Day 9: Vouette & Sorbée Champagne
When he sent me this post, Peter Liem felt he had to apologize for its length. Running some four pages it is bound to be the longest post of the 31 Days. Luckily for you, the reader, Peter is not one who needs to apologize for going on too long (unlike my rambling bullshit), especially when the subject is Champagne. As a true expert in a sea of internet pretenders, a senior correspondent for Wine & Spirits, the author of champagneguide.net as well as his personal blog Besotted Ramblings, i couldn’t have asked for a better person to cover natural Champagne. Enjoy.
While most of Champagne’s best producers work very conscientiously in their vineyards, there are few estates that choose to pursue organic certification, and even fewer that are certified as biodynamic. One of the most outspoken advocates of biodynamics in Champagne is Bertrand Gautherot, whose Vouette et Sorbée estate has been certified by Demeter since 1998.
Gautherot has only been making champagne since 2001, but he has quickly become one of Champagne’s most sought-after cult producers. Production is tiny, of course, meaning that his wines can sometimes be maddeningly difficult to find even in France; in the United States, the wines have only just become available for the first time this year, imported by Domaine Select in New York and Triage Wines in the Pacific Northwest.
What makes Vouette et Sorbée champagnes special? Well, as an initial caveat, they’re not wines that will please everyone, so some of you might not find them special at all. Oftentimes these are just about as far away from traditional champagne as you can get, aesthetically speaking, while remaining in the champagne appellation. For some people, this is too challenging: champagne, more so than any other wine, seems to instill strong preconceptions about what it ought to taste like. For those who are open to the experience, however, Gautherot’s wines offer a rare originality and individuality of expression, as well as a deep sense of authenticity and artisanality.
Vouette et Sorbée is well-known for being biodynamic, but biodynamics, for Gautherot, is not the raison d’être of the estate—he wants people to drink his wines because they’re good, not because they’re biodynamic. At the same time, he firmly believes that biodynamics allows him to make higher-quality wines, due to the resulting increase in health of both the soil and the vines. As is often the case with natural viticulture, it’s instructive to compare the soils in Gautherot’s parcels with those of adjacent plots, farmed by others in a conventional manner—Gautherot’s soils are humid, crumbly and heavily populated by flora and fauna, whereas the soil of his neighbors is generally dry, compact and starkly devoid of plant or insect life. This seems to translate into the vines as well, as Gautherot’s vines consistently exhibit a greater vitality than those in surrounding parcels do. Even the color and texture of the leaves are different. Gautherot keeps two cows, which he says provide enough manure for his five hectares of vines, as well as the gardens and fruit trees around his house. In addition, he notes that animals such as cows and chickens provide a biodiversity that is critical for maintaining a healthy environment and for creating the requisite complexity of indigenous yeasts used in fermentation.
The estate and its vineyards are located in the village of Buxières-sur-Arce in the Aube’s Côte des Bar, not far from the city of Troyes. Today the Côte des Bar is a region of Champagne, but had the dice of history rolled slightly differently, it could just as easily have become part of Burgundy, or even a completely distinct region of its own. In fact, if you’ve never been there, it can be surprising to discover how far away it really is from what we think of as the heart of Champagne. Located about halfway between Epernay and Dijon, Buxières-sur-Arce is just north-east of Chablis: measuring the distance on a map, it’s only about 60 kilometers to the town of Chablis (although it’s about 80 kilometers if you follow the roads), whereas it’s over 130 kilometers (160 by road) from Reims.
In terms of soil, this area is much closer to Chablis than to the Marne as well. Whereas the Marne lies largely on a bedrock of Cretaceous chalk, the Côte des Bar is composed of Kimmeridgian marl capped by Portlandian limestone, just as the Grand Cru and Premier Cru slopes of Chablis are. Gautherot’s vineyards are arrayed on a large slope just behind the estate itself, reflecting the two different soil types: this photo, taken a few weeks ago on the little road leading from the Vouette vineyard up the hill to Sorbée, neatly shows the division between the rectilinear blocks of Kimmeridgian below and the more highly-weathered Portlandian above.
Most of Gautherot’s vineyard area, and indeed, most of the vineyard land of the Côte des Bar in general, lies on Kimmeridgian soil. These parcels form the foundation of the estate’s primary cuvée, Fidèle, which is made of pure pinot noir and vinified entirely in oak barriques, as are all of Gautherot’s wines. Fidèle is a fine introduction to the style of the estate, showing the vibrant fruit and vinous, soil-driven intensity that characterizes Vouette et Sorbée’s champagnes. Of Gautherot’s three cuvées, this is the one that shows the most overt influence of wood when it’s first released, and personally, I prefer to put it in my cellar and wait until at least a year after disgorgement before drinking it, in order to allow the fruit to evolve and integrate itself. The version you’re likely to see at the moment is the 2006, which is firmly wound-up and closed right now, making the wood feel even more pronounced than usual. I think it’s going to develop well, though—it actually reminds me a lot of the way the 2004 behaved, and that wine turned out great, so I’m hardly concerned. If you come across the 2005, it’s a plusher and more voluptuous wine, and is currently showing very well with a year and a half of post-disgorgement aging.
