Jiles's Blog

Who Am I?

17 years spent living and working in Champagne has allowed Jiles to build up a vast amount of knowledge about all things bubbly as well as a very extensive network of contacts, especially amongst the smaller and less well-known champagne makers whose champagnes will probably amaze you with their quality and diversity.

A job as area manager for Asia and Australia with Moët et Chandon was what first drew Jiles to Champagne after completing an MBA in Luxury Brand Management at ESSEC, a prestigious business school just outside Paris.

After nearly 9 years at Moët Jiles moved back to the UK where he started one of the first online businesses promoting and selling grower champagnes, wrote two books on champagne and created an online champagne study course.

However the draw of ‘The King of Wines and the Wine of Kings’ once again proved irresistible and another 8 year stay in Champagne was the result.

Jiles now puts his knowledge and contacts to work in helping businesses and individuals to create their own private champagne brand.


 

Terroir Tracker - Villers-Marmery

VILLERS-MARMERY

Entrance-to-Villers-Marmery300Driving south west from Reims along La Montagne de Reims you’ll pass through a cluster of Grand Cru villages recognised for the quality of their Pinot Noir, including three right next door to one another: Mailly-Champagne, Verzenay and Verzy. You’re in the heart of Pinot Noir territory and you might be forgiven for thinking that La Montagne de Reims is all about Pinot Noir and nothing else, but drive just 2 kilometres beyond Verzy and you’ll discover something quite different.

The village of Villers-Marmery: a sea of white grapes in an ocean of Pinot Noir.


Villers-Marmery is one of just four villages just at the tip of La Montagne de Reims, where it starts to curl westwards, that together form a small enclave where Chardonnay rules the roost. The other three villages are Trépail, Billy-Le-Grand and Vaudemanges.

 

Villers-Marmery Facts and Figures

246 hectares

242 hectares Chardonnay

4 hectares Pinot Noir

Cemetary300The first thing to notice as you enter the village is the WWI cemetery. Villers Marmery was just a kilometre or so from the front line during the war and the immaculately tended cemetery is a stark reminder of destructive visited upon this part of France.

If you leave your car and stroll into the vineyards you may notice that the soil in Villers-Marmery is more predominantly chalky than in the rest of La Montagne de Reims, so much so that in many places the chalk is right at the surface – you can pick chunks up from the ground and use it immediately to write with.

This is one of the reasons why this little area is so well-suited to Chardonnay and hence to making of elegant Blanc de Blancs champagnes which differ from the more full-bodied, powerful Pinot Noir driven champagnes you find in many other parts of La Montagne de Reims.

The second reason why Chardonnay is favoured in these four villages may be to do with the fact that that they are located right at the end of La Montagne de Reims at the point where the hillside curves round in a big arc towards the south and west. All four villages have exactly the same south-east exposure to the sun as La Côte des Blancs, further south, which is considered to be the home of the finest Chardonnay and Blanc de Blancs champagne

Take a look at the map below and you’ll see what we mean.

Villers-Marmery-Exposure300The four villages of Villers-Marmery, Billy-Le-Grand, Trépail) and Vaudemange that make up this little enclave are circled in red.

The dotted red line shows the exposure of the vineyards and you can see that it’s exactly the same as La Côte des Blancs further down.

Up until the end of the Second World War the vineyards in and around Villers Marmery were planted with Pinot Noir just like the rest of La Montagne, but the results were less than spectacular. The villages were not considered good enough to warrant even Premier Cru status. However in the years after the war subsidies were being offered to encourage more Chardonnay to be planted and the change to Chardonnay was made. Whether this was for purely financial reasons, or whether it was a more reasoned decision based on the exposure of the vineyards, we cannot be sure. Be that as it may, in 1985 all 4 villages were elevated to Premier Cru status and classified as 95 % on the Echelle des Crus (now officially abandoned but still often referred to).

So what can you expect from the champagnes from Villers-Marmery and the other three villages?

Well, the best Blanc de Blancs champagnes from here are in no way inferior to those from La Côte des Bancs, they are just different. They have a similar light, bright, delicate style but whereas some people find that the steely intensity, the minerality and the pronounced freshness of some Chardonnay from La Cote des Blancs is too much for their taste, wines from Villers Marmery can be slightly fuller, softer and a little more fruity.

