“I realised how the capitalist world of agrochemicals works. I couldn’t support that with a clean conscience. I wanted to stop supporting an economy which isn't viable in the long term; not for human beings and not for nature.”
When Sébastien took over the farming of his vineyards from his father, he had a moment of sudden clarity. He realised that around 80% of the chemicals produced for viticulture were made by the same giant companies. This didn’t sit well with him. More than that, it made him feel deeply uneasy. It was capitalism in the worst sense of the word. This led him to discover Terre et Humanisme, an agroecological charity founded by Pierre Rabhi, which works to help farmers become independent from the big agrochemical companies.
As someone with libertarian thinking, he wanted to break free himself and wanted others to do the same. By working with the charity in Africa for three months, he realised he wanted to somehow be able to support in the long term, and thus he donates 1% of annual profits to their work.
When looking for a solution, he discovered the biodynamic way, which led him to convert all of his vineyards. Now, he feels a sense of freedom; both from a societal and human point of view, but also with regards to nature. His vines, soil and land no longer have to rely on these agrochemical giants. Instead, the vines have returned to their inherent balance, and are nourished by the manure of sheep and chickens that roam amongst the vines throughout winter. It was only natural for this work to be translated to the cellar, and the Mouzon-Leroux wines today have become some of the most expressive, pure and natural visions of Champagne.
Sébastien is a pensive, quiet guy. He’s the kind of guy who puts his nose into his glass and closes his eyes, thinking for such a long moment that you can’t help but wonder what’s going through his mind.
The answer? A lot.
Having made wine since 1776, the Mouzon-Leroux domaine has been passed down from generation to generation. As such, when Sébastien took over the domaine from his parents, it could have been pretty easy for everything to remain the same and for him to simply put on the boots of his father. However, he didn’t want to do that.
Having been to wine school in Burgundy, he joined his father in the winery in 2002; Sébastien took charge of the cellar and his father was in charge of the vineyard management. So it wasn’t until 2008, when his father retired, that Sébastien became fully involved in the viticultural side of things. When buying the chemical fungicides that were used in the vineyard at the time, he put two and two together and had a revelation.
“I realised how the capitalist world of agrochemicals works. When you buy chemicals for vineyards, you’re directly supporting those giant companies like Bayer, Monsanto and Syngenta. You’re contributing to this catastrophic market. I couldn’t do that with a clean conscience. It was that will to stop supporting that economy–an economy which is not viable in the long term; not for human beings and not for nature.”
He decided to go and work for Terre et Humanisme in Senegal, and even doubted whether he should produce wine at all or whether he should work in the humanitarian world. However, he realised that through annual donations and regular contact, he could continue supporting the association, so 1% of the sale of the premium cuvées goes to the charity each year.
His humanitarian work and rejection of the system of agrochemicals led him to discover biodynamics, and to convert all of his eight hectares. In doing so, his whole world of wine changed; the vineyards and their ecosystem regained their health and strength, and the fruit he was harvesting was of a much better quality. This caused a domino effect of sorts, which led him to explore how to translate this elevated sense of nature and biodiversity into the wines themselves.
The eight hectares of Mouzon-Leroux are situated across 60 parcels in the grand cru village of Verzy, on the northeast side of the Montagne de Reims. This northerly exposure means the wines produced from the region tend to be very precise and naturally acid-driven, whereas the wines of Bouzy – on the other side – can be more powerful and rounder in style.
60% of the vineyards are planted to Pinot Noir – the majority of which is on the west side where there is more clay, 35% to Chardonnay – the majority of which is on the east side where there is more silex, and 5% to the ancient Champagne varieties Arbanne and Petit Meslier. In the whole of Champagne, they only represent 0.01% of plantings - these are vinous gold nuggets.
“It’s important to us to keep Arbanne and Petit Meslier as we want to preserve these varieties – and also from a wine point of view, they’re very qualitative and interesting.”
For ten years, he has been working on replanting certain parcels of vineyards to Mouzon-Leroux’s own massal selections, in order to safeguard their genetic diversity. Sebastien explains,
“Massal selection has been done for hundreds of years – by taking wood from the mother plant you can replant your baby vineyards to represent 100 or more individual plants. This is important. Contrastingly, when you work with clonal selection, man has chosen just one plant for a specific person such as productivity or production of sugar. It’s a big problem to reproduce just one plant – you lose your diversity. We want as many different vines, grapes and tastes as we can!”