In 2004, Gautherot began making a blanc de blancs from a Kimmeridgian vineyard called Biaunes, which he calls Blanc d’Argile. The vines are young, planted in 2000, and pruned very severely—in 2004, which is a vintage known for exceptionally high yields, the Blanc d’Argile was picked at a mere 15 hl/ha, which even Gautherot admits is a little ridiculous. Yet this inaugural vintage was a revelation, with a marvelous finesse and piercing clarity of mineral expression, and despite its low yields it was hardly a blockbuster, possessing richness but also an exceptional sense of balance and poise. I preferred it to the 2005, which was riper and more concentrated—the ’05 is certainly worth picking up if you are lucky enough to find it, but my cellar is already stocked with even more bottles of the newly-released 2006, which echoes the 2004 in its sleekness and purity, promising to develop great complexity and elegance.
Unlike Vouette and Biaunes, the Sorbée vineyard lies on Portlandian limestone, higher up on the hill. This is a sizable piece of land—an entire hectare in one solid parcel—and the pinot noir here is separated according to ripeness: the grapes from the lower portion of the vines, close to the base, are used to make a macerated rosé champagne called Saignée de Sorbée, while the grapes from the upper tiers of the vines, which can be as much as two degrees lower in potential alcohol on the same day, are blended into the Fidèle. Saignée de Sorbée is one of the most original wines in all of Champagne, nearly forceful in its pungency and intensity of fruit and anchored by the intensely saline minerality that Gautherot says is characteristic of Portlandian limestone. As with Gautherot’s other champagnes, this wine receives no dosage, nor does it need any. Its vinosity and depth of fruit make it feel almost like a red wine, and it can exhibit flavors that are distinctly unusual for champagne, with savory, spicy, peppery and even gamy notes under the concentrated red fruit aromas. It’s a wine that you either love or you don’t. You, being the sort of eccentric and inquisitive creature that would read something called 31 Days of Natural Wine, are likely to thrilled with it. Normal people might be a little more restrained in their enthusiasm. So don’t say I didn’t warn you if you go popping open bottles of this at your next dinner party.
Gautherot’s first vintage of Saignée de Sorbée was the 2003, which many of his fans still think is the greatest so far. I find it difficult to argue, as that wine was utterly, irreproachably outstanding. Personally, I enjoy the 2004 equally as much, although I seem to be in the minority—distinctly lighter in body than the ’03, it nevertheless demonstrates a fiercely intense minerality and a subtle, quiet complexity that I read as elegantly refined whereas some others read it as insubstantial. Gobless, I say, and I need no gobs to be satisfied. It’s been at least six months since I last drank that wine, but if you like poulsard, and if you are fortunate enough to have a bottle of 2004 now, I think you will agree with me. (But invite me over, please.) The 2005 was extremely awkward when it was released, dominated by its concentration and virile power, and I had to taste it about six times over as many months before I felt that I could properly write about it. It’s developing very well now, and I think it will continue to improve—I still have some bottles and look forward to opening one this fall or winter to see how it’s progressing. The 2006, in contrast, is delicious straight out of the gate, with more lusciously overt fruitiness and less funky gaminess than either the 2005 or 2004, although there’s enough tobacco leaf and black peppercorn complexity here to remind you that it is, indeed, still Saignée de Sorbée. Whatever vintage you drink, be sure that you don’t serve it too cold and that you give it plenty of air—I typically drink it at cellar temperature, directly out of the cave, and I often decant it, giving it an ample glass as well in order to allow the aroma to fully emerge. It requires a very long time to unfold, so be patient with it and pay close attention.
If you’re one of those who likes to know the precise details of the champagne that you’re drinking, you’ll love Vouette et Sorbée’s labels. Each of Gautherot’s bottles lists the disgorgement date (printed in French style: day/month/year) as well as the year of harvest—these can’t be released as vintage champagnes, since they don’t spend the requisite amount of time on the lees, but Gautherot writes Rxx on every label, where R stands for récolte, or harvest, and xx is the year. In the case of Fidèle, this indicates the base year, as there’s a tiny percentage of reserve wine included in the blend, but Gautherot’s other wines are all made entirely from a single vintage. The disgorgement date is highly relevant: due to the low sulfur content of these wines, Gautherot advises drinking them within the first two years after disgorgement, since they can be a bit fragile. That hardly seems a problem for me, as I have trouble keeping my hands off of these wines anyway. The good news for us is that Gautherot has slowly been reclaiming parcels that were previously rented out to négociants, and as of the 2008 vintage, all five hectares of the estate are in full production, effectively doubling the quantity of his wines and making it easier for all of us to actually get some. Don’t be fooled—doubling the production means a grand total of 32,000 bottles a year as opposed to 15-18,000 bottles in the past, so the quantity is still tiny by Champenois standards. But we’ll take what we can get.
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Next Up: DirtySouthWine and Damijan; or: Red wine, pink wine, white wine…orange wine?