Tarlant June 4
After our longer than expected detour at Chaumont, we met up with Benoît Tarlant. Right off the bat he took out in the vineyards next to the winery, on what was turning into a rather hot day. This helped illustrate that north facing vines in the Vallée still get plenty of sun and can achieve high ripeness. Benoît, amazingly is a 12th generation winemaker, so he’s got an fantastic knowledge of his vines, and the surrounding areas.
As we toured the vines he explained that most of his fruit comes from Œuilly but he gets a bit from the neighboring Boursault, and some from Celles-les-Condé a bit south and west of the winery. Œuilly and Boursault are both north facing, but as I noticed it gets plenty of sun. The river is a major part of the terroir here because it brings humidity which is a frost risk, but it also helps cool the grapes helping them achieve phenolic ripeness. Interestingly, this stretch of the Marne is fairly straight and narrow because the soils between Œuilly and Madeuil are extremely hard and the river couldn’t break them down as is the case with the Grand Vallée. In the vines, the soil is a mixed bag, a lot of sand with limestone, clay, marl, and a bit of chalk. Œuilly is the last village heading west where you’ll find any chalk in the soils.
The vines we toured were super interesting because along with the expected Meunier and Chard vines, there were Petit Meslier, Arbanne, and Pinot Blanc vines! The differences were quite apparent once Benoît pointed them out, different leaf color and shapes between them all. This are the vines that go into BAM – (Pinot)Blanc, Arbanne, and (Petit)Meslier.
We had a fascinating discussion about these grapes, apparently of the roughly 35,000HA of vines in Champagne, there’s only about 100HA of these grapes planted. Petit Meslier is a pretty worthless grape economically, in 5 vintages there will be one good vintage, one that’s okay, and three that producer little to no fruit. Its also low yielding, Chardonnay produces three times as much fruit. Arbanne is only slightly better, while it doesn’t have the production issues, its late ripening and very high in acid, which isn’t a great combination in Champagne. Benoît is still learning these grapes, but in the future he may make a 100% Petit Meslier, crazy town
After the heat in the vines, it was a treat to move into the cool cellars where we learned about Benoît’s winemaking philosophies. In the vines he doesn’t add anything but some sulfur, copper, and 20 different plants and herbs instead of just the 7 biodynamics prescribes. In the winery nothing is added to the wines except a bit of sulfur, barrels, and climate control. He has been experimenting with amphorae, but he’s not satisfied with the texture. He let us taste a side by side of the same wine from barrel and amphorae. The barrel was creamy and juicy while the amphorae was unpleasant at the end with a raspy feel.
We proceeded to the tasting room, which could hold 100 people, and tasted through the whole line up. Benoît explained that the Brut Zero is their flagship wine, and the most important. He’ll sacrifice any other wine in the line up to make sure this one is good. Much like Krug with the Grande Cuvée, but harder because there’s no dosage so the fruit must be very ripe. We tasted 4 base years of this wine, 07 and 08 followed by 95 and 96. The younger wines were intense with lots of fruit and floral notes. The 08 was easier to enjoy while the 07 was sharper. The 95 vs 96 was compelling. The 95 was showing its age with more burnt sugar, graham cracker, and funk. The 96 on the other hand was much fresher with lots of complexity, it was still showing some age, but wasn’t old.
We continued to taste the various wines including three from 2003, Benoît made a comment that helped illustrate the Bedel’s love of 03. He thought that if you tried classic winemaking techniques in 03 the results were poor, but if you experimented and thought outside the box, the wines turned out well. By far the best wine of the line up was the Cuvée Louis with a 1999 base. It was creamy, vibrant, nutty, yeasty, and overall a fascinating wine. While we were wrapping up and discussing terroir a bit, Benoît mentioned that there were very few negociants in Œuilly, and the Rive Gauche in general. The 1911 revolution was a breaking point for many of the growers here. Since the negociants had been buying fruit and wine from other parts of France, the growers didn’t want to work with the negociants and made them feel unwelcome in the area. I wonder if the lack of negoc owned vines, and the chilly reception is part of the reason that this area is considered to be lower value than other areas.
Benoît’s wines certainly reflect his personality – sturdy and while wanting to be friendly, they’re actually a bit brash.