Georges Laval is a deep-rooted family Champagne house, with documented vineyard-growing activity by the family as far as 1694. This is a small domaine with only 2,5 hectares, and it is organicly farmed since 1971 (it's even in byodynamy for a while), and given the record in this regard elsewhere in Champagne (and the difficult weather conditions), that is quite exceptional. Before that time, the family was selling the grapes to the négoce.
The village of Cumières (picture on the right) is only 5 kilometers west of Epernay (on the right wing of the pale-rose patch on this map -- Vallée de la Marne), and it sits right down the slope with the Abbaye d'Hauvillers at the top of the hill surrounded with woods. This abbey which was founded in 650 A.D. had been a pilgrimage destination and it got a now-famous host, Dom Pérignon, the Benedictine monk who played a central role in the way Champagne wines became sparkling wines. When you drive from Epernay, as you approach the bridge over the Marne (picture on the left), you have a good view on the patches of parcels along the chalky slopes with the woods at the top, the abbey being in the middle of the woods (out of the frame, further on the right).
Vincent Laval has followed his father's steps and he keeps doing an artisan work on the tiny vineyard surface, working mostly in a way. His wines are unchaptalized (chaptalization is widespread over here) and are vinified in casks. The annual production here is about 10 000 bottles a year (next year itshould make 15 000 bottles), not even a drop compared to the yearly output in Champagne : 323 million bottles in 2012. The yields on Vincent's vineyards are also much lower than the norm in Champagne which is 92 hectoliters/hectare.
__ The conventionally-farmed vine on the left comes from a parcel that Vincent Laval got through a parcel swap and which he uprooted. This vine had it all, the herbicides and the fertilizers (not to speak of the other stuff), and the ground wasn't plowed, so the roots only expanded horizontally on the thin layer of earth right under the surface where it found all its nutrients without having to fight. Some of the roots seem to go down a bit, but that's just by their own weight after having been uprooted : when in place, all these roots were horizontal and at the surface. In these conditions (similar to an irrigation configuration), the terroir doesn't play any role because the roots don't dig down to the soil's depths, they just wait for the easy stuff. Most of the Champagne you find on the market are made from vines with this type of rooting. If I was bad-mouthed I'd say that these wineries are left only with the dosage to get their wine express anything...
__ The vine on the right comes from a plot that was planted in 1930 by Vincent's grand father and has thus always been plowed and farmed without chemicals : its roots went down because of the plowing or tilling, and because it couldn't rest on the generous fertilizers injections on which many growers relied for decades in order to get their 92 hectoliters/hectareyields year after year. Do you really think now that the vineyard management including the work on the ground is neutral for the wines at the end ?
[Note that recently the Champagne-growers Union opposed a plan to ban the use of fertilizers on slopes steeper than 15 %. First, notice that under 15% or on flat terrain, fertilizers don't seem to be a problem for the authors of this European-Union-inspired bill; second, it says a lot about the vital importance of these chemicals for the Champagne wine business and for this Union (the SGV) for such an unanymous bulwark against the bill, which (when you look closer) was nothing more than a diversion by the French government intended to make the EC bodies believe it was making its part to limit the nitrates infiltration in the deeper soil. In short, you'll keep having a majority of vines like the one of the left, and no decisive swing back to a traditional work in a foreseable future. Champagne sells well, it's more a brand than a wine for most people, and the Champagne wineries would get mad at loosing this milk cow.]
The variety here is Pinot Noir in majority and then Pinot Meunier, with several plantation years, 1947, 1967 and 1983. The vine looks young on the picture but that's because the old, thick part is close to the ground and you don't see it well here. Since 2012 he began to make a separate cuvée of this parcel (he waaited the youngest plot to reach 30). He jokes that in conventional-minded Champagne, usually when a plot reaches 30 the trend is to uproot it because the yields begin to drop, endangering a juicy business.
Vincent's grandfather has a small 3-ares parcel on les Hautes Chèvres and through land swaps they reached now 1,3 hectare. He was obliged to uproot and replant some of this surface because nome had the same inter-row and they were also oriented different ways on the slope. So in 2009 he decided to replant these tiny, discordant plots, replacing the vines there with low-yields vines and rootstock. He has Pinot Meunier here, the ones he replanted are clones but with low yields. He also has a replanting in the way on another parcel where he's doing massal selection from his old vines, the grafts are on the preparation stage at the nursery. Today he would use only massal selections for a future replanting.
From 2012 he made a separate cuvée of old Pinot Meunier from Les Hautes Chèvres. Pinot Meunier has been planted historically on this part of Champagne, but you find also chardonnay and pinot noir.
Back in 1970, there were only 7 (seven) growers working organic in Champagne, now there are 120 organic wineries but only 30 can label their Champagne as organic because you need to be fully organic for 6 years to do so and the rest haven't been in this viticulture-management mode long enough. The organic growers of Champagne have their own organization now, the AIVABC. The trend is now getting stronger and that's why you see articles popping up in the local media or in the wine-industry media suggesting that organic farming is as- or more harmful for the soils than conventional farming. The reason is that the mainstream Champagne businesses feel there's a threat for their easy lifehood and try to set up a backfire to sow confusion. The conventional farming is such a cash cow in Champagne that there's lots of lobbying to try reverse or slow the trend toward organic farming and awareness in the extent of soil destruction.
If you read French, here is for example an article from a regional newspaper about a research that would pretend that organic vineyards are more polluted than conventionally-farmed ones.
