While Philippe Viet did not grow up in a world of winemaking or viticulture his craft is as keen as his mentors. After prying himself out of the city and turning away from his tech job trajectory he found his love of wine and the terroirs of Beaujolais landing him with a job learning under Eric Janin (Domaine Paul Janin et fils, Moulin-à-vent). Philippe’s greatest takeaway from his tenure under Janin was that “humility must be the cornerstone of my craft. Understanding and respecting your land is key to the crafting of great wines.”
Today Philippe produces his wines in the village of Morgon while farming 2.5 hectares of vines in Régnié-Durette on the Haute-Ronze sector, producing wines classified in Cru Régnié and Beaujolais-Villages. This granitic terroir is known for producing smooth and fruity wines with a delicate tannic structure. Additionally, Philippe farms 0.60 hectares of Fleurie Poncié and 1.20 hectares of Beaujolais (Corcelles) that comprise Philippe’s most prized vines.
Respect for his terroir and its soils is a constant guide to Philippe’s farming practices. From the very beginning the use of chemical input was banned from the vineyards and all of his are currently under organic conversion for certification in the near future.
The Ruet Family Estate Winery has sat on the remarkable terrain of Voujon in Cercié-en-Beaujolais at the foot of Mont Brouilly since 1926. It spreads over superb south-facing slopes where you will find the shallow, granite and stony soils that characterize the Northern Beaujolais region. This traditional winery is focused on parcellaire wines–the serious direction in which we believe Beaujolais is headed. From Morgon they make “Douby” and “Les Grands Cras,” from Chiroubles is “La Fontenelle” and from Brouilly is “Voujon.”
Domaine Ruet holds fast to the tradition of semi-carbonic maceration, employs integrated vine growing techniques and has harvested their vineyards by hand for over four generations. The wines are on point, each exhibiting the characteristics of their respective Cru and furthermore, the distinctive terroirs within. We were blown away on our recent trip to Beaujolais to discover the intricacies of each Cru’s soil composition, as they are much more fascinating and complex than most tend to acknowledge. Domaine Ruet is the perfect estate to promote education on the unique subtleties amongst this region’s terroir–and at affordable prices! We could not be more stoked to have this estate in our book.
“My philosophy is to make wine as naturally as possible. Simple, isn’t it?” — François Lequin
Domaine des Crêts is a partnership between François Lequin and Matthieu Ponson — two friends allied by a shared philosophy and an admiration for the wines of the Côte de Beaune. François was born into a family of vignerons in Santenay and has been the winemaker at Domaine Lequin-Colin since 1996. Matthieu was raised in Cornas, with a background in engineering, but went on to become a winemaker in the Vaucluse. When the two were introduced several years ago, they quickly realized they held the same passion for Burgundy and the same goal of purchasing vineyards in the northern Mâconnais and cultivating wines of Côte d’Or standards there. So, together, they took over the former Domaine Pascal & Sylvie Pauget and in 2014 made their first vintage as Domaine des Crêts. Today the domaine encompasses 4 hectares, with farming in conversion to organics. The emphasis on restricted yields, clay-limestone soils, native yeast fermentations, and deliberate must oxidation to ward off the bête noir of Burgundy — premox — show François and Matthieu’s vision is already translating into compelling reality. The animating idea is to grow and make a small range of great Mâcon chardonnay that balances minerality and richness. The results are elegant but approachable wines with no shortage of tension, vivacity, or length.
The Mâconnais, tucked between the Côte Chalonnaise and Beaujolais, is a place of rolling hills and punctuating cliffs, still given over to mixed agriculture in a way that sets it apart from much of the rest of Burgundy. The region is divided into valleys, the Grosne to the west and the Saône to the east. The des Crêts vineyards are at 250-300 meters (820-980 feet) above sea level, within the “Mâcon-Chardonnay” commune, corresponding to the area between the villages of Lugny and Ozenay in the far north of the Mâconnais. Although the region enjoys a warmer, more generous climate than the Côte d’Or, it shares a similar soil profile, dominated by argilo-calcaire soils. The grape here is, of course, chardonnay — the commune is thought to be both the cradle and the namesake of the variety. “The vineyards became known thanks to [nearby] Cluny, as well as Citeaux, abbeys. The monks allowed for the advance of viticulture but also the visibility of the wines of Burgundy,” François notes.
François and Matthieu had both wanted to be winemakers “since always,” says François. François was educated in Avize, Champagne, and then worked under David Ramey at Chalk Hill in California. In 1996, he returned home and started working at the family domaine, René Lequin-Colin, where the Lequins have been vignerons since 1673. Matthieu grew up in Cornas and graduated as a telecom engineer, but as soon as he had the opportunity to choose his profession in relation to his passion, he opted for winemaking. He’s a self-taught enthusiast who counts himself lucky to have François as mentor and partner.
Vineyards and farming
The estate is comprised of two parcels, l’Échenault de Serre at 2.3 ha and En bout at 1.6 ha. François notes “L’Échenault is lower on the hill, a bit riper, contains younger vines, and reveals more richness, ripeness, and texture. En bout is higher up, at 300 m.a.s.l., with more exposure to wind, less ripe fruit, and comprised of older vines; it tends to show more structure and mineral components – more elegance and complexity.” The soils are clay-limestone. Vine age averages 25 years for En bout, and between 5 and 25 years for l’Échenault. “In 2016, we planted over pinot noir to chardonnay, with a majority of massal selection and a few clones,” François relates. He and Matthieu undertook the conversion to organic farming in 2016. “Respect the environment and the natural cycle of the vine, limit interventions, and highlight the typicality of the soil” is how François defines their approach.
