North-Forks visits European Winemakers

Not too long ago, North-Forks found ourselves in Germany for business. If you’ve been following the blog for a while you know that this isn’t our first job, or even a job at all, so when our real jobs take us further afield than the North Fork, we like very much to explore the local wine regions, not just to taste and learn about them, but to compare and contrast to the place we call home.

We first ventured into the Mosel, which is a region in Germany along the Rhine river where most Rieslings are produced. The Rhine runs through, creating a valley that seems unsuited to any kind of farming with its steep rocky valley, but grapes do like to suffer. The terrain makes harvest even more difficult because machinery cannot handle the slopes – in some places you’d likely call them cliffs – so everything must be managed by hand.

The winemaker and owner of Weingut Theo Loosen

One of the most notable differences we encountered while planning this trip is that only the largest facilities (those that the locals refer to as the “factories”) can handle groups. Regardless, all tastings are by appointment only. Staff is very limited and facilities are only open to the public when they need to be.

Many places are not open at all on Sundays, but in the small town of Klotten, Theo Loosen of Weingut Theo Loosen was generous enough to put a round of golf on hold to meet with us, show us his facilities, and take us through a tasting.

You are likely unfamiliar with Weingut Theo Loosen (he says that there is no relation to the “factory producer” Dr. Loosen, a large producer in the same area), because he does not produce for retail. Everything he makes is exclusively for his wine club. He ships throughout Europe, and the limitations in real estate along the Rhine mean that there is only so much wine that can ever be made.

In the Mosel region, about 30 minutes drive from Weingut Theo Loosen

A wonderful host, Theo Loosen, showed us around his facilities before asking us about our preferences (off-dry, dry, bone dry) and introduced us to several of his wines. Rieslings in the Rhine area are traditionally dry, occasionally with a hint of sweetness (off dry), but very fruit forward. Similar styled Rieslings can be found at One Woman and Palmer to name two vineyards on the North Fork.

A few days later, we were in the Champagne region of France, in a region called Moussy, outside of Reims and Epernay. There, we had an appointment (set up by a dear friend) at Jean Michel, a small Champagne producer. Because of our mutual friendship, our experience was different than most should expect. Much like the wine houses in the Mosel, visits need to be set by appointment and the exact number of the group established up front as they cannot handle more than a handful of people at one time.

Olivia, owner and winemaker at Jean Michel.

There we met Olivia and Florence, the husband and wife team that run the winery, whose namesake, Jean Michel, was Olivia’s grandfather.

For wine to be considered Champagne, it must be produced in the Champagne region. There are also restrictions to the grapes that can be used: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Pinot Gris.

Traditional Champagne is first aged in tanks for a period of time like traditional wine. It is then bottled, but whereas “normal” wine is now considered ready, Champagne is just beginning. It is now stored where a second fermentation takes place, further changing the wine and adding the characteristic bubbles. This second fermentation can take anywhere from several months to years. It then must be disgorged (the dead yeast removed) and the iconic mushroom cork put in place. The whole process from initial harvest to ready to drink takes years and is one reason Champagne can be very expensive.

Tanks of wine awaiting bottling to become Champagne at Jean Michel.

On the day of our visit, Olivia was preparing his tanks for bottling, which was scheduled for the following day. He tasted us through many of these wines, which was truly interesting because we had never tasted wine between fermentation. The final “flavor” hadn’t been set, and wouldn’t for many years during the second fermentation.

Olivia and Florence then took us on a tour of their vineyards, which covered the sloping hills surrounding their town, offering breathtaking views of the rural countryside. It was an amazing experience, standing in the vineyards, Olivia speaking in French (he speaks only a little English) to Laura (who speaks French) while Florence translated for me. He explained how he manages the fields, how certain vines produce grapes on the third or the fifth bud, so trimming the vines has a very direct impact on production.

At Jean Michel, vintages go back as long as they’ve been bottling wine.

They then took us to their “caves”. These concrete and cinder-block tunnels ran hundreds of meters into the hillside, creating a naturally cool, slightly damp environment for storing their wines as they aged first into Champagne and then beyond.

They showed us their bottles that were still going through their second fermentation and the giant racks they were in that could be slowly turned every so often to prevent the yeasts from settling too soon. They brought us through the caves, showing us that they have several dozen bottles of every vintage going back to some of the first bottling, before the birth of the twentieth century.

Olivia wanted to demonstrate for us the manual disgorgement process, so he disappeared into the cave to find a suitable bottle. Just before we thought to send a search party after him, he emerged with a bottle, a date chalked on the side: 1956.

Before the yeast is removed, it dies and rests in the bottom of the bottle.

Because the bottles are stored top down, when the yeast have finished the second fermentation and die, they settle at the neck. To disgorge, the necks of the bottle are frozen so that when the cork is removed, the gasses cause the frozen “plug” to pop out. Normally, the bottle is then re-corked with a new cork, but ours was poured into glasses.

Drinking Champagne that was older than any of us was almost a spiritual experience. We were drinking rain and sunshine from over sixty years ago. We were enjoying the toils and labor of people who were all since passed: History in liquid form. It was in part this knowledge that made the experience so amazing. Drinking an older vintage of any wine can be wonderful, but it is understanding what that liquid has been through to reach your palate that truly makes it special. The colors, flavors, and scents of this delicately bubbling Champagne were surprisingly present. Rich and deep in color, this once delicate Champagne had grown over the years and while it still tasted as you might expect, it also had notes of caramel, chocolate, and coffee.

This was the bottle Olivia disgorged and graciously shared with us.

If that were not enough to cap a breathtaking day, Florence then took us to their tasting room and took us through their current releases. One thing Olivia has experimented with that we found delightfully unusual was a twist on a traditional Blanc de Blancs, or White of the Whites (Champagne made exclusively from Chardonnay grapes): He lightly oaks his chardonnay!

The wine fields in Champagne, France.

Jean Michel is a small producer, but it is sometimes imported into the States. If you’re fortunate enough to see an available bottle, don’t hesitate to snatch it up. If you find yourself planning to visit either the Mosel in Germany of Champagne in France, please contact these places and schedule yourself a visit. You won’t be disappointed.

As always, tell them North-Forks sent you!

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