__ Georges Laval, from a cask : Pinot Noir (white wine of course, direct press) planted in 2003 from the upper slope of Les Hautes Chèvres. In this cask you find a blend of 2009, 2010 and 2011, each new vintage having restarted the fermentation of the whole, which brought more complexity in the final wine. The fermentations took place in a vat and the wine is in casks since last september (2012). He purchased the 3-year old casks in Chassagne Montrachet in Burgundy. This is the still wine and the bottling with crown caps (before the sparkling stage) will take place next august.
__ Georges Laval old-vines harvest 2012, from another cask. Sourced from different old-vine parcels and with the 3 varieties in equal volumes, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier. I didn't take notes for the 1st sample but here we note a big difference, like much more minerality, it seems to me that the stone perspires through the wine. The juice has been put into the casks at the harvest and fermented on indigenous yeasts. At one point the casks were blended together (the 3 varieties) and pumped back into the casks immediately, still on their lees. That's good for sure, very nice still wine.
__ Georges Laval, Chardonnay 2012 still wine, from another barrel. From a lieu dit (climat) names Les Chènes. This fermented in cask, not moved, no racking. There are 4 barrels of Les-Chènes chardonnay and it will make a separate cuvée. Les Chènes is located just beneath the Abbey of Hautvillers near the woods at the top of the slope. The malolactic fermentation is completed and there is still lots of freshness. This chardonnay wine will be bottled and stay 4 years with its crown cap before being disgorged.
__ Georges Laval, from a cask again : Les Longues Violes 2012, Pinot Noir from vines planted in 1947, 1967 and 1983. He waited that the youger part of the vineyard reach 30 to make this separate cuvée of old vines. Also bottled with crown cap next august. THe nose and the mouth are both very nice here, that's really good. Since he was a kid he always heard about the exceptionnal terroir of Les Longues Violes, his ancestors had the empirical knowledge of the different qualities of terroirs they were working on, and they were right on Les Longues Violes. Now, growers aren't as keen as in the past to gauge the respective values of terroirs [maybe because anyway conventional Champagne sells more like a brand than a wine], the good side being that this way, he hadn't difficulty to make his parcel swaps with other growers. Askedd about the crown-cap stage, he says that actually he might put a cork instead of a crown cap, the good side of cork being a bit of aeration and the down side being that there will be differences between the bottles. He hasn't decided yet.
At Georges Laval they always used casks for the vinification of their wines, which is the traditional way.
__ Georges Laval Cumières Premier Cru Brut Nature. From a bottle opened 2 days before. No dosage (no sugar addition), the expelled lees at disgorgement (january 2012) being replaced with the same wine. 50 % chardonnay, 25 % pinot Noir and 25 % pinot meunier. Vintage : 90 % 2010 and 10 % 2009. In 2009 there was only 2009 wine in this cuvée, and same for 2006 but usually he uses 2 vintages. He also says that he makes 2 or 3 disgorgement and for example the same cuvée found these days at Le Verre Volé was disgorged earlier, in november 2012. But for lieu-dit cuvées, the disgorment is made at once. This Brut-Nature cuvée makes a total volume of 7000 bottles, compared with a total production of 10 000 bottles in the winery.
Vincent says that this Champagne, while god to drink now, can age 3, 5 or 10 years easily.
We speak about his surface and Vincent Laval says that in addition to his 2,5 hectares here he has another hectare in another village (20 kilometes away) which he rents, but the rent contract said that he had to sell the grapes to the coop for 18 years, and 2014 is the last of those 18 years, so he'll be allowed afterwards to use the grapes for his own winery. Even though he sells the grapes to the coop, he works the parcel organicly. He will be able to make 4000 or 5000 bottles more thanks to this parcel.
__ Georges Laval, Champagne Rosé 2012, from a cask. Very light color, luminous too. Tastes very good, a pleasure. Pinot noir majority, the rest is pinot meunier. From old vines located on Les Chènes, these old vines having been uprooted this year because their yields were really very low (for the last 3 years they had from one cluster to 3 clusters on each vine there). Chardonnay will be replanted in their place.
The grapes are pressed by feet and the crushed grapes stay with the juice a few hours and then the juice is pumped into barrels
__ Georges Laval, Champagne rosé (2012 I presume), from a bottle on its lees. Pinot meunier and pinot noir, from les Hautes Chèvres. Nice aromatic nose, the color is vivid. Very nice. Vincent says that the old-vines grapes were very ripe with 12° natural alcohol potential. He says that the lees here hide a bit the normally fruity expression of the wine. It should be disgorged and on sale next november. It can be had then right away or kept in the cellar 5 or 6 years. He says that the young rosé wines are on fruits and flowers aromatically, and that if you wait it turns more to the fruit side.
Vincent Laval also makes red wine, although not every year, and in small volumes, like one cask or two. Tis red is made from Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier, from parcels with only 3 or 4 clusters per vine to reach 13 ° in alcohol naturally, the grapes are foot crushed. You can find his red wine (the 2009) at Le Verre Volé in Paris by the way, he says, he produced 200 bottles and they may have gotten 30 or something like that. Not only it's not common to find red wine made in Champagne but it's even less common to find good red wine made there. Vincent says that in total there may be 15 or 20 good red wines in Champagne. Very few [wholesale] customers get his red, and for the last one he made, only three buyers got some (so, don't contact him to ask for some, it's basically sold out).
Watch this video where Vincent Laval explains (in French) when his father refused to use the lab yeasts and the spraying chemicals that were introduced in the region around 1970.
Georges Laval's profile at Spring
Hong Kong importer's profile
Sophie's visit at Georges Laval