A New Voice in Champagne, the remarkable farming and wines of Emilien Feneuil

6/16/20 -

It is always a treat to be able to introduce wine lovers to a new, real talent! Champagne has seen over the years a certain amount of fantastic grower-vignerons moving from selling grapes to making their own Champagnes, for our great delight. So today let us introduce you to Emilien Feneuil whose first vintage is nothing short of impressive and soulful!
Emilien Feneuil pressing, a crucial moment for him.
Picture : Emilien Feneuil.

It was an unusually chilly Spring in the region. April of last year brought deadly frosts, damaging the vines and their young buds. Winter 2018-19 had been relatively mild, like most of the previous winters - not giving the plant or its environment any real dormancy, squeezing out the sap from the canes along with the life of the vines. The vegetation was weeks ahead of schedule when the freezing mornings hit. The dawns were filled with scattered icicles and smokeshields created by the growers in hopes of shielding the buds.

I was in Champagne for a couple of days, visiting the region with the great team of Transatlantic Bubbles - Jeff Hellman and Mike Carleton, as well as some fellow colleagues including CSW’s very own John “Mac & Cheese Master” McIlwain. We were tasting with their growers all around the region, sharing first-hand explanations about the different farming practices each of them was applying in order to better express their terroir in a region where conventional chemical farming traditionally ruled (even the grands crus.) All are committed to try to understand their soils and their vines: from conscientious sustainable viticulture (like Agnès Corbon) to organic (Vincent Laval) and biodynamic with phytotherapy and aromatherapy (Benoit Marguet). They are pondering the consequences of their viticulture, with the asserted goal to preserve and enhance these fragile ecosystems and to reverse the historical trend. The human factor - their staff, their mentorship, their business relationships, etc. - is also an integrated part of their philosophy. Working with such growers and personalities is the DNA of Transatlantic Bubbles, and they are uncompromising. So when Mike told us “I would like to make a stop on the way to our next appointment. I want to show you a very unique vineyard, farmed by a very unique vigneron we may work with” I knew it would be special.
Les Fiermonts, Sermiers. Picture : PL

As we stood on the side of the road, we contemplated one of Emilien Feneuil’s vineyards: Les Fiermonts, in the commune of Sermiers. The plot was bursting with life, a shining emerald oasis between brown-yellowish patches of dead lands where you could still see remnants of blue garbage bags (the infamous “gadoues” or Paris waste legally permitted to be used as “fertilizer” in Champagne until 1997). In this small vineyard no larger than an acre, a variety of grasses, flowers, nettles, dandelions and clover were growing together in beautiful harmony. The soil was supple like a soft carpet, and a delightful humus scent was floating. It just felt good. But the most remarkable were the various trees popping up here and there, just starting to display their leaves. It was a first for me to see agroforestry practiced in Champagne, and judging by the trunks of these trees this style of farming was not brand new. Indeed, Emilien had been actively practicing it for more than 10 years. We stayed half and hour or so, enjoying the moment to be in such a vineyard, not really wanting to move on, but really hoping we could enjoy a bottle of Champagne coming from these very vines. Then Mike told us: “Not today, no, but tomorrow at Bulles Bio, yes. Emilien will present his wines for the very first time. Could you taste? And could you let us know what you think? We think we should work with him.” That was great news.
Sermiers, in the middle of the picture. Map : Larmat / Peter Liem, Champagne

Les Coteaux of Sermiers are not the most famous areas of the Montagne de Reims, but they are literally at the heart of it. Located just midway east on the RD 951 joining Reims to Epernay, this area is located just outside of the forest of the Natural Park of the Montagne Reims, pretty steeply looking East, North and West. If you follow the smaller D 26 that cuts the RD 951 eastward, you will arrive at Ludes (Bérèche base), Mailly-Champagne, Verzenay. If you go westwards you will find Sermiers, Chamery and Ecueil (Savart’s home town), three communes where Emilien has vineyards. The area has a pretty uniform geology of sand, marl, clay and chalk according to him, with some slight variations within the villages. Chamery is more like an amphitheater, sandier, like Ecueil. Sermiers seems to have denser soil, giving for Emilien wines that may be wilder, more assertive, while the two other communes produce more tamed, often exotic wines. Sermiers and Chamery have a lot of fossils. Yet at the end, he prefers to think in terms of micro-terroirs at the individual level of each plot, seeing so much diversity in each that it does not really make sense for him to think globally. For him, every vineyard is its own microcosm, each responding very differently to his farming evolution. Today he farms 17 small plots (for a total of 2.37 ha).

6/15/20 -

The History. Emilien returned home to take over the Feneuil property in 2006, which was smaller in acreage at the time. Historically they always sold their grapes along with other vegetables sold by his father. At the beginning, Emilien followed the conventional farming of his family and what he was taught at the Avize wine school but in 2008 he attended a meeting about organic farming. Seeing older growers question their practices and show a willingness to change despite their age was incredibly inspiring. The conversion began. At the same time, he started to deeply study the biodynamic movement, as well as geobiology and agroforestry, applying to his different vineyards. The results, although subtle at the beginning, were quickly undeniable for him. The earth turned darker and smelled better, plant diversity was reappearing, the vines showed better disease resistance, the taste of the grapes was becoming more layered. Emilien continued to reevaluate his methods, not settling for just one technique. He understood there was so much more to learn. For example, after practicing biodynamic for many years according to Pierre Masson’s teachings, he stopped as he no longer felt in tune with his own intuition. He course corrected and worked differently, incorporating the use of essential oils and energies. Today in his certified organic vineyards, he uses fermented tisanes, honey, clay, with the absolute minimum amount of sulfur and copper needed if any. His ultimate goal is to have as much biodiversity as possible.

