Taisne Riocour

Limestone in Les Riceys

I have this obsession now, this little addiction to Les Riceys, its bubbles and still, and Élise Dechannes is to blame. These Pinot Noir wines grown an hour east of Chablis are hallucinogenic, hypnotic, more fun and fantasy than reality, cherubs with love-poisoned arrows, irresistible enchantments of high-toned red fruit and fields of dainty but potent spring strawberries, hints of cranberry, and dry as a bone but with that inexplicable, irresistible limestoney, fairy dusty, powdered-sugary, stardust twinkle. After being open for days they run out of gas but never go entirely flat, often remaining charged, pure with pink and red fruit and fully expressive post pop they can be even better than their former bubbly selves. If there’s a Champagne as good, sans bulles, it might be from Les Riceys. This makes sense of the fame of its most historical wine, a rosé made entirely from Pinot Noir with its own appellation, Rosé des Riceys. Rosé des Riceys is a bit of a unicorn, hard to get your hands on more than a bottle at a time, and it’s expensive. After all, it’s part of Champagne’s Aube and right on the border of Burgundy’s Côte d’Or department—no chance for a bargain!

Our interest in Élise Dechannes was timely. With gorgeous new labels inspired by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry illustrations (Le Petit Prince), people were drawn in and discovered Élise’s soft touch and talent, and interest in her seemed to explode overnight. This forced us to search for more sources in Les Riceys, and one just happened to knock on our door when I was in Austrian wine country last summer.

Taisne Riocour is a new venture by the historic Les Riceys grape growing family, de Taisne. In 2014, the five boomer-aged de Taisne siblings decided to bottle their own wines for the first time since the maison was established in 1837, “not out of necessity, but more of a project to go deeper in the previous work of our parents in the vineyards,” Pierre de Taisne explained. “We also had the will to reveal one of the greatest terroirs of Champagne. Instead of selling all our grapes to be blended away into big house cuvées, we want to show the character of our vineyards.”

A visit to the de Taisne family and their vineyards is ecologically encouraging and rich in familial comfort. While all are parents, and some now grandparents, the three brothers and two sisters de Taisne are addressing the agricultural challenges and ethical necessities of our time. Since taking on this new project, they embraced biodynamic treatments (three of their 21 hectares were converted to biodynamics in 2020 as a trial with the advice of Jean-Pierre Fleury) and a plan for full organic conversion began in 2021. Open to other progressive ideas, they like wind-powered ocean freight liners and want to adapt payment agreements to facilitate this slower but more ecological transit. It’s a small contribution, but everything counts!

The de Taisnes speak of greater biodiversity objectives by incorporating more non-vinous plants into their land and between rows, though Les Riceys is more heavily forested than many French viticultural areas. Here, it’s not like other famous Champagne territories with vines on every hillside and a vast expanse of other single crop fields that begin where the vines end. Les Riceys and the surrounding vineyards bear some resemblance in topography and town positioning to the neighboring Auxerrois regions. Similar to Chablis and Irancy, the three hamlets of Les Riceys were individually fortified centers with their own churches less than a kilometer apart. Ricey-Haut, Ricey-Bas and Ricey Haute Rive sit in the center of the appellation with numerous hillsides on all sides of the villages, carved out by erosion. But unlike Chablis, where vines grow on all sides around the village with even more Chardonnay vines for Petit Chablis on the plateaus above, all surrounded by endless crops, Les Riceys has many more vineyards scrunched together between wild forests. Les Riceys has little in relation to the heartland of Champagne, and the Google Earth images below demonstrate the dark green forested areas (which are the greatest sources of biodiversity and soil life) in two Champagne areas, Chablis and Les Riceys. All are roughly the same scale on the Google Earth.

Côte des Blancs
Les Riceys

Les Riceys and the elusive Rosé des Riceys

When asked why Pinot Noir is preferential instead of Chardonnay, Pierre de Taisne says that though it’s geologically linked to Chablis with similar Kimméridgien marls, more Pinot Noir has been planted in Les Riceys since the 11th century.

Les Riceys is Champagne’s southernmost area, known as the Barséquanais, and borders the Côte d’Or with vines just next to the official lines. Les Riceys changed hands between Champagne and Côte d’Or many times, which helps explain its history of still wine production and Champagne, and the possibility for three different appellations of wine: Coteaux Champenois, Champagne and Rosé des Riceys. Initially the Aube, where Les Riceys is located, was not included in the greater Champagne appellation. Pinot Noir was most suitable in Les Riceys (the monks knew!), and this predates the adoption of bubbles in wine by more than five hundred years.

