Champagne vineyards in winter. Smoke comes from shoots being burnt during the pruning operations. Here in the upper Marne valley, vineyards are limited by woods at the top end and by the river below. The limestone sub-soil often shows through (photo DC).
Champagne is a marvellous drink. It refreshes you in the summer, feels as cristal-clear as the air can be in the winter, and it improves your frame of mind at all seasons. But just saying "Champagne" is insufficient. Which Champagne? How is it made, and by whom? What results and impact does the whole approach of the producer and their process have on the wine's flavours, and so on, are just as important questions as with any other wine. Because, of course, Champagne is to be regarded just as any other wine, and definitely not simply as a sparkling substance that derives from a vaguely understood technical process having perhaps something to do with grapes at the outset!
There are considerable differences between the sizes of Champagne's many producers. Some are huge, like Moët and Chandon or Veuve Clicquot, and often very respectable too in terms of the average quality of their wines, even with annual production figures counted in 10's of millions of bottles. Some are of medium size and with perhaps a more focused style that may or may not be to the tastes of all drinkers. In this bracket I would spontaneously name Charles Heidsieck, Pol Roger, Deutz and Bollinger for instance. These lists being far from exhaustive, naturally.
The river Marne and vineyards bordering it, just downstream from Epernay (photo DC).
Quite a bit smaller, with an annual production of under a million bottles, is the family-owned house of Jacquesson, whose base is in the small village of Dizy, just across the river Marne from the town of Epernay. The scale of operations at Jacquesson is closely linked to their will to control each and every part of the process and to craft wines that are true to the raw materials they have in the vineyards and from purchased grapes. This is a fairly banal statement that you can read in many wine producer's brochures or hand-outs. But in this case it happens to be true, although means, or the lack of them, inevitably have a bearing as well, given the cost of acquiring vineyards in Champagne. Although the name of Jacquesson is long-standing in Chamapagne, this house has been under current ownership for about a generation. Despite the fact that Champagne seems to lie in a world of permanenant expansion, the Chiquet brothers, Jean-Hervé and Laurent, have actually scaled back the size of their operation over the past few years in order to be able to ensure a full control on the quality level of the bottles they produce, and to produce only the wines they themselves like, and with a singular approach to the range they produce. This is a craftsman-like operation where evry detail counts in the process.
The Chiquet brothers getting ready for a tasting in their cellars. Yes, it was frigging cold that day! (photo DC)
Most Champagne is sold without a vintage being shown on the label. This is necessary in such a marginal climate for growing grapes, since the quality of these grapes can vary so much from year to year. Wines from good years are held in reserve and then blended with a larger quantity of the latest harvest to ensure a certain constance in both quality and style. This blend acquires, over time, the seal of a "house" style, helping it to be recognised taste-wise and form a part of that producers's identity. Jacquesson has a slightly different approach to this matter. Considering that each harvest has its particular character, even when blended with about 30% of older wines, they allot a number to each blend, and that number changes each time the blend is made. Thus the current non-vintage blend from Jacquesson bears the number 735 (this numbering system has its origin in the house's archives), the next cuvée will bear the number 736, and so on. So, without bearing a vintage number, each cuvée has its own identity.
In the tasting room, the Chiquet brothers show, once again, their attention to detail by placing this glorious poster of the Willi's Wine Bar collection smack in front of where the journalist sits. This can only have a positive effect on one's thoughts about the wines being tasted! (photo DC)
We tasted 5 of these non-vintage wines, from the future 736, which will only be released at the end of 2012, back to the 732. The main part (67%) of the cuvée 736 comes from the 2008 harvest, and contains just over 50% chardonnay, with about 30% pinot noir and 20% pinot meunier. It is a splendid wine, very aromatic, finely textured, delicate and with incredible length on the palate. For me it looks like it will be the finest of the series that I tasted. The 735 (based on the 2007 harvest) is currently in markets. It is more powerfully expressif than its future successor, more generous but less tightly-knit. The flavours are broadly spread and yet precise. The 734 (based on the 2006 harvest) seems more chalky in its texture, as if it contained more chardonnay in the blend. It also shows a slight touch of bitterness and is less generously expressive than the 735. The 733 (based on the 2005 harvest) has lovely aromas, is taught and very fruity on the palate, with a creamy feel to it. Its seems simpler that the 735. Finally the 732 (based on the 2004 harvest) is firmly structured and a little austere, as was the nature of this vintage. Its flavours are restrained but pure and it shows no sign of ageing.
The other part of the range, which is only released in the best vintages, is a series of three single vineyard vintage Champagnes, each from different villages and separate vineyards owned by the firm. There is also, in some years, a very fine rosé with real colour to it.
We first tasted the three single vineyard Champagnes from the 2002 vintage.
Corne Bautray (the name of the plot), is from the village of Dizy. We visited the 1 hectare plot, which is right at the top of the hill with woods at the top end. It faces south-west and is entirely planted to chardonnay. The nose is airy and very fine. It is rich and broad in its flavours, starting well-spread on the palate, then becoming finer and more delicate on the finish. A savoury and very satisfying Champagne. I would have said that it contained some meunier, but it doesn't. (18/20).
