Updated: Aug 6
Swathes of tourists disembarking into the humidity of the Champagne-Ardenne train station signalled what I thought was going to be a week of crowds, coach loads and steep prices. I remember, just prior to the national UK lockdown in March 2020, I embarked on a short solo trip to Champagne in the February. It was desolate; cold, rainy, uninviting. But I still had a good time. This time around, it’s the height of summer, grapes are little more than tiny berries, the canopies remain a generous, luscious green. Despite such a contrast in colour to March 2020, I am still met with a similarly barren landscape and ‘relaxed’ pace - the use of relaxed here is certainly an understatement. I find this so paradoxical, given this region produces some of the most glitzy, glamorous bottles the world sips en masse. But this was just the start of the journey…
Everywhere closes for lunch. There’s even a two hour interval where trains aren’t running. This is humorous, yet totally bemusing. It’s a shame the brits are so caught up in the meal deal. Alas, it is not €1.20 for a croissant in London. We are simply shafted. How I would love to refresh oneself during the working day with a glass of Chablis or a quick Pernod and a (proper) sandwich, jambon-beurre with cornichons no less, before trotting back to the office. The best thing is, it’s affordable across the Channel, the French really have their priorities right. We Brits would only take day drinking to the extreme, unfortunately. One can dream.
Boutillez-Guer is situated in the tiny village of Villers-Marmery, a small producer (circa 15,000bt), which has been producing since 1995, with agricultural links dating back to before there were vines planted in the region. It was not this estate I came to see, per se, but the project Marc Boutillez’s daughter, Manon. A part time fire-fighter, she’s passionate and driven, firm in her viticultural vision; an equal footing into the future whilst maintaining the utmost respect for the traditions of the past.
Cépage represents Manon Boutillez-Guer outside of London, with McCarthy Mitchell undertaking the London representation. I frequently pour Manon’s wines at private tastings, enjoying her balanced outlook in both the past and present, something I fear is lacking among so many producers in Champagne. Too focussed on following trend, forgetting the character and backbone of what made this region so prolific. Sometimes, oak is not the way, and neither is zero dosage. Quality of fruit, sustainable viticulture and cleanliness of winemaking takes precedent, here.
Anyway, it was wonderful to finally put a face to a name, whilst getting to understand the ethos a little more thoroughly. Subversively, the farming approach to growing grapes (rather than a pure oenological approach) did not centre around high yields and price per grape, but the vineyard working as an ecosystem, in tandem with nature. Plots, some dating back to 1966 are sustainably managed, fiercely against the rigorous protocols of biodynamic and organic certification. It’s not flexible enough, suggests Manon.
The self regulating cellar throws a blanket of cool over me, and interestingly, no oak barrels in sight. Manon is adamant in her approach; it is not always about adding and adding, for that takes away from the fruit, and the definition of individual parcels. Her father makes the majority of the production output, making a traditional range of cuvées, Brut, BdB, BdN, Vintage, Rosé. Fin.
Manon however, produces what she refers to as ‘collections’. Whilst these collections reflect her overall winemaking preferences and style, the wines are nuanced, and different, vintage through vintage, unafraid of altering slightly, when required, from sulphur levels and triage to the maceration, and date of picking too. This has been a common occurrence throughout the trip, in the smaller, more modern producers. There is a tendency to work with the vintage whilst building their collections of reserves, rather than attempting to pursue a rigorous style. The English could learn a thing or two here, I believe.
Straight roads, Andouillette sausage, Champagne Doyard.
I learnt on day three why, on the drive from the Montagne de Reims and the Côte des Blancs to the southerly vineyards of the Côtes des Bar why all I saw was flat, arable land. Wheat and potatoes stretching for tens of kilometres; adding even more fuel to my perspective of the desolate, barren landscape subversively producing beautiful wines. Soil, was the answer, of course - or so they said. A gradual shift from chalk to limestone meant a certain area was uninhabitable to produce quality grapes. Moët wouldn’t mind, I don’t think.
But, before this was the most highly anticipated visit of the whole trip. Champagne Doyard. Alas, I cannot afford to drink these wines as regularly as I would like.They are still cheap, in relative terms, compared to the quality coming out of the estate. They are indeed some of the best wines in the entire region, and I do not say that lightly. Guillaume (Doyard) could not attend, and sent his apologies with a bottle from his Vinotheque. More about that in a minute.
