Pierre Peters Les Chétillons: One Of The World’s Great Champagnes You’ve Probably Never Heard Of
by Ken Gargett
If I were to tell you that in this article we are looking at one of the world’s great champagnes, that might not narrow it down very much for you as there are quite a few of them. If I said it was a blanc de blancs you’d be able to get closer. If I said it had become a cult favorite in recent years, you might guess I am talking Selosse, Agrapart, Collin, or one of the other emerging growers.
If I started mentioning Côte des Blancs and, specifically, the village of Le-Mesnil-sur-Oger, then champagne aficiandos could infer we are looking at Krug’s Clos des Mesnil or Salon, the former especially if we are talking about single vineyards.
Today’s champagne is actually from the small(ish) grower Pierre Peters and it is the flagship, Les Chétillons. Rodolphe Peters is the current custodian, a sixth-generation farmer and a fourth-generation winemaker.
Pierre Peters is the ultimate chardonnay specialist and has been offering champagnes since 1919 when Camille Peters made the decision to go to the public. The first bottlings were in 1914, though these were sold to other champagne houses.
When I met with Rodolphe a few years ago, he told me that they had 20 hectares – 19 of chardonnay and one of pinot noir – though more recent reports suggest 18 hectares (so either they are wrong or he has sold a couple of hectares, which would seem unlikely, especially as Pierre Peters has slowly been increasing holdings).
Not only do these vineyards provide for 100 percent of their own needs, but they also sell grapes to other houses. Included in the grapes sold are the pinot noir, which goes to Moët et Chandon, although some recent developments might have changed that.
The focus is on Grand Cru vineyards from the communes of Le-Mesnil-sur-Oger, Oger, Avize, and Cramant. The vineyards operate by mass selection, propagating their own vines. The age of the vineyards now averages more than 30 years.
Pierre Peters is a chardonnay specialist with all wines blanc de blancs except for a small amount of rosé – Rosé for Albane – since 2007, for which the red wine used is bought in. Again, we’ll get to new developments.
Camille took the opportunity in 1930 to purchase a special 2.5-hectare vineyard in Le-Mesnil-sur-Oger: Les Chétillons. The family scored a gem!
Two years later, his 12-year-old son, Pierre, joined the business, which was then called Camille Peters. At that early age, Pierre was representing the family at exhibitions and was already building a client base.
Camille passed away in 1944, I believe from complications from gas poisoning in World War I, and Pierre took over, the business becoming Pierre Peters. It has remained so.
Pierre’s first vintage release was 1946. His mother passed in 1949, and in the following 35 years he looked after his family, his three sisters’ education, and building the family business.
François, his son, took over in 1967 due to Pierre’s ill health. He expanded operations until his son, Rodolphe, took the reins in 2007. Rodolphe was a trained winemaker with extensive experience outside the family firm. Under Rodolphe, exports have grown to 80 percent of the business.
The family rule is that, although there may be a number of candidates to work the business, it is only one person each generation. That does not mean that other family members don’t work in the champagne industry. Rodolphe’s uncle, Jacques, was the chef de cave at Veuve Clicquot for more than a quarter of a century and considered one of the best winemakers the region has seen.
Do not lose sight of the full range of Pierre Peters champagnes. In truth, I was enjoying them long before I ever encountered Les Chétillons. We always take some decent-value champagne to the annual fishing week and I had heard good things about this grower, so got a mixed box. I was hooked!
Later on, when I tried Les Chétillons, I was a fan for life. The vineyard is not restricted to the Peters; other houses do make a wine from it, though none match that offered by Pierre Peters. My colleague, Tyson Stelzer, describes it in his excellent guide as the “Montrachet of Le Mesnil.” Who am I to argue?
For Peters, the beautiful east-facing Les Chétillons is three plots of old vines averaging more than 50 years (they range from between 45 and 84 years). Wine from each parcel is made separately, later blended together – around half the production is kept as reserve wine, more in lesser years.
The wine itself has been made since 1971 (not a bad vintage to kick things off). In those days, it was as the Special Club, subsequently Cuvée Speciale. From 2000, while it still carries the Cuvée Speciale moniker, it now features Les Chétillons. I have not tried this first 2000 Les Chétillons, but I do have a 2000 from the Oenothèque series in the cellar awaiting its moment.
