After the encyclopedic conversation with Gimmonet, I drove 5 minutes down the road to Cramant to visit Aurélien Suenen. The contrast between Aurélien and Gimmonet or Hébrart was substantial. The prior visits were with men with years of experience in the vines and winery, Aurélien is still cutting his teeth. It was refreshing to end the day with someone who’s excited, learning, and humble about the wines he’s making. Prior to this visit, I had tasted Suenen’s wines a few times, and I thought they were alright but not amazing. I visited him at the insistence of my importer, and I’m glad I did! Aurélien’s wines are in the midst of a transformation, and beginning with the next shipment, the wines will start to show serious merit.
Aurélien’s path to wine is unusual, and sad. He was a basketball player, an alternate for the French Olympic team, and a coach for kids. Then his dad came down with a serious disease so Aurélien decided to come back to the family winery. He worked along side his father for a couple vintages, and in 2009 his father passed away so this became Aurélien’s first vintage. He’s very humble about his winemaking, and feels that he’s still in the learning stage of his career. In 2009 and 2010 he focused on learning the vineyards and kept the wines the same as his dad’s program other than a bit more lees aging and a lower dosage. 2011 was his first vintage where he started changing the wines, but unfortunately this was a difficult vintage and Aurélien wasn’t happy with the results of what he made so he sold all the wine off sur latte to a négociant.
2012 marks the true beginning of Suenen under the guidance of Aurélien. He is slowly moving toward organic and biodynamic, but this is a labor intensive process, so its going slowly. At this point he’s almost entirely organic, but he’s beginning to realize that despite the extra labor, going biodynamic is easier. Biodynamic farming strengthens the vines because he’s adding good stuff to them, whereas organic just weakens them. Organic simply takes away all of the manmade protections for the vines, but doesn’t replace them with anything so its harder on the vines.
Our conversation naturally flowed from farming to the villages. Suenen owns 3HA of vines, half in Oiry and the other half split between Cramant and Chouilly. He also owns some vines in the Massif St. Theirry, but is selling off that fruit because its too far away to farm the way he wants. Considering all of the talk of these villages with Hébrart and Gimmonet, I was interested for Suenen’s take on what’s going with each of them. Aurélien feels that Oiry actually grows some great fruit, it’s a balance between tension, minerality, and fruit. The fruit is often the apple/pear variety but sometimes leans tropical like Vertus. The soils here are pure chalk, and he feels his parcels in Oiry are similar to Cramant and the good part of Chouilly.
The discussion moved to Chouilly, which Aurélien owns parcels that face north, which doesn’t think are as good as his south facing vines in the Montaigu parcel. He doesn’t feel like Chouilly has as much long term aging potential as Cramant or Oiry. Interestingly, he didn’t talk much about Cramant, I think there’s just an assumption amongst growers that Cramant is great so there’s no need to talk about it. He does feel like the fruit here is the balance between the concentrated fruit of Chouilly and the minerality and tension of Oiry. I’m really excited because in 2016 he’ll be releasing a single cru from Oiry, which to his and my knowledge will be the only one available from any producer. He’ll also be releasing a blend called C+C, which is Chouilly and Cramant.
In the winery, he’s a big fan of letting nature do some of the work for him. He racks later than most wineries, and much of the bottling happening in the summer rather than spring. To preserve the wines, he keeps them on the lees which decreases the need for sulfur. By waiting a few more months to bottle, he’s able to use the cold weather to cold stabilize the wines instead of using a machine or temperature controlled tanks. He uses older burgundy barrels, so temperature controlled tanks aren’t interesting to him. This being said, he is moving away from the burg barrels in favor of Stockinger barrels from Austria. I can’t say I’m surprised by this as all of the cool producers in Champagne are moving in this direction.
As we were discussing all of this, we were also tasting, both vin clair and finished wines. I was able to taste the 2014 vin clair of Oiry, which is going to be a cool wine. Unfortunately tasting his finished wines is difficult because I know all of them are being phased out, so I’m trying not to get attached. The 2012 base blanc de blancs was great, but the fruit this wine used is being redirected toward the Oiry and C+C. Interestingly, 2014 marked the first year that Aurélien was able to keep back any reserve wine, so prior to this its all single vintage even if its not stated on the label. He feels that little to no reserve wine really helps you feel the terroir. However, he doesn’t like the term terroir because he feels its not specific enough, he wants more precision in how he talks about his wines. Finally he gave me one last tidbit about tasting, chalky soils bring out the salinity in the wines while sandy soils bring out pepper notes. I’m still playing with this to see if its true, but its compelling.
I feel like Aurélien has a long and bright future ahead of him. I’m excited for all of his new wines to come out and experience what he’s actually capable of producing. I think his wines are reflective of his personality. They’re friendly but not completely sure of themselves. I think as the man become more confident, his wines will too.
Overall, this was an amazing day of tasting and learning about the terroir of the northern Cote des Blancs! Incredible that I packed it all into one day.