Meet the Champagne Producers Redefining France’s Bubbly

Photo by Patrick Desgraupes

The C么te des Bar is Champagne鈥檚 laboratory. Everywhere you look, growers are experimenting with new blends and techniques, often out of sheer curiosity and always with plenty of conviction.

A revival of historic grape varieties, organic and biodynamic practices, single-vineyard wines, egg-shaped tanks, amphorae, soleras鈥攊t鈥檚 all here. Even big companies get in on the fun.

The C么te des Bar is in the Aube department, which is the southernmost region for Champagne production and the biggest hemp grower in Europe. Grapes are the No. 2 crop of the Aube, and they鈥檝e long been a major source for the producers of Reims and Epernay, especially Pinot Noir. Increasingly, however, growers are releasing their own Champagne labels.

Bar-sur-Aube and Bar-sur-Seine, including its heart of Les Riceys, are landscapes of river valleys and steep slopes that support vines planted on the same Kimmeridgian soil as Chablis. It could be part of Burgundy, and, in fact, Chablis is closer than Epernay and Reims. But this is Champagne. Confident in what they make and not afraid to push boundaries, these producers with rebellious streaks are out to create excitement. They鈥檙e succeeding.

Arnaud Gallimard
Arnaud Gallimard / Photo by Patrick Desgraupes

Arnaud Gallimard

Celebrating Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir is the key to Gallimard Cham颅pagnes, according to Arnaud Gallimard. The 28-year-old son of wine颅maker Didier Gallimard, Arnaud travels the world to promote and sell the 150,000 bottles the house produces each year from the family鈥檚 29 acres.

Les Riceys in Bar-sur-Seine, where the Gallimards call home, is Pinot Noir central. The mix of clay and chalk in the soil of the rolling wood-topped hills around the village is well-suited to the variety.

鈥淲e are surrounded by Pinot Noir,鈥 says Arnaud. 鈥淚t鈥檚 90% of what we grow. We have been able to perfect it.鈥

Of course, subject to the experimentation that seems to be endemic in the Aube, the Gallimards have four amphorae they brought from Tuscany in 2014.

Even the house鈥檚 nonvintage cuv茅es are not quite what they seem鈥擥allimard foregoes the typical blending system and instead makes two Cuv茅e R茅serves.

鈥淲e didn鈥檛 have a style of wine in mind,鈥 he says. 鈥淲e just wanted to see what would happen.鈥

The result was Cuv茅e Amphoressence Brut Nature. Bone-dry and aged six months in amphora, it fills out the freshness of the Pinot Noir with an oxidative richness.

When it came to creating a ros茅 Champagne, the house didn鈥檛 choose between the two typical production methods for the style. Usually, producers gain color either through the addition of red wine or from the red grape鈥檚 skins through a process known as saign茅e.

Instead, they blend the two techniques and add 20% Chardonnay planted on pure chalk sites in the vineyard, which Arnaud says, 鈥済ive us a wonderful aromatic quality.鈥

Even the house鈥檚 standard nonvintage cuv茅es are not quite what they seem. Champagne Gallimard foregoes the typical blending system and instead makes two Cuv茅e R茅serves, one 100% Chardonnay and one 100% Pinot Noir.

鈥淲e want to bring out the terroir in each grape variety,鈥 he says.

Champagne producer Olivier Horiot
Olivier Horiot / Photo by Patrick Desgraupes

Olivier Horiot

Experimenter-in-Chief

Olivier Horiot is 45, but when it comes to winemaking, he鈥檚 like a kid in a candy store. He can鈥檛 stop trying new things.

鈥淚 like experiments,鈥 says Horiot. 鈥淚 like to try things out. It鈥檚 so much fun.鈥

He may be in Champagne, but for Horiot, still wines came first.

鈥淲hen I took over in 1999 from my father, Serge, I only made still wines, Coteaux Champenois and Ros茅 des Riceys,鈥 he says. 鈥淚 didn鈥檛 make Champagnes until 2004.鈥

Horiot now makes Champagnes, including some from rare varieties that have almost disappeared, like Arbane. His 100% Arbane Champagne is, fittingly, called Cuv茅e Arbane. Next year, he will highlight Pinot Gris.

