Finding the Fountain of Youth: Montesquieu Winery’s Grand Cru Champagne
September 28, 2011, by: Stephen George
Forgive us if we feel a bit like Ponce de Léon.
Over the past few years, we’ve been searching high and low for just the right opportunity to craft exclusively for our clients a Grand Cru Champagne that we can call our own. The winegrowers had to be of the highest level, showering each vine with attention and care; the chef-de-cave had to share our terroir-driven winemaking values; the cellar had to be first-rate; the property had to be capable of producing the very best fruit; and the wines had to be thoroughly delicious.
It took a long time – and countless tastings and visits – but we finally found what we were looking for. And although it’s not quite the Fountain of Youth, it’s one heck of a Champagne!
It all started on my first visit to a true Champagne cave – something I’ll never forget. My traveling companions, our fearless leader Fonda Hopkins and our intrepid winemaker Hélène Mingot, were not nearly as green as I. They knew the Champagne region well, having logged many miles over the years searching for just the right sparklers to source for our clients. But although I have tasted many different Champagnes in my day, I’d never before been there in person.
We were driving from tastings in Paris to Reims, the capital of Champagne, and we headed to a cooperative of winegrowers located in the tiny Grand Cru village of Mailly. This was our first stop in the region – my first-ever stop in Champagne – so perhaps it was inevitable that I would be pretty impressed with what I saw there.
But impressing Fonda and Hélène was not inevitable – not in the least. As seasoned wine buyers who demand nothing less than excellence, they’ve seen it all in Champagne, from the best to the worst. Over time, they’ve honed their instincts for separating the wheat from the chaff, for discerning authenticity and quality from fluff and marketing. It would take more than a beautiful cave and a fancy presentation to get their attention.
But impressed they were. Upon arriving, we quickly learned that there’s a lot more to this cooperative than a cool facility (although the cellar is amazing). We had heard great things about them from some industry friends in the know, and the recommendation proved prescient. The 25 Mailly winegrowing families that still form the cooperative today all joined forces in 1929 under the leadership of one of the most respected growers in the village, Gabriel Simon (1898-1982). They knew they had great terroir on their hands – all of the vineyards are designated Grand Cru – and decided that pooling their resources and working collaboratively made more sense than going it alone, especially in those depressed economic times.
As the cooperative became more and more successful, the temptation to expand their 70 hectare holdings to other land was intense. But Gabriel Simon was a man of vision and principle, and he helped convince his fellow growers to continue focusing on quality rather than succumbing to the siren song of quantity. As a result, the cooperative only uses its estate grapes, all of which are grown on its Grand Cru parcels – making it the only house in all of Champagne to use nothing but Grand Cru grapes.
The value of their land holdings can hardly be overstated. Champagne isn’t like some regions, where it seems that everywhere you go you bump into a “Grand Cru” property. Champagne has 320 different cru villages, but only 17 of them are designated Grand Cru, the highest level of quality. Even then, not all Grand Cru Champagnes are created equal, of course. But we could see as we toured the property that this cooperative’s land was a cut above, even in the hallowed Grand Cru category. The terroir is stunning, with ideal chalky soils and perfect sun exposure. Because all of these grapes are from the same property, the wines can express more fully the distinctiveness of its terroir in the final wines (most Grand Cru Champagne cuvées are a blend from multiple Grand Cru villages). And since all of the vines are literally in the backyard of the winery, the harvested grapes don’t need to travel far before being sorted and crushed – which is critical (and all too rare) in the production of top quality, fresh Champagne.
Once their grapes are harvested, they treat them right by vinifying many of the plots separately in their 26 sixty-hectoliter vats devoted to this purpose. This costly, time-draining approach is unusual in Champagne, and it draws out the unique character of each parcel. A small percentage of the base wine is even fermented in wood barrels from Chateau Margaux, which adds depth and roundness. And the best cuvees age for up to five years in the dank, dark cellar as the Champagne deepens in flavor and complexity.
And what a cellar it is! It’s important in this business to remember that beautiful facilities do not necessarily equate to beautiful wines. But in this case, the stunning cave certifies the personal nature of this cooperative and reflects the winegrowers’ diligence and care. Why? Because they built the seven-story underground cave themselves – by hand. The original winegrowers began digging the cave in the winter of 1929 using only hand tools. For the next thirty-six years, they continued to dig each winter until the cave was finally finished in 1965. The result is seventy-seven steps, over a kilometer of low-slung, narrow, arched tunnels, and seven underground levels – all carved out of the chalky subsoil and stone that makes Champagne so distinctive.
It was quickly becoming clear to us that we had found our muse – the perfect partners for creating a Grand Cru Champagne worthy of the Montesquieu name – and once we tasted their range of wines brimming with cut, clarity and personality, we knew this was it. So we partnered with these winegrowers to make a special wine to call our own out of some of the property’s very best parcels. We crafted it in a rare extra brut style so as to allow the brilliant fruit and terroir to express itself fully without being obscured by dosage.
And we decided together with the winegrowers there that the wine should have a name worthy of a tête-de-cuvée – none other than Gabriel Simon himself. Mr. Simon began the cooperative in 1929 and continued as its president for over 55 years until his death in 1982. He loved this land like his own family, actually referring to the cooperative as the “daughter” he never had.
Tasting the final wine, we think it’s a fitting choice. We think Gabriel Simon would be proud of what his land produced – a Champagne that is the pinnacle of what Grand Cru terroir can express, whose freshness, depth, minerality, complexity and unforgettable beauty reflects the devotion of the winegrowers who gave it birth.