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Raising the Bar: A Visit with Bertrand Gautherot of Vouette & Sorbée

13.10.2021

Arriving in the rural idyll of Buxieres-Sur-Arces, surrounded by verdant hills, dense woodland and a cluster of houses, it was hard to believe we’d arrived at a place that has helped redefine champagne as fine wine in the last 20 years. Yet this humble tranquillity stood to represent the both the family and the soils from which Vouette & Sorbée’s emblematic champagnes are born.

By now Bertrand Gautherot’s story is well known. Taking over vineyard work on the family farm in 1986, he initially continued with conventional farming of his father and uncle and sold grapes to the local cooperative. Determined however to break out of a system that belittled growers and neglected care of the land, he sought to tread a different path. With the encouragement of luminaries such as Anselme Selosse & Jerome Prevost, he began to eschew the use of pesticides, achieving Demeter biodynamic certification by 1998. Together with his wife Helene, they bottled their first vintage in 2001.

As we set off from the driveway, passing the winery on our right and their family home opposite, it’s from here that Bertrand begins his story. “They called me the Ayatollah. For the growers in the Cotes-des-Bar, this was a huge revolution.” The significance of such a comparison not to be lost on me, I pressed him for more. “For years we only sold grapes to the cooperatives or the grand marques. Nobody believed we could make our own wines, our expression of Champagne. But then we thought we have to explain this terroir. It is something different from the Marne, and from the Cotes des Blancs.”

In this Southern outpost of Champagne, they’ve had to tread their own path. Historically, the Champenois rejected them, excluding the Aube (a region stretching South-East from it’s capital, Troyes) from classification as part of Champagne. Only revolt and riot reversed their decision, but nevertheless their reputation had been for ripe grapes to flesh out the wines of the big houses based in and around Epernay.

Unsurprising then, that the people of the Aube looked in another direction for identity. Looking back over Vouette – one of two lieu-dits after which the domaine is named – Bertrand points out that only the Seine, a large outcrop and 60km stand between us and Chablis. “Officially we are in Champagne. But in our homes, we eat different food. We do not send our children to study wine in Avize; they go to Beaune. So, you can say we are Burgundian.”

Sentiment is far from the only factor that links these two places. Turning back toward Sorbée, we’re confronted by a segment of cliff that reveals the soils on which we stand. Like Chablis, the Cotes-des-Bar sits on Kimmeridgean marl, ancient limestone that has a uniform structure and is ideal for water retention. As Bertrand picks up a chunk of this rock, he explains that the water can travel easily down through it, so the vine goes deep to drink the water. As the water passes through this marl, rich in oyster fossils, it gathers minerals that, he insists, imparts the Champagnes of the region with a signature salinity. “Before, when Louis XIV drank our still wine, he was embarrassed because the salinity made him salivate. So, we were banned. We were the bad boys of Champagne!”

Not any longer. Joined now by a host of grower-producers in the region such as Marie Courtin, Ruppert-Leroy and Olivier Horiot, the Gautherots have led a quiet yet unignorable drive to put the Aube firmly on the map. In a quest for the truest expression of terroir, everything is done by hand in vineyard and cellar and, save for minimum amounts of sulphur where necessary, nothing is added. Zero-dosage is an ideology, with Bertrand proudly stating “I never bought a gram of sugar in my life” (presumably in relation to winemaking activities). Despite Anselme Selosse encouraging him to consider the aromatic benefits of 2-3 grams, he’s adamant that not only is there enough ripeness to achieve desired aromatics and flavour, but that to add anything would be to adulterate the story of the soils.

The commitment to their land is evident. Walking through Vouette, we noticed several rows of vines that had various-coloured ribbons tied at the front of each. This was the work of Heloise – their daughter and ever-more crucial part of the team – and is her system of identifying which row had been pruned on which corresponding moon day every year, to ensure this was consistent. He talked at length about which time of the day was best for ploughing (afternoon, as most life returns to the ground and thus isn’t damaged at surface), and gave us a detailed explanation on his choice of manure to help soil fertility.

“In biodynamics, the cow is very powerful. Everybody thinks the horn preparation is the only thing. But not all land needs this much feritlisation. Some, like Biaune (the vineyard from which their epic blanc des blancs Blanc d’Argile is made), have a lot of sun in the afternoon and so the vines do not need something so rigorous. So, we use chicken droppings working with an organic farm. If you look back, the (Cictercian) monks of Clos Vougeot understood that different animals have different fertility. The cows were on the top (third of the vineyard, where drainage is greatest and temperature coolest), sheep in the middle, and chicken at the bottom”. Incidentally he felt that for Sorbée, perfect in his eyes in exposition, a mixture of sheep and cow manure was just right.

In what has become a signature lesson, Bertrand dug in to demonstrate this theory. Stood between Sorbée on our right and his cousin’s neighbouring vineyard to our left, he planted a pitchfork into a patch by his own vines, took a scoop out and dumped it at our feet. He crossed the few metres to his cousin’s - who farms conventionally and sells his grapes to Veuve Cliquot - and did the same. The two were – forgive the pun – chalk and cheese apart. I dove straight for a fistful of each but Bertrand, sage-like in temperament, asked me to first observe the soil. What did we see? What looked different? Thankfully, the answers were glaringly obvious. Where the neighbouring soil was pallid and powdery, his was dark, teeming with worms and insects. Finally grabbing a handful of each you could feel the stark contrast in moisture between the two. Aromatically, the difference was astonishing. Nose deep into the neighbouring soils I could just about smell a tame, monolithic whiff of dirt. His, you could smell it from arm’s length. Vegetal, fungal, fresh and pungent. Perfumed would be a stretch, but it sure as anything smelled alive! The thread between these soils and how wines of similar provenance may compare felt significant.

