12 August 2013

n.d.p. in champagne: emmanuel lassaigne of champagne jacques lassaigne, montgueux

I just got back from a lovely trip to Troyes this past weekend, which reminded me that I never wrote anything about the lovely trip to Troyes I took almost precisely a year ago. Or the trip I took there last Christmas.

I get to Troyes often because the Native Companion's family live there. I also look forward to these trips because they allow me to visit my favorite restaurant on earth, Aux Crieurs de Vin. But the highlight of the trip last August was a visit to nearby Montgueux producer Emmanuel Lassaigne of Champagne Jacques Lassaigne, whose marvelous wines are pleasantly ubiquitous at good natural wine spots in Paris.

I first met Lassaigne the winter before at the Salon Les Pénitants, a satellite tasting of the Renaissance des Appellations and La Dive Bouteille. He was red-cheeked and soused and had been reluctant to let me in on the bottle of brilliantly acidic base-wine he was sharing with some mutual-friend wine buyers. You can't take these things personally. As a fan of this stuff - let alone as a potential buyer one day - you kind of just have to grin and bear whatever bedevilment a vigneron you like dishes out. Great vignerons are irreplaceable, and Lassaigne even moreso, as he's one of precious few Champagne producers working without chemical agents, with minimal sulfur treatment and zero sulfur at bottling. Among quality Champagne producers, he's also the one in closest proximity to the NC's mother's house. (A ten minute drive.)

Upon seeing Lassaigne next to the NC and her sister I couldn't help remarking that they look like they could be related. But he told me his family is originally from Auvergne. Although some trace Montgueux's viticultural history back to the 12th century, what vines there were in the town were decimated by philoxera at the end of the 19th century, and it was only in the mid-20th century that vineyards were replanted by a new generation of growers, among them Jacques Lassaigne, Emmanuel's father. Initially the wines they produced lacked the appellation Champagne, which was only granted in the 1980's.

The first wine label his father used.

A timeline of Champagne Jacques Lassaigne labels.

A press from 1957.

Emmanuel took responsibility for the domaine around 1999-2000, after working in the industrial packing industry for Heineken. (Not uncommon for the area, apparently. The region's formerly-thriving textile industry converted to the packaging industry at some point in the last century. Interestingly, Lassaigne's peer in the tiny field of natural Champagne, Bertrand Gautherot of Vouette et Sorbée, formerly designed perfume packaging. Both vignerons seem really to be on the right track with their new endeavors.)

The domaine now comprises around 4ha, of almost entirely Chardonnay, which is considered to show especially well on Montgueux's chalk soils. Lassaigne possesses some Pinot Noir - it comprises 6% of his production, in the "Papilles Insolites" and rosé cuvées - but he freely admits that he's not happy with the quality he achieves with this grape, and intends to replant with Chardonnay soon.

In recent vintages Lassaigne has supplemented his own production with grapes purchased from nearby growers. From what I understand the main impetus for this project was his desire to make wine from Clos Saint Sophie, the only Clos of Champagne situated in the Aube. He purchases the old vine Chardonnay from the clos' current owner, a M. Valton, who, I read, is the little brother of the founder of clothing label Petit Bateau. Then the scheme gets somewhat bizarre: he is presently aging the wines in barrels sourced from the Jura (ex-Vin Jaune barrels from Jean-François Ganevat), Mâcon-Solutré, and Cognac. I don't see how this will do any favours for the reputation of the Clos Saint Sophie, as most tasters will be searching for the effects of the unconventional barrel-aging; another mystery is why barrels from Mâcon-Solutré are included in this line up, except perhaps as a control group to contrast with the other two presumably more impactful barrels.

In any event, it's nice to see people unafraid to try new things. Last year I was told these cuvées are slated for release in 2016, but I've since read other reports saying 2017 or 2018, so it doesn't seem like Lassaigne is in a great rush for them to his the market. In general I hear from buyers that Lassaigne is actively trying to sell less Champagne on a yearly basis, so as to improve his repertoire of older wines for blending. As it is he occasionally returns already-bottled wine to current blends when he feels it will help.

None of the bottles we tasted that day were labeled. I can barely conceive of the administrative challenge of keeping track of bottled wine in a cellar like Lassaigne's, the where six to eight cuvées differ minutely every year in their precise composition. Most are an assemblage of two or three vintages, with a small proportion of older wine. Bottles tend to be released to market between 4 months and a year after disgorgement. Dosage is typically minimal, 0-3g., except in the case of "Les Papilles Insolites" and the vintage-dated cuvée, which see no dosage.

A highlight that day was a bottle of "Le Cotet," a single-vineyard blanc de blancs containing wines from 2002, 2004, 2006, and 2008. 10% was aged in oak barrel. The wine showed a pristine, Italian pastry nose, with rich, savoury pain d'épice notes adorning its mineral palate profile. "Le Cotet" is my perennial favorite among Lassaigne's wines, showing more complexity than the chisel, refreshing "Vignes de Montgueux" without the unusual weight of "La Colline Inspirée," which is aged entirely in barrel for 2-3 years before release.

What unites Lassaigne's production is an energetic, searching purposefulness : these are structured, quasi-Burgundian Champagnes, with overachiever acid swagger and a ringing minerality. There is no complacent crowd-pleaser in the bunch.

After the experience tasting Lassaigne's base-wine in the Loire, I was naturally curious to taste a Côteaux Champenois blanc he'd made in 2005. But he has almost none left at the domaine. It's a cuvée he makes only in extraordinary circumstances, when grapes are too ripe for Champagne production. He mentioned he'd just finished making another in 2010, when grapes reached 12.4° potential alcohol. (Ideally they're intended to reach about 10° at harvest.)

Happily, they still had a bottle of the 2005 left for sale at Aux Crieurs de Vin, where the girls and I repaired for lunch after our tasting with Lassaigne. A joltingly good, wakeful wine - after seven years still showing like a neon Montrachet.

Champagne Jacques Lassaigne
7, Chemin des Haies
Tel: 03 25 74 84 83

Related Links:

A terrific post on a contemporaneous visit chez Emmanuel Lassaigne by Sophie Barett at Sophie'sGlass.

A short but informative post in French on Emmanuel Lassaigne's champagnes at Paris-Champ.
A post on Lassaigne's Clos Saint Sophie project at MonsieurBulles.

A blurb on Emmanuel Lassaigne with unfinished-seeming tasting notes at Jenny&François

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