Someway somehow, I'd never visited Alain and Fernand Girard. I'm not really sure why; we've been working with them so long that they definitely fall into the "We are going to drag 5 year old Jules and 3 year old Alyce all around France and bore them to death by visiting vignerons for two weeks straight." era of Louis/Dressner Selections. You see, there was a time when Joe and Denyse would spend their entire summers in France visiting growers. And because we were too young to stay at the house by ourselves, that meant we were obligatorily included in these insanely boring road trips. Plus French TV in the summer only played reruns of MacGyver and Knight Rider (aka K-2000)!
So yeah, I wasn't the biggest fan of summer vacation growing up...
But I'm not here to bore you with the past. I'm here to write about WINE STUFF.
Before heading to the vines, Alain Girard gave us a quick introduction to the estate. He took over from his father Fernand about 20 years ago, and is the fifth generation working his land. Here's a great picture from that era:
14 hectares of vines are spread over five communes with three distinct terroirs: gravely soils, flint and heavy clay.
We began the visit checking out the flint soils of Saint-Satur:
This next picture isn't really necessary, but I like how it highlights my R698 EVO's:
Louis/Dressner Selections: We Wear Nice Sneakers™
Alain explained that these soils have much later maturities than the others, bringing roundness and tension to the final blend.
Next up, the caillottes, or gravely soils:
The caillottes were formed millions of years ago when the land the vines grow on was an ocean. This terroir brings fruit to the blend.
Last but not least, we visited the beautiful coteaux of Verdigny to check the grosses terres, or heavy clay:
Back in the nineties, the village of Verdigny decided to completely redo this hillside in order to make larger, more regular plots with better drainage. This was done to avoid flooding of the town on the bottom of the hillside (which you can spot in the pics). Prior to this change, many owners had micro-parcels all over the hillsides like in Burgundy. But in order to make this restructuring work, vignerons had to exchange parcels so that their land was more coherent.
After a lovely tour of the vineyards, we got to check out the cellar. As it is so happened, a shipment was on its way to our NY/NJ/PA distributor David Bowler wines!
We began by tasting from many pre-blended 2014 tanks. Alain co-vinifies parcels with similar characteristics in stainless steel vats:
That's right: Alain owns a parcel called "piss pot".
2014 was a tough year due to a very rainy summer. Fortunately, an Indian summer in the fall saved the crop, and the wines have proven very satisfactory.
While tasting these distinct, unblended terroirs, I asked Alain's father Fernand if he'd ever considered making single vineyard or terroir driven cuvées.
- Why not?
- The blend is nice.
-But you never felt some parcels could make a great single vineyard wine?
- I like the blend.
- Have you ever been to the US?
- Have you ever wanted to visit?
Fernand Girard: a man of conviction. A man of few words.
We also got to do a fun flight of Sancerre from the last decade:
As well as this special treat:
Before leaving, we had to pet Alain's girlfriend's dog Gypsy.
After a warm greeting from Mélanie and Benoît, we took a quick walk to Pierre de Bellevue, a nearby parcel characterized by the thinnest soils in the Marne valley.
From there, Benoît started breaking it down for us.
All in all, the Tarlants work 57 single parcels. Most are in Oeuilly but the vines are spread over four villages: Oeuilly, Celles-lès-Condé, Boursault and Saint-Agnan. Sparnacian soils (clay and limestone) are located on the higher portion of the hillsides, with more chalk on the bottom.
In Oeuilly, most of the vines are exposed east/northeast:
Being so close to the Marne river helps in dampening the effect of sunlight, allowing the grapes to mature very slowly. This is great for both concentration and acidity.
The other main village for the Tarlant's vines in called Celles-lès-Condé. Mostly Pinot noir is planted there, and the slopes are very steep and south facing. The total surface of the vineyards makes up 50% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay, 15% Pinot Meunier and 5% of Champagne's "forgotten" grapes: Pinot Blanc, Arbanne and Petit Meslier. The vines average at 35 years old, with the oldest around 70-ish.
