Rock Star Champagne Grower-Producers: Serge Mathieu and Chartogne-Taillet

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cow sculpture at Serge Mathieu

Two stars of my Holiday Champagne Buyers Guide this year–Serge Mathieu and Chartogne-Taillet–are grower-producers whose wines express a sense of place. Both are also terrific values amongst my most highly rated Champagnes this year.

I visited both producers in Champagne in September. I’d previously been familiar with Chartogne-Taillet, whose wines have noticeably improved in recent years, but Serge Matheiu was a new and most welcome find.

As we approach New Year’s Eve celebrations, I want to highlight these two producers for their painstaking efforts, in the vineyard as well as in the cellar, yielding Champagnes of true, delicate beauty and artistry.

Serge Mathieu

The Mathieu family has grown grapes in what is now the Aube region of Champagne since the 1700s. In the 19th century their tiny village of Avirey-Lingey boasted 80 inhabitants and 400 hectares of vineyard. The commune was one of many in Champagne that suffered a great deal of damage in World War I. One hundred years later the village’s population has increased to 180 but vineyard acreage is down to 120 hectares.

Over the decades the Mathieus amassed parcels of vineyards that today total 11 hectares. Serge Mathieu first started working with his father France in 1958. Up until 1970, like other growers in the area, they sold all their grapes, mainly to Marne Valley producers, since it was costly and difficult to build cellars in the area. In 1970, however, they produced their first 5,000 bottles of Champagne.

Serge’s daughter Isabelle, who had studied languages in school, joined the operation in 1987. She focused on finding export markets for the wines, which up until then were virtually all sold within France. Within a dozen years, the family was exporting 60% of their production.

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Serge Mathieu and Michel Jacob

In 1996, Isabelle married Michel Jacob, a grower from a neighboring village. By 1999, he was farming the estate’s vineyards, while Serge trained him on cellar work. Ultimately Serge also passed on winemaking responsibilities to Michel, who has proven to be not only a thoughtful farmer but also a winemaker with a wonderfully light touch. The result is some of the most ethereal, artful and delicious Champagne I had the pleasure of enjoying during my week’s visit to Champagne. Since I returned home, I’ve been trying these wines out on fellow Champagne lovers who have also been impressed.

The Serge Mathieu vineyards are planted 80% to Pinot Noir and 20% to Chardonnay. The Pinot Noir averages 50 years old, with the oldest vines having 57 years. The Kimmeridgian limestone soil here is very rocky, with an abundance of limestone rocks lying on the surface.

Michel is quite modest about his efforts in the vineyard. When Serge asked him to take over the estate, Michel told him he was going to use his own methods, like ploughing the rows again with horses to reduce soil compaction. He now practices what he calls “environmentally friendly viticulture.” He told us that, based on his experience of farming here for 17 years, he notices when things are “not quite right.” Nonetheless, he claims, “The more I go forward the less I know. I could open a museum of bad ideas.”

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Michel and Isabelle

The 2013 vintage was a difficult one in this village, with 60-70% of the potential crop having been destroyed by a major hailstorm in June. Usually Michel produces five cuvees, but he plans on only four for 2013. In a normal year, Serge Mathieu produces over 100,000 bottles, 85% of which is exported, to a total of 34 countries.

The day we met with Michel and Isabelle, Michel was preparing for picking to start the following morning. He was going to be out in the vineyard by 6 am, while his team of pickers was set to arrive at 8.

Michel showed us the very efficient cuverie and its 8,000 kilo pneumatic press they acquired 10 years ago that has helped reduce oxidation. Michel told us he hates both oxidation and sulfur. He explained that he uses 40% of the typical amount of sulfur other producers employ at the end of the cycle—usually 30 to 50 parts per million instead of 100. For the last three years, he has also employed “jetting” to help reduce oxidation at disgorgement. Jetting uses microscopic needles to create an oxygen barrier of foam in the bottle.

