Pierre Gerbais Champagne: Raising the Côte des Bar
If I had a nickel for the amount of times I’ve heard ‘A glass of wine a day is good for you’, I’d be on a yacht to Santorini. Leave it to the early 90’s to spawn a cure-all catchphrase from a single study that red wine may lower your risk of heart disease. And yet it seems for every nutritional finding that advocates wine consumption, there is a competing finding that denigrates it. So it goes with nearly every comestible product. Pick your poison: blueberries, garlic, salmon. Any one item can be the magic bullet or the cancer itself. What does all this have to do with the Champagne of the Year? Food for thought…
Troyes Sunrise from the train | Breakfast of Champions
Last week: Paris --> Troyes
If you recall from last month’s article, I wrote about the Legends of Provence on a 6am train from Paris to Champagne. Thanks to a long night in the city, I was essentially the walking dead, staring out the window of my train car at dawn breaking over the Aube. I do love the sunrise. Aside from the calm beauty of a world that is mostly asleep, there is the feeling that somehow because you are awake you have the upper hand on the day. Fact or fiction, I would need all the adrenaline I could muster.
The young and immensely talented Aurelien Gerbais greeted me at the train station. Standing by a little black car, he waved at me with a big smile as I walked out the train station doors. As I inched closer, he waved even more intensely. When I was maybe 10 feet away, he seemed to open his arms wide as if to say “Bring it in for the real thing.” Just as I was about to warmly embrace a man I’d never met, a young blonde woman darted in front of me and gave him a huge hug. It was his sister. She was on the same train. We all had a good laugh (at my expense).
On the 45-minute drive to Celles-sur-Ource, it wasn’t long before the conversation turned to organic viticulture. Aurelien seemed very passionate about the subject as most organic vigneron are. It made me think of our culture’s infatuation with all things organic…
Gerbais vineyards in the growing season
4000 B.C. – present day: Man vs Wine
I digress again. Our newfound obsession with organic products is undeniably trending, but the quest for healthy food and drink is as old as the hills. Credit bad drinking water and an era before modern medicine with wine’s elevation. Roman armies marched on it. In 1360 Archbishop Boemund II of Germany fell seriously ill and tried every medicinal remedy to cure his fever. Only a fine keg of Riesling from the town of Bernkastel was able to restore him. So, naturally, he titled the vineyard ‘Doctor’. The name holds to this day (and so does the wine).
The king that spawned a rivalry
The plot thickens with the Sun King Louis XIV. His fondness of Champagne was no secret until chronic gout and various other ailments prompted doctors to ban Champagne from the royal court in favor of Burgundy. So intensified an already heated rivalry between the two regions. In response, the Faculty of Medicine in Reims published several articles refuting claims that Burgundy was healthier than Champagne. Burgundy fired back with their golden boy, Jean-Baptiste des Salins – dean of the medical school in Beaune. In front of a packed auditorium in Paris, he argued for Burgundy’s merits and nearly every paper in France ran with the story. Champagne would eventually ease the tension with a shift in still wine production to the bubbling joy we know today.
The Cotes Des Bar by car | A map for those playing the home game
Still in the car
As the French tend not to forget things so easily, I wondered where Aurelien stood on the Champagne vs Burgundy grudge match. To my surprise, Aurelien identifies as Burgundian. He talked about how his region was originally excluded from the early 1900’s iteration of Champagne growing areas. It wasn’t until end of World War II when Champagne sales were soaring that they saw a rise in vineyard plantings. As Champagne’s southernmost region, the Aube – also known as the Côtes des Bar - is kind of an anomaly. You’d have to get the map out to get the full picture, but let’s just say the drive time to Dijon is shorter than the drive time to Reims. Couple proximity with a warmer climate and clay-loaded soils, and the resemblance becomes even more apparent.
The ripple effect of Burgundian influence is felt on the Aube wines themselves. There is a focus on site in the Aube that runs counter to the widespread blending that defines the northern part of Champagne. A warmer climate means riper fruit and, in turn, less dosage (added sugar) needed to tame acidity. Much of the same can be said inside the cellar. Many of the Aube winemakers, including Aurelien, studied in Beaune. As we were pulling into town, Aurelien told me that Olivier Lamy, one of Burgundy’s finest Chardonnay producers, is his ‘spiritual father’. A reliance on barrels and other Burgundian techniques such as farming without chemicals has helped propel a region that is essentially caught between two worlds.
