The Côte des Bars forms a transition between the plain of Champagne and the Burgundy massif. It is influenced by two major climatic zones: atlantic influences coming from the west, bringing rain, and continental influences with more extreme temperatures. Apart from undesirable late spring frosts, this combination produces the necessary moisture and heat combination for ripening grapes. The fact that the Aube vineyards are at the southern extremity of Champagne improves the maturity of its grapes.
The soils were formed during the Kimmeridgean phase of the secondary era. They are essentially made up of calcereous marls, of the type that are also to be found under the vineyards of Chablis and Sancerre. On the slopes that form the vineyards, the soils are especially rich in stony limestone elements which help the soils to drain freely.
All these factors help Pinot Noir to ripen very well. This variety accounts for 89% of vines planted in the region and naturally strongly influences the character of its wines. Nevertheless the Côte des Bars has diversified terroirs. Specific soil types, local climate conditions, slope and orientation are extremely varied, producing separate meso-climates. Each vine-grower needs to be fully attentive to his own terroir in order to make the most of it. For Michel Jacob this is an absolute priority, as he has divided the estate into plots which all receive individual treatment.
The vineyards of Serge Mathieu cover just over 11 hectares (27 acres), and lie within the commune of Avirey-Lingey. The vines have an average age of 23 years. 80% of them are pinot noir and 20% chardonnay. Adjacent to the winery and office buildings, the main plot is called La Bressoire, and covers 3 hectares in a single block. Its steep slope faces South-south-east and is planted exclusively with pinot noir. A second series of fifteen plots lie on the slope called Bagneux. They lie at the top of this slope and thus are less susceptible to frost. They are planted with both pinot noir and chardonnay. The remaining part of the estate is comprised of four long strips on the hill called Couins.
We do not bluff and bluster…
We are currently inundated with logos, labels, slogans and claims of all kinds, from various schools and cliques of wine producers. Following decades of totally irresponible farming pratices, discussions and actions in the direction of healthy farming techniques have finally come to the fore in France, and so much the better. In this strong tendancy, not all is to be welcomed with open arms: there is often sincerity with responsible behaviour and attitudes, but there is also considerable confusion, together with doses of both opportunism and intolerance. As with any revolution, some things go too far.
In our case, we have put aside marketing and communication gambits to try to foocus on the vineyard and the meaning and effects of what we are doing there. Our way of looking at things also stems from choices in terms of life-style, values and esthetics. The Jacob-Mathieu family like the surroundings in which they live. They look after them and share them with visitors from near and far. « We have the great good fortune to practice a fine and fascinating trade. We live in a beautiful and little-known region that is far from anywhere, yet people come to see us from all kinds of places. We are very fortunate, and there is no way that we will disappoint our visitors. »
Surrounding a charming reception building, whose light and airy structure just blends with the landscape, lies a beautiful hillside vineyard in which we can show what it means to have a living piece of land. This is Michel Jacob’s work, about which he is passionate and full of enthusiasm. His words are precise, but his attitude is relaxed, alternating the educational with the ironic. The basic philosphy is simple: one never « owns » land, one is like a tenant whose obligation is to pass it on, fertile and in good condition, able to produce fine grapes that have the potential to be made into fine wine. « Our terroir is beautiful, and we should respect and maintain it well, allowing the earth to breath and improving its condition. »
« Healthy grapes and a respectful attitude towards nature are the fundamantals of good winemaking. »
…but we act
Champagne’s cool climate is ideal for the production of fine, crisp and lively wines that show elegance. Yet such a cool and damp climate tends to encourage the development of various diseases such as mildew. This has resulted in massive doses of chemical treatments being used for some time in Champagne against these fungal diseases. Clean viticultural practice can therefore be quite challenging here. Michel Jacob has been a pioneer in dealing seriously with this issue. For the past 15 years he has worked in the vineyard with determination but with no certitudes. His approach is pragmantic rather than revolutionary. He has constantly experimented in order to reduce or elimate the use of chemical products. One way has been to help the vine develop its natural resistance capacities, and to steer the earth towards its natural balance. The aim of all this work is not to acquire a logo or a certificate, but to respect the final product, the consumer, and the land. The crossroads to these goals are healthy, good-flavoured grapes.