As mentioned, Peters has three plots within the vineyard, so whether you want to call it a single-vineyard champagne or not is simply semantics. The topsoil is extremely thin, around 10 to 20 centimeters, on chalk bedrock, which the vines’ roots are easily able to penetrate.
It provides excellent drainage, though the vines never suffer water stress as the chalk acts as a sponge. It might seem strange to say that you can taste the soil in a wine, but “chalk” is one of the defining characters of Les Chétillons.
It is one of the few wines of the region aged under natural cork rather than the usual crown seal. Most of Peters’ other champagnes are under crown seal. Pierre Peters is careful to use sustainable processes and has reduced water use by 50 percent.
Rodolphe talks more about vineyard work than time in the winery, considering this crucial to the process. He described the philosophy as “making the wine before it gets to the winery” and noted that they were “lucky” that their grandfather had seen fit to purchase Grand Cru vineyards.
“It makes it very easy.” Rodolphe sees a Grand Cru vineyard as “a place where it is easier to grow.” He does not work the topsoil as he does not wish to mix it with the chalk. He might do so if the topsoil was deeper. Between the rows, he plants a mix of dandelions and clover. His successful work in his own vineyards has also led to consultancies elsewhere.
According to Rodolphe, what is crucial is picking on the right date. While he uses analytics, the final decision is based on tasting the grapes. Rodolphe likes to pick when the grapes show lemon to fresh citrus notes. He sees the grapes going from green to lime to lemon to ripe citrus.
Elsewhere, it is green apples to ripe apples to peas to peach to apricot to ripe stone fruit. If the grapes hit peach/apricot, then they have gone past optimum.
Pressing depends on the size of the berries. He sees phenolics in his wines if the pressing is too gentle. When working in the winery, Rodolphe believes that “a glass is my best friend.”
He looks for “strong, minerally freshness” in the juice and follows the lead of Pol Roger with cold stabilization. There is usually a partial malolactic fermentation, and he likes to ensure his wines have extended lees ageing. He does not rack but works “in a very positive reductive way” as this “builds the wine stronger for ageing.” Dosage is around the four grams/liter mark.
Production of Les Chétillons is around 12,000 bottles in a good year (around 100,000 under all of the labels), less if more used for reserve wines. Hence, 2001 saw around 3,000 bottles (an awful vintage and I’ll confess I’m surprised that any was released), while 2010 saw 4,500 bottles. Rodolphe does keep a form of a solera with reserve wines.
Not that I am advocating a price increase – currently around AUD$220 to AUD$260 per bottle – but when one sees the four-figure prices that wines like Clos des Mesnil and Salon bring, this has to be one of the greatest bargains in all Champagne.
The 2012 is current and should be spectacular (I have a single bottle on order on allocation, so difficult is it to source). Recent bottles of both the 2007 and the 2008 have been scintillating.
The ’07 was wonderfully concentrated and persistent with hints of honey and mushrooms. Complex, layered, luscious – it does not pretend to have the opulence that Krug’s Clos des Mesnil can offer, but it has, instead, a brilliant almost crystalline elegance and focus with citrus notes.
Oyster shells, grapefruit, and a bone-dry finish over a creamy texture. As good a champagne as I think I have seen from 2007.
The 2008, a more highly regarded vintage, was all minerally chalk notes, oyster shells, and grapefruit (these notes came from completely separate occasions, so the similarity in what the wines offered is compelling evidence of the “DNA” of Les Chétillons).
Vibrant and persistent and impeccable balance. This wine has such a long future ahead of it. I gave them 97 and 98 respectively.
And the new move with rosé I mentioned? I am very rarely a fan of celebrity wines, especially champagnes (yet to see one I think worth the money), although I thought the Château Miraval Rosé from Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s estate was a good wine.
The man behind that was Marc Perrin, winemaker for Château de Beaucastel, and now he is working with the Brangelina team (or whatever is left of it) and Rodolphe Peters on a rosé champagne. Promising! It will be under the Miraval name.
Until its release at an unspecified date in the future, I’ll be more than happy with an occasional bottle of Les Chétillons and probably long after, as well.
For more information please visit www.champagne-peters.com/en/cuvee-les-chetillons.