Back to the health thing for a hot second
Before the 20th century, people didn’t talk about organic farming. They didn’t have to. There wasn’t anything inorganic to discuss. Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides would come later. Today the word ‘organic’ is plastered on every shelf. But what does it mean? Good question. I’ll tell you what it means to Aurelien…
Enter Paul Wasserman, dining on some second crop
Picking up a hitchhiker – I call shotgun
At the winery we swooped up Gerbais ambassador, Paul Wasserman. In conversations he and I had stateside, Paul described Aurelien as self-assured. He was right. Yet, so often, when self-assured meets 27 years old, youth tends to show through. With Aurelien, however, there is a poise that is truly remarkable. He at once knows exactly what he wants and in the same breath is entirely open to the vast possibilities of how to get there. Very few people his age are as wise as they are intelligent.
En route Paul and I teased Aurelien about all the legends who punched out at 27: Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison, Redding, Winehouse, Cobain… I told Aurelien “That’s not bad company.” He smiled and replied, “True. But I’m not a musician.” Fair enough.
3 generations of Gerbais | Aurelien disgorging some grape juice outside of the winery
In the vineyard – the case for organics
Champagne is historically the biggest offender when it comes to chemical farming. I suppose they are as much a victim of circumstance as any other explanation. After all, everybody wants organic, but no one wants to pay for it. Champagne has the most expensive vineyard land in all of France. They also have an extremely severe climate, prone to just about every weather woe one could imagine: frost, hail, rot, etc. The labor associated with organic farming and the lack of outs to get a decent yield in bad weather years, is more real to Champagne than any other place on earth. For the Gerbais family, however, there was no other way.
Aurelien’s grandmother worked tirelessly in the vineyards. She would put one trellis tie in her mouth and use another to tie a branch to the wire. On down the row she would go for hours on end. The pesticides from the vines would get on her fingers, her fingers would touch the tie, and the tie would go in her mouth. Slowly and unknowingly, she was poisoning herself. In the early 90’s she came down with an infection from pesticides that nearly killed her. The family converted to organic farming immediately.
I’ve heard stories like these with other producers and it calls to mind something that Jean Gonon (a Northern Rhone producer) said on a visit last month. “It’s one thing to chemically farm for food. It’s another thing to chemically farm for a luxury product.” While some may argue that wine is absolutely essential to survival, the truth is our environment is precious. And wine is one of the few luxury products we consume, making the case for organics that much more personal.
Is it that simple? No. As Beaujolais icon Matthieu Lapierre reminded me “there are organic products that have been banned because they were found to be just as dangerous”. Not every berry on a bush should be eaten. Additionally we have much to define when we talk about organics in this brave new world. Where the rubber meets the road, you’ll find the Gerbais family, along with a small group of Champagne growers, continuing to work against the grain for the advocacy of life.
Resting mean mug at Aux Crieurs de Vin with Mr. Wasserman
Why the photo above? Aux Crieurs de Vin is one of the oldest natural wine bars in France. It is the place Paul first discovered Gerbais Champagne when he was living in Troyes. It is also the place that inspired Aurelien’s father to embrace lower amounts of sulfur in the wines.
L’Osmose – Viticole’s Champagne of the Year
Right, so the wine… L’Osmose is a 100% Chardonnay cuvee in its first incarnation to the public. Fans of Gerbais will recall the 1.0 version – Prestige Cuvee. Aurelien added some North-facing parcels called Le Cote to their south-facing vineyard Champ Viole. Both were planted back in ’83.
North-facing sites, even in the Aube, see less sun exposure and are thus very lean and mineral. This is a crucial chess piece for Aurelien to have a cool and intensely mineral vineyard in a region that grows warmer by the year. It explains why his wines have so much tension with the generosity of his fruit.
I hope the notion of ‘drinking well’ takes on new meaning this holiday season. As this will be the last offer of 2016, I wish you nothing but the best in 2017. May you lift a glass of Gerbais with loved ones and rest confidently in the salutation ‘To your health.’
- Brian McClintic
Tasting Notes: Crisp, clean and briny with citrus notes driving the finish. Champagne walks a very fine line between austere and too sweet and flat. This has incredible finesse and balance.
Seasonal Pairing: Caviar if you're poshing it up. The raw bar will do otherwise.
When to Drink: Best now through 10+ years
Geeky Things: 36 months in bottle on the lees. Aurelien disgorges every month as necessary. 3-4 g/l dosage. 12% abv. Total SO2 - 30mg. Unfined/unflitered
Area Eats: Aux Crieurs de Vin in Troyes. Buy some wines off the shelf and eat some traditional fare (andouillette if you're feeling brave like Paul).
Bigger Than Wine: With every offer, Viticole donates $5 on every case sold. The January 1st charity was chosen by Paul Wasserman. Children of the Night exists to rescue children from child prostitution. You can check them out online.