Experimental and Controversial Champagnes from Ulysse Collin

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My first winery visit in Champagne – in the winter of 2011 – was to Olivier Collin of Domaine Ulysse Collin in Congy. I confess at the time I did not understand Collin’s wines; I had far less context and less tasting experience, and Collin’s wines are unusual. In retrospect – with several visits to the region now under my belt – it seems like an odd (though excellent) first visit. For starters, Congy is in the Sézannais, which is an off-the-beaten-path part of Champagne, south and west of the Côtes des Blancs and north and east of the Côtes de Sézanne. There are no Grand or 1er Crus in the Sézannais. Second, the story of Olivier’s ascendance to winemaking is singular. The Collin family vines had been rented to Pommery in an incredibly binding lease and during the late ‘90s Olivier studied law with the intention of legally reclaiming the vines. Then he discretely popped up to Avize for a life-changing apprenticeship with Anselme Selosse in the early 2000s. In 2003, he was poised and ready to begin his own winemaking endeavor, borrowing heavily from what he had learned from Selosse about biodynamics, healthy soil, wines of terroir, etc… However a spring frost ruined the 2003 crop, meaning that Collin’s first vintage, made from a 1.2 hectare parcel called “Les Pierrières,” was 2004.

 

Since 2004, Collin has become one of the most interesting “new wave” Champagne vignerons (meaning a grower making single-vineyard, ultra terroir specific wines). There’s great attention to both vineyard and cellar work at Domaine Ulysse Collin and Collin’s importer (LDM) points out that once he had reclaimed the family land, his first purchases were a tractor to work the soil and a set of used Burgundy barrels to ferment his base wines. Work in the vines is essentially organic and progressing further in that direction each year as Collin’s operation expands and develops (he now farms just shy of 9 hectares). In the cellar, Collin uses a special square press, which he feels better extracts minerals and tannins from the juice. Fermentations take place with native yeast and are generally quite lengthy. The base wines then spend an additional year or more in barrel before the second fermentation. Collin’s is very much a project of patience. Like several other notable contemporaries such as Cédric Bouchard, the chief goal is to make great still wine; the bubbles are for lift and liveliness. Like Bouchard’s wines, Collin’s are bottled under fewer atmospheres of pressure.

                          

What makes Olivier Collin’s wines experimental and controversial? We’d say “taste one and find out!” The grapes are harvested extremely ripe, often at over 12 degrees potential alcohol, and they are bottled with almost no dosage (1-2 grams). They are distinct, vinous Champagnes that vividly show the minerality of the three sites Collin farms: Les Pierrières, Les Roises, and Les Maillons. (It was only with the 2008 vintage that Collin began to put the vineyard names on the bottlings.) They are intensely complex and a bit complicated, Champagnes of personality – they like air to show best. After our tasting with Collin, when bottles were on the table of a local restaurant, with food, they absolutely sang. If this is your style, try one, or two, or three! Quantities are miniscule and prices not low, but these wines are special and will offer enormous pleasure in the right glass. Salut! -Sophie

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Collin 2009 Champagne Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs Les Pierrieres

From a parcel of 30-ish year old vines in Congy where the chalk is very close to the surface and mixed with black silex, this is the first wine that Olivier Collin made and it's a glorious example of his style.The base wines at Domaine Ulysse Collin are matured in 3-6 year old barrels and the first fermentation is done with native yeast. The wine shows a beautiful mingling of very lightly oxidative notes, almost buttery aromas from malolactic fermentation, and intense, pillar-like acidity. More chalk than fruit, the wine offers exotic green and yellow citrus, preserved lemon, fuzzy kiwi, and a dense, chalky minerality. Honestly, this wine tastes fantastic as still wine, and if it's open until the bubbles disperse, you'll have a very delicious glass. MSB

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  • white sparkling
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Collin, Ulysses 2009 Champagne Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs Les Roises R

The Chardonnay vines that go into Collin's "Les Roises" bottling are 60 years old; this is very old for Champagne vines and they suffer from two maladies called "millerandage" and "court-noué," which may contribute to the intense concentration of this wine. "Millerandage" means that the vine yields small berries of very different sizes that ripen irregularly, and "court-noué" is a disease of the vines, themselves, which results in a decline in vigor. Yet this wine is absolutely incredible and special, and probably the most age-worthy of Collin's wines because of the sheer concentration and density of the juice in the bottle. Less open at this point than the Pierrieres and more pillar-like, this is the wine to throw in your cellar for ten years or so... -msb   

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  • white sparkling
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  • $119.99

Collin 2009 Champagne Extra Brut Blanc de Noirs Les Maillons

This is Olivier Collin's Pinot Noir-based Champagne and, tasting with him several years ago (the 2008 vintage of "Les Maillons"), this cuvée was my favorite. From vines that are 40ish years old and planted on chalk and heavy clay (rather than chalk and silex), this is the 3rd vintage of this wine; the first was 2006, the second 2008 ('07 was skipped due to hail). The wine is characterized by intense ripeness for Champagne, which causes a faint pink hue as well as a controversial amount of alcohol -- 13% -- high for Champagne. The wine is intensely savory with underlying notes of cherry, crabapple, and other cool climate, tangy red fruits. This is an experimental and polarizing wine with an vibrant, chalky mineral core. We suspect good results from aging for a few years. (disgorged March 2013) -msb 

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  • white sparkling
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Collin NV Champagne Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs "Le Magnum" 1.5

Comprising Chardonnay from the "Les Pierrieres" vineyard (before Collin put vineyard names on his wines), mostly 2006 with a touch of 2005, this should be absolutely fantastic, and great for cellaring as well as drinking. We think 2006 is an underrated vintage in Champagne, one that is showing itself to be excellent with time, and especially with as much lees aging as this wine has had, having been disgorged in the spring of 2012. Expect cool climate Chardonnay flavors of lime zest, green apple, chalk, extreme mineral depth and richness on the palate from barrel-aged base wine... -msb

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  • white sparkling
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  • $189.99