Ulysse Collin: Grower Champagnes With Serious Elegance
by Ken Gargett
I’ll confess that I enjoy exploring the different offerings from the myriad of Growers but am not as swept up with them as many champagne lovers. Those dismissing what traditional producers are capable of making do themselves a serious disservice – so many of Champagne’s greatest wines have come from the big names and usual suspects, and there is no reason to think that won’t continue.
At the pinnacle of the Grower movement are several superstars who compare comfortably with anything the region offers – Selosse, Agrapart, Egly-Ouriet, Larmandier-Bernier, Lahaye, Prevost, Cédric Bouchard, Rodez, and others who also deserve mention. But there are also many making adequate, and sometimes less so, champagnes that don’t really thrill (of course, there are plenty from the big houses falling into this category as well).
One of the most exciting Growers, making scintillating champagnes, is Olivier Collin at Ulysse Collin, the estate he named after his ancestor. This is one of my favorite producers, not just among Growers and champagne makers, but anywhere in the world of wine. I am a fan.
I have written about Olivier Collin and his wines several times before, but these are wines worth revisiting and sharing so apologies if some of this sounds vaguely familiar from days gone by and you have followed my work across platforms.
A decade or so ago, almost no one had heard of Olivier Collin. I certainly hadn’t. I have a good friend from the United States, a well known wine writer (no, he doesn’t reside in Maryland in case you were wondering), who does not like sparkling wines. Doesn’t see the point. Of course, we disagree fiercely on this.
So it was with considerable surprise a while back that I received an email from my friend to say that he had finally found a champagne maker he loved. I knew I needed to try these wines asap.
The subject of his newfound adoration was a small Grower called Ulysse Collin (to be honest, you would not believe the number of times friends will tell me about a new Grower, or winemaker, and how amazing the wines are, only to find that perhaps they have got a little overexcited and possibly overestimated the quality on offer – no surprise that this often happens after vacations in distant climes where a bottle in a wonderful location seems so much better than it really is). But in this case I trusted my friend, so I knew this would be something interesting.
The problem was that I had never heard of Ulysse Collin and had no idea if the wines were even imported into Australia. Sometimes, fate does the right thing.
Later that very day, among the endless emails one receives from retailers/wholesalers/auction houses and so forth (yes, one does not have to sign up for all of them but what if I missed something?), I saw an email from a small operation importing some interesting producers.
And on this day, it was offering champagnes from a new producer. Guess who?!
Naturally I ordered a few and waited for them to arrive like a kid waiting for everyone else to wake up on Christmas morning so he can open presents. Loved them. Thought they were seriously exciting wines – at that stage, I would not have said that they were knocking the great champagnes off their perch, but they were terrific wines (they continue to get better and better). I made sure I grabbed an allocation over the next few years, but what I really wanted to do was visit the place.
Visiting Ulysse Collin
About a million decades ago, I was one of the winners of a competition called the Vin de Champagne Awards run by the CIVC (Comité Champagne) – please forgive the mention – it was one of the things that led me away from a life in law to one writing about wine, but also something that carries some weight over in the region. Consequently, the CIVC, the organization that oversees all matters pertaining to champagne, has been incredibly helpful whenever I have been in the region. It has organized some amazing visits over the years. Every decade or so, it holds a reunion for past winners.
After the last such reunion, I stayed in the region for a week or so, planning to visit as many houses as I could. The CIVC was very helpful, but it was a touch nonplussed when I mentioned Collin. As I said very few had heard of Olivier and his wines back then, and I suspect that included many in Champagne. I gather that Olivier was even more surprised and asked them several times what an Australian writer wanted to visit him for. Later, when speaking to Olivier, I found he was especially surprised to hear from the CIVC. He had never heard a word before.
But a visit was arranged, and on the afternoon I planned to spend perhaps an hour or two. I had transport arranged, but the poor driver had to wait until well after dark for me to finish. I spent around five hours with Olivier, and it was one of the most absorbing, enjoyable, and informative visits I’ve ever made.
