Updated: Dec 27, 2020
This month we are delighted to hear from the fascinating Isabelle Rousseaux, tour guide based in the Grand Cru village of Aÿ and founder of Aÿ Champagne Experience. As the favourite wine of Versailles, the still wines of Champagne were incredibly popular centuries ago, but lost out in favour of their burgundian neighbours in the 1770s. Nowadays we are seeing a resurgance of the still wines of champagne led by the growers and family owned houses. Isabelle walks us through the best coteaux champenois of her hometown of Aÿ Grand Cru.
Original version in French below.
Translation in English by Shreya Kohli
Since 1974, Coteaux Champenois has been an AOC produced in part of the Champagne vineyard, spread over 9 sub-regions (Ambonnay, Aÿ, Bouzy, Cumières, Mailly, Oeuilly, les Riceys, Sillery and Verzy). This appellation is reserved for still white, rosé and red wines, and is the least known of the Champagne wines, with much lower productions which make the wines very rare and at a generally higher price.
On this terroir, we find the humidity and freshness of the climate in Champagne mainly on the chalky limestone soils. Having the perfect exposure, the vineyards here produce exceptional wines. The wine here draws its finesse from the subtle marriage of humidity and chalky soil, and the resulting slow maturation of the grapes.
Coteaux-Champenois is aged in oak barrels and comes from the blending of the same grape varieties as Champagne (Pinot Noir, Meunier and Chardonnay). These wines are supple on the palate and have notes of raspberry for the reds, at the same time they are dry, lively and fresh for the whites, and they once bore the name of "natural wines of Champagne" including the famous Bouzy rouge with bouquets of cherry and morello cherry.
The best-known Coteaux-Champenois AOC is made in the Aÿ region by Maison Bollinger on a plot which is less than one hectare. This steeply sloping plot, called "La Côte aux Enfants" i.e. the children's coast", takes its name from the fact that, in the past, only children could work here due to their small size. This vineyard is maintained by the house in an artisanal way and uses the Burgundian method of vinification.
This wine was also greatly appreciated by Henri IV, a fine wine lover.
Today the production of still wines is still present but it is quite confidential and rare.
For the lovers of Coteaux Champenois and still wines, here are a few of the rare wines of Aÿ.
Champagne Henri Giraud
Residing in the heart of Aÿ since 1625, this family house makes champagne from the grapes from two exceptional slopes. The domain has been committed to bring back “The great wines of Champagne”.
Each of their cuvées explores a new aestheticism and delivers a strong message that goes well beyond the simple repetition of the ancestral gestures of the winemakers/artisans fading behind mother nature. This is completely the opposite of industrial simplification for the benefit of mass production.
The Coteaux Champenois rouge 100% Pinot Noir from Aÿ Grand Cru is the first red wine which is guaranteed to be free from pesticide residue upon molecular analysis. The house also produces a Coteaux Blanc, which is 100% Chardonnay, it brilliantly represents a modern style of still wines from Champagne. In all the history of Champagne, it is the only Aÿ Grand Cru Coteaux Champenois Blanc. The winemaker, Sébastien Le Golvet knows how to take advantage of the contribution of wood without it losing the freshness and distinction that characterises the land. Fluid and warm, it has a very surprising delicacy of texture. Going back to the origin of the wine, this rare drop will leave a limestone like flavour to fill your mouth.
(2 Coteaux R000: Triple zero - 0 Herbicide, 0 Insecticide, 0 Fungicide)
The Champagne house Henri GOUTORBE, is a family business, located in Aÿ. The creation of Champagne wines were started by the activity of the wine nurseryman, a family tradition since the beginning of the century.
We noted in our degustation of their wines from the Aÿ hillsides; The wine presents itself with a clear and fairly fluid hue, deep cherry red in colour with dazzling ruby red reflections in the glass. The presentation announces a rich and nuanced wine. The first nose is seductive and velvety. It evokes an intoxicating scent of heady red roses, peppery aromas, Burla cherry, liquorice and toast. Aeration of the wine reveals notes of fresh blackcurrant, raspberry, morello cherry, strawberry and wet vine leaf.
The approach on the palate is supple and fresh with a fleshy and satiny fruity substance, which is supported by the acidity of blackcurrant. The mid-palate is orchestrated by a chalky clay minerality which gives fullness, a certain vinosity, elegance and length to the palate. The perfect ripeness of the grapes associated with careful extraction and respectful ageing allows you to appreciate a velvety touch on the palate, and to feel the intimacy of the pulp. The slender finish is thus fresh, deep and smooth, pulpy to perfection, finely chalky and tasty.
Etienne Goutorbe suggests tasting the wine at a temperature between 15°C and 17°C with the pairing of any of the following culinary dishes:
Monkfish in red wine, bacon, juniper berry and glazed carrots
One-sided cooked tuna with seasonal vegetables
Roasted turbot with red wine sauce, celery puree with broken truffles
Rabbit stew with mushrooms
Rooster in red wine from Aÿ
Zucchini and Eggplant Spaghetti with Bolognese sauce
Grilled Lamb Ribs
Rack of lambs with herbs
Quail with lingonberries
Champagne Christian Gosset
After 30 years of good and loyal service in the family vineyards and in the field, selling to wine merchants and restaurateurs, Christian GOSSET decided to change his life at fifty and make his own wine.
