Essoyes, Aube (Champagne)
You might have an image of Champagne like a monocultural landscape of hills covered with vineyards and nothing else, but this corner of the Aube is so different. With the woods and the narrow valley you would probably have betted on another wine region if having to decide blind, but this is Champagne. We must remember that the Aube was historically the underdog of Champagne, and in the early 20th century the Maisons de Champagne of the Marne came here to buy grapes, especially between 1907 and 1911 when the harvests were calamitous because of the phylloxera and bad weather. The Aube was just good enough to sell its cheap grapes to the Marne so that the respectable Maisons could turn these otherwise-vulgar grapes into prestigious and expensive Champagne wine, the Aube being the back door where you could source fruit in case of emergency. In those dire years where there was a shortage of grapes, the Aube where the fruit harvest was less affected than the Marne's, helped keep the demand for the prestigious bubbly satisfied, but it was itself not allowed to make Champagne wine according to the Appellation of that time, only the Marne could. the Marne growers were unhappy of this switching to the Aube grapes and this sparked what is known as the Champagne revolts : in short, to calm down the anger of the Marne growers the authorities decided in 1911 to allow only Marne grapes (and a few from certain villages of the Aisne) in Champagne wines, to which the Aube growers responded with demonstrations (picture-postcard). Faced with sometimes-destructive riots, the government after sending the Army in, then chose to sit on the fence and gave Aube the status of "secondary Champagne zone". While this history relativizes the real value of an Appellation, it rewarded at last the Aube for it's humble growing service that had not been recognized before that. The Aube was formally integrated (without restriction) in the Champagne region in 1927.
You can have a look at the distant Aube region on this interactive map of Champagne : mouse down to the southern tip of the Aube département and then zoom in, you'll see that Essoyes is as close to Burgundy as Les Riceys, another hidden gem of Champagne.
Leppert-Leroy, named from husband and wife Bénédicte Ruppert and Emmanuel Leroy is a small winery making less than 5 hectares in vineyard surface. It is located a mere 7 kilometers from the village of Grancey-sur-Ource which is already in the Burgundy region (Côte d'Or). The domaine's vineyards have been farmed organic since the start and are now biodynamic, and for a couple of years it has been making its Champagne wines without any added SO2 from A to Z (from the pressed juice to the bottling).
The vines stand very low against the ground in Champagne, possibly to help the fruit get reverberating heat from the ground in summer. Here on this parcel the soil is thick with limestone.
The domaine's history is relatively recent, it was initiated by Gerard Rppert, the father of Bénédicte, who in the 1970 instead of pursuing a career in the Academia after getting his doctorate in philosophy came here to raise sheep. At the time much of the land with vineyard-growing rights were owned by the village administrations around here, and in the early 1980s' he decided to rent such a parcel to the village and plant vines on it. This was a time when conventional [read : chemical] viticulture was the absolute norm in Champagne, and Gerard, ahead of his time, decided to farm organic from the start. His vineyard having been planted on almost-virgin land the soil is free of the long-ranging effects of conventional agriculture. He didn't make wine himself though, he just sold the grapes to the négoce like many growers in Champagne still do, his grapes were not formally cerified organics at the time but they were by fact.
When he retired recently among his three children only his daughter Bénédicte said that, yes, she could continue his work but she and her husband Emmanuel, who both were previously gym teachers, decided to make the step of making wine themselves and reap really the fruit of this good work made for so many years in the vineyard. Emmanuel is also a perfect handyman with experience in the construction and they designed and built their log house (pictured left) where they live with their 3 children almost by themselves (Emmanuel would make also a terrific carpenter I think). The facility building pictured on right (which they built before the log house) was also designed meticulously, the base material for the walls being for example straw bales which have a big thermal inertia and are very affordable. In small and big ways the young couple thus continued the non-conformist and organic framework initiated by Bénédicte's father.
They starting immediately the certification process for the vineyard and they had their first harvest in 2010.
As they were thinking about how they'd make their wines from their three parcels in those early years they developped ties with winegrowers of the region with whom they shared common values, people like Bertrand Gautherot (Vouette-Sorbée), Demarne Frison, Dominique Moreau (Champagne Piollot), Pierre Overnoy and they figured out how to make their wine, first with the choice of making single-vineyard wines, single vintage, low-dosage Champagnes. This was to be yet another good choice. They make a single Champagne per parcel, Fosse Grely, Les Cogneaux and Martin Fontaine.
