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The Case of Champagne

Updated: Apr 18

Notes from a recent visit to the world’s best known wine region

“Only the unimaginative can fail to find a reason for drinking Champagne.” — Oscar Wilde

The prospect of a tour of Champagne vineyards is an enticement few can resist. And why would you? Visiting vineyards is by far one of the more gratifying pleasures life can offer, as it includes the wild beauty and vigour of nature combined with the promise of wine, the pleasures of tasting, and the joy of discovery.

My recent trip to Champagne wasn’t during those pretty times of year when the sun is shining on the land, illuminating the vine leaves from within and emblazoning grape bunches so that they radiate light. It was a bit dreary, wet and grey. But that hardly matters when you’re “tasting sunlight held together with water”.

The cellar-master Dom Perignon is attributed with having said “I’m seeing stars!” when he first tasted the wine in the recorked bottle to which he had added a bit of sugar. Today that comment might be construed as a sighting in a posh bar frequented by personalities drinking Champagne, because there’s no question it’s a drink associated with the rich and famous. And yet, great Champagne is not beyond the reach of anyone who can afford to drink wine. Which is a pretty broad spectrum.

Our focus was small producer-growers who make vintage, non-dosage wines working as naturally as possible. Not an easy call when the work in the vineyard necessarily takes precedence over hosting tastings. Understaffed and over-worked, it’s not always possible for small domains to find the time to welcome visitors. And in these days of rising oenotourism, demand well exceeds supply. Nonetheless, we were able to persuade, cajole, plead, and sometimes insist on being accepted for visits by flashing our professional credentials.

I have been to Champagne countless times and on every visit, I’ve learned a bit more and made the acquaintance of new producers. On this trip, we had some memorable experiences. Practically all of them are in the ‘naked Champagne’ category of producing non-dosage or very low-dosage wines.

Of the nine properties we visited, we were hosted by the wine-makers themselves at three of the 9. In each of these instances the range of the wines tasted, and the information gathered went well beyond the formulaic spiel one often gets.

I’m not going to bore you with tasting notes and flowery descriptions of the wines (ok, perhaps a little bit) as such descriptions always fall short of one’s own experience. They also require more time than we were able to give to each, as one needs to live with the wine for a moment, allowing its voice to emerge of its own. And given we tasted well over 40, that’s a lot of describing. Instead, here is a brief account of those tastings from a more human, personal dimension.

The first was Gaston Collard, located in the sleepy village of Bouzy. We arrived a bit early to the domain’s address to find a very simple tasting room, but no one around. Cyril Collard, grandson of Gaston who runs the domain, was out working in the vines, but we were able to call his mobile and he showed up within minutes.

In 2012, Cyril and his sister took over the family property, deciding to follow in their father’s (Michel Collard) and uncle’s (Jackie Collard) steps. Cyril is a sommelier by trade and so naturally wanted to take over the production. He completed his training at the School of Avize. He is a passionate worker, overseeing his wines from the vineyard to the bottle. In 2009 the domain stopped using pesticides and herbicides and in 2016 had their first certified organic and biodynamic harvest.

We tasted the full range of Cyril’s production, which were engaging at so many levels, all of them vintage wines with none or practically no dosage. We were also treated to a barrel tasting and a very rare experience of tasting a Champagne that was disgorged before our very eyes. (see the video below).

The most memorable of all the tastings, outstanding for its extreme authenticity and sheer range, was André & Jacques Beaufort in Ambonnay. In the space of an hour and a half we tasted 13 wines that weren’t presented in crystal glasses on fine white linen, but in the dusty and very much lived in ‘office’ of the domain, with the wines kept in the kind of cooler you take on a picnic. All of them had been open for at least a few days and in some cases, as much as three weeks, and ranged from the 1980s to the most recent vintages. What was startling about all of them was their freshness, their liveliness, their presence. You would expect them to be oxidized, tired, flat, but what we found was the exact opposite. Vigour, strength, vitality, and real life.

So how is this possible? How can wines that have been open, with just a portion of the bottle’s contents present, taste fresh and alive days, weeks later? It has been often said, “wine is made in the vineyard”, and what that means is that how you cultivate your soil makes a difference to the end product, and ultimately, the taste of the wine. ‘Living vines and living wines.’ Organic and biodynamic farming are the secret behind wines such as these, but of the nearly 5,000 producers in Champagne, fewer than 200 are working organically or biodynamically.

At the same time, the biggest development in wine these days is the transition from chemical, industrial practices, to the adoption of organic and biodynamic methods in farming. So those numbers are increasing and will continue to rise. Does that mean the others are not worth drinking? That depends on you, but I would say that even though there are ever greater efforts to minimise the use of pesticides, insecticides, herbicides and fungicides, there is still a long way to go.

The third of the visits was with the amiable and affable Gilles Lancelot-Pienne, the 4th generation of this family property with vines in different areas around Epernay: La Vallée de la Marne: Boursault, Les Coteaux Sud d’Epernay: Monthelon, Mancy, La côte des Blancs Grands crus: Cramant, Chouilly et Avize; Premier cru: Cuis. After admiring the view of the vines and repeatedly throwing a ball to the dog, we were invited into the cellar.

We began the tasting with wines in their infancy, directly from the steel fermentation tanks. Gilles likes to start like this as he points out it is at this stage that “you can really taste the future of the wine”. We continued with barrel tastings, which again allowed us to taste the early stages of wines that were not yet Champagne. The vitality of these wines in their pre-Champagne state was accented by their direct link to the earth, the chalkiness of the soil coming through as an after-taste on the palate. Or as Colette put it, “ungrateful chalk cries golden tears in wine”.

