In 2003, Olivier Collin recovered the 4.5HA of vineyards that his family had rented out for years. His first purchase was a second-hand high tractor and plows to work the land. His second went to used Burgundy-type barrels, which were at least 4 years old, because he thinks the still wine has to be made in oak.
There was severe frost on April 11th, 2003, the crop was cut in half and all the grapes had to be sold for Olivier to stay solvent.
Along came vintage 2004, which broke all records for high yields in Champagne. Olivier vinified the Chardonnay grapes from a 1.2HA plot called Les Perrières, where the vines are around 30 years old. This is the plot chosen for the Blanc de Blancs, and Olivier hopes to have a crop there every year, so as to follow the potential of this terroir. This plot has a shallow, poor topsoil 10 to 50 cm deep over the rocky subsoil of soft chalk with carbonated silex or onyx. This is a rare geological combination in Champagne. The exposure is south-southeast.
Olivier is pragmatic when it comes to his vineyard work. He doesn’t yet own all the equipment he needs to work the way he would prefer, so he uses a mix of organic and conventional practices: he plows, doesn’t use herbicides or anti-rot products, only powdered sulfur against odium and an organic insecticide against ver de la grappe (a type of tiny caterpillar that eats berries and causes gray rot); mildew is fought with chemical compounds. Organic compost is added to the soil when needed.
Cellar work is straightforward, the alcoholic fermentation takes as long as it needs (6 months in 2004) and is followed by the malolactic fermentation. Tartaric precipitations occur under natural cold conditions, and the wine is not fined or filtered before the secondary fermentation in bottle. There is no or little dosage.
The barrel aging is progressively getting longer: 10 months in 2004, 12 in 2005, 13 in 2006. Also, with the slow building-up of stock, the bottles are going to stay on slats for a longer period before disgorgement, and 30% of the 2006 crop has been set aside as a reserve for blending with 2007.
Olivier made a second wine in 2006, a Blanc de Noirs from a plot called Les Maillons near the town of Sézanne. The soil there is very different, but has been worked like Les Perrières since 2003. The Pinot noir was 12.2 degrees at harvest and the wine was not chaptalized.
In 2005, Olivier got back an additional 4.2HA of vines, 3HA of which belong to his grandparents, and the whole winemaking facility and aging cellar. The estate is now a total of 8.7HA.
This interview with Olivier Collin stems from an email exchange in October 2010. He chose to capitalize Terroir in his emails, so they've been left as is.
How did you get into wine?
The Collin family has been working the vineyards of Congy since 1812.
As for myself, my passion for wine began as an amateur and a drinker, a path which ultimately led me to seek out "alternative" and original wines. My lineage and passion made it a natural transition into a career.
What was happening with the estate before you took over?
My father rented his vines to a négociant until 2003. I began studying law in 1995 in hopes of legally re-obtaining the family estate when the time was right.
Between 2001 and 2003, I discreetly began an apprentissage at Selosse while also studying law in Nancy as well as viticulture in Bordeaux. At the time I wasn't sure if I'd ever be a vigneron; you don't regain a 8,7 hectare estate from a négociant that easily…
The man spoke of and intellectualized a type of viticulture which just didn't exist in Champagne: biodynamic. At my own pace, I began understanding his work methods. Over time I came to realize that working in this fashion confirmed what I already believed to be "wines of Terroir".
By November 2002 we began trying to regain our estate from the négociant which was shutting down on March 22nd, 2003. The heavy frost of April 11th made it impossible for me to keep the few grapes of this first vintage, thus 2004 was my first vintage as a vigneron.
What is your work process like in vines? What do you think of your terroirs?
When we took over from the négoce, the land wasn't in great shape; my initial impulse was to re-plow with my first major investment: a tractor. For me, plowing is an evident necessity for making wines of Terroir.
Fundamentally, I distinguish between the protection of the vegetal leaf from illness and the vitalization of the roots and the rhizosphere by working the soil. Even though this forces us to stay vigilant in regards to what products we use, for me the way a wine tastes stems from the clay and mineral composition of the soil, more precisely from the "interface" of the roots and the healthy circulation of the plant's sap. This is why I feel so strongly about keeping a steady and dynamic stimulation of microbiological activity in the soil.
For me, protection of the foliage is an afterthought; it doesn't really affect the quality of the soil’s minerals [mineral salts] that the plant feeds on. To do so is a pragmatic approach in winemaking in which you place more importance in the gustative "quality" of your wine than the sanitary "quality" of your grapes.
Why don't I use copper (in its sulfite or hydroxide form) against mildew and use more conventional products? To protect from fungi with copper is aleatory and risky in our region. Copper is a sterilizer that soaks through the leaf, which eventually falls to the ground, which absorbs it: I've noticed this cycle tends to decrease microbiological activity. Therefore one would need to use very small quantities of copper to limit its effect on the soil. Because of the propensity of mildew in Champagne, this remains extremely difficult in our region and I have the utmost respect for those that succeed in doing so.
We never use the tractor after the harvest because the grass that has grown during the summer helps detoxify the soil.
After reflecting on my parcels I began shaping the 3 cuvées I make today. 3 cuvées made in the same spirit but with strong individual personalities. There is still a lot of work to do but the lasting impression I've had since 2003 seems to be pushing the Terroirs in the right direction. Everything can be perfected.