I arrived in the middle of some disgorging of what I was told were some very special cuvées en mag, which I will hear about a little later this year~ A little more production than Manon Boutillez-Guer, sitting at circa 40,000 bottles per vintage, depending on yields. The juice undergoes rigorous selection following the press, adding to the quality across each cuvée. It won’t be used of the sake of volume, I am assured by my brilliant host, Aurore.
Everything is done by hand (with some use of horses in the vineyards), for they are lighter than tractors, and don’t compact the ground between the vines. A Sustainable viticultural philosophy echoes Boutillez-Guer’s; one must treat when one needs to treat, to mitigate the onset of mildew and other disease. The certifications are far too rigid and inflexible.
The domaine was beautiful, all in all, a good looking hi-fi sits in the corner of the great room, with a mezzanine boasting the most perfect mahogany desk. I was jealous. I learned that Guillaume’s father was a huge enthusiast of the 1800s, which stands to reason, given the subtle hints throughout the visit, and in the cuvées themselves. There are a number of 18th century antiques dotted around the grand tasting rooms, and even the bottles themselves used to this day have a deep rooted history. It was the century of light, and discovery, hence cuvée names like Les Lumières, Revolution, and La Libertine.
Vendémiaire Blanc de Blancs Brut 1er Cru - Base: 2018 (50%), 2017 (30%), 2016 (20%)
Sitting at 4g/l dosage and 40% of this wine vinified in oak, it was rightfully complex. A traditional Blanc de Blancs offering the perfect introduction into Doyard’s style, and prowess. Bright, vibrant and energetic with a profound depth and intensity. A perfect citron tart, poised; moorish custard with a sweet biscuit base offers a richness, uplifted by well composed citrus, ultimately providing a rounded wine with edges. Crunchy red apples left one salivating. This wine truly shows Chardonnay’s linear acid structure, without unpleasant austerity one sometimes encounters with fresh, young Chardonnay. The benefit of generational experience. A luxurious entry level bottle, with simply phenomenal length.
Revolution Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru - Base: 2014, with reserves of 2012 & 2013.
With a little nod to, you guessed it, the Revolution, we move up one notch on the Doyard pyramid. A half and half of stainless steel and oak (old Burgundy barrels), this is an older iteration of Revolution than the bottles I currently stock. The benefit of a few extra years of bottle age pay dividends. Taught and mineral, with less sulphur added than previous iterations. This does not give any funk, but allows clarity to the insanely high quality Chardonnay produced. Toffee apple and a strikingly refined mousse, this is a wine for food above all. Compared to the more readily palatable and accessible Vendémiaire, Revolution needs some time to ponder, allowing the Chardonnay to speak for itself in the glass. You don’t feel the 0 dosage at all. Vines between 30-50 years situated around Le Mensil Sur Oner, Oger, Cramant and Avize. Sophisticated, and thoroughly interesting.
From the vinotheque: 2004 Tête du Cuvée 1er Cru Blancs de Blancs, Vertus.
Those of us lucky enough to have drunk mature Montrachet will feel a nostalgia in this special bottle. An attack on the olfactory, then seduced by the palate. The wine moves with you. Purest chardonnay. Tasted in Burgundy glasses and mulled over half an hour. Hints of pineapple, guava, mango. A softness, a spiciness imparted from the oak (100%). Morning grapefruit, spicy margaritas, drizzles of honey. White truffle galore. The list goes on in this effortlessly complex wine. Fresher than Revolution and Vendémiaire, this wine feels timeless. I will call this bottle La Intemporel. Thank you, Guillaume.
After this nye-on-perfect tasting at Doyard, I left on a high and headed south 50km on the A26 to Troyes (pronounced like the word for three, apparently. This perplexed me!). Word’s of John Bonne’s article echo in my head as I anticipate what’s coming; a less rigid, perhaps more fun and expressive way of Champenois life than the more culturally constrained Côte des Blancs and Montagne-de-Reims. There are exceptions of course.
Thankfully, dinner at the end of the day made up for mind-bogglingly bland journey from Blancs-Coteaux; akin to the journey from Maastricht to Amsterdam, equally flat and desert like only fields and fields of wheat and potatoes instead of pretty tulips. Miles and miles of straight roads, I felt like I was a cartoon character, road-tripping across the US. But seriously, travelling the Aube, you’d struggle to believe this was still Champagne country. It’s worth the visit, just to have your thoughts on the region juxtaposed. As Jon Bonne commented, there was a dramatic shift from BMWs and Mercs to beaten up Citroens, Fiats and combine harvesters. I felt at home.
