Jean Velut & the magic of Montgueux

Some 60 years ago a chalky outcrop of unloved fallow land on the outskirts of Montgueux was uncovered. Today, it is quilted in neat rows of Chardonnay – the most southerly planting of this revered varietal in all of Champagne – and celebrated by ‘those in the know’ for its unique expression.

One of the pioneers to recognise the potential and develop this land was Jean Velut. Today his grandson, Benoit Velut, manages this distinctive terroir and oversees operations for a thriving Champagne Maison. We chatted about what makes Montgueux ‘heaven-on earth’ [his words not mine] his production methods and some exclusive Champagne on the horizon…

Sip: “Good morning Benoit, thank you for talking to me. Sorry to interrupt your day. What are you up to presently?”

Benoit: “Not a problem. It’s better for me to talk to you while I’m in the vineyard because I can make my hands work and my brain also. I’m ‘disbudding’, so removing the buds that are producing no fruit and only leaves, as this makes the vineyard wet and more sensitive to disease. It’s also a way to avoid using [pesticide] spray. It’s meticulous but necessary!”

Sip: “You’re obviously a better multi-tasker than I am! Perhaps you could start by telling me a little about the history of Maison Jean Velut.”

Benoit: “The story of Montgueux and my family are tightly linked. Making Champagne is very recent here. It’s only been happening since the 60s. My grandfather and grandmother were farmers in Troyes [closest city to Montgueux]. They were traditional French farmers with very diverse production, growing fruit and vegetables, owning some cows and a small vineyard too – but this vineyard was solely focussed on producing red wine for everyday consumption and local sales. As the city grew and the fields they worked were gradually swallowed up, they felt it was no longer possible to continue working in this way. At the same time the demand for Champagne was growing. As they had the skills to work the land it made sense to focus solely on viticulture. Some established Maisons also started taking interest in the terroir around Montgueux at this time; notably some families from Avize bought plots. The local families felt they needed to get in quickly before all the land was bought up; among this group were my Grandparents. They started planting new vineyards in Chardonnay. It was Beaugrand who were the first in this area to start making Champagne and we followed just after them. Initially we just sold off the grapes but gradually, over time, we started keeping a part of the harvest for ourselves. The real beginning of ‘Jean Velut’ didn’t come until 1976 when Denis, my father, was ready to launch the adventure!”

Sip: “What is it you think Montgueux gives you that is so different from the rest of Champagne?”

Benoit: “It’s kind of heaven on earth! It takes a lot of work, of course, but I consider ourselves very lucky because Montgueux is a very nice terroir with a lot of chalk. It makes the marketing of Champagne easy because people are familiar with the fact that chalk and Champagne go together. Also our isolation, while once a weakness – no one knew Montgueux – is now a strength because wine geeks like Peter [Peter Crawford, Sip Co-Founder and self-confessed wine geek] really enjoy the fact that we show an expression of Chardonnay that is almost impossible to find anywhere else in Champagne. It’s unique!”

Sip: “Obviously this isolated chalky outcrop suits Chardonnay, despite being so far south. Was it terroir alone that convinced your grandfather or father to begin planting Chardonnay over Pinot Noir or Meunier?”

Benoit: “They actually started solely with Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier because the focus was initially on making red wine. It was only when other Maisons wanted to buy the grapes from us to make Champagne that we started focussing more on Chardonnay. But it’s becoming very trendy right now to make still wine in Champagne, so I still produce a red wine in-keeping with the history of the house and I’m about to launch a white Coteaux Champenois.”

Sip: “It sounds like things are coming full circle! Alongside these wines, I also know that we are about to gratefully receive an exclusive version of your signature ‘Lumiere et Craie’ disgorged only for Sip Champagnes. Could you tell me a little a bit about what makes it so special?”

Benoit: “So, it’s the same method I use to make the standard Lumiere et Craie; a blending of only reserve wines. I take portions from eight different tanks in my cellar – maybe 20% from two, 30% or another and 30% of a fourth tank to make a very stable wine. The only difference [with the Sip Exclusive wine] is that it has a lower dosage and is aged for longer. It comes from 2013 release – 7 years of ageing. As such it’s a little heavier, buttery and rich in style, compared to the typical Lumiere et Craie. I’m really happy you like this special release though!”

Sip: “Peter certainly does. I’m yet to try it but can’t wait! Hopefully, in the coming months, we might be able to get out to Montgueux and pay you a visit and try a few wines face to face.”

Benoit: “Yes, I guess Peter is like a drug addict in withdrawal right now.”

Sip: “You know him well!”

If you would like to pre-order the Sip Exclusive Jean Velut Lumiere et Craie 2013 release email us: £45. Maximum 6 per customer.

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The smaller producers barely get a look in. That is, until now.