Old-fashioned common sense
Thoroughly respecting the environment takes care and trouble and costs more. It also implies breaking away from a way of thinking based on high yields and short-term profit. It involves abandoning treating vines with chemicals and installing the use of farming pratices that preserve life within the earth, developing natural resistances in the vine so that it can defend itself. Michel Jacob has a scientific and pragmatic approach to this. Preserving the environment should not imply a dogmatic attitude and every new procedure is first tested in close collaboration with laboratories and scientific advisors.
Vititcultural practices must ensure that nature’s forces are harnessed to nourish the vine and improve its resistance. The result is a return to natural balance and a certain form of harmony: things that our forebearers, through a mixture of necessity and good sense, respected. But we try to understand how these things work, thanks to the enlightenment of scientific knowledge.
Harrowing aerates the soils whilst limiting the growth of weeds. This surface cultivation avoids compacting the soil and breaking up its natural structure. Superficial ploughing encourages the young vines to send their roots deeper, thus becoming more resistant to climatic extremes and making their food chain more complex.
The techniques used respect the soil and their natural balance. This benefit is duly transmitted to the vines and the grapes, ensuring that the raw material for Serge Mathieu’s Champagnes is both healthy and ripe.
In a world where everything is increasingly normalised and categorized, our approach to viticulture fits into none of the recognised « boxes » in France. We are, in a sense, a viticultural UVO (Unidentified Vinous Object).
Our way of describing this at Serge Mathieu is to say that our vitcultural approach is « ecolo-pragmatic », meaning that we avoid, as far as possible, the use of any chemical products. Our choice is governed essentially by the weather conditions in Champagne. It is very hard to farm here in a totally « organic » way, given the sun/rain combinations that are part of our climatic constraints. If we were producing wine in southern France, we would operate otherwise.
Therefore we will resort to the use of chemical sprays, but only in extreme situations, and only after we have done our utmost to avoid this by other practices. This is rather akin to a human being using natural medecine unless he has a serious illness requiring a more radical approach.
Correspondingly, Serge Mathieu does not require or request any form of organic certification. Yet we use neither chemical weedkillers nor chemical pesticides. If absolutely necessary, we will use a natural pesticide. Neither do we use chemical fungicides, but we are experimenting natural alternatives.
Various forms of mildew are quite prevalent in Champagne. We use sulphur, which is a natural product, and four to five treatments per year with a synthetic chemical product. In addition we use a maximum of 4 kg per hectare of copper per year, since copper has a toxic affect on the soil in higher quantities.
We are currently experimenting with replanting hedgerows around our vineyard plots. In this we look for plant types that will offer maximum cover to birds and insects which are natural predators of vine pests.
We also eschew certain practices that are unsuited to our approach to nature, such as countering spring frosts by sprinkling water or by heating the air around the vines with electric or fuel-powered heaters. For the same reason we do not burn weeds with blow-torches, since this also destroys microbes in the soil and consumes lots of fossile energy.
Vines and man
Just like the human body, a vine can fight off certain external attacks if one encourages its natural defense mechanisms, in particular by avoiding excessive chemical spraying (the equivalent of medecine for man). For instance, when grey rot attacks, the vine naturally produces a protein (resveratrol) wich has a protecting effect. Scientists have also discovered that this powerful anti-oxidant can be useful in the treatment of certain human afflictions. This is the kind of balance that we are trying to re-create or preserve.
This ecological vission of things is also applied to the winery. Serge Mathieu Champagne is equipped with very efficient systems to treat waste products (the process is called alpha O). Building materials and equipement have also beeen carefully chosen: insulating bricks, flax-fibre insulation, heat pumps, recycling of rain water.
But our way of thinking is neither obsessive nor dogmatic. We have simply chosen to work in a certain way, but to be realistic and transparent about what we do. All our experiments and tests are validated by appropriate scientific experts. We are organo-practical in a sense, and do not operate according to pre-conceptions or dogmatic principles.
Our choice in terms of viticultue is very demanding to put into practice, but it has no road map. It also has inherent risks, since choosing an ecologically viable route, as well as trying to produce quality wines, inevitably entails a fall in grape yields. We have a modern and scientific approach to ecology, not a social or political one. We feel that everyone should be concerned by ecology.
As far as we are concerned, good viticulture should be transparent in its approach and its details, combining ethics and lifestyle.
Isabelle and Michel