In the cellar
Although François aims to make the wines in Ozenay just as he does his 1er and grand cru wines in the Côte d’Or, he knows there are differences: “Getting ripeness is not difficult, keeping acidity is not easy,” he says of the Mâcon vineyards. “We decide to harvest by taste verified by acidity and pH, not by sugar level. Then, intervene as little as possible in the wines,” a philosophy that extends to work with native yeasts, full malo, and little added SO2. François is adamant that the grapes undergo a long and gentle press cycle, often between three and four hours, with frequent barrel rotations. He is also of the mindset that the juice must oxidize before undergoing fermentation to help combat premature oxidation (premox), the unfortunate and well-known complication that has affected countless wines, particularly white Burgundy, over the last decade or so. With energy and tension as the goals, François and Matthieu ferment in stainless under temperature control, perform battonage once a week throughout elevage, filter, and fine with clay. The wines then spend 11 months aging in oak (10% new). Side by side, En bout and l’Échenault are unmistakably distinct but share the common goal of balancing minerality and richness.
“I want the wines to express by themselves what the vineyards have to say.”
— François Lequin
Beyond anything else, the wines of this historic domaine bear the imprint of the vineyard, with a distinct emphasis on purity and transparency. From enviable 1er and grand cru holdings in Santenay and Chassagne-Montrachet, vigneron François Lequin lets each site speak in the clearest possible voice, preferring to take “a small hand” in the cellar. The farming is certified organic and François is constantly exploring new ways to allow soil and vine to express themselves. There is a bright freshness to the wines’ profiles, from the unfined, unfiltered Retour aux Racines that is a complete departure from basic Bourgogne Blanc to the regal, but never overbearing Bâtard-Montrachet. The pinot noirs are charming and fruit-driven, marked by drinkability and finesse. Altogether, the Lequin-Colin range represents an all-too-rare opportunity to tap into a source of tremendous quality and value in Burgundy.
François’ family have been vignerons in Santenay since 1673. The story from there is an intricate tapestry of Leqins and Colins weaving back and forth over generations and across communes. The upshot is the 11-hectare inheritance François now holds in his hands: a carefully constructed collection of parcels divided between Santenay and Chassagne-Montrachet, with additional holdings in Pommard and Nuits-St.-Georges. Since 2014, François has also been involved in Domaine des Crets [INSERT LINK], where he and a partner bring a Côte d’Or sensibility to 4 hectares of vines in the northern Mâconnais.
Santenay marks the southern tip of the Cote d’Or. It shares a border with Chassagne. Geologically, it overlaps the Cote de Nuits. This makes it a fascinating point of intersection of terroir, tradition, and evolution. Over the past century, Santenay has gone from being a stronghold for pinot noir to a carveout for chardonnay. “It used to be 99% red until the ‘80s,” notes François. “Now I would say it’s 15-20% white, especially in the parcels close to the village itself.” It is best known for its clay-rich limestone soils, with structure and freshness being the hallmarks of the wines. In recent decades, Santenay, lacking a marquee producer, has become somewhat overlooked, making the discovery of the Lequin-Colin wines all the more exciting. The Lequin-Colins are fortunate to have lieux dits, 1er and grand cru holdings in Chassagne, including Morgeot, Vergers, and Caillerets among the former, and precisely 14 rows of vines in the majestic Bâtard-Montrachet in the latter. Further, they have a literal outlier in their holdings on the hill of Corton, Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru, from which the domaine’s grandest wine comes.
François was educated in Avize, Champagne, and then worked under David Ramey at Chalk Hill in California. It was during his studies that François decided he wanted to take the significant step of converting the domaine to organic farming. In 1996, he returned home to begin working alongside his father, eventually taking the helm himself. Year by year, he has gained a keener understanding of the character of each of the family’s parcels. It is this highly individualized character he takes such pains in the vineyards to capture and in the cellar to transmit. His philosophy is “back to the roots: working as my father and grandfather were doing.” He especially values the diversity of his holdings: “Making good wine is not enough. Having them be affordable, too, is very important to me.” Palate, precision, and purity are his guiding principles.
Vineyards and farming
All of the vineyards have been organically farmed since 2009 and Ecocert® certified since 2012. Biodynamic ideas were introduced in 2010 and François continues his exploration of producing terroir-driven wines in an environmentally sustainable way. Chardonnay vines are pruned “Guyot Simple,” and pinot noir pruned “Cordon de Royat.” The grapes for all crus are harvested by hand and pick time is determined by acidity level, not sugar. François believes that Burgundy’s bête noire — premox — which has affected so many producers, was due to several factors, including a lack of rigorous sorting. To combat this, he employs a substantial crew during the season, reaching over 40 employees at harvest. Of this compliment, nearly 30 are in the vineyards sorting and picking the grapes, three are on the winery team, and the rest are on the sorting table and managing the press.
