HURÉ FRÈRES: THE NATURE OF CHAMPAGNE
Every time the term ‘natural wine’ is uttered, a sommelier rolls their eyes. And yet, the wine industry can’t come up with a better term, so we use it too (joke’s on us). There are reasons for the cringes. One is what Sandhi proprietor Rajat Parr calls “lack of definition”. What do we mean when we say ‘this is a natural wine’? We could mean a gypsy with killer dreads foraged for grapes and left them in a goat skin to do as they please. Or we could mean a diligent organic farmer, overwrought with control in the cellar. The term does not promise quality, nor do we really know where to draw the line. From outright neglect to micromanagement, what interventions pass inspection within the realm of ‘natural wine’? Better question. What the hell does this have to do with Champagne?
Francois Huré talks organics
Champagne, above all regions, is the most interesting to me with regards to the natural wine discussion, simply because it is the most unlikely place to take part. Like Beaujolais there is a great polarity in the establishment, but with elements unique to Champagne:
1. Champagne’s extremity – I’m not talking about a left toe…I’m talking weather. Severe weather, unlike anywhere else in France: cold, rot, frost, etc. Very few producers dare to work the land organically, but amazingly that number is steadily rising. Among the proud few, a sense of noble masochism – if not for battling mother nature’s fury, then for the healthy demand of Champagne that would easily afford them the luxury of a less resistant path.
2. Champagne’s sparkle – Bubbles…on one hand the signature, iconic identity of this place. On the other, a welcome distortion. If there were ever temptation to right a wrong – poor farming, winemaking flaws, a string of bad vintages – in the effervescence of trapped CO2, you have a powerful corrective lens.
3. Champagne’s association – Wedding toasts, New Year's Eve, cocktail parties… Champagne has for so many years been a brand, an agent of celebration and intimate fellowship. To some degree still wine is too, but Champagne inhabits its own category of pop culture nostalgia.
Among the three topics, the third is perhaps the most relevant, and it would set the table for my first meeting with proprietor Francois Huré.
A vineyard in Francois' vintage bottling: Instantée
10/10/17 – THE PARIS TALKS
After being connected via email by California importer Aline Thiebaut, Francois and I met for lunch at a small bistro in the 17th arrondissement. When I arrived, he was already there with Huré Freres on ice. That was plenty enough to be my friend, but there is a quiet warmth about Francois that is equally inviting.
Before we tasted, we talked. When the conversation turned to natural wine (didn’t take long), Francois paused and backed up. “I think it’s important to note…we are trying to make wine. Wine that belongs on a table like any other...For some time now, Champagne has not been seen as such…”
When was the last time you went through a meal drinking nothing but Champagne? Why is it pigeonholed as a precursor? Certainly, not for lack of compatibility with food – Champagne is unquestionably the most versatile wine in almost any situation. So why do we abandon ship for still wine when it’s time to eat? To some degree, it must have been handed down...
Viticole 1 (away), Huré Freres 0 (home)
A HISTORY OF CHAMPAGNE’S ASSOCIATION
Champagne weathered the Dark Ages admirably, thanks in part to the city of Reims. In the 11th century Reims became the preferred locale for world fairs and the coronation of royalty. Not a bad PR boost to the region’s wines, and a solid excuse to consume en masse. Despite Champagne existing in still form at the time, its association with festivity was incubating.
Champagne ran well until it fell out of favor around the turn of the 18th century, which may have inspired the switch to ‘purposeful’ production of sparkling wines. By the 19th century the transformation was a success, seeping into the mainstream – aristocrats and the middle class alike, embracing effervescent versions.
Out of newfound popularity, came the association of sparkling Champagne as a palate cleanser and the emblem of all things romantic. That spirit has helped forge an economic juggernaut, interrupted only by cataclysmic world events:
CHAMPAGNE PRODUCTION TIMELINE (taken from Peter Liem’s Champagne: The Essential Guide):
1785 – roughly 300,000 bottles produced
1853 – 10 million bottles
1871 – 20 million bottles
1909 – 39 million bottles
1950 – 33 million bottles
1980 – 176 million bottles
1999 – 327 million bottles
Champagne presses and sparkling dreams...
10/31/2017 – A HALLOWEEN VINEYARD WALK IN LUDES
We woke up in Piedmont reeking of truffles and crawled up to Northern France just in time to catch the vineyards of the Montagne de Reims before sundown. Needless to say, Team Viticole was sans costume pulling into the train station. It had rained earlier in the day and the sky was beautifully clear on our short drive through the country. Time for some Ludes 101...
Champagne for the better part is comprised of three grapes: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Meunier. While the majority of the Montagne de Reims is known for its Pinot Noir, Francois expounded on his specific home turf, “The commune of Ludes can be broken down into four distinct quadrants, which allows us to grow all three grapes successfully.” He pointed out each section and its respective slope, before a deep dive into the subtleties of plot. Francois and his brother Pierre (who oversees vineyard work) are remarkably attentive farmers, and in light of neighboring vineyards that displayed the tell-tale signs of chemical effect, Francois was careful to note which parcels were his.
