I first visited Champagne Paul Launois in 2019, since then I’ve watched tentatively from the sidelines as Julien and his partner, Sarah, iteratively crafted what is a considered, artistic and exciting project. Their winery, once a press house belonging to Billecart-Salmon, can be found nestled among the tightly-packed ruelle of grand cru village, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, a stone’s throw from Krug’s iconic Clos du Mesnil. Having traditionally sold their grapes to the village cooperative, three generations of the Launois family have tended to a little over 6.5 hectares of Chardonnay vines. Following nine years working abroad, in 2015 Julien and Sarah completed their first harvest together. A year later Julien began working on the single-barrel project, a personalised and intimate expression of Champagne shaped together by winemaker and wine lover. Following my first visit, it was the nature of their project that had left me enthralled. In a contracting market of growers, Julien and Sarah stood out to me as being among a small number who may well buck the trend. Though the project had impressed me in 2019, this time around the wines took centre stage and Julien’s evolution as a winemaker was clear. Though growing in volume, their range of 4 cuvée is each year entirely outstripped by demand with strong interest from keen buyers the world over. I spent a late-summer morning with Julien tasting from his single-barrel library and discussing the future.
Following the unsuccessful expeditions of Julius Caesar in 55 and 54BC, in AD43 Emperor Claudius set in motion a successful conquest of Britain. Over the next 400 years, the Romans expanded their empire north through Britain, founding Colchester, London, Bath, and many more towns and cities. The evidence for Roman Canterbury, known to the Romans as civitas Cantiacorum, is rich and varied. From Richborough, where a marble-clad arch was erected overlooking the harbour, the Romans established roads. Known now as the A2, the Old Dover Road was one of a number of these roads used by the Romans to march north. Its name a nod to its parallel planting to the Old Dover Road, Simpson’s 10 hectare Roman Road vineyard was Ruth and Charles Simpson’s first foray into English wine. Planted to Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir, the site is a collage of carefully-considered clones, rootstock, and precision viticulture. Bringing a wealth of knowledge from their award-winning southern French estate Domaine de Sainte Rose, the Simpsons are producing what many, including myself, consider to be benchmark still English wine. Recently awarded a Platinum Medal and “Best in Show” at the Decanter Awards, the pairs flagship Roman Road English Chardonnay is the focus of this article.
Behind a patchwork of buildings in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, a so-called ‘commune déléguée’ in the Vallée de la Marne, a single hectare of south-southeast facing Pinot Noir vines produce arguably one of the world’s most vinous and critically-acclaimed Champagnes. Le Clos Saint-Hilaire, its name lent from the local church of Église Saint-Hilaire, belongs to ‘super grower’ Billecart-Salmon. Though the commune itself is classified premier cru, albeit amongst only two villages to have scored 99% in the Échelle des Crus classification framework, seventh-generation CEO, Mathieu Roland-Bilecart has his own views on the cru framework. Views which are certainly emboldened by this tiny parcel off the Boulevard du N. Having produced only five vintages since it’s first as a standalone bottling in 1995, you’d be forgiven for underestimating the extent to which this outwardly humble site continues to shape the houses persistent and determined evolution. Pointing toward the vineyards scattering of pumpkins and wool-laden residents, Mathieu describes the site as his research and development facility. Shortly after this years harvest, Mathieu and I wondered the site discussing in more detail its extended importance.
In 1987, Robert Drouhin of famed Burgundian negociant Maison Joseph Drouhin purchased land in Dundee Hills. Since then, a flurry of French vintners has taken up residence in Oregon, including but not limited to Dominique Lafon, Louis-Michel Liger-Belair, Jean-Nicolas Méo, and Louis Jadot. With them, these seasoned winemakers brought centuries of acquired knowledge of growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in many of the world’s most lauded terroir. Alongside respecting tradition, these vintners wholeheartedly embraced the freedom afforded to them by the New World. In the 1980s just a few dozen wineries were noted in Oregon, today there are more than 800 cultivating grapes across the state. Whilst the ‘French Invasion’ wasn’t the origin of winegrowing in Oregon, it certainly shifted the way the world looked at the region. Now, after decades of research into soils, clones, and site selection quality has boomed. Off the back of a successful project in Napa, in the spring of 2005, Dr Madaiah Revana, a cardiologist and wine enthusiast, began searching for the ideal plot and an experienced winemaker with the goal of producing Pinot Noir in Oregon that would rival great Burgundy. Following their launch into the UK, I spoke with Alexana head winemaker, Bryan Weil, about site selection, farming, winemaking, and more.
Although only average in size (4124ha under vine) the Nahe boasts some of Germany’s most complex, profound, and idiosyncratic wines. Often overlooked, the primarily south and southwest facing vineyards, stretching from Bingerbrück to Soonwald, are drenched in sun, lying in a transition zone between a continental and maritime climate. With vines in many of the regions most favourable sites, claiming monopole status over some, one producer is particularly emblematic of the Nahe’s unsung wonders. The Dönnhoff family first came to the region over 200 years ago, steadily establishing a modest estate. Since 1966, the famed Helmut Dönnhoff has made the wine, with 4th generation Cornelius now overseeing the families 28ha of vines, 25 of which are classified Erste Lage. Elliot Awin and the team at ABS Wine Agencies, importers of Dönnhoff, invited me to join them for a virtual Zoom discovery of the estate. Lead by Cornelius and accompanied by 6 wines, including a glimpse into 2019. We walked through the estate’s history and talked more about the challenges of producing laser-sharp, spicy, and intense wines vintage after vintage.
I had originally intended to speak to Tim Phillips, one-man-band at Charlie Herring wine, about his experience planting Riesling in England. Anybody who knows me knows all too well that I’m a Riesling junkie, so this prospect alone was sufficient cause for excitement. What I got from Tim was so much more. Previously I have discussed the challenge of oversupply in the English wine industry. If it is to maintain long-term viability and achieve truly global appeal, more of the norm simply won’t do. We must push boundaries, we must exploit the opportunity afforded to us as a new world producer not bound by the complexities of intricate regulation. In a tiny 1 acre walled garden in the south of England, aptly named Clos du Paradis, Tim Phillips tends to a petri dish of exciting, exploratory winemaking.
1981 was a fairly average year in Champagne. Harvest was small and the wines were somewhat thin and austere. Following World War II, both the popularity and sales of Champagne had once again surged. Despite this, the region had not seen a new house for over 100 years. Bruno Paillard had been working as a broker since 1975, his lineage of brokers and growers in the villages of Bouzy and Verzenay dating back to 1704. Champagne run thick in Bruno’s blood and during his time as a broker he acquired a deep and extensive knowledge. At just 27 years old, without a penny to his name, Bruno sold his vintage Jaguar for 50,000 francs to satisfy his burning desire. A desire to create a different Champagne. Almost 40 years later, he and his daughter Alice direct one of the most prestigious houses in Champagne. I spoke with Alice about beginnings, relationships, challenges and the future.