Of Champagne and Serendipity, part 2

So I was fortuitous to find a full wooden case of Champagne in my porch – but where did it actually come from?  It didn’t appear by magic (unfortunately) but was one of our purchases on a trip to Champagne in 2012 – “our” referring to my wife Jess and baby son James, though his main involvement was in charming every lady he met.

I’d like to highlight two of the growers we visited on our trip.  I narrowed down the choice from several on Terry Theise’s list and those mentioned in the Finest Wines of Champagne book (see Part 1) – and, to be frank, places that were actually going to have someone in to receive us.  Small firms can’t afford to have permanent cellar-door staff (and this is typical of small producers throughout France) so it’s the owner and his family or someone in the office who steps in to pour.

The first was Réné Geoffroy in Aӱ (pronounced something like “aye-ee”) which is a Grand Cru rated village in the Vallée de la Marne.  This area is famous for its Pinot Noir, which gives body and strawberry / raspberry / redcurrant flavours to Champagne (just like fruit-driven Pinot Noir still red wines).

Réné Geoffroy produces several different wines, three of which we decided to buy:

Volupté, which has a very high proportion of old vine Chardonnay

Empreinte, a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, fermented in oak

Rosé de Saignée, a 100% Pinot Noir rosé

Although the Empreinte was fermented in oak barrels it did not have an oaky taste.  So “why do it?” you may ask.  It’s all down to tiny pores in the oak which let oxygen in and the affect this has on the body and longevity of the wine.  Krug is a major advocate of oak – and their best wines often last for several decades.

The last one of the three was the most interesting from a wine geek (guilty as charged, m’lud) point of view.  The vast majority of rosé wines throughout the world are made solely from black grapes, and the lighter colour comes from reducing the time that the clear juice is in contact with the grape skins (where all the colour is).  Champagne is the only region in France where the blending of red and white base wines is permitted in the production of rosé.  However, some Champagne houses do try the light skin contact method, known as saignée (as the colour is bled from the skins), and Réné Geoffroy make a great example.

The second highlight of our visit was Varnier-Fannière in Avize on the Côte des Blancs, famous for its Blanc de Blancs Chardonnay.  This is another Grand Cru rated village, the top rung of quality in the Champagne region, with Premier Cru second (first is second, I’m sure that makes sense to someone).  Our host was the own himself, the charming, passionate and dynamic Denis Varnier.

Given the location there was no surprise that most of his wines were Chardonnay dominated, giving primary lemon / lime citrus flavours.  The body is usually light and the finish crisp, depending on the amount of time between second bottling and disgorgement (see below).

M. Varnier made a couple of very interesting remarks:

Firstly, expensive prestige cuvees such as Dom Pérignon are often made with 100% Grand Cru grapes, so the maker is entitled to use that label, but it is very rarely seen.  Could this be because LVMH, the ultimate owners of Dom Pérignon, don’t want consumers to think other producers use the same quality grapes?  Where would the magic be then?

Secondly, he preferred not to use oak barrels at all in the winemaking process as he prefers the wines to be as clean and linear as possible.  This is a different approach from Réné Geoffroy – neither is right or wrong, it’s a stylistic choice.

The biggest share of Varnier-Fannière’s production (which is true for virtually all Champagne houses, large or small) is the non-vintage (NV) Brut.  In this case it is made from Grand Cru small parcels in Avize and the nearby villages of Cramant and Ogier.

An interesting variation is the NV Brut Zero, made in exactly the same way as the regular Brut but without any sugar in the liqueur d’expedition, the liquid used to top up the bottle after the dead yeast lees have been removed post second fermentation.  This process is known as disgorgement (dégorgement in French).  Depending on the required style, different amounts of sugar are included to balance the acidity.  Brut Zero is a fairly recent phenomenon – great with sushi and other seafood!

For his Rosé he prefers to blend – he uses 10% Pinot Noir from Aӱ – rather than using the saignée method.  This makes sense if you’re great at producing Chardonnay!

He does produce a demi-sec (which tastes off-dry to medium) for certain clients who request it – he feels the additional sugar masks the underlying flavours so he’s not a fan himself, but if customers want it…he is running a business after all.

The Cuvée St Denis is made from grapes at least 65 years old grown in a single vineyard called Clos du Grand Père (referring to Denis’s grandfather Jean Fannière).  This is a cut above the regular Brut but although it is a premium Champagne it isn’t vintage, i.e. from a single year’s production of grapes.  In general – that should almost be in capitals – vintage champagne is the best that can be made with a single year’s grapes, and isn’t made every year if the harvest isn’t good enough.

Non-vintage is much more about maintaining a “house style” by blending component base wines from several years, though this is much easier for the grandes maisons to achieve as they also source grapes and base wines from all over the Champagne region.

Finally, we tasted the Varnier-Fannière 2005 Grand Vintage.  This is made from grapes from the oldest vines, giving more concentrated flavours, though lower yields.  It spends at least three years maturing in bottle compared to the minimum eighteen months for non-vintage.  This gives the wine more flavours from the yeast, often similar to bread or brioche (for Marie-Antoinette).

So the 64 million Yuan question – of all these interesting and delicious choices, which did we buy? As much as we’d loved to have taken it all with us, budget and space constraints meant we had to be sparing with our purchases.  We took a pair of the Brut Zero NV and a lovely wooden case of the Grand Vintage – and that’s what I just found in the porch!

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PS an admission: I’m such a fanboi, I got Denis Varnier to sign his page in my Champagne book – here’s hoping I collect ‘em all!

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