- Côteaux du Petit Morin, Champagne, France
Thank you to importer Louis/Dressner for this profile of the estate:
(Click here for more on Collin on Louis/Dressner's website)
Based in the village of Congy, Olivier Collin comes from a family of vinegrowers who have been active in the Coteaux du Petit Morin since 1812. Georges Collin was the first Récoltant Manipulant in Congy; he started in 1930 and received awards from the French Ministry of Agriculture. Following the second world war, René Collin (Olivier’s grandfather) grew the estate to 18 hectares of vines, began producing his own Champagne blends and was an esteemed member of the "Club des Viticulteurs Champenois" until the 1980’s (it now goes by "Club Trésors de Champagne"). But in 1987, Olivier’s father sold the company and began renting the entirety of the family’s vines and cellar to a big Champagne brand, effectively ending independent production.
As a young student, Oliver took what ended up being a life-changing trip to Burgundy. It was a truly introspective experience and he instantly fell in love with the wines of the region. Stunned by the singularity of the various climats and the particularities of the wines tasted in the Côte de Beaune, this sparked the desire to not only reclaim his family land back but, as we will discuss later, greatly influence his work philosophy. He began law school in 1995 with the secret intention of using his acquired knowledge to accomplish the challenging task of reclaiming 8.7 hectares back from a big négociant. Almost a decade later, when it looked like it was actually going to happen, Olivier did a six month formation in viticulture (all the while continuing his studies in law) followed by a six week stage at an estate in Champagne.
In 2003, Olivier successfully recovered 4.5 hectares that had been rented out for a generation. Starting from scratch, his first purchase was a second-hand tractor so he could work soils that had not been plowed in 18 years. His second investment consisted of used Burgundy barrels (at least four years old) because he felt the vin clair had to be made in oak. 2003 proved to be very challenging year: there was a severe frost on April 11th followed by a record breaking heatwave in the summer that forced harvest to start on August 23rd. Olivier decided to sell off all of the grapes from this extreme and unbalanced vintage to stay solvent and prepare his first real vinification at the newly formed estate.
Along came the 2004 vintage, which broke all records for high yields in Champagne. Olivier vinified Chardonnay grapes from a 1.2 hectare plot called Les Pierrières where the vines are around 40 years old. It has a shallow, poor topsoil 10 to 50 cm deep over the rocky subsoil of soft «Campanian» chalk with carbonated silex or Onyx, a rare geological combination in Champagne found specifically in Coteaux du Petit Morin and key to the Ulysse Collin Champagnes' unique expressions. The exposure is south-southeast. His first release was 5 400 bottles exclusively from this vineyard.
If you don't know the Coteaux du Petit Morin, Olivier hopes to change that. The region, still in the Marne but south of the Grand Crus in the Côte des Blancs, is little known but of great geological distinction and history (if you speak French, we highly encourage you to watch this documentary on the subject). To promote his native terroirs, for three years Olivier acted as president of the region as well as vice-president of the Coteaux du Sézannais in order to build defend and promote the historical, cultural and geographic identity of both these underappreciated regions.
Despite Champagne’s historical notoriety for multi-parcel, multi-vintage blends, Olivier’s fascination with Burgundy led him to wonder if the model of expressing unique sites and climats could translate to his native terroirs. From the beginning, his vision was thus to only release single vineyard expressions of his land. While this idea has gained traction in Champagne over the years, it was all but unheard of at the time and still remains relatively rare. In this sense Olivier is a true pioneer. And to this day, Ulysse Collin is the only estate in Champagne to release 100% of its wines as single vineyards expressions.
