Champagne Ullens - Domaine de Marzilly

France, Champagne

This adventure all began in 2012, when Max Ullens de Schooten was an architect from Brussels doing historical renovations and he was told about a rather magnificent building in ruins near Hermonville, in the Massif de Saint-Thierry, the most northerly part of the Champagne vineyard. The Château de Marzilly belonged to several families, but no one seems to have taken charge of it. Despite surviving two world wars it slowly became a ruin so that when he first saw it there were trees growing inside and the ceilings and roofs had all gone.

Max and his father bought the domaine and started renovations of the Château. There was forest around it, and Max called in Claude and Lydia Bourguignon to provide a micro-biological analysis of the soils. The Bourguignons are well-known in wine circles for their soil analyses in the Burgundy vineyards. In the forest they discovered ungrafted vine rootstocks - the soil is sandy and it's likely that this is why they survived, as phylloxera does not like sand. Examination of local records showed that this part of the domaine had indeed been a vineyard before the first world war. Since the area of the Champagne appellation was defined in 1936, when these vines has been abandoned, the domaine was not included - and frustratingly for Max, it seems unlikely that it ever will be, but it's clear that the seeds of an idea were sown.

Max and his wife Anna decided to rent some vineyards nearby and to make very specific Champagnes, each built on the plots they come from. Since he has no history in this world, Max can come at the process of creating a Champagne from new and different angles, and he certainly seems to do so.

There is no winery at the Domaine de Marzilly (although you can imagine that, as he's an architect, the thing is already at least partly designed), so for now they have rented space in a rather magnificent building that once belonged to Ayala, in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ. The grapes are picked into 40-45kg cases early in the day (6am to midday, when cooler) and driven down to Mareuil in refrigerated trucks. They did some experimental quantities in 2015, but it was really in 2016 that they did their first proper vinification. Down in a small corner of one of the cavernous Ayala chalk tunnels Max showed us some of his reserve wine - a rolling cuvée currently comprised of 2016/17/18/19 which makes up around 50% of the 'Lot 04' - it's richly vinous and complex. He then shows a 2019 pure Meunier which is in an old Condrieu barrel - he says he's keen to show the affinity between Meunier and Viognier - and it's an absolute délice, juicy and fresh and aromatic. Attention to detail extends to the wood for the barrels - mostly chosen from the park of the Château de Marzilly and grown on the same soil types as the vineyards. Every year, together with Tonnellerie Champenois they cut 1 or 2 old oaks and produce our their own 205l barrels (the traditional champagne size). When it comes to making the blends, he likes to go it in three stages, first building the spine, as he puts it, and then adding the balance of aromatic elements around it. The Champagnes get 36 months of bottle age, and he's keen that the riddling is done by hand and over an extended period of time, sometimes taking 36 days. He likes to move the bottles at least once during the ageing process too, so as to get the lees back in suspension.

Champagne takes a long time to make, so these two current releases are close to the beginning of the story, but they are rather wonderful, and we look forward to seeing how the adventure continues.