Michel uses no oak on the wines, explaining he wants “just to emphasize what the grapes give.” Each year they replace one of their old inox tanks with a new one made of stainless steel. The wines also go through complete malolactic fermentation.

Unlike every other producer we met with in Champagne, Michel says that he uses some taille—juice from the second grape pressing—in blends. He does so, he says, “because we have good, clean taille.” A chalkboard graph in the cuverie indicates precisely what is expected to go into each cuvee, identifying the tank number, vintage and percentages.

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The vintage Champagne, in years when they produce one, is made exclusively from Pinot Noir. It ages five to six years on its lees, and one more year in bottle before release. Typically they make an Extra Brut from Pinot Noir, with a dosage (i.e., sugar solution addition for rounding out the wine before bottling) of about five grams; a Tradition Brut Blanc de Noirs, entirely from Pinot Noir, with slightly higher dosage; a Brut Select, with about 80% Pinot Noir and 20% Chardonnay; a Prestige Cuvée that includes a large proportion of Chardonnay (30%); and a delicious rosé.

The rosé is a blend of red and white wines, with the addition of 13% still red wine. In Michel’s view, after many blindtastings, he finds he always prefers rosé Champagnes made with the addition of red wine for color and complexity, rather than those made with maceration and skin contact. This is consistent with my experience to date.

We got to taste through each of the cuvées, and two editions of the vintage Champagne—the 2006 and 1998—in the domaine’s light and airy reception facility that is charmingly decorated with art pieces, many of which are quite whimsical. One can also get a sense of the couple’s humor and creativity from the fun animation on their website.

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chandeliers at Serge Matheiu reception offices

I was thoroughly charmed by the wines. They have the delicacy and ethereal quality I highly prize in wines in general, but that is often missing in Champagne. They were among my most highly rated wines of the trip, and the relatively low prices—low $40s for all but the vintage bottlings–make them extraordinary bargains. Serge Mathieu’s West Coast distributor is Charles Neal Selections; in the New York area the wines are available through Regal Wine Imports.

Chartogne-Taillet

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Alexandre Chartogne

Chartogne-Taillet is a longtime family operation now run by 30-year-old Alexandre Chartogne. Importer Terry Theise has called him “the most exciting young producer in Champagne.” I am inclined to agree.

The family’s vineyards are in the Montagne de Reims village of Merfy, lying along the southern end of the Massif de Saint-Thierry. The south and southeast facing hillside vineyards here were developed by the monks of the Abbey of Saint-Theirry starting in the 7th century. By the 9th century, this had become the highest concentration of vineyard land in Champagne. The Chartogne-Taillet vineyard parcels, a total of 12 hectares, include the Chemin de Reims vineyard mentioned in viticultural accounts dating back to the 800s.

Sadly, Merfy and its vineyards were virtually destroyed during World War I. For a three month period, eight to 10 bombs were dropped every day in the area. As a result, when the pricing structure that gave rise to the Échelle des Crus designations of Champagne villages as grand cru and premier cru were established in the years following the war, Merfy was not included.

The family dates its tradition of winegrowing back to one Fiacre Taillet in 1485. A descendant of this grower, born in 1700 and also named Fiacre, kept a detailed journal recording each vineyard, its yields, the weather and prices received. Alexandre proudly showed us a photocopied version of Fiacre’s writings, which has been bound as a book. Fiacre’s offspring kept up the journal, and Alexandre’s parents, Philippe and Elisabeth continued the tradition. Alexandre keeps a similar record since taking over from his parents in 2006.

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The modern history of this estate dates from Oscar Chartogne’s arrival and acquisition of his first vineyard in Merfy in 1870. His daughter Marie married Etienne Taillet in 1920. Their combined parcels and the old cellars under the house in the center of Merfy formed the basis of the current operations.