Villers-Marmery-from-above300In fact the locals have even invented a word to describe their Chardonnay grapes. Pinoter which means to behave like Pinot Noir. I don’t think you’ll find this word in the official French dictionary, but when you hear the locals in Villers Mamery say that their Chardonnay grapes pinotent you’ll know what they mean.

Some of the producers already recognised for their quality are

A. Margaine and Henriet-Bazin both in Villers Marmey itself and David Léclapart a biodynamic producerin Trépail.

However in one way at least Villers Marmery is just like almost all Champagne villages you come across, you‘ll be amazed at just how many small champagne producers there are to discover and perhaps you’ll find your own personal favourites to add to this list.

Terroir Tracker - Verzenay

TERROIR TRACKER

A series of article to help you get to know the Champagne terroirs.

Champagnes de Terroirs from one village (cru), or from just a few neighbouring villages, are becoming more and more popular these days so it pays to increase your knowledge of the these little communities and their vineyards.

In this series of short articles we’ll bring you a brief introduction to some well-known villages - plus some you should get to know - and we’ll give you an insight into each one

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VERZENAY

 Facts & Figures

Grande Montagne de Reims

198 growers

418 hectares

358 hectares (83%) Pinot Noir

57 hectares (15%) Chardonnay

2 hectares (1%) Meunier

Nickname for local residents : Bouquins / Bouquinnes

Moulin-in-early-morning-mist300Verzenay has long been recognised as one of the foremost terroirs in all of Champagne, indeed it was one of the original 3 villages rated as Grand Cru, the other two being Cramant and Aÿ, and it has been Grand Cru ever since.

All the major champagne houses source some of their grapes from Verzenay and almost all have a permanent presence in the village in the form of a ‘vendangeoir’, yet at first sight the high regard in which the wines of Verzenay are held seems completely illogical because the vineyards in Verzenay face north or north-east whereas standard viticultural theory tells us that vines, especially vines to produce red grapes, should be planted on south or south-east facing slopes.

So how is it that grapes from Verzenay are rated so highly?

One of the features that have led to Champagne’s position as the leading sparkling wine region of the world is the fact that its northerly situation produces grapes with a relatively high level of acidity that lends freshness and character to the wines. If this is true for Champagne in general it is even more true for Verzenay.

Harvesting-above-Verzenay300On the north facing slopes the grapes are fairly slow to ripen - the village is often amongst the last to start picking - and they undeniably have quite a high level of acidity; this results in wines with plenty of ageing potential that often need a few years to develop their full potential. There is also a slight saltiness to the wines which makes for some wonderful food pairings.

Verzenay-terroir crop300Like many terroirs in Champagne you can find a multitude of different soils within the boundaries of the terroir of Verzenay: chalk, limestone, sand, clay and more. Not surprisingly therefore wines from Verzenay have great complexity, but whichever plot the wines come from they are all said to be vertical, linear and to have narrow shoulders as opposed to their cousins on the other side of La Montagne de Reims ( in Bouzy or Ambonnay for example) which are broader and fatter.

80% of the plantings in Verzenay are of Pinot Noir which is ideally suited to the cool conditions. They lend depth complexity and power to blends without losing any of the lean edginess that a well-balanced champagne needs.

Last but not least, the exposed slopes are often quite breezy and this keeps excess humidity at bay and reduces the risk of rot.

It’s not just the quality of the wines that brings people to Verzenay; the village is also home to two of the most iconic landmarks in Champagne each one perched on top of the hills that cradle the houses in the dip between them.

The presence of a windmill on the promontory called Mont Boeuf is testament to the windy micro-climate mentioned above and, in fact, there used to be 3 windmills a long time ago. The remaining mill was built in 1818 but hasn’t been used as a used as a mill for many decades and of course there’s no miller either ( miller = meunier in French). The villagers used to joke that there was no Meunier in Verzenay , but this no longer holds true because 2 hectares of Meunier have been planted fairly recently.

Lighthouse-at-Verzenay300On the other promontory, Mont Rizan, stands the lighthouse built in 1909 as a promotion idea for Champagne Goulet which no longer exists. Today the lighthouse is home to a popular museum and it affords some excellent views across the vineyards and the plain below.

