WOMEN IN WINE #8
LAURENCE CHENEVOTOT MICHEZ
INDEPENDENT VIGNERON, CHAMPAGNE CLAUDE MICHEZ AND CHAMPAGNE LA VILLESENIÈRE, FRANCE
Something special is brewing (or more likely fermenting!) in Champagne that is worth getting to know about! Earlier this year, it is just by chance that I came across the unassuming and soft spoken Laurence, while on a visit to Champagne. A meeting that has left a lasting impression about her and the passion and determination of upcoming Independent Vignerons like Laurence, in the region of Champagne, a cult brand, that has hitherto been dictated by the likes of the Grand Marquee, or the big houses of Champagne.
Single estate or as some experts like to call it as "grower champagne" is the growing trend in Champagne and there is a reason why this is happening. While the big houses are chugging out volumes through a combination of owned and rented vineyards, boutique producers such as Laurence are the new generation Recoltant Manipulants (RM) who were traditionally grape sellers but have gone a step further in setting up their own production house, creating their own label of champagne from their own grapes and further on marketing and distributing them as well. While they still follow the traditional appellation guidelines, they have used innovation as a strategy to create versatile styles of champagne that cater to different markets and a wide range of palates, making it appeal to different segments of populations and generations. This forward thinking has earned Claude Michez immense recognition in the last couple of years and despite a modest production of around 30,000 bottles a year, the Champagne estate is not resting on its laurels. Laurence and her husband Cyrille, jointly own the Champagne domain and their wines are produced from self owned 4 ha of plot in the Cru of Boursault that lies to the west of Epernay. With majority of their vines being of the Chardonnay grape variety, they also own plots in Cote de Blanc (0.45ha) and in Mardeuil (0.20ha).
On spending more time with Laurence, I came to understand they produce two range of Champagnes. Claude Michez is their original brand, from which they started producing Champagnes since 1973. Fermented in stainless steel tanks, they are aimed for local consumption, and the palate while complex is equally joyous expressing energetic vibes through its persistent mousse. One of the cuvées of Claude Michez, Cuvée Flore won Gold Medal at Concours Vins Prix in 2017. I thoroughly enjoyed the tasting of this wine and equally, what left a memorable impression are the beautiful floating red poppy and white lilies on one side of the bottle, all the way to the top ending on a rich glossy red foil (bottle is on the picture of Laurence with the floral label, at the far end below). The other range of Champagne that has given export recognition for the brand is their premier range of La Villesenière. This range is stylistically different from Claude Michez. Villeseniere, a barrel fermented gastronomy champagne possesses fuller body with mild toasty notes and expressive texture. Mostly old oak is used for fermentation. Only a fraction of the total production (roughly 5-6%) is allocated for the prestige Villesèniere range each year. Jancis Robinson has merited two of the top range of La Villesenière wines (Cuvée Les Cuteries Blanc de Blanc Extra Brut NV and Cuvée Harmony Brut NV) with 17.5 points. In the UK, these wines are available to purchase from Scala Wines.
Featured below is my interview with Laurence Chenevetot Michez:
Sumilier : Pls share with us about your background and entry into wines. And your current responsibilities.
Laurence : Ever since I was a young girl I’ve always been captivated by vineyards. I really enjoyed being around nature and I knew that eventually, I would follow in the footsteps of my ancestors. I love the history and the traditions surrounding champagne and I’m very close to my family, so working here was natural for me. Being a wine maker is a job I find truly rewarding and there is a constant learning curve here. Patience is what I have learnt to develop over time.
In 1973, my parents started their own production brand under Champagne Claude Michez. Before that, our family used to only sell grapes but not produce our own wines. After getting my college diploma, I qualified as a tri-lingual secretary and then I studied Viticulture from Lycée Viticole in Avize for 2 years. After my qualification, I looked around to gain outside work experience in order to add value to the family business, but luck had it and it so happened that one of my uncles retired at that time, and I was called upon instantly to take up some of his responsibilities and that is how my story began. I have been fortunate in the sense that I have always got on well with my family and they’ve always helped and encouraged me in whatever I’ve done. So, in 1998 I started working with my mother Jacqueline and over the next couple of years, gradually started taking up more and more responsibilities. By 2001-02, my husband Cyrille joined the business after completing his qualification in Viticulture and together we took over the estate and set ourselves the challenge of increasing sales and becoming more eco-friendly and also responsible wine producers for the economy. In 2016 we won a certificate as a Domaine of ‘High Environmental Value’ (HVE). We work with nature and adopt biological and sustainable methods to preserve the biodiversity in the soils and enrich our vineyards, adopting many of the organic farming methods. Also important is our aim to reduce waste and effluents and hence have adopted waste management techniques that are environment friendly in order to protect our lands from being destroyed by pollution.
It is still a small family business and I fully manage it today along with Cyrille. But I do enjoy the flexibility it gives me because I get to do work on all sorts of different fronts every day. I cover the vineyards in the heart of the fabulous Champagne countryside and also spend a lot of time in the winery. In the office, I cover operations and am in charge of covering wine merchants and importers and also travel abroad participating in wine shows and exhibitions.
Sumilier: A note on the styles of Champagnes you produce and your vineyards, with your views of the tasting notes
Laurence : All our champagnes have a real character because we only use grapes from a handful of our own plots of vines on the slopes near Boursault, a little village about 9 kilometres from Epernay. The village is well-known for the quality of its grapes, as well as for the Chateau Boursault, which was built by Madame Cliquot Ponsardin of Veuve Cliquot.
