Near Mardeuil, France, biodynamic Champagne winemaker Vincent Charlot holds his most precious asset: healthy soil. To make the best champagne, Charlot says he must “understand the mind of the soil.” Biodynamic practices direct Charlot in how to listen and learn from the soil in his vineyards.
For Vincent Charlot, making the best champagne he can means he must “understand the mind of the soil.”
After several weeks of warm fall days with cool nights ideal for harvest in Champagne, his grapes were in, and the rain had begun falling, gently, and irregularly down for a few days.
Because of intensive, widespread pesticide use, the region of Champagne may have the most polluted water in France — and the world. Charlot uses natural, organic remedies to build strength in the vines through the chalky soil. “When you have soil like this, the roots are deep,” says Charlot. “Just like a person — more balanced, less sick.”
And while rain had been predicted for our vineyard visit, the skies only held fluffy clouds when we pulled into the small parking area at the edge of the village of Mardeuil where we were meeting Vincent Charlot who had promised to take us into his vineyards.
Looking toward the Mardeuil, France winery buildings of biodynamic Champagne winemaker Vincent Charlot.
According to Charlot’s importer The Source, “The Coteaux d’Epernay, where Charlot is located, is a sub region of the Vallée de la Marne. It encircles Epernay like an amphitheatre that provides life to Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. The soil is predominantly chalk (known here as “craie”), with some clay and silex. The soil, combined with the cool continental climate of the north, helps craft tenacity, structure and great acidic tension.”
You can taste the chalk when you taste the soil — which we all did and enjoyed because it is not dead and full of pesticides: Champagne has some of the most polluted water on earth because of pesticide use in the vineyards of Champagne.
“When you smell the soil with products, you can smell the difference,” says Charlot.
Vincent Charlot speaks passionately and animatedly about the importance of biodynamic practices on a fall day in Champagne.
And when you taste the chalk, you can taste that the wine is born from the sea, says Charlot.
The chalk comes from a time when France was underwater, and in addition to serving as a source of distinct notes in the wine, it also works as a giant sponge absorbing water during the rainy season in late winter and early spring, and releasing that moisture in the hot summer months.
Because unlike vines in the US, vines in Champagne are dry farmed meaning that they are not irrigated. Water is not brought in from someplace else — the water that comes to the vines percolates through the soil and the earth to be absorbed there and released later as needed.
It is through the process of evapotranspiration that the vines carry minerals from the earth via moisture into the vines and the grapes.
A piece of silex or flint from Charlot’s vineyard in my hand: chunks of stone are found in Champagne as well as Loire and provide a characteristic sulphur note to the wines. The rock is really hard and when banged, it releases the familiar sulphur smell of a match struck on flint.
Terroir Champagne expert Caroline Henry told us a visit to the vineyards is rare and special — few are invited to walk among the precious vines, and we were excited to spend some time with Vincent Charlot there, to taste his wines, and if time, to visit his cellar.
Vincent Charlot, Caroline Henry, and Sue Hill inspect his biodynamic vines.
Almost immediately after we arrived, we jumped into Vincent’s car and he left the pavement for the vineyards which grow not far from his winery. It’s very clear which ones are his:
The biodynamic vineyards are the ones that look a little wild, weedy even, like the yard of the neighbor that the association frowns on because it looks messy and not manicured.
But in that mess is LIFE — rich, complex, life, a web that brings the minerals along with the moisture up from the ground into the vines and the grapes.
This is what makes biodynamic wines so special — it’s not just that biodynamic winemakers avoid pesticides, but that they are regenerating the soil, creating a weblike network of life, and in that process, making better wine — wine that gets higher scores and leaves us feeling better.
White yarrow grows along the edge of one of Vincent Charlot’s biodynamic vineyards in Champagne. Extensive diversity amongst the vines includes peas, wild strawberries, and raspberries.
“You must have a lot of vegetation,” says Vincent. “If you retain the soil, the mushroom will be there.”
By mushroom, Charlot means the mycorrhizal fungi that produces a web of communication between the various plants and attaches the soil to the roots making the soil light and fluffy.
“When you have soil like this, the roots are deep,” says Charlot. “Just like a person — more balanced, less sick.”
Mycorrhizae form symbiotic relationships with the vines and other plants in the vineyard; they colonize the root system of a host plant, providing increased water and nutrient absorption capabilities. In turn, the plant offers carbohydrates formed from photosynthesis.
As Charlot farms biodynamically, we safely smell and sample soils formed from marine fossils long ago. “When you taste the chalk, you can taste that the wine is born from the sea,” says Charlot. Like a sponge, chalk absorbs moisture releasing it by evapotranspiration to carry minerals from earth into grapes for flavor and texture in wine. Vincent Charlot shares some sweet smelling and tasting soil with Sue Hill in Champagne, France.
