Tuesday, April 21, 2009
It all started innocuously enough. "Yeah, a bunch of us are having a tasting in Aÿ on the 20th of April," Raphaël Bérèche told me several months ago. "You ought to come." That, repeated to others in France and around the world, was about the full extent of the event's publicity. But not even the tasting's organizers were prepared for the overwhelming public response.
Terres et Vins de Champagne, the brainchild of Bérèche and his friend Aurélien Laherte of Laherte Frères, is a loose collection of Champagne growers, generally young, hip and highly talented, with strong leanings towards natural viticulture. Yesterday, they held the first of what is planned to be an annual spring tasting, featuring both champagnes and vins clairs, or still wines.
Unlike other wine regions, Champagne doesn't have a tradition of public tastings. In most places, there are usually organizations that host tastings, or else groups of producers that band together to create tasting events for the public. Perhaps because Champagne has been so brand-driven, with each house focusing intently on its own internal marketing, the idea of a large tasting involving many different producers has just never caught on. It's only logical that grower champagne would be the catalyst.
The inaugural edition of the Terres et Vins de Champagne tasting featured 17 winegrowers: Pascal Agrapart, Françoise Bedel, Raphaël Bérèche, Francis Boulard (Raymond Boulard), Alexandre Chartogne (Chartogne-Taillet), Vincent Couche, Pascal Doquet, Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy (René Geoffroy), Etienne Goutorbe (Henri Goutorbe), Cyril Jeaunaux (Jeaunaux-Robin), Benoît Lahaye, Aurélien Laherte, David Léclapart, Franck Pascal, Olivier Paulet (Hubert Paulet), Fabrice Pouillon and Benoît Tarlant. Laherte and Bérèche (pictured) had the idea of not only getting together growers of high quality, but also a representation from all different areas of Champagne, in order to highlight the region's diversity of terroir—Chartogne and Boulard in the north, Bedel from the far west, Couche from the Aube's Côte des Bar, Jeaunaux-Robin in the Sézanne, and others from virtually every corner of the central Marne.
Held at Goutorbe's Castel Jeanson hotel in Aÿ, the tasting filled up rapidly, and at some points in the morning it was a little difficult to maneuver. "We didn't publicize it at all," said Bérèche. "It was all word-of-mouth. But there were over 200 people who pre-registered." Even more significant, perhaps, was that it attracted the sorts of people that you'd expect a group of hip, cool winegrowers to attract. The boys from Aux Crieurs de Vin, one of the best wine bars in all of France, strolled in with Cyril Bordarier, proprietor of Le Verre Volé in Paris. Someone told me that the people from Rouge et Blanc were there, and I ran into other journalists from various countries, as well as importers from around the world. The Japanese contingent was especially strong. "I was impressed that we had top Japanese importers and journalists here," said Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy, as we were sitting around drinking, rather than tasting, later that evening. "Of course they made other appointments in Champagne and are doing other things while they're here, but many of them told me that the primary reason they came was for this event. That's impressive. It's not like this is Vinitaly or anything."
Considering the level of quality of the producers involved, it's difficult to pick highlights. It seemed that there was great wine flowing wherever you looked—in one corner, David Léclapart was pouring his magnificently regal 2004 L'Apôtre and L'Artiste, while across the room, Alexandre Chartogne was unveiling various secret single-vineyard champagnes that he's been experimenting with. Pascal Agrapart was disgorging his outstanding 2004 vintage collection à la volée, from Minéral to L'Avizoise to Vénus, even though they won't be released until early next year; Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy brought his 2004 Rosé de Saignée that he made with 40 percent chardonnay (a completely different rosé from the 2004 that you know, made from pure pinot noir), which I'm pretty sure is the first time he's publicly opened that wine. Pascal Doquet gave us a sneak preview of his 2004 Le Mesnil, from a single parcel that he won't divulge the name of—we won't see this wine on the market for many years, as Doquet's current release of Le Mesnil is still the 1996, but it was fascinating to taste, especially alongside his 2004 Vertus. The list continues: Francis Boulard's 2004 Les Rachais, Tarlant's 1998 Cuvée Louis, Benoît Lahaye's 2004 Millésime, Françoise Bedel's 2001 (yes, 2001) Entre Ciel et Terre, Raphaël Bérèche's superb and as yet unreleased L'Instant Rosé, and so on and so forth.
What made the event even more unique was that each grower also brought three different vins clairs. It's always instructive to taste vin clair, especially from those who practice conscientious viticulture, but it's particularly intriguing to be able to taste vins clairs of different producers side by side. In addition, many growers brought vins clairs that corresponded to the champagnes they chose to pour, meaning that you could taste the same cuvée as still wine from 2008 and then as finished champagne. In this regard, there were two that were particularly educational yesterday. The first was Boulard's Petraea: the vin clair was the future XCVII-MMVIII, as it's made from 25 percent of 2008 blended with a perpetual cuvée dating back to 1997, and tasting it alongside the current release of XCVII-MMV brought out the unusual and distinctive oak signature of this wine, which I find to be somewhat less pronounced after going through the second fermentation. The second was Doquet's Mont-Aimé, which is unusual for being grown on silex soils rather than pure chalk—the flinty silex minerality is immediately obvious in the finished champagne (currently from 2002), but I have never tasted such an intensely pronounced silex character in Champagne as is found in Doquet's 2008 Mont-Aimé vin clair.
Next year's event should also be in April, as this is a good time of the year for tasting vins clairs. Laherte promises that the group will have a website in the future, and admits that they learned many things from this first event that will help them make the next one even better. I'm sure that the next tasting will be a little better publicized, although even if it isn't, you'll hear about it either here on my blog or on Francis Boulard's blog (as with this post that he put up this year). It's likely that there will be even more growers involved in future years as well. Overall, it appears that Terres et Vins de Champagne is poised to become one of the most significant champagne events of the year, and it will be a pleasure to see how Laherte and Bérèche develop it in the years to come. For the time being, if you're interested in learning more, you can write Laherte and Bérèche at email@example.com.