05 Jul Summer on the road in Champagne
The last & first time I was in Champagne, the temperature dropped to -7ºC. This time it was June, and a cool 20ºC at midday. I was on a road trip with Clos Driver Wine Tours, camera in hand.
The producers we met grew their own grapes, made their own champagne. They were artists. They all:
- Cultivated less than 10 hectares (25 acres).
- Veered towards biodynamic, even if not officially registered.
- Exported to the best restaurants.
- Were family concerns, passed down from generation to generation.
- Had little champagne in stock – there was much talk of ‘allocations’, such was the heady demand.
Many had parcels of vineyards in the Grand Crus and Premier Crus villages in Champagne, ie. land classified as the best to grow grapes for champagne.
Our first champagne house was Lancelot-Pienne, in the Grand Cru village of Cramant, in the Côte des Blancs. Cramant is one of 17 Grand Cru villages.
Lancelot-Pienne is not far from Oiry and Moët et Chandon, the biggest producer of champagne. I might not like Moët’s champagnes but I did like their modern winery, as horizontal as the landscape. Designed by Giovanni Pace, it is currently being expanded.
Gilles Lancelot was also in expansion mode, building a new cellar. He had just about recovered from injuring his leg skateboarding. Welcome to the world of grower champagne! A world where you have to be slightly mad to ride the whims of nature and the individuality of each parcel of land.
Like most of the producers, Lancelot-Pienne has a champagne for every occasion and kind of food. Blanc de Blanc for the everyday aperitif; Table Ronde with seafood (100% Chardonnay); Marie Lancelot (vintage) with raw fish; Tradition with meat; and Accord Majeur (vintage – aged for 6 years) with cheese. Champagne is not just for celebrations.
All Gilles’ champagnes are made in stainless steel or enamel-lined tanks, making the taste lighter, more mineral… just how I like my champagne.
I’d met Jean-Marc Sélèque at Bubbledogs in London, for a special growers’ evening for which he propped up the bar and served his champagne
Jean-Marc is also a musician… an electric guitar sat in the corner of the tasting room. He sees champagne blends like a musical score, and this is reflected in the names of his 9 cuvées.
I know you aren’t meant to judge a wine by its label, but the one I particularly liked, and the taste, was the vintage Partition, a blend of 7 parcels reflecting 7 musical notes, and which Jean-Marc first made in 2008, when he returned to take over the family winery.
Like many of the vineyards we visited, Jean-Marc uses horses to plough so as not to compact the soil, and to encourage the roots to grow and microbes to flourish.
Little did I know that, while I was in Champagne, my son was in my flat finishing off my J-M Sélèque Solessence Brut champagne with his friends. “I hope you appreciated it,” I said to him when he admitted his misdemeanour to me over the phone.
François Huré took over the family vineyard of Huré Frères in 2008, after working in Burgundy, the Rhône, Australia and New Zealand.
The estate is in the Premier Cru village of Ludes, between Reims and Epernay. They buy in some grapes, hence the NM (negociant-manipulant) rather than the RM (récoltant-manipulant) on the bottles, but what is guaranteed is the passion for producing things naturally.
The clay soils in this vineyard region of Montagne de Reims give a slightly creamier taste to the champagnes. About a third is made in oak barrels.
We were there at the same time as Dicky Lee, CEO of Hong Kong wine importer Wine Buff Ltd. Hong Kong and China are starting to open up to grower champagne. It’s not just about Dom Pérignon and Krug.
J-L Vergnon is in the village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, a renowned Grand Cru village. This family champagne house has worked with wine maker Christophe Constant since 2002. Their champagne is found at the likes of 3 Michelin-starred L’Arpege in Paris… on my dream list.
The beauty of doing visits with Clos Driver Wine Tours is that you get to taste the milléssime (the vintage) before they are ‘ready’ and before it is blended. This makes for more interesting tastings, and that luxurious feeling of tasting something exclusive that cannot be bought.
Nathalie Vignier led us down to her celllar, where six generations of Vigniers have made champagne in the Grand Cru village of Cramant. The first Vignier to make champagne was Nicolas Vignier, a court historian to King Henri III, in the 16th century.
Her grandfather, Paul LeBrun, was one of the first growers to separate himself from the big négociants and champagne houses after the First World War, and to start making his own champagne.
The family motto is La Bontée de l’Esprit et La Grandeur de Courage … The Goodness of the Spirit and the Greatness of Courage.
The Vigniers were also renovating their cellar… champagne is unique in the world, and there is a big demand.
Vincent Laval is one of the most famous biodynamic champagne growers, despite having a mere 2.5 hectares of vineyards overlooking the village of Cumières, on the River Marne.
His father, Georges, converted the vineyards to organic in 1971, after seeing a TV documentary by Jacques Cousteau about pesticides finding their way into the ice in the Arctic.
I’d met Vincent on my previous visit to Champagne, and I’ve drunk his champagnes at Bubbledogs. All grower producers seemed to have a passion on the side; it keeps them sane. Vincent’s is music.
Horiot – champagne in the Côte des Bars
Two hours south of the main champagne-producing regions lies the Côte des Bars. Here, in the Aube department, they also produce champagne, on soils with more clay and on slopes with more sun. This produces a rounder and less-green taste. This region is closer to Chablis than to Épernay.
We visited Olivier Horiot of Champagne Horiot in the commune of Les Riceys. The commune is also famous for its rosé wines made from pinot noir grapes. Like many producers of his and subsequent generations, Olivier stopped using chemical fertilisers and herbicides when he took over the family estate.
It was Olivier’s idea to scramble inside the vats with Sebastien Crozatier, the founder of Clos Driver Wine Tours, for the photo shoot. More proof that you have to be mad to be a grower champagne producer. This is especially true if you follow the natural path.
Other things I learnt
- I must drink more vintage champagne – it’s good value.
- Traditionally the harvest is 100 days from when the flowers come out.
- One cubic metre of limestone – the main subsoil in Champagne – can hold 400 litres of water.
- Organic production means that the roots reach deeper into the soil, making the plants more resistant.
- Intelligent questions to ask if you are a natural wine lvoer: Do you use natural yeasts? Is the champagne zero dosage (ie. added sugar)? When do you add sulphites and how much, if any?
For my other blogs on champagne:
Eating & drinking in Reims: capital of champagne (August 2017)
Dhondt and Julien: young, French & making waves (July 2017) – Dohndt is an up-and-coming champagne producer
Les Avises: a wise place to eat in Champagne (July 2017)
Champagne Emmanuel Brochet: when small is big (July 2017)
The thrill of winter in Champagne (February 2016 – updated July 2017)
The following champagnes can be found at Bubbledogs in London’s Charlotte Street: Georges Laval, Horiot, J-M Sélèque … together with Bubbledogs’ famous hotdogs.
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