Everyone was really cold, so we walked back to the Tarlant cellar to taste.
Maybe it was the jetlag, but the lighting was super trippy. Also, who knows where this leads?
Our friend Gaboush bravely went down there to explore and never came back, so we'll never know. Anyway, let's get back to being serious. While in the cellar, Benoît was quick to point out that:
"The simpler winemaking can be, the better it is."
Yet immediately after telling us this, we were explained that of the 57 vineyards, everything is harvested and vinified separately! All in all, there will be around 80 individual wines for Benoît to work with and blend EACH VINTAGE! That doesn't sound all that simple!
Fermentation is done 2/3 in barrel and 1/3 tank, always from indigenous yeast. Usually, young vines are fermented in tank. Very little is done to the wine, save a few batonnâges towards the end of fermentation for the yeasts to finish off the last grams of RS. Malolactic fermentation is rare and not what Benoît is looking for.
To ensure this, only new barrels are brought into the winery. About 3 to 5% on barrels are renewed every year, and Benoît prefers purchasing these in more powerful vintages so that the wood marks the wine less. Only the best juices are used for brand new barrels.
Tasting of the vins clairs begins in January. Benoît's first focus is always on making the best Brut Nature, then the rosé, then the single vineyard wines. Each year, one third of the harvest is kept as reserve wine.
Guess what else Benoît has been tinkering with?
Yup, amphoras. The big one has Chardonnay, the small one has Pinot Noir.
And though it isn't necessarily shocking for us to see tinajas/amphoras getting play in cellars these days (here is a list of people who use them), it still came as a surprise seeing these in the Tarlant cellar.
"I'm was very lucky that my family has always encouraged me to experiment with different ways of doing things."
Benoît is waiting to see if it brings anything extra to the wine, or if the secondary fermentation covers up anything that differs from the other barrel fermented wines. Regardless of the results, it's experiments like these that show how truly dedicated Benoît is to pushing things forward. He is truly next level in the cellar, and the work ethic is both impressive and inspiring.
From the cellar, we headed back up to the tasting room. But before we were allowed to taste any bottled Champagne, Mélanie had us all sign our names on two magnums of Cuvée Louis.
"We'll drink these next time you all come visit!"
From there, it was an all-out taste-a-thon of current and soon to be releases:
EXCLUSIVE: Get ready for this 2003 vintage wine, La Matinale.
Plus we got to eat a really healthy, hearty meal from Mme Tarlant senior!
[I must give an infinite amount of thanks to Phillip Ehrlich for kindly providing his notes to me for this next batch of recaps. They would not be possible without him!]
Sorry for the lack of updates. The whole team was super slammed with the 2015 REAL WINE ATTACK tour, where 20 of the finest vignerons in the game SMASHED through Los Angeles, San Francisco, Reno, New Orleans and NYC in 8 days. As with last year, I believe the trip can summed up with one very telling picture:
Olivier Collin is a meticulous man in the cellar. Everything starts with this incredible manual press:
Yes, that is in fact a divine light shining on to me.
This is one of the first presses in the village of Congy. It was built in the 1950's, and the whole village used to use it. During harvest, it is hand operated by 4 people for 12 days, 18 hours a day.
"It's a lot more work, but for me it is fundamental: you extract more matter, tannins, anti-oxidants and it permits the wines to age longer. It may be hard to taste when the wine is young, but they become sublime later on."
Using a manual press forces Olivier to harvest at a higher maturity than if he used a pneumatic one, because otherwise the wine would take on bitter characteristics. The Chardonnay is pressed separately from the Pinot Noir, and all in all 4000 kg of grapes produce about 2050 liters of jus de presse (first juice) and 500l of jus de taille (2nd juice). Notice the numbers on each of these underground tanks?
Olivier meticulously keeps first and second juices from each pressing separately: the first press goes into the cuves 2-5, and he manually deviates the jus de tailles into cuve 1.
After press, Olivier pumps the juices into the débourbage vats pictured below.