Olivier is a joy and so enthusiastic. We bounced from vineyards to cellar to the tasting bench. In the end, I think we tried every wine he’d made at that stage. This was on a rainy Saturday afternoon – Olivier basically does everything himself and has no time to entertain visitors during the week. I believe that there is still no website but that he has finally got himself an email address.
Ulysse Collin is based in the tiny, unheralded village of Congy, in the Coteaux du Petit Morin in the department of Marne, a region of less than 1,000 hectares. Last census (2007), Congy had a population of 266 with 131 houses, not all occupied. Despite that, it took my driver and I about 45 minutes to track down the winery – it’s not easy to hide a winery so well.
Congy is a region devoid of any Grand or Premier Crus, and so conventional wisdom would suggest that anyone wishing to make something special from this undistinguished area is very much in creek sans paddle territory. Olivier is just one of this new generation turning conventional wisdom on its head. He tends three tiny vineyards: Les Perrières, Les Roises, and Les Maillons, to which he more recently added Les Enfers, a south-facing vineyard adjacent to Les Roises.
These days, Olivier is very well known indeed. He has become the closest challenger to the crown of king of Growers, which once seemed permanently glued to the head of the team at Selosse (where Olivier worked in his early days). He even appeared on television in the Absolutely Fabulous champagne special called “Absolutely Champers” – he was the poor bloke who could not get the bottle open with his sword.
I have no doubt that my American friend found these champagnes so much to his liking because one could argue that they are more like wines than champagne – they just happen to have fizz. Burgundy with bubbles.
Spend an afternoon with Olivier and you’ll never again doubt that Champagne can offer as interesting and as varied terroir as the Golden Slopes themselves, though it so rarely does. Champagne is all about blending – grapes, regions, vintages. Olivier doesn’t get that. His view is simplicity itself, reflected in him having been quoted several times saying that he creates nothing but rather what he does is simply to accompany the forces of nature.
Ulysse Collin backstory: taking back what’s theirs
It seems only appropriate that such a fascinating winery has an even more fascinating backstory. David toppling a sparkling Goliath. For well over 200 years, since 1812, the family had worked vineyards in the region and for a century of that time also worked as coopers.
Georges Collin was the first Récoltant Manipulant (“Grower”) in Congy, commencing in 1930. The family had an 8.7-hectare vineyard, but it was leased to Pommery.
Olivier was determined to regain control as soon as possible. Pommery, not surprisingly, was rather keen to retain it. Rather than hire lawyers, in 1995 Olivier decided to become one. In 2003, toward the end of his degree, the opportunity to recover the family jewels finally arose, very much a now-or-never moment, and so Olivier left his studies and took on the giant.
He told me that had he not done so then, it would have been at least another nine years before the opportunity presented itself again. Lacking an intricate knowledge of French law, I can only assume that this was some form of rolling lease that would have been locked in for a further nine years if not challenged.
Gaining control of his family’s vineyards was only part of Olivier’s problems. He knew that if he was successful in doing so, then he would need to know how to make the stuff. He managed to obtain an apprenticeship with Champagne’s ultimate terroirist, cult producer Anselme Selosse from the estate of Jacques Selosse, while also studying viticulture in Bordeaux (remember that he was also studying law at the same time). Olivier had met Anselme in 2001 and subsequently spent six weeks with him in 2002.
A busy lad, he was well aware that it might all come to nothing, not knowing if he’d be successful in his fight to recover the land.
Selosse was perfect for Olivier. As he said regarding his family’s history, “barrels were in my blood.” Biodynamic viticulture fascinated Olivier, though he has not adopted it. Olivier sees biodynamic viticulture as “a really personal way,” but it is not for him. He describes his way as “the balanced way,” but won’t criticize anyone who does use biodynamic viticulture.
He does operate as organically as possible, but it is not a hard and fast rule, and he has had issues that have seen him back off somewhat. Olivier is no fan of extremism in any aspect of life.
During his time with Selosse, the eureka moment was not so much a lightbulb but a gradual dawning. It confirmed Olivier’s desire to make “wines of terroir.” The key to understanding the Ulysse Collin wines is to remember that each vineyard, although treated in an identical manner as its siblings, is completely autonomous.