Once in Troyes, having battled a rickety staircase with my suitcase, fearing falling through, I made a b-line for the most fun and funky bar with food in search of having my perspectives and taste buds stretched. Yes, I was hoping for something natural. Something thirst quenching to be paired with the local delicacy I was highly anticipating. Andouillette. A coarse sausage of intestines and stomach. It was about as good as expected… I thought, if it’s a delicacy and people are eating it around me (which they were), it must be worth a try. I won’t be having it again, but, it added to the experience, nonetheless.
Day 3 - Champagne La Borderie and Door knocking in the Côtes des Bar
This was an early start. A 9:30 tasting with Simon of La Borderie. A gravity fed winery, with another similar position on sustainable viticulture and grape growing, beyond the constraints of organic certification. There is no perfect certification, I’m learning. There are trees planted in the vineyard and amongst the vines, bees are looked after and local honey made, with diversity at the very heart of the operation.
Simon was a laugh; energetic and radiating an effortless cool. First and foremost though, he is humble. The first grapes grown by his grandfather were harvested in 1954, selling them to grand marques in the north and other larger estates. 2013 was the inaugural La Borderie vintage, using some of the Pinot plots planted in 54. A a frost wiped out the entire crop in 57. A reminder of this hangs on the wall; the declaration of grape weight to the local authority in the Bar Sur Seine. It simply reads 0. “We have it really good now, with technology and even more experience” Simon tells me “we must never forget how difficult things were”. He laughs it off, and says during this challenging time his Grandfather decided to build a shed, for he had nothing to do. His grandmother was less than happy by all accounts, boasting no income for the vintage. The shed still stands, proudly. A poignant reminder.
La Borderie sits on the same belt of kimmeridgian of Chablis (it’s only an hour away by car, and I was tempted). Markedly different to the chalk infused soils spurting out of the ground throughout the Montagne de Reims and Côte des Blancs. There’s less opulence, and more taught precise wines overall. There’s a similar understanding to Manon Boutillez-Guer about Champagne houses continually ‘adding’ to their wines, nothing is added at La Borderie, and the wines can demonstrate the grapes and land rather than an overtly managed winemaking style.
Pinot rules the vines out here, with an exploration of various PiWi varietals, looking to the future. They’re interbred vines to perform climatically dependent functions; Bordeaux are exploring grapes with even thicker skins, Britain looking for early ripening, disease resistant vines, and Champagne searching for great acidity, whilst also resistant to frost, mildew and the like. It’s an interesting area, the Côte des Bar. There’s some Meunier, Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay of course, too.
La Borderie is immaculate all round, and still remains a family affair. There’s a modernist twang to the winery, built into the limestone. Customised Zaltos were also notable. No expense spared here, and the wines, very much in the hands of top French wine shops, like Les Caves du Forum in Reims (if you’ve ever been, you’ll get the picture.
De Quoi Te Mêtes-Tu - Pinot Noir Brut Nature.
“What are you getting involved in?!”, I’m told is the translation. It’s fun, for sure. My kind of wine. It’s also the name of the plot, planted in 1980, with a north facing exposure. Rare, and brave in the northern hemisphere. 12% of supremely lightly toasted oak, you barely notice it, rather, the stalky, crunchy style that echoes through the Pinot driven wines of La Borderie. It’s savoury. Simon notes that there is too much ‘black and white’ stylistically, one the other, lots of intervention, or non at all. Both equally polarising. I find the De Quoi Te Mêtes-Tu in a grey area, well balanced, homogenous, and very much ‘La Borderie’.
Pinot Blanc from the 1954 plots, incredibly floral and electric, fresh lemon tart with a side of meringue. 100% from the 2019 vintage. A great depth and intensity, with Borderie’s characteristic tightness. I kept a glass of this aside to taste gradually over the tasting with Simon, to see how this particular wine developed. It felt so restrained, with an underlying power that I was keen to let show itself.
Le Confluente BdB 2018
Cœr de Cuvée / 5% oak, with 80% Chardonnay and 20% Pinot Blanc. Brave. You felt the savoury whole bunch press again here, with a medicinal edge. I struggled with this wine, thankful for the Pinot Blanc fleshing out the structure a touch, and adding a much needed floral component. 2018 was high yielding for La Borderie (as it was across the board, actually), though this wine showed good concentration and needs time. You could certainly feel a dichotomy between the taught, linear Chardonnay with the richer, lower acid of the Pinot Blanc. Overall proving well balanced, again.
