“I don’t seek to change the idea of what Champagne is, but sometimes you have an urge to do more. An urge to try things out which are a little more difficult, which require you to push boundaries.”
When Champagne is mentioned, it’s often the Champenois heavyweights who spring to mind first. Closely followed by the sound of clinking glasses; an over-bubbly aperitif spilling from the sides of a tall fluted glass. It's the ultimate expression of celebration. But these days, the growing movement of Champagne winemakers who also farm the land are turning what's often seen as a luxurious, brand-led product into a wine that's all about farming; it just happens to have bubbles.
Charles Dufour is the rebel child of this movement, which has been dubbed grower Champagne. Born to a family of winemakers residing slightly off the beaten track of the region down in the Côte des Bar, his approach to winemaking is an embodiment of recent changes in the region; it’s as much about organic farming and terroir, as it is courage and conviction.
It’s of little wonder that Noma – cheerleaders of food and wine with a point of view over the usual ‘greatest hits’ lists – present one of Dufour’s cuvées, Bulles de Comptoir, as their house Champagne. And if that isn’t enough, Dufour’s foray into Côteaux Champenois Blanc will propel the category forward; just wait and see...
Visit the Vineyards
After some time spent travelling across New Zealand and Australia, dipping in and out of wineries and testing the waters, Charles returned home to his parents’ winery in the Côte des Bar region of the Aube, Champagne just in time for the 2006 harvest. His initial plan was to pop back for harvest and then take off again to find an apprenticeship elsewhere. Reader: he stayed.
“Since I was working at the family winery anyway I decided that it would make sense to count this as my apprenticeship. I came to the realisation pretty swiftly that, actually, I wanted to continue working here for good.”
Taking over at the helm, he began a conversion to organics with the first results seen in the 2010 vintage.
“Making it officially organic wasn’t necessarily the first step - my parents had already started to convert to organic and biodynamic methods for the previous six months.”
Hailing from the Aube meant that the old-hat methods and schools of thought revolving around yields didn’t necessarily permeate his parents views on winemaking.
“My father was always keen to find and implement the best techniques in order to have healthy, beautiful vines, but he was also afraid. My father isn’t an entrepreneur or a challenger. My mother, Françoise, was all-in. She had decided that they needed to farm according to the same philosophies they held for eating and taking care of themselves: organics was the way forward.”
Charles did his studies in Beaune, while also learning how to make wine with his father. He holds fond memories of that period, saying, “I took the task on with pleasure and curiosity.”
But soon after, Charles realised he didn't want to manage the whole domaine; he was pining for something simpler. His father was retiring, and his mother sensed his train of thought, telling him that they could do things on their own if they wanted to. Charles began rethinking the structure of both the team and the winery. An experimental soul, he realised that the only way he could truly explore his own ideas would be to go it alone. This was about finding himself, through his wines. As such, the vineyards were divided into three; six hectares went to Charles, six to his sister, Julie, and six to his mother, Françoise.
“So I really did feel alone; these were my vineyards, and my domaine. The cards were in my hands."
The Aube is a vast landscape of small villages with an historically tumultuous relationship with the rest of the region – in 1908 its neighbours tried to have it excluded from the Champagne appellation, citing its geographical distance as problematic. In truth, Aube is closer to Chablis than Reims, meaning the terroir is more similar to that of Burgundy than Champagne. Perhaps it’s this long-distance relationship with the region that makes rebellion taste so delicious. It’s kind of like leaving home for the first time — anything goes.
First and foremost, Charles is a grower; all the wine he makes comes from vines he has himself tended (in Champagne, many of the large maisons are 'négociants' - meaning they buy fruit). There is one exception, however; he helps his mother, Françoise, who still manages her own Pinot Noir vines in Vallée de l’Arce, one valley over. He makes some red wine (Côteaux Champenois rouge) for her, and the cuvée Bistrotage is produced from her grapes.
This collaborative spirit is present in both his practice and his produce, Charles explains;
“In the winery, when we’re bottling or disgorging, it’s everyone together. If I need to work on my sister’s vines, or she on my mother’s, it’s no problem at all. We all share materials and knowledge. We’ve made it like this in order to be as progressive as possible.”
