Day two in Champagne took me from the Montagne to the Vallée and the northern end of the Cotes de Blancs. It was a fantastic day full with three outstanding winemakers. I started my day with Jean-Paul Hébrart of Marc Hébrart in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ. There was a bit of a mix up about what time the appointment started, so I had a few minutes to cool my jets and take in the décor at Chez Hébrart. Unlike the bachelor pad and the temple I visited the day before, this was classic French winemaker digs. Stuff from decades(or centuries) ago that simultaneously feels well loved and dated. In an odd way I felt at home, I suppose because many of my visits in 2014 were like this.
Due to the mix up, Jean-Paul only had time to taste with me rather than the full winery and vineyard tour, a bummer but it worked out alright. During the tasting we did have an interesting discussion of vintages and the terroir of the villages he works with. This conversation was also a “welcome home” to visits where my French is better than his English, so French and hand gestures ruled the tasting.
We started the tasting with a vin clair of a new cuvee that is similar to Rive Gauche/Rive Droit, but its 70% Pinot from Mareuil-sur-Aÿ and Aÿ blended with 30% Chard from Avize, Chouilly, and Oiry all from 2014. The wine was fascinating with lots of floral notes, cherry tones, power, and a friendly tension. The discussion the wine prompted was even more interesting than the wine itself. We dove into a brief discussion of Oiry, which JP thought is good but not great, and Chouilly which is too big to be great. Coupled with the terroir thoughts was a long discussion about vintages and the CIVC, which is the governing body of Champagne and among other things, sets the dates for harvest in Champagne.
JP showed me a detailed chart (I’m talking a small town phonebook) of each village broken down into parcels, grapes planted in each parcel, and when growers could start to harvest the grapes. This made me think a lot about the how much growers know about terroir, or maybe the CIVC is just good at determining ripeness and record keeping without worries so much about the terroir aspect of the grapes.
As the tasting progressed, we continued to discuss the character of recent vintages. Hébrart talked about how difficult its been to adapt to the heat, particularly in 12, 13, and 14. He feels like 14 is a good year for chard, but rough for the black grapes. Whereas 12 was a great vintage for Pinot, so he made a new blanc de noir just to show off the vintage. Some of the wines we tasted were from 2011, which is a vintage with a bad reputation, so I was curious on his thoughts. He felt it was a paradox, the heat allowed the grapes to achieve physiological ripeness but not phenolic ripeness. He’s holding out hope that the wines will come around, we’ll see, but between the 2010 and 2011 Special Club, I’d take the 2010 everyday and twice on Sundays.
As we continued to taste and talk he brought up the difficulties he’s been facing with the varied years and creating new blends and maintaining current ones. He also has had the good fortune to acquire new plots, which bring their own challenges regarding whether to add them to existing wines, bottle them individually, or create new blends. This was a compelling conversation because there aren’t many growers that have access to a lot of fruit from distinct areas and all three grapes. Hearing his thoughts on blending was outstanding because usually this is a conversation reserved for the large houses. Its also a lesson in patience for me, when winemakers talk about their wines, the earliest they’ll be released is in 15 months, but usually its much longer than that. Imagine working super hard on a project for a few months and then not knowing how it will turn out for five years!
Our conversation and tasting was winding down, and we finished on the 2010 Rive Gauche/Rive Droit. This wine is awesome. Its not available yet, but I highly recommend picking it up when its released. In the meantime, buy the 08 because its incredible and worthy of any serious cellar.
We finished earlier than expected, so I ended up wandering around Mareuil-sur-Aÿ. I walked up to the top of the vineyards, and sniffed out Clos des Goisses, which is a single vineyard from Philipponnat. Its south facing, right on the river, and very steep, absolutely fantastic to see it in person. While I was on my hike, I thought more about Jean-Paul and his wines, and whether the wines reflect the man.
Over the years, I’ve found more and more depth and complexity in Hébrart’s wines. Part of this is, I believe, him attaining additional skills and knowledge gained through years of experience. The other part comes from my continuing education in champagne. I believe that JP’s wines have many layers. They can be understated and subtle, all while being easily enjoyed on the surface. You need never dig deep for a pleasurable experience, but if you do dig, there’s all sorts of complexity and thought put into the wine. I think Jean Paul is reflected in his wines, reserved and understated with layers of complexity hidden underneath a pleasant surface. I feel like you have to spend a good amount of time with the wines, and probably the man to truly get the full experience.