There are border towns where something simply ends and which essentially represent the country to which they have always belonged. And there are those where the affiliation to one side has changed time and again, and whose culture seems to look in two directions at once. Les Riceys, the southernmost municipality in Champagne, belongs firmly in the second category. Historically, it was a bone of contention between Champagne and Burgundy. André Jullien assigned Les Riceys to the wines of Champagne in his “Topography” in 1816. However, it is the red wines from Riceys and the surrounding communes that he classifies as Premier Crus – the only ones in the Aube department. He names La Forêt first among the recommended lieu-dits, but more on this later. He remains silent about the famous rosés from Les Riceys. Legend has it that they were a favorite of the Sun King Louis XIV – in any case, they have had their own appellation since 1947.
In 1919, the wines of the Aube were allowed to bear the name Champagne for the first time. For the region, this was a liberating blow and the beginning of a veritable wave of start-ups. In 1934, a certain Lucien Noble planted his first vines in Les Riceys. His daughter married a René Bonnet, and their children Serge and Alain finally gave the company the name Alexandre Bonnet in 1973, under which they bottled their own Champagnes. In the 1990s, they expanded their base as négociants and now processed grapes from a good 200 hectares of vines. When no one from the family wanted to continue the business, the Lanson-BCC Champagne group took over in 1998. Director Arnaud Fabre split the business up in 2019. Firstly, trading under the Maison Alexandre Bonnet (MAB, under the Ferdinand Bonnet brand). Then Domaine Alexandre Bonnet (DAB) as Récoltant Manipulant, which only processes its own grapes. At the same time, there was a relaunch in appearance and portfolio.
First of all, the name “Domaine”, which is unusual in the Champagne region, reflects the more Burgundian self-image of the house. However, according to President Arnaud Fabre, “Domaine” is also intended to signal a certain size of operation. In fact, the 47 hectares of vineyards clearly distinguish Alexandre Bonnet from typical vintner Champagne producers with significantly fewer holdings. The proportion of Pinot Noir in DAB’s vineyards is an impressive 93 percent. As a result, the estate produced six cuvées from this red grape at times, including a white Coteau de Noirs. The planting of a parcel with the seven old grape varieties of the region and the increasing importance of Pinot Blanc have modified this somewhat. Nevertheless, Pinot Noir continues to play a predominant role. No fewer than ten varieties are cultivated, both vines with loose-berried grapes from Champagne and small-berried grapes from Burgundy. Some of which are clones and some of which are mass-selected.
Priority is given to vineyard management over cellar work. The emphasis is on bringing out the special terroir of Les Riceys, the “Grand Cru of the Côtes des Bar”, with its steep vineyards of Kimmeridgian limestone. Accordingly, the vineyard has two certifications (HVE, VDC). A third of the area is under conversion to organic cultivation. The vinification is non-interventionist. Yields are low and the grapes are selected once again on vibrating destemmers. Each parcel is vinified separately in small steel tanks, and only the juice from the first pressing is used for each cuvée. In some cases, work is carried out according to the gravity principle, i.e. without mechanical pumping. Malolactic fermentation is complete and only zero or extra brut dosages are used. Sulphurization is minimal. Since Irvin Charpentier, who trained in Burgundy, took over as chef de cave, the company has also been experimenting with ageing in wooden barrels.
Thanks to its origins, Domaine Alexandre Bonnet is able to produce wines from three different AOCs: Champagne, Champagne still wines, the so-called Coteaux Champenois, and a Rosé de Riceys. The latter traditionally comes from the south-facing La Fôret vineyard below the Riceys-Bas forest. However, the rosé has only been labeled as La Fôret since 2017, presumably due to the success that Olivier Horiot had with his single-vineyard rosés from Les Riceys. This is followed by two Coteaux Champenois in white and red. Rouge Les Riceys from 100 percent Pinot Noir, also from La Fôret. Blanc Les Riceys as a cuvée of white Pinot Noir from the Hardy parcel in the east and Chardonnay from the En Vigneron vineyard in the west of Les Riceys.