In 2005, Olivier got back an additional 4.2 hectares of vines, three of which belonged to his grandparents, along with the whole winemaking facility (including the estate’s historical Coquard press) and aging cellar. New wines soon followed. Olivier made a second Champagne in 2006, a Blanc de Noirs from a two hectares plot called Les Maillons near the town of Sézanne in the coteaux du Sézannais (another sub region of Champagne located in the South of Coteaux du Petit Morin). The soils there are very different (clays rich in iron), but had been worked like Les Pierrières since 2003. Following Les Maillons was Les Maillons Rosé de Saignée and later he would release Les Roises and Les Enfers, two neighboring parcels of Chardonnay with different expositions in his village of Congy (both plots are 62 hares and a much smaller part of the annual production). Today, Olivier currently vinifies the equivalent of 5.3 hectares of the 8.7 he owns, selling the rest of the grapes or juices he does not want for his own production to négociants. Annual production is around 50 000 bottles.
The cellar work has evolved greatly over the years. From 2004 to 2011, only Burgundian barrels were used and the wines were released as single vintages with small additions of reserve wine. During this time, the elevages in barrel progressively got longer: 10 months in 2004, 12 in 2005, 13 in 2006… By 2012, Olivier began intentionally holding back large amounts of each vintage back, culminating in a current 18 foudres of reserve wine, the equivalent of a full harvest in a plentiful vintage. These vary in size depending on the parcel they store (10, 12, 20 and 30 hectoliters).
These reserve wines are not solera but rather vins clairs from the previous two vintages. Depending on the current year's crop, Olivier will blend as much or as little of the three vintages to find the most complex expression possible. For a recent example, the 2015 base of Les Maillons is 50% 2015, 50% reserve wine (80% 2014, 20% 2013). In 2019 (a plentiful vintage), 70% of the year's juices will probably be destined to reserve wines. While the goal is to have the freshest year dominate the blend, there are no set rules.
"It's a great liberty to be able to work this way, to let a vintage evolve and use it at the right time or to use it when I need it. The expression of a vintage is always interesting, but you are trapped with the good and the bad of that year. I want to make the best possible expression of my vineyards at any given time, and to me that means going beyond vintage.”
All fermentations occur in Burgundian barrels. The majority are old, but in exceptional vintages 10 to 25% of new oak barrels enter the rotation. Alcoholic fermentation takes as long as it needs (sometimes up to six months) and is followed by malolactic fermentation. Tartaric precipitations occur under natural cold conditions, and the wine is not fined or filtered before the secondary fermentation in bottle. The vins clairs tend to be 11% or 11.5%, giving them a vinous complexity.
Going against the trend of releasing earlier and earlier, Olivier has followed a path of long aging to enhance the quality of his wines’ aromatic complexity. One bottling occurs every year in July and one disgorgement in March. Les Maillons stays 36 months sur lattes before release. Les Pierrières has been disgorged at 36 months historically but has passed to 48 months starting with the 2015 base. Les Enfers and Les Roises went from 36 to 48 months sur lattes in 2013, though a first release of the 2014 bases will be released with 60 months of aging, the trajectory they expect for these cuvées in coming years. Some special bottles have been disgorged after 96 or even 124 months. This information was previously listed on each backlabel; in 2020 the front labels will now indicate the sur lattes aging with a «Vieillissement en cave de X mois» and the base year on the backlabel.
Olivier is a firm believer that dosage is important to the final balance of a Champagne and essential for it to age gracefully over an extended period of time. Dosage has varied over the years, but has always been low. Through experimentation, Olivier has become a fan of 1.7G or 2.4 G dosage and is likely the only Champagne producer to use these specific measurements. This however is not an absolute or a formula, and higher or lower dosages could hypothetically be applied.
In the vines, plowing contributes to "feeding the soil to feed the vines" and represents the majority of the vineyard work. Olivier will let grass grow from August to March, but for a four month period will do four to five superficial tillings to avoid competition but also to integrate organic compost to the soil. Herbicides or anti-rot products are not used, only powdered sulfur against odium and an organic insecticide against ver de la grappe (a type of tiny caterpillar that eats berries and causes gray rot). While Olivier isn’t against organic viticulture (he attempted to convert in 2012), he feels that the climate of Champagne is too unforgiving for it. He therefore permits himself, in cases of severe mildew attacks, to combat them with chemical compounds.