I made a brief visit to Régis Chawaf in Verzenay, Montagne de Reims in Champagne. Régis is a young Champagne producer whose Grand Cru I tasted recently with a group of friends wine amateurs in Vincennes. My friend Maryse Sargis had brought this bottle of Champagne Grand Cru Extra Brut and we had been impressed by the character of this Champagne as well as by its length. This was a high-end Champagne style of wine for only 32 € at the shop in Paris. Maryse, who runs a blog had written a post about Régis recently while he discussed his wines in Paris but I couldn't be there and it motivated me to go to Reims [pic on left] and visit the burgeoning winery.
Régis Chawaf wasn't initially in the winery trade and he worked in Paris, but his family owned some 3,57 hectares of mostly Champagne Grand Cru vineyards that were until now exploited by someone else on the fermage rent system. Married with a baby son (who was to be baptised the day following my visit), he decided that it was time to make the jump and do the winemaking and bottling himself. His father, a Syrian native and doctor who settled in Champagne and married his wife Bernadette Leventre, never tried to recover the vineyards. Using the winery facility of friends in Verzenay, he makes now three cuvées from a handful of plots (among the total of 40 plots in fermage), a Champagne rosé, a Brut and an Extra Brut, all in Grand Cru and made with Pinot Noir (and with some Chardonnay percentage for some of them). He named his nascent winery Leventre Dedieu, associating his grandfather's name to his grandmother's maiden name. If you know French, you have understood the incredible union of his grand parents names : Leventre Dedieu means (written this way : le ventre de Dieu) in English God's belly, which has a special resonance when applied to a delicacy like his Champagne.
Once in Verzenay, Régis showed me the family house in the center of the village. There, I met briefly with his mother Bernadette and his wife Marianne (respectively on the right and on the left) who was fedding her baby boy. Marianne works in Paris for the famous jeweller Boucheron and Régis owns himself a jewelry workshop. They both keep their jobs during this gradual restarting of the winery, and Régis commutes from time to time to his vineyards or to the winery facility of his friends. Many young vignerons setting shop keep at least one salary to help making ends meet.
While recent renovations since the 1980s' didn't let the ancientness of the house show at first glance, the deep cellar and the side building were still firmly rooted in the 17th and 18th century, with the purity and architectural elegance of these man-dug caves. We reached the cellar through a steep staircase. Once at the bottom, there were a couple of tunnel rooms with a few remains of Régis' maternal grandfather works, that is dusty or even mould-covered bottled, riddling tables with still a few bottles on them.
Back to the cellar (I loved this place) : There were a couple of places in the cellar where bottles were literally drowned into white or black mold, this was like in the movies except that it was was for real, a vivid and delicate life that was feeding off the subtle vapors emanating from the wine inside. These molds are for me like a physical etheral body materializing a very important life activity like the one of the mysterious natural yeasts, which live somewhere between the walls of the chais and the grapes skins...
in the future, Régis plans to build a separate facility so that his friend and himself don't need to rent the Verzy press and vatroom. It'll have to be large enough to accommodate 300 hectoliters of wine (when the whole of his vineyards will be recovered) for his own output, plus 2000 hectoliters for his friend. Right now he uses a pneumatic press in Verzy, but he doesn't like that and he wants one day to invest in a "tilted-tray press" (pressoir à plateau incliné) similar to this one by Coquard. On this type of press, the pressure/surface ratio is close to the traditional Champagne press (here is a visual demo of its modus operandi. He would put it in the first room of this facility, near the street.
The picture above and the ones below were shot in a separate élevage cellar that you reach from the first warehouse (with the three small vats) through a long tunnel (pic on left) large enough for pallets, that has been dug under a couple of village gardens, reaching another larger, cement-walled and 12-meter-deep cellar where several vintages of Champagne wait in lined blocks of bottles.
Régis says that he feels very confident on the work style of his friend here, for example regarding SO2, they use it very conservatively, just when needed. He says that SO2 is added at pressing as well as after the alcoholic fermentation so that it contains the strict minimum of 10 mg per hectoliter. This needs lots of hygiene in the fermentation tanks and in the vatroom (in Verzy). He and his friend want also to make a few cuvées without malolactioc fermentation, and it means that they will need to keep the wine for a longer élevage, because as they will have to put more SO2 to block the MF, they will have on the other hand to lay down the wines longer so that the SO2 get away along the years. The good side for this type of Champagne without malolactic fermentation is that you get older Champagne wines with a very nice acidity, which is a plus.
As said above, right now 90 % of the wine having its élevage in this cellar had its malolactic fermentation done, but it may change in the following years as they may block the MF for a proportion of their wines.
Leventre Dedieu Champagne-wines public rates are very affordable at the winery, like in the low twenties for the base cuvées, a very good deal for grower stuff.
Yes, believe it or not, companies wanting to open bus lines between French cities must have the prior authorization of the SNCF, which it of course never gives so as to be sure to keep extorting outrageous prices on its captive customers, and that’s why there’s not a single long-distance bus line in France. This is an issue which is almost never addressed by the mainstream media in France, and even though the EC explicitly condemned this blockade, nothing has changed. The following document of the International Transport Forum sums up the situation, read this extract :
"There are essentially no long-distance express coach services in France. The regulation of public transport is allocated to the State for interregional passenger transport services, and these are the monopoly of the national railway company SNCF. Regional and local transport services are organised by the Départements (to be compared with counties) and by (co-operation of) municipalities. Most of these services are submitted to competitive tendering. Express services exist at the level of the Départements, when ordered by the respective transport authority, but no services are operated on a national scale on real long distances.As a result of this, and although some competition exists between SNCF‟s train services – in particular its TGV high-speed train services – and the airline business, there is no such competition between rail and road. Market entry by market initiative by individual transport operators is, for the time being and since the enactment of the current transport legislation in 1982, not foreseen and prevents explicitly direct competition to SNCF services. As a result, such entry is de facto impossible. Gaining the agreement of SNCF seems illusory, as the company has always been opposed to the idea."
This whole issue summarizes the alas frequent French scenario of the class-privilege trend that is the rule here, with public sector groups taking the rest of the country in hostage in order to perpetuate their overpriced service and their jobs for life. This thing is to my opinion at the root of the obvious French economic decline compared with its European neighbors.
So, [end of the rant] I resorted to this very encouraging alternative which is getting momentum these days in France and in Europe : car sharing. I’ve been trying this transportation mode several times recently and I was surprised at the number of proposed rides, their affordability and the enjoyment of the whole experience. Covoiturage.fr is a such a free-registration website where travelers and drivers are put into contact for the best benefit of each side. Just type a departure city on the left, an arrival city on the center, and a date on the calendar on the right, and you get many opportunities with the phone number (once registered and logged in) of the driver, the fee, departure time and everything. This is a great way to make friends (you don’t need to be perfectly fluent in French but a few words will help), and it’s also very likely that the driver may drop you at the door of your destination , which the SNCF would have trouble to do.
The meeting in Paris was near Porte de Vincennes (there was another person, a young woman waiting there too) and with three passengers, the cars were full on both ways. We took the toll freeway each time. I came back the evening of the same day, meeting the driver at Reims' train station. ;-) It cost me 10 € to go to Reims and 13 € for the return trip, that made a 23 € round-trip instead of 100 € for the SNCF…. And you can do car-sharing all over Europe…