We continued our tasting with the complete range of their wines in bottle in the magnificent tasting room with full length windows offering a spectacular view on to the vines (picture below). There’s a bit of an Arthurian theme that runs through the various vintages with names like Perceval, Table Ronde and Perceval, a wink to the Lancelot part of their domain name.

Lancelot Pienne Champagnes are true “vins d’auteur”, accurately and generously representing the richness of the exceptional plots of land that gave birth to them. Sipping a Champagne from the House of Lancelot Pienne is to discover the authenticity of a terroir, to go back to the origins of Champagne, where it all began.

‘Natural’ (organic, biodynamic and those using little or no added sulphur) Champagnes are difficult to find, but not impossible (ask me for my list – geoffrey@tastings.fr). And there are an ever-increasing number of mainstream houses that are converting to organic agriculture. But that’s not the whole story. Vinification plays a more significant role in the champagne process than it does in other wines as there are interventions (pressing the grapes to have clear, free-run juice, tank or barrel fermentation, blending, second fermentation with the addition of yeast and sugar, aging, riddling, disgorgement, dosage, corking, and further aging in bottle) that are unique to the champagne process that actually allow it to be called champagne. The addition of ‘liqueur d’expédition’ or ‘dosage’ determines the relative sweetness of the wine and allows the winemaker to adjust or add a little ‘spice’ to the final product.

Champagnes of the 19th century were notably sweeter than those of today. Tastes change, and there are a growing number of producers who are omitting this stage. The ‘non-dosage’ or ‘Brut Nature’ Champagnes mentioned above have become increasingly popular and sometimes referred to as ‘naked Champagnes’. However, they are only possible if the base wine has been properly mastered and is of exceptional quality. It must stand on its own, without artifice, like a model under the scrutiny of the camera’s lens who still looks beautiful without makeup. What you taste is the wine itself and nothing but the wine, and the results are inspiring. There’s a purity in the expression that is often associated with greater finesse and subtlety in the range of flavours and aromas.

Aging in the sea has become another trend. In 2010 there was a discovery of 145 bottles of Champagne that went down with a ship in 1852 off the coast of Finland. The wines were in excellent condition and have inspired a new approach to bottle aging. Cages of wines holding hundreds of bottles are lowered into the sea and left for a year or more. 100% humidity and the gentle rhythms of underwater currents are like an aquatic dream lullaby, resting the wine in a rarefied atmosphere that preserves them in a perfect state while allowing the mysterious process of aging to advance in ideal conditions.

We tasted one of these wines during our visit to the biodynamic Champagne producer Leclerc Briant, whose cellars are just on the edge of Epernay. ‘Abyss’ is the name of their sea-aged champagne which was submerged in September 2021 and brought up in July of 2022, having spent 10 months in the sea. The marine subsoil of the Bay of Stiff, close to the coast of Ouessant Island in Brittany, matches very well the limestone subsoil of Champagne.

This is an excellent champagne enlivened by fine, lively bubbles that herald a rich, fresh wine. On the nose, the sensation of depth and concentration are there, and the palate is clean and fresh, with a creamy, mellow effervescence. A full-bodied, fleshy fruitiness develops, underpinned by citrus and pomelo acidity. The harmonious finish picks up on the chalky, fruity delicacy, imparting delicious salinity on the palate. Apart from preserving the wine in a 100% humid environment, it’s hard to determine what subtle impacts aging in the sea have had on the wine, but it certainly hasn’t diminished it in any way…

Whether you drink it on a regular basis or only on ‘special’ occasions, it’s worth getting to know some of the smaller family domains. Especially those working naturally with respect for their soils. Santé!

 

If you’re interested in discovering more about Champagne, we offer day trips and longer visits on request. Contact tourinfo@tastings.fr

In the meanwhile, you needn’t leave Paris to visit a vineyard! Join us in Paris for a Clos Montmartre wine walk this coming Sunday, 10 December at 3:30pm and become one of the very rare initiates to taste the wine of the Clos Montmartre. Paris in your glass…

 

A few food and lodging recommendations:

7, rue Courmeaux, 51100 Reims

Tel: 0326034529

4 Route de Sézanne, 51530 Vinay

Tel: 0326599999

3, place de la Mairie, 51190 Oger – Blanc Coteaux

+33 (0) 3 26 52 22 64

2 Pl. Auban Moët, 51200 Épernay

Tel: 09 52 78 27 37

14 Rue de la Poterne, 51200 Épernay

Tel: 06 33 30 07 11 

Below is a sample of upcoming PWW events:

Sparkling Wine Splash

Immerse yourself in the effervescence of the season with our Sparkling Wine Splash experience. Whether you’re celebrating a special occasion or just toasting to the joy of the holidays, our blind wine tasting of carefully selected sparkling wines invites friendly competition to see who can identify the Champagne among five fabulous sparkling wines. Book now!

Wine & Cheese Please

Indulge in classic and surprising pairings of wine and cheese with our in-depth Wine & Cheese Please tasting. Explore the nuances of flavor as our knowledgeable guides lead you through a ‘cultural’ tour de France, revealing the secrets of perfectly paired combinations. It’s an ideal way to savor the sophistication of Parisian life. Book now!

Wine Walks!

For more information, click on the underlined links:

Paris’ most famous wine producing vineyard

An insider’s journey to the oldest wine neighborhood in the city

The Marais seen through a wineglass

Discover the vinous spirit of medieval Paris

A comprehensive overview of medieval Paris

Short on time? This one’s for you.

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