Regarding the trees, they came by themselves! It started with spontaneous growth of willow, oak tree, hazelnut tree, cherry wood. He did not plant them, and saw their presence as an expression of terroir. He added though a couple of fruit trees - apple, pear, black currant - for their flowers and pollen, but otherwise he left the ground to do what it pleased. Planting in his eyes, is in a way imposing on the natural balance of a place, especially in its design.. In terms of grapes, he mostly grows Pinot Meunier (around 40%), Chardonnay (28%), Pinot Noir (22%) and Petit Meslier (7%). Meslier is a true love for Emilien, considering it is an exceptional, very complex grape with a lot of powerful structure that also maintains the ability to imbue magical sensations for the taster. For pruning, he is using the Chablis technique for the white varieties, and Cordon de Royat for the red, but he has vines climbing on the trees now as well. On his quest, he collaborates with Haissam who has worked with him in the vineyard for years as well as the exchange with friends Thomas Perseval or Aurélien Lurquin. Friendship is a big deal for him.

Until 2014, he continued to sell his fruit (Aurélien Laherte bought some), but he knew he would be making wine at one point. He waited though as he wanted to focus on vineyard work first. In 2015 though he finally took the plunge. It was time for him, he wanted to taste the wines his vines could give.

In the cellar. Prior to 2015, Emilien did not have a winery (he only sold the grapes to others), so he had to start from scratch, with the help of some vignerons friends. He pressed Les Basses Croix & Les Gillis and Les Puits at Aurélien Lurquin’s on a 2000 kg press, and Totum at Thomas Perseval on a 4000 kg press. Pressing is a really big deal for Emilien. It is as crucial as keeping an eye in the vineyard for picking (thus he organizes harvests to be able to overlook both.) Buying his own press for the 2020 vintage, he is looking for the ability to work with gravity to allow a good flow of the must through the cake of grapes, with a real contact with oxygen which he deems a key factor to the wine’s stability. He also wants to be able to control manually and not by a pre-set programmed cycle. He also keeps a small manual wine press to remember the original rhythm and sounds of harvest. He uses it for the rosés. For sulfur dioxide he adds 30 ppm at press (except for the Coteaux rouge that doesn't see any) and that’s it. No sulfur dioxide is not a goal per se, but less is better for a wine's expression. Everything is vinified by plot except Totum which is the blend of every grape from every plot, pressed and fermented together. In 2015 the wines were vinified at Perseval’s winery, mostly in Burgundy and 400 liter second hand barrels from the Côte de Beaune ( Domaine Leflaive among others.) All the vins clairs’ fermentations are spontaneous (alcoholic and malo-lactic) and after a year of aging the wines are put in tirage with the quartz “Fleury”. It is all about respecting the alchemy. The wines were disgorged in the Fall 2019 without dosage. The full range includes three Coteaux Champenois: Les Goulats (Chamery Rouge), Les Basses Croix & Les Gillis (Sermiers Blanc) and Les Puits, a 100% Petit Meslier also from Sermiers (a truly special wine I was able to taste a sip of at Bulles Bio); and four Champagnes: Totum, a blend of all the varieties and plots, Les Goulats, a rosé de macération from Charmery, Les Basses Croix & Les Gillis, 100 % Chardonnay from Sermiers and Les Puits, a 100% Pinot Noir also from Sermiers. So here we are with this offer: 6 bottlings of Emilien’s first release, his four champagnes and two Coteaux (unfortunatly no Petit Meslier). In that vintage, he made around 3500 bottles total to give you an idea of the size of the production. So we feel lucky!

Emilien did not want to be a vigneron originally, he travelled the world and discovered other cultures. But he needed roots, and what is better than vines for roots? He came to it by a deep attraction for the incredible complexity and beauty of the alchemy of nature in the vineyard. He has a very unique sensitivity, which I think makes his wines very unique too. He is also pays a lot attention to the idea of rhythm and duration. His wines are not for the drinker in a hurry, they need time and patience, and he is the first to recognize. It is the way nature made them, and it is the way it is!

For a first vintage, they are impressive. But don’t try to look for perfectly plastic perfection here, as it does not make sense for these wines. Don’t worry they are absolutely sound, but you need to taste with your intuition more than your rationality. They manage to make you feel the incredible diversity of plants in the vineyards, so think less in terms of fruits than herbs, sweetness than salt, linearity than sphere. Also enjoy them over multiple days. I did over a week, and they kept on getting more and more layered, holding up perfectly. They are truly soulful wines, and I enthusiastically encourage you to try them, and if possible to cellar some to really appreciate how special they are!

-Pascaline Lepeltier

You have successfully subscribed!
This email has been registered