Here is one of the littlest-known rosé still wine with ancient roots : the Rosé des Riceys. You'll have a hard time finding a bottle of Rosé des Riceys, even in Paris, and the amateurs of this inimitably aromatic and lightly tannic rosé routinely have to drive to the very few family wineries where it's made on the edge of Champagne to buy some. The wine had its era of glory long time ago, particularly before the phyloxerra and also before the invention of Champagne wines, and King Louis XIV is said to have been an avid consumer of this wine. He discovered the wine because a group of workers taking part to the construction of the Chateau de Versailles, and originating from this corner of Champagne, had brought their wines along. He had a bottle brought to him for a try, loved it and ordered more from Les Riceys. Provence was too far from Versailles or Paris and rosé wines didn't travel that well then.
An other oddity of this wine is that it comes from a corner the Champagne region just a couple of kilometers from the Burgundy limits : this still wine comes from a tiny terroir named Les Riceys made up with three close-knit villages named Riceys-Haut, Riceys Haute-Rive et Riceys-Bas. We can credit the monks of the abbey of Molesme (which is located a few kilometers away) for this wine, as they are the ones who selected these particular south-oriented slopes to make this very aromatic bright-red rosé. Actually each of the three Riceys villages were backed by competing bishops, respectively the ones of Dijon (Riceys-Haut), Troyes (Riceys-Bas) and Auxerre (Riceys Haute-Rive), that's why the churches are particularly interesting (there's a church in each Riceys even though they are barely a kilometer from each other). I think that these religious people were wise indeed because they gave a good place to wine in their world order and probably competed on this field too [see this sculpture featuring foot stomping on the church of Riceys-Bas]...All the best slopes (côtes) of the Riceys like for example the Côte de Tronchois were owned by the Abbey of Molesme.
Altogether, only 65 000 to 80 000 bottles (more like he first than the latter) of this atypical rosé are made yearly by the 20 estates on the tiny Appellation (only 30 hectares are actually used for this rosé). The three biggest producers of this still rosé barely make 10 000 bottles of it each, and not every year, only when the vintage is sunny enough for the right ripeness and natural sugar.
Scroll down this precise map of Champagne and enlarge it when you spot the purple area above "21 Côte D'Or" : this is the terroir des Riceys, and as you can see, this is the largest in Champagne.
After the Rosé des Riceys wine was revived, an ad campaign was even made in the Paris Metro (I never saw it or I don't remember) and for neutrality reasons the vigneron featuring the ad was a retired grower of Les Riceys with no descendants to follow suit [see the ad on the left]. His name was Didi Pion (he passed away since), he was a hunting pal of Stéphane's grandfather Jules and he was very proud to have had his portrait on giant posters in the Paris Metro...
Everything is hand picked of course here and about 10 pickers do the job. The vineyards make up 8 hecares (plus 0,5 ha recently replanted) and it's all in the vicinity near Riceys-Bas. Most of it is Pinot Noir, with a bit of Pinot Meunier and barely 2 hectares of Chardonnay. Emmanuel and his sister who joins us along the inteerview says that there's no limitation on wine for the pickers' meals and they all make a good team. The harvest lasted about 10 days, it lasted a bit less than usual because the yields were lower in 2009. He says that the Pinot-Noir clusters that we saw still hanging on the vines were left over to respect the yield quota.The quota changes every year and in 2009 it was 9700 kilograms per hectare (they were lowered because of excessive stock). Actually he picked at 13 000 kilos/hectare because thus he could make individual reserves this year. A particularity of the Champagne rules is this possibility to set wine on the side in expectation of accidental low yields in the following years. This "réserve individuelle" is blocked and he can't bottle it. Because he has lots of old vines, he hadn't enough grapes to reach the quotas limits of these last years which was 15 500 kilos. He will be able to use this wine when the quotas (which is applied for the three types of wines) rises back.
In the area, the Rosé des Riceys is much older than Champagne as they were allowed to make bubblies only after 1911 : there were riots then as the growers were particularly suffering, this was the Révolte des Vignerons de l'Aube. They couldn't stand the fact that the Marnais (the Champagne Houses from the Marne) came here to buy juice and make Champagne with it while the Aubois (the growers of this southern region) were then forbidden to make some themselves with their own juice. The revolt will open the way to the full integraption to the Champagne Appellation in 1927.
The Rosé des Riceys is a bled rosé, the whole-clustered grapes ferment first in large wooden vats (at Horiot they are more than 100 years old) to get the color from the skins. The first wooden vats take a bit more time to ferment, but the following profit from the higher temperature of the vat. In the midst of the fermentation they separate the juice from the grapes. The color is not central for Les Riceys even if it's known to be darker than in Provence for example. What is central is the taste and the vinification talent here is to get that particular taste of cooked cherry every year. The Rosé des Riceys ages very well even if it changes gradually after a long laying-down time, Emmanuel says that they have 20-year old bottles that fare very well.