Since 2013, Charles has been working organically with an on-off relationship with biodynamics. It's been a journey of learning;
“In 2006, I started off by using biodynamic techniques. In 2013, I decided that this would be the final year that I used the preparations. It ended up being too much. It simply wasn't possible to handle that on my own.”
Little has changed in the way Charles works in the vineyards; soils are left covered throughout the winter and gently worked beneath the vines in spring and summer. He's also thinking about sowing a cover crop, and even planting vegetables amongst the vines, to explore ideas of permaculture. “A vineyard is like a big garden, after all” he laughs “...why not?”
With some vines dating back to the 50s and 60s, planted by his grandfather, Charles mentions a photo he has seen recently of the vineyards back then – one which drove him to consider how he might be able to diversify his land;
“It shocked me how different it was. There was nothing; it was like a desert. A catastrophe.”
“Agroforestry and diversity in the vineyards is really important. It’s a really beautiful thing; you’re able to give your vineyard a different perspective.”
Charles' wines are made from the usual Champagne varieties, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, as well as Pinot Blanc; for which he has some treasured old vines planted in 1956.
For five years, he made single vineyard cuvées, but now solely focuses on Bulles de Comptoir. He explains,
"It was important for me to understand the terroirs of the six vineyards; to experience their ambience, their differences. Five years of doing so was enough for me to be able to understand from start to finish. I needed that experience; it's brought me to where I am now."
These days, his wines fall under two labels: those from his vineyards, which are labelled ‘Charles Dufour’ or ‘Bulles de Comptoir,’ and those from his mother's Pinot Noir vineyards; the Bistrotage series.
All the base wines are naturally fermented, with malolactic also occurring, as he favours the taste and texture it brings. He has always kept sulphites to the bare minimum, adding just the tiniest amount when pressing the grapes, to help him ensure that it's the healthy, strongest yeasts that carry out the fermentation.
"It was important to reflect. I liked the idea of using as little as possible: to think, why are we using all of these products? Quickly I stopped using everything, apart from a very small amount of sulphites; so small that they're undetectable sometimes. We have the benefit of low pHs, long ageing on the lees and CO2 in the bottle, which means we never have any organoleptic deviances."
The 'Bulles de Comptoir' is a wine from the perpetual blends (soleras) of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc that he has been keeping since 2010, with the addition of whatever particularly piques his interest from the current vintage. He vinifies all of the vineyards and varieties separately, to best explore what each terroir brings to the wine. His winery is like the basement of a mad but very meticulous scientist; with barrels of single varieties and blends from various picking dates. We taste and discuss what might make interesting components for 2020.
“Every year I keep reserves. That is very important when it comes to understanding my cuvées. Then, I taste the current vintage - maybe that year will be rich, or maybe it won’t. Maybe it’s the Chardonnay that really shines. It depends. I explore everything. ”
Young wines are added to a barrel each vintage, and then drawn out as needed. Then, interesting components of the current year's vintage are added bit by bit. This means the Bulles de Comptoir cuvée keeps a Charles Dufour signature, but it evolves each year, becoming a new version of its past self – taking on an entirely new personality influenced by the new harvest each time. The most recent iteration is #8, Stilleben.
“The first cuvée that I created in my winery was Bulles de Comptoir. It was 2006, the year I arrived back and also the year I started off my journey. It became Bulles de Comptoir three years later. A lot was changing at Dufour, so I put it on standby.”
A worthwhile wait.
Each vintage, Charles works with a different artist to help interpret the cuvée through its label. Stilleben, meaning 'still life' is seen through a Cubist-like nature morte. Except in this iteration, nature is very much alive and kicking.
He played around with Côteaux Champenois (the still wines of the region) in the early days:
“I did this in 2009/10. It was a little side adventure. We used just a press and a barrel. I really want to do another Côteaux…"
And he will. As we visit the winery, he gives us a taste of a solera which is to become his Vin de Comptois. It is thrilling; also a blend from 2010 through to 2018, it will become the mini partner to Bulles de Comptoir. As for the taste? It's hard to put a finger on it. It almost has a Jurassic soul (without the flor), and with the added poise of Champagne.
He smiles. It may only be a small project for now, but we can tell that this is another Comptoir Chapter about to unfurl, and we can't wait to experience it.