Champ Caïn is from the village of Avize, the other side of the Marne river in the Côtes des Blancs. The plot, which I didn't visit, is a the foot of the slope, facing south and entirely planted to chardonnay. The nose is initially quite discreet then opens up showing floral and fruity aromas, with a marked hint of lemon. Very beautiful. The palate shows the precision, light and joy of a Vermeer. The feel is exceptionally fine, etched and harmonious. The flavours build gradually, always with finesse, and are very lingering. A truly magnificent wine. (19/20).
Vauzelle Terme is from the village of Aÿ, which borders on Dizy to the east. The nose seems much broader and perhaps less refined than those of the previous two wines. It has a smoky edge to it. The flavours are also broader, softer and less precise. Very ripe fruit that seems almost sweet on the palate. A very good wine but I was rather less enamoured of it than with of other two (maybe I took my eye off the poster?). (16/20)
Finally we tasted the rosé. Called Terres Rouges, it comes from the village of Dizy and is much younger, from the 2007 vintage.
I confess to a clear preference for rosés that assume their colour difference. In other words, I am less attracted to those pale, wishy-washy rosés that seem to be imitating a white wine, in fact as if they were apologetic for NOT being white. I feel that the whole point of a rosé is to be different from both red and white wines. More colour also equals more flavour in general, and this wine was no exception. Its beautiful deep pink colour leads to deliciously clear and fruity flavours. This did not seem hugely complex, and perhaps lacks a bit of ageing, but it is still very good. (15/20)
In the Jacquesson vineyard above Dizy (the Corne Bautray plot) looking south and west towards Epernay (photo DC)
Of course before getting the reward of tasting such a beautiful series of wines, one has to do the basics. That implies trying to understand what is the approach behind (or rather before) the wines. This clearly begins in the vineyards. We visited three different plots, two in Dizy and one in Aÿ. All are grassed over and cultivated under the vines, except for one, much flatter, which is ploughed almost entirely. The slopes in this part of Champagne are not huge, but given that the rock base is chalky limestone and the top soil is clay, it doesn't take much to encourage this top soil to head downhill. If one wants the soil to breathe and live, with some micro-fauna in it and so on, it is best to refrain from the all-too generalised practise of putting weed-killer everywhere and transforming the surface appearance to something close to concrete. But tilling the soil and leaving it uncovered exposes one to landslip. So grassing between the rows of vines is a good answer. Naturally one has to cut the grass, which means more work. What comes first in terms of your priorities?
Vines in Aÿ using the Cordon de Royat training system (photo DC).
Vines in Champagne can use one of two different training systems: Chablis or Cordon de Royat. The picture above shows the Cordon de Royat system, favoured by Jacquesson as it allows the bunches to be spread out wider on the vine, and makes it easier to remove leaves in the summer, thereby allowing air in and preventing rot from setting in during bad weather. All these details can count in reducing the need to spray anti-rot substances like sulphur and copper, or synthetic sprays. Jacquesson have a basically organic approach to their farming, without being dogmatic about it. And their holistic approach, which favours prevention over curing, has clearly created some emulation amongst neighbouring plots. Every detail counts, obviously, when one follows the process through.
In the world of wine, a lot of bullshit is talked involving the hold-all term "tradition". What exactly people mean by "tradition" or "traditional" is never quite clear, but it usually implies an strong inference that "things were better before, and so we stick to old-fashioned ways". This is mostly rubbish, and often dishonest rubbish at that, but in some instances, tried and true old methods can be the best solutions for certain situations. In the case of pressing grapes to make wine in champagne, the old vertical presses which hold 2000 or 4000 kilos of grapes can be an excellent way of controlling the quality of pressing if the volumes are not too big. So Jacquesson use these traditional presses, and insist on the grapes they purchase to complement those from their 30 hectares of vineyards being crushed on their own presses.
In the wine-making process, Jacquesson uses a mixture of stainless steeel tanks, large oak vats and small oak barrels to ferment and hold their wines. The choice of which vessel to use will be determined by the type and the volume of the wine batch involved. Each batch will have its home, allowing precision in the final blending, not to mention traceability.
The fact that a former owner of the firm Jacquesson, and who gave it its name, invented the wire and cap system of holding Champagne corks in their bottles may or may not be of interest to lovers of Champagne. What seems more important to me is that the painstainking process of producing their wines has gradually, and quite recently, raised the name Jacquesson, as run by the Chiquet brothers, firmly amongst the very top quality rank in Champagne today. Their grapes come from Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards, either tended by their own teams or known to them as neighbours. These vineyards are farmed ecologically and thoughtfully. They press all the grapes, eliminating first and last pressings to retain the purest and most delicate juices. Then they take their time about making and ageing the wines: the current non-vintage has had four years ageing, and the vintages have had 11 years. All this, and many other details, add up in the end. You can see the results when you taste the wines. As always, the proof the the pudding is in the eating, not just the wrapping, even if the wrapping is most elegant in the case of the Jacquesson bottles. Attention to detail again....
all photographs by David Cobbold