There’s a wonderful interactive map of Merfy showing the placement of the village’s vineyards, including the ones the family owns, on the Chartogne-Taillet website here. The family’s 13 parcels include three on sandy soil that contain ungrafted vines. The vineyards are planted to a mix of the Champagne varieties Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, along with a small amount of the historic Champagne variety Arbanne in the Chemin de Reims vineyard.

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Alexandre’s parents did not push him to join the family business. He first obtained a degree in management and worked for Volkswagen for five years. In 2005, however, he worked with Champagne innovator Anselme Selosse at the same time as he joined his parents in the business. Now, it is hard to imagine anyone more passionate about his vineyards and the magical process of winemaking than the gentle but highly animated Alexandre. The combination of his soft-spoken, carefully chosen words and rapidly changing facial expressions makes him a thoroughly entrancing communicator.

In the vat room, one finds a fascinating assortment of barrels, stainless steel tanks, Nomblot cement eggs and amphorae. Experiments with the amphorae reportedly did not go so well, since the waxed sealant could be tasted in the wine. Alexandre is very excited, however, about the cement eggs. He explained that the continuous Brownien movement of the juice throughout this container keeps the lees, which protect against oxidation, always in contact with the wine, allowing him to reduce the amount of sulfur needed for bottling. Alexandre claims to be able to get by with SO2 at only about 20 parts per million.

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What really got my attention was when Alexandre used a thief to extract samples of his vins clairs for us—the still wines that are blended prior to the secondary fermentation in bottle. I’ve tried vins clairs from a number of major houses, including wines made from their very best vineyards. They are usually highly acidic and angular. Sometimes they have long finishes, but they are never fully satisfying as dry wines on their own. By contrast, I would happily enjoy the vins clairs I sampled at Chartogne-Taillet as fresh, dry wines. No wonder the final cuvees prepared with this delicious raw material are so impressive.

Alexandre typically makes eight or nine cuvées per year. Five to six of those are vineyard or parcel designated cuvées. The Cuvée St. Anne is a bottling that the estate has been making for a long time, consisting of a blend of wines made from all their Merfy parcels. It usually contains Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, and is vinified in stainless steel tanks, using ambient yeasts. The Fiacre is also a bottling they have been producing for many years, made from the older vines from two parcels. It’s a blend of about 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Meunier, with six to seven grams dosage. It has been made in even-numbered years from 2002 to 2008.

Les Barres is a very interesting bottling made from ungrafted Pinot Meunier vines averaging 60 years of age. It is vinified in neutral oak and receives no dosage. It is a very characterful wine, with minerality and salinity, and packs a long finish. The rosé, Le Rosé, is made exclusively from Pinot Noir raised in stainless steel tanks with a dosage of 5.5 grams.

Each of the cuvées has a distinct personality. They spend eight to 18 months aging in the cellar room before bottling, without filtration. All are distinguished by their minerality, which inspires me to think of them as Chablis-like Champagnes. In all, 80,000 to 100,000 bottles are produced per year.

Another astonishing feature about the vat and cellar rooms is that, following Alexandre through the place, one enters one unexpectedly large cave-like room after another. Much like Dr. Who’s Tardis spaceship, there is a great deal more to Chartogne-Taillet’s compound and underground cellar than one would ever imagine from its modest exterior doorway.

Chartogne-Taillet Champagnes, especially the Cuvée St. Anne bottling, are widely available in the U.S., thanks to the efforts of Terry Theise and importer/distributor Michael Skurnik Wines. The Cuvée St. Anne averages $46. The individual parcel and vintage bottlings available here run from $50 to the low $60s.

For my tasting notes on wines from each of these producers, see below.

