Can a small grower compete with big champagne houses? Yes, they can. First they must, of course, make good wine. And then they “only” have to find the right customers. Which, of course, is one of the challenges facing Quentin Vincey and Marine Zabarino, a young couple that recently released their first champagnes, from the 2014 vintage. They aim to make around 10,000 bottles, a drop in the champagne ocean, but a very delicious drop. Meet the newest champagne superstars in the making.
Quentin Vincey is the eighth-generation champagne grower in Oger, a small village in the Côte des Blancs, situated between the famous villages of Avize and Mesnil-sur-Oger. This is the heart of the Côte des Blancs, a Champagne region renowned for its chardonnay grapes.
This article has been published in a shorter version on Forbes.com.
Until 2014, the Vincey family grew their grapes and delivered them to the local cooperative after harvest.
In 2010 Quentin took over, and things started to change. Ten years later, he still sells some grapes to small organic “houses”, but he and his partner Marine keep grapes from 4 hectares for themselves. They have converted the family’s 7 hectares to organic viticulture. They are inspired by biodynamic farming. They spray with essential oils and plant extracts that help keep their vines healthy. Soon five hectares out of the seven will be certified Demeter, the biodynamic certification organisation.
They made their first Champagnes under their own name in 2014, only 4000 bottles, but every year they increase quantities of their own label a little bit.
Starting on your own can be a challenge. Quentin and Marine are open-minded. “We learn a lot from tasting wines blind with friends, including wines from other regions”, says Marine. They also appreciate having winemaker friends who are willing to give advice. But my impression is that they are very much following their own path with their own ideas.
Most of the base wine ferments in small oak barrels. The wine stays in the barrels on the lees for one year, until the bottling. There is no racking. They want to keep the wine in contact with the lees to gain complexity. “It gives a new dimension”, says Marine.
The barrels are old, eight years on average, so they only use them for the micro-oxygenation, not for the oak taste. If you use new barrels they will give a distinct oak-barrel character to the wine. ”The chardonnay grapes from Oger, our grand cru village, have very high acidity and they need oxygen which they will get through the oak”, says Marine. She likes the high acidity though as it is necessary for a long ageing in the cellar that comes later.
The still wines, vins clairs, before the second fermentation, are known in Champagne to be quite sharp, like unripe apples. Not so at Champagne Vincey. They pick their grapes riper, at higher sugar levels than many other producers in Champagne. The potential alcohol (corresponding to the amount of sugar in the must) is 10.5-11.5% at harvest, which is sufficient as the alcohol level later will increase with just over one per cent during the second fermentation. “We never chaptalise”, says Marine, which means that they never add sugar during the first fermentation to raise the alcohol level, a procedure that is common in Champagne.
The different vineyard plots are kept separate in the barrels. The wine ferments with the natural (“wild”) yeast, which is pretty rare in Champagne. Most producers in Champagne use (added) cultured yeast. “We think it makes the taste smoother”, says Marine. “It takes more time though, two months is not unusual, as the natural yeast works slower”.
Between January and March, the year after the harvest, they blind taste all the barrels. The bottling (le tirage) is at the beginning of September, before the new harvest. After a year in barrels, they don’t need to do any filtration which, says Marine, will give more complexity to the wine. They add sugar and yeast to the wine and the second fermentation, which will create the bubbles, starts in the bottle.
The bottles will stay around five years in the cellar before disgorging which is two years longer than the minimum for a vintage Champagne. They would prefer to use natural corks during the ageing (tirage sous liège), but then you have to do the disgorging by hand which is time-consuming and rather delicate work, so they use crown caps.
I have tasted the first excellent champagnes of Champagne Domaine Vincey from 2014, released on the market in 2019.
Champagne Domaine Vincey La Première 2014 Grand Cru
La Première is made from vines planted between 1954 and 1988. 50 % of the base wine is fermented in barrels, 50 % in tanks, crown cap closure during the ageing. The dosage is 3 grams, so the wine is crispy dry, but its full body adds a soft touch. It is impressively intense and complex with layers of aromas. Marine recommends it with white meat or cheese, such as comté. (~48€)
Champagne Domaine Vincey Le Grand Jardin 2014 Blanc de Blanc
Le Grand Jardin comes from old vines planted in 1957. 100 % of the base wine is fermented in oak barrels. No added dosage. Superb mouthfeel and texture, full-bodied with quite ripe citrus aromas and salty notes coming in the aftertaste. This Champagne, says Marine, will go splendidly with lobster, scallops and oyster. I believe her. (~55€)
The 2015 and 2016 vintages for La Première have now also released. And exciting things are in the pipeline: A white Coteaux Champenois, in other words, a still wine from Chardonnay, and a champagne that will be very special with no added sugar at all. Instead of sugar for the second fermentation, this enterprising couple will add sweet grape juice from the following year’s harvest. The name will be Modum Q.V. Keep an eye out.
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