Reserve wines come only from the same vineyard. Even oak is restricted to a single vineyard. If a barrel was used for Perrières in one vintage, it will only ever be used for Perrières. We discussed this and Olivier shrugged his shoulders, saying, “the reason I cannot blend is each wine has so much personality that they can’t be mixed.” Mentioning blending of any kind at Ulysse Collin is likely to evoke a response similar to shouting “Voldemort” in a crowded dining room at Hogwarts.
The vineyard was returned in 2003, but the frosts of April that year destroyed the vintage (the heat that followed hardly helped). It was the sort of start that may have crippled the new estate before a single grape was picked.
As Olivier lamented, “I had no reserves, no customers and no wine.” As difficult as this was for the new enterprise named in tribute to his ancestor, Ulysse, it might have been the proverbial blessing in disguise. It allowed him to avoid one of the “lesser” vintages of recent decades. He describes what he and his team eventually managed to pick as “low acidity, high pH, terrible,” though concedes that it, “was not so bad for those who had plowed for a long time.”
He believes that if he had been working his land for ten years at the time of the 2003 vintage, he may have had a chance.
This meant that his first wine was the 2004 from Les Perrières, though he does not use vintages on his labels, allowing for the use of reserve wines if necessary (though always from the same vineyard, so in reality a tiny nod to a form of blending). In the early days, until the 2008 vintage, he also did not name vineyards on his labels. Up until the 2008 vintage, he simply had a white label for the Blanc des Blancs from Les Perrières and a black one for the Blanc des Noirs from Les Maillons.
Ulysse Collin: operation
Viticulture, and indeed winemaking, are effectively identical across all vineyards. What better way to experience terroir? Olivier sees vineyards as children in the process of growing up. As they grow they each start going their own way, developing their own personalities. “Vines, like wines, like humans.”
His first act with his new vineyards was plowing, which he sees as integral to any terroir, increasing microbiological life. He used a tractor, not horses, as he found his soils too tough. In fact, a plow was his first major investment (old Burgundy barrels to mature the wines were next).
He considers plowing essential if one is to ensure that the terroir emerges. Olivier is nothing if not practical. He likes the concept of homeopathic remedies but will not hesitate to do whatever is necessary if they are not successful, though he will not use copper, noting that it kills bacteria and soil life, decreasing microbiological activity.
Grapes are often harvested when they are riper than those of other producers, sometimes reaching 12 degrees of potential alcohol. The first Les Maillons, in 2006, came in at 12.2 percent.
Vinification is effectively identical for all vineyards. Fermentation occurs via indigenous yeasts and can take many months to complete (six months for the 2004 and longer in some subsequent vintages).
Both it and malolactic fermentation, when it occurs, take place in older barriques. Olivier’s preferred option is for the wines to undergo partial malolactic fermentation. Other than for the bottling process stainless steel is shunned as Olivier believes it robs the wines of life and oxygen. For him older oak, “gives value to the wines.”
He is careful to ensure that the “barrels are not stronger than the wines, otherwise there can be no balance.” There is no fining or filtration, and Olivier prefers low dosages around 1-2 grams/liter.
He tried no dosage with his first vintage but believes it results in wines that take far too long to come around. These days, he can be described as no fan of no dosage. Olivier believes that “traditional older methods of production are better for the long life of wines than modern methods.” I asked if he used remuage by hand for his wines; the thought was immediately dismissed. The focus must be on the vineyards so he uses gyropalettes, which he believes are as good as humans.
There are two things that continually come through when talking with Olivier. First, balance is everything. Secondly, more surprisingly, although many see him as a pioneer and a man unafraid to push boundaries and challenge the conventional wisdom, in practice he says, “I do not like to work if I do not understand what I am doing.”
Often, he referred to practices common throughout the region, noting simply that they were not for him. He has no issue with others using them, but unless he understands them and knows the benefits they can bring to his wines, he’ll stick to his methods. He confesses that he simply has no other experience than his time at Selosse.
