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A Singular Expression: The Champagnes of Cédric Bouchard

When I first met the improbably youthful Cédric Bouchard six years ago on his first visit to the United States, he had already decided to break just about every rule he could in Champagne while still labeling his wines as such. “I hate bubbles,” he said to me at that time. “If I could make my wines without bubbles, I would.”

Sitting in the back garden of his beautiful, circa-1728 villa in the tiny village of Landreville, I remind him of those comments, and he laughs. “Absolutely,” he says. “I still feel the same way. I suggest everyone decant my wines for an hour or two before they drink them.”

Dressed in a plain t-shirt and with a couple of weeks growth of beard on his still-young 39-year-old face, tousle-haired Bouchard has taken the Champagne world by storm since we last met. Already well-known in some circles when he made his appearance at Oregon’s International Pinot Noir Celebration in 2009, he and his wines have joined a rarified group of the world’s most sought-after “Grower Champagnes.” For those unfamiliar with the phrase and the official legal designation that appears on the labels of such wines, “Recoltant Manipulant” (RM) refers to Champagnes that have been both grown and vinified by the farmer. Champagne has a long history of separation between the farmers and the (usually large) houses that make the wine.

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The last 15 years have seen a massive spotlight turned on individual grower-producers, and Bouchard has been the wunderkind of the movement, coming from seemingly nowhere to being the hottest name on wine lists around the world, and one of the most critically acclaimed winemakers in Champagne.

Bouchard actually came back to Champagne after leaving unhappily, forced into winemaking school by his father at the age of 14. Dispirited at his time in school, he left and moved to Paris to work in the cellars of restaurants and retailers as a caviste, where he encountered the growing trend of natural and biodynamic winemaking and its many practitioners.

Returning to his family home in Celles-sur-Ource several years later in 2000, he took over farming his father’s 4-acre vineyard named Val Vilaine and began his rebellion against everything that makes Champagne what it is, including the bubbles themselves.

He began with an immediate conversion to (mostly) biodynamic farming principles. “I do not belong to the religion,” he says. “I am somewhere between organic and biodynamic.” But that was just the beginning.

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Champagne has long been based on a set of fundamental principles that have defined the character and identity of what we know today as Champagne. Historically it has always been a blend of multiple varieties of grapes (the big three being Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay), grown on multiple sites (there are five times more farmers than wine producers), and the bulk of Champagne has always consisted of non-vintage wines that blend multiple vintages of wine for consistency and character.

These principles have translated into several realities for how Champagne is made, chief among which has been the tendency of almost all farmers to produce the maximum allowable yield in their vineyards, which is then combined with the fruit from many other growers, fermented with selected yeasts provided by the Comite Champagne, and then cold stabilized and usually carefully filtered before beginning its secondary fermentation in the bottle responsible for the wine’s natural carbonation. After that secondary fermentation and a requisite period of aging, the leftover yeast is removed (disgorged) from the bottle and replaced with a bit of sugar and older wine known as the dosage.

Cédric Bouchard basically does none of those things.

His wines do, of course, go through a secondary fermentation in the bottle that involves the addition of a little sugar and a bit of yeast, but in an effort to reduce the presence of bubbles in his wine, he reduces the amount of sugar added to the lowest allowable limit. Apart from that similarity, however, the way Bouchard makes Champagne resembles more the methods and approaches you would find on a tiny biodynamic estate in Burgundy (which, by the way, Bouchard has just started along with a friend of his in a yet-to-be-disclosed location).

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Both through his organic farming methods and the (almost unheard of in Champagne) practice of dropping green fruit, Bouchard restricts the yields in his vineyards to levels well below half of what his neighbors usually produce. He harvests a single grape variety from each vineyard individually, ferments his wines with ambient yeasts, and bottles them without fining, filtration, or dosage. The wines never touch a scrap of oak during the process. Bouchard’s wines represent everything that most Champagne is not: a single variety, a single plot, a single vintage, and, of course, the singular vision of a single individual from flowering to bottling.

“I’m very cerebral,” says Bouchard from the other side of a crumbling stone table sat on a bed of wildflowers behind his ancient house. “I look for perfection. Each parcel for me is like a different person. Each wine has a face, you know ‘visage? And I like to show that face clearly. It requires me to be precise, to be clean. The most precise thing must be, of course, the moment of the harvest. You don’t want to meet me at harvest. I am not a fun guy. Everything in my head is focused on that optimal moment, because it is the most important thing I do. During harvest I am the opposite of me. During harvest I am military, you know?” he laughs. “I do the maximum for the minimum, do you know what I mean?”

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“All other times I am like this,” he says, gesturing to the falling light on the slightly wild garden around us. “I like a natural, simple life.