It’s remarkable that whilst almost all the houses in the village were destroyed in WWI and only 50 hectares of vines remained under cultivation, both the lighthouse and windmill were left standing even though the front line trenches were a matter of a kilometre or so away.

There are some 80 champagne producers in Verzenay and too many fine champagnes to mention them all, but a few that are worth particular attention are:

Champagne Péhu Simonet

Champagne Godmé

Champagne Jean Lallement

Champagne Marc Hébrart - Cool, Calm and Collected

Jean-Paul-Hebrart300There’s something about Jean-Paul Hébrart that immediately puts you at ease. He comes across as serene and unruffled, well prepared and calm; the same could be said for his champagnes.

The Marc Hébrart range is not large, neither the labels nor the wines themselves are what you’d call flamboyant, but when you discover the smoothness on the tongue and the perfect seamlessness from first sip to the very long, lingering finish you’ll find it hard not to smile with a sense of pure satisfaction. They leave you with a sense that all is right with the world and everything is as it should be.

As well as being a skilled wine maker, Jean-Paul is also a shrewd businessman. Over the past 18 years, since taking over the family business from his father in 1997, Jean-Paul has invested wisely in top quality vineyards and now owns 15 hectares which, for an independent Récoltant Manipulant, is certainly well above average.

In Hell’s back yard

Sign300The vines are located in 10 villages, 5 of which are Grand Cru: Avize, Oiry and Chouilly in La Côte des Blancs provide Chardonnay and Aÿ and Louvois provide Pinot Noir.

The bulk (8.5 hectares) of the family vineyards are in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ and the remainder are in Bisseuil, Avenay Val d’Or, Dizy and Hautvillers. With the possible exception of the last one these are not villages well known for Meunier and it’s not surprising therefore that there is no Meunier in any of the Hébrart blends.

Within the 15 hectares there are 75 separate plots each with its own name and its own history. ‘Le Faubourg d’Enfer’ ( the suburbs of Hell) is on a slope facing directly south and when the summer sun is beating down it’s ‘as hot as hell’ if you have work to do there. ‘Beauregard’ (beautiful view) is another evocative name and I can’t help wondering what the story is behind the intriguingly named ‘Justice- Montaigu’.

One of the world’s top 100 wineries

When Jean-Paul started managing the business exports accounted for only 15% of sales. Today that share has risen to 85%, exceptionally high for a small vigneron. Whilst this is good news for consumers all over the world who at least have a chance of finding the brand in their local market, you’ll be disappointed if you were looking forward to one day meeting him in your country. Jean-Paul doesn’t do any travelling and focuses instead on the work in the vineyards and the winery where he can directly influence the quality of the wines.

There’s an old saying in Champagne - Un bon vin, point d’enseigne – a good wine needs no advertising – and whilst some may disagree, Jean-Paul prefers to leave the promotional part to his network of importers and distributors.

It would seem he’s made another shrewd decision because his commitment to quality is bearing fruit. In 2014 Marc Hébrart was named as one of the 100 leading wineries in the world by Wine & Spirits magazine, one of only 5 champagnes to make it onto the list.

With quality like this and ratings equal to, or just barely below, other more famous brands such as Krug, Champagne Marc Hébrart offers outstanding value, indeed the US importer suggests that at a mere $55 USD per bottle Marc Hébrart Sélection 1er Cru is probably the best value wine in their entire range.

Two-great-champagnes300As if more evidence were needed of the quality of these champagnes I could cite the fact that Champagne Marc Hébrart is a member of both the exclusive Club Trésors de Champagne and also of Les Artisans de Champagne, another association whose members all have glowing reputations. However, when all is said and done, the best way is to judge for yourself and when you do I imagine that you will end up agreeing with Jean-Paul that a good wine needs no advertising.

Below are some notes from a tasting during a visit on May 25th and you’ll find a list of the champagnes tasted on the two sheets at the end of the article. First a few background facts:

  • Jean-Paul is not a huge fan of low dosage which he feels can sometimes shorten the finish. Most of his champagnes are Brut and dosé at around 7.5 g/l the exception Rive Gauche-Rive Droite which is Extra Brut
  • Only MCR (concentrated grape juice)is used for the liqueur de dosage because of is neutral quality, even though it is many times more expensive than cane sugar which is more commonly used.
  • Malo-lactic fermentation is not carried out.
  • Rive Gauche-Rive Droite is the only cuvée currently sold that is partially aged in oak barrels, although the reserve wines – usually going back 4 years - also spend some time in oak.
  • Two new cuvées are in the wings ( or rather, cellars) waiting to be launched in the not too distant future: a Blanc de Noirs and a single vineyard champagne from Dizy.

