Forbes article: Champagne is evolving — “Les Artisans” are expressing the individuality of the place
This is the English version of an article published for my wine column at Forbes Japan. The Japanese version is found here.
Les Artisans du Champagne, which literally translates as “Champagne craftsmen,” is a group of producers. Its sixteen members are all growers who produce unique wines from their own vineyards. Each of these producers shines with its individuality.
The group was formed in 2011 by producers who have shared the same vision and will mark its tenth anniversary this year. It hosts a tasting every April at Les Crayeres, a two-Micheline starred restaurant in the Champagne region, and wine professionals from all over the world come to Reims to taste its Champagne.
One of the aspects that makes Champagne more exciting is its diversity; the sense of the place, the characters of the grapes that grow there, and the philosophy of the winemakers all lead to a wide variety of wine styles.
While respecting each other’s style, the members of the group are united with a common vision to provide wines that express the characteristics of their place. “Champagne is not just bubbles – it is, first of all, excellent wine,” says François Huré, one of the founders of the group. Tasting wines made with such a philosophy can lead to a more detailed understanding of Champagne and can even lead to new discoveries.
In this article, I would like to introduce five members of this group that I truly recommend you try – Huré Frères, Pierre Paillard, JM Sélèque, Pierre Péters, and Savart.
Huré Frères: An authentic and precise wine
Huré Frères is based in the village of Ludes. It is run by two brothers, who inherited the vineyards from their parents and are producing wine in accordance with their own belief.
François, the older brother, is a visionary and one of the founders of Les Artisans group.
The village of Ludes has a vineyard on a north-facing slope, and the grapes that are grown there bring freshness and structure to the wine. The soil is complex, and three varieties of grape are planted there, according to the characteristics of the site: Meunier, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay. Where the soils are mixed with sand, they are ideal for growing Meunier and “produce floral, delicate, and elegant wines,” says François.
The introductory NV “Invitation” is pleasant and welcoming, and François says it is a “breakfast Champagne” that can be enjoyed from the morning. The Champagne that best demonstrates the brothers' passions is named “4 éléments”. Its name represents the four elements of: one plot, one grape variety, one harvest year, and one vision. It is a Champagne that demonstrates the producers’ sincere attitude to wine.
Pierre Paillard: Pursuing the expression of the best Pinot Noir terroir
Pierre Paillard is another producer headed by two brothers. It is based in the Grand Cru village of Bouzy, one of the best terroirs for Pinot Noir in Champagne. The vineyards are on a south-facing slope, where the grapes ripen enough to produce juicy and powerful wines. Pierre Paillard's champagne has elegance as well. Antoine, the older brother, is responsible for viticulture and places special emphasis on vineyard work to produce a wine that expresses the personality of Bouzy village.
Due to the different soils and terroir within the same village, the Les Maillerettes plot is planted with Pinot Noir, while the Les Mottelettes plot is planted with Chardonnay. The vines in these vineyards are old and take an important role in carrying the genes of the grapes inherited by the Paillard family to future generations through massal selection. It would be interesting to taste and compare the two side by side.
The Pinot Noir there ripens well, and the village of Bouzy is historically famous for producing red wine. Red wine is indispensable for making rosé Champagne through a blending method, but it can also be bottled as Coteaux Champenois, a still wine from the Champagne region.
When visiting Pierre Paillard, I tasted the 2005 Coteaux Champenois Rouge with Quentin Paillard, a younger brother. The wine turned out to be charming with matured and complex flavors of forest floor and black truffles as well as dark cherry and dried fruit. I appreciated another spectrum of Champagne, not just from the bubbles.
JM Sélèque: A creator from the younger generation
After experiencing winemaking in California and Australia, Jean-Marc Sélèque returned home in 2008. Since then, he has been making wine based on his own ideas. Inspired by the fact that the producers that he admires, whose wines he himself likes, have stopped using herbicides and made improvements to their vineyards, he has adopted a similar farming method. He has also introduced new techniques in winemaking.
Jean-Marc has quickly gained a reputation, and his wine is now served in Michelin-starred restaurants in Paris and other cities in the world. JM Sélèque is the newest member of Les Artisans, having joined last year. Jean-Marc says, “I've known the other members for a while. Les Artisans is, first of all, a group of people who are friends with the same passion and vision for wine. It was natural for me to join.”
JM Sélèque is based in the village of Pierry, close to Epernay. There is a mixture of soils there and, Jean-Marc explains, “The blend that is essential for Champagne is already in the vineyards here.” There are also soils that are suitable for growing Meunier grapes, which have been attracting attention in recent years, and JM Sélèque’s Meunier Champagne “Soliste” is definitely worth checking out.
Jean-Marc is also a musician and uses musical terms in naming his Champagne. “Partition,” which means “music score,” is a cuvée that blends the best barrels from the best seven plots to explore the potential of his own vineyards.
When visiting him, I tasted Jean-Marc's first “Partition” which is the 2008 vintage. The wine presented a balanced and integrated impression due to its aging. At the same time, it had a vivacity, which could evolve further. Like Jean-Marc himself, this is a wine that will definitely make leaps forward.
Pierre Péters: The best Blanc de Blancs
Pierre Péters is situated in the grand-cru village of Le Mesnil sur Oger, famous for its Chardonnay. The topsoil is shallow and the chalky soil spreads deep underground to produce Chardonnay with long aging potential. Pierre Péters is one of the best producers of Blanc de Blancs Champagne made from 100% Chardonnay grapes.
During the harvest in 2019, I visited Rodolphe Péters of Pierre Péters. Harvest is an extremely busy and important time when every single judgment determines the quality of the wine. While spending time with Rodolphe and seeing his precise and detailed winemaking, I began to understand why his finished Champagne was of such high quality. I particularly like the Blanc de Blancs from Les Chétillons, which is considered as the best vineyard in the village of Mesnil. It has a delicate and steel-like structure, as well as generosity and umami, that can be enjoyed from its release.
A hidden favorite Champagne produced by this Blanc de Blancs master is “Rosé for Albane,” a rosé Champagne named after his daughter. This charming wine is made by blending the Chardonnay of Mesnil, that has purity, with Meunier rosé wine with its soft and friendly fruits.
Savart: A bright and delicate wine
Frédéric Savart, the current winemaker of Champagne Savart, is a cheerful and bright character. Originally a soccer player, he returned to his Domaine to help his father and, in 2005, took over the family business. He enjoys drinking a variety of wines, particularly Burgundy, and this has influenced his winemaking.
Ecueil, where Savart is based, is a Pinot Noir terroir, and Savart's four-hectares of vines are mostly planted with Pinot Noir, with a small amount of Chardonnay.
The introductory NV “L'Ouverture” is a 100% Pinot Noir made through malolactic fermentation, which is as bright and accessible as Frédéric, but with a solid structure and lingering finish. The rosé Champagne “Bulle de Rosé” is a favorite of mine. It is delicate and complex with cherry and strawberry flavors.
Savart's wine is now hard to find due to its low volume of production and growing popularity. It is not just its taste that makes the wine so popular, however, but also the charming character of Frédéric that attracts wine lovers!