What about the vinification process?
My vinification process is an attempt to reveal the true personalities of each parcel in function of its history. I do my best to respect the identity of each parcel with a minimum of intervention. The barrels, the fermentation, the absence of filtration and a low dosage lead me to believe that we are coherent in a calculated aesthetic that corresponds to the style of the estate.
How do you feel about Champagne as a region?
It's an industrialized region which could benefit greatly from real artisanal work. There are good wines in Champagne, made with the heart and soul of those who make them. I respect these wines and consider myself in this category.
What are kind of wines are you trying to make?
I create nothing. I accompany the forces of nature.
We don't make "name" wines but rather wines of Terroir, wines where the vigneron does not impose his personal preferences; instead we try to accentuate the personality of the parcels. I truly respect the spirit of Terroir: the internal structure of these wines lies in the individuality of my parcels.
What about tradition?
Tradition (traditio in Latin), is a passage on from hand to hand of "savoir faire". I do not work like my father or my grandfather. Maybe my great grandfather worked this way: horses, manual plowing, specific barrels, indigenous yeasts and no modern oenology. In the end we never created anything, we just found a way to work. Through wine, we search for our roots...
What wines do you like to drink besides your own?
Chablis for white.
Vosne-Romanée and Volnay for reds.
This visit at Ulysse Collin took place in July 2013.
Words by Jules Dressner, photos by Maya Pedersen and Jules Dressner.
Olivier and Sandra Collin have a beautiful yard.
After some chatty retrouvailles, Olivier asked us if we were pressed on time. We weren't, so he proposed taking us to the somewhat far-away parcel Les Maillons, a site none of us had ever visited. It sounded like a great idea, so we got into our cars and took the half an hour drive to get there.
In true journalistic fashion, I spent the whole drive asking questions and furiously jotting down answers, an un-obvious feat on bumpy country roads where familiar drivers tend to put the pedal to the metal.
While the most talented of you might be able to decipher that, I'll retype it just in case.
As we'd soon find out, hail was at the tip of everyone's tongue this year. Including Olivier's:
"It's scary, and the problem is that insurance only covers grapes, not wine!"
This was right after the Vouvray hailstorm (but before the recent 5 000 hectare disaster in the Southwest), and perhaps the most terrifying thing that can happen to a vigneron. No chance to fight back, just total losses. Our own François Pinon lost 5 hectares, which he talks about in this French news piece that aired shortly after the storm.
The prospect of a small crop in 2013 is especially daunting for vignerons in Northern France, a majority of whom suffered from hail, frost, mildew or all three, resulting in microscopic yields in 2012. Fortunately, Olivier didn't suffer from heavy losses, and even found some positive in the situation.
"The one positive thing about 2012: low yields. The grapes were damaged, but the ones left had incredible concentration. Their optimal ripeness produced great wines."
We also discussed Olivier's long term experimentation with biodynamics. After five years, he is not convinced:
"I try to do what I understand. The one thing where I can biologically see the results of my labor is working the soils. The fermentations in the ground mineralize the rock, which assimilate into the plant."
It's for this very reason he refuses to work with herbicides.
"But you need to work on the soils at the right time. If you're consistently plowing, you will bring too much harmful nitrogen, which will dilute the wines."
After all that driving and chatting, we finally made it to Les Maillons!
Les Maillons is a lieu-dit totaling 6 h, all in Pinot Noir. Olivier owns 2,5 of these, which produces the cuvée of the same name.
Everything is planted in massale. The soils here are heavy clay (much darker than in Congy) with limestone chalk subsoils.
The vines are 41 years old and exposed east. This produces great acidities from the sun. As I mentioned earlier, it's about a 30 minute drive from Congy, but more impressively it takes Olivier 2 hours EACH WAY to get there on the tractor!
There are very few independent growers in Olivier's region, and almost everybody sells to the négoce. Since people only sell grapes and care about weight, no one works the soils except him.
"You get paid by the amounts of grapes you sell, not your viticultural merit."
We then drove back to Congy to taste! As of the 2008 vintage, Olivier has started bottling the wines with parcel names. Les Pierrières is all Chardonnay from 3 separate parcels, all vinified separately. With only 1.7 g dosage, it's 90% 2009, 10% 2008.
"When you bottle reserve wines from the same parcel with each other, you get very interesting complexities."
Les Maillons is all Pinot Noir from 2009, and one of the most unique Champagnes I've ever tasted. I don't even know how to describe it, but it was a truly inspiring bottle.
Olivier always sulfurs 50mg right after press, then lets the rest of the vinification occur without any intervention.
"I'd rather do that than put 20 mg and feel obliged to play catch up."
Les Roises is all Chardonnay, also 90% 2009 and 10% 2008. It also has the very low dosage of 1.7 g,
"The 1.7 g of sugar seems like nothing, but it completely balances the wine, lets it fully express itself."
It's true! All the 10's we tried felt a lot stricter and less alive without their dosage.
"Blanc de Blanc Extra Brut":
Soil: Chalk and clay top soil (50cm), soft clay and carbonated flint subsoil (rare in Champagne)
Vinification: fermented 6 to 8 months in small oak casks. Aged 13 months, with no fining or filtering. Then aged on lees (sur lattes) for 24 to 36 months.