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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.

Laherte Freres

1/31/14 Laherte Freres

This was my first appointment of what turned out to be an odd day with a lot of schedule shuffling.  When I arrived at Laherte, I went to the wrong entrance which required phone calls, only to realize that Aurelian had forgotten I was coming, however it gave me ample opportunity to explain all of this in French with his mother as we waited for him.   As we waited for Aurelian, she started me off on the tasting of finished wines.

 It's always interesting to taste a broad line up of wines, and compare my thoughts this what my importer chooses to bring to Portland. In the case of the Laherte wines, I completely agree with the selections that Scott Paul brings in, while leaving a few off the order.  However, I'm hoping that we can get a bit of Aurelian's troisieme vie, which was the best coteaux champanois rouge I had on the trip.  The tasting was fascinating because the wines we great, but more importantly I'm gaining a better sense of how terrior impacts the wines in champagne.  Laherte is based in Chavot in the coteaux sud d'Epernay.  It's the intersection of the chalk of the cotes des blancs and the clay of the Vallėe de la Marne.  This was most apparent in the blanc de blanc brut nature which had all of the vibrancy of the chalk with the richness of the clay. There was also a very compelling tropical tone to the wine that I hadn't experienced on this trip prior to this wine.   The other highlight wine was Les Emprientes 2009, which in the past has showed well, but always been a bit overshadowed by it's siblings. This wine is all from Chavot and an equal blend of Pinot and chard.  Absolutely fascinating, complex, and totally drinkable.  I love it when intellectual and hedonistic traits are found in a single wine.  

After the tasting we went down to the barrel room for a huge tasting of vin Clair which was fantastically compelling, as were Aurelian's thoughts on winemaking.  He was just as opinionated as the other producers, but seemed happier about it rather than dogmatic.  He is very happy that there is a new generation coming up and being more open and helping each other, unlike during his parents time when everyone was secretive.   During the vin clair tasting he gave me both cuveė and taillet wines, or the first and second pressings of the fruit. Generally taillet is considered inferior and most producers sell it off.  Aurelian keeps it, he feels it has good fruit that works for the ultradition, but it lacks the soul for the more serious wines.  He also believes that new wines are like kids, if you only give attention to one of your kids the others suffer, so he tries to treat them all well including the taillet.  

The other really great part of the barrel tasting was the discussion about the other grapes of champagne, all of which Aurelian uses.  They are hard grapes, often ripening later than the last of his pinot, and they're really better blended than alone.  That being said he likes them and has planted more.  He feels the arbanne has a metallic note, Pinot blanc adds banana, and petit meslier adds green pepper.  None of the flavors is particularly great, but when blend with the main grapes can produce fascinating wines.  Aurelian has a demeanor that I truly liked and I would happily spend more time with him and his wines.  Definitely one of the biggest nuts I've met so far though,  biodynamics in Champagne is so hard, I applaud him and his results.  In the vineyards he practices biodynamics, and has found great results.  Interestingly he started not with his best parcels, but his hardest.  The good parcels will always make good fruit, but when give attention to the hard ones he found the quality went up dramatically. 

Veuve Fourny

1/31/14 Veuve Fourny

In 2013 Charles Fourny came to Portland and did an event at Red Slate.  Due to the odd day of schedule shuffling, I had a some time at the end of the day and got lucky that Charles could see me.  It was interesting to visit another producer in Vertus, they're quite proud of their village, and definitely feel like they have something to prove since it's next to many famed grand crus, but is only premier cru itself.  

Charles took me out to the vineyards as well, but unlike my visit with Doquet, we toured the village's vineyards  as a whole rather than going in depth on a couple parcels.  Vertus has 3 distinct areas:  1.  Southern end which is more of a bowl or amphitheater with most southern exposure, this area is home to Les Rougemonts, Fourny's single vineyard rosė, as well as Doquet's parcels. Clay soils.  2. The midsection which is SE facing and parallels the southern end of the Montagne de Reims villages of Ambonnay and Bouzy.  Chalk based soils.  3. The northern end which borders Mesnil sur Oger.  East facing with lots of chalk.    Charles feels Vertus has lots of possibility due to these distinct areas and is underrated. Within all three of the sub zones, there were a lot of different. Hills and exposures, adding to the complexity and the need carefully select parcels.  That being said, Charles was quite proud of his parcels lower on the slope, whereas, Doquet thought this area to be lesser.   The final vineyard stop was at the Clos du Notre Dame, which is adjacent to the winery, it's one of the few Clos in champagne, and is planted with 70 chard, 30 Pinot.  Its plowed by horse, the same horse that plows Clos du Ambonnay, Clos du Mesnil, and Clos de Goisses, pretty serious group.  

After running around the vineyards, which have been organic since 1992, we went back to the winery which was quite modern and larger than I expected.  We tasted a bunch of vin clairs, both from the Cuvėe and the taillet the difference between the clay and chalk parcels were obvious the first being richer and more exotic, the later being more precise and salty.   Charles obviously had plenty of thoughts on winemaking but was less interesting in digging around in the details and just rattled of the facts that he thinks oxidization in bad, and likes a minimal approach with no lees stirring, racking, fining or filtering, and a low sulfur regime. ML happens for all rouge, but the other wines are on a year by year basis. As we talked and tasted, Charles thinks that most people under 35 in France are excited about the idea of terrior, etc whereas the parents just don't care much and want an easy champagne with a name they know.  

We moved on to the finished wines, and I was impressed.  Possibly because of the tour and barrel tasting, or possibly because of all of the visits but I found I really appreciated Fourny's wines this trip, particularly the basic wines.  The house style of fresh wines with high acid also became more obvious. A couple highlights:  Millėsime 2007 - the fruit comes from the northern end of Vertus and really showed the grey tones Roldophe Peters discussed in relation to Mesnil.   Millėsime 2008 - the 07 is good, and interesting, the 2008 was awesome! I can't wait for this wine to come to the states. Delicious, great acid, wow! Cuvėe R 08/07 base.  Impressive and compelling wine.  Another one I'm looking forward to seeing back home.  All oak barrels for 18 months but only 2-3 g/L dose so it was dense, creamy, and delicious but retained fantastic acid.   Unfortunately he was out of the Clos du Notre Dame, so I didn't get to taste it, but the visit was fantastic with lots of information on the terrior of Vertus.