Arriving at Jacquesson was one of those memorable moments. The day was perfect, sun-drenched & warm with a gentle breeze and the Jacquesson grounds in Dizy were beautiful, ordered and terrifically atmospheric. The buildings and grounds were quintessentially French and had that deeply peaceful feel of a great winery. The gardens and cobbled courtyards were neat and picturesque, railings adorned with the gold letters of Jaquesson & Fils made an elegant, but purposeful statement.
I am ashamed to say that my experience of Jacquesson was very limited until this visit, but that made everything all the more wonderful as it all took me by surprise. We were greeted by our host; Jean-Hervé Chiquet, who is the co-owner with his brother Laurent. Together they control everything, we got the feeling that nothing happens without their say so.
This is an old house with a history going back to 1798, indeed founder Memmie Jacquesson was awarded a gold medal by Napoleon 1 in 1810, a representation of this medal still graces their capsules. Adolphe, Memmie’s son, was created “Chevalier de Légion d’Honneur” by Napoleon 111 in 1863. From 1837 until 1843 Johann-Joseph Krug worked at Jacquesson before creating his own Champagne house. Krug married Adolphe’s wife’s sister and the families remained close, so much so that his son, Paul Krug looked after the Jaquessons once financial and business disaster struck in the 1870’s.
In 1974 Jacquesson & Fils was bought by Jean Chiquet whose family had been growers for centuries and récolants-manipulants since 1915. By then Jacquesson was based in Reims, but Chiquet decided to move to Dizy to the beautiful premises they occupy today.
Jean-Hervé and Laurent took over the running of the house in 1986 and started to change things straight away. They aim to be the very best Champagne house, although realise that they might not quite make it. Everything was looked at anew and nothing was taken for granted.
Slowly they stopped buying grapes from any village where they did not farm themselves, that way they were colleagues rather than customers and they could press all the grapes themselves. What is more they want no grapes from further away than 8 kms and they do not want any bumpy rides for these grapes on the way to the press house, quite a tall order I would think from my experience of the local tracks. They have also returned to complete vinification in oak barrels, not for flavour influence, but for quality and complexity.
Straight away Jean-Hervee took us off to visit a vineyard on a south-west facing ridge above the village of Dizy, this was the 1 hectare parcel of 1er Cru Corne Bautry planted with Chardonnay in 1962 which has so impressed the Chiquets that since 1996 they have created separate bottlings from this site in 1996, 200 and 2005, all with no dosage, although that can change if needed. This wine is a mystery as it is really Pinot country and Jean-Hervé “has no idea” why they get such great results from Chardonnay here. He also pointed out a quarter acre parcel of Petit Meslier grapes, but claimed that they were of interest only for their rarity and that the old Champagne grapes stopped being used for a reason.
From here he took us to a lovely vineyard full of workers tending the vines, this was a Pinot Noir vineyard just outside Dizy itself and was called “Terre Rouge”, although to my eyes it did not look very red. This was followed by a brief stop in the Clos, or walled vineyard in Jacquesson’s grounds itself, this beautiful vineyard had been infiltrated, in the gaps between some vines, by wild strawberries, these perfectly formed, deep red little fruits were a delicious gastronomic treat, we were only allowed 2 each as the workers would get cross if we took more!
So on to the tasting and a tour of the cellars. Jean-hervé explained that in 2000 they had changed everything, labels, cuvees, dosage, wine making, everything, with the result that Jacquesson was really a new House, despite its heritage and past reputation for quality. The result had been that for a while they lost all their customers, as people had really loved their Champagnes.
The basis for all this was the Non Vintage concept. What makes wine special to the Chiquets is the vintage variation, each year is different, defining a wine. So why does Champagne seek consistency above all else and iron out the interesting variations? In 2000 the Chiquets decided to stop this practise and create a new cuvee, still a Non Vintage or a Sans Année, but one that changes every year to reflect the major vintage components and they also decided to change the name every year as well. This gave them a problem, as they realised that after a few years their creativity for names might run dry, so Laurent came up with the answer. Based on their triage records Jacquesson had made 727 cuvées since their centenary in 1898, so they decided to call the new wine Cuvée 728 and it was based on the 2000 vintage. Cuvée 729 followed a year later and so on. For each years cuvee only Grand Cru and 1er Cru grapes are used and only the free run juice is used as well. So far the make up has varied from 34% to 48% Chardonnay, 34-28% Pinot Noir and 20-32% Pinot Meunier, which shows how much variation there can be.
We were fortunate enough to taste some Vin Claire from the 2005 harvest, the finished Cuvée 733 – 42% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot Meunier and 28% Pinot Noir. I was impressed by this and enjoyed it, the acidity was balanced and it was very drinkable. Interestingly Jean-Hervé believes that only good wines (wines you want to drink) go on to make good sparkling wines, which I am sure is very different from what people used to say when I started in the business.
We also tried the Chardonnay Corne Bautray 2005 which was again beautifully balanced with a creamy opulence in the mouth and a clean refreshing acidity on the finish.
Our trio of non-sparklers finished with Pinot Noir Terre Rouge 2005, the coppery colour really showed, so did ripe red fruit on the nose and palate with a touch of shortbread richness too – a lovely wine now.
Then the Champagnes:
Cuvée 730 – 48% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Noir & 32% Pinot Meunier.
Mainly (60%) 2002 fruit, 27% 2001, 12% 2000 & 1% 1999.
This had a dosage of 5g/l.
A glorious Champagne with richness, verve, fruit, acidity and balance – it was very vinous or wine-like, which is what the Chiquet’s want. Perhaps it has something of a vintage Champagne feel about it.
Dizy 1er Cru Corne Bautray 2000
A superbly balance wine, bright and powerful with a taught, lime-like aroma and clean acidity masking the opulence of the fruit. “Like a Chablis”, said Jean-Hervé, I could see what he meant.
Finally we were treated to Jacquesson Grand Vin Signature 1996: Only Grand Cru & 1er Cru grapes; 43% Chardonnay from Avize, 26% Pinot Noir from Aÿ & Dizy & 31% Pinot Noir from Sillery, Verdigny & Mailly (no longer a source of grapes for Jacquesson).
This was another lovely Champagne, balancing freshness and vitality with richness and mouth-feel. The fruit had a purity that was truly delightful and made me feel that I could drink it forever.
Later that evening Jean-Hervé kindly entertained us to dinner at his step-son’s restaurant in Reims together with some more of his exciting Champagnes.
What impressed me was the passion, the dedication, the sense of excitement and adventure that Jean-Hervé brought to his Champagne making, I felt that nothing stands still at Jacquesson and that excitement rubbed off on to all of us. I will certainly be showing them at my tastings in the future.