Maison Champy, founded in 1720, is, as far as I’m aware, the oldest documented négociant still trading. In their heyday, amongst the many prestigious appellations they owned or commercialised was the monopoly of the Clos de Tart in Morey St.Denis and the Montrachet holdings of the Marquis du Laguiche.
Pierre Meurgey is responsible for the operation today, and but for the Meurgey family it’s unlikely that the Champy name would seen at all – Maison Champy was bought by Louis Jadot in 1990 – the last of nine generations to run the company had died and the wider family and shareholders decided to take the money. For only a short time the Champy name was gone, but Pierre’s Meurgey’s mother was close to the mayor of Beaune and together with her husband, a fine wine trader, persuaded enough people that Champy should be re-sold to them. Of-course it was a smaller Champy that they purchased; prime vineyards like 2ha of Clos de Vougeot, stayed with Louis Jadot, as did 90% of the Champy ‘reserve’ of old bottles dating back to the 1800’s.
It was still 1989 when a new management team moved into the old Champy offices in rue Grenier du Sel – a backstreet within the walls of Beaune. Until 1995 the team were 100% négoce, but slowly they started to piece together vines of their own:
- In 1995 their first vines came from Savigny.
- In 1999 came Beaune 1er cru and a new winery on the route de Pommard.
- In 2003 one of their long-term suppliers retired and passed his vines to them on a 25 year ‘fermage’ basis – Pernand-Vergelesses village blanc et rouge, plus 1er cru Fichots (red), Corton and Corton-Charlemagne.
- In 2006 arrived the vines from the Carré-Courbin estate; 5 hectares of vines including villages Volnay and 1er Cru Taillepieds, plus villages Pommard and 1er Cru Epenots.
Current production is in the order of 40-45,000 cases per year – almost ’boutique’ by négoce standards – from around 45-50 cuvées. The number of cuvées is approximately half what they were producing in 1999, Pierre said that they were looking to have more control and eventually a ‘purer focus’. With a production ‘split’ of two-thirds red wine and one-third white, 75% is exported; the most important markets are Japan, followed by the UK and North America.
A little interesting history
Champy were one of the major négociants of the 19th century, at least on a par with the likes of Bouchard Père and Louis Latour. A tour of their offices and cuverie on the Rue Grenier du Sel reveals a modern organisation working from what is effectively a museum. Although built above 15th century cellars with later additions, much of the internal (re)construction dates from 1891 and seems to come directly from the industrial revolution, a period of iron and steam. There are even rail-tracks in the building for moving the large double-skinned copper fermentation ‘pots’ (below) from one part of the cuverie to another – it’s clear that no expense was spared – even Louis Pasteur was a consultant to the design process – at that time only the négoce could afford such things, in period when they had wealth far beyond what is apparent today.
Littered around the upper floors, Pierre also found many large metal cannisters but with no apparent purpose, only by working through the archives did their purpose become apparent: Wine was placed in the cannisters and then the cannisters were themselves placed in barrels of ice and salt. Ice would form on the surface of the wine only to be discarded – this was pure water, the wine below becoming more concentrated. Interestingly from their old price-lists, this treatment was typically reserved for their best cuvées – Richebourg Gelé anyone? – its price was higher than the ‘standard’ Richebourg cuvée…
Vines and Winemaking
The winemaker for Champy is Dimitri Bazas. He moved to Burgundy from Greece in 1991 to work with domaines such as d’Angerville, Henri Boillot, Christophe Roumier, Serafin and Trapet – in some cases as a consultant. Dimitri found it a good time to make the move, as “Burgundians had started to become self-critical and strive to produce better wines for a global market”. Dimitri states that the clear aim of Maison Champy today is to produce wines that taste like Savigny or Pommard, rather than taste like ‘Champy’.
Today Champy own 4 hectares of vines, but cultivate 17. In 1999 they began their regime of no herbicides or pesticides and ploughing between the rows of vines. Since 2004 there has only been contact spraying of copper and sulfur, working in an ‘organic’ way, and since 2006 they have been working in a biodynamic. 2007 is their first year of ‘conversion’ towards organic ‘certification’, the process takes 3 years, so they will be certified in 2010. Dimitri underlines that this was not undertaken simply as a ‘selling argument’ but from a philosophical standpoint. They are not planning a hair-shirt and dogmatic application of the biodynamic concept, rather they are driven by a wish for cleaner grapes from less ‘intervention’ on their part. Pierre says that the improvements since 1999 have been slow but sure. They have also been aided by the consultancy work of biodynamicist Pierre Masson for ‘good agricultural processes’. Racking and bottling are all done by the bio calendar, on waxing and waning moons. Dimitri is clear that throughout the process they have challenged each approach with blind tastings (particularly since 2005) and have seen the organic/bio approach to win out in each case. Dimitri is clearly ‘hands-on’ with his wines; visiting tasters are not simply met with a pipette and a smile – he wants to know exactly what you think of each wine – but this is also, he says, a challenge to their way of work as he wants to see if other people can also see the differences.
