From the legend of the monk Dom Pérignon to the flutes of Roederer Cristal savoured by the Tsars, the great houses of Champagne have shaped the appellation’s global reputation. Yet, behind these prestigious brands are thousands of independent winegrowers who produce Champagnes from a mosaic of terroirs. It is impossible to sum up their wines in a single style. Each village and each vineyard impresses its personality on the labels that have become essential for celebrating occasions, both big and small.
With names like Fallet-Dart, Georges Vesselle, Franck Bonville and Louis de Sacy, they may not ring a bell amongst the general public, but these independent winegrowers produce Champagnes with very different profiles. Located in the Montagne de Reims, Côte des Blancs, the Marne Valley and Côte des Bar (in Aube), each of them boasts a unique terroir, imbuing wines with a strong personality, a far cry from the large-scale production of the appellation behemoths. They may all be aware of the pivotal role played by the major brands in promoting Champagne in France and particularly abroad, but they agree on one point: they don't do the same job. “They are industrialists, we are craftsmen, but we are bound by circumstances," says Jean-Michel Turgy, a winegrower in the Côte des Blancs. Seven of them have agreed to talk about their vineyards and winemaking methods so that we can better understand what a winemaker's Champagne is.
Michel Turgy, the essence of Chardonnay
Based in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger since 1881, the Michel Turgy Champagne house farms six hectares of Chardonnay in the heart of the Côte des Blancs. Here, vines thrive in around thirty different plots. Their age and status may vary, but vineyard management is the same across-the-board. “The less you spray, the better for everybody," sums up Jean-Michel Turgy, who has been a proponent of sustainable viticulture since he started out in 1979. Out went the plant protection products and pesticides, Jean-Michel is convinced that lack of treatments leads to riper grapes with more expressive aromas. His philosophy continues into the cellar. “We try and achieve the purest terroir expression," he explains. “We avoid filtering as much as possible, we let the sediment rest and we certainly do not fine the wines”. Even dosage is reduced to the absolute minimum, so as not to distort what he calls “the raw materials”. Non-vintage Brut Champagnes have therefore between 3 and 5 grams dosage per litre, whilst the special labels border on zero dosage. Jean-Michel Turgy's strategy enables him to obtain five ample, chalky Blancs de Blancs Champagnes marked by intense aromas and a fresh, fleshy mouthfeel.
Fallet-Dart, hallmark Pinot Meunier expression
A wind of modernity is blowing over Fallet-Dart. Paul and Adrien Fallet are the custodians of home-grown expertise that has been passed down since 1610. Since 2017, they have been injecting a dose of innovation into the vineyards and the winery to maximise the potential of their eighteen hectares of vines spread over six localities around Charly-sur-Marne. “Vineyard management has evolved a lot over the past fifteen years, mirroring the transition from the previous generation to our own," explains Paul Fallet. “Today, grass cover is used over the entire vineyard. This allows us to obtain more structured, longer wines”. The soils range from clayey-sand on the surface with limestone deep down, to compact, hard marl, forming a patchwork of terroirs in the Marne Valley that give rise to powerful Champagnes. Pinot Meunier spearheads the varietal range (45%) – as a late-ripener, it is not prone to frost – with a balance of Chardonnay (30%) and Pinot Noir (25%). The two cousins produce 7 different cuvées, and therefore have sufficient leeway to focus on consistency or experimentation. “We aim to achieve great consistency with the non-vintage Bruts. Conversely, the vintage Champagnes and Clos du Mont label allow us to have fun, just like the rosé, which has changed dramatically in recent years”. The resultant Champagnes are imbued with strong personalities that reflect the tack taken by the young winegrowers.
Georges Vesselle: Bouzy in its veins
Off now to Bouzy, on the eastern slopes of the Montagne de Reims, which is located in the heart of a triangle formed by Reims, Épernay and Châlons-en-Champagne. This is the village where Georges Vesselle took over the four hectares of vines planted by his parents in 1951. “It was a time when Champagne was expanding rapidly," explains his son Bruno, who now heads up the estate with his brother Eric. “He was able to buy plots of land and plant”. Despite being successively director of Mumm, Perrier-Jouët and Heidsieck Monopole, Georges Vesselle wanted to maintain his independence and produce single growth, single village Champagnes reflecting the richness of the Montagne de Reims terroir. Sixty years on, his children farm 17 hectares of vines, 90% of which are planted to Pinot noir. “With its south-facing aspect, brown soils and chalky subsoil, Bouzy has always been renowned for the finesse of its Pinot noir," says Bruno Vesselle, who has been working for six years now on an expressive, vinous Blanc de Noirs designed for gourmet foods. “It is very different to the other 100% Pinot Noir wines of Champagne. Our terroir gives it a very fruity side which retains its freshness and elegance”. Non-vintage Bruts contain 10% Chardonnay, mirroring the estate’s varietal range. “We strive for consistent quality," adds the winemaker. Consistency does not prevent the Vesselle brothers from innovating, however, as evidenced by their Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut, which allows Chardonnay to exude notes of ripe, tangy fruit. “We promised ourselves we'd never go down that route!” By doing so, they have revealed yet another facet of Bouzy.
