Nina Caplan writes in this months Decanter magazine about her meeting with Eric Rodez.
Why clink when you could make music?
Atheist or believer , we all give thanks to 17th-century monk Dom Pérignon for the gifts of blending and better-regulated bubbles that have made Champagne. We should also raise a glass to St-Rémi, who baptised King Clovis in Reims in the 5th century, ensuring that all future royal French baptisms would be fêted with the local wine. The Church’s more austere branches might not have chosen such close association with this extravagant beverage, but it’s hard to argue with a hundred coronations and a billion weddings.
As the eighth generation of a winemaking family in the grand cru village of Ambonnay, Eric Rodez has sucked up both Champagne’s spirituality and its sensuality through his roots, although his version of the former is not Christianity: it’s biodynamism. We visit his vines in early June, after 80mm of rain had fallen in just 2.5 days. He is almost in tears at the thought of mildew and rot, but his conviction is unwavering. ‘In the 1980s, I met Jean-Michel Deiss of Domaine Marcel Deiss [in Alsace]. He does not make wines – he makes cathedrals. It was he who helped me to realise
that the soil is everything.’
Read the full article in the November 2016 issue of Decanter magazine. Subscribe to Decanter here.
It took Rodez 10 years to re-establish the holy trinity of vines, topsoil and the deeper chalk that the roots must penetrate for the grapes to reach their full potential. He says: ‘The first part of the process was easy for me but hard for the vine,’ which had to be persuaded to burrow deeper for moisture. The second was easy for the vine but hard for him: that was when seven generations of pressure came to bear. ‘I had to convince my family, and continue to sleep at night!’
Few people now recall how hard life was for the Champenois before the 1960s, as almost every European war for two millennia raged across their fields, and Dom Pérignon’s innovations made small-scale winemaking expensive and difficult. Rodez’s family sold their grapes to négociants, who bought only when they chose, until his great-grandfather enterprisingly saved up for a wine press. This may explain why their line continues unto the ninth generation – and Grandpapa Eric today has hopes for the tenth, who is currently not much bigger than a vine shoot.
In Le Parc, the two-star Michelin restaurant at the Les Crayères hotel in Reims, we toast his Blanc de Noirs, a blend of six vintages with five years in bottle. ‘You know why we clink glasses?’ asks Eric: ‘Because the other four senses are already involved in the enjoyment of wine; only sound is lacking.’
Champagne has no famous regional cuisine, and the best-known dishes – andouillette, jambon en croûte and Brie – tend to be heavy on protein. Rodez’s powerful Blanc de Noirs, with its red fruits and touch of hazelnut, is unfazed, even by coddled egg ‘in a casing of undergrowth’ with a Palomino sauce.Chardonnay would be too sharp, says head sommelier Philippe Jamesse; on the other hand, an aromatic Empreinte de Terroir, Blanc de Blancs 2004 is perfect with cod steamed in Champagne, topped with caviar. Why invent an entire cuisine when you can nurture what you have, then combine its finest elements? Who should understand this, if not the Champenois?
With veal and white asparagus, we try two different Rodez single vineyards, both 2010 Pinot Noir: Les Beurys, fresh, light, almost astringent; and Les Genettes, sweeter, richer and more golden. No malolactic fermentation, no filtration – and ‘not in the Champenois tradition, which is all about blending’, says Eric.Both are exceptional: they’re his cathedrals.
Blending aims for consistency, which technology has made achievable; biodynamism argues with both the technology and the consistency. Rodez detests the homogenisation that progress and US critic Robert Parker have brought: ‘The advantage for the consumer is that, once you find the music you like, you know you will hear exactly that music every
time you drink that label. It’s magic: you are never disappointed. But the sameness is also diabolically boring.’ Blend or don’t blend, in other words, but stay true to your terroir: that is his creed. ‘Vive la variation de plaisir!’ he cries, raising a glass of his Millésime 2002. After all, with just one note there can be no harmony.
Why clink when you could make music?