Born from its 5 ha vineyard, certified HVE / VDC, Christian has blended four expressive and high intensity single vineyard cuvées as well as two Coteaux Champenois.
For his still wines, Christian Gosset operated a very delicate total de-stemming, nine day vatting followed by two years ageing in barrels of 3 wines. Alcoholic and malolactic fermentations took place naturally. They were bottled in July 2020 without fining or filtration. There are only 300 bottles produced from each of the two plots of Aÿ.
LOISELU 2018: a vine planted in 1963 on the upper slopes in the heart of the Aÿ terroir with 15% east-facing slopes with a clay soil with limestone on chalk and a grape harvest grade of 11.6. The result is a delicate red grape, fruity with a very strong colour.
PISSE-LOUP 2018: a vine planted in 1995 on the upper slopes of Aÿ with a western orientation and a steep slope of up to 40%. Poor soil on chalk and a harvest grade of 12.1 which has resulted in a robust red with a very strong color, powerful, with a very round and chalky finish.
His advice? “Nice generous glasses, a few foodie friends in a beautiful location. It can only lead to a beautiful story being written together".
The production of Aÿ red Coteaux-Champenois is a part of the soul of the house, but always in very small quantities and with a careful selection of vintages.
During the “red” years, when they are very ripe, they isolate their oldest plots on the mid-slopes (Bonnote, Cheuzelle, Chaufour) which always give them the greatest concentration of aromas.
Sorting is done entirely on the plot with even more attention than for the other plots, with a selection is made on each cluster.
The key to their red is also a long maceration in order to get the intense notes of cherry and blackcurrant which are typical to the petits pinots of Aÿ.
The young generation of Aÿ: Paul Gosset and Romain Henin ...
Coming from an ancient wine family located in Aÿ since the 16th century, Paul's goal is to get as close as possible to the symbiosis that may exist between the land, the vine, the wine and the environment. To do this, he makes extensive use of the principles of agroforestry.
Paul Gosset works with respect for life with integrated viticulture. The plant cover allows it to let the soil lie flourish and therefore creating more structured and lively wines. For the slopes (near the Coteaux), Paul takes the plot(s) with soils which have high water potential to allow beautiful phenolic maturation. Sometimes it is possible that the alcohol concentration is high due to water stress in the vineyard, although, this is not the case at home.
The plots intended for the production of still wines are chosen and then worked according to the size at the harvest. It manages to have a beautiful balance between matter, acidity and alcohol, thanks to low yields and deep mineralization in the soils. For his last "Rouge d'Aÿ", he used the Loiselu plot planted in 1972.
Paul Gosset tries to vinify with the least possible intervention. The addition of sulphite may or may not be done depending on the behaviour of the musts. He adds it once when the juices are the most vulnerable before the fermentation begins. For the Rouge d'Aÿ, they scrape and tread very lightly. Then begins the maceration process, a light punching down, then the fermentation begins naturally without adding yeast and it continues to dip until three quarters of fermentation. The maceration is then finished.
He then devats the marc to keep only the free-run juice (the most fruity, delicate and least tannic part). The juice is extracted, and it completes the first fermentation in the tank. The wine is intoned and the ageing can begin. Malolactic fermentation occurs naturally without adding bacteria during this phase. At home, ageing lasts 18 to 24 months depending on the behaviour of the wine. Only the last step remains; the bottling is done in a very delicate way, by gravity.
The vineyards here are certified organic and in conversion to the Demeter label (bio-dynamic). Romain Henin works in agroforestry, which means planting of trees outside and inside the plots in order to increase biodiversity and provide a plant-soil balance. Its soils are alive and covered with different species all year round.
In the cellar, he continues the work done in the vineyard in order to make living wines. No inputs or sulphites but grape juice, which ferments naturally in its cellar in order to be as close as possible to their terroir and their history. His work in the vines and in the cellar is punctuated by the lunar calendar.
Romain's Coteaux Champenois is called MPQR (Maceration Pinot Qvevri Rouge). It comes from two plots in Aÿ: Pruche and Chaufour. Two Pinot Noir vines, planted in 1962 and 1965 respectively. The harvest is done with friends in small fruit boxes, half of which are macerated in whole bunches and the other half in berries for a fortnight. Then the pressing stage happens, which by gravity fills the Georgian amphorae, qvevri to finish fermenting and rising.
About Isabelle Rousseaux
Born and bred in Ay, Isabelle is the founder of Ay Champagne Experience.
After studying history & management of French & European cultural heritage at La Sorbonne, she worked as a training manager at a large private school where she was responsible for setting up training programmes to highlight the value of heritage and cultural tourism. Ten years later she returned to her hometown to share her passion for the architectural treasures of Ay and the surrounding villages, as well as its hillsides, growers and houses all classified as UNESCO World Heritage.