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Tasting Notes

Blanc de Blancs Brut 1er Cru

Mareuil-sign300Most of the Chardonnay in this blend comes not, as you might assume, from la Côte des Blancs, but from the Hébrart vineyards in the more Pinot friendly village of Marueil-sur-Aÿ. As a result this is a wonderfully smooth champagne that sits effortlessly on the tongue. Yes, it has plenty of the freshness expected of a Blanc de Blancs and a light floral bouquet, but it also has a weight and a delightful presence in the mouth.

Selection 1er Cru

Long and seamless,

Disgorged in early 2015 after nearly 4 years on lees.

The base year is 2010 which was a difficult year plagued with rot to the extent that Jean-paul discarded 30% of his crop in order to maintain the quality of his wines

Rosé Brut 1er Cru

Rosé accounts for 20% of Jean-Paul’s sales: a high percentage even allowing for the continuing popularity of rosé wines of all types , but when you taste this rosé you can understand its poularity. It reminded me of a type of ice cream I used to buy when I was younger – much younger . It was called a Mivvie if you can remember that. A cool, crisp layer of intense strawberry ice on the outside and a creamy vanilla filling I never thought I’d find that wonderful combination again in a champagne.

Special Club 1er Cru 2010

55% Pinot Noir from Mareuil-sur-Aÿ and 45% Chardonnay from Oiry and Chouilly.

The blend is almost exactly the same from year to year because, as Jean-Paul says “ Old vines don’t move from one year to the next and the best plots always produce the best grapes”

Rive Gauche-Rive Droite ( Left Bank-Right Bank)

The jewel in the crown. First released in 2004 and produced in limited quantities of just 3500 bottles. Not released every year.

A 50/50 blend of Chardonnay from La Côte des Blancs on the far (left) side of the river Marne and Pinot Noir from Aÿ on the right side of the river.

 HEBRART TASTING SHEET 1-640

HEBRART TASTING SHEET 2-640

 

Terroir Tracker - Festigny

TERROIR TRACKER

As series of article to help you get to know the Champagne terroirs.

Champagnes de Terroirs from one village (cru), or from just a few neighbouring villages, are becoming more and more popular these days so it pays to increase your knowledge of the these little communities and their vineyards.

In this series of short articles we’ll bring you a brief introduction to some well-known villages -plus some you should get to know - and we’ll give you a insight into each one.

FESTIGNY

Hill-above-Festigny300Festigny is to be found in a small valley off the left bank of the Marne river approximately 20 kilometres from Epernay travelling down the Vallée de la Marne towards Château Thierry.

Festigny itself nestles at the foot of an imposing hill called ‘ Collines des Bois des Châtaigniers’ which overlooks theFestigny-Michelin-map300 small village and the even smaller hamlets that make up this little enclave: Le Mesnil-le-Huttier, Beaurepaire, La Boulonnerie and Le Vivier Neuville.

There are just 400 inhabitants in Festigny and a good 100 of them are grape growers; this obscure yet revealing ratio which is repeated right across the 320 villages in Champagne region, gives you a good idea of the importance of champagne production to this area of France. The community is also home to the last remaining maker of wooden ridding racks (pupitres). 

The village is dissected by Le Flagot, and by several other picturesque streams which enter the Marne just a few kilometres to the north. The abundance of water means that the area is susceptible to Spring frost although for a few years now the noticeable increase of the average temperature has meant that this threat has rarely materialised.

Le-Flagot300A wide variety of different soil types can be found here ranging from clay and marl to sand, limestone and chalk whichFossils-in-chalk300 is full of fossils of the sea creatures that lived here many millions of years ago as you can often see by simply picking up a ump of chalk from the vineyards

Meunier, by far the dominant grape varietal, exhibits different characteristics according to the type of soil it is grown in. The more sandy soils on the lower slopes bring out citrus aromas in the wines; the clay in the soil on the higher slopes lends more body and length whilst the soil of the middle slopes tends to have more marl content which highlights red fruit aromas in the wines.

