Gueux!. Doesn’t really ring a bell in relation to wine does it? But I’ll give you a clue. We are in Champagne country - 15km west of Reims. No?
Anyway - Gueux is a small cosy town – to a degree of romantic with lovely houses, clean pavements and an almost obligatory magnolia tree in the front gardens. Even the café here is nicer and made in a more chick look. The town is quite, which is something I am use to, when I drive around in Champagne. Despite Champagnes exuberant and festive reputation, the regions and its towns are somewhat sleepy towns. On the outside that is, because as soon as you get inside – down to those dark cellars, a huge hospitality awaits - and damn good wine to.
We arrived from the south a day in April and had been driving through endless landscapes of vineyards. But as you cross the town sign of Gueux, the vineyard setting comes to an end. You sense you are closer to Reims and a more common landscape of approaching roads and suburbs neighbourhood.
(The tractor - go home Ferrari)
Yet in Gueux resides a Champagne producer. Jérôme Prévost is his name and I suspect that bell rang?
Yet upon arrival at his house, he is not home. A where is the cellar? Instead I can see a cedar wood looking barn. It’s a little bit open. I am even more curious now. We find out that he is in the vineyard, which should be located 6-700 meters up the road. After turning left we start to sense that there are in fact vineyards in Gueux. The vineyards here are not your romantic notion of sloping hills, where a sparkling sunlight warms up the soil from hilltop in the distance. No! – Here the land is flat as a pancake. It’s not exactly screaming for attention and Jérôme’s vineyard " Les Béguines” are here with 5-6 other parcels. We see Jérôme in the distance – all alone and on a behemoth of a tractor.
He jumps of and greets a handful of passionate wine people from Denmark. “It’s a good day to plow – such an occasion should not be missed, he says”. It’s already the fourth time he plows this year and it doesn’t take you long to see his vineyard looks a bit more healthy that it’s neighbours. The “other” parcels here sadly look like a lot of other vineyards in Champagne. Depleted soils, sprayed with small blue plastic pieces and other metals parts ranging from nails, glass to batteries. The small blue plastic pieces are a shameful chapter in Champagne. In the 1970s the Parisians cleverly disposed of a composting of household waste. “When the soil is so poor of life, the roots seek upwards to find nutrition and this is really not good”.
"Les Béguines” is the story about this very flat vineyard. 2ha of very sandy soils, planted with Pinot Meunier, which by now are about 50 years of age. Pinot Meunier is like most of you probably know Champagnes rustic cousin and often not so highly praised. It’s paradoxically the most planted in Champagne. Yet it’s actually because it’s seldom seen as a mono grape release, but often blended to give some growling baseline. Before I got introduce to these grower Champagnes, I often perceived Pinot Meunier as being pretty baroque and often a very clumsy grape. But for sure in blends –like Krug Vintage, it acts as a good trio partner, giving opposition to the refine tonality of Chardonnay and the aristocratic Pinot Noir.
”Les Béguines” is for sure filled with sand – but also lots of fossils. It can be a little hard to imagine, when you stand here in present time – and with 350km to the nearest coastline - that about 45million years ago the seabed was here in Gueux. The seas erosion has created massive layers of calcareous sand formations and fossils with tiny crustaceans. It’s not exactly hurting the quality of the terroir.
At the end of the vineyard you see a small white house and this is Jérôme 's childhood home. So you would think that he was born to make wine and walk the footsteps of his parents? But it was not like that. His parents didn’t even make wine and the vineyards belonged to his grandmother. She even leased the land out. Jérôme 's interest in life, took a different path towards a more artistic angle, with painting, philosophy, and photography. When he got the offer to take over " Les Beguines " it was not something he just jumped into with open arms. But in 1987 he decide to give it a go and Domaine "La Closerie" is born. The first period is all about bringing the vineyard back to balance by working with respect for nature and no use of pesticides. The juice is initially sold to negociants, while Jérôme seeks inspiration and knowledge. But it ‘s as if he is constantly struggling with the prejudice that you can not make great wine in Gueux and certainly not on such a flat and sandy vineyard, planted with dull Pinot Meunier. Perhaps that why, he in 1995/96 takes a journey to Jura. Jura was about seeking inspiration, but he was also on the verge of obtaining a vineyard there. Today, he looks back and says:” It was a great adventure with Jura, but it was ultimately too difficult for me to leave my home ."
Instead he starts as an apprentice of Anselme Selosse. He tells us how he learned more about making wine the first day with Anselme, than he had ever learned before. Anselme gives Jérôme a task of pumping wine from a cask to another. Jérôme had never tried this before and Anselme begin to explain how to use the pump, but can see that Jerome is a little bit lost in all the technical information. Anselme stops and says to Jérôme "When you are dealing with wine making, both in the cellar and in the vineyard you are using your body and soul. You constantly need to ask yourself - why am I doing this? What is the meaning of this? Is it necessary?”
Personally I don’t know Jérôme very well, but hearing his story and spending some time with him, you begin to understand why this winemaker is so curious - why he constantly seeks inspiration (you will see later) and ask questions. When you combine it with a man of great intellect, humour and his artistic background, you begin to understand why the outcome is a pretty personal wine.
