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.


 

Phylloxera in Champagne

Phylloxera-sign-3-300I came across this sign recently when I passed through the village of Villers-Marmery and it prompted me to do a little research into what happened in Champagne a century and more ago when phylloxera devasted the vineyards.


It’s been such a long time since the phylloxera catastrophe ( no that’s not too strong a word) laid waste the vineyards not just in France but across the whole of Europe that many people these days have never even heard the word  let alone know what it means.
Phylloxera (Daktulosphaira vitifoliae  to give it its scientific name – it is also known as Phylloxéra vastatrix) is a small insect that attacks the roots of vines and eventually so weakens the plant that it dies.

Phylloxera-sign-1-300It is believed that the bug somehow made its way across the Atlantic Ocean from the USA, possibly in a consignment of timber or some other wooden product. The insect was first notice in France in 1868 in the Languedoc and from there it spread across pretty much the entire country and into other countries. Its effects were disastrous; it destroyed huge swathes of vineyard and there was very little that the vignerons could do to stop it.


Throughout the 1870s the Champagne vineyards were not affected and the champenois must have hoped that they would somehow escape the ravages of phylloxera, but in 1880 the first sighting of the bug was confirmed in the village of Chassins-Trélou in La Vallee de la Marne. From there it spread in 1882 to Le-Mesnil-sur-Oger in la Côte des Blancs and the following year it arrived in the vineyards of Epernay and eventually was spotted in La Montagne de Reims in 1904.


To give you some idea of the progress of the pest 14 hectares in Champagne were infected in 1897, by 1900 the count was 600 hectares; two years later it was 2,000 hectares, 5,000 in 1907 and by the time the First World War broke out 6,500 hectares of vineyards in Champagne had been destroyed. It’s worth pointing out also that in those days there were only 12,000 hectares of vines planted in the whole of Champagne, so over half the region’s vines were ruined.


It was in the 1890s that the vignerons organised themselves in associations to try to figure out way to combat the infestation and the sign in the picture at the top of the page presumably dates back to that period.


As early as 1879 even before phylloxera was established in Champagne a committee  was set up to coordinate the fight against the pest. The majority of 26,000 registered vine growers, large and small,  joined the committee but in a sad turn of events the committee was disbanded because the vine growers suspected the large négociants of exploiting the situation to buy up, at knock-down prices, the vineyards that had been affected by phylloxera. Perhaps the collapse of the committee was predictable and inevitable given the tenor of the times. There was huge suspicion of the négociants which culminated not many years later in the riots in Aÿ in 1911.


A series of cool years at the end of the 19th century slowed down the onward march of phylloxera and perhaps people thought they would get off lightly, but when the spread of the bug resumed the vignerons found that there was no way of stopping the insects. They tried flooding the vineyards to drown them; they tried burning the vineyards, but equally to no effect. The method most widely tried was to treat the vines with carbon disulphide by injecting it into the soil with giant copper syringes. Unfortunately this was a case of the treatment being almost as bad as, or worse than, the disease itself. Carbon disulphide is highly toxic and highly inflammable too and definitely not something you want to go spreading in the soil, moreover it didn’t work either.


Fort-Chabrol-300The search for an effective treatment went on vigorously not least in the research centre set up by Raoul Chandon de Briailles in Fort Chabrol near Epernay. Eventually it was realised that American vines,  Vitis riparia or Vitis rupestris ,were immune, or at least resistant, to the predations of phlloxera and that by grafting  French vines Vitis vinifera  onto the American root stocks one could retain the characteristics of the European vines on a plant that would not succumb to phylloxera.


This then was the news for which everyone had been waiting  for 40 years and a programme of replanting was soon undertaken, although it was interrupted by the First World War. Little by little between 1900 and 1938 the native vines were dug up and replaced by grafts using the American stocks until, on the eve of the Second World War, there were just 95 hectares of native vines remaining.


Vignes-en-foule-300One good thing did come out of this terrible episode. Until the arrival of phylloxera vines grew very much at random (en foule –  ‘in a crowd’ - as the method is called). The new vines were planted in rows as we see them nowadays. This allowed animals and later tractors to work the vineyards which did a great deal to make the life of a vineyard worker a lot easier.
They say that every cloud has a silver lining, but for the vignerons in Champagne it must has been hard to see it back in the early years of the 19th century. 