The first wine at Ruppert-Leroy which was made from the vintage of 2010 was disgorged in 2012 and the first venue to buy their wine was Aux Crieurs de Vin, an excellent wine bar in Troyes, that's where Josh Adler saw one of their bottles by coincidence while having dinner there as he was in the region to visit a couple of producers for his import company for the U.S. market (Paris Wine Company). He called the winery asking to visit which he managed to do in spite of its difficult access and remoteness from the main road. Josh loved these wines and asked if they'd like to sell him wine, and they said yes. This fortuitous encounter was a chance for Josh because jhad their wines been presented in a tasting in Paris they would have been sold out very quickly considering the small size of the domaine. When Josh told me about this adventure I thought this was a good story and when he offered me to join for a visit I accepted with pleasure.
As you can see on the picture on the right, the facility is getting more improvements and Carlos is doing some carpenter work on a cement slab where a new building will rise. I imagine Emmanuel did a similar work by himself when he built both the log house and the vatroom. It is very uncommon I think to find a Champagne domaine where everything is built by the owners or their direct staff.
Taking advantage of a large 3- or 4-meter-deep pit that has been dug between the winery and the log house, we can have a visual rendering of the meager layer of earth in the region on these hills and the thick compacted rock underneath. Emmanuel says that the vineyards are planted in a very similar type of soil. You can understand that in such a context, vines that are not on chemical fertilizers and added nutrients have to fight their way
deep underground, which isn't neutral on the resulting wine. A surprise visit I made a couple years ago in may in randomly-picked vineyards in Champagne (this story) showed me how the soil is routinely submitted to sprayings and injections in conventional vineyards, probably much more than anywhere else in France, because the vines have been asked such high yields and the soil are just exhausted and kept alive through chemical assistance, like on IV. Organic/biodynamic farming makes indeed a big difference in this region when conventional farming goes to such extremes.
At Ruppert-Leroy they use different herb teas to spray on the vines, either mixing the herb concoctions to the Bordeaux mix in the tractor tank or doing walk sprayings with a backpack sprayer like when they do the biodynamic sprayings to dynamize the parcels.
For their parcels that are close to conventional vineyards (les Cognaux & Martin Fontaine), they put aside the juice from the three rows next to the neighbor's to be sure that no residues spread by wind or uncareful spraying taints their wine. In 2012 when the weather brought a lot of problems they could check how far the neighbor's chemical spraying went into their own parcel, it was one row which was visually like the conventional rows, probably because of the wind and the spraying going beyond its target. But they keep putting asise the 3 first rows next to the chemically-farmed plots to be sure and they sell the juice to a coop in the Marne that anyway buys conventional juice.
Another innovation is that the domaine has eschewed SO2 at all stages of the winemaking including bottling since 2012. In 2011 there was no added so2 during the vinification except a bit after pressing. We had a quick look at the new facility beginning with the press which like always in Champagne looks very different from the ones of the other wine regions.
The pneumatic press picture above can handle 2 metric tons of grapes, it works with a program in order to make a smooth pressing which lasts between 2 and 3 hours, depending of the volume and of the hardness of the grape skins. THe juice falls by gravity into the belon, a vat designed according to the Champagne regulations as wineries must by law separate the cuvée, which is the most acidic part of the juice batch, from the tailles which is the less-acidic part. The tailles is considered a minor quality but at Ruppert-Leroy they like it because it is very aromatic. You can see this special vat designed for Champagne on the left, the largest volume being for the cuvée and the smaller one for the tailles. From 2000 kilograms of grapes they make 10,25 hectoliters of cuvée and 2,5 hectoliters of tailles, there's no way around as this is the regulatory law for Champagne wineries. While you're obliged to separate these parts of the juice at the pressing and vinify them separately, you can blend both together freely if you wish to afterthen, which they do at Ruppert-Leroy, but they'd wish they were allowed to vinify the whole batch together from the start. This separation requirement was initially put in place by authorities to raise the quality of Champagne wines but with their own farming management and lower yields at Ruppert-Leroy there is no advantage in separating the two qualities of juice. In conventional wineries where the yields reach always the maximum allowance for higher profits they have to be more careful and use only part of the tailles.
In the begining when they were still using sulfur, that's here in this compartmentalized tank (the belon) that they'd add 4 grams of so2 directly on the juice.