In the cellar
“The day after picking, the juice is in barrel,” François likes to say. For the chardonnay, he uses a pneumatic press, but presses very slowly, between three and a half and four hours per press. He then lets the juice “go-to-brown” to oxidize all the unstable, oxidative components, then lets it settle for a full year before racking. On average, the goal is to have only 10% new oak for the alcoholic and malolactic fermentation for the chardonnay; François favors Chassin and Rousseau French oak. Prior to malolactic, light bâttonage is done and after malolactic, the chardonnay is left on the full lees until just before harvest; the wines are bottled in December. François’ goal is to use as little SO2 as possible while assuring the wine is clean and stable. “Less and less” is the goal. He attains this through protective, reductive practices and by now his total SO2 levels are lower than the Demeter maximum range for biodynamic winemaking. You will not find a botryitisized, overly-rich chardonnay (which is in fashion now) in the Lequin-Colin range; nor will you find an overtly reductive style (also currently in fashion). What you will find is a transparent and evocative expression of chardonnay from the strikingly different climats in the Lequin-Colin stable.
For pinot noir, the process is a bit different. The harvest is handled the same way, in terms of picking being determined by acidity rather than sugar level. When the grapes come in, a determination is made as to how much whole cluster will be included. This is entirely vintage dependent. François is a believer in the beneficial uses of stems for extracting color, giving structure, as an antioxidant. However, he is also cautious about unripe stems adding herbaceous characteristics to the wine.
After the sorting table and the grapes are crushed in vats, François adds a little SO2 to the pinot noir mash to help extract color; the fermentation lasts between two and a half and three weeks, after which the grapes are pressed and racked into French oak barrels from Chassin and Hermitage. Again, only about 10% new oak is used for the red wines and SO2 is added based upon the pH post-malo. The pinot noir is left on the fine lees until spring, when it is racked for the first time. It is racked again in August and once more in the autumn before bottling in February/March.
François’ take on premox from a cellar perspective is that “we forgot to give the wines time.” The arrival of the pneumatic press made it possible to press very gently, but also very quickly. “You have to know how to use it,” he notes, “slower pressing keeps the protective natural yeasts from the vineyard.” François also believes there was too much new oak introduced into the cellars in the 1990s and that the wines were bottled too quickly — “an old winemaker’s saying holds that you only bottle a wine after two winters”— and that corks, which were bleached against TCA but became overly permeable as a result, were also an issue. Needless to say, he has used this experience and awareness to take all appropriate measures to protect his wines for aging with elegance, freshness and grace.
Hubert Soreau is not from Champagne and like many outsiders who have found their way into traditional, European viticultural regions (ref. Tony Bodenstein at Prager, Michi Moosbrugger at Schloss Gobelsburg, Ted Lemon at Dujac), he is making waves. He is part of the single vintage, single parcel, single barrel approach currently utilized by a handful of growers in the region, but he also brings to his work a perspective unencumbered by traditions and conventions. Le Clos l’Abbé is a single parcel outside of Epernay where the Vallée de la Marne and the Côte des Blancs meet. This parcel was originally planted in the 9th Century after the Bishop of Reims ordered it cleared for viticulture. At that time, it was known as Mons Ebbonis and afterward, as Mont de Bon in the 14-17th Centuries when the parcel was predominately planted to red grapes. The Counts of Epernay then purchased the parcel in the 17th Century from the Bishop of Reims, had to build an Abbey on the site in addition to paying remunerations, and it has been used for Champagne production ever since.
Hubert was born in the far north of France, in the town of Maubeuge, on the border of Belgium. His family moved to Champagne, in a house across from Le Clos l’Abbé, where the site essentially served as his back yard. His parents were able to purchase a small parcel in 1993 and Hubert added to that original holding with another purchase in 2003. He never uses pesticides or herbicides and he picks late in the season with an average ripeness of 11° Baumé. Fermentation takes place in both used barriques and neutral 300L Hautvillers oak barrels and is finished with minimal dosage.
“Less is more.
Stay close to your vines.
Never think you know it all.
Nature decides.” — Nathalie Vignier and Sebastian Nickel
A domaine of “hidden treasures”
The Vignier family history in Champagne dates to 1530, the time of Nicolas Vignier of Bars sur Seine. Nicolas was a physician, lawyer, theologian, and court historian for Henry III. His descendant, Nathalie Vignier, is now the tenth generation to pursue viticulture and winemaking in Champagne, and the sixth generation to do so in the grand cru village of Cramant, in the Côte des Blancs.
In the early 20th century, Nathalie’s grandfather, Paul LeBrun, had two hectares, taken over from his father, Henri LeBrun. Paul resolved to become an independent vigneron by separating himself from the big négociants after World War I and was among the first to do so in the Côte des Blancs. He established Champagne Paul LeBrun in the 1930s. Frank Schoonmaker — a long-time collaborator with Alexis Lichene in the wine trade, and together two of the most influential figures in shaping American views on European wine in the last century — was the first to import the wines to the U.S.
Nathalie and her brother, Jean, took over the domaine from their parents 12 years ago, with Jean on the business side and Nathalie in the vineyards and cellar. Nathalie’s husband Hubert Soreau (another Schatzi!) is the winemaker at Le Clos l’Abbé in Epernay. Through him, Nathalie and close family friend Sebastian Nickel (whose grandmother’s family farmed land around Sézanne and held plots that became AOC Champagne in the 1960s) made the connections that enabled them to realize a shared vision and dream — one with roots in Nathalie’s father’s profound understanding of the land. He had always told them there were “hidden treasures” in the 16.5 hectares of chardonnay in Côte des Blancs and Côte de Sézanne that constitute the Vignier LeBrun vineyards.
