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Courage above all

Patrick-Forbes300Back in the 1960s Patrick Forbes , one of the most respected wine journalists ever, particularly as regards champagne, wrote that the quality that was needed above all others to make wine in the northerly vineyards of Champagne was courage. Back in those days Champagne was still recovering from WWII and a vigneron’s life was, frankly, tough.

That’s not quite so true these days but champagne making is far from easy: perseverance, stubbornness and abundant optimism are all still needed and yes, a good dose of courage comes in handy from time to time. Few stories illustrate this better that that of Alain Néret and one could add in his case, a good measure of personal integrity too.

Steep-slopes300Alain is a farmer by upbringing and by trade. He still owns and manages a 100 hectare farm that produces wheat, barley and other crops. For many people that would be quite enough work to fill their days, but for Alain it’s his second job. Fortunately he’s certainly not shy of hard work.

It wasn’t exactly by accident that he started working in the vineyards, but it was hardly the usual route of growing up in a wine making family, studying in college and then coming back to take over the family estate.  

The soil is where it all starts

In 1980 Alain’s father-in-law, who was a small scale vigneron, became ill and could no longer manage his vines on his own. He needed help but no one else in the family was prepared to help him. Rather than see the vineyards sold off Alain stepped forward and said he would help. In the next couple of years he worked tirelessly alongside his father-in-law and gradually learned more and more.

In 1983 Alain and his wife Monique started selling their own champagne. They owned just 7 ares of vineyard but over the years they have acquired more plots whenever they could, mainly from friends and relations, however most of these plots were in poor condition and needed to be dug up and replanted. Having no experience in viticulture or vinification except what he had learned from his father-in-law, Alain was obliged to learn everything by himself by trial and error.

Landrover300Many of the plots of vines were on steep slopes and soil erosion was a serious problem. To combat this he started using enherbement (planting grass between the rows of vines) even though at the time this was considered to be crazy by most other vine growers. Despite the extra stability that the grass gave to the soil, getting into these steep slopes to work was still difficult. It was possible in dry weather but when the ground was wet it was almost impossible to climb the slopes on foot, and using a tractor was far too dangerous. Undaunted Alain invented his own machine: a light tractor on caterpillar tracks, that not only allows access to the slippery ground but also avoids compacting the soil.

Being a farmer by upbringing and by trade has given Alain one skill that most other champagne makers don’t possess - an instinctive understanding of the soil. As Alain says:

“Most champagne makers don’t pay too much attention to the soil; they look at the vines, at the à grapes and then they look at the wine, but in fact everything starts with the soil and if that is not looked after none of what follows is possible.”

Going it alone

Festigny300Alain worked with the local cooperative for a couple of years but it was almost inevitable that this independent-minded character should want to branch out on his own and in 1999 the brand Néret Vély was born. Since then there has been investment in a modern press, a new winery building and a bank of impressive stainless steel vats for wine making. The estate now covers 5.5 hectares, most of which are in and around Festigny in La Vallée de La Marne and sales have grown steadily, although the brand is not yet available outside France.

It’s always good to see people reaping the rewards they deserve and today, after years of hard work and grind, the error part of the ‘trial and error’ process would seem to be in the past and Néret Vély champagnes are attracting more and more attention thanks to a string of medals at well-known wine competitions over the past 12 months and a very successful update to the labels.

There are 6 cuvées in the range. Meunier figures prominently in many of them and all have benefitted from a longer than average time spent ageing on lees

Extra-Brut-Mature300The four principal cuvées are

Blancs de Noirs (90% Meunier, 10% Pinot Noir from the 2009 and 2010 harvests)

Rosé ( 100% Meunier from the 2010 harvest)

Extra Brut Mature (60% Chardonnay, 40% Meunier from 2007 and 2008)

and Prestige a Blanc de Blancs champagne from the 2008 harvest

Any importers interested in contacting Champagne Néret Vély can e-mail them directly at

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or via My Man In Champagne at

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