"When I first arrived, everyone used to laugh and take the piss out of me for having grass in my vineyards. They told me I didn’t know how to farm.”
Timothée Stroebel handcrafts around 12,000 bottles of Champagne per year. Veuve Clicquot produces 19 million bottles per year. Dom Pérignon, a name synonymous with luxury, produces 5 million+ bottles per year. Neither Veuve nor Dom are organic, but they’re world-famous. How? Expertise and family history, of course, but clever and well-funded marketing also plays a role.
Timothée Stroebel doesn’t have a marketing budget. He doesn’t need one. Simply by farming honestly, through much creative thinking and immense human effort, he has earned a reputation for creating moving, fine wines. They are wines that speak of their place, their vintage, and perhaps most of all - they reflect the artist who grew the grapes and made the wine. His wines are the epitome of fine grower Champagne; they are bottles that were born and sent off into the world by the hands of just one person: Timothée.
Walking through the Stroebel vineyards here in Villers-Allerand, in the Montagne de Reims sub-region of Champagne, we can’t help but notice the stark contrast between his vineyard and a neighbouring vineyard. The vineyard we are standing in is green and lush, with insects hopping at our feet even though it’s mid-winter and the landscape is bleak. The vineyard next door is almost completely bare, save for the vines themselves.
Frowning, we comment that it feels desperately unnatural to look unto a vineyard which has no life in it. Timothée nods and smiles shyly, saying,
“Yes, I feel that too. It’s slowly starting to change in the region - now you see more and more vineyards with life amongst the vines. But when I first arrived, I was almost the only one. Everyone used to laugh and take the piss out of me for having grass in my vineyards. They told me I didn’t know how to farm.”
Champagne, despite its lofty reputation, has borne the brunt of chemical farming, perhaps more so than any other French wine region. It’s thanks to an increasing handful of growers like Timothée that the soils here are beginning to slowly recover from decades of chemical abuse. They are leading the way, and others are beginning to follow, a little like a positive version of a vinous Pied Piper. The ecosystem doesn’t die; instead it strengthens and flourishes.
Timothée’s family settled in Champagne having moved from Alsace after the second world war - hence the Germanic sounding Stroebel. The vines were planted by his grandfather in the 1960s - here in Villers Allerand - a premier cru village located in the sub-region of Montagne de Reims, the most northerly part of Champagne. Timothée was the first of his generation with the desire to farm vines and produce his own Champagne. Initially, he went to wine school in Beaune, and learnt the ropes working at a Burgundian domaine. In the meantime, he spoke to his father and uncle to figure out a way for him to take over the family vineyards. The dream became reality in 2001.
His vineyards amount to three and a half hectares. These consist of two hectares of Pinot Meunier (one of which is over 50 years old), one hectare of Pinot Noir and half a hectare of Chardonnay. He beams when he speaks about the old vines, calling them his trésors; his treasures.
Due to the aforementioned giant budgets of the grandes marques, Champagne has a long history of grape growing, meaning that many people in the region with vineyard land would sell their grapes to these big brands and not make their own wine. For people who only own small plots and who don’t necessarily have an interest in winemaking, or the money to invest in it, this is an easy solution. This was the case for Timothée’s uncle. However, there is a downside to this model. Grape growers are paid by the kilo. This means that grape growing becomes a numbers game. For old vines, this is usually bad news: once a vine reaches a certain age, it usually begins to decrease its production. It's a little like how a human being probably reaches their peak athletic fitness between the ages of 20 and 35.
Often, this means that the old vines - these treasures - are not allowed to continue their lives, instead being ripped out to make way for younger, more productive vines. Timothée is one of the lucky ones; he is able to guard the elderly vines' lives.
It was a long, slow process for him to nurture his vines back to health, which culminated in achieving organic certification in 2014. He works almost without machines, instead working his soils by horse and plough with his own two horses, Bijou and Quina. He also uses as little copper as possible, instead experimenting with other mildew preventatives, such as microbe enriched water together with orange oil and compost teas. The goal is that these positive microbes stick to the vine leaves with the orange oil, so that there is simply no space for the mildew to take hold. These experiments are carried out with the eventual goal of trying to eliminate the need for copper. All his work is carried out with the goal of promoting soil health; in order to boost the vineyards’ ecosystem and attract insects and birds. He says,
“When I walk amongst my vines, feet treading on the earth, I can see, hear and feel everything alive moving. In those vines - he points to the bare earth of the neighbouring vineyards - there is no sound.”
Pinot Meunier is too often unfairly overlooked in Champagne, but here it is Timothée’s diamond in the rough. He says,
“I am still learning to understand Meunier. It has entirely its own character; I love experimenting with it. There is such a broad horizon of possibility - it can achieve so much. It’s magical.”
He is working with a group of other winemakers to create massal selections of various vineyards, so that when the odd vine dies he is able to replant to ancient vine genetics, instead of the monotonous clonal material which exists in abundance in Champagne. Despite being in a relatively small area, the soils vary drastically. His older plot of vines, which borders his house, are planted on relatively deep clay - around 80cm of topsoil. Directly opposite sits his younger parcel of Meunier, which sits on sandier soils with just 10cm of clay topsoil. This intrigued Timothée and has given birth to many microvinifications in the cellar to explore the effect on the wines.
Timothée first took a few years to get to know his vineyards, and to begin restoring soil health. For the first years, he continued to sell the grapes, until he felt confident enough in his fruit quality to begin making his own wines in 2005. In the first years, he carried out many experiments without sulphur, but now he prefers to use just a touch (10-15mg) at pressing, to help the powerful yeasts to shine through, to avoid bacterial issues, and to minimise oxidation.
He might have been making wine for two decades, but he still speaks with boyish enthusiasm like it’s the very first vintage. Excitedly, he takes our arm and leads us over to a small stainless steel tank. We peer inside to see almost fluorescent orange berries macerating together. Carbonic skin contact Chardonnay, of course. What else? We glance at him and smile: this is not your regular, run-of-the-mill Champagne cellar.
Timothée’s mind clearly never rests. In a region where it’s easy to just stick to a style or a winemaking recipe, he has done the exact opposite; instead going with his gut feeling. Whether it’s choosing to create soulful, darker rosé de saignée, instead of regular direct press rosé, or whether it’s creating his own version of a “house” cuvée, Triptyque, a Pinot Meunier dominant, multi-vintage, multi-soil blend that spends many years ageing in the bottle, Timothée does things a little differently here. There is no fancy top-of-the-range electronic press, but instead a faithful wooden basket press.
He has also been focusing on his still wine creations; something which many winemakers in the region would still balk at. Creating still wines in a region known for sparkling wines has never fazed him, the result being that his Coteaux Champenois are considered amongst the most thrilling examples coming from Champagne. On tasting them we can see why; these could easily rival fine Burgundies. It would be fun to sneak them into blind tastings. For these, he harvests the grapes around fifteen days later than for his sparkling wines. For his Meunier, he chooses the parcel which sits on sand. He explains,
“The wine is gourmand, but it always has this straight line which runs through it. I’m sure that’s the sand… It seems to give something direct and vertical to the wine. Clay, on the other hand, gives something a little rounder with more body. And limestone? Well, it just tastes like limestone.”
He winks and we laugh contentedly together. For all the scientists out there who say we can’t taste the soil type in the wine, there’s a farmer who ignores them. Timothée is at the forefront; he is confident in his vines and in his soils, and this shines through in the wines. These are Champagnes and still wines that are very much alive, and that prove above all else that a wine can have its own personality.