Jérôme spends 5 years with Anselme and it’s also him, who helps him to make the first vintages at his address in Avize. ‘1998 is the first official release with Jérôme Prévost on the label. In 2003 he leaves Anselme to make wine in Gueux. He starts of with one wine: "Les Beguines”. In 2000 and 2003 vintage he makes a wine called " d' Ailleurs “, which is limited cuvée, which have spent +one year more in barrel. I remember tasting the ’03 in London some four years ago and it was truly an eye-opener. In 2007 a rosé sees the daylight, which goes by the name “Fac – Simile”. We are again at Pinot Menier frequency and this is a very juicy cousin. Yet I think many underestimate it’s potential due to its slightly polish candy like feel. But as I see it “Fac – Simile” age very well and right now the ’07s fruit core are starting to feel a little dryer, saltier and obtaining that beautiful verbena note I adore in a rosé Champagne.
With time Jérôme have obtained more land and planted these with Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Gris. The age of the vines are still very young and when he finally decided to release some cuvée(s) it will be a very limited number of bottles.
All of his Champagnes are non-vintage btw – despite they are never blended. So we deal with vintage juice, but officially non-vintage Champagne, as it falls short of the AOC-rules of 36 months on lees. This is quit common when it comes to the small growers. They simple don’t have economy of scale like the big houses, nor do they have the required space in their cellars. Jérôme’s Champagnes taste damn fine when released – especially his trademark of insanely sophisticated spices. Yet! – I have to say, I feel confident they will improve even more after 5-6 years after disgorgement.
Back in the vineyard, Jérôme have really warmed up and a talking about sugar strings, enzymes, proteins, and how you must ensure oxygen in the soils to pump energy into the vines. It’s not your everyday talk for a number idiot like me and you really have to concentrate. But Jérôme explains it really well. Basically he is trying to tell us what nature can do over modern winemaking. If you only leave the sugar addition (Chaptalisation) and enzyme treatment for modern techniques in the cellar you are only extracting one chord to the wine's perfect symphony. But if you provide nature with the right growth conditions - to form sugar naturally, you get endless strings of DNA and it creates a much higher energy and complexity. It’s also one of the reasons why Jérôme never do Chaptalisation to his Champagnes. Instead he harvest with ripe maturity and about 10.5% natural alcohol. Only the natural indigenous yeast is used in the winemaking process.
One hour later we are back in the cellar…sorry barn…. Finally the Vikings can get something to drink.
We kick of wit 2012 Vins clairs. 2012 was on an extreme year. A rough winter, with temperatures hitting lows of -20 degrees Celsius in late February. Spring was wet as hell and even includes a devastating hailstorm. The summer was nothing to write about either, before a 10-day heat wave window opens in August and produces temperatures of 40 Celsius. The August window was sent from heaven and saves the harvest. Yet 2012 will still be marked by the rough winter condition and almost everyone reports of a very small harvest. This also goes for Jérôme Prévost, who normally produces 13.000 bottles, but in 2012-vintage he will only release about 6.000. The quality is however really promising.
Hereafter awaits an interesting experiment. Two Champagnes are in play in our Zalto White Wine glasses. The first is lively, light and flowery. Elegant, delicate, yet also a bit short on the last meters. Such a Champagne would be perfect as an aperitif. The second one is more brutal, direct with higher energy and structure. Here you sense the trademark of Prévost, those sophisticated spices, which is really why this guy masters the Pinot Meunier like no other. This is a Champagne to drink with food.
Jérôme looks around and is curious to know our opinions’.
The verdict is the same – we all prefer Champagne no. 2.
It’s the same wine – same vintage – both the challenging 2010 vintage.
What! – This can’t be, they are so different? But there is a reason. One of them is a “mistake”. An accident. The accidental wine is No.2. You see, Jérôme’s cellar employee by mistake forgot to add Bentonite. And what is Bentonite? It’s first of all a clay species, which is added to Champagne, securing the dead yeast residuals will petrify and slowly be transported to the neck of the bottle under remuage. If Bentonite is not added, the yeast residuals will not petrify and turn into a small blurry substance inside the bottle and make the juice unclear. “Think about it – Jérôme says, in Champagne we are obsessed with the clarity. Why do you think we call it Vins Clairs?”. Jérôme discovers the ”mistake” after 300 bottles – yet he doesn’t really look sad. Once again, this is a curious winemaker, not following a straight line and all the traditions. And maybe – Bentonite is not added to some bottles on purpose in the future. Who knows?
From here a bombardment of vintage floats at a steady pace. Both rosé and ”Les Béguines”. Jérôme is eager to hear what he think and takes notice off everything being said. As you know I have tasted many of these wines before and if I should chose a favourite it would have to be the ’08. It’s simply magic. Jérôme nods – “I am pretty satisfied with my ’08s he says” with a warm twinkle in his eye.
We finish, outside. It’s crisp April weather. Jérôme has a tradition of serving wines from other producers, who inspires him. A myriad of wines awaits us, with producers like Frederic Cossard, Ganevat, Philippe Pacalet etc. I am in heaven.
This is one those visits you just don’t forget. Thank you Jérôme and see you soon.
You can find another report on Jérôme Prévost here.