Me: “Are you seeing more and more producers farming organically?”
Francois: “Actually, yes. It is an exciting time.”
Me: “A new movement in many ways, the exploration of terroir?”
Francois: “In some ways, yes. In some ways, we are picking up where we left off...”
Life in Ludes
A HISTORY OF CHAMPAGNE’S EXTREMITY
The concept of terroir or a sense of place...finding where the best vineyards reside to make quality wine, has been a focal point in Champagne since at least the 9th century. In fact, the word ‘Champagne’ wasn’t uttered, in regards to its wines, until after 1600. Rather it was the standout villages – Hauvillers, Äy, Epernay, etc. – that people observed, even then, as having special attributes.
In the Age of Enlightenment, when palates shifted toward the riper and more concentrated wines of Burgundy, Champagne knew that only in the warmest, driest vintages could it compete with its historic rival. Even for its sparkling wines, vintage variation was dramatic. The need to reserve wines from great vintages to blend into vintages of lesser quality is a staple practice in Champagne to help bolster consistency.
The exploration of terroir rolled on organically until the mid 20th century, with the introduction of synthetic sprays. Fiscally, the petrochemical movement could not have come about at a better time. Champagne was witnessing exponential growth, but its harsh environment meant the threat of inconsistent quantity. Chemical products increased yields and reduced labor. Somewhere in the haze of commercialization, Champagne gave in to the brand it had become, and in doing so, lost its sense of place...
Dropping the label
Down the rabbit hole and back through, we move into a brave new world, forced to use incomplete and previously non-existent terms like ‘natural wine’ to clarify a position. But It’s a whole new playing field today, for the organic vigneron. Weather is less marginal - it's warming up. Climate change has sunk its teeth heavily into the region. As Francois puts it:
“We are harvesting at higher ripeness levels than ever before and still the fruit is coming in 7-10 days earlier than it did in the 70’s. If this continues we must rethink how we farm in Champagne...and in fact, we already are...”
Different conditions = different wines. The blueprint flips with all new interpretations of texture and intensity of fruit. Among the groundswell of terroir-minded growers and merchants, Champagne is truly making 'wine' like never before...and making it well. We would learn first hand in the cellar...
Just a man and his thief...
HALLOWEEN IN THE CELLAR OF HURÉ FRÈRES
At Chez HF, we led out with a heated game of foosball - Francois let me win. From there, we moved on to barrel tasting base wines (the still component parts before they becoming sparkling). Francois has south-facing vineyard sites that receive ample sunshine, and north-facing parcels that, in another time, were perhaps too cold to produce anything of value. Now they are indispensable in adding freshness and helping to assemble the puzzle pieces that comprise each of Francois’ cuvees.
The Vitcole Wine Club 2-pack: The first offering of Huré Freres, ’Invitation’, does its namesake proud, welcoming us to a range of clean, dry Champagne made with undeniable precision. The vintage bottling ‘Instantanée’ adds another degree of depth and gives us a snapshot of 2009 in the Montagne de Reims. Both bottlings are blends of all three grapes (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Meunier) from 4 villages.
We’ll save the history of sparkling Champagne for another blog. For now, I am grateful to be offering the Huré Freres wines and to get to know two men who constantly looks for truth in all things. Transparent people make transparent wines, and among a growing number of new producers – Aurelien Gerbais, Etienne Calsac… (they're multiplying) – Francois and Pierre are doing their part to preserve Champagne’s soul and traverse its possibility.
A special thanks to Lauren Hamilton for taking all these lovely photos...
- Brian McClintic
Tasting Notes: There is a common thread of character throughout the Huré Freres range. Francois's wines are chiseled and precise without being jagged. Invitation is open and supple compared to extra layer of mineral depth with Instantanée. Tasted initially over 3 days in Paris and they held up beautifully on day 3. Once again at the domaine.
Seasonal Pairing: Invitation: shellfish | Instantanée: lighter fowl
When to Drink: Invitation: now - 2025+ | Instantanée: now - 2028+
Geeky Things: Invitation: base wine is 2013, 6g/l dosage, partial malo, 20% chard, 40% Pinot, 40% Meunier | Instantanée: 4g/l dosage, full malo, 35% chard, 35% Pinot, 30% Meunier
Area Eats: For a casual gastro pub in Reims with a solid wine list hit up 'Glue Pot'
Vintage Report: 2009 is an open-knit vintage with forward fruit and ample freshness. Mid-term cellaring.
Bigger Than Wine: As is customary each month, Viticole donates $5 per case on everything we sell. This month's featured charity is the American Heart Association. You can check them out online.