Franck Bonville, from one Grand Cru in the Côte des Blancs to another
The year is 2012. After trying for the umpteenth time to explain to his customers the difference between the wines made from Avize-sourced grapes and those from Oger or Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, grown just a few hundred metres apart, Olivier Bonville struck upon the idea of demonstrating the difference in three different Champagnes aged under cork stoppers. “We selected three to four plots in each Grand Cru to produce a pure Oger, a pure Avize and a pure Le Mesnil-sur-Oger," explains Olivier Bonville, a third-generation Champagne producer. Initial tastings of the new labels, which will be distributed as of June 2018, speak for themselves. “You can pick out Avize’s balanced edge, which is freighted with white fruit notes and length. Oger is smoother and rounder, with vanilla and pastry aromas. The Le Mesnil-sur-Oger is long, complex and tense”. By putting vintage variation to one side, the three Champagnes highlight the typical terroirs of each of Bonville's great growths, even though the company has only one grape variety, Chardonnay. Founded after the Second World War, the estate also markets five more classic labels, all of them Blancs de Blancs, with the exception of a rosé including 10% Pinot noir carefully selected by Olivier Bonville. “We buy it in Ambonnay. They have the same geological basis as we do, which allows us to keep the same finesse.
Paul Déthune, winter beckons in Ambonnay
The sky is typical of December, the cold is increasingly penetrating, night is starting to fall and the hearth crackles with the sound of the fire... Pierre Déthune likes to create a specific atmosphere for his Blancs de Noirs. “I call it a winter Champagne," says the Ambonnay winegrower. “Pinot noir produces very warm, vinous Champagnes, which are very enjoyable as soon as the temperature drops”. Although the red variety reigns supreme in this Grand Cru in the South-East of the Montagne de Reims, Pierre Déthune has decided to devote 30% of his vineyard to Chardonnay. “It adds freshness and exuberance to the blends”. Both varieties are grown sustainably, before being fermented in a winery whose roof has been clad since 2003 with photovoltaic panels that allow the farm to produce 20% of its own electricity. Eight Grand Cru labels are produced, including a subtle, silky and distinguished prestige cuvée. The Demi-Secs, Bruts, Extra Bruts, Bruts natures and rosés spend a short time in stainless steel vats before bottling. “The Blancs de Noirs, Blanc de Blancs and our label made using time-honoured methods are fermented in 205-litre Champagne barrels that we age before using," explains Pierre Déthune. “They age there for six months, and are then bottled”. In mild years, the house bolsters its range with a wine fermented and matured in barrels.
Louis de Sacy, boldly independent
On one side is a Champagne blended from 80% Pinot Noir and 20% Chardonnay, typical of Verzy Champagnes. On the other, a Blanc de Blancs which is less common in this Grand Cru in the north of the Montagne de Reims. “We aim to provide an holistic vision of the Verzy wine region," explains Yaël Sacy, who makes the house's wines alongside her father and brother. To achieve her goal, the young winemaker has no qualms about shaking up traditions. “We are a small family firm and are not accountable to anyone so we can afford to produce the wines we choose to make. Every year, we think about new solutions for changing things”. The company was founded by André Sacy, her grandfather in 1962 and there is no hard and fast rule about the way things are done, starting with the blending of non-vintage Bruts Champagnes. “We strive for regularity, so that consumers know what to expect, but we don't seek to reproduce the same wine every year at all costs. Wine is a living product!" In terms of dosage, the house’s philosophy remains unchanged. For a few years now, blind tastings have been held to reach the ideal sugar level. “Our Inédite label contained 6g/litre last year. This year it will be 2 g/litre, because the Chardonnay showed better sense of place at the lower level”. This bold move is paying dividends: scoring 93/100 with Gilbert & Gaillard, the Blanc de Blancs is proving extremely popular.
Jacques Chaput, the salamander of the Côte des Bar
There is no escaping the emblem of Jacques Chaput. Paired with a maxim by Francis 1st, “nutrisco & extinguo”, the salamander is featured on the labels of the seven wines developed by Jacky Chaput. The wines don’t just share the same small lizard emblem; they also have the same terroir in the Côte des Bar, south of Champagne, near Burgundy. Composed of limestone marl, the soils date back to the Kimmeridgian and are reminiscent of those in Chablis. “These are layers of very hard limestone alternating with layers of clay”, explains the winegrower, who in 2007 took over the estate founded by his parents in the 1950s. Pinot noir and Chardonnay thrive over the thirteen-hectare vineyard, yielding characterful Champagnes. Once fermented, they are all matured in the cellars before being released, "even the non-vintage Bruts," adds Jacky Chaput. “I wait at least 24 months before disgorgement. This pushes up quality and produces more mature, less nervy wines”. The drop in pressure yields bubbles that appear finer, making them ideal for food. “Their maturity lends itself well to food and wine pairings”, explains the grower, before concluding: “The sky’s the limit with Champagne!"
While the prominent Champagne houses produce several million bottles a year, the independent winegrowers are more people-focused. Most of them prioritise the quality of the vineyards rather than the number of hectares, while at the same time emphasizing the inherent character of their terroir. Do not try and compare bubbly from Le Mesnil-sur-Oger with its counterpart in Bouzy. They bear no resemblance, neither the main grape variety used to make them nor the type of soil where the vines thrive. From aspect to weather conditions and soil management, each component shapes unique Champagnes. Like Burgundy, which cannot be confined to a single style of white wine, Champagne by independent winegrowers focuses on diversity by producing wines that reflect the myriad terroirs across the region. Savvy consumers are fully aware of that, both in France and abroad. “People want to engage with the winegrower behind the label," explains Paul Fallet. “The public is increasingly inquisitive. They want to discover a story and authenticity ", adds Bruno Vesselle. The formula adopted by winegrower's Champagne – one of independence, craftsmanship and Grands Crus - has undoubtedly hit the mark.
Written by Alexandra Reveillon