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Terroir of Vrigny

On Wednesday night, I opened a flight of wines from the Premier Cru village of Vrigny in the Petite Montagne. This village is planted with all three of the major grapes and has a collage of soils including clay, chalk, and sand. This was the first time that I’ve ever lined up wines from 3 different producers from this village to explore the question of terroir. Here are the wines I opened: Egly-Ouriet Les Vignes de Vrigny Brut NV, Lelarge-Pugeot Meuniers de Clémence Brut NV, and Roger Coulon l’Esprit de Vrigny Brut Nature NV.

Through this tasting, I definitely learned new things about Vrigny and terroir, but it wasn’t necessarily what I was hoping to learn. First this tasting reminded me terroir is partly dependent on the people that planted the vineyard, the decisions about which grapes to plant, where to plant them, spacing, etc. these all impact the final wine. I bring this up because comparing two wines that are 100% Meunier with one that is a blend of all three grapes is more difficult.

The other big illustration was how much a winemaker can coax out terroir in the wine or completely obliterate it. All three of these wines were top notch and I would happily drink any of them,  however the Coulon showed so much of the work in the winery rather than the work in the vineyard. The wine had at least 5 years on the lees, plus additional time post disgorgement. Essentially this wine was well into all the secondary and tertiary flavors of roasted hazelnuts, coffee, toffee, caramel, honey, and a bit of vanilla. I’m not saying this a bad wine, or that I don’t like these flavors. I enjoy them a great deal, but I am saying its hard to sort through them to taste for terroir.

With these lessons in mind, I still was searching for what this village expresses in its grapes that distinguish them other villages in Champagne. Through all of the wines I noticed a distinct set of flavors involving honey and wheat. Unfortunately these flavors can come from winemaking techniques as much, if not more than, terroir. That being said, I thought it telling that I noticed the trait across all of the wines despite of the significant differences in winemaking and aging.

Beyond the flavors, I definitely noticed a pronounced creaminess across all three wines. It was a very delightful creaminess that felt more like home than something elegant and luxurious. Think a perfect bowl of oatmeal rather than a very expensive lotion. Again, some of this could be from the winery rather than the earth, but still interesting to experience it in all three wines. Overall, I was a bit disappointed because I didn’t find a lot of similarities between these wines that could be obviously attributed to the terroir. Clearly more research is in order. Hopefully next time I’m in Champagne I’ll be able to taste younger versions of some of these wines.

Jacques Selosse and Les Avizés

Selosse is one of those producers that has so much hype built up around him, it's inevitable to wonder whether he and his wines truly live up to the legend.  I decided to splurge and stay at Les Avizés, his hotel and eat at his restaurant to experience it all for myself.   The hotel is gorgeous, well designed but with plenty of quirks that will prevent it from becoming a tired but very luxurious hotel.  It was a fascinating mix of traditional and modern design elements that was inspiring and made me want to stay longer.

 I had the entire hotel to myself, I was the only guest, which is unfortunate because it would have been nice to see some life there.  I also had the whole restaurant to myself, which was a bit sad but I got over it.  It did make me feel a bit better about my slow days at Ambonnay, even one of the most well known places in Champagne still has slow nights.     The restaurant was smaller than I expected and very integrated into the hotel.

 The husband wife duo of Stephanė and Natalie that run the restaurant are delightful and certainly made the best meal I had in champagne. One of my favorite courses was a veal dish, but it was the accompanying vegetables that truly impressed me.  The dish combined shitake mushrooms, roasted turnips, and mashed sweet potatoes in a soy reduction that was very flavorful and showed me new things to do with winter veggies.  In fact all the courses had a fantastic vegetable component, which I rarely found in France. The cheese course is not to be missed, without a doubt the best cheeses I had in France.  

Since I ordered bottle of Champagne, which I'll discuss in a moment, Natalie was kind enough to share a bit of red wine with the veal course.  Apparently Francis Egly of Egly-Ouriet had been in for lunch and brought a bunch of interesting wines with him.  Natalie gave me a glass of his 2004 Coteaux Champagnois Rouge.  It was an interesting wine that reminded me of an aged Oregon or California Pinot more than a burgundy.  Pretty cool to experience it and it was fun with the food.  The wine list was truly impressive with great names from across France and prices that ranged from reasonable to expensive.

As I was at his house I decided to treat myself to a birthday present of one of Selosse's lieu-dit or single vineyard champagnes.  It was a tough choice, but ultimately I decided on the Bout de Clos from Ambonnay, and I'm glad I did because I learned a lot from this wine.   In typical Selosse fashion the wine was bold, intense, packed with flavor, a bit oxidized, and very fascinating. Throughout the evening it changed and evolved giving me a broad range of flavors always complimented by great acidity.  More important than the flavors though was the experience of the wine.  

The more of the world's top wines that I drink, the more I convinced that to truly appreciate many of them you have to sit with them over the course of an evening. Much like getting to know someone, a long conversation up front helps cement the bond that can be revisited in the future.  Had I enjoyed this wine with a group, I would have missed out on many important pieces of the wine that took a while to truly express themselves.  Due to this wine, I was able to understand that Ambonnay has a core of elegance in the same way Mesnil has a core of precision.  This realization was confirmed during my time in Ambonnay tasting through those wines.  

In addition to the pleasure and new understand of Ambonnay, I gained a better understanding of Selosse's wines.  As you move up his ladder of pricing, I feel that his wine become very much like Miles Davis during the late 60's.  As I drank the Bout de Clos I couldn't help thinking of the times I've listened to the Complete Bitches Brew, it's obviously amazing, but I'm not sure that I am truly understanding it, or at least not getting as much as others might get out of it.   I feel this way about Selosse's wines, which is saying something because my champagne knowledge is far great than my knowledge of jazz. I think it best to view his wines as an experience, or a journey rather than a destination.  All of this being said, this wine exhibited the one true trait of an amazing wine, after the last sip I still wanted more.

The next morning I was fortunate enough to meet Anselme and spend a bit of time with him.  We talked about the Bout de Clos, he first got access to the grapes in 02, but didn't make the lieu-dit until 2004 which is the one I enjoyed the previous night. The vineyard is mid slope and at the foot of one of the walls in the vineyards. It butts up to Bouzy on the western side of Ambonnay, but still showed the grace and elegance of Ambonnay but maybe some of the power of Bouzy.   He then took me on a tour, via maps, of where all 6 of the lieu-dits are located and told me about the 7th in Oger which won't be out for another 7 years. We both had things to do so we said out good byes and I went and ate breakfast, which was an awesome spread, totally worth €20, and then grabbed my bags and went to the car.  When I got to the car, I discovered Anselme out scrapping the ice off my windshield.  It was a bit odd to have a world class winemaker scrap my car, but it also showed me the humility of a man that has not been overcome by his fame.   If you are in Champagne I highly recommend staying at Les Avizės!