The champagne range consists of three blends: Blanc de Noirs, Blanc de Blancs and Rosé. These all come from grapes grown in Les Riceys and the surrounding municipalities. Then, until the 2018 vintage, the two single-vineyard Champagnes La Fôret Rosé (as a vintage with 100 percent Pinot Noir) and La Géande 7 Cépage made from all seven approved (traditional) Champagne grape varieties, also as Millésime. In 2019, these were renamed Les Contrées and no longer labeled as single-vineyard champagnes. The 2019 Les Contrées Rosé now also contains some Pinot Blanc from the Hardy parcel. And Les Contrées 7 Cépages 2019 – made from Chardonnay, Blanc Vrai (Pinot Blanc), Beuret (Pinot Gris), Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Petit Meslier and Arbanne – no longer comes exclusively from La Géande.
I was able to taste six wines, some of which were very individual. It started with the Rosé de Riceys La Forêt 2020 from vines that are now a good 50 years old. The wine was vinified for three to four days with semi carbonic maceration and a quarter of it was fermented in wooden barrels. As a result, it hardly corresponded to the usual rosé image. Instead, it was a strong, slightly cool light red in the glass and initially somewhat restrained. With a little air, cherry and slightly earthy-spicy aromas emerge. Still quite youthful and taut on the palate, with good acidity. Opened up with the food, but still needs some time (91 p.). The Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut (basic vintage 2019 with around 36 months on the fine lees, deg. 06/01/2023) blends an unusual 50 percent Pinot Blanc with 50 percent Chardonnay. Pale yellow with a fine perlage. Yellow roses, apricot, apple, pears and white almonds on the nose. Delicately creamy, subtly salty and effortless (92 p.).
The “simple” Rosé Extra Brut is 100% Pinot Noir Champagne and is produced using the assemblage method. The low dosage gives it a very pure appearance, but the short period of bottle fermentation (24 months) also makes it a little “frothy” at first. The aroma is dominated by redcurrants and dried herbs. Quite fleshy on the palate with good acidity (90 p.). The Blanc de Noirs Extra Brut (deg. 04/04/23) is certainly something like the signature champagne of the house. Complex on the nose – apple, mandarin, kiwi, white flowers, honey, almonds and meringue – it shows great length and presence on the palate (93 p.). Les Contrées 7 Cépages Extra Brut 2019 (deg. 12/06/23) is clearly more mature in its aromas. Notes of quince, red apple, panettone, some honey and vanilla on the nose, and salted caramel on the palate. Rather full-bodied and voluminous than elegant, with relatively low acidity and noticeable, slightly bitter phenolics (92 P.).
Les Contrées Rosé Extra Brut 2019 (deg. 23/06/23) is certainly the most unusual wine in the portfolio. A Rosé de Saignée, i.e. from macerated, “bled” Pinot Noir, blended with some Pinot Blanc (!). The color alone is spectacular: a red with a blue-brown shimmer like plum juice. Pomegranate, sour cherries, yellow plums and almonds on the nose. Pear, roasted quince and walnut with aeration. The good acidity and a good degree of phenolics make this rosé an excellent accompaniment to food, despite its rather slender, delicate body. A first attempt with wild salmon failed, a second with goose legs (!) was perfect (94 p.). We will see how the domaine’s style changes under the new cellar master. Will wood play a greater role? Will longer matured Champagnes with a stronger autolysis character become more important? In any case, it is worth keeping an eye on Domaine Alexandre Bonnet!
Stefan Pegatzky / Time Tunnel Images
More on the topic and introductory information:
240 pages, numerous illustrations.
Wiesbaden: Tre Torri Verlag, 2001.
Awarded the German Cookbook Prize in Gold as the best wine book of the year 2021.