When people think of Champagne, it typically evokes visions of well-known houses with historical names that represent a sense of formality and grandeur. Our recent visit there certainly provided plenty of that, but we were most intrigued by Olivier Horiot, a winemaker who is working on the very edge of the region, both literally and figuratively.
There are 5 regions within Champagne and one of the lesser known is the Aube (Côte des Bar) which lies in the southern part of the region.
Olivier Horiot is based in Les Riceys, an area in Champagne made up of 3 villages that were once part of Burgundy before being re-classified as Champagne.
A surprising fact until you realize that Chablis is just half the distance to Les Riceys than Reims.
Given its proximity to Chablis, the soils in Cote des Bar are more similar to their Burgundian neighbour than their regional peers, consisting largely of Kimmeridge limestone and Marl (a type of calcium sedimentary rock).
Les Riceys is also the largest wine-growing area in Champagne and the only one that contains all 3 AOCs (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée): Champagne, Coteaux Champenois, and Rosé des Riceys.
Pinot Noir is the dominant grape variety with more than 85% of the plantings under vine and responsible for close to 50% of all Pinot Noir grown in Champagne.
This background is important in understanding just how unique Olivier Horiot’s wines are within Champagne.
Arriving at Oliver Horiot’s winery is about as understated as you would ever expect in a region so associated with ostentation. Olivier is soft-spoken, warm and friendly, instantly making everyone feel comfortable and at ease. However, as he begins to tell us his story and his approach to winemaking, it’s abundantly clear how serious and committed he is to his craft.
While most winemakers tend to use innovation to push current boundaries, Olivier is instead reviving uncommon traditional methods and using indigenous varieties with terrific results. He took over the estate from his father Serge in 1999 and began producing still red and rosé wines in 2000.
He explained that in 2002, he began to transition to biodynamic farming as a way to both respect the soil and emphasize the soil’s effect of the Cote des Bar on the wine. That process was completed in 2006, the same year he also began to produce Champagne.
Olivier’s main objective is to make wines that undeniably express a sense of place, “What I am always talking about is not biodynamic, it’s not dosage or whatever, we just speak about soil. The only thing we have different than the others is the soil, so for us it’s very important.”
The estate consists of approximately 8.5ha. Pinot Noir is by far the most planted variety, but he is also using all 7 indigenous grape varieties of the region: Pinot Noir (75%), Chardonnay (10%), Pinot Blanc (5%), Arbanne (3%), Pinot Meunier (3%), Petit Meslier (2%), and Pinot Gris (2%).
From that he produces approximately 5,000-6,000 bottles per year. “Our goal is not to make more wine. Our goal is to make wine that is more precise and to respect the soil and the terroir.”
One of the biggest challenges for Olivier making Champagne in Côte des Bar given the fruit is much riper and can have much higher alcohol for Champagne, was understanding minerality in relation to acidity. “Minerality is a word used often but minerality is not the same as acidity. In Côte des Bar we have soil like Chablis and Sancerre so lots of minerality, but you have to catch it which is not so easy.”
“When we understood that you need ripeness to get the minerality, it changed our life. When we started, we were making only still wines and we learned a lot about making wine with very ripe fruit. We learned how to catch minerality and not acidity. The discussion in champagne is always ‘keep freshness’, and we understand now that freshness is not just acid.”
As Olivier tours us through his gravity-flow winery, he explains that everything is separated with no blending happening until the very end. Olivier believes that every soil plot has a different balance and by separating vinification, each plot gives something specific to the wine. “If we blend from the beginning, we lose the balance of different soils.”
The Burgundian influence is also present in the cellar, “In most of Champagne, you do a lot in the tank like alcoholic fermentation, and then you put the juice into the barrel. The Burgundian way is that you put the juice directly into the barrel.”
The wine that Olivier produces that holds a particular source of pride is the Rosé des Riceys, a still Rosé of Pinot Noir that is a prime example of wine expressing its own unique terroir. For him, it’s a very special AOC in his village as there are just 15 producers still making this wine.
“Rose de Riceys [is done] only with Pinot Noir, only with entire grape, no de-stemming. We put in the tank directly from the harvest, the grape entire…we come inside to crush by foot just like 10% of the tank and then we go out and we put the other grapes and [is] called carbonic maceration or semi-carbonic maceration. It’s very special, it’s the same [method used in] Burgundy and like in Beaujolais too.”
“The way of carbonic maceration is very important, it will make special aromas because everything is going inside of the berry non de-stemmed so it won’t be the same aromas as if you de-stemmed. And the way that the old people of the village decided to do that, it was empiric but probably for me the best way for me to not have any trouble because in [the] northern part you are not always very ripe for red wine, you’re always ripe for the champagne but for the red wine it’s very difficult to have the seeds very ripe.
“And the trouble in the wine (when you don’t wan to have vegetal things) are in the seeds—lots of people think it’s because of the stem but maybe 20% of the vegetal aromas come from the stem, 80% comes from the seed so the way that we don’t crush and we keep the seeds inside and we don’t make a tea of seeds and when you de-stem, some people de-stem but then the ripeness is not so good, the seeds go down and you make a tea of seeds and then you have some very hard vegetable tannin and you feel like it’s not so ripe and that’s the trouble. Many people think if they de-stem they won’t have trouble and they create the trouble but the whole people of the village decided to say in the law…it’s 100% non-destemmed. That’s strange and very special.”
During our AdVINEtures over the past 8 years, we’ve run across winemakers that are trying different methods more as a means to distinguish themselves from their peers. In the case of Olivier Horiot, he is doing things differently in determined pursuit of producing truly terroir-driven wines. The results are wines that aren’t just deliciously interesting, they’re expressive and distinct, just as they should be.
2015 Rosé de Riceys En Barmant (Still)
Of course, all sparkling wine from Champagne starts out as still wine before it goes through the secondary fermentation that traps the carbon dioxide in the bottle which then escapes as bubbles upon opening.
These still wines are only rarely bottled and sold to the public, and Riceys has about 15 growers who make these still wines and Olivier Hoirot makes two of them that express very different terroirs. Each are made from 100% Pinot Noir with skin contact (maceration) similar to other still Pinot Noirs. The En Barmant is darker, sturdier of the two, as this south facing site on marl soil fully ripens its Pinot Noir. Whole clusters are subjected to carbonic maceration that brings out flavours of strawberry, rhubarb, cherry and saline hints.
2015 Rosé de Riceys En Valingrain (Still)
En Valingrain has more clay and produces a wine much lighter in colour. But the flavour intensity is there and offers a more floral expression with a minerality that receives emphasis and linearity from the piercing acidity. The nose is very distinctive and shows a complex array of cherry blossom with subtle hints of dried herbs.
2015 Rosé Seve
Made in the methode saignée with 4 days of carbonic maceration, this is a beautiful full bodied sparkling Champagne that shows fresh strawberry, red apple skins, cherry and hints of pomegranate. A vinous, gastronomic Champagne, this wine has zero dosage, allowing for a most natural expression of the Riceys terroir.
2017 Cuvée Métisse Blanc de Noirs
Another zero dosage wine, this 100% Pinot cuvée manages to use no sulphur to stabilize yet shows none of the “funkiness” that often attend such natural winemaking. The body is medium and the nose is very floral. Strawberry, cranberry and citrus hints combine with a strong acid line to make for a very fresh and enticing Champagne.
25 rue de Bise,
10340 Les Riceys