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June got off to a brilliant start when, on Saturday 1st, with two friends from the USA, I went to visit Alexandre Chartogne of Champagne Chartogne-Taillet in his family home in the village of Merfy.

There’s a video at the end of this blog post and if you love learning about grower champagnes then you’ll love watching Alexandre explain his wines. It’s a mini masterclass that I could have listened to all day. In fact I was captivated from the moment we arrived.

 

To Find Gems You Need To Look In Different Places

Not for the first time I discovered a fantastic old home hidden discretely behind a huge wooden door giving directly onto the main street. I use the term ‘main street’ loosely because even though the main road through Merfy is called Grand Rue, it’s hardly a motorway; in fact it’s downright sleepy.

RegistredesTaillets127It’s incredible what treasures you can find tucked away in the small villages. That applies equally to the champagnes as to the people and Alexandre Chartogne was no exception to the rule.

Merfy is not the first village that springs to mind when you think of champagne. In fact it’s a bit off the beaten track in an area called Le Massif Saint Thierry just North West of Reims, but its wines have been in demand since as long ago as the 12th century, perhaps because of the village’s south and south-east facing slopes that can soak up the sunshine.

Alexandre wasted no time in showing us into his newly converted den where he proudly brought out a leather bound book called the Registre des Taillets which is rather like a family diary and dates back to the early 1700s. The first entry reads: “I was born in February 1700…”, the words of Fiacre Taillet whose name is used for one of the cuvées produced by the family over 300 years later.

Clearly Alexandre has done a lot of research not only on the family history, but also into the nature of the soil in Merfy. It’s a topic which he is obviously passionate about and it’s crucial to understanding the different champagnes in the Chartogne-Taillet range.

Out came the map of the village and the more detailed plan of the individual plots of vines and that’s when Alexandre took up pencil and paper himself.

Each plot has its own character

Explainingthemap225Alexandre is a young man of 29 years of age who has travelled quite a bit outside Champagne, speaks excellent English and in the space of a few years has started making a name for himself by producing champagnes of real character due in large part to the fact that they almost all come from the vineyards of Merfy. One of the fascinating things about champagne and wine in general is the way in which they are all slightly different and have their own personality, but this doesn’t happen by accident; there’s always a very good reason why a champagne tastes the way it does and in the case of Chartogne-Taillet, the variation in soil is a determinant factor.

Chartogne-Taillet owns 14 hectares of vines the majority of which are in and around Merfy itself, so Chartogne-Taillet champagnes are a real reflection of the soil of the village. If you think this might be a limiting factor for Alexandre as a winemaker, think again. Merfy boasts a bewildering variety of different soils and subsoils to produce a complete spectrum of champagnes from all three main grape varieties plus a few ares of Arbanne, a little-known, little-used variety which is nevertheless, still permitted in Champagne.

SainteAnneLabel225As we were served a glass of Sainte Anne, a blend of 50% Chardonnay and 50% Pinot Noir, Alexandre explained how different soil types produce different champagnes: the red sandy soil with a high iron content that you find in the plot called Chemins de Reims, gives a blanc de blancs champagne with an attractive note of aniseed and a distinctive warmth on the palate.

Ungrafted Vines

The plot called Les Beaux Sens is doubly unusual. The soil is almost entirely sandy and produces Pinot Meunier with a pronounced mineral quality.

Even more intriguing is the fact that these Pinot Meunier plants are extremely rare because they are ungrafted. The Phylloxera mite that devastated most of the European vineyards some 150 years ago is unable to move freely in sandy soil and so a few small pockets of vines remained unaffected by the blight. The majority of the Champagne vineyards were saved by grafting French vines onto American root stocks that were resistant to Phylloxera, but amazingly this little plot at Les Beaux Sens escaped and to this day the Pinot Meunier planted here are ungrafted.

Meanwhile, in Les Alliées there’s a heavier clay soil with higher water retention that reduces the mineral element, but accentuates the fruitiness of the Meunier.

And so on and so forth, plot by plot: a treasure trove of discoveries explained by someone who is an amiable teacher and a great communicator.

Grower Champagnes and Grandes Maisons

RosewithGlass225To my mind this is the beauty and fascination of champagne; not just the pleasure of meeting with and talking to these wonderful people, but the way many of them work with their land to give you, the drinker, a real insight into the countless nuances and subtleties of the Champagne region.

It’s the big difference between grower champagnes and big brands. The big brands cannot match the local knowledge and specialisation of their smaller cousins so they choose to make champagnes that give you a broad brush stroke of the entire Champagne region. It’s a strategy that has stood them and champagne in general in good stead, but I don’t think you can really know champagne unless you have discovered the ins and outs of grower champagnes. It requires a little more effort and patience, but to my mind it is well worth it.

I could go on and on about Chartogne-Taillet for whom the goal is to allow what Nature provides to produce an array of champagnes each of which is unique and expressive of its origins. As Alexandre says “These days what we eat and what we drink is becoming ever more standardised, but we are all different so we need different food and different wines”.

So, What (More) is Special About Champagne Chartogne-Taillet?

Alexandre127No one could call Chartogne-Taillet champagnes standardised:

With the exception of Cuvée Sainte Anne, they are all vintages, that is to say that the grapes come from a single year’s harvest although Alexandre has chosen not to declare them as vintages.

 Chartogne-Taillet uses only natural yeasts and ferments many of their cuvees in concrete, egg-shaped containers that facilitate the movement of the yeast and enhances the depth and complexity of the wine.

They plough 6 hectares of their vines with horses and plan to increase that as soon as time and money allows.

Wild grass is allowed to grow between the rows of vines and Alexandre measures the health of his vineyards by the type of grass that he finds growing there.

Each topic could be a blog pots or video in its own right, which gives me a lot of ideas for the future.

Meanwhile enjoy this video of a tasting of base wine straight out of the fermenting eggs. It’s a little grainy because the light was low, but it wasn’t pre- planned, standardised or manufactured. Come to think of it that’s rather suitable for champagne Chartogne-Taillet.

If you have any comments please feel free to drop me a line at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and don’t forget to check out the other videos and blog posts that you’ll find here on the web site.

Stay Bubbly

Jiles

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