In 2006, Nathalie and Sebastian began their hunt for those treasures, sampling berries before harvest, tasting wines after fermentation, working through small batches of old wines in the cellar. They realized Nathalie’s father was right. That epiphany compelled them to try making a small range of wines from a narrow selection of plots around Cramant, Chouilly, and Oiry, as well as in the Sézannais — all, Sebastian says, “showing a strong personality.”
“The first fruits for the future of J. Vignier were picked in 2007 and 2008 (a fantastic vintage!),” Sebastian explains. “At that time, we did not know that it would lead us to a totally new approach to winemaking and viticulture. We just picked and fermented some selected vineyards separately to see what it would look like.” Since then, Nathalie and Sebastian have been gradually aligning the domaine to their shared philosophy: farming without herbicides or pesticides, focusing on small production, single parcel wines of higher ripeness and extraordinarily long lees aging (up to 12 years), and a foreseeable return of oak to the cellar.
A shared vision
Nathalie says she realized as a child that she wanted to be a winemaker, but the impetus was not wine itself. “I was impressed to hear people talking a foreign language at my grandparent’s place, so I wanted to work abroad. After my studies, I found a training period in Germany and England. During holidays, I came back to help my parents in the winery and vineyards. Finally, I said to myself: This is what I really want to do! Not paperwork, but growing vines, making wine, and selling what we have made. In 1994, my father asked me to come back.” Nathalie did go to business school and worked for a time as the chief agricultural expert for insurance companies, specializing in hail and frost damage to vines. This put her in touch with a range of growers in both Champagne and Burgundy.
Sebastian brings an outside perspective. He’s German and grew up in the Netherlands and Germany. He studied biology, and, crucially, spent a year at the INRA (the French equivalent of the USDA) in Dijon, where his lab was so close to Gevrey-Chambertin, he fell under its spell. Soon he changed course to study winemaking and enology, then went on to work in vineyards and cellars in the Languedoc, Minervois, and Australia.
Nathalie and Sebastian now collaborate closely on the J. Vignier wines. All decisions about blending, dosage, and vineyard selections are shared. Sebastian says he and Nathalie are guided by a deep respect for both the long tradition and the future potential of the domaine, as well as the work and wines of Mignon, Agrapart, Laherte, Dehours, Jacquesson, among others. “But wines and growers from other regions also inspire us. We all love the northern Rhône, Burgundy, Barolo, Gigondas, Malbec from Cahors, and German riesling, of course!”
Wines of two côtes
Many of the small grower-producers who work within Champagne are in the Côte des Blancs, where the big houses traditionally have owned fewer vineyards. Planted between 1950 and 2010, the Vignier vineyards are deeply rooted in the chalky slopes of the grand cru villages of Cramant, Oiry and Chouilly. Nathalie’s family also own parcels in the warmer Côte de Sézanne, about 50 km to south, where Nathalie’s family has been acquiring plots for several decades.
Côte des Blancs
Cramant and Avize constitute what Peter Liem calls “the historical heart of the Côte de Blancs,” noting that these were the first villages of the area to be classified grand cru. The chalky clay soils of Cramant give a richness and power that past winemakers blended with the comparatively spare wines of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger for balance. But today, as Liem points out, “many of the best producers are seeking even narrower distinctions, making wines from individual parcels to produce even finer distinctions of terroir,” precisely what Nathalie and Sebastian are doing.
Côte de Sézanne
Côte de Sézanne is an historically important region some 20 miles southwest of Bergeres-les-Vertus. The Côte is dominated by chardonnay on chalk and marl, like its more famous neighbor to the north. In fact, the subsoil remains Cretaceous chalk throughout the Sézanne before turning to Kimmeridgian chalk as you move toward the Aube. As Liem points out, the more southerly location and heavier soils giver riper, more powerful and fragrantly fruity wines. Four of Nathalie’s 12 hectares here are in a parcel called “Chatet” near the village of Saudoy, and the soil here specifically is silex, a flint- and sand-based soil mixed with chalk, marl, clay and silica. The visually striking silex stones collect solar heat during the day, reradiating it to the vines at night.
What drew us to Nathalie Vignier in the first place was her range of single parcel Champagnes, which we had to wait two years to get. The names of the wines refer to the terroir, like the “Silexus Sezannensis Brut,” named for the silex of the Côte de Sézanne. Nathalie also has pure chalk parcels in Vindey (notably, near oak forests that the domaine is starting to harvest for barrels). Here the vines are planted selection massale from cuttings in Nathalie’s oldest parcels in Cramant. The 2008 Millésime Brut, made from this parcel, thus “reunifies mother and daughter” vines, as Nathalie sees it.
“A viticulture of reason”
Farming is done without pesticides or herbicides. “We practice a viticulture of reason, where common sense is the unit of measure,” Nathalie explains. “We’re practicing a more natural vine growing. We started to plow a couple of years ago, managing the natural growth of herbs and flowers. The aim is to enhance life and energy in the soils and to make the plants stronger, able to use their natural defenses. We try to find a balance and compromises between our imagination and the vineyard’s character and needs.” Sebastian adds, “We believe in sustainable agriculture and we are learning every day to get better, more respectful towards nature and consumers.”