The juices are left overnight and sometimes a bit longer to let the juice settle. Olivier likes the juice to be very clear and free of bourbes ("gross lees") because you never know what can be in there.
According to Olivier, many independent growers in Champagne choose to discard their jus de taille and sell them to négociants. This is why many "Champagnes de taille" are usually what ends up in supermarkets. In the case of the Ulysse Collin wines, Olivier feels that the jus de presse gives the wine its backbone and structure -permitting it to age longer- and the jus de taille makes the wine a little stronger, richer and adds gourmandise. Because the second juices are more murky and fragile, Olivier keeps them separated from the first juice at least 1 year before blending.
The entirety of the Ulysse Collin production is fermented and aged in barrel.
Olivier is not a fan of new oak, but new barrels are out of necessity syphoned in every year to replace the old ones. Another major development in the cellar is Olivier's recent investment in foudres, which have been used since the 2011 vintage.
If you're not familiar with the Ulysse Collin wines, sites are not blended and each cuvée is parcel specific. Today, Olivier produces four wines from four sites: Les Maillons, Les Pierrières, Les Roises and Les Enfers. And while vintage and reserve wine is important to the final product, this is not what Oliver is seeking to accomplish with his Champagnes.
"When you work this way (vinifying specific parcels), the goal is not to express the vintage or the percentage of reserve wine. I want you to taste the parcel, to taste its DNA."
Nothing is set in stone, but about 20 to 40% of each year's juices go into his reserve wines.
NON-SEQUITUR FACTOID: The limestone suboils in Congy feature the same type of rare black flint you spot at François Pinon's in Vouvray!
From the cellar, Oliver manually disgorged some 2014's for us to taste.
Before tasting, we took a quick stroll to go visit Les Roises and Les Enfers.
Les Roises and Les Enfers are neighboring parcels, with the former exposed full South and the latter exposed East. The soils for both parcels are clay topsoils and limestone subsoils, though les Roises has a almost twice as much clay.
Walking through Les Enfers, Olivier grabbed this plant from the soil:
It is called Le Mouron des Oiseaux, which might just be the frenchest thing I've ever heard.
"When you see this plant, you know your soils are doing well. It's a bio-indicator that proves there is healthy microbiology in the soil."
As we've discussed before, Olivier isn't 100% convinced with organic viticulture, at least not in Champagne. He tried working les Roises organically in 2012 and lost 80% of his crop.
"I admit 2012 was the wrong year to launch myself into working organically. But I really believe that is is extremely difficult working 100% organically in Champagne's conditions. As an aside, one thing I notice about organic Champagne is they tend to taste more bitter to me. I believe this is because the use of copper increases the thickness of the skins, and I feel it is evident in the wine. I still believe that the most important thing anyone can do in the vineyard is work the soils."
For protection, Olivier mostly sprays the vines with silica. However, if he sees a sickness taking place, he will intervene with Pecadeux, a non-systemic product that is legally allowed in German organics but not in France.
"I don't believe in treating my vineyards with with systemic products. But I also don't believe in letting my vines suffer greatly from illness. I treat them like I would treat myself: if I'm really not feeling well, I will take antibiotics to get better."
Of course, we then tasted the 2014's, which were obviously very young but already showing great promise. We were also treated to the one-time-only Le Magnum, a relic from 2006 vintage.
CHECK THE AGNANUM PROFILE OVER HERE!
There's an old Italian expression that goes: "Vedi Napoli e poi muori", or "See Naples and Die". I can't really explain why, but any city where traffic is this fucking insane at any random street corner will always have a special place in my heart.
It's worth watching until the end. So many close calls... So few helmets...
Best. Outfit. Ever.
But Napoli isn't just panic-inducing traffic, insane all-night street parties, incredible architecture, delicious pizza and fashionable children. If you head to the Western edge of the city, you find yourself in Campi Flegrei, a unique area on the edge of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Geologically, Campi Flegrei is marked by many large volcanic craters. Combine this with the sea's constant winds and you have a fascinating terroir.