Chartogne-Taillet
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  • NV Chartogne-Taillet Champagne Cuvée St. Anne
    Light straw yellow color with abundant, steady, tiny bubbles; focused, ripe apple, tart pear nose; tasty, clean, fresh, crystalline, tart apple, very mineral, chalk, saline palate with mouthwatering medium acidity; medium-plus finish (60% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot Noir; 4 grams dosage; blend of family’s parcels throughout Merfy) 91+ points
  • 2006 Chartogne-Taillet Champagne Brut Millésimé
    Light golden yellow color with abundant, speedy, tiny bubbles; appealing, mature, yeasty, honey, almond, white chocolate nose; creamy textured, delicate, almond, almond cream, mineral, pear cream, biscuity palate; medium-plus finish (60% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay; disgorged 12/8/12) 93+ points
  • 2008 Chartogne-Taillet Champagne Brut Millésimé Merfy
    Light yellow color with abundant, speedy, tiny bubbles; tart pear, tart green apple nose; delicious, delicate, focused, very minerally, saline, lime, tart pear, palate; good now but should go 10-15 years; long finish 93+ points
  • NV Chartogne-Taillet Champagne Les Barres Extra Brut Les Barres
    Light yellow color with few, tiny bubbles; lemon chiffon, lemon bar, fresh green apple, chalk nose; fresh, delicious, characterful, tart green apple, lime, mineral, saline palate; long finish (2008 fruit) 93+ points
  • NV Chartogne-Taillet Champagne Brut Rosé
    Light salmon pink color with abundant, steady, tiny bubbles; appealing, intriguing, lightly savory, light mushroom, golden raspberry nose; very tasty, delicate but flavorful, juicy, tart golden raspberry, Rainier cherry, mineral palate; medium-plus finish (60% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot Noir; all 2010; disgorged Jan. 2013) 94+ points

Serge Mathieu
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  • NV Serge Mathieu Champagne Brut Select Côte des Bars (Aube)
    Light yellow color with steady, abundant, tiny bubbles; very appealing, delicate, almond, lightly yeasty nose; tasty, almond, mineral, ripe lemon palate; medium-plus finish (80% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Noir; 8.4 grams dosage; all 2006 fruit; disgorged 11/12) 92+ points
  • NV Serge Mathieu Champagne Cuvée Tradition Blanc de Noirs Brut
    Very light peach yellow color with abundant, steady, tiny bubbles; floral, almond, candied almond, light reduction, ripe white grapefruit nose; tasty,tight, delicate, ripe white grapefruit, mineral, lemon palate; medium-plus finish (8.6 grams dosage, Pinot Noir from 2008/2009) 94+ points
  • NV Serge Mathieu Champagne Cuvée Prestige Brut Côte des Bars (Aube)
    Very light yellow color with steady, tiny bubbles; very appealing, ripe pear, lightly yeasty, ripe lime, almond nose; absolutely delicious, fresh, clean, ripe lemon, lime, mineral, ripe white grapefruit palate; medium-plus finish (70% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay; 8.6 grams dosage; 2007-2008 vintage; disgorged 11/12) 95 points
  • NV Serge Mathieu Champagne Extra Brut
    Light peach yellow color with abundant, steady, tiny bubbles; very appealing, floral, ripe peach, lillies nose; delicious, poised, elegant, delicate, tart peach, mineral palate; medium-plus finish (Pinot Noir from 2008 & 2009; 5 grams dosage; disgorged 10/12) 94 points
  • 2006 Serge Mathieu Champagne Brut Millésimé
    Light yellow color with steady, abundant, tiny bubbles; yeasty, almond, light hazelnut nose; delicious, very delicate, lightly yeasty, almond, green almond, mineral palate; medium-plus finish (6 grams dosage) 95 points
  • NV Serge Mathieu Champagne Brut Rosé
    Very light pink color with speedy, abundant, tiny bubbles; very appealing, strawberry, tart cherry. light golden raspberry, almond nose; delicious, vinous, delicate, complex, tart raspberry, blood orange, tart cherry, mineral, lemon palate with bright acidity; medium-plus finish (68% Pinot Noir, 20% Chardonnay, 12% red wine; 9.6 grams dosage; disgorged 10/12) 94 points
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