“What’s ‘on trend’ in winemaking doesn’t interest me. What I care about is that there are no problems with the wines when they’re taken out of the cellar — 5, 8, or 10 years later. It’s about longevity.”
Located in the heart of the Pinot Noir epicentre of the aptly-named Bouzy, it’s a family affair chez Benoît Lahaye—always has been, and always will be. The domaine is home to mother, father, their two sons, one daughter-in-law and a one-tonne horse named Tamise.
These days, Benoît's most prized possession is his intuition – an emotional sensitivity which he has developed through the years, a feeling and sentiment which allows him to work often by feeling—without the need to be constrained by the traditional or conventional way of doing things.
That... and his horse Tamise, of course. Benoît is one of the few (but increasing) growers in the region dedicated to working the land by horse, allowing him to plough without compacting the soil. What strikes us most about Benoît is that there is no prescribed formula here for winemaking; in a region known for its regulations, his curiosity and desire to continually question his methods and evolve his practice feels to us like the truest expression of biodynamic winemaking.
Benoît's great grand-father, a peasant farmer, purchased the land in the early 1900s – a morsel of terrain with just a few vines. It was the most he could afford. From this, the Lahaye winery was born. In Bouzy, there are some winemakers who are 6th, 7th generation winemakers, or even older. The Lahayes are 4th generation.
After his grandfather took over the business, developing the commercial side of the winery, the estate officially started to produce and sell wine, with the first vintage produced in 1925.
When Benoît’s father took over the winery in the late 60s, there was a shift in energy. He didn’t come from a winemaking family — the winery itself was on his mother’s side, and he too saw himself as a farmer, first and foremost. The desire to work as a family, together, was born.
“He joined a small co-operative, and we (plus, eventually, Valérie, my wife) all worked together to do everything at the winery.”
When Valérie and Benoît inherited the winery in 1992, there was another shift in sentiment. The importance of family remained, but a desire for autonomy and independence surfaced. They left the co-operative two years later, and since 1996 they have worked entirely independently. Frankly, as Benoît so simply puts it;
“We changed all of the practices because they no longer served our purpose. We wanted to do it our own way.”
Neither Valérie nor Benoît had experience working with vines but, as a farmer, Benoît’s intuition and proximity to nature, coupled with Valérie’s inherently ‘green fingers’ gave the two a springboard from which to evolve the winery into something which truly reflected their own desire to work as closely to (and with) nature as possible.
"Valérie has always been really close to nature; we have a garden which is truly magnificent. She knows about every flower, every rose… As a pair we moved forward pretty quickly; evolving the wine business and the winery itself into its present state; changing pretty much everything.”
A continuation of the past, with an unwavering gaze on the future.
Across 4.8 hectares, their parcels can be found across Bouzy, Tauxières, and Ambonnay. The family works the land half by tractor, and half by horse, citing both as crucial to the development of the winery; each in their own way.
Le Jardin de la Grosse Pierre, a single vineyard of co-planted vines in Bouzy, has become iconic amongst grower Champagne lovers. This 'garden' plot was planted by his great-grandfather in 1927, and includes all seven of Champagne’s permitted varieties (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Arbane, Petit Meslier, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris), plus a few stray outsiders such as Teinturier, Fromenteau and Gros Plant. They are all jumbled together. He explains this is due to the era; at a time before commercial nurseries existed, duplication of plant material was done by hand, from existing plant material in the same plot or close nearby. As such, this is a truly diverse and historic Champenois gene pool. Since converting to biodynamics, and generally heightening their sensitivity to nature, they have decided to harvest the entire plot together, to preserve its identity as one. As such, the cuvée was born, and it marked the beginning of their exploration into other single vineyard expressions.
Since the vines are so old, he is clear on one thing; working them by tractor is a no-go. Which brings us to Tamise:
“In 2010, I had the idea of working part of the winery by horse. The Grosse Pierre parcel comprises very old vines, and it's a nuisance to work by tractor anyway since the vines here are planted so far down. So we made the decision to buy a horse, and I trained myself to use it."