We walked next to the vat room adjacent to the press room with high-standing stainless-steel vats on the left. That's where the juice gets its lees sediment, they don't use pumps in order to avoid oxidation and they use a forklift to bring the juice above the vat and then let it pour by gravity into the stainless-steel vat. After a night in there when the débourbage (settling of the lees) is completed, they fill the casks samely by gravity, that's why these vats are so high above the ground.
Further in the other side of the vat room (picture on right) they keep the reserves individuelles (the reserves by vintage) in other stainless-steel vats, they'll begin blend these reserve wines little by little to make a blend cuvée which they'll call 11-12-13.
They also keep a rosé in one of these vats, they made this rosé this year with a grape maceration, with the pickers doing by hand with a grid all the destemming for this cuvée. The destemming took ywo hours and there's been some foot stomping too, they made this rosé with the pickers because they wanted to show them the chai side of the wine. An important detail at Ruppert-Leroy is that they pay the pickers by the hour and not by the volume of picked grapes, which lets the staff work in more serene conditions. Elsewhere pickers are paid by the weight and that doesn't encourage quality picking. Given that sorting in Champagne takes place in the vineyard and not on a sorting table it's very important that the pickers do their job with a good judgment without being hampered by the volume factor. Making the rosé themselves help themmake the connection between the good grapes they pick and the final product. The rosé makes one tenth of their whole harvest.
They keep selling still wine until they vinify and bottle all their production, and they sold recently for example some wine to Leclerc-Briant, a Champagne winery which has been farmed in biodynamics for quite a few years. The square vats on the right were used to keep this wine until Leclerc-Briant took delivery of it. For the information since I made my story on Leclerc-Briant, Pascal Leclerc-Briant passed away and the domaine changed hands with parcels being sold in the way, it was finally purchased by an American couple who intended to restore the domaine and buy back parcels (More on this at mid-scroll in this post).
Ruppert-Leroy is a farm in the old-school sense or along the Rudolf Steiner understanding of an economic entity being also a living organism, that's why there are cows and sheep, the manure of which being used if necessary as compost. This open barn on the side of the tool section feels really like an old, cozy farm even if the building is new. With the surrounding woods in the area you really don't feel like you're in Champagne.
As said above they still sell grapes, which helps them grow little by little. They still don't own the vineyards on which they work, there are long-term rentals from the village administration, it is pretty secure but they have to pay every year. Selling grapes helps them pay the bills on difficult years like 2012 for example when the weather and harvest volumes were bad. This helped them also go through the long-élevage time (3 years minimum) of their first vintages during which they couldn't have revenues selling bottles. when you sell grapes you receive 1/4 of the money at Christmas and the rest quaterly. 2013 was also not a very good year in terms of volume but 2014 looks better.
The wines here are made on indigenous yeast, not lab yeast like it's the norm elsewhere, conventional wineries consider selected yeast as a security allowing them to have better control on the wine and secure quick fermentations. When you're on indigenous yeast it's less "efficient" in terms of delay, it may take time, and also you need to pick grapes with the right maturity for indigenous yeast to work properly. If you pick at 9 like it's often the case in the region you will get less yeast, they will work less efficiently; here at Ruppert-Leroy they pick at 11 and thus they don't have to chaptalize, even if he says he may exceptionally resort to it on certain years when the grapes risk rotting on the vines before reaching the right maturity.
Speaking of SO2 they began making trials without adding any of it in 2012, then all their production was made without any added sulfites in 2013 as well as 2014. In 2011 & 2012 they just added a bit (3 or 4 grams) in the belon (the rectangular black vat where the juice fall under the press). as they export to Japan they had lab checks done on these early vintages and the results regarding the so2 level in the wine of 2011 had between 15 and 20 mg total of so2. To put this in perspective the Demeter certification puts the maximum of total so2 at 60 mg.
When they began to make wine without added sulfites they named the new versions Autrement so that people could differentiate their wines between the "with" and "without" so2, even if the doses on the "with" were low. What pleased them in their first trials on the issue was that they had no deviant, oxidative character in the wine. They could also make the two types of wines in parralel in 2012 and when tasting the still wines you saw an obvious difference, the so2-free wine was more exuberant and its aromas were more changing in the glass. Tasting this first so2-free wine along 5 days with keeping the open bottle in the fridge they noticed this evolution in the aromatic range, in the beginning it's fruity, passio fruit, citrus and then it goes toward hazelnut, figs. Emmanuel says that the wine is less stable without so2, but in the noble sense of the word, it just changes and displays different aromas along time, it is alive.