The systematic search for exceptional parcels to vinify individually is also ongoing. “We continue to search for particular terroir expressions in the vineyard. In 2015, we started to work with two more single vineyard selections (one from Cramant and one from the Sézannais). But it will take a couple of years before those wines will leave the cellar,” notes Sebastian.
In the cellar
All J. Vignier bottlings come from grapes hand picked at optimum maturity, whole-cluster pressed, with separation of first and second press juices, using only the first press. There is cold settling for clarification and slow fermentation at low temperatures with various selected yeasts. All base wines are fermented in stainless steel tank and go through malo, with several months of tank aging. Bottling for the second fermentation occurs in spring. An extraordinary minimum of 48 months (up to 8 or 12 years for some cuvées) bottle aging before disgorgement is a house requirement. Dosage is “Extra Brut” (5 g/L) for all wines. Vintage wines are made only in stellar years.
Sebastian notes, “We’ve been hunting down sparkling wines for years. And we’ve found some really great wines in different places. But they didn’t taste like Champagne. So, there must be something special going on here. There is also something about the bottle ageing. The wines really get deeper and more complex after 36 to 48 months of aging. Not many sparkling wines age that long before leaving the cellar.”
The Vignier family motto is “La bonté de l’esprit et la grandeur de courage,” which means “the goodness in spirit, and the courage to greatness.” At the domaine, greatness comes from a singular focus on unique vineyard sites rendered patiently and with great care and understanding. The outcome of this practice and philosophy are wines of exceptional depth and pleasure, joyously ephemeral yet timeless.
With holdings of old vines in some of the greatest terroirs in the Côte des Blancs, Pascal Doquet has emerged over the last decade as one of the premier vignerons in Champagne. After he took over his family estate, Doquet-Jeanmaire, in 1995 when his father retired, Pascal established his eponymous Domaine in 2004. Today he farms just under 9 hectares of vines including prime parcels in Vertus, Le Mont Aimé and Le Mesnil-sur-Oger—including his illustrious old vines in the parcel “Champ d’Aoulettes.” Natural farming and dedication to vineyard health is the driving force for Pascal; in fact, he rarely discusses fermentation—his passion is in the vineyards. The Domaine has been certified Organic since 2010.
Pascal started with his parents in 1982 and his first vintage was 1995 when he was one of the first members of “lutte raisonnée.” He pushed his environmental concerns with his parents further and stopped all chemical treatments in 2000. Ultimately, the company split in 2004 with his sister taking some parcels and Pascal and Laure taking the rest. One can easily see the difference between the farming influence of Pascal and Laure with a tour of the vineyards compared to the parcels they no longer manage.
Pascal employs extensive cover crops and does his work with a special, ultra-light tractor as to avoid any unnecessary compacting of the soil. Plant-based treatments are employed as Pascal seeks to reduce his use of copper and sulfur as much as possible. He is exceptionally focused on vineyard management in order to express the subtleties of his terroir and to make honest wines. As Pascal often says “It’s the viticulture that makes the difference, not the vinification.”
In this spirit, the harvest is done by hand with strict triage taking place in both the vineyards and the cellar. The grapes are pressed pneumatically and only the best parts of the cuvée are used. The must is fermented with indigenous yeast, most often in enamel-lined tanks, but neutral oak is used in parts of the vintage Coeur de terroir cuvées. The vin-clair is left on the gross lees for a minimum of five months and receives minimum bâtonage. Almost all of the wines undergo malolactic fermentation and all cuvées are aged for a minimum of three years before disgorgement and release.
The wines of Pascal Doquet burst with energy and verve and deliver mineral-laden, multi-layered expressions of his terroirs. These are wines for people looking to experience the scintillating flavors of the Côte-des-Blancs “sans maquillage.”
“Precision requires human intervention at every stage. Between the earth and the vine, the soil preparation, the choice of varieties as well as their training according to the terroir. All those details, once gathered, make up my sense of balance.” — Yann Alexandre
Yann Alexandre is the eighth generation of his family to grow vines in the Petite Montagne de Reims, the third to make Champagne there. He and his wife, Séverine, share a passion for horticulture that directly informs their viticulture. “We grow the vineyard like a garden,” Yann explains. This is a high bar for two farmers working 6.3 hectares spread over 28 plots in nine villages. But is also essential to their philosophy: “I always try to put forward the characteristics of each plot of land and to reach perfect grape maturity and health.” Vitality is achieved through intensive hand work and regenerative practices to which the Alexandres have been dedicated since 1999. Swaths of bright yellow in the family vineyards signal the restorative impact of this approach: the region’s once ubiquitous tulipe de vigne was eradicated by intensive chemical farming; Yann and Séverine have nurtured the soils back to such health, the delicate flower has returned. As throughout the Petite Montagne, pinot meunier is the star, supported by pinot noir and chardonnay, the grapes matched to soils of calcareous clay, white marls, stones, and flint. Yann declares his aim is “as natural a Champagne as possible,” made from vital grapes, with minimal added sulfites, up to seven years lees aging, hand riddling and disgorgement, and “no detail left to chance.”