Despite ‘working in a museum’ all operations are done with ‘pushing pumps’ or by gravity, and without cultivated yeasts. The reds are mainly destemmed, but as we will see, some of the grand crus retain varying amounts of stems. The fermentations for the whites are done at Rue Grenier du Sel, whereas those of the reds are done at another cuverie on the Route du Pommard. The barrels of reds do find their way back to the main cuverie though. For the future Pierre Meurgey is planning a brand new cuverie in the area of Beaune, perhaps starting in 2010 – the main benefits would be logistics – then maybe the offices of Rue Grenier du Sel could eventually become a real museum!
Tasted (below) in late November 2008, in Champy’s 15th century cellars were a range of barrels and bottles. A quick summary would be ‘clean’, fresh bottles with personality. Many people suggest to me that the wines of the domaine in the late 1990’s were a little too oaky and ‘soupy’ – clearly they have a come a long way then as there is nothing here that I would be disappointed to have in my cellar!
The first vintage chez Champy; vines from the middle of the Beaune appellation, sited just below the Clos de La Mousse vines. Medium, medium-plus colour. Wide, powdery red fruit on the nose. Only one racking for this wine – September 08 – a wine that’s defined mostly by its structure today, but showing a good if slightly oaky length.
Again, medium, medium-plus colour. The nose shows good depth and very nice fruits – smells lovely. Seems to have a nicer balance between structure and fruit with good acidity and some mouth clinging soft tannin. Long with some oak flavour still obvious in the finish.
A blend of Aux Cras and Les Lambots. A darker, firmer and deeper nose than the last Beaune. Ripeness coupled to freshness this is quite impressive and shows a chewy but long finish. I really like the personality.
This vintage was the first full year of biodynamic cultivation for the Taillepieds. Only 30hl/ha was achieved, but that is down to the old vines rather than the bio approach! Medium, medium-plus colour. The nose today is aromatically fine and wide if not very deep. Silky texture on the tongue with flavours that widen in the mouth. Good acidity and very long finishing. This is a very pretty wine indeed – and a favourite of Pierre.
Medium-plus colour. Plenty of reductive notes on the nose give the impression of dark fruit – but today, and with the short time we are together, little else. Fresh but gassy – there has been no racking here. Overal clean and intense – it will be a good bottle eventually.
Not completely destemmed. Medium, medium-plus colour. The nose shows good width and the impression is of a slightly floral aspect to the fruit. Seems riper than the Gevrey, though more linear – also with a hint of gas. Very long, penetrating flavours. Another good effort.
Beautiful aromatics of intensity and depth. Mouth-filling – with plenty of structure dovetailed to very good concentration. Also still contains a little gas. This is like a well muscled race-horse. Lovely.
Not totally destemmed. From a mix the bottom and mid-slope vines. Reticent aromas slowly build depth and width in the glass. There’s plenty of tannin but it’s attached to lots of flavour too. Great balance overall.
Medium, medium-plus colour. A dark nose with plenty of reductive elements. Lots of flavour here and it’s subtly long too. Good acidity that’s well balanced to the rest of the wine. Should be good.
You’re greeted by quite a tight nose, though very slowly a complexity of dark fruits fills the glass. Wide in the mouth despite tightly presented fruit – the good acidity helps. This seems very long though is clearly hiding a lot today. I expect it should be super.
All the corks are branded with bottling date, in this case week 47, 2008 (47.08) – so the week before my visit. Medium, medium-plus colour. a dark nose of nice fruit. Plenty of background tannin that is overlaid with lovely fresh fruits that linger well in the finish. Should be a good buy.
A much tighter nose. Plenty of tannin – but it’s not chewy. Darker, more concentrated fruit. This spent longer in older barrels to ‘polish’ the tannins a little. Tasty, though certainly requiring a little bottle age.
A blend of fruit from 3 locations that were all vinified together. A fresh width of fruit greets the nose but there’s also a tight core too. Eventually some mineral notes too. A world of difference from the Pommard with finer tannin and a much more obvious ripe fruit dimension. Actually there’s a good mineral streak too – this is super.
Bottled in July. Medium yellow. The nose is fresh, wide, interesting and clean. Just a little edge of fatness to the reasonably complex and very tasty fruit. Good acidity. I find this excellent.
Deeper, denser aromatics after the Pernand. In the mouth it’s more plump but is certainly not lacking acidity. Good typicity for a Beaune whites.
Seventy percent from ‘En Charlemagne, the rest (so everything in fact) from Pernand, raised on 40% new oak. The nose shows wide, relatively soft fruit. It’s a narrow entry, but the flavours quickly widen across your tongue – really super fruit in the mid-palate. The flavours slowly fade. A very good effort this.