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Witnessing the growth of a vigneron is one of the great pleasures of working in wine. When a domain makes a jump in quality, from very good to excellent, it’s akin to a small epiphany, like discovering an extra layer of meaning in a one of your favorite books or watching ‘like’ turn to ‘love.’ One such grower is Fabrice Pouillon, whose Champagnes have become even more distinct and compelling as a result of his dedicated work in the vines. Since starting at his family’s estate in 1998, and taking over fully in 2004, Fabrice has prioritized organic farming: planting cover crops, utilizing organic composts and biodynamic preparations, and plowing, rather than using herbicides. With time, the efficacy of this work has resulted in vibrant, beautiful vineyards with lower yields and more vivid expression of terroir. To highlight this distinctiveness, individual parcels are pressed in his traditional wooden Coquard basket press and vinified separately. Primary fermentation for the vins clairs is with indigenous yeasts, in a mixture of tank, foudre, and used barrels, and all wines undergo malolactic fermentation.
The wines are rich and powerful without sacrificing precision, as befits a domain nearly 2/3 of whose holdings are in the calcareous clay soils of La Grande Vallée de la Marne. Pouillon has vines in both Aÿ and Mareuil-Sur-Aÿ, villages on south-facing slopes just to the east of Epernay. The grand cru Aÿ has been famed for its fine, pale, Pinot Noir since the Renaissance. Immediately to the east is the premier cru Mareuil-Sur-Aÿ, which contains some of Champagne’s most famous and terroir-specific vineyards: the precipitous south-facing, deeply chalky Clos des Goisses, and the limestone clays of Clos St. Hilaire. Both villages are notable for the robust, textured character of their wines.
Over the past few years, Pouillon has released a series of vintage-dated, terroir-specific Champagnes from individual lieu-dits in Aÿ and neighboring Mareuil-Sur-Aÿ. The 2008 Grand Cru Les Valnons Blanc de Blancs Extra-Brut displays the breed, power, and stony complexity of Aÿ. Its counterpart is the 2008 Les Blanchiens Brut Nature from a single vineyard in Mareuil-Sur-Aÿ. Composed of equal parts Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, this wine reveals an even greater sense of mineral cut, with profound umami character and savory soil notes underlying its fruit.
Perhaps the most striking of Fabrice Pouillon’s wines is the 2008 Chemin du Bois Blanc de Noirs from the eponymous lieu-dit downslope from Les Blanchiens. This Champagne is a striking expression of exceptionally ripe Pinot Noir grapes grown in Mareuil-Sur-Aÿ’s calcareous clays. It is also distinctive for Fabrice’s use of chilled, un-sulfured, unfermented grape must from his vines for both the liqueur de tirage, as well as for the dosage, rather than cane sugar or MCR (moût concentré rectifié or concentrated grape must). His idea is that unadulterated grape juice from local vineyards and its native yeasts will impart more specific terroir to the finished wine than the addition of sugar from the tropics or concentrated must from Languedoc. The finished wine is soulful, vinous Champagne, which seamlessly combines floral aromas and rich red fruits with a distinctly sapid earthiness. John McIlwain
From an organically farmed, single-vineyard parcel at the top of the slope on the western side of Mareuil-sur-Aÿ. 50% Pinot Noir fermented in tank, 50% Chardonnay fermented in used barrels. Disgorged in Spring 2016, zero dosage. Though from a premier cru village rather than its grand cru neighbor, Aÿ, the 2008 Les Blanchiens is no less an articulate expression of the calcareous clay soils that make up its terroir. The nose offers toasty brioche, dried orange peel, and bergamot aromas. The palate shows ripe dense fruit on the attack, with an incisive minerality dominating a rich and complex mid-palate. This is manifested by pungent soil notes, which give way to distinctly savory, sapid, and powerful finish. Though bottled without dosage, this is by no means austere. John McIlwain
100% Chardonnay from the well-situated Les Valnons Froid Cul lieu-dit on the upper slope of the Grand Cru village of Aÿ. Fermented with native yeasts in 80% used barrels, the balance in tank. Disgorged in Spring 2016, Dosage 5g/l. Les Valnons is a lovely, albeit somewhat atypical Blanc de Blancs from a village better known for its Pinot Noir. The robe on the 2008 has a pale gold color with a fine bead. This nervy Chardonnay offers aromas of chalk, lemon oil, quinine, and crushed herbs the palate is broad and powerful offering citrus, spice, and mineral notes on a taut, complex, and detailed finish. John McIlwain
An organically-farmed Blanc de Noirs from the eponymous lieu-dit in the premier cru village of Mareuil-sur-Aÿ. The wine is a notable expression of this terroir, as Fabrice Pouillon reveals by vinifying with only the natural sugars from perfectly ripe Pinot Noir, in addition to only utilizing the indigenous yeasts present in the must. He accomplishes this by chilling unsulfured grape must in tank to a temperature low enough to prevent spoilage or fermentation. This must is then used for the secondary fermentation, as well as the dosage after disgorgement, rather than cane sugars or MCR. The resulting wine is layered and supple with a fine bead, displaying red fruits, blood orange peel, and spices, expressing the vinous character of Pinot Noir grown in the clays of the Grande Vallee de la Marne. John McIlwain