While still within the city limits, much of the area feels desolate and forgotten. However, if you follow the twisty, unkempt roads to the crater of Agnano, there is plenty of beauty to experience at Raffaele Moccia's 4 hectare estate, Agnanum.
All of Raffaele's vines are located on a single, steep hillside overlooking the mainland in all its postindustrial glory.
Here is Agnano's lovely hippodrome:
Fortunately, once you turn away from the urban panoramic, you are treated to an absolutely stunning vineyard site.
The soils here are sand and volcanic ash, with the vines planted on terraces that make mechanization impossible. Terraces have been the traditional way of planting in this area for centuries, but in an all too familiar tale, most growers are abandoning them because it's too much work. Speaking of too much work, Rafaelle has to be very careful with his soils.
"If you don't till, the rain goes right through (the soil) and messes everything up."
To avoid this, he lets grass grow wild to absorb water that would otherwise overfeed the vines. The grass also helps create a layer of moisture that helps cool down the vines.
"I didn't come up with this system. It is very old!"
Rafaelle's land is considered a historical vineyard: the youngest vines are 60 years old and the oldest are "at least" 200. Because his soils are so sandy, everything is planted in franc de pied.
"We're drinking the wines the Romans were drinking. Well, with the help of a more modern cellar!"
2.8 hectares of the native Falanghina are planted for white and 1.2 hectares of Piedirosso for red. The vines are some of the most strangely shaped I've ever witnessed.
Rafaelle described the training system as pergola, yet it doesn't resemble what one usually associates with the term.
At one point, a distinct whiff of sulfur overtook the group. That's because there are nearby sulfur eruptions all the time.
See that smoke in the middle? Sulfur cloud.
As we continued our walk through the vines, Rafaelle explained that there are 4 layers to his soil: sandy volcanic, humus, fine sand from basalt and finally basalt subsoils. It is very compact, and in such the roots of the vines feed from all 4 layers.
"Though the younger vines only reach the first 3."
By "younger", I'm pretty sure he meant the 60 year old vines.
Another particularity of these soils is that they auto-restrict yields, which was surprising since the vines are so huge.
Look, it's an old lady working her land alone in the horizon!
I spotted hoses in the vines, and asked Rafaelle about them.
"These are not for irrigation, but rather to have water handy when doing treatments. It's much easier to start from the top of the vines and having pitstops on the way down than having to go all the way back down each time."
At the very top of the hill, some young vines have been planted in massale and franc de pied. They are 15. To help them grow and develop, Rafaelle has planted fava beans in the rows and fertilizes the land with rabbit shit.
I found rabbit shit to be an oddly specific animal for this task, but it turns out that Rafaelle has a side-buisness of raising rabbits, so that makes sense. Speaking of which:
Our tasting/lunch took place in this medieval dungeon type space that was a stark contrast to the beautiful vines.
Rafaelle's son, who is currently in culinary school, made us a banging lunch from this amazing wood fire oven.
Of course, we had to eat some rabbit!
We also tasted some wine. In the cellar, slow native yeast fermentations take place in stainless steel tanks. Malolactic has never occurred since Rafaelle took over the winemaking.
For the white wine, 10mg of sulfur is added at the beginning of fermentation and nothing after. A light filtration also takes place. The red is unfiltered and un-fined.
Rafaelle's great, great grandfather used to sell the wine in vrac to to restaurants in Naples. He would load barrels up in a horse wagon and bring them to town.
"The wine became so popular that my father had to start a lottery system. The wine would go to the winners."
Rafaelle is the first generation to bottle the wine with the 2002 vintage. 4 wines are produced: a Campi Flegrei Bianco that is 100% Falanghina, a IGT white that's 50% Falanghina and 50% grapes I've never heard of. He also makes two reds from Piedirosso: Per e Palumm and Vigne del Volpe, a selection from the oldest vines. They are all delicious.
After leaving, we got a little lost on the way to our next appointment and, after pulling over, met a really ugly dog with a heart of gold.
Due to his underbite, we nicknamed him Teeth. I wanted to keep him forever.