Another of his Champagnes, 5 Sens, is a blend of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Arbane.

While still wines came first, Horiot now makes Champagnes, including some from rare varieties that have almost disappeared.

鈥淚 am attempting to understand my vineyards, so I make single-variety wines to see how they relate to the land,鈥 says Horiot. 鈥淚f I was commercial, I would only be making three wines.鈥 At last count, he makes eight.

But it鈥檚 Ros茅 des Riceys that fascinates him most. This dark-colored ros茅 made from Pinot Noir, almost like a light red wine, has had its own appellation for just over 70 years.

鈥淲e vinify the grapes on the skins until the tannins start tasting,鈥 he says. 鈥淭hen we stop because we want a soft wine.鈥 Despite that, it can also age. Currently, Horiot sells the 2013 vintage.

Of course, there are more plans for the future of the house. He wants the estate to become a polyculture, with other plants and cows for the biodynamic mixes he uses.

The next time you find a bottle of Horiot鈥檚 wines, maybe his single-颅vineyard S猫ve, his M茅tisse or the Sol茅ra, just consider what marvelous wonder he might create next.

Champagne producer Nathalie Falmet
Nathalie Falmet / Photo by Patrick Desgraupes

Nathalie Falmet

Merging Passion and Science

鈥淚 can鈥檛 talk until after four,鈥 says Nathalie Falmet when asked when would be a good time. 鈥淚鈥檒l be out in the vines.鈥

Falmet, 50, is a trained chemist who not only manages her namesake Champagne house, but also runs her own laboratory as a consulting enologist. While her background provides insight into the full range of winemaking techniques, it鈥檚 her eight-acre vineyard that鈥檚 her true passion.

After inheriting the plot from her parents who sold grapes to the local cooperative, she released her first Champagnes in 2009. She now spends 90% of her time on her wines.

But the chemist in Falmet hasn鈥檛 gone away. In the tiny winery behind her house in Rouvres-les-Vignes in Bar-sur-Aube, she has an amphora because, 鈥淚 wanted to understand the vortex effect on the lees inside a traditional amphora shape.鈥

Falmet says it explains why amphora-fermented wines have so much richness and intensity, and how they get the oxidative effect of wood fermentation.

Great attention to detail is in line with her winemaking style, which is to best express terroir in her Champagnes.

This attention to detail is in line with her winemaking style, which is to best express terroir in her Champagnes.

鈥淚 want to put the year, the grape variety and the terroir in my wines,鈥 she says. 鈥淚 want to put the exchange between the Kimmeridgian chalk soil and the grapes into what I produce, and then I want to celebrate the difference the year brings.鈥

While a vintage label is, in Falmet鈥檚 opinion, 鈥渏ust a bureaucratic declaration,鈥 many of her wines, such as her single-vineyard Le Val Cornet, come from a single year.

For those that don鈥檛, Falmet employs a solera system, operated since 2008. It鈥檚 a perpetual reserve that鈥檚 replenished each year and drawn down for her nonvintage Brut, which represents the bulk of her annual output of 30,000 bottles.

But there will always be smaller-run offerings like her single-variety releases, each which amount to around 100 bottles.

鈥淚 love to do different things,鈥 she says. 鈥淚 adore making new wines.鈥

Champagne producer Michel Drappier
Michel Drappier / Photo by Patrick Desgraupes

Michel Drappier

Protecting the Future

Champagne Drappier is the heavy hitter of the C么te des Bar. Founded in 1808, the firm is based in Bar-sur-Aube.

Now 60 years old, Chief Executive and Winemaker Michel Drappier has been in the business since he was 15. His three children, Charline, Hugo and Antoine, represent the family firm鈥檚 eighth generation. The family holds about 135 acres of vineyards, with about 120 more under contract, throughout the Aube and the Marne to the north.

History is what鈥檚 on Drappier鈥檚 mind. Vineyards in Urville, his home village, date to the 12th century, when Saint Bernard of Clairvaux brought Pinot Noir from Burgundy.