Douce Folie Rosé
A good amount of maceration over 48 hours, giving the impression of Saignée in the deep pink glass. A thoroughly eye-catching colour. Smokey, gamey. Along the back palate, the crunch of noticeable whole bunch (a theme). You felt the limestone with this last bottle, giving knife edge precision in the glass. This wine really asserted itself. A wine of great personality and made for pink meat rather than the usual ‘aperitif’, higher dosage Grand Marque Rosés….
The rest of the day was busy. Simon had hooked us up with a tasting even deeper into the Côtes des Bar, with Domaine Louise Brison mid afternoon - more on that later. I was killing time around a small village on the way to, the middle of nowhere, to visit Brison. I was beckoned into a door to taste with a young lady, who was the 9th generation of Benoit Tassin. The caves went on and on, with a feint smell of damp. I was ambivalent, feeling almost coaxed into a museum of old wine bottles from when the furnaces had just changed from wood to coal, on the recommendation of the British. It was actually fascinating, though touristy. So, I was polite enough to taste the wines.
Benoit Tassin Tradition NV
Traditional, to say the least, but with poise. The dosage sat very well, and had the feeling of a Grand Marque of yesteryear. Good fruit quality. I couldn’t work out the commercial positioning for this wine, but it was delectable, quaffable, with good purity and distinction of flavour in the glass. Mousse a little abrasive. A little oak (5%) to flesh out the structure, and a little orange marmalade atop a black forest gateau, in a sparkling, I suppose.
Benoit Tassin Milliseme 2017
Immediately I wished this has been left a little longer on lees. It had potential, an ‘almost there’ type of wine, you could see what the Tassins were trying to achieve with it, which was fun. A little too citrus led for a BdN, a similar rusticity to the Tradition, with nice elegance. I didn’t get to taste alongside the 2018, though I would suggest this would give a few clues, having never tasted any of this estate’s wines before.
The final stop of the day was a peculiar one. We all learn from experience, and this was indeed an experience. I would like to taste the wines again, as I was more focused on the rowdy, arrogant group of ‘professionals’ that joined in my tasting; so bad, that Delphine Brulez of the estate, refusal apologised. But I’m not going to get bogged down with that, and instead, tell you a little about the exciting work. It all starts in the vineyard, and that pays dividends in the winery.
Simon at La Borderie was the first to mention the shifting climate, out of the favour of the vignerons. It’s been a battle in recent years. Delphine of Louise Brisson (I must clarify, Delphine is the owner, despite different names!), echoed this sentiment. Vines have been converted to dry farming (you’re not allowed to irrigate in Champagne, anyway), but there has been a real sense of caution in approach in order to maintain acidity levels, something the Côte des Bar is battling with far more than the northern territories of Champagne. With a south-south east exposure, maximising sunlight means sunburn is a huge risk, in addition to suffering from a lack of acidity. We will see more warm vintages, in the very short term, frighteningly. Delphine called 15 the first proper ‘Climate Change Vintage’, which was reflected in her effortlessly cool and well thought out labels.
I was excited to learn about the plethora of library stocks, especially given production only sits between 30,000-40,000 bottles depending on the vintage. Every vintage since the inaugural 97 is available for purchase, each donning a label with an elegant strike through the middle, a porthole of ethereal abstract artwork depicting the feel of the vintage, ergo, the bottle itself. Lining the whole collection up depicts a timeline of the vintages since 97. The house continually rereleases, altering dosage and sulphur levels as they go, as and when they require, providing the wine has met the minimum 5 years on lees minimum. Generally, the dosage sits low, the wines are geared towards gastronomy.
2016 BdB, Discorged February 23
2g/l of sugar, and you felt it, but 2016 was a certain extension of 15, warm, ripe and exotic. A soft mouthfeel, bubbles almost entirely dissipating following 15/20 minutes in the glass. Saline, with a delicate intensity also. I was expecting more, given how much emphasis was placed upon the quality of the fruit and vineyard work. The wine felt worked, and not as natural as I’d have perhaps liked given the philosophy of the house. That being said, you could feel the kimmeridgian through and through, an interestingly structured wine, not for the fainthearted, but experienced taster, in my opinion.
