Tasting Events

Fabulous Farmer Fizz – Grower Champagne Part Two

Part One introduced the different types of producer, the grapes and the main areas of Champagne.  Now we look at different grower Champagnes from different subregions of the area.

Wine Workshop Grower Champagne Tasting

In mid August I ventured again to The Wine Workshop in Dublin for a fab tasting of Grower Champagnes, hosted by Morgan VanderKamer.  Thanks to my friend Una who helped with the photos!

Réné Geoffroy “Expression” Cumières 1er Cru NV (Vallée de la Marne)

Réné Geoffroy Expression 1er Cru NV
Réné Geoffroy Expression 1er Cru NV

Champagne Réné is now run by Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy, son of Réné and grandson of Roger who first moved from just producing grapes to making Champagne.  Although they have an elegant maison in Aÿ, 14 out of their total 17 hectares under vine are in the Premier Cru village of Cumières, in the heart of the Vallée de la Marne.  The family can trace their roots in the same village back to the 17th century.  Production volume is 9,000 cases per year of which 500 are vintage.

This is the top cuvée made by Geoffroy, always made from a blend of two different years.  The assemblage is given as 50% PM 30% C 10% PN – though that would leave me feeling a little short-changed.  All the grapes are hand picked and a traditional “Coquard” press is used.  Parcels are fermented separately to help decide on the blend furether down the line.  Malolactic Fermentation (MLF) is blocked to retain fresh acidity. A proportion of the reserve wines are aged in oak to add texture.

Compared to many sparkling wines this tasted a little less fizzy – more like a Perlé style, which used to be known as Crémant before that was appropriated for traditional method sparkling wines from other French regions.

Roberdelph NV Charly-sur-Marne (Vallée de la Marne)

RoberDelph NV
RoberDelph NV

All because…the lady loves…RoberDelph!  This was my friend Una’s favourite of the evening.  The most Pinot Meunier-biased Champagne of the tasting (the assemblage of the current bottling is 75% PM, 16% C, 9% PN, though it may fluctuate a little), it had a certain earthiness…it would be amazing with Mushroom risotto.

As a NV it is usually based substantially on one year with around 30% reserve wines from three previous years.

RoberDelph have just 5 1/2 hectares under vine round the village of Charly at the western end of the Vallée de la Marne (the Marne of course being the river after which the Département is also named).  Their vineyards are composed of 20 different small parcels with different soils and are farmed using “lutte raisonné” methods – think similar to organic but pragmatic rather than dogmatic.  They are now run by the 5th and 6th generations of the Robert family.

Pierre Gimonnet et Fils Cuvée Cuis 1er Cru NV (Côte des Blancs)

Pierre Gimonnet & Fils Cuvée Cuis 1er Cru NV
Pierre Gimonnet & Fils Cuvée Cuis 1er Cru NV

Olivier and Didier Gimonnet are the grandsons of Pierre Gimonnet who expanded the family business from grape growing to producing their own Champagne in 1935.  They have been growing grapes in Cuis since 1750.

They have 28 hectares of Chardonnay within the Côte des Blancs (plus a couple of small plots of Pinot Noir elsewhere):

– Cuis and Vertus Premiers Crus
– Cramant, Chouilly and Oger Grands Crus

They make a single non vintage (for which they use the more romantic term Sans Année) and five different vintage cuvées which aim to maintain the house style while showcasing the great terroirs of the Côtes des Blancs.  Above all they value elegance, finesse, minerality and freshness, with everything in balance.

The high percentage of old vines at this estate sets it apart from many others.  There is always a trade off with vine age – yields tend to decline with age, but the resulting juice becomes more and more concentrated – it’s quantity versus quality.

This NV is a personal favourite – it showed very well at the Glasnevin Fizz Fest last year.

Watch out for their Spécial Club bottlings which are Gimonnet’s flagship – grapes are selected from their oldest vines, go through MLF and then over five years ageing on the lees.

Varnier-Fannière Cuvée St-Denis Grand Cru NV, Avize, (Côte des Blancs)

Varnier-Fannière Cuvée St-Denis Grand Gru NV
Varnier-Fannière Cuvée St-Denis Grand Gru NV

I’ve been a fan of Denis Varnier’s Champagnes since I first visited him in Avize in early 2012. I sneaked this into the tasting and it threw some of the tasters.  It had much more body and texture than usual for a blankety blank.  Oak?  No, that would be the five years (minimum) on the lees.