Since converting the vineyards to biodynamics, Sebastien has noticed a real difference in how the vines grow and form their leaves and structures. He says,
“We began to work the soils with horse and plough to bring life back. This had a very dynamic effect - bacteria comes back to the soils and the vine can feed itself properly again. The soil becomes lighter, and can breathe more, whereas when you have conventional vineyards, both the vine and the soil just seems so heavy.”
However, it wasn’t an overnight change; it took five years for the soil life and vines to fully regain their balance. Sébastien explains that working with horse and plough is very important for converting vineyards and for young vineyards, as it allows the roots of the vines to plunge deeper into the soil. When conventionally farmed, the roots remain spread out across the surface and hence the vine cannot find the nutrients and minerals it requires.
They are also one of very few wineries in Champagne that keeps trees planted in the vineyards amongst the vines; to promote biodiversity and to uphold and respect nature’s own patterns. They also grow vegetables and other crops throughout the vines, such as sunflowers and tomatoes. In addition, chickens and sheep wander the vines throughout the winter period, fertilising the soils naturally with their manure.
“The chickens and sheep bring natural fertility. I think it’s essential to have vegetation, animals and human beings in the same place. It brings a sense of complete energy. It can only be a positive thing.”
Marvelling at nature blooming in its newfound non-chemical environment made Sébastien want to explore natural methods in the cellar, too.
So, he ditched the packet lab-cultured yeasts of the past, and instead decided to work with the natural yeasts of the vineyards. However, he realised that it could take a long time for some of the wines to start fermenting in a barrel environment, which meant the wines could become a bit too oxidative for what he was looking for. He discovered the pied de cuve method, and adapted it to his own wines and vineyards.
“I work with 60 parcels in total. I take grapes from all of them a couple of weeks before harvest, press them by hand and start a warm fermentation of 80 litres. Then, three days before harvest, I take 600L from the oldest vines and add this juice to the other. This makes a big natural starter from the yeasts in our vineyards. It’s a bit like bread!”
Some winemakers in Champagne choose to block the second fermentation which takes place - this is the malolactic fermentation whereby malic acid is converted to the softer lactic acid. Sébastien, however, does not. He explains,
“My wines are already quite tense from the northeast exposure and the silex soils, so I don’t really need to worry about acidity. Plus, I don’t want to use sulphur to block the natural malolactic process, and I don’t want to filter the wines, either.”
The wines are never filtered or fined. With regards to sulphur, only 15ppm is added – almost nothing - a tenth of the maximum permitted amount.
“I choose to work with such low sulphur levels because of my personal taste. The wines that have moved me the most have been those without sulphur. Of course, some are catastrophic without sulphur, but that’s maybe if the winemaker has gone too rock’n’roll. As winemakers, we shouldn’t forget that we must make wine that’s drinkable and that brings emotion. Wine is made to be shared, to bring happiness and inspire conversation. It should create a good ambience. If we don’t succeed in that, then we haven’t fulfilled our role as winemakers.”
The wines are given characterful, emotive names such as L’Atavique, Angelique and L’Incandescent. These names take precedent on the label over the Mouzon-Leroux name.
“I don’t want my name big on the label. I’d rather have the name of the village or the parcel, and wanted to give a name to the wines that represents the cuvée.”
L’Atavique, meaning atavism, represents the memory of his ancestors and their work in the vineyards, whereas Angelique and Ineffable are contrasting partners; Angelique referring to the lightness and elegance of the Chardonnay on silex, whereas Ineffable nods to the mysterious, powerful nature of Pinot Noir on clay.
The wines are either Brut Nature or with a very low dosage, always below 6g. This changes from year to year, depending on the vintage, and they decide by doing various blind tasting trials amongst a small group. The experimental wine that shows the most balance becomes that year’s cuvée.
The rosé is made via the rosé de maceration process, which Sébastien believes produces something more complex and interesting than the more common assemblage practice of blending red and white grapes together.
“I think the rosé de maceration method gives a more exciting taste and a touch of extraction. It’s not easy to make though! I taste the macerating juice every two hours to decide when to take it off the skins. If you leave it just an hour or two too long it can develop bitterness, so it’s very important to constantly check on it.”
He is also one of just a few growers making a more natural expression of Ratafia; an ancestral method of making a fortified wine that involves grape juice and spirit. The Pinot juice sits on the skins for 20 hours, before the spirit is added, stopping the juice from fermenting; a vin muté as they are known. To allow the grape juice to best express itself, Sébastien also leaves this unfined and unfiltered. By doing so, he feels he is best able to capture the spirit of the vineyards, soils and natural environment. He smiles, adding,