Dealing with pesticide overspray is a challenge, says Charlot, that he overcomes by not including those rows in his wines. When a plot was accidentally dosed with pesticides, that required him to wait three years before he can get it certificated again.
His vines have been organic and biodynamic for 15 years, he says. While his grandfather grew grapes and made wine, his father sold the grapes to the cooperative. Vincent took over the vines from his father in 2001 but convinced his father to experiment with viticultural practices back in 1994 and they began the transition to organic when he saw “life return to the vineyard” and a “difference in purity in his wine experiments” as Caroline Henry reports in her book Terroir Champagne.
“When you drink the wine,” says Charlot, “you understand the soil.” If there’s more clay, there’s more fruit, more sensuality; the chalk soils have more tension. Few are invited to visit vineyards; I am fortunate to walk there with Charlot. In the US, Vincent Charlot’s biodynamic champagne ranges in price from $60-$110.
In the Tasting Room: WINES
“When you drink the wine,” says Vincent, “you understand the soil.” If there’s more clay, there’s more fruit, and more sensuality while the chalk soils have more tension.
Vincent Charlot’s biodynamic sparkling wines from Champagne range in price from $60-$110. According to the search engine 1000 Corks, two of Charlot’s champagnes can be found in NYC but I am going to try to get Ventura’s Cave to carry them!
Bottles and caps are expressive of what’s important to the winemaker; the caps have photos of people who matter:
“I want the spirits inside,” he said, meaning that the spirit of the person is infused in the spirit of the wine. For Vincent, chardonnay has a more feminine character, and pinot noir is more masculine.
One of our first observations of his wines is that they lacked that characteristic “brioche” or yeasty smell of most commercial wines. Vincent pointed out that just like coke has a distinct flavor that people expect so does the large commercial wines which is in contrast to his which are terroir driven and expressive of the soils and the vintage.
a few of the caps
2012 Cuvee Michelene
70% chardonnay 30% pinot noir
Very faint brioche nose, with lovely fruit, clean and refreshing, and delicate persistent bubbles. High acid, high minerality.
Basse Ronces 2013 100% chardonnay
Blanc de Blanc
Clean and acidic, you can really taste the chalk from the soil in this wine.
2013 Chardonnay en parure de roses
Extra brut, 90% chardonnay 10% pinot meunier
This wine had 50 hours of maceration because the salinity is not in the pulp but in the skins, and he wanted to capture that in the wine:
“The spirit of the chardonnay is in the soil,” Vincent told us.
When you close your eyes, it is all about the chardonnay; the pinot meunier adds a bit of color and sensuality.
Another clean refreshing high acidity wine that has the essence of the chalky soil.
2013 “Le Fruit de ma Passion” “Fruit of My Passion”
55% Pinot meunier, 45% chard
So clean and pure: lovely crisp, tart. A bit of brioche, but very subtle. The soil has a bit more clay which brings a roundness to the wine. The only thing added to this wine is a little bit of organic must. Dosage is usually 4g/L.
Label has sun and moon to represent the biodynamic practices that integrate the sun and moon cycles.
“When you work biodynamically,” said Vincent, “you work closely with the sun and moon. But that’s really just the beginning in biodynamics. When you believe about the sun and the moon, the rest is more simple.”
With regards to tasting wine following the biodynamic calendar, Vincent says that it’s more important when a wine is younger; the calendar is less influential on an older wine.
Note: Photos that include me below were taken by Sue Hill.
Happy Champagne Day!
Today, October 18, we celebrate champagne on the tenth annual Champagne Day: so raise a glass and toast this sparkling wine that signifies celebration everywhere!
Started 10 years ago to recognize and appreciate the sparkling wine that comes exclusively from Champagne, France, today, this worldwide social media event brings together millions of wine lovers who celebrate this day by hosting events and blogging, tweeting and commenting on all aspects of this unique bubbly.
In a sweepstakes where individuals shared the Champagne Bureau’s official Save the Date on Twitter for a chance to win, my friend and fellow wine blogger Martin Redmond won a $150 Visa gift card.
“Like many, I’m a big fan of Champagne and I think it’s important to be authentic. Champagne Day is a great way to celebrate this unique wine and remind people it only comes from Champagne, France!” Martin told the Champagne Bureau.
Share your celebrations today and find out what’s happening by using the hashtag #ChampagneDay. To find events, visit www.champagneday2019.com. For more information about #ChampagneDay or the worldwide effort to protect the Champagne name, please visit www.champagne.us, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Twitter handle: @ChampagneBureau.