We are also ‘Récoltants Manipulants’, which means that we do everything from A – Z (from growing the vines to the final sale of the bottle). Every stage is important and I’m insistent on the pickers only selecting the best bunches when they’re harvesting and we only use the best juice off the press.
Our champagnes are aged in oak barrels and both Cyrille and I, pay particular attention to the selection of the best years and the best plots depending on the quality of each harvest. In particular, our La Villesenière range has been getting some good reviews for a few years now in France, particularly in Guide Hachette and Gault et Millau. In each of the La Villesenière champagnes we’re looking to bring out the unique character of specific plots of vines together with the influence of the oak
We want our wines to have a distinct style coupled with finesse, full flavour and a hint of toasty oak.
Sumilier: When viewing qualification and experience, how has each helped you in where you stand today.
Laurence : My viticulture qualifications have been very important because there is a lot of practical work in the vineyard that directly impacts wine making. I had to understand the background of grape growing in order to learn about wine production. But there is a lot more than that when you are an independent vigneron. I have gained extensively while on the job in order to make it a complete wine management role. When I took over the running the business there was a lot to cover outside vineyard duties such as administrative work, receiving and working with our importers, managing orders, accounts, budgeting and ops, recruiting seasonal workers and all the other vineyard capital intensive work that needed to be organised. In wine production, there is not just qualification and degrees but also a huge learning one gains from experience and with age you only get wiser. In 2010, we purchased a new press and created a modern VAT room which needed a lot of background work and research. Overall my background in viticulture and the experience gained in running the estate, both have covered different aspects and been equally crucial for my development as a wine professional.
Working in the wine trade involves lots of ups and downs and you don’t always get the results you want, but champagne is a wine which has the gift of bringing people together and life is made of the people you meet and the things you learn, whether that be in the vineyard, during the wine making, or while dealing with customers and other professionals in the wine trade.
I still attend a couple of training courses, once or twice a year to keep up my wine qualifications and to keep up in the wine business know how (such as wine tasting, learning about legal regulations for employing staff). That is the way of constant self-development.
Sumilier: According to you, what words best describe your wines?
Laurence : Unique, authentic, charming, elegant and refined
Sumilier: Three things that you really enjoy while working in this industry
- Working in the vineyards and seeing how the vines change year on year. It is simply amazing to see the same vines producing different wines based on the unique climate each year. Some years are supremely great while some others are challenging
- Tasting the still wines with my husband and choosing the best wines that we finally use for blending and what finally goes into every bottle of our champagne.
- Friendship and champagne go together naturally and one thing I particularly enjoy is sharing what we do with all the people I meet and interacting with all our customers.
Sumilier: The most difficult challenge(s) you have faced while in this profession
Laurence : Building up our exports has been a big challenge for us because in a high volume business with so much competition, it is hard to make a name for yourself. Finally, I am happy to say that in 2013, we achieved our first exports! La Villesenièreis now exported to the UK and Japan.
When you become an independent vigneron, it is not enough to work in the vineyard. Once production happens, we have to be able to market the wines. This takes us to the operations side of the business. There is a lot of work in the operations behind the scene, administration, legal affairs, regulations, documentation, accounting, branding and promotion and looking for good contacts who appreciate the work of independent winemakers like us and the champagnes we make. I have had to work quite hard in order to gain this network and there is no doubt as a boutique independent grower and producer, this has been a big challenge for us that we are constantly working on.
Sumilier: Your favourite drink on a Friday evening (when not working?)
Laurence : For the summer of 2016, my favorite is our own brand’s Cuvée Harmony from 2011. It’s 50% Chardonnay, 38% Pinot Noir and 12% Meunier. Lots of tiny bubbles with lots of finesse and exotic flavours on the palate. It’s great as an aperitif and has enough character to go well with a meal too. Cuvée Harmony is at its best right now and is full of expression – just what I love.
Sumilier: Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?
Laurence : I see myself doing what I love doing, being a quality champagne producer because I love the conviviality and sense of sharing that this business fosters. I also am working hard for export growth because we still have the capacity to produce more bottles and I hope that one day our children, or one of them, will take over, as I did a few years ago. If that were to happen I’d be delighted and I’d think that I had succeeded just like my parents and grandparents before me.
Sumilier: Do you see many women in the industry where you work?
Laurence : I believe there are more women working in the wine industry today than ever before but it can better. I’m certainly seeing more women working in the vineyards and more in wine making, but there are also growing number of women oenologists and sommeliers and women heading up some of the big houses and cooperatives.
However women are still not properly represented in some sections of the French press. I’m thinking of La Revue de Vins de France for example… try finding pictures women in there!
Sumilier: Message for women who want to enter the wine profession.
Laurence : It’s the same as in any other line of work, you have to establish yourself and prove your worth. You need to give it 200% because it’s more difficult for women in the world of wine making.
It can be challenging for young women to get a break as working in this industry does involve physical labour that women were never allowed or expected to have the capacity to perform, so I try to do my bit by taking on young and ambitious ladies as trainees each year to develop their interest in this industry. Either they are given a chance to work in the vineyards or in the sales and irrespective of the division, they are encouraged to drive the tractor and to get involved in operational jobs.