Emmanuel says that in Champagne it is possible to work without SO2 because the wines are very acidic, and also they have two fermentations, which counts because when the second fermentation comes any remaining oxygen will be consumed and disappear.
The malolactic fermentations are completed in the barrel stage and they stir the wine every week to bring a broader exchange between the lees and the wine. The lees have a positive role against oxidation because they're reductive. The tannin of oak may play a role he says because it is antioxidant, and all these parameter together, with the high acidity and the 2nd fermentation means Champagne should have it easy to make wines without any added sulfur.
All the casks bear the name of the parcel from which the wine is made. We taste the 2014 wines.
__ Fosse Grely (parcel) chardonnay, from a demi-muid (600-liter cask). Nice feel of energy in this wine.
__ Martin Fontaine, also from a large-capacity cask, made by the Baron cooperage. He says he buys his casks second hand from Chateau d'Esclans because he likes the low toastings on their barrels. Very refined wine, Josh says.
__ les Cognaux, Pinot Noir. Malolactic completed already here, caramel notes, more ripe in the mouth it seems to me. Still some reduction but quite enjoyable, roundness too.
__ Fosse Grely Pinot Noir. All these wines will be bottled after the flower (lunar windows). This wines shows a superb minerality in the mouth for me, love it.
__ Chardonnay (regular size); Still wine for home consuption, we taste the wine that they keep for themselves, this is the fin de rebêche, the juice coming from very end of the pressing. This rebêche juice is stored in the last, very small compartment in the black rectangular vat receiving the press juice (the belon), they're not allowed to make wine commercially from this part of the juice, so they keep the resulting wine for themselves. Actually in this cask there also much of the cuvée part of the juice, but he warns us, it's very acidic compared to the "normal" wines.
Very vivid in the mouth indeed. As Emmanuel points, it's more woody here because it's vinified in a 225-liter cask, not a 600-liter one. Asked about the alcohol level here he says it's 11 %, that's the target in Champagne because they'll add 1 % at the 2nd fermentation.
In the next room we see the bottle storage and the gyropalette (the tool in the background) which turns automaticly a large volume of bottles to bring the sediments/lees into the bottle neck and make the disgorging easy.
The disgorgement is made by a service company, a truck comes here like we know they have a system to freeze the lees in bottle neck which makes their expulsion easy.
We tasted a few bottles :
__ Ruppert-Leroy Fosse Grely 2012. 50 % Pinot-Noir/Chardonnay. 2300 bottles. Soil : similar to what you see in the pit further above : very thin layear of earth and then limestone. The first feel is the freshness and easy drinking for me. Thin, discreet type of bubbles. There's a life feel too, I'd add it's normal with the biodynamics. Nice wine
In 2012 there was still some so2 added at the press stage (in the belon). As said above the lab checks made for the Japan exports showed levels being at only 15-20 total so2.
__ Ruppert-Leroy les Cognaux 2012. Blanc de Noirs (pinot noir 100 %). Elevage in vat with a small part in casks. Disgorged october 2014. Soil : grey clay, deep layer. There was lots of mildew in 2012.
Here the bubble type is more present, forward. Mouth more austere too. Emmanuel says that they noticed that the pinot noir has cycles and goes through periods where it's closed or open.
__ Ruppert-Leroy Martin Fontaine 2012 100 % chardonnay, 100 % vinified in old casks bought in Chassagne-Montrachet (they were 4-wine old when they bought them in 2011). Since 2013 they switched to the larger demi-muids with which the wood imprint is lighter, right now they have two such large casks per cuvée and the rest in regular size. Vineyard : slope exposed south with limestone undersoil.
Nice onctuous feel in the mouth with a creamy touch. Nice Champagne.
__ Ruppert-Leroy Fosse Grely "Autrement" 2012. 100 % Pinot Noir. The version without added sulfites from A to Z. Nice inspiring nose. Lots of seduction in the mouth. Richness, roundness, very discreet bubbles. Obviously there's more complexity in this so2-free wine. Aromas keeping changing in the glass as we're chatting.
Speaking of bubbles I learn that theorically to get a 6-bar pressure in the bottle you need to put 24 grams (of sugar I suppose) per liter, and at Ruppert-Leroy they put rather 22 grams instead of 24 and this way the bubble is less agressive. That's what I like also in these Champagne wines, the bubble is discreet and gentle. The sugar used here is MCR bio [organic] (moût concentré rectifié or concentrated rectified grape must). Emmanuel says that they prefer the vinous side of Champagne to the bubble side, good point, I do too.