Biodynamic culture dynamiser

Biodynamic culture dynamiser

Les Riceys Pinot Noir first captured the attention of France’s royalty which led to greater European celebrity—particularly notable are the courts of Louis XIV and Louis XVI. The rosés of Riceys also gained widespread fame thanks to strong wine merchants, with the notable example of Jules Guyot, who published a study in the 1850s about French vineyards and noted the high quality of Les Riceys terroirs—pre-local Champagne production. But in 1927, after a strong revolt from growers who were able to sell their Les Riceys grapes to other Champagne regions for Champagne production but were not allowed to make their own Champagne until after 1911 (wineterroirs.com; 2009) and classified as Champagne Deuxième (second), the Aube was finally included in the Champagne appellation (albeit with second-class citizenship), and were now permitted to make their own bubbles. Since there was (and still is) more profit in Champagne than a dark-colored, full but taut, slightly tannic, sharp rosé (the opposite of Provence rosé in almost every way), Champagne production became the focus.

The Team

Because of their centuries of building relationships, the de Taisne family was able to move from grape growing cautiously and carefully to bottling their own with the help of friends. Cellar Master at Taittinger, Alexandre Ponnavoy, helped launch their new project with confidence by helping them define their core principles based on historic terriors that have richer soils than most of Champagne, a warmer climate, and strongly fruity Pinot Noir. The de Taisnes describe their wines as having “regional character with the richness of Pinot Noir aromas, freshness, and an elegant finish.”

Pierre and Charles de Taisne are the family members in charge of the vineyard work, and they’re supported by Enologists Jean-Philippe Trumet and Laurent Max in the vineyards and the daily cellar work. Taisne Riocour also has oversight and other advice from Enologist, Cécile Kraemer, and well-known French Sommelier and Champagne specialist, Philippe Jamesse. What a team!

Limestone in Les Riceys

Limestone in Les Riceys

The Vineyards

The geological bedrock classification of Les Riceys is Kimmeridgian, the same as Chablis, though not exactly the same dominance of the famous miniature oyster-like fossil limestone marls of Chablis. Les Riceys is more similar to Chablis and Côte d’Or than the north of Champagne where bedrock was formed during the Cretaceous and Tertiary and is most famous for chalk. Les Riceys is limestone marl and calcareous mudstones from the Jurassic age, with a more geometric rock appearance than the flaky, friable, fossil-rich Chablis Kimmeridgian limestone marls. Les Riceys’s topsoil is rocky with calcareous clay and silt and very little sand.

Taisne Riocour’s twenty-one hectares of mostly Pinot Noir have an average age of 35 years (the oldest around 65), are on different exposures throughout the appellation on slope gradients from Côte d’Or-gentle to Mosel-steep, range between 250-340m in altitude, and are on both sides of the northbound Laignes River. Tillage is done lightly to a maximum depth of 5-10cm, only to undercut grass roots and is done a few times each season—the same as most limestone-and-clay Burgundy areas. As mentioned, they work some parcels organically and biodynamically, with organic certification processes that began in 2021.

The Wines

Cellar practices are simple and direct, especially in the earlier years to better discover their terroirs and to adapt the direction for each parcel. Fermentation in steel lasts 10-15 days, with neutral Champagne yeasts, and all go through malolactic fermentation. Sulfites are added during the pressing, again at the end of malolactic fermentation, and at disgorgement, with a total that ranges between 40-60ppm (mg/L)—low for Champagne. Everything is aged for approximately five months in steel (25k-200k hectoliter vats) with the exception of about 1% in old oak barrels for the Grand Reserve. The wines are filtered and aged in bottle for three years, with riddling done one month prior to disgorgement.

Taisne Riocour’s Grand Reserve (NV), is composed of 15% vin de reserve, 85% vintage wine with 65% Pinot Noir and 35% Chardonnay—dosage 6.5g/L. These grapes originate mostly from a site known as Val Germain on the right bank of La Laignes (a tributary of the Seine, the same one that passes through Paris), southeast of the appellation, at the highest altitudes in the appellation of around 340m with a multitude of exposures on a medium slope. The topsoil is deeper (50-80cm) due to the flatter slope and the composition of more than half clay and one-third silt. The average age of the vines is fifty years and is usually the last of the appellation to be harvested. Other vineyards include La Fôrets (1ha), La Velue (0.4ha), and a little bit of the famous Tronchois (1.4ha).

Made entirely of Pinot Noir and with a dosage of 3.5g/L, the Blanc de Noirs comes predominantly from Tronchois, one of the most celebrated vineyards in the appellation known since the 11th century when under the direction of the Abbey of Molesme. Here is one of Les Riceys’ most exposed sites with a direct south face, capped by wild forest around 275m and met by forest at the bottom at 215m—perfect grand cru and premier cru altitude if one considers similarities to Côte d’Or. The slope is extremely steep and the topsoil is thin, with 40cm on average. It’s also one of the warmest sites in the appellation. The vines were mostly planted in 1970 (with 50 ares replanted in 2019), and the rest in 1973, 1982 and 2007.