Eric Rodez in Ambonnay is a true artisan of his trade. He speaks of the 5 dimensions of Champagne that shape its style and character:
1. Cépage:- Chardonnay, Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier – the grape varieties play a major role of course.
2. Location:- Montagne de Reims, Marne Valley, Cote des Blancs – where the grapes are grown is very important.
3. Specific vineyard location – mid-slope – flat plain – top of the hill – south facing. Very very important in determining grape quality.
4. Vinification: Enamel tank, stainless steel, small oak, large oak etc. Subtleties and nuances are created here.
5. Fermentation: Malolactic allowed or blocked. Structure and acidity can be enhanced.
All the above combined, seriously determine the style and quality of the final result. He has lots of old vines all with premium exposure at mid-slope. Subtle use of oak and control of malolactic fermentation allows Eric to create a brilliant range of terroir driven Champagnes. His 7 ha property is divided into 35 plots of only Grand Cru vines split roughly 55/45 Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Farming is ecologically sympathetic and Eric has been biodynamic certified since 2008. He worked in Burgundy, Beaujolais and the Rhone for three years during his youth, and also worked for a year at Krug. Dosages are light and he uses RCGM not sugar. He does not use any fertilisers, herbicides or insecticides. And yes, like all villages in France, some one as to be the mayor of Ambonnay. Since 2006 Eric has been using essential oils as part of his vineyard treatments, something he learnt from his grandmother.
During the ten years that I have been visiting and promoting Eric’s Champagnes I have seen a subtle but concentrated and determined shift in his thinking. Reserve wines appear more precise. Dosages have decreased. More importance is being placed on vineyard specific wines. Blocking of malo-lactic adding more elegance and length. Eric also sell some of his grapes to a big house. He still believes that the big houses do much of the marketing to promote the ‘brand Champagne’ and hence need some quality grapes to help maintain the prestige nature of Champagne as a sparkling wine. Certainly Eric is a master of blending but he has realised that the expression of vintage individual small parcel terroir can be equally rewarding and satisfying.
Ambonnay terroir is a conundrum in the region. Next door to Bouzy we would think that it shares some of Bouzy smoky rich flamboyant characteristics. But no. Bouzy is south facing and Ambonnay exposure moves around the montagne more south-east and east with a slightly deeper silex-clay top soil over chalk with more undulations and nuances. The end result is less fruity more mineral wines.
Eric now ranks as maybe the best sustainable vigneron in Grand Cru Ambonnay, alongside Benoit Marguet and Marie-Noelle Ledru.