Entering the chai a few days after pressing felt like standing in an arena, hours after the main event, everything pristinely packed down and eerily quiet. But the tension lingers heavy in the air where it crackled not long before. A four-ton Coquard press stood magnificent but with wooden fencing dismantled. Here Bertrand pointed to the drains in the floor. “I believe we have to use this process, for the juice to press very slowly, by gravity, and naturally we have clarification as it falls down to the cellar. There’s no need to do more.” Squaring the simplicity of this process with the complexity in his wines feels all the more baffling, as if by letting things just ‘happen’ they could never happen so well. But therein lies the skill of a vigneron, first -and in Bertrand’s view, foremost – in the vineyard, and then through winemaking.

Attention to detail is in every single thing done here. We move down to the cellar where only Pinot Noir sits in barrels. Unfortunately, they’ve lost 40% of their crop this year, most of which was Chardonnay. Nevertheless, Bertrand enthusiastically shows us Pinot Noir bubbling away in smaller barriques, which he explains they use to encourage more oxidation. All barrels used are “old” but the smaller ones holding Pinot Noir are older-use, chosen for the same reason. Chardonnay would instead ferment in larger 500 or 600 litre casks of roughly 5-7 years, erring for more reductive wine that is “droit”, choices that in his mind help express its terroir most.

Using windows and two huge sliding doors that separate the cellar from the outdoors on one side and another ageing room on the other, they control temperature delicately but naturally year-round. “Like humans, they sweat when they are working, so the fermentation gives us some heat. We can keep this or lose it if we need.”  Barrels stay here after fermentation until February, when they are moved outside and left for 10-14 days. Remarkably, temperatures drop to as low as -10 C during the evenings here, freezing lees and sediment at the bottom of the barrel so it can be easily separated. Still wine is first tasted in May.

It is when we come to taste Bertrand tell us, summarily, the message in the bottle (and barrel in this instance). “When we first taste the wine from the barrel, we never smell it. When you smell it, you have the aromatics which interfere with the taste. This first tasting is not for the whole palette. It is to know whether this really is a true wine from the terroir, from the Cotes-des-Bar.” He grips his around his jaw-area with thumb and finger. “We will find it here. The salivation, the minerality. That will show me a correct wine from these soils.”

Having apologetically handed us flutes embossed with the domaine’s logo - “sorry, not the best for tasting but we got them for our 100th birthday party” – he demonstrates: opening his mouth as wide as the rim of the glass and touching, he throws the wine back with a jolt, swilling around then up, down, left and right, and finally spits. 20 seconds must pass to allow salivation to appear fully. Mercifully, this isn’t the first tasting, and we’re spared after one poor attempt.

Further into the cellar we stood to taste, faced with dimmer lighting, different vessels and a sense of greater experimentation going on. To our right stood two enormous 4000 litre barrels, containing 16-year old soleras from the Biaune vineyard – one of Chardonnay, the other Pinot Noir. Each year he estimates 10% is added, whilst he draws off a small amount and loses roughly 100 litres to evaporation. Both were miraculous. The Chardonnay hit the palette with shimmering minerality, oscillating around the palette and leaving in its wake an intense, nutty, spiced oxidative hum and a puddle saliva at the base of my mouth. The Pinot Noir, the more balanced of the two, carried a similar minerality but was rounder, full of delicate red fruit but somehow less dense, ethereal. I’d never known it has been solera-aged.

Though they make year-specific champagne (but can’t denote it vintage due to shorter bottle-ageing), Bertrand says this experiment allows us to transparently see the terroir. “A vintage is not just one year, but a reflection of several years before as well. In 2003 we had a very hot year. The next year, grapes had 4 seeds in them! Because the vine was so stressed the year before, clearly it will be different in 2004. We have this experiment as a way to see the whole picture.” Every year a tiny quantity is bottled of each and sold as a pair, for those who wish to dive deep and compare (we do).

In the corner of the room stand four handsome amphorae, made near Florence to a spec that encourages lees to circulate throughout. To my dismay, I’m told these no longer contain the Pinot Blanc used for Textures, to my mind the genre-redefining champagne. The vines for this belong to his nephew, who’s decided to vinify the grapes himself. Instead, they are experimenting in these with Chardonnay from Biaune.

To complete the tasting, Bertrand brought two unmarked bottles from the cellar and, with casual flair, disgorged both. In front of us were 2018 and 2014 vintages of Fidèle, a 100% Pinot Noir made from a blend of several parcels. The former was brimming with red fruit and oyster-like salinity, the latter richer and more savoury. As we sat around the table, Bertrand was full of praise for the wine trade in London, remarking that palettes are both discerning and open-minded. After just over 3 hours of talking and tasting, it was impossible not be awe-struck. Aside from tasting some of the most unique wines anywhere, the humility, knowledge and passion of the family left an indelible mark.

Before leaving, I had to share a story with Bertrand about the last time I’d drank Fidèle. A friend and I shared this bottle whilst eating oysters, overlooking a patch of land littered with oyster shells. This friend, bar a recreational interest, has no working knowledge of wine. Washing her oyster down, she looked at the glass, bemused. “This tastes so much like oysters, and makes the oysters taste so much more like themselves.” As I told him this he stared back, wide-eyed and beaming, like an inventor watching their creation come to life. “Wow. This is incredible for me, this is what makes it special.”

- Aryan Anbari