In the broad sweep of Champagne vineyards which cover the Montagne de Reims , between that city and Epernay to the south, Verzenay is a village name that you might recognize.
It’s one of Champagne’s Grand Cru villages, famous for producing long-lived and powerfully mineral wines predominantly from Pinot Noir. Many a Champagne house will buy grapes from here, as they form a vital part in creating their house styles. Lucky then, to be a grower here, with your own vineyards, from which you can fashion Champagnes from some of the best raw materials in the region.
This is the case for Stéphane Vignon, a grower with 7 hectares of vines here and in neighbouring grand cru village, Verzy, making around 20,000 bottles a year. He is the latest generation of an established local family who could happily follow the usual formula of a Champagne producer – make a brut non vintage which accounts for the vast majority of production, as well as a rosé; then a smaller amount of vintaged cuvées. But he doesn’t do that – his Les Marquises Brut NV usually accounts for less that 45% of production. His Rosé, Blanc de Blancs and Brut Réserve are all vintaged only.
On meeting Stéphane, it soon becomes clear that he is dedicated to getting the best from his 55 different parcels of grand cru vines – and if that leads him to work differently from some of his neighbours, then so be it. He works essentially organically in the vineyard, but is not certified; dosage levels are low, generally at the extra brut level; around half of his wines are aged in (never new) 228 litre oak barrels for nine months using natural yeasts; and he is passionate about vinifying his vineyard parcels separately to allow their individual characters to express themselves. His past experiences working René Muré in Alsace and Anne-Claude Leflaive in Burgundy have clearly had an impact on his philosophy.
What does all this mean for his Champagnes? I was struck by the “gourmand” nature of all his wines (and Stéphane is one of those growers who is insistent that Champagne is above all a wine), combined with focus and tension.
His entry level “Les Marquises” Brut NV, a blend of 70% Pinot Noir and 30% Chardonnay, based on the 2016 harvest plus 40% of oak aged reserve wines, has mouthfilling red apple fruit with a powerful, mineral finish. The dosage of 5.5 grams would technically allow this to be labelled Extra Brut, but there is no sense of dryness or lack of balance.
His official Extra Brut, “Les Marquises” Extra Brut NV is the same proportions of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but is based on 2014 with 30% reserve wines. The maturity and slightly lower dosage make for a finer, more linear expression.
The Rosé Extra Brut 2014 includes fruit from a plot planted in 1965 in neighbouring Verzy. Here the vineyards have a more southerly exposure and Stéphane consistently found wild strawberry fruit coming through – so what better to do than to make rosé with it? Just 2 grams dosage and redolent of wild strawberries and cut grass, this rosé d’assemblage (made with 8-9% red wine) is a sophisticated delight.
White peach is the dominant fruit character in the Rochelles parcel which finds its home in the Blanc de Blancs 2015, alongside fruit from Potences, which brings more minerality and citrus bitterness.
Finally, the Brut Réserve 2014, made from all the different parcels, brings these influences together in a blend of 65% Pinot Noir, 35% Chardonnay, all of it oak aged. Here is the peach, orange zest and lemon acidity, salinity and even hints of nuttiness; it has vinosity but retains its characteristic tension.
Bravo Stéphane! These are wines to savour and celebrate.