20 février 2020 — Under the Influence

UNDER THE INFLUENCE : THE HIGH VOLTAGE WINES OF MANU LASSAIGNE

Theo Diamantis
Co-Fondateur d'Oenopole

The wines had arrived, and as I tasted them for the first time, Zeus started showering his lightning bolts down upon me. Here was the mineral bite of Montgueux wrapped up in the ripe fruit of Chardonnay, spiced up with fine, prickly bubbles and enough voltage to power a car.

“Tu veux boire un coup?” Manu said with his rakish grin, as he extended his arm lifting a magnum of Vignes de Montgueux from behind his table at Les Pénitentes in Angers, France. I brushed aside the mob of people manically trying to get their hands on some of the tastiest champagnes around. As I looked down, I noticed there were already scads of empty bottles, a testament to his popularity at these gigs. “Ben oui Manu! “ I said, pushing my way through, much to the chagrin of those waiting in line for a taste. “Putain, il y du monde, quoi!”, I said, motioning to the crowd behind me. “He laughed and said, “Ah oui, c’est toujours comme ça dans les salons, le monde veut boire du Champagne!” Yeah, but not just any champagne.


The Man

Manu Lassaigne has a cult following in Europe, where his wines are poured at some the BEST restos around (Noma and Bocuse are big fans and pour his wine by the glass a lot), as well as all the uber-cool joints like Noble Rot in London, Chateaubriand in Paris, The Four Horsemen in Brooklyn, Joe Beef and Nora Gray in Montreal…the list is long! And there is a good reason why: the wine is simply fucking delicious. Who doesn’t want to drink naturally made champagne de vigneron, that is clean, pure, and refreshing?


I first met Manu in Montreal in 2008. He was in town with Bruno Schueller for the RASPIPAV wine fair; my partners had already met him in France (in Troyes, at the infamous natural wine bar Aux Crieurs de Vins) and had been to his winery to negotiate an allocation for Quebec. We were literally nobodies back them, and his wine was in high demand, but was willing to give us a shot. “Pourquoi pas?", he said to Aurelia and Alexis, sensing that he liked their vibe and saw they were serious.


The wines had arrived, and as I tasted them for the first time, Zeus started showering his lightning bolts down upon me. Here was the mineral bite of Montgueux wrapped up in the ripe fruit of Chardonnay, spiced up with fine, prickly bubbles and enough voltage to power a car. It was exquisite my friends. I quickly organized a dinner at my place, invited a few clients and friends and hosted Manu and Bruno. Lesley Chesterman and Bill Zacharkiw from the Gazette were there, along with some great sommeliers who were going to sample my rabbit ragú and the wines of Bruno and Manu. Many chairs were broken, bottles emptied, stories told. No injuries were sustained; damn did we have a good time! People were blown away by the wines and by the men who made them. The ragú was pretty good too!

The Terroir

For those of you who don’t know Manu, he comes from the village of Montgueux, in the southern reaches of the Champagne appellation. He took over the estate from his dad Jacques in 1999. The village and vineyard that surround it are dominated by a large, vine-covered hill that has beautiful exposure and a bedrock of pure limestone, hence its nickname “Le Montrachet de Champagne”.


The family-owned vineyard is around 4 hectares planted mostly with Chardonnay (a few other things are planted, including Pinot Noir), and purchases some grapes from people who work with a clean approach in the vineyard. This area is technically part of the Aube department and shares the same limestone geology. The electricity in Manu’s wines, which is a signature of his style, is partly due to this exquisite terroir. And since his vineyards are located further south than the Cotes des Blancs, ripening is not an issue and is fact another hallmark of his wines, one of ripe fruit that is bolstered by a backbone of acidity.

The Wines

There are a few important things to note about Manu besides his piercing blue eyes and mischievous grin. For one, he experiments relentlessly with his cuvées, selecting different parcels to bottle separately, searching for a particular expression of terroir. He also loves to try different ways of raising his wines, like sourcing old Vin Jaune barrels from friends such as Jean-Francois Ganevat in the Jura or old demi-muids from the Grosperrin family in Cognac. He ages wine to various degrees to highlight certain characteristics of Chardonnay that he feels express differently with time. His line of jazz-inspired Champagnes for example, Soprano, Alto and Tenor, are a very limited production of Chardonnay vinified and raised on lattes for various lengths of time to create highly individual wines (see diagram).


His Le Cotet and La Colinne Inspirée are an homage of sorts to the unique beauty of the hills of Montgueux, focusing on parcels of old vines in prime locations of the slopes. He also buys grapes form one of the few remaining Clos in Champagne, the Clos Ste-Sophie, And being Manu, he couldn’t resist experimenting with skin contact, so he made a cuvée aptly called Le Flacon d’Incertitude. And to round things off, his “entry-level” wine is Les Vignes de Montgueux, a non-vintage Blanc de Blancs that is a blend of nine different parcels and two successive harvests.

The Technique

In terms of winemaking, his fermentations are spontaneous and carried out with indigenous yeast. He adds a touch of sulfur to the grapes while pressing with his old, vertical wooden press, and only very minimally in order to prevent oxidation. Manu disgorges all the bottles by hand himself, a very uncommon practice in Champagne these days, where machine disgorgement is the norm. He developed this technique so that he wouldn’t have to top up the bottles after disgorgement. You can witness his incredible skill at doing this technique in this video (video courtesy of Jenny and François Selections, all rights reserved). Imagine doing this with literally tens of thousands of bottles! Crazy, no? But this is the man we call Manu, a little bit crazy, and super talented. We managed to get many of his cuvées into the SAQ, you should check them out!


Santé,


Ted Steele