QandA with Champagne Joë l Michel’s Claire Michel – France
No matter how many times I’ve seen it, I never grow tired of the view from my car as it winds through the fabled grape-producing region ninety minutes from Paris. Here, vineyards stretch as far as the eye can see over gently rolling hillsides to form the cradle of the universal symbol of nature’s fruited elegance: Champagne!
Cresting the top of a hill, I arrive at a gorgeous nineteenth century house, birth- place and lifelong residence of Claire Michel, cultivator of some of the choicest of the surrounding lands, and proprietor of the celebrated champagne label, Joël Michel.
As heiress of a storied winemaking family, what impact has your ancestry had on you?
Since 1847, my family has been making champagne. The success of our brand derives, first and foremost, from a determination to abide by two long-established traditions: the pursuit of harmony and respect for nature. One of my ancestors was both a wine maker and an orchestra conductor. According to him, wine, like music, must be driven by harmony. The refinement of our champagne demands a delicate balance between daring and this constant quest for perfect harmony. These values—in which I share a personal sense of pride and satisfaction—persist today in the unique purity of our time-honored product.
Do you have any interesting routines, as a wine maker?
My vineyards are located in the Marne Valley. Every day during grapes maturation, I walk through my vineyards, smell the earth, touch and taste the grapes. I want the roots to go as deeply as possible in the soil so that a maximum of flavour will be transmitted to the fruit.
What are your favourite wines and why?
I can’t resist the smoothness, freshness and flowery notes of Chardonnay, the roundness and suppleness of Pinot Meunier or the strength, structure and red fruits scents of Pinot Noir.
Tell me about your favorite creation.
Millesime 2000 is my pride. I sample the wines all year long so as to monitor the subtle development of their flavours. Because of the superb evolution of our strains at the time, I realized that the harvest for the year 2000 had to be turned into milles- ime, and it had to be flawless. Blending time is perhaps the most stressful, obsessive phase of the winemaking process. I craved to envelop myself in a romantic atmos- phere in which I could let my sensitivity roam. Surrounding myself from morning to midnight with the chords of Rachmaninoff’s Concerto for Piano, my senses opened. I woke in the morning and fell asleep at night obsessed by harmony. I didn’t have the right to fail. I had to bring out what was best in the year, to reveal its innermost character, all the while observing a single-minded devotion to my family’s guiding principle for generations—the quest for that most elusive ingredient of all, harmony.
So, it is really art!
Blending is, indeed, a form of art, of sensations, of intuitions. But more and more, I feel very humble in the face of nature—nature is, in my opinion, the supreme artist. My duty is to reveal and augment what nature offers me year by year. Honoring this duty is the true secret to producing fine champagne.
Image: Claire Michel tests the aroma of one of her bubbly creations. Images courtesy Joël Michel.