The yeasts used for the Rosé des Riceys are as usually purchased laboratory yeasts, they are not of the same type than for the typical Champagne bubbly, this is a strain suited for still colored wines. He recognizes that there was a time when they didn't add any industrial yeasts : they would just brush the wooden vats a bit with water and let them that way until the next harvest, there was probably yeasts that survived year to year and helped start the fermentation at the following vintage. Emmanuel says that because he has less wooden vats now (he had to let down a few of them because they were too old and now works with only two) he has less time to go through the fermentation and considers that he can't afford to wait the indigenous yeasts to do the job by themselves. As he makes also one or two marcs of Champagne Rosé plus some red Coteaux Champenois for a Négoce house, he has to find the time for all this. This year (2009) he made two marcs (8000 kilograms) of Rosé des Riceys bit he doesnt make this wine every year. His last vintages of Rosé des Riceys were in 2005 and in 2003. The 2003 is on the market and the 2005 is still in the cellar. When he doesn't make Rosé des Riceys, he makes more Champagne as the rosé production (or any Coteaux Champenois) bites into his quota (yield) allowance for the year.
The foudres on the picture was a choice of Emmanuel's father (who passed away in 2006) and who wanted to experiment with this type of elevage in foudres. Up to now they use very moderately these foudres because the wood is stil prominent, so for example the Rosé des Riceys 2003 spent one day in there only after the cask elevage. They put what they call VO (vin ordinaire) to soften the foudres year after year in the perspective of its future use. The vins ordinaires are the still wines resulting from the second press (taille) and which is less qualitative, they don't sell it and it will be sent to the distillery Goyard in Ay. For the information, here in Champagne the first press is called cuvée and the second press taille.
We taste the wine :
__Horiot Père & Fils, Rosé des Riceys 2003. The bottle has a dark fall-leaf color which suits well this long-keep rosé wine. The wine has a clear ruby color edging on coral. Stéphane serves it at about 10-11° C (cellar temperature) which he says is better than the colder temperature at which other rosés are poured. This lets the aromas of this wine express themselves best, he adds. Crushed strawberry notes, jam. B. notes a neat attack with a refined structure. Nice ample mouth. Long mouth also. After a while (we chat a lot) the aromas develop : B. feels some wild rose notes (she's good as naming what she feels) for example. Definitely a unique wine of its kind. This is also a pleasure wine but it has the backbone to go with food I think. As we took our time, its temperature probably reached something like 14°C and it was opening itself generously this way. A bottle of Rosé des Riceys costs 12 Euro.
We taste the Champagne wines with Emmanuel sisters and mother who joined us, plus a friend vigneron [pic on left].
__Horiot Père et Fils, Champagne Rosé. Small bubbles in steady vertical lines. Here also the Pinot Noir has given the wine its marked color [pic on right]. Fruity aromas, strawberry, strawberry jam. 13,5 Euro. About the small bubbles, Emmanuel says that the Champagne wines or the bubblies in general which have big bubbles have often been heated : some winemakers heat the wines to speed or start artificially the malolactic fermentation.
__Horiot Pére et Fils, Champagne Cuvée Jean Baptiste (white). Thin bubbles in steady streams. 50% 2006, 50% 2005 wines and 50% Pinot Noir / 50% Chardonnay. Wheat notes on the nose. Brioched notes too with lemon and orange peel. 13,8 Euro.
As B. asks if they know about the color of the wines in a distant past in Champagne and about the roussets which were these lightly-dark white wines, Emmanuel says that in the past the Champagne white wines had a darker yellow color (especially the ones made with Pinot Noir) because the wines weren't artificially bleached. Today most Champagne Pinot-Noir juices get their clear color with the use of additives like enological charcoal [This question of the use of additives to change the color for marketing reasons is an untold story of commercial wineries and I wrote on the subject in my Domaine Le Reire post - The amateurs of Jacques Sélosse's Champagne wines now understand why his wines have an unusual color : Sélosse for sure doesn't bleach his juice]. When the grapes are pressed to make Champagne, even though the juice is white, there's a light color intrusion of the skin into the juice leading to this oeil de perdrix (partridge eye) color that they call here couleur tachée (stained color) when white wines are involved. This color question is more or less acute depending of the vintage, the years with more maturity and sun bringing a higher "risk" of darker whites.
For the disgorging stage they hire a contract service company which sends a truck and can handle the 6000/7000 bottles in a day. It's not pertinent to invest in this machinery for a small winery like theirs, he says. At Horiot for example they make maybe between 40 000 and 50 000 bottles of Champagne a year (less in 2009 because they made some Rosé des Riceys) and they don't even sell to supermarkets, their customer base is really the loyal customer who comes at the winery year after year.
On the vineyard management side, they plow between the rows and use natural cow manure as fertilizer in winter. Emmanuel Horiot says that the vines need this help, they don't add this compost to increase the yields but to have a good wood on the vines, because this is crucial for the health of the vineyard.
They don't make yet small-batch wines from their best terroirs but Emmanuel says that he considers doing it one day. His father thought about it, particularly for three plots that they own on what is possibly the three best terroirs of Les Riceys : Le Tronchois, La Velue and Pragnon. That's with this idea in mind that he had ordered the three foudres that we saw in the cellar.
Horiot Père & Fils don't export their wines, they don't even sell in Paris and their buyers are regular customers who drive to the winery (some from as far as Belgium or Germany) to buy wine. I think that with their rates and the quality of their wines they could sell to a wider audience, but in fact this way of things is fine for them. Emmanuel Horiot says that actually from the 8,5 hectares of vineyards that he owns (0,5 being still too young for production), he vinifies between 4 and 5 hectares and sells the remaining juice to the Champagne House Maison Burtin (now part of Marne et Champagne). This lets them [that's my opinion here] a window of opportunity in the future for bigger bottlings and sales.
History of the Rosé des Riceys (in French)