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. 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.
The Mathieu family has grown grapes in what is now the Aube region of Champagne since the 1700s. 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. In 1970, however, they produced their first 5,000 bottles of Champagne.
Serge's daughter Isabelle 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.
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.
Michel uses no oak on the wines, explaining he wants "just to emphasize what the grapes give."
The domaine's light and airy reception facility 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.
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.
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 family dates its tradition of winegrowing back to one Fiacre Taillet in 1485. 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.
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.
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.
Each of the cuvées has a distinct personality. 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 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 the complete report on my blog here.