Courmas and environs
This 180-inhabitant village, 10 km (6 miles) southwest from Reims, takes its place within the Montagne de Reims, a sweep of low plateau, much of it forested, with vines covering its gentle slopes. Courmas belongs to the Petite Montagne, separated from the Grand Montagne by a main north-south road, the name a reference to the rather lower elevation of the vineyards here. The calcareous clay and stony-flinty soils tend to be shallow and well draining. In Courmas, Yann has 14 parcels, predominantly planted to meunier. These are matched by an equal number scattered to the north in Bouilly, in the 1er Cru villages Villedommange, Coulommes de Montagnes, and Vrigny, and in the sandier soils of Chenay and Merfy in the Massif de Saint Thierry and, to the south, in the stony, calcareous earth of Marfaux and, down in the Vitryat, St.-Lumier-en-Champagne. These sites have been selected for their advantageous “late climate,” as Yann calls it, and their soils, both of which serve to retain acidity and freshness in the wines.
Yann and Séverine Alexandre
Yann can trace his ancestry in the region back to 1690. Désiré Alexandre (Yann’s great-grandfather) vinified still wines and sold them to the big Champagne houses. In 1933, Marcel (Yann’s grandfather) and his brother, Gaston, decided to keep the still wines and in 1966, Yann’s father, Yves, started an eponymous label. Yann follows very much in this tradition, albeit with impressive education to back it up. After studying agronomics, viticulture, and oenology in Beaune, Rouffach, and Avize, and training in Rilly la Montagne, Champagne, in Lutry, Switzerland, and in Saint-Avit-de-Soulège, Bordeaux, he returned to his home village of Courmas. While at the Lycée de Beaune, Yann befriended students from Côte Rôtie, Chablis, Sancerre and he took pleasure in exchanging wines with them. In 1999, he returned to Courmas. Meanwhile, in 1995, he had met Séverine, who was then working in a different field. As Yann says, “I have been sharing my passion for wine with her ever since. We had two particularly successful harvests named Augustin and Tom in 2001 and 2002.” Today the family love cooking, eating, drinking wines, and listening to all types of music. “We love Mozart’s Requiem. We like being at home to take care of our garden. We like skiing with our two boys, now 17 and 18 years old. We like spending time with our friends and our parents. We like our job.” Yann has a long-held interest in growing and a love of plants, particularly roses and bonsais, and a passion for red wines “especially Burgundy” though, his wife points out, “he is open to others, when they are good.”
Vineyards and farming
The Alexandre vineyards span 6.3 hectares of parcels with varying soil compositions all carefully matched to their varieties: 55% meunier, 30% chardonnay, 15% pinot noir. The primarily southwest-facing hillside sites encompass yellow tuffe, white marl, calcareous clay, white stone (“pierreux”) with flint. The vines, which are on average 25 years old, are a mix of clonal and massal selections. Yann’s farming is pioneering. His stated goal is “to make as natural a Champagne as possible” achieved through careful plant health strategy, respect for biodiversity, water resource management, cover crops, and plowing. In this way, he says, “the vine deepens its roots and becomes self-sufficient, erosion is stopped and the inputs are held back and made available for the next crop.” The reappearance of the tulipe de vigne, a delicate flower once present everywhere in the region but wiped out by chemical farming, is an encouraging confirmation of Yann’s approach, echoed by a Level Three High-Value Environmental Certification from the French Ministry of Agriculture earned since 2015. “The thorough maintenance of the soil allows for the self-development of the vine, which takes everything it needs,” Yann notes. Vine training, green pruning and shearing of lateral shoots to thin the vine and ensure the ripening of the grapes are all done by hand. Likewise, sequential, selective harvesting of the various plots to ensure perfect grape ripeness.
In the cellar
Each variety and each plot is vinified separately “to ensure the blending is balanced and fresh,” says Yann. Yann selects the most propitious yeasts, adds minimal sulfites (under 50mg/l), relies on temperature-controlled fermentations in stainless steel and oak (“it depends on the plots — for stainless elevage until bottling, seven months, for oak, three months in barrel and then another three to four in stainless until bottling”). Decisions on malo “depend on the wines” though Yann notes he is “doing less” so as to preserve acidity and freshness. Wines remain on the lees in the Alexandres’ cold cellar: five years for the Brut Noir, seven for the Grand Reserve 1er Cru. The wines are a mix of vintage and nonvintage, with the exceptional Sous-les-Roses Blanc de Noirs representing a “late year but great summer giving beautiful matured grapes” from a single parcel in Courmas and the Blanc de Blanc depicting the “early but very well balanced” 2011 vintage. Hand riddling, disgorgement, and three months’ rest post dosage are the rule. “My wines reflect the history of the region and my sense of balance. They also reflect a particular wish at a particular time. No detail is left to chance. I need to be certain that each wine I make will bring pleasure to the one who tastes it and stimulate the desire to share,” Yann summarizes.
The Pouillon family has been growing grapes in the region for over a century, but it wasn’t until 1947 when Fabrice’s grandfather, Roger Pouillon, decided to produce wine from his holdings along with the help of his wife, Bernedette, and his uncle, Louis Baulant, a well-known winemaker and consultant in the region. The estate continued to grow over succeeding decades as grape contracts expired allowing the family terroirs to be reincorporated into the Pouillon estate. James Pouillon, Fabrice’s father, joined the firm in 1964 and modernized the cellar by adding enamel-lined tanks and gyropalletes. Fabrice joined his father in 1998 after finishing degrees in both business and oenology school, and he has taken the winery in an exciting new direction. Working in the grand cru of Aÿ and throughout the Vallée de la Marne and the Montagne de Reims, Fabrice is crafting articulate, expressive, terroir-driven wines that are vibrantly aromatic and intricate on the palate.