Drappier鈥檚 Grande Sendr茅e reflects the balance between the preservation of history and forward thinking.

鈥淭his was [the heart of] Champagne at the time,鈥 says Drappier. The region鈥檚 capital city back then was Troyes, not Reims. About 35 miles away from Urville, Troyes was where the Counts of Champagne lived.

鈥淭he Aube is the original Champagne vineyard,鈥 he says. 鈥淎nd we have stayed faithful to Saint Bernard and his Pinot Noir ever since.鈥

Drappier is known for rare large bottles and special cuv茅es. Quattuor is a blend of Arbane, Petit Meslier, Blanc Vrai (a.k.a. Pinot Blanc) and Chardonnay. Meanwhile, Cuv茅e Charles de Gaulle, made from 80% Pinot Noir and 20% Chardonnay, commemorates the former French president鈥檚 preference to serve the style at his home in nearby Colombey-les-deux-脡glises.

Drappier鈥檚 Grande Sendr茅e is a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that reflects the balance between the preservation of history and forward thinking.

Behind Portugal鈥檚 Traditional Amphorae Wines

鈥淚t comes from a vineyard that was planted on a south-facing slope after a massive fire destroyed both the local forest and the village of Urville,鈥 says Drappier. Part of it is now made in an egg-shaped wooden fermenter, introduced for the 2012 vintage.

Indeed, the future is underway here. The winery became 100% carbon neutral in 2018, an effort that was bolstered by solar and wind power. Biodynamic vineyards, limited sulfur use and even electric tractors work to the greater good of the environment.

鈥淲hen we had children and then grandchildren, we wanted to protect their health,鈥 says Drappier. 鈥淚t is our investment for the next generations.鈥

Jean-Christophe Gremillet
Jean-Christophe Gremillet / Photo by Patrick Desgraupes

Jean-Christophe Gremillet

Creating a New Tradition

Forty years is not a long time in the history of a Champagne house that produces a half-million bottles per year. Yet, the ascent of the Gremillet family in such a period has been impressive.

And it is a family affair. Jean-Christophe Gremillet, 44, is winemaker and president of the company. His sister Anne, 38, is director general in charge of marketing, while his 63-year-old father, Jean-Michel, looks after the vines.

For Jean-Christophe, it鈥檚 winemaking that he loves. 鈥淢y favorite moment is when I draw the wine from the tanks after fermentation,鈥 he says. 鈥淭hen I can really see the full potential of that year.鈥

The Gremillets are planners, evolving from tiny vineyard owners to grower-n茅gociants in just a few decades.

While the family has a history of grape growing, 鈥渓ooking back, it seems like destiny,鈥 says Anne Gremillet. 鈥淲hen my grandmother, Lulu, bought just under an acre of vines in 1978…there was no thought that we would have 103 acres today.鈥

The family is proud of Lulu鈥檚 heritage in their Bar-sur-Seine community of Les Riceys. The region is capable of producing wines under three appellations: Champagne, Coteaux Champenois still wine and the local specialty of Ros茅 des Riceys.

鈥淲e are always looking for freshness,鈥 he says to describe the Champagnes he produces. The one exception in the house鈥檚 range of seven Champagnes is Cuv茅e 脡vidence. It鈥檚 lightly wooded and boasts a more pronounced yeasty character than the other wines.

Does Terroir Matter?

Then there鈥檚 the new baby, the Clos Rocher single vineyard. Planted to three-and-a-half acres of Pinot Noir, this walled, organically cultivated vineyard is a first for Les Riceys. Named after an ancestor, a new single-vineyard cuv茅e was made in 2013 and is set to be released this year.

The Gremillets are planners, evolving from tiny vineyard owners to grower-n茅gociants in just a few decades. They planted an arboretum with trees from many of the countries where the family sells Champagnes, and they buy grapes from the rest of Champagne, including Chardonnay from the C么te des Blancs.

The future seems bright for this young Champagne superstar.

Published on July 8, 2019
Topics: Wine and Ratings