The no-holds-barred interview with Stéphane Vignon, a maverick in the Champagne region

Jul 2, 2021 • 7 mins

We at Grappers like people with a real personality, outspoken winemakers and the "no time for small talk" types who answer all our questions, especially the annoying ones, with the desire to move things forward. This week, we went to meet Stéphane Vignon, a wine producer with an incisive sense of humour who speaks his mind about the champagne sector and today’s challenges. Are you ready?

Grappers : Hello Stéphane, could you please introduce yourself to our community ?

SV : Hello Grappers Family, I would say that I am above all a ‘bon vivant’, an epicurean and a pure "terroirist" who is not afraid to speak his mind.

Grappers : Do you have an example of this you could share with us? 

SV: Do you know the difference between the 'big' Champagne Houses and the 'small' producers? Whereas "big" Houses buy many actions, the "small" producers always are always in action.

Grappers : Have you always been a wine producer or have you been into other things?

SV: My arrival on the Domaine was always agreed with my parents... except that initially there was no room for me. So, I started by trying other wine and gastronomy related jobs before becoming a wine producer. It's the best thing that could have happened to me. There is nothing more formative than working elsewhere.
I am a real wine enthusiast who has always liked to unearth little gems. So, I opened a wine shop (editor's note: Stéphane was listed in the Revue des Vins de France). I also founded some wine tasting clubs and was a trainer at some catering colleges. I taught my students to tell the story of the wine before describing it technically and factually. Unless you are in the wine trade, is it really interesting to know that the wine you are drinking is giving off empyreumatic aromas? Personally, it bores me.

Grappers : What has COVID-19 changed in your job?

SV: The pandemic has changed a lot of things in our business and I think it's far from over. It has accelerated the pressure that some players were already asserting on us winegrowers. With a yield of 8,000 kg/hectare harvested in 2020, the Champagne Committee has saved some négociants and cooperative wineries but not the winegrowers. We were often hearing talk of a 'tripartite' Champagne region (editor's note: Champagne Houses, Cooperatives and Winegrowers), but with this kind of decision we are now heading towards a 'bipartite' Champagne region. We have to stop being politically or media-correct.

Grappers : What is your favourite part of your job?

SV: I really enjoy being in the cellar and following the evolution of my wines. I work my wines on the lees, so I need to check their progress at each stage of the ageing process. I have also chosen to set myself high standards. The majority of my wines are vinified separately in 3 different barrels (one recent, one older and one of intermediate age) which come from my forest plots also located in Verzenay. There is a real resonance between the wine and the wood. This "terroir on terroir" alchemy allows me to produce single-vintage wines, vintages, dosed as Extra-Brut taking a non-interventionist approach where possible.

Grappers : What do you mean by this?

SV: We are just passing through this world. The terroir of Verzenay is 200 million years old. It has served a few generations of wine producers before me, I hope it will serve many more. I believe that I am only here to guide the wine, as it is always Nature who decides.

Grappers : What is the Vignon & Verzenay duo's hallmark signature on the wines? 

SV: Power, minerality, acidity, character and, of course, all against a backdrop of superb fruit. This terroir is regularly used as the backbone of the champagnes produced by the big Champagne Houses.

Grappers : How do you tend to your vineyards?

SV: I have always been very close to and respectful of nature. Our 6.70 hectares have always been worked in this way. We are in the process of being certified for sustainable viticulture (editor's note: HVE - High Environment Value). I also have almost 2 hectares worked organically. I was one of the first to respect the specifications but I can't claim it officially because I haven't yet taken care of the administrative side. In Champagne, as in many sectors in France, we are drowning in red tape...

Grappers : What do you think about the debate on "semi-larges vines"?

SV: The obvious end objective that nobody wants to see is that the “semi-large vines” (meaning semi-wide rows of vines) will facilitate the extension of the appellation, the land bought by the négociants and the cooperative wineries. But above all, the aim is to industrialise Champagne in every way and to sacrifice quality to profitability. Taking this route means dragging the Champagne region down, with the eyes of the world upon us, when what we should be doing is adding value to preserve our aura.
Being located at the northern limit for vine growing, Champagne has often been accused of making wine from unripe grapes. What used to save us was the competition between the roots which dug down deep into the soil to draw out and express the typical character of the terroir. Densifying the plantation to provide this competition is also common in all the French appellations and high-quality terroirs. Here, if we switch to semi-large vines (wider rows), under the guise of adapting to climate change, the situation will completely change.
I put myself in the place of the tourist who is sold the uniqueness of our wine region and who, when he visits, will no longer see the difference between Champagne and an Italian vineyard. The Champagne region, through an autocratic SGV, is in the process of making a historic mistake.

Grappers : What makes you really happy in life?

SV: I love special moments, iconic, simple food and wine pairings. There is a real harmony between champagne and gastronomy. I am a member of the Académie Nationale de Cuisine, the Toques Françaises and the Disciples d'Escoffier, but you don't always have to go to a Michelin-starred restaurant to see the stars! Just like the terroirs and the champagne producers, gastronomy is multi-faceted.

Grappers : What for you is a great bottle of wine?

SV: A wine full of love and passion, a wine in which you clearly perceive the know-how of the producer from A to Z and the rendering of his/her terroir. This is my independent wine producer side speaking, of course, but you don't need to be a Grand Cru to make a “Grand Vin”.

Grappers : Where can we get our hands on your champagnes?

SV: Directly from the winery, but also from some small places that are worth checking out, such as the Mer à Boire in Verzenay. I also work a lot within the restaurant trade and with a few chefs who are really rather talented in their field (editor's note: Fantin Latour gastronomic restaurants in Grenoble and L'Archeste in Paris). Very soon, the Michelin-starred chef, Baptiste Renouard, a former competitor on the Top Chef TV show, is preparing to concoct an entire gastronomic menu for his guests based on my wines. He will use my vine shoots from my vines to fire his mini Japanese braziers and will offer guests a champagne ice cream that only he knows how to make.

Grappers : What do you think of Instagram?

SV: I'm on Facebook, I'm just starting on Instagram. It looks like a really cool medium but everything takes time and I can't be everywhere.

Grappers : Where would you take us for a drink?

SV: I'd take you to see Baptiste, the owner of Coq Rouge in Rue Chanzy in Reims. We would order a great Languedoc wine: L'ESPRIT DE FONTCAUDE, the iconic wine from Domaine Alain Chabanon. Baptiste values the same things as me, namely the love of good products. I am a fan of good food and I can tell you that I have rarely eaten Pata Negra like his!