In 1687, Pierre Tarlant began cultivating his first vineyards in Aisne. The family stayed put for almost 100 years before moving to the village of Oeuilly in 1780. At the turn of the 20th century, Louis Tarlant took over as head vigneron. His tenure would prove instrumental to shaping the Tarlant legacy, principally due to his involvement as mayor of Oeuilly in the rarely discussed Champagne Revolution, a tumultous movement that you have probably never heard of. Let us explain.
By the early twentieth century, it had become increasingly common for the big Champagne houses, who even then had a strong-hold on the commercialisation of Champagne, to bring in fruit from all over France and even different countries (the farthest being Portugal!), then vinifying and selling the wine as Champagne. When this became common knowledge amongst growers in the region, many were infuriated that such practices could be happening right under their noses. Through rigorous organisation, many villages managed to block off the points of entry of outside fruit, and well as skillfully organizing themselves to codify the Champagne region. As a result, Louis helped achieve worldwide recognition of the AOC in 1911 and contributed to the establishment of the AOC Champagne region in 1927.
In the aftermath of these events, Louis swore never to sell a single grape to big houses again, making Champagne Tarlant one of the first independent estates the region (less than 10 existed at the time). Fast forward to today, and head vigneron Benoît Tarlant is the 12th generation working the land under his family name. Benoît is the real deal: his great understanding and respect of history, tradition and nature, coupled with his experimental, forward thinking tendencies have been the driving force of some truly next level, terroir-centric Champagnes. With his sister Mélanie joining the family business in 2003, things are more than ever a family affair.
The estate consists of 14 hectares of vines spread far and wide over 55 parcels of Pinot Noir (50%), Chardonnay (30%) and Pinot Meunier (20%). Small amounts of Champagne's "forgotten"grapes" -Pinot Blanc, Arbanne and Petit Meslier- are also planted. In the vines, chemicals are never used and biodiversity is prioritized. Because of the Marne's extremely diverse terroirs, Benoit adapts his viticultural approach parcel by parcel, using the soil, grape and micro-climate to guide him. 12 generations of know-how doesn't hurt either!
The big particularity of the Tarlant Champagnes, a tradition started by Benoît's father Jean-Mary in the late 70's, is that -with the exception of some of their single vineyard wines- the vast majority of the production (80%) is bottled without dosage. While the idea of Brut Nature Champagne has slowly but surely gained momentum since the early 2000's, this was unheard of at the time. Still Jean-Mary stuck to his guns and over time this has defined the Tarlant style. In such, the house's entry level cuvées sport a Zéro labeling to them: the base Zéro is the Tarlant's calling card, and consists of a non vintage, no dosage wine made equal parts Pinot Noir, Meunier and Chardonnay. Zéro Rosé is a majority of Chardonnay with a bit of still Pinot Noir for color.
Single vineyard cuvées -a rarity in Champagne- are also bottled. La Vigne Royale is from a vineyard spot of Pinot Noir originally worked by Benoît and Mélanie's maternal grandfather in Celles-lès-Condés at the confluence of La Dhuys and the Surmelin rivers, historically a terroir favored by the Bourbon kings, hence the name.
La Vigne D'or is Blanc de Meuniers from a parcel of Pinot Meunier in sparnatian clay of the Vallée de la Marne. The vines are 65 years old and planted by Benoît and Mélanie's paternal grandfather, Georges Tarlant.
Cuvée Louis is Benoît's homage to his great, great grandfather mentioned above and the top of the top from Tarlant's single vineyard offerings: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from a single parcel of 65 year old vines (originally planted by Louis himself!) called Les Crayons, vinified and aged in oak.
This visit to Champagne Tarlant took place in January, 2015.
Words by Jules Dressner, photos by Noah Oldham, Patrick Capiello, David Sink and Josefa Concannon.
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!
"Champagne Zero Brut Nature NV":
Soil: Chalk, clay, sand and limestone
Grapes: 1/3 Chardonnay, 1/3 Pinot Meunier, 1/3 Pinot Noir
Vinification: Primary fermentation in temperature controlled stainless steel vats. No malolactic fermentation. Reserve wines fermented and aged in oak barrels.
Soil: Limestone, sand, chalk, clay
Grapes: 85% Chardonnay, 15% still Pinot Noir
Vinification: Primary fermentation in temperature controlled stainless steel vats. No malolactic fermentation. Reserve wines aged in oak barrels. Rosé Champagne made by adding red wine to a base of pure Chardonnay.
Soil: Sourced exclusively from the Les Crayons. A chalky parcel of 65-yrs old vines originally planted by Louis Tarlant, Benoît's great-great grandfather.
Grapes: 50% Chardonnay, 50% Pinot Noir.
Vinification: 100% barrel fermentation with the lees regularly stirred back into the wine; remains in barrel until May. No malolactic fermentation.
From a vineyard of of Pinot Noir originally worked by Benoît and Mélanie’s maternal grandfather in Celles-lès-Condés at the confluence of La Dhuys and the Surmelin rivers, historically a terroir favored by the Bourbon kings, hence the name. Planted in hard limestone. Harvested September 5, 2003, vinified in barrel, bottled on May 5th, 2004, aged sur lattes for 8 to 12 years.
A Blanc de Meuniers from a parcel of Pinot Meunier in sparnatian clay of the Vallée de la Marne. The vines are 65 years old and planted by Benoît and Mélanie’s paternal grandfather, Georges Tarlant. Harvested the morning of August 30th, 2003, bottled on May 5th, 2004 and aged sur lattes for 8 to 11 years.