Grape(s): 100% Chardonnay
Localization: Côte des Bar, Champagne, France
Tasting Notes: Golden yellow in color with aromas of chalky soil minerality, rich on the palate with a taste of pastry and croissant
The Domain: One of Champagne's most exciting producers is Emmanuel Lassaigne, an intelligent and thoughtful grower who works with the chalky south- and southeast-facing slope vineyards of Montgueux. Geologically, Montgueux represents a continuation of the strata of the Côte de Blancs—and, incidentally, recent scholarship suggests that the hillside that nurtures vines today may once have been the site of the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, where Aetius and Theodoric defeated Attila the Hun. It was Emmanuel's father Jacques who in the 1950s and 1960s began to replant some of the village's abandoned vineyards, and in 1999, rather than risk losing the estate, Emmanuel quit a successful career in manufacturing to return home. Organic farming, cultivated soils, and harvesting at full maturity are his precepts in the vineyards. In the cellar, the wines ferment in wood and stainless steel, and they're disgorged by hand without dosage.
The style is powerful and vinous but also racy and electric. This tasting surveyed Lassaigne's current releases, as well as a mini-vertical of his Clos Saint-Sophie. This site was owned by Marcel Dupont, a friend of the French botanist Charles Baltet, author of an important 19th-century treatise on grafting, and Baltet used the Clos for experiments. Rather than having any kind of ecclesiastical origin, the vineyard in fact takes its name from Dupont's wife. In 1876, Emperor Meiji of Japan sent two Japanese to Montgueux to study viticulture at the Clos Saint-Sophie, and in 1877, they imported 100 vines to Japan. Thus, the first plantings in history of vitas vinifera in Japan—on Mount Fuji—are inextricably linked with this small corner of the Aube. Today, the Clos is owned by the Valton family—better known as the proprietor of childrens' clothing brand Petit Batteau—and Lassaigne makes the wine. When most of Montgueux's vineyards were been abandoned after the War, the Clos was one of the few to remain in cultivation, so it represents a living link with the village's past.
Like several others growers profiled in this issue, Lassaigne is especially significant because he is shining a spotlight on what is possible in what I've elsewhere called Champagne's "secret garden" of hidden producing villages. The négociants were long content to buy grapes from Montgueux without disclosing their origins, and only Charles Heidsieck's former chef de cave, the late Daniel Thibault, ever publicly praised the sector. Yet today, Lassaigne's extraordinary Champagnes are pushing the qualitative boundaries not just of the Aube but of the entire region. I'll be devoting a more extensive essay to Lassaigne sometime soon, but for now, I warmly encourage readers to acquaint themselves with this first-rate producer.