When he first began, Bouchard worked with his father’s vineyard, as well as a separate vineyard parcel named Les Ursules surrounded by roses planted by his grandmother. Feeling like he needed to keep the two separate, he bottled the wine from his father’s vines under the brand Inflorescence, and created the name Roses de Jeanne to honor his grandmother, whom he spent a great deal of time with as a young child.

In 2012, however, Bouchard assumed full control of his father’s vineyard and retired the Inflorescence brand. When those wines come to market next year or the following year, all of the wines will be sold under the Roses de Jeanne label.

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Bouchard’s success has allowed he and his wife Emily to buy something of a hermitage in the middle of nowhere, where Bouchard can do what he says is the important thinking about what he needs to do in seclusion. He has fixed up the interior of the main house on property, and made some basic structural improvements to his cellar, but other than a little gardening which he enjoys, he has left the 18th century villa mostly untouched, including the once-grand-now-decrepit carriage house that sits opposite his ancient wine cellars.

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“I like history. I don’t want to change much,” says Bouchard as he shows me through the creaky wood door leading to his cellars. “The best thing about this house,” he continues, pausing before we enter the darkness, “is the gates.”

He gestures to the large iron gates that open onto the streets of the village. “When I need to be alone, to think, I can close the gates.”

He smiles, and invites me to step into the industrial elevator that takes us 8 meters underground to the most rudimentary of cellars. We walk a few feet, duck through an arched doorway, and enter his wine storage library, which ends up being shockingly hilarious for Champagne. Whereas most big producers happily tour visitors through literally kilometers of tunnels filled with millions of bottles of yet-to-be-released and long-ago-released wines, here below the barn in his back yard, Bouchard keeps all the back vintage stock he has in a few pitifully small piles stacked on the gravel floor.

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He sees my look, smiles and shrugs. “Yes, that’s all,” he says.

When you make 1,100 cases of wine from 9 acres of grapes, you don’t end up with many bottles even if you aren’t one of the most sought-after producers in the region. He currently produces 7 distinct wines from 6 different parcels, including a rosé from the Les Ursules vineyard.

Needless to say, if you get a chance to get your hands on a bottle of Bouchard’s wines, I highly recommend them for their precision, depth, and honesty. They are among my most favorite Champagnes.

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TASTING NOTES:

2010 Roses de Jeanne “La Bolor&eacutee” Pinot Blanc, Côte des Bar, Champagne, France
Pale greenish gold in the glass with extremely fine bubbles, this wine smells of lemon pith, wet stones, and white flowers. In the mouth, a very delicate, soft mousse almost evaporates when it hits the tongue, leaving an incredible crushed stone and wet chalkboard minerality to course across the palate scented with lemon pith. A hint of white flowers lingers in the finish along with the stony core of the wine. Unbelievable acidity and a tiny hint of salinity. A phenomenal expression of stone and lemon. Made from 100% Pinot Blanc, with zero dosage. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $140. click to buy.

2006 Roses de Jeanne “La Bolor&eacutee” Pinot Blanc, Côte des Bar, Champagne, France
Light greenish gold in the glass with extremely fine bubbles, this wine smells of white flowers, toasted sourdough, and wet chalkboard. In the mouth the wine has evolved some stunning toasted bread notes, a hint of exotic citrus marmalade, and a whiff of bergamot that lingers in the deeply resonant wet-stone-laden finish. The mousse is delicately cloud-like. This wine still crackles with cistern-like pure minerality. Stunning acidity and length. 100% Pinot Blanc, with zero dosage. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $140.

2012 Roses de Jeanne “Côte de Val Vilaine” Pinot Noir, Côte des Bar, Champagne, France
Pale greenish gold in the glass with extremely fine bubbles, this wine smells of white flowers and wet stones. In the mouth the wine has a laser-like precision that cuts through the velvety mousse and vibrates across the palate with flavors of lemon pith, wet stones, and a fantastic salinity that I most often find in wines that have some oak contact. In this case, however, there is no oak allowed anywhere near this wine. Phenomenal acidity and mineral depth, with wet stone and lemon pith lingering for a long time in the finish. 100% Pinot Noir, with zero dosage. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $75. click to buy.

2010 Roses de Jeanne “Prelle” Pinot Noir, Côte des Bar, Champagne, France
Pale greenish gold with extremely fine bubbles in the glass, this wine smells of sesame, sea air, lemon pith and wet chalkboard. In the mouth, gorgeously bright apple and pear flavors float on a delicate cloud of mousse while a phenomenally deep, wet-stone minerality is perfumed with white flowers through a long finish. Fantastically long finish, and perfect balance. Stunning. 100% Pinot Noir, from 10 different massale selections grown on a chilly, west-facing parcel. Zero dosage. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $??. This is a new cuvée, that is not yet available on the market.