Even more champagne

1 January 2018

[Working journal while I continue to obsessively assemble a project of dubious interest & limited appeal.]


It’s New Year’s Day and I’ve been awake since a decent hour of the morning looking up French village names, so sure! Let’s drink more champagne. It wasn’t so long ago I was too. (And I got to have a glass of Prévost last night. That was nice.)

Speaking of Prévost, right next door in the Petit Montagne you’ll find Lelarge-Pugeot, a double-barreled family-run estate whose 7th and 8th generations have moved towards organics as well as some biodynamic practices in the vineyard and, increasingly, experimentation in the cellar. They’ve also showed at RAW here in New York for the last two years, which is an unusual thing, champagne (even grower champagne) at a natural wine fair.

As with Chartogne-Taillet, I’m avoiding the awkwardness of these hyphenated estates by running with the family that has been farming the land the longest. With Alexandre, that was Taillet; here, it’s Lelarge. (Since 1799!) Lelarge is, basically, a nickname surname for broad-chested.

And where are they? Why, in Vrigny, which I just spent a truly ridiculous amount of time tugging on. Older forms of the commune (per Volume 108 of the Dictionnaire topographique de la France by the way) go more or less like this: Viriniacus, Verniacum, Verniaeum, Vernyacum, Vregny, Vregny a la Montagne. That “-acus” or “-acum” suffix is super common in Latin placenames. So “belonging to Virinius”, more or less, with Virinius a name of Gallic origin later Latinized and spread throughout the empire. Root of vir-, viri-, which basically just means “man”, and all connotations thereof. (Masculine, virile, husband, manly, whatever.)

So I couldn’t resist. The estate & village, despite making a delicious 100% meunier named after the daughter (sorry, Clémence!), is: Big-Chested Man, Town of the Manly Man. I’m basically picturing Gaston from Beauty & the Beast. Here we are drinking it on Valentine’s Day last year:

An unflattering picture of my love eating fried chicken. Also, champagne.

What else? I haven’t really gotten to most of my favorites in the not-petite-but-normal-sized Montagne de Reims. (Ledru, Bérèche, Leclapart, Beaufort, Marguet: these will have to wait.)

Emmanuel Brochet, though, is a good one. A person who makes the Villers-aux-Nœuds worth talking about. (Villers is Latin-rooted and stands for something like ‘large rural estate’. Nœud is harder. It literally means “knot”, from Latin nodus, in contemporary French, both the kind you tie with rope and the nautical unit of speed, and also carries all of the senses of nodes (computer, lymph, etc)—and it’s also slang for “penis.” But aside from sounding kind of like nonsense (Rural manor at knotted rope?) if you follow the spellings of the commune back over 500 years of documentation it devolves from nœud like so: neufs, neads, neux, nodos, nex, neu, nodos, aaneu, noes, nues, anoux, asneus, asininum, and the first recorded mention, in 954: Villare Asinorum. There’s an Old French root No-, Noe-, Noue-, which carries the connotation of submerged, flooded, as in a low meadow or river valley, and my best guess is that something that ends up in 13th century Old French like Vilers Asnous might be the country houses at the low meadow. But I’m not sure still.

Brochet is pike, which, as in English, can be used for both a type of spear and a species of fish, and in Old French has the sense of needle, or roasting spit, or nickname for a maker of brooches (probably because of the needle thing). Because I can’t quite figure out from which of these diverse meanings Emmanuel’s family name derives (but assume it’s occupational), he gets to be Maker of Pointed Sticks. He farms a single 2.5-hectare vineyard, La Mont Benoit, benoit being an old word for #blessed, out of which he makes three wines: two single-variety single-vintage bottlings out of the half-century old chardonnay and meunier vines from the higher, older part of the slope, and one wine blending two vintages and everything else. And the wines are very, very good. Which you probably guessed. And the wines are, indeed, like perfectly balanced and precise pointed shafts of minerality, detail, & tension. Like pointed sticks.

Just south, the jelly in Champagne’s sandwich, you have the valley of the river Marne, from Matrona, great mother, a Gallic mother goddess often depicted as triple in hundreds of little terracotta statues dating from the first through fifth century that kick around nothern Europe, in her incarnations as maiden-mother-hag, or sex/birth/death.