2015 BdB Brut Nature
7 years on lees for this, and still released with so much freshness. Even more papaya, pineapple rings on a salty gammon steak. In the best way possible, this was a one dimensional, straight edged Chardonnay, exuding a touch of the savoury (liquorice, clove), which took me by surprise.
Built on SO4 rootstock, this wine was cold macerated for four days, with a touch of Saignée added. Such beautiful colour, boarding on ironised. Semi carbonic too. This wine was worked and worked, again, too much for my liking, bearing in mind the relatively “natural” outlook. It didn’t seem to extend to the winery, but it’s a gradual process. The wines ta
sted were made prior to Delphine fully taking over, so I remain optimistic about the direction of the estate. I couldn’t’t put my finger on it at first, but amongst the smoke and rabbit leg, but a Campari, Cordino like note unfurled which was…interesting!
A good day of learning - a lot to ponder on for the coming days of the trip, and days afterwards.
Beers at the Clos…and Epernay….
Sitting in Pauillac for a morning coffee on the main boulevard for my 23rd, maybe 24th birthday (it feels like a few lifetimes now, actually, as thirty edges ever closer), there was a bizarre juxtaposition I couldn’t quite get my head around. This is one of the world’s most famous wine villages, boasting not one, but three First Growth Bordeaux’s of the 1855 classification. Lafite, Mouton, Latour. And it was deserted, almost tumbleweed like in early Westerns. Only a few locals milling about, cycling with baguettes, farmers on the way to tend the vines, and some about to sail on the Gironde. Indeed, there were murmurings of the harvest, but I expected far more people come to see these world renowned Châteaux.
I couldn’t shake the same feeling wandering around Mensil-Sur-Oger. Krug wouldn’t be the Champagne it is today without the terroir of this village, neither would Salon, for that matter. This was hallowed ground. A comment was made about the primary school here - it probably has at least ten future generations of winemakers in it’s playground that very second. Many of the villages around Champagne were deserted like this, and that was expected, for they were quaint, with one or two producers in them. But, Mensil-Sur-Oger?! Name a more renowned village in the area?! Ambonnay, perhaps. That was quiet, too, though I only passed through by car.
Thankfully, I managed to squeeze into the Boulangerie for a mixture of baked delights, the most loaded jambon-emmental you’ll ever eat in your life, and a phenomenal eclair. There was no other place to eat this and wash it down with a sub-par Heineken than British style, in the park overlooking one of Champagne’s most famous Clos; Clos des Mensil. What a day.
Glassware, sun and tasting
There are a few basic expectations when staying anywhere. Clean bedding, fresh towels, if an Air B&B appropriate utensils should you buy so much Champagne it was difficult to justify going out to eat. I have one additional requirement. DECENT BLOODY GLASSWARE. Rid yourselves of thick rimmed glasses, please. You’re in Champagne country now. Flutes, okay, fine, it’s touristy. The thick stemmed and rimmed glassware are not infinitely cheaper, nor stronger than the next best upgrade. For Cépage, I have glassware for different occasions, and even with the most “basic” glasses, I can still taste adequately, of course!
It was too hot to do anything, so I bought Zaltos, infuriated at the previous few night’s drinking equipment. I bought 6 in fact, as they were “relatively” inexpensive; compared to the recent prices in England, I mean. I picked up some Ratafia and a bottle or two of new and upcoming producers, as recommended at 75cl in Epernay - a lot of the producers I represent are on the shelves there, it was nice to see.
The only note I made on day five was for an ambitious 50 euro BdN from Paul Gosset of Äy, perhaps some relation down the line. Dosage no more than 3g/l, no information not he back label. A delicately floral wine, some Meunier in there for certain. Framboise tartelette, rhubarb and custard boiled sweets with a rather pretty and long finish. Too expensive. Less than 1800 bottles made of the inaugural vintage. It was difficult to justify. I watched the sunset over the hills surrounding Epernay, with Hautvilliers in the distance.
I almost forgot about the brief Hautvillers jaunt - a buzzy little village, the final resting place of the monk Pierre “Dom” Perignon, turned almost godlike by the LVHM conglomerate, and the crux of all things wrong with the region (believe me). But, the Church was silent, serene, and a welcomed break from the warmth of the concrete which was a source of continual frustration for me. I am British, we do not understand heat, in any shape or form. Perignon actually understood what it was to conduct assemblage (he did not actually invent Champagne), but realised the importance of consistency and blending through the vintages to craft a balanced wine. Anyhow, the whole town was geared towards him, almost painted as a martyr, a savour of the region. It’s a shame the wine is no longer as impressive as the monk’s achievements, that is, unless you find 96, 90 or earlier. I had particular vinous joy with a bottle of 1970; a risk indeed at auction. There have’t been many vinous pleasures as mighty as that 1970 DP.
