The Idiosyncrasies of Complexity: The Inimitable Champagnes of Egly-Ouriet
At Egly-Ouriet one finds the greatest of the old and the new. The Pinot-Noir focused domaine fashions one of the great 100% old-vine Pinot Noir cuvees, Les Crayeres, as an homage to “the essence of what Champagne used to be, before Chardonnay was involved”. But the homage does not translate into hide-bound adherence to tradition. Francis Egly experiments with new techniques and fosters relationships with some of the most visionary producers in France including Dominique Laurent in Burgundy with whom he tests the possibilities of wood. It is this properly scientific sense of drawing from traditional experience while simultaneously testing and expanding that makes Egly-Ouriet one of the top Champagne producers, including both growers and houses. Indeed, some put the top wines alongside the likes of Salon, Krug and Selosse.
A Focus on Ripeness
Ripeness lies at the heart of the domaine. These are not Champagnes that fit the cliché of ‘laser focus’. This does not translate into sweetness or flab, but rather completeness and texture. Indeed, Francis’ vineyard practices are such that he regularly achieves far greater ripeness than his peers. In the case of the old vine Les Crayeres the fruit is so ripe that Francis has no need for dosage. The higher potential alcohol is achieved largely through intensive green harvesting, a practice common in Burgundy for example but rarely used in Champagne where higher yields often translate into greater financial returns.
Other benefits arise from the health of the soils, which were one of the few to never experience gadoux, the practice of strewing garbage from Paris amongst the vineyards for ‘fertilizer’. Today this legacy lies with shards of plastic and metal debris in the vineyards of Champagne, including many grand crus. Since the domaine’s founding in 1930 the Egly family never believed in the soundness of this practice and so it possesses some of the healthiest soils in Champagne. This despite the fact that Francis Egly does not practice pure organic or biodynamic viticulture, preferring a more tailored style fitting within the almost meaningless because overly broad category of lutte raisonée. In Egly-Ouriet’s case that means no chemical treatments, some copper, and ploughing of the rows rather than chemical fertilizers most of the time.
The fruit is drawn from four villages: Ambonnay (where the domaine itself is situated), Bouzy, Verzenay, and Vrigny. Each village is part of the Montagne de Reims sub-region, located just south of Reims: an area known for Pinot Noir. The Vrigny vineyard is home to some old vine Pinot-Meunier that the domaine bottles separately rather than blending it in to their other cuvees. The vineyards in the other three villages share belemnite and micraster chalk soils, which are known for particularly good drainage.
Reportedly, Francis Egly is stand-offish with most and refuses most requests for a visit. Few journalists have spent much time with the man. Not that press is needed. Robert Parker has anointed Egly-Ouriet as one of the greatest domains in Champagne, consistently awarding top scores for the wines. This makes sense given the domaine’s focus on ripeness, but it should also not scare off those who usually avoid the wines Parker praises, for a single-minded derision of ripeness would leave one deprived of some of the greatest wines in the world, Egly-Ouriet included.
Here the ripeness translates into succulent, complex and finessed wines of great density and age-worthiness. Few match Egly-Ouriet’s textural qualities and potency of fruit.
The embrace of newness is best seen in Egly’s vinification practices, which utilize state of the art technology. For example, he now uses two PAI presses, considered the most advanced available. These presses operate much faster than others reducing the time between harvest and juice. The use of two rather than one press compounds this effect. The prime outcome is less oxidation and thus less need for sulphur dioxide in the finished wine.
Strict temperature control in the cellar further aids this purpose. The extremely cold consistent temperatures reduce oxidation and microbial development, allowing for the low-sulphur regime, an approach that requires a high level of technical proficiency to do well.
Barrels are prefered to stainless tanks as they avoid the reductive effects of tank fermentation. Thus, indigenous yeasts find their way with the juice into oak barrels and enamel tanks (rather than stainless). Fermentations are long – from 7-10 months – and it is this length that Francis believes allow the terroir of each parcel to properly express itself. There is no batonage, fining or filtration.
Once in bottle, Egly ages the wines for a remarkably long time on the lees before disgorging, in some cases up to 58 months. This unusual practice is another reason the wines are so complex.
Up Up and Away
The Champagnes of Egly-Ouriet possess shocking complexity with very few peers. I give them my highest recommendation. These wines, particularly the top two cuvees, are extremely difficult to find but effort will be amply rewarded – pricey but worth it.
Unfortunately I missed most of the disgorgement dates, but these are all amongst the most recent releases.
Brut Tradition Grand Cru N/V: A blend of 70% Pinot Noir and 30% Chardonnay from each of Ambonnay, Bouzy and Verzenay. Made with vines 35-40 years old. 20% fermented in barrel. The wine is still primary at this point and will age nicely in bottle. It is also fruity and forward, direct and delicious. A perfect expression of its fruit, though not approaching the complexity of the top Egly bottlings. Excellent. ~$92 USD (prices vary).
1er Cru Brut “Les Vignes de Vrigny” n/v: 100% Pinot Meunier from 60 year old vines. A soft nose, with peaches and cream. Quite interesting and while I don’t usually love Meunier, this wine works quite well and has an excellent sense of terroir. Higher in perceptible acid than the other Champagnes and less balanced. Very Good+ ~$82 USD (prices vary)
Extra Brut Vieillissement Prolonge n/v disgorged July 2012: Just as the regular Brut, this is 70% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay blended from the three primary vineyard sources in Montagne de Reims. However, it is from older vine fruit and sits on its lees for, yes, 6 years. This is perfect Champagne: apple, brioche, a full mid palate with beautiful length. Rich, intense fruit. The balance is impeccable. Undoubtedly this wine will continue to develop. Fundamentally delicious but also extremely complex. Excellent+. ~$133 USD (prices vary).
Blanc de Noirs “Les Crayeres” Vieilles Vignes Grand Cru: From vines planted in 1942, this 100% Pinot Noir from the “chalk mine” vineyard is one of the great wines of Champagne. A huge, huge wine with a massive, fruit driven palate. Extreme length. The development here is incredible and I would lay this down for a decade or more. Vanilla, baked apple and other orchard fruits. Completely idiosyncratic and near impossible to describe in words. One of the best wines, let alone Champagnes, I’ve ever had. Excelllent++. ~$202 USD (prices vary). Good luck finding this. Snap it up immediately if you do.