(Since I wrote that sentence I’ve made the mistake of picking up a copy of Robert Graves’ The White Goddess and been reading way too much about triple goddesses, lunar cycles, tree alphabets, and…well, for instance: “Demeter as Mare-goddess was widely worshipped under the name Epona, or ‘the Three Eponae’, among the Gallic Celts, and there is a strange account in Giraldus Cambrensis’s Topography of Ireland which shows that relics of the same cult survived in Ireland until the twelth century. It concerns the crowning of an Irish petty-king at Tyrconnell, a preliminary to which was his symbolic rebirth from a white mare. He crawled naked towards her on all fours as if he were her foal; she was then slaughtered, and her pieces boiled in a cauldron. He himself entered the cauldron and began sucking up the broth and eating the flesh. Afterwards, he stood on an inauguration stone, was presented with a straight white wand, and turned about three times from left to right, and then three times from right to left—’in honour of the Trinity’. Originally no doubt in honour of the Triple White Goddess.”

Here in the Valley of the River Goddess you’ll find George Laval (from the valley) in Cumières, one of my favorite champagnes of all time, whose village name probably has something to do with the old Gaelic root comar-, cumar- (a confluence, or meeting of waters), since there’s a little horseshoe-shaped side tributary of the Marne that joins right where the commune sits. And if it’s not that? I don’t know what. This is from last January, which is definitely not the last time I drank Laval:

It's a filthy habit.

As long as we’re here, let’s mop up Champagne once and for all. South of the Valley of the River Goddess, you’ll go straight down the east-facing chalk spine of the White Slope, the Côte des Blancs, where you can drink a lot of chardonnay, including Agrapart (literally: “Crooked Fingers”, a nickname for a grasping miser who won’t let anything go), and if you’d like, maybe his top wine, a bottling from a small section of a single vineyard, Vénus, named for the horse that for years plowed its three hectares.

Just south of here, we’re in the (linguistically) problemmatic little subregion of Sézanne—a tricky one, for sure, oldest forms Sezana / Cesana (roundabout 974 & 1036), -ana being a Latin suffix of possession, and with some of my sources suggesting the Roman gens Sussius. The Sosii were a plebian family that rose to prominence about the time of the Roman Civil War and stayed there for first couple centuries of empire, fading out of the historical record in the 3rd century A.D. They were attested in Horace as a family of fine booksellers, held some consulships, dedicated a fancy temple to Apollo, were usually on the losing side of an intercine squabbles, and their most powerful branch had vast holdings in Sicily, North Africa, and southern Spain. This last is the only thing that gives me pause, since I don’t know how they made it from “powerful Roman Imperial family based in Sicily” to “Champagne village” 600 years later, but another source suggests that Soisy, north of Paris, also owes its name to them, so at least (according to someone) they were in the neighborhood.

Here in the slopes around Sézanne the guy you’re drinking is Ulysses Collin. Collin is one of those vaguely frustrating surnames in which etymology flattens difference. Collin is a variant of Colle, which abbreviates Nicholas, from the Greek nikē + laos, victory of the people. Nicholas & its variants became crazy popular across Europe because of the 4th-century saint & Santa Claus inspiration, spawning variants as diverse as the French Colette and the Polish MikołajSo you’re in Meursault, where François Mikulski’s white Burgundies translate to kin of or from the place of Mikula, which is to say the [archaic Polish version of] victory of the people, while down the way in Saint Aubin, Marc Colin’s white Burgundies are also…victories of the people. And further north, in Sézanne? The two blanc de blancs chardonnay cuvées, “So Much Limestone It’s Like a Quarry” and “Rosebush”, made by Ulysses, and tasting basically like sparkling Meursault are still, you guessed it, victory of the people.

This is annoying, and I’ve rendered them a grab-bag of different ways. Collin also makes a blanc de noirs called “Maillons”, which means something like links in a chain, but I don’t know why.

After Sézanne there’s nothing for a while, until an isolated island of chalk, Montgueux, rears up out of the plain. It means hill of the Goths, and the origin of the name of this Germanic people is…disputed, to say the least. They probably migrated south from Scandinavia, and the old Norse gotar, men, points to your usual boiled-down primeval origin, “our name for ourselves is the people” and all that. On this island of chalk, Emmanual Lassaigne, origin surname meaning “from the marshy place”, is your guy. More on him later.

Finally, and after another long stretch of no vines, we’re down in the Aube. Sometimes the Aube wasn’t even considered part of Champagne. There were riots, and lots of local politicking. These days, with cheaper land and warmer climes, in a place that’s actually closer to Chablis than to Reims, it’s a hotbed of experimentation by small growers, and the wines definitely taste like themselves and nothing else.

The region is named after the river Aube, old French albe, original Latin name Albis, from *alb-, one of those rich & prolific roots, first to Latin albus, “white”that gives us the blinding white chalk albariza soils of Jerez, among other things, and before that the late Indo-European *albh-, which refers to water & rivers, but more particularly to their color, as in a blinding reflection of sunlight off the water. Albe and aube both mean, too, the light at sunrise: the dawn.

Lots of folks to cover there, and we won’t do it now. Next up: maybe keep going south into Chablis?


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