Praying to St Vincent, a trip to an arty Grand Marque, steak frites.
Sunday. One of the most productive days, controversially. Not my day of rest - I am saving that for the Eurostar home. Cloud cover was omnipresent, threatening rain, and something even worse, hail, with the potential to rip through the vineyards and destroy a whole year’s work in seconds. I wasn’t deterred, for there was an early meeting at an unusual Champagne house in the tiny 1er Cru village of Sacy, just outside of Reims. I met with Brice Valentine of Jean Valentine Pere et Fils. A slender character, nervous about the hail, we ventured into the vineyards to watch the cloud cover moving over us, and talk about terroir in a particularly Burgundian fashion.
Brice told me they plant Chardonnay at the top of the Sacy slope, with the most clay and flint soils being situated there. It needs more freshness too, something Jean Valentine Pere et Fills struggles with, so no oak is used, and dosage carefully added, though too much across the board by only a gram or two, as I found out. Nonetheless, there were patches of sandy, silty soils south of the village, perfect for the later ripening Meunier to blossom and unfurl it’s intensely aromatic characteristics. The rosé proved excellent, as a result.
Brice mentioned the Patron Saint of all the growers around Champagne, and in the times threatening hailstorms, there is nothing else to do but mutter a quiet word to Vince. It’s crazy, Brice laments, whilst your plot may be absolutely ruined, ten metres over could be totally unscathed. I rush inside for a tasting in his front room, safe from the thunder.
BdB NV - 50% 2020, 50% 2019 Young reserves, adamant these wines must be drunk fresh, and not aged too long. 8g/l dosage. A yeasty but rich nose, which blew off, thankfully. An elegant and unbelievably traditional blanc de blancs for the old school crowd that need richness in the Champagnes, and oak in their overly extracted reds. The wine in fact had great acid and typicité, as time went on, you could feel the nuances in the soils in a way an experienced taster might depict the different 1ers of Meursualt or Gevrey-Chambertin. Toffee apple and caramel, you get the idea.
Brut Tradition NV - 60% Meunier, 30% Chardonnay, 10% Pinot Noir. Base 2019 with reserves from 2017 and 2018. You could taste each grape very distinctly, which I like in a wine, generally. Being able to taste things as opposed to a total medley of average flavour, which this wasn’t. Jasmine, chamomile tea, with good acid from the Pinot Meunier. Brice, a chef trained at some of the top restaurants across the globe (Umo - London, La Clarence - Paris, Odette, Paris) enjoys the brut tradition, featuring an all too healthy dosage of 8.5g/l with the most incredible dish featuring rose petals, crab and a langoustine reduction. I think the sweetness of the langoustine would be phenomenal, actually.
Rosé NV - 100% Meunier
So lightly pressed. Brice wanted lobster after tasting this. I think he was hungry, but again, I agreed. I tasted this wrong in my notes, as I was tasting elements of Bourgogne rouge in this bottle, clay, cassis and graphite (think Beaune). The bubbles jumped out of the glass with this one, it had real energy with a charming salinity.
Onwards I went, to a visit which wasn’t arranged, nor was it trade oriented. On the very straight roads, stunning forks of lightning struck around. I couldn’t help but giggle a little at a drenched oncoming cyclist. I hoped he had nearly finished his ride. It felt like this was a perfect time to conduct this particular next visit.
I was keen to observe how the “big boys” communicate with their loyal drinkers around the world. A similar wave of tourists disembarked off coaches into the humidity, this time, to Disneyland. Not quite, but almost. I am growing slightly affectionate for Pommery, quietly there in the background, but keeping the bashful, uninteresting Grand Marques on their toes. It’s no wonder Veuve have started to become more arty in their work, crafting a more immersive experience for it’s very lucky patrons who go to visit in Reims. Pommery has had a style for decades, I think it’s what Walt Disney based his castles on, for sure. But, art remains very much at the forefront of the house. I like this. It’s brave, and rare.
