Champagne René-Henri Coutier – A Profile

So there you are, sitting in the front room of a man who looks for all the world as though he would be happy to fix your plumbing.  Actually, I’m sure René-Henri Coutier could.  And he beams at you with the impish eyes of a man who does not speak English and quite relishes the prospect of making these English smart pants champagne commentators from London work at their French for an hour.  Except this man has been billed as one of the top producers of single estate champagne.  He’s even been called the ‘King of Ambonnay’ by Richard Juhlin (a pretty important writer about champagne) which slightly puts the cat amongst the pigeons if you are one of the other ‘greats’ of this very prestigious grand cru Champagne village: Francis Egly-Ouriet, Eric Rodez (who though uncrowned is the mayor), Benoit Marguet, Paul Déthune, Henri Billiot, the Soutiran-Pelletiers and (possibly the queen) Marie-Noëlle Ledru. 

King or not, the Coutiers have been making wine in Ambonnay a long time, since 1760.  René-Henri took over from his father as winemaker in 1971 and  has run the whole show wince 1983.  He’s still living in the house he grew up in, one of those unique-to-Ambonnay half-timbered courtyarded family concerns down narrow streets and behind an imposing gated facade which usefully can admit a tractor as well as visitors’ cars.  The welcome from his wife Natalie is warm, then quietly the king slips in and appears before us, resplendent in his working clothes. 

He tells us the sun symbol hanging over his property outside is not a biodynamic badge, but rather a sign of conviviality and welcome.  He is not even quite organic but follows for now the guidelines of ‘la lutte raisonnée’, a method of viticulture which aims for much reduced use and much more precise use of chemical treatments.  He ploughs, using no herbicide nowadays and allowing green alleys between the vines.  He feels restricting yield in important for good champagne, aiming for 9-10,000 kilos /ha, 12k maximum in a very good year, quite modest compared to many in Champagne.  He has invested in precision nozzles in spray equipment so that lower and more effective doses of treatment against mildew and rot can be delivered.  He is thus also trying to use less and less copper in the much used ‘Bordeaux mixture’, (a solution of copper sulphate and hydrated lime) still more or less the only effective brake on mildew type fungal diseases.   

The Coutiers farm some 9ha of their own land but sell off a majority of their grapes to several big houses.  Annual production is between 35 and 50, 000 bottles.  It’s also a major surprise to learn that the fruit they do use is not pressed chez Coutier but goes to the Ambonnay Coop.  They do not own a press or winery.  This is why the designation of this producer is RC (récoltant-coopérateur), a grower whose fruit goes into the general cuvées of a cooperative.  Coutier’s wines are thus blends of the fruit of other producers in Ambonnay Coop as well as his own.  You would think that ambitions for real quality need to begin from having your own winery and complete control over your own raw material from vineyard to bottle.  Presumably, Coutier does control what grape blends are in his cuvées.  He probably does since this producer (somewhat like Eric Rodez) is unusual in a village planted 84% to Pinot Noir, in having high fractions of Chardonnay in his wines, often 30-55%.  His father was the first to plant Chardonnay in Ambonnay and it is over 30% of the Coutier plantings.  Not many make a Blanc de Blancs Ambonnay as Coutier does.  As far as one can tell, the bottle-ageing élévage on the second lees and dégorgement and therefore dosage, is done back in the Coutier shallow cellar under the house, so he does control that.  The fact that the Brut Tradition NV has full malolactic and the other cuvées various degrees of malo depending on the year, presumably is something effected at the Coop.  All the wines are made in stainless steel apart from the top Cuvée Henri III, 50% of which spends six months in barrique

You sense René-Henri is not entirely comfortable discussing the overall production situation.  Many would claim, and so would we, that to be an independent single estate producer, (a ‘grower champagne to most), the wines you eventually sell should contain only your own wine, not a blend of the Coop’s members.  You need to grow and make all the wine yourself.  This is generally what a ‘grower champagne’ is about and the designation on each bottle is RM (récoltant-manipulant).  And there in Richard Juhlin’s much-lauded book ’4000 champagnes’, the one in which he dubs Coutier the ‘King of Ambonnay’, he is recorded, incorrectly, as ‘RM’.  In fact, Coutier has all along been an ‘RC’ and makes no bones about it.  You can understand his sensitivity though.  He understands entirely that his reputation has tended to discount or hide his RC status.  But it is probably difficult to break away completely on his own.  He holds a senior position in the Ambonnay Coop and is a municipal councillor of Ambonnay too.  We got the sense that he feels his role and position in relation to the coop is not something he can relinquish, but there was a nod and a wink that his son Antoine still only 14 in 2010, may one day in the future have to review the situation.  There was a hint that a ten year project might well produce a Coutier winery with an independent press, and Coutier bottles which have in them only the product of Coutier’s own grapes.

The main export market is the USA, with Italy, Sweden and Spain next.  Some 66% of production is sold in France.

These are good wines, though many will not see them as a kosher ‘grower’ and may be surprised to learn they are not.  The richness of Ambonnay is there but the wines show Ambonnay’s ability to have a correcting sternness of structure too.  The unusual Chardonnay element adds freshness and interest.  Forward to a completely independent Coutier!  Oh, and the labels are very pretty too.  We’ll break our practice of showing only one picture to show you a label.  Do visit; do try the wines.   

The Wines

Brut Tradition NV  Base ’06 with ’05.  6g/L  70PN 30CH  Quite structured; cream and apples.  Very expressive and real present but a little stark and short. 

Brut Rosé NV  55PN 45CH, including a small % of Ambonnay Rough – by addition. 6g/L  Dusty rose colour and pleasant fruit; not simple and dry, sappy.  Good. 

Cuvée Henri III  100PN    The ’99 tasted in 2008 – Full flavours and honeyish, mild; biscuity length with lovely harmony.   The ’01 tasted in 2010: A very good ’01!  Good full colour, mid-gold, spicy and vanilla oak but well-rounded and a very persistent and fine texture, driving palette and sense of ripeness but bright high notes too.  Lovely balance and so much flavour. 

Champagne R.-H. Coutier
7 rue Henri III
51150 Ambonnay
0033 3 26 57 02 55
See http://www.wine-searcher.com/ for stockists.
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