South of Montagne de Reims in a village called Ambonnay, the house of Egly-Ouriet sits secluded, a modest dwelling compared to the fortresses of the grandes marques. And that's the way Francis Egly likes it.
Recognized in France as one of the top two producers in the region, one would expect the grandiose, a celebration of esteem and success. It's Champagne we're talking about after all! But there's always been something a little counter-intuitive when it comes to approaching the birthplace of bubbly.
If you're shopping for proper Champagne this holiday season the first thing you may notice is that even the most sought after bottles are often non-vintage. It's disconcerting considering the degree to which terroir is preached in France. Winemakers from the most celebrated appellations shrug off success in a romantic nod to the natural elements: soil composition, slope grade, temperature, days of sunshine, amount of rainfall. It would logically follow that a wine culture humbled before nature would also take particular interest in vintage. And usually this is the case. When a bottle is vintage, the consumer can trust that the winemaker acted as servant to the land and weather, working with the specific conditions of that year's crop, for better or worse. In Champagne, however, the producers aren't willing to leave it up to the elements. For them, it's about reaching a level of excellence year in and year out.
Consider the occasion.
If you're drinking bubbly, you're probably celebrating. (Unless you're Winston Churchill, in which case you're eating breakfast.) The atmosphere is excited, effervescent, and altogether different than the conditions during still wine consumption. Champagne producers want to insure that each time you pop one of their bottles open the product inside raises the level of awesomeness into which its bubbling over, complementing the occasion. It is why they traditionally blend. Like the great producers in any other appellation, those in Champagne are keen to the variants of annual conditions, and they take them seriously, tapping into the best vintages year after year in order to maintain their personal standard of excellence.
In Champagne, it's not so much about specific vineyard sites and microclimates as it is about the house of production. Each domaine practices behind its own philosophy, and the non-vintage bottling will express the intentions of the winemaker with consistency. In the case of Egly-Ouriet, the intentions - and most importantly the execution - encompass everything I love about wine.
As a true récoltant, Francis Egly harvests from his own parcels in the Grand cru vineyards of Ambonnay, Bouzy, and Verzenay. His wine is an exceptional expression of pinot noir-based Champagne - pink highlights and cherry fruit balanced by sea salt and peach. (His pinot is sought after to the extent that terroir enthusiast and renowned Champagne producer Anselme Selosse formerly sourced from Egly's parcels.) Although uncertified, he practices biodynamic farming, and his wine is unfined and unfiltered. Low annual yields bespeak attention to detail, and natural practices guarantee low sulfur levels. Compared to the grandes marques such as Moët & Chandon, who source their grapes and produce wine on a mass scale, Egly-Ouriet is a hands-on winemaker who steers away from commercial success.
On our shelves you'll find the non-vintage Brut Tradition, made from 70% pinot noir and 30% chardonnay grapes, all of which are harvested from 100% Grand cru vineyards. The vines are 35-40 years old and 20% of the juice is fermented in barrel, offering a rich bouquet of orchard fruit and the slightest hint of tannin. Incredible balance leads seamlessly from red cherry fruit to rounder pear and peach, finishing dry and toasty. After dégorgement Egly adds a dosage so low that he was recently required to purchase a more technologically advanced machine to register the sugar levels: in the Brut Traditional there are 3-4 grams per liter added. The base wine for the current bottling is from the 2007 vintage and spent 54 months on the lees before dégorgement in 2014. It's ready to be drunk now or could spend 3-4 years in the cellar.
As Champagne is a bit of a conundrum in France, I must add one more element of confusion to the matter. From the grandes marques to the small growers, vintage bottling is practiced throughout the region, and yes, many of the most sought after and expensive Champagnes are vintage. The point I'm pressing is that it's more important you pay heed to the producer than to any date printed on the label. The inattention to detail given a mass-produced bottle, whether it's vintage or non-vintage, is going to show through as disjointed and overcompensating. A bottle of Egly-Ouriet, on the other hand, will show the elegance and finesse for which the winemaker painstakingly strives, and he's giving the same master's touch to the Brut Tradition that he is to the vintage cuvée.
The wine market is changing, especially in the United States, becoming more informed everyday. Perhaps our collective taste will eventually steer attention toward terroir-driven bubbly, in which case vintage will play a bigger role. I'm all for it. Maybe one day I'll even pair grower Champagne with steak and eggs.
Egly-Ouriet Brut Tradition Grand Cru
Pinot Noir, Chardonnay