Eight clay quarry pits were joined together, linked with the 18km of caves very much behind locked bars. Where the magic happens; presumably with elves running and rushing through the caverns, riddling, labelling and organising the twenty five million bottles of Champagne. That’s what I liked to think was happening, anyhow. In the hugely impressive pits, different, sometimes immersive artworks were installed year after year, starting in 2003. Open only for the tourist season I expect, for the few hundred cymbals in one room would have been a nightmare come a busy bottling period for instance, even for the elves. These were only the public facing rooms, as I said, but they did boast a few select collections of library stocks. I did spy a mag of 1958 in the caves, and the legendary 1874 - how I would kill to put my lips to these. There was retro signage donning famous world cities, put up when Madame Pommery conquered that particular market. In the section with Miami, the flashy demi-sec bottle was proudly positioned. Pommery do seem to have a sense of humour. My affection grows stronger.
The one thing that let down the visit, despite them emphasising the artworks was any type of vinous information for us wine geeks with a thirst for bubbles and knowledge. I understood why, though. What managed to feel on this visit was a sense of understanding about Pommery, without needing to try the wines. That’s brand. They showcased the direction of the wines in art form, and that’s pioneering for a large house like Pommery. The wine remains accessible, and people can afford to enter their “world”. High end wines, Bibi Garaetz of Tuscany immediately comes to mind, closely followed by Krug can boast eccentric collections, self indulgent (still good, I might add) in their wine making and its presentation to their loyal following. Pommery wasn’t like this, it was wine for everyone. No closed doors (except to keep the elves in), like down the Maisons of the Avenue de Champagne (far too hot to walk down, and severely anticlimactic, I may add).
Pommery Millesime 2009
I’m not sure what I was expecting with this. Something much younger, for sure. Poor glassware again, annoyingly, but what can you do. If ever there was the perfect vintage Champagne for the WSET Systematic Approach to Tasting, it would be this. Well developed with hints of crunchy red apple, “honey, nuts and toast” as we were always taught. Though, I’d probably add warm croissant, toffee apple and Manuka.
As I said, this was a busy Sunday. Topped off with a simple steak au poivre. Thankfully there was somewhere open.
Final Day - Gonet, tasting terroir & Champenois Politics
I wrote the most notes here, I was fascinated, not least by the energy of Diane (3rd generation, Michel’s granddaughter), but by getting to grips with the politics of the region. Some of which, was totally off the record, and that will be respected! That being said, I came away with a handful more questions than answers, more points to ponder and read up on, which I was very excited about. The house very much felt like the back garden of Avize. The garden had been turned into vineyard area (pictured), and you could see the steeples of Oger and Mensil-Sur-Oger clearly.
Decide for yourself how you categorise Michel Gonet, a small/big or big/small producer, boasting about 120,000 bottles per vintage, slowly building since the 1970s, where cellars were built for the no longer running Gonet Brothers. I was nervous going into the cellar, 13m in the cooling chalk of the Côte des Blancs. Diane jokingly spoke about how they had to redo the cellar because of how often it leaked, being a few steps away from caving in…! There’s a continual source of fresh water from a well which plunged 80m deep into the chalk, too.
Plots are pressed very much separately, so there are lots of colours to work with when painting the final picture, whichever bottle that might be, Diane says. I love this analogy. In the glass, the different villages come through so distinctly for Gonets wines, rather than a a melee of co-fermented parcels with unobtainable sense of place (I’m thinking about the grand marques here). Alas, they are a burden to all medium sized houses such as Gonet. A very shrewd move made by them was to purchase a property (doubling up as a few guest rooms) on the Avenue de Champange. If you are to wander down that iconic stretch of tarmac (an archaic Hollywood boulevard in aesthetics) in search of something, opt for the Gonet terrace; the list often features wines (with slightly older bases) which Gonet has too few to sell to the trade, so guests can enjoy wines ‘sold out’ on the market. That is, when they have wines left over. The issue of availability is epidemic across the region in an act simply to maintain the unfavourable (to the wine lover) pricing structure.
Prices are so meticulously maintained by those who govern this barren region. In 2020 (the "year of COVID”), the principal governing body reacted to the market, or lack thereof, by ensuring grapes were thrown away and demand for Champagnekept. The quota, as it’s referred to, ensured out of Gonet’s 18,000kg/hectare of grapes grown, only 8000 kg/hectare could be used for the final wines. This includes any Coteaux Champenois, Ratafia and Marc de Champagne, too - up until now, I thought they were actually a response to the quota, I must admit. This type of decision takes at least three years to manifest into the market, too.