Olivier is always keen to identify parcels that may make suitable reserve wines, believing them integral to quality. A good supply of these wines also “permits you to sleep more quietly.” He kept as much of the 2014 vintage as he could for use as reserve wine, keeping it as fresh as possible, stored in barrels. Again, there is no set formula or percentage for the amount retained.
He loved the 2007 vintage and so kept back as much as he could, though the Les Maillons vineyard suffered from hail, whereas the more lauded 2008 vintage he saw as much more “mature” and hence bottled almost 100 percent of the harvest (at least, 100 percent of what he retained, as commercial reality means he still needed to sell grapes to the larger producers).
Olivier prefers to make no wine rather than a bad one. Hence, even though he loved 2007, when hail hit Les Maillons, he felt he had no option but to sell all of the grapes to the large producers. He had no choice with his first vintage, 2004, forced by economic necessity to use everything.
In 2005, he held back ten percent for use with the 2006 harvest. In 2006, that increased to 35 percent but it varies greatly. Reserve wines are only used for blending with subsequent vintages from the same vineyard. He believes in the “DNA” of his vineyards and that the “tasting structure does not change” from vintage to vintage.
The champagnes with the base wine from 2015 had 60 percent reserve wine in them, especially from Olivier’s favored 2014 vintage. Sixty percent reserve was also used the following year. Olivier expects production to increase over time as his need to sell grapes diminishes.
Ulysse Collin: the three vineyards and wines
Les Perrières is the pinnacle for many Ulysse Collin fans (same could be said about each of the vineyards). The Chardonnay vines are around four decades old and exist in rather poor soil – chalk, flint, and onyx (silex), an extremely rare combination in Champagne.
Olivier describes it as “like Normandy.” The 1.3-hectare vineyard faces east-southeast. He does not use compost here, believing that it makes these vines lazy. Sans compost, the result is “clearer and more natural.”
There is some Pinot Meunier here, but Olivier sells it. He calls it, “a good variety but I prefer others. It is an easy wine, rounded, no defaults, but the quality is too classical, and it does not keep the minerality like Chardonnay.”
Les Maillons is a 45-plus-year-old Pinot Noir vineyard near Sézanne. The soil is not as shallow as that found in Les Perrières. The east-facing vineyard is 2.5 hectares, but Olivier stresses that it is “a homogeneous terroir.” There is no onyx, rather clay and chalk.
In fact, he believes that he could expand and use surrounding vineyards, so similar is the terroir – something that he does not believe could happen with his other vineyards, where there “is not the geological link.”
He describes Les Maillons as, “a completely balanced vineyard with a unique, particular flavor. Each year you find it. Like it or don’t like it, but it is the flavor.” Les Maillons was first made in 2006. Olivier believes the orientation of Pinot Noir vineyards is important. “If it is south orientation, the Pinot Noir can be heavy. If east, it is fresh.”
Olivier allocates a small parcel of grapes from this vineyard for a Rosé Saignée. The wine receives 12 to 20 hours maceration. The aim is for freshness and he believes the plowing of the soil contributes to this freshness and minerality of the wine.
The smallest production has been from Les Roises, first made in 2008. The vineyard is 0.60 hectares. During my visit, we were standing next to it, a stone’s throw from the winery, as steady drizzle fell, the first rain in almost two months.
Olivier had no concerns. “There is no need to be afraid of a harvest if you have prepared well during the year. The timetable is set by . . . ” and pointed skyward, though whether he was pointing at the weather or a divine power, I wasn’t sure.
Les Roises has 65-year-old Chardonnay vines in soil, clay, and limestone over chalk, around a meter to a meter and a half deep. The orientation is south facing, which gives very good ripeness. “Good maturity.” Olivier showed me bunches of his grapes and then those on neighboring rows, where the individual berries were twice the size of his. His grapes average just 60 grams, whereas those of his neighbor were around 120 to 130 grams.