Tamise weighs one tonne, and she’s named after the Thames (yep... that Thames). She has taught him a lot. He reflects;
“She has taught me sensitivity… a lot of it. You gain this from having an animal, because they are sensitive beings. You also realise the need to pay closer attention to the very small margin in which you can make an error… it’s much easier with a horse to mess up because you’re controlling the action yourself.”
Despite the joy of working the land by horse, and the direct connection with nature that it brings, Benoît is also a realist.
“We still use a tractor. Today, for example, we’re working the soil this way. It’s not worth trying to get the horse to do it because he’s too hot. With the horse it also requires a certain energy; vines, winemaker, horse, soil… It can be tough if it’s a complicated year, weather-wise.”
"Tamise enables us to reconnect with the Earth as winemakers. The tractor is super important because it’s a tool which is programmed to do a lot of things, but the horse… she's present. It allows us to have a human equilibrium too. It’s a virtuous circle.”
Converting to biodynamics was not always something that Benoît and Valérie had set out as their end goal; rather it was something which had inspired them along the way during visits to winemakers. It just so happened to evolve, piece by piece, into a sustainable way of working for the family.
“We travelled through Alsace, staying with Patrick Meyer of Domaine Julien Meyer, and eventually we started with working our own soil in a similar way. Next up we educated ourselves about the crops. It was partially down to visiting winemakers who I wasn’t necessarily friends with at the time, and being able to see how they worked. That was a real trigger for me.”
This, he explains, was his schooling in biodynamics. Watching winemakers work with biodynamic methods, he gradually started to implement the same methods.
“I really didn’t see much of an effect. But one day, in 2006, it just clicked. We saw a difference in the shoots of the vegetation, and this really was a turning point for us in our journey to working biodynamically.”
After a lot of trial and error, Benoît and Valérie found their groove. For everyone else, Benoît explains, it seemed simple. But for the Lahayes, it was a labour of love.
“I’m not a businessman, I don't have the gift of the gab. I like working with things which either work, or don’t work. But at the same time – and maybe more so Valérie – I think that we really developed an emotional connection to biodynamics. This emotional connection to nature isn’t something that I think we’re born with, as humans, but it is certainly something that we develop.”
Since Benoît took over the reins of the family vineyard in 1996, much has changed. A grower and winemaker, he fertilises with his own horse manure, picks the grapes by hand, and turns them into wine himself.
During the very first years of winemaking chez Lahaye, they chose to block malolactic fermentation, to create a more acid-driven style. But they weren't satisfied. Benoît explains,
“We used sulphites to block malolactic fermentation during those first six years. Bouzy wines are generally from very warm, sunny vines, but I have some which are a little further out. We realised that actually the wines were becoming more and more acidic. So, we decided to let malolactic fermentation happen naturally, and realised quickly that this gave the wines a lot of complexity.”
In 2006, they began experimenting with making wines without sulphites. Benoît had tasted a couple of red wines without added sulphites; "I loved one of them, and the other one was pretty much vinegar." But it had sparked an interest:
"I said to myself... Hmmm. This should be possible in Champagne. We have natural carbon dioxide in the wines, and our pH levels are low."
In 2008, they released their very first cuvée without sulphites added. They chose a chalky parcel with very little clay for this.
"The idea is to ensure a fast fermentation - to not let things go on for too long. This minimises risk. So a few days before harvest, I do a pied de cuve. From Domaine de Chamonard in the Beaujolais, I learnt how to study the fermenting juice under a microscope. So, I bought a microscope to look at the yeasts & bacteria—if they're round, you know they're the good ones. The long-shaped ones can be problematic; they can cause things like volatile acidity."