Fabrice Pouillon is dedicated to the vitality, energy and health of his vineyards. In 2003, he began the work of conversion to organic viticulture and today he incorporates biodynamic principles into his work including compost management, spraying herbal “teas” and applying 500 and 501 treatments. He currently uses only organic compounds for fertilizer, pheromone confusion to ward off pests, cover crops to restore nutrients in the soil and plows alternating rows to keep vine competition and soil aeration consistent despite varied growing conditions. He is also a member of Lutte Raisonnée.
Fruit is harvested by hand and transferred to an ancient wooden pneumatic press. The juice then falls via gravity into enameled iron fermentation tanks. The wines are aged in a combination of stainless steel and older oak demi-muids and barriques where everything undergoes full malolactic fermention. Reserve wines are aged for up to 18 months in 700 liter, old-oak barrels. There is also a stainless-steel “solera” with wines dating back to the late 90’s. The results are electric, terroir driven wines with high-toned aromatics, fresh acidity, and incredible length. These are wines that are light on their feet yet possess depth and intensity that continually unfold with each sip.
The Pouillon family’s holdings are in Aÿ, Mareuil-sur-Aÿ and Avenay Val d’Or in the Grande Vallée, Epernay and Festigny along the Marne River, and Tauxières-Mutry, just to the north in the Montagne de Reims. The majority of the plantings are to pinot noir (3ha), followed by chardonnay (2ha) and pinot meunier (1ha).
The most exciting recent changes at Champagne Pouillon are the introduction of single parcel cuvées, including the upcoming release of the tête de cuvée, 2008 Chemin du Bois.
“Muscadet is and will remain our iconic wine.” — Cyrille and Sylvain Paquereau
Muscadet. The bracing, salt-stung essence of the North Atlantic in a glass. A classic and still affordable pleasure. But also, in recent decades, a wine of diluted identity. Alexis Lichine, in his masterly Wines of France, saw fit to accord Muscadet a scant paragraph. Fortunately, a new wave of producers in the Pays Nantais is reviving a true understanding of both their variety, melon de bourgogne, and the precise set of soils in which it thrives. Cyrille and Sylvain Paquereau of Domaine de l’Epinay are of this movement. They represent the fifth generation of their family to work a 16th-century estate in the heart of Clisson, now an established Muscadet cru. Conversion to organics and concentration on the precise match of grape to terroir distinguish their tenure. Though we may think of Muscadet as a wine of acid-driven freshness, this is not inherent in melon, but rather a quality only brought out by high pH soils—notably, gabbro and the gravelly granite of this southernmost part of the Sevre et Maine appellation. The range at Domaine de l’Epinay focuses on melon’s terroir transparency, aided by spontaneous fermentations, minimal added sulphites, and up to 36 months lees aging in underground cement tanks. Cyrille and Sylvain’s wines urge us to look at Muscadet in the light of terroir and tradition, underscoring the wine’s capacity both for refreshing directness and more powerful, ageworthy expressions.
In the 16th century, Domaine de l’Epinay belonged to the Espinozas, a wealthy Spanish trading family. After the French Revolution, a local civil conflict known as the Vendée Wars resulted in the burning and destruction of many buildings and archives in and around Nantes, leaving few records. “But, we know that the culture of the vine already existed,” note Cyrille and Sylvain. “It started at the end of the 17th century, thanks to monks from Burgundy. They brought with them their grapes—especially the melon de bourgogne.” The Pays Nantais had, in fact, been a red wine region until the lethal winter of 1709. Replanting was to prolific white varieties; high-yielding melon de bourgogne, in particular, satisfied Dutch traders’ appetites for neutral base wines for their brandies. The grape flourished in the cool, damp climate and granitic soils around these parts while the presence of small, navigable rivers, all connected to the Loire and the Atlantic, facilitated the wine’s transport and trade.
Fast forward to 1900, the year the Paquereau family took over the domaine. For much of the 20th century, they managed it as a typical mixed farm of dairy, cereals, and vines. In the early 1970s, Albert and Odile Paquereau narrowed their focus to wine while expanding their holdings from 5 to 30 hectares. In 2000, Cyrille, their elder son, returned to the estate from a range of apprenticeships and trainings, and in 2006, younger son Sylvain followed, at which point the brothers took over from their parents. In 2011, Cyrille and Sylvain began the conversion to organic farming, starting with the Clisson cru holdings. Today, the domaine stretches to 52 hectares, nearly half of which are devoted to melon.
Domaine de l’Epinay is a scant 40 miles inland from the sea and the quintessential maritime climate is decisive for melon de bourgogne. It is well adapted to the combination of cool, steady sea breezes and just-adequate sun. Critically, the grapes ripen fully by early September, before the arrival of the rain-bearing equinox tides.