Venture into Olivier’s cellars and one is immediately transported to Burgundy. Rows of barrels, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. We worked through a range and the differences and similarities, much as Olivier had suggested they would be, were evident, although notes for barrel samples are hardly relevant today.
Olivier is no fan of batonnage unless he feels it absolutely necessary. The wines spend around three to four years on lees, after possibly a year in barrel – a period Olivier had intended to increase when we spoke. Olivier believes that three years is the optimal time for his wines, made “in a semi-oxidative way.”
He prefers more youthful champagnes, enjoying the freshness, and says that if his customers prefer a more mature style, it is up to them to age the wines on cork. He likes his corks to be as long as possible, believing it helps build more pressure and “assists evolution over time.”
He does believe his wines have at least 15 years of development ahead of them and that, “the differences will emerge more and more and overcome human influences.” Unfortunately, economic reality meant he had to sell everything he made in the early days, but he has managed to buy back and/or trade for some of his first wines from good customers.
Olivier says he “respects all markets the same,” but he holds a soft spot for Japan. Agents from Japan were his first customers, and he has not forgotten. He made his first visit there a decade after his initial sales and is entranced by the place – the purity of the food, its freshness, and the way it matches so well with his wines, again making reference to their saltiness and minerality.
For a while, Olivier was making around 300 to 500 magnums per vintage, but stopped as he simply could not cover the demand from all the countries to which he exports. It was easier to avoid the hassles. That said, there have been media reports suggesting he might be making a few magnums again. Fingers crossed.
He prefers his wines served “not too cold” and likes “to open the bottles well in advance” but shuns typical champagne flutes, preferring the sort of glass one would use for Pinot Noir. As to what others may think, he shrugs and says, “you can’t change the taste. You like it or not.” He adds that, “if everyone likes what you do then you are probably just average – no highs or lows.”
Sadly, with his tiny quantities and the exploding interest in these wines, “everyone” is highly unlikely to get the chance to find out how good these wines are. The one thing they are not is average.
Ulysse Collin champagnes
Over the years, I have probably tried most of Olivier Collin’s releases. Notes are perhaps less helpful than they usually are as his wines are not vintage dated. So unless one knows the codes, it’s hard to be certain just what one is drinking. Fortunately, all his bottles now carry a disgorgement date, which assists. He will identify the base wine (some restaurant lists will mistakenly print that as the vintage of the wine).
These notes are general indications only and not specific bottles. I have not mentioned Les Enfers as I have so rarely encountered it, but it can offer a richer style of Blanc des Blancs. Apparently, there is a sixth wine released in recent years called Jardin d’Ulysse from a patch planted with all three varieties, which I have never seen nor tasted.
The wines all exhibit serious complexity, and one should expect them to impress even more after time in the cellar.
Ulysse Collin Les Perrières
Expect the wine to be very fine, with minerality and salinity. Piercing length on the palate. Very focused. Refreshing and cleansing. Great purity. A pristine citrus character. Closed in the early days, a leaner style with vibrant acidity and that minerally austerity. That bright, vibrant acidity is key. Elegance with the ability to age.
Ulysse Collin Les Maillons
Usually this is a deeper and richer champagne, often laden with red fruit notes. Sometimes black cherry and darker fruits. Hazelnuts. Behind that, possibly touches of stone fruit and on the very end, a whiff of honey. Approachable, offering ripeness and good length, though rarely giving the impression of the length of the Perrières. If Perrières is elegance, Maillons is generosity.
Ulysse Collin Les Roises
Very different in style to its siblings. Notes of fig, stone fruit, peaches, and a lovely character of lemon butter. Balanced, even if it is a softer style, and with a backing of fine acidity. Softer, but also big and rich. A mix of spices, crème brûlée and apricot pie. A wine with structure, and that amazing minerality. Not the refined elegance of the Perrières but more rounded and full-flavored.
Ulysse Collin Rosé de Saignée (2011)
Fragrant with spices, ripe raspberries, and cherries – a bowl of fresh summer berries. Just delicious. Full of flavor with a lifted, cleansing, mid-length finish. Usually only has two and half years on lees.
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