After my relaxing nap, I was already to go and have an amazing experience at Chez Gimmonet. When I arrived, I found out there had been a scheduling mix up and it was going to be a while before Didier Gimmonet would be able to see me. Fortunately the view from the reception/tasting room was pretty great and one of the staff started pulling corks. After tasting through the first few wines, Didier finished his appointment and was able to guide me through the rest of the tasting.
As we tasted we had an exceptional conversation about the Crus of the Cote de Blancs. Gimmonet owns vines in Cuis, Cramant, Chouilly, Oger, and Vertus. We didn’t talk much about Vertus because his holding there are small, the others we really dug into, which was very helpful for me.
The tasting began with Didier’s philosophy that , “you want to have a clean palate after you take sip. Freshness is the most important quality of champagne.” We started with Cuis 1er Brut NV, which embodies this ideal. When Didier joined us we circled back and talked about Cuis, which is rarely discussed, but its Gimmonet’s home village and the foundation of many of his wines. Cuis is a premier cru village that is the northernmost village on the slope of the Cotes de Blancs, its partially east facing like the rest of the villages, but also north facing. Cuis is the most acidic cru in the Cote de Blancs, hence its low profile, but Gimmonet looks at this as an asset. He wants freshness in his wine, and if you haven’t figured it out yet, freshness is a code word for acid in Champagne. His wines are always bright, fresh, and full of acidity. I often prefer them at the table than as an aperitif. Didier also feels that Cuis helps his wines age. Recently he had done a tasting of his wines of most vintages back to the 1960s, and the best ones were the ones with the highest percentage of Cuis fruit.
Later in the tasting he poured me some of his 1966, disgorged in 1975. The wine was 25% Cramant, 50% Chouilly from the Montaigu parcel, and 25% Cuis. On the nose it showed burnt sugar, graham cracker, umami, lamb fat, walnuts, mint, and obvious loads of complexity. The palate was the surprise though, the wine was light and delicate with minerality backed by almonds, vanilla, and honey. The wine was fantastically fresh and still seemed young. Mind blown. He feels that the wines made in the 1960-80s had less power due to a lack of phenolic ripeness, but they had more freshness than the wines of today. Clearly that freshness helps with long life.
As the tasting continued we came to the other single village wine that Gimmonet makes, the Oger Grand Cru Brut NV. It was interesting to hear Didier’s thoughts on this wine, why he makes it, and Oger as a village. Originally the fruit for this wine was added to the Fleuron, but no longer because the wine lost freshness. He feels that Oger adds power to blends but the wine ages more rapidly. Since he wanted to retain freshness in his other wines, he decided to bottle this fruit on its own. I’m glad he did it was fascinating to taste on its own. Oger is always bigger and rounder than its neighbors, and Gimmonet’s wine was no exception. A tasty wine, but not my favorite of his line up.
This wine also brought up a lot of conversation about Didier’s thoughts on winemaking, blending and aging. He doesn’t like taking the best grapes for single parcel/village wines because you’re stealing from the blend. He feels that blended wines are better than single village because you get more complexity and the wine is more complete. That being said in great years he’s not afraid to make single village in wines. For example, in 2012 there will be the normal Special Club bottling, but there will also be three single cru Special Clubs from Avize, Cramant, and Chouilly. He made these wines because there was enough great fruit to make the blend he wanted, and enough left over to make some special fun wines. Sounds a bit like Krug.
Since we were talking about the crus, we started talking about Chouilly. In hindsight I realize that I didn’t really talk about Cramant, which is bummer because I’m sure Didier has plenty of thoughts on it. So Chouilly, Didier is the one that pointed out how big Chouilly is and how far north the vines extend. Most of the vines he owns here on in the sweet spot on the eastern side near Cramant and Oiry. He feels the eastern side of Chouilly is like Cramant, and this is the reason the village has Grand Crus status. He thinks that despite some good parcels in Chouilly and Oger, there’s really only three Grand Crus in the Cote de Blancs, Avize, Cramant, and Mesnil-sur-Oger. This was the original designation in Champagne, but in 1982 the rules were changed, and Chouilly, Oger, and Oiry were added as Grand Crus. Certainly influence from large houses helped with this decision, but there is basis for this change considering the caliber of some of the parcels in each village. Essentially, this is the argument against entire villages being classified. In most villages there are great parcels, good parcels, and parcels for generic champagne. Yet, the system only bothers to classify villages rather than get into the nitty gritty of classifying parcels. That being said, the growers know which parcels are great, and the ones that own land in those parcels are happy to tell you about the parcels. The rest are happy to rest on the reputation of the village.
Following the blending conversation Didier gave me his thoughts on the amount of age until maturity of his main crus. As mentioned above, Oger ages rapidly and only takes 5 or 6 years to reach maturity. Chouilly is a bit longer at 8 to 10 years, and Cramant is the longest at 15+ years until the wine is mature. Please note these guidelines are for the wines to reach maturity, where all the elements are in harmony, not the long life the wines will have. Think of it like adolescence, you’re done growing by your late teens, but you still have a long life ahead of you.
Our conversation next turned toward vineyard practices and winemaking, which is a bit backwards relative to most of my visits, but that’s the way the conversation rolled. He isn’t organic, but is sustainable. He doesn’t use chemical fertilizer or insecticides but he doesn’t rule out some chemicals for use in bad years. The most interesting vineyard practice he discussed was with new plantings. With the new vines he and his staff cut the roots of the vines that are growing horizontally. He trains the vines to send their roots deep into the ground rather than growing outward. Deep roots tap more types of soil, have better access to water, and are generally stronger than those with shallow roots.
In the winery, Didier has plenty of opinions, beyond his thoughts on blending. He believes that growers should show terroir expression in their wines. He likes to harvest his grapes with at least eleven degrees of potential alcohol so there is phenolic ripeness, not just raw acid to later correct with sugar. To accomplish his goal of showing terroir, he only uses stainless steel in the winery. He feels that, “winemakers use oak, but farmers use stainless steel.” He thinks that concentration in wine is easy, but retaining freshness and elegance is difficult. At the same time, he doesn’t want reductive notes in his wines, so he is walking a fine line in achieving his goals.
At the end of the conversation he told me about his expansion plans and the his winery’s annual production and the amount of wine aging in the cellars. It was a staggering amount for a grower. Annually, Gimmonet makes about 250,000 bottles. In the cellars he has about one million bottles aging, with another 185,000 bottles of reserve wines for blending. While I’m certainly not against success and larger wineries, I was a bit shocked to hear these numbers. Often growers are painted as small operations making less than 10,000 bottles annually.
This brings me back to a comparison I’ve been thinking about with beer. In the beer world there are the major breweries like Anheuser-Busch and Miller, and in Champagne there’s Moët, Veuve, and the other big houses. After the large players in Champagne everyone seems to be a grower, whether they make 3000 bottles or 250,000 bottles annually. The differences here are huge in terms of vineyards, facilities, and staff. In the beer world they had to tackle what happens to a micro brewery when it becomes big, but not so big as to be a “big guy”. The term craft brewery came about, think Sierra Nevada or Deschutes. These breweries are certainly not Miller sized but they’re not tiny operations with one or two guys doing everything. I think Champagne would benefit from a classification like this. Gimmonet would be a craft producer, while Christophe Mignon would be a mirco. I suppose I’m just looking for some fairness or transparency in labeling, but I don’t see much changing anytime soon considering the Champagnois are a secretive bunch.
Overall, I thought that Gimonnet’s wines are intellectual, direct, and pleasant, much like the man behind them.