 

Source material: article by Bruno Duteutre in Bulles et Millésimes http://www.champagne-news.com/1890-le-phylloxera-arrive-en-champagne/

Barrels are on a roll in Champagne

BARRELS ARE ON A ROLL IN CHAMPAGNE

Barrels-300They say that if you wait long enough things come round in a circle and that seems to be true when it comes to trends in wine as well. Take champagne for example: a hundred years ago every champagne maker used oak barrels to age their wines, probably because they didn’t have many viable alternatives. Fast forwards a few decades and in the 1960s and 1970s almost everyone was throwing out their barrels and converting to stainless steel vats: purer, cleaner, easier to manage and, in short, the obvious way forward for any modern-minded champagne maker at that time.

Now, 50 years later, although stainless steel is still very much in evidence, it’s oak that is back in fashion in a big way. Perhaps it’s a reflection of the times we live in and the increasing pre-occupation with all things natural and wholesome which are often seen as belonging to days gone by. If the truth be told stainless steel remains an indispensable part of wine making but it’s not what people are talking about; stainless steel, or Inox as it’s called in France, just doesn’t seem to have ‘ the soul’ that more and more people are looking for.

What's the point of a punt?

Punts-300.jpgApart from being the name of those flat-bottomed boats that you propel down the river with a pole, the term ‘punt’ also refers to the indentation that is found in the bottom of many wine bottles.

But what is the punt for, if anything, and does the presence, or absence, of a punt give any clue as to the quality of the wine in the bottle?

Champagne Jean-Noël Haton: the best-known champagne that you’ve probably never heard of.

Champagne Jean-Noël Haton: the best-known champagne that you’ve probably never heard of.

Car-300If you’ve never heard of Champagne Jean-Noël Haton and think you’ve never tasted any champagne made by this company based in Damery in La Vallée de La Marne, you may well be mistaken. In fact Jean-Noël Haton may just be the best-known champagne that you’ve never heard of. Confused? Let me explain…

The company dates back to 1928 and has grown to an extent that was probably way beyond the dreams of Octave Haton, the founder and perhaps even of René who expanded the company considerably in the 1970s. Today the family estate covers some 20 hectares of vineyard situated mainly in and around Damery with some plots in other parts of Champagne as well.

Jean-Noel-HATON-300There are at least two reasons for this remarkable growth and the most significant must surely be the drive and energy of the current head of the house: Jean-Noël himself. His idea of a quiet weekend is to spend the entire time driving a forklift truck to move pallet-loads of bottles to make more room in the storage area and in fact one could say that M. Haton’s work is also his pleasure. This would probably cause some friction in the family were it not for the fact that Jean Noel’s wife and son are also heavily involved in running the business, so despite the growth over the years Champagne Jean Noël Haton is still very much a family affair.

The other reason for the growth of the company could not have happened without the first. Rather than limiting the production capacity by relying solely on grapes from his own vineyards Jean-Noël decided to buy grapes from other growers around the region and with this extra production capacity he was able to supply many of the large companies who market champagne under their own name. That’s why if you’ve ever bought an ‘own label’ champagne – and let’s face it most of us have at one time or another – it’s highly likely that you tasted one of Jean-Noel’s champagnes – you’ve just never realised it was he who made it.

Pipes-300Now before you start thinking to yourself that champagne sold in big chain stores under their own label is not the best quality, think again. You have only to look at the medals and other awards that are regularly bestowed on own-label brands to see that nothing could be further from the truth. In fact these buyers can be some of the most demanding of all, but even they could not fail to be impressed with the winery in Damery; just one glance shows you that this is a serious operation. State-of-the-art buildings housing row upon row of new stainless steel, temperature controlled vats and not a speck of dirt, or dust to be seen anywhere. Even the hoses which are essential in every winery but which more often than not are left in disarray, are neatly rolled up or arranged in line at Champagne Jean-Noël Haton, yet another piece of evidence that Monsieur Haton runs a tight ship.

Whilst own label champagne remains an important part of overall sales the main focus these days is on the range of champagnes sold under the Jean-Noël Haton brand name

The range is broad, too broad to mention each cuvée individually, but from the Cuvée Classic a relatively young, but easily likeable blend of 60% Meunier and 40% Pinot Noir, to the 4 cuvées in the Extra range, the youngest of which has been aged 6 years, Jean-Noël Haton champagnes are beginning to get the sort of recognition and the awards that they deserve including two gold medals from the International Wines and Spirits Challenge in 2016

J-M-HATON-Extra-B-de-B-300J-M-HATON-Brut-Rose-300Add to this the fact that you’re sure of a very warm welcome from the team in Damery if you visit the maison and it’s safe to say that you’re sure of a great experience if you ever have the opportunity to try the champagnes from this dynamic, but (as yet) little-known house.

