his soils are healthier, its better for the environment, and the wines have greater depth and complexity. While we were driving and talking, he pointed a big truck driving through his village, he said these trucks come through a couple times a week delivering wine to wineries. The trucks come from Nicolas Feuillatte, which is the largest cooperative in Champagne. Many of the “winemakers” in this area just send their fruit to Feuillatte, who makes the wine and labels it with that “winemakers” label. Crazy, sad, and frustrating. Hopefully more of the next generation will strike out on their own.
Back at the winery, we went on a tour of what was former dairy farmer that was converted to a winery. Boulard showed us a nice collection of various size barrels and foudre including traditional Champagne barrels which are 205 liters instead of the more common 225 liter from Bordeaux. He also showed us the new foudre for Petraea, purchased with money that he raised from crowd sourcing! Fun to hear that things like Kickstarter really do work.
Tasting with Boulard was a bunch of fun, because he has fruit from the Massif, Mailly, and the Marne so you get a good sense of different areas and what they offer. He wines are full of energy, and delightful to taste or drink. I was stoked that we were able to taste the 2008 Rechais, which is being released after the 2009 that’s in the market now. I highly recommend picking some up if you see it. I find his wine s to be rascally and compelling, which certainly reflects the man, but I think both the wines and the man just want to be liked because of the quirks rather than in spite of them.