Melon is a natural crossing of pinot blanc and gouais blanc, making it kin to both gamay, which shares melon’s famous predilection for granite, and chardonnay. David Schildknecht has pointed out that its “discreet charms easily morph into vapidity and thinness at high yields” and that “like a white tablecloth, it registers even tiny phenolic imperfections.” Therefore, scrupulous farming and strictly controlled yields are essential to coaxing melon into greater expressiveness.
Geologically, the brothers explain, “we are on the Armorican massif, an old, eroded mountain full of geological faults. This mosaic of granite, schist, mica schist, and gabbro [an intrusive igneous rock chemically similar to basalt] can make one think of Burgundian vineyards by its great diversity.” Soils are shallow, sandy, and poor but retain heat well and fracture easily to allow deep root penetration. They also tend to be basic, which elevates acidity in the grapes.
The introduction of a cru communaux (communal cru) system for Muscadet was an important step in defining terroirs and imposing new standards for yields and sur lie elevage. Clisson was among the first three cru to be classified in 2011, in recognition of its exceptional well-drained, granitic soils and the potential wines grown here have to age into power and richness.
“Since we were very young, we participated in the work of the family farm,” say Cyrille and Sylvain. Cyrille studied viticulture and enological technology at the local winemaking school, then added further studies, notably at Pessac Léognan (Château Pape Clement) and on San Juan Island, in Washington. Sylvain pursued degrees in science and agricultural engineering, specializing in viticulture and oenology, at schools in Angers, Toulouse, Montpelliers, and Geisenheim, Germany. To balance this with practical experience, he worked for a wine merchant in the Loire Valley for several years. Today, the domaine consists of Cyrille, Sylvain and his wife, Anne Gaëlle, their children, and a small crew. “We chose an exciting job, always surprising and rich with beautiful encounters. Wine is a link between people who like to chat and discover each other. It is in this spirit that we like to work and that we flourish,” the brothers note. They find surprising satisfaction in meeting the tests of farming in an era of climate change. “It is a reality that we winemakers notice every day. We must adapt and produce our wines in the best possible environment and try to keep the character of our wines. A real challenge for us: exciting and motivating!”
Vineyards and farming
“Muscadet is and will remain our iconic wine,” Cyrille and Sylvain assert. “We are very attached to it. We like to work its different expressions on our soils that have a lot of identity. The crucial point is harvesting at the optimal moment, adapted to varietal and terroir. Since the end of the ‘90s, we have changed many things. Our first year of organic conversion was 2011, with Muscadet. Since then, we have gradually expanded and 2018 was our first vintage grown entirely organically.”
The main idea for Muscadet at the domaine is old vines, low yields, hand harvests. The Sélection bottling comes from 25- to 30-year-old vines grown on sandy-silty soils over gabbro. Cyrille and Sylvain point out that “the cycle of melon de bourgogne on these lands is rather ‘Tardif’ and these parcels are often picked towards the end of the harvest.”
Esprit is grown on plots of similar age on more granitic bedrock, with gravel-silt topsoils. But, the brothers note, melon comes to ripeness much earlier here, so these plots are often picked from the first week of harvest.
Clisson, Epinay’s great vin de garde, hails from 2.5 hectares within the eponymous cru. Soils are gravel and silt over “granite de Clisson” bedrock. It is a warm, early-ripening site with vines planted more than a half-century ago. Harvests are pushed to optimal maturity, typically at least three weeks later than Sélection (“to be at the limit, just before the stage of overmaturity,” the brothers say) and yields are tightly delimited at 40 hl/ha to maximize terroir expression.
There is also a set of traditional method sparkling wines from chardonnay, pinot noir, cab franc and other varieties, all estate fruit, that bring a charming ease.
In the cellar
“Our cellar work is classic,” say Cyrille and Sylvain, meaning temperature-controlled spontaneous fermentations and sur lie aging in buried tanks. Lees aging is, of course, synonymous with Muscadet. Cyrille and Sylvain explain its importance: “Melon de bourgogne is an aromatically discrete variety, which expresses its differences only after aging on lees.” Yeast autolysis, they note, “protects the wine from oxidation and gives it a freshness and a characteristic beading, thanks to a significant presence of carbon dioxide.”
“In our region,” they continue, “the wine is stored underground in concrete tanks, the interior walls covered with glass or grès [a type of ceramic stoneware]. The tanks are a depth of 2 meters, the volume between 30 hl and 120 hl. They are accessed from the top through a hatch, through which we proceed to batonnage. We move the lees, which fall naturally by gravity to the bottom of the tank and are regularly resuspended in the wine, avoiding oxidation of the wines and preserving their aromatic freshness.”
The Sélection wines are bottled in the spring following harvest, preserving their vibrance and the characteristics of the gabbro terroir. Esprit stays on its lees for nine months without any racking.
For Clisson, Cyrille and Sylvain explain, “the juice is put directly in vats for a fermentation of two to three weeks. The wine is then racked and stays on its fine lees for nearly 36 months. It can ripen slowly and enrich itself on its deposit until it is bottled.” It is a powerful wine of character, with an intense and complex nose of acacia and quince, revealing the rich texture and fine balance of a great terroir of Muscadet on a relatively light alcoholic frame.
The traditional method sparkling wines are from base wines blended early in the winter following harvest and can vary slightly each year. The Blanc is typically a blend of 50% chardonnay, 35% folle blanche, and 15% pinot noir. The Rose is a blend of 60% pinot noir, 25% abouriou, and 15% cabernet franc.