To ensure everything goes smoothly, the pied de cuve ensures an almost immediate start, and by keeping the wine in barrels, this ensures a lot of the carbon dioxide from fermentation is trapped and dissolves into the wine. He leaves the wine alone—strictly no bâttonage or racking—to ensure the wine doesn't "get tired." When he then bottles the wine, there is already some carbon dioxide present, having been preserved from the first fermentation, so when he adds the prise de mousse, the wine is protected from oxygen.
This method (as well as trusting their noses) makes it easier to create clean low and no-sulphite cuvées. In addition—crucially—Benoît has been working with a local laboratory to culture his own indigenous yeasts. Typically, making Champagne involves adding lab-cultured yeasts (bought in packets) to restart the fermentation in bottle. But by creating cultures of his own yeasts, he can create the second fermentation in bottle from natural yeasts, too.
"We have two yeasts so far, and we're trying with three more. The idea is to have a yeast from each terroir. This is very interesting, because it means each parcel will have its own identity via its own yeast strain. Together with individual pied de cuves from each parcel, it means the wines will be even more expressive of their terroir. Already, we've noticed a huge difference. Every time we find more complexity... a lot more. Our own yeasts give this saline taste without the bitterness."
It's a process that cannot be rushed. Benoît emphasises this:
"This year, I think we will do everything without sulphites. If the harvest is difficult, like 2017, of course we'll add some. But if the harvest is great, we'll work without. We've taken a lot of time to understand it all, and now we feel we do. But it's been ten years of observation to get to where we are today: this is crucial. It's exactly like in the vineyard; you can do an experiment in a parcel, but only see results 10 years later."
Benoît's contemplations aren't limited to yeasts. Jura winemaker, Stéphane Tissot, is another keen thinker, and a good friend of Benoît. Benoît says,
"One day, we were speaking about amphorae. I thought they could be interesting for us, too. So I bought two. My first idea was to do rosé in amphorae, and the result is great, we're very happy with it. Then, I thought it could be interesting to vinify the white base wines from clay soils in clay amphorae; to see if there'd be some kind of symbiosis. But actually, it wasn't great... for some reason it seemed to deacidify the wine, so I abandoned that idea. I'd like to try sandstone, but it's also important that I don't lose myself in experiments!"
When Jacques Puffeney retired (one of the original natural winemakers of the Jura), Benoît was able to buy his last foudres, so this took precedence over the sandstone amphorae. They had been home to Puffeney's last vintage of 2014 Trousseau, so represent a little piece of this iconic domaine's history. Benoît fermented and aged his 2018 Le Jardin de la Grosse Pierre in them, and next, they will house his reserve wines; becoming soleras.
The rosé is a rosé de maceration, meaning the grapes undergo an extended period of skin contact (in this case three days in stainless steel, with whole bunches). The grapes are then pressed and the wine ages half in amphorae and half in barrel.
"The amphorae are great for the rosé. Somehow they keep the fruity side of the wine, and because of the slight reduction that occurs there's also a mineral element. Together with a portion of barrel aged rosé, it gives an interesting balance."
Finally, he also makes a Coteaux Champenois rouge. For this, he uses little egg-shaped clay vessels. Also inspired by Stéphane Tissot and the one-and-only Pierre Overnoy, he destems the Pinot Noir by hand, ensuring the berries are left whole.
"The freshness of the clay somehow ensures we retain the freshness of the fruit, and the oval shape is interesting for pigeage; which we do by hand once a week."
Always looking to the longevity, and ageing potential of the wines, he adds;
“What’s in fashion doesn’t interest me. What I care about is that there are no problems with the wine when they’re taken out of the cellar, five, eight or even ten years later. You’ve got to take time to learn and understand how to make the most of your vines.”
Benoît is a curious, considered winemaker who works from his heart as he does his head. It’s an almost equal balance of gut-feeling and considered steps. There’s no set way for Benoît and Valérie—rather, they take each day as it comes and with that each challenge in their stride. It’s this ability to think on his feet, and move with intuition, that makes Benoît one of the most exciting growers of the region.