Pinot Meunier (or just Meunier as we are encouraged to say these days) has long been regarded – perhaps it would be more accurate to say, looked down on - as a somewhat rustic varietal whose main interest is as a blending grape that brings an attractive fruitiness to champagnes that can be sold and enjoyed with relatively little ageing, but which cannot be considered as really serious wines. Not surprisingly the local vignerons in Festigny are quick to correct this impression and to sing the praises of Meunier with some of them producing 100% Meunier champagnes and old vintage Meunier champagnes. Although the debate will no doubt continue for some time to come with opinions on both sides, what cannot be denied is the growing willingness of consumers and wine professionals alike to learn more about this undervalued varietal which, let’s not forget, accounts for nearly a third of all the vines in Champagne.

A few noteworthy wine makers and specialists in Meunier:

Herve-and-David-Gaudinat300Festigny: Michel Loriot

Le Mesnil-le-Huttier: Gaudinat-Boivin (image:Hervé and David Gaudinat)

La Boulonnerie: Christophe Mignon

Map credit: Michelin

A Tale of La Taille

White-van-in-the-vineyard300At this time of year a sort of rash appears in the champagne vineyards – a rash of white vans dotted all over the slopes as the vignerons hurry to finish pruning their vines before they really start growing again after their winter rest.

There’s nothing to stop the vignerons from pruning as early as one month after the harvest in September, or October, but with the fermentation and still wine-making to manage, not to mention the build of up sales in the crucial couple of months at the end of each year, pruning is not top of the list of priorities.

It can get seriously cold in Champagne in winter and there is a risk that if you prune a vine at the wrong time – just before a severe frost – the cold will penetrate the wound left on the vine by the pruning and severely damage, if not kill it. Besides, who wants to work outside in temperatures approaching zero or below?

However, come the month of March everything is in full swing. By this time the severe cold is usually past and slightly warmer days remind the vignerons that spring is just around the corner. Before long the sap will be rising in the vines and so it’s important to get the pruning before that happens.

The old champenois saying seems to ring true even in the 21st century:

“ Taille tôt taille tard, rein ne vaut la taille de mars”

“Prune first, prune last – nothing beats pruning in March”.Brouette300

Rolling-seat300Out come the white vans, the little rolling stools on which the workers sit as they work their way down the rows carefully pruning each and every  plant, and the rusty old wheelbarrows in which the off-cuts are burned leaving tell-tale wisps of white smoke drifting across the rather barren looking vineyards (actually, ‘wheelbarrow ‘is rather a flattering term for these ‘brouettes’ which are little more than steel drums cut in two and fixed on a set of wheels).

Pruning is a vital, albeit rather tedious, part of vineyard management. Each and every individual vine has to be pruned by hand and with up to 8,000 plants per hectare it takes around 200 hours to finish one hectare. Moreover it’s a task that demands quite a bit of skill and experience, so much so in fact that you have to be trained, pass an exam and get a certificate before you can be let loose on the vines. That’s because correct pruning plays an important part in controlling the yield of the vines and because, for each different grape varietal, there’s a specific method of pruning.

Most of the off-cuts are burned in the vineyards although a certain proportion is taken away to be ground down into a mulch to be used again on the soil. It’s a scene that has been pretty much unchanged for decades.

off-cut-sarment300However where there is tradition and habit, entrepreneurial people can always find a new opportunity. A few years ago a young man by the name of Alexandre Hénin was struck not only by the tremendous waste of wood, but also by an idea for a new business: one for which the raw material would be free.

He now runs a company that collects the off-cuts from the vineyards, thereby providing the vigneron with a free service and saving the vigneron lots of time – the vigneron even gets a small payment if his vines are organic or bio-dynamic - and then Alexandre sorts and sells the wood for industrial fuel, barbeque fuel, carving into decorations and even, thanks to the polyphenols in the wood, for medicinal use.

It’s a novel initiative and one that underlines the huge steps that have been taken in Champagne over the past few years to radically improve environment management. I wonder if anyone will come up with an alternative for the white vans?