 

CHAMPAGNE HARVEST 2016 - A BAD CASE OF WHITEVANITIS AND SORTING THE WHEAT FROM THE CHAFF

CHAMPAGNE HARVEST 2016

A BAD CASE OF WHITEVANITIS AND SORTING THE WHEAT FROM THE CHAFF

White-vansYou can tell immediately that the harvest is in full swing in Champagne. One tell-tale sign is the rash of white vans that appears all over the vineyards (OK there are a few grey ones too, but there are so many white vans that one suspects that Champagne is keeping the whole white van manufacturing business going)

Another sign is the busy roads. I use the term ‘busy’ loosely because anyone who lives in a major city or town would laugh out loud at what passes for ‘a lot of traffic’ here in Champagne, but nevertheless there are a lot more people around than usual. That’s hardly surprising seeing that it is estimated that close on 120,000 extra jobs are created for the period of the harvest: that’s not just the pickers themselves, but the caterers who feed the pickers, the people who transport the picked grapes and the plethora of other support staff that are needed.

Another sign is the crisscross pattern of black tyre tracks on the road where cars have driven through the sticky mass of juice that drips onto the tarmac from cases of picked grapes that start leaking on the way to the press house.

It’s an exciting time of year and it’s all too easy to let the heady atmosphere go to... well, to your head. This tendency is no more apparent than in the prognostications that everyone and their dog start making about the quality of the harvest, but once again this shouldn’t be too surprising. After all, it’s a rare wine maker who comes out and says “My wine is rubbish this year. Don’t buy it” (although to their credit Nyetimber, for one, did decide not to bother picking their harvest in 2012 because they felt the quality of the grapes was not up to their standards).

Wine makers and wine retailers are far more likely to emphasise the positive side of the harvest. A case in point is the claim recently made in the publication Drinks Business

2016 VINTAGE ‘BETTER IN ENGLAND THAN CHAMPAGNE’

It’s certainly true that France has had a lot of bad weather this year and that the UK has probably had the better of it, but whilst that is promising for UK wine makers, it is not a guarantee that the wine in one country will be better than the wine produced in the other. Mind you, you certainly can’t blame the English wine makers from wanting to get their claim in as early as possible – that’s just normal marketing practice.

However, most serious wine makers, whilst being optimistic about the quality of the grapes as they come off the vines, will tell you that until the first fermentation is done and the wine has had a few weeks or months to develop, it is simply premature to make any sweeping statements about whether or not the juice will make great wine. So, in just the same way as a grape picker has to select only the good bunches and leave any that have traces of rot, it pays to be selective in what you read in the wine media. Even ‘experts’ can get it wrong ,conclusions reached in haste can be mistaken and no one knows for sure what the passing of time will bring.

For example....

Decanter magazine has just announced that it has included Dom Pérignon 1975 into its Hall of Fame

But back in 1975 when they were harvesting the grapes there was little indication about how great the wine would turn out to be. In fact according to Decanter:

On paper, 1975 was not an ideal vintage. Spring was cold and budbreak late, though flowering took place in fine conditions. The summer was warmer than usual, with a few August storms.

Harvest began on 29 September and had to be completed fairly rapidly, as the weather soon worsened. A small crop produced wines high in acidity, which gave many 1975 Champagnes the structure for long ageing.

vinegarFinally, I can’t resist telling you two quick stories about a champagne maker I know who has a mischievous sense of humour and who delights in pulling the wool over the eyes of people who should know better. On one occasion he bought some white vinegar at the local supermarket and put it in the fridge the night before a tasting with some prominent journalists. The next day he served the vinegar, ice cold, as the first wine to be tasted. There were several comments about the ‘wine’ being too cold, a bit rough, or too young, or green, but only one taster suggested that it wasn’t really wine at all.

On another occasion the same champagne maker was visited by a very well-known wine writer. A range of champagnes were served but, unbeknown to the wine writer, wine 1 and wine 5 were the same. Wine No.1 received very complimentary remarks but wine 5 was said to be mediocre at best. Go figure.

As for the 2016 harvest, let’s come back in February or March next year and take another look at how the wines are developing.