2020 was a high yielding, high quality vintage akin to 88, or 90, a vintage which could have naturally denoted an increase in price of the declared vintage as a result of quality alone. This decision to reduce the quota for 2020 seemingly kept everyone happy; the big houses could increase their prices, and the smaller producers wouldn’t struggle to sell their wines in this high yielding vintage with yields being maintained in this way. The worst thing would be to sit on stock, I admit. But, I do sincerely wonder who this type of decision benefits the most, and I think we all know the answer. DP, Krug and Bolly will never fail to sell out.
It goes further than the quota, I learnt. I am a novice when it comes to the strict wine regulations of specific regions, I do not enjoy reading rule books for fun. There is a restriction on extraction rates in the press (sitting at about 70%), in order to maintain a certain level of quality. Effectively, of the 8000kg/ha used in 2020, Gonet could only use the juice of 6000kg/ha for sparkling wines. This, is where Ratafia comes in. For the taille, or tail of the press is separated and sent for distilling. It’s trying, and difficult not to feel somewhat disheartened at the level of bureaucracy involved in the Champagne market. Gonet were certainly burnt in 2020, like many houses with a few decades worth of contract, tied to selling a proportion of their grapes to the bigger houses.
I’m sure this leads to fiddling the yields of smaller producers with wines being made available which are very much under the counter. There’s a real greymarket, I am confident. It’s all fun and games to which many turn a blind eye to, and many remain blissfully unaware. After this rather intense discussion, we taste, to lighten the mood.
Faraux NV - 100% Pinot Noir
The leafiness was overcoming, a little too much. Green, with the dosage sitting well, at 4. Grapey. A word which is a peculiar one to use when tasting; the wine is made of grapes. However, as a characteristic in a wine, the note is savoury and herbaceous, a prickly gooseberry tinge, and very rustic.
My wine of the week, actually. A brand new cuvée, too. 2g/l. A phenomenally precise palate, exuding an effortless power for such a youthful wine, I had only encountered such power once or twice this week. The wine was subtle though, don’t get me wrong, but it was chomping at the bit trying to express itself. Give it time. A Chablesian purity of bright, youthful and green Chardonnay. Vindey’s character was more rounded, of nectarines, peaches, whereas the silex from Montgeaux gave a lighter, more floral touch, still rough around the edges compared to the smoother, rounded elements of Vindey. The phenolic ripeness was exceptional, whilst retaining a crisp structure. Grapey and rustic again, too.
Les 3 Terroirs 2018
The latest release of 3 Terroirs. Immediately more giving than the Videy-Montgeaux. 4g/l dosage, with Diane comparing the three separate villages to different women. Mensil, the ethereal, providing the fleshy, opulent backbone to the wine. Montgeaux, like Marilyn Monroe in it’s floral, elegant nature (not so many sharp edges this time). Vindey, somebody beautiful you only manage catch a glimpse of whilst sitting, sipping a wine on a sunny terrace. Poetic, but accurate. Taste the wine. A touch of menthol was present, the characteristic leafy gastro green which would suit wonderfully with a spiced sea bream crudo, I think.
Mensil-Sur-Oger Blanc de Blancs GC 2015
90% of this wine comes from a single lieu-dit, Les Hautes Mottes (which also features as a single vineyard wine in collaboration with super somms Raj Parr and Marco Peltier) planted in the 1990s. A generous plot for yields, without suffering from a lack of fruit concentration, believe me. Straightforward and linear in the mouth, exuding the finesse and purity Mensil-Sur-Oger presents in the glass so well. A gorgeous intensity over a beautiful length. Riper than the other wines tasted today, with more doughy, bread like notes. A step away from the ‘regular’ character of Gonet’s range, given the last wine tasted, this was simply a question of age.
Cœr de Mensil 2010
Champagne, like Chablis, should be drunk with a few years on it. This was discouraged in 2022. Whilst similar in vintage profile to 2015, the Cœr de Mensil was (quite obviously…) more developed. There was little to no pineapple or exotic ripe fruit with a yoghurt breakfast topped with almonds and honey like there is here. Mushroomy, with the tertiary journey beginning. Refined, still steely in acid and assertive in the glass. One of the older plots of Mensil, standing at the mid slope, in line with its church; greater ripeness and concentration in the fruit. The wine followed me out of the room as I left to say goodbye. It had real presence.