Denis eschews oak and blocks MLF to keep the wines as fresh and pure as possible. The grapes for this bottling are grown in a walled vineyard in Avize called Clos du Grand-Père, named after Denis’s maternal Grandfather Jean Fannière who became a Champagne producer when already in his 50s.

V-F produce another premium Chamapgne called Jean Fannière Origine – it’s a similar style and quality level to St-Denis but made with grapes from Cramant and a lower dosage.

Jacquinot et Fils Blanc de Noirs NV (Cote des Bar)

Jacquinot & Fils Blanc de Noirs Brut NV
Jacquinot & Fils Blanc de Noirs Brut NV

The Côtes des Bar is a Pinot Noir stronghold – it accounts for 87% of the vines there. This is a 100% Pinot Noir so it has some real guts – layers of red fruit with enough body to accompany the main course of a meal.

The Jacquinot estate dates back to the French revolution. Pierre Jacquinot expanded the family vineyard holdings just after first world war, at the same time becoming a grape broker and Champagne wine merchant, adding his own pressing centre  in 1929 and starting to make wine.  In 1947 with his 2 sons Jacques and Jean-Guy he created the brand Champagne Jacquinot et Fils.  Jacques looked after sales and Jean-Guy developed the vineyard.  Jean-Manuel Jacquinot, Jean-Guy’s son, Oenologist in charge of production since 1998 is now running the Estate with the help of François Nicolet, Jacques’s son- in-law.

Other Jacquinot wines of note include the  White Symphonie which has 10 years on the lees and their top bottling Harmonie which has 14 years!

Dravigny-Godbillon “Cuvée Ambre” NV, Ecuille

Dravigny-Godbillon Cuvée Ambre NV
Dravigny-Godbillon Cuvée Ambre NV

What a delightful label! *cough*  But hey, if people aren’t going to buy it because of the cover then there’s more to go round for those of us who value the contents!  The good folks at Ely Wine Bar in Dublin obviously share the same opinion as it’s on their list next to the big guns of Taittinger and Bollinger.  As it’s a small producer they only export to two countries – Denmark and Ireland!

The blend is 70% PN, 25% C, 5% PM, so there is plenty of strawberry goodness but wrapped in a lemon envelope.  The Chardonnay keeps it fresh enough that it doesn’t tire after a few glasses.

Guy Charlemagne Le Mesnil-sur-Oger Grand Cru 2004 (Côte des Blancs)

Guy Charlemagne Mesnillésime 2004 Grand Cru
Guy Charlemagne Mesnillésime 2004 Grand Cru

Did anyone else get the pun?  Mesnillésime is a portmanteau of Le Mesnil sur Oger, the Côte des Blancs village where Champagne Guy Charlemagne is based, and Millésime, the French word for vintage.  Krug’s super-premium single vineyard vintage Clos Le Mesnil comes from the same village – it’s probably the best source for Chardonnay in the whole of Champagne.

This is the firm’s top bottling, being 100% Chardonnay from having spent spends six years maturing on the lees before disgorgement, and gets a light dosage of 4g/L so qualifies as extra brut.  The mousse is more persistent than Jeremy Paxman…it’s so creamy and goes on and on.  Lemon meringue, crème fraîche, the flavour keeps on coming.

Although this was by some distance the most expensive Champagne at the tasting, in the not-so-humble opinion of this taster it was the best value of all!.

Tasting Events

Fabulous Farmer Fizz – Grower Champagne – Part One

What is Champagne?

It’s a wine.

It’s a wine made in a certain way from grapes grown in a delimited area.

That’s it.  Yes it’s a load of fun, often a part of big celebrations, a bit of bling in a nightclub, or even launching a ship (don’t know about you but I always use Champagne when launching a ship), but for me they are secondary to Champagne’s identity as a wine.  Also, there is Increasing recognition that Champagne can play a part in accompanying many – or all – courses of a meal, as well as being an apéritif or a vin de plaisir.

Of course the luxury image of Champagne is no accident, it’s down to the marketing prowess of the Grandes Marques over the last century or so.  In their quest for a reliable, consistent wine the big houses buy grapes from all over the Champagne region, and blend them to create an ongoing house style – particularly with the non-vintage (NV) wines which are the vast majority of the bottles produced.

Maker's Mark

Thus, apart from a few ultra rare and ultra expensive select bottlings, Champagne made by the big houses doesn’t reflect a particular vineyard site.

Step up the Growers!  Despite the high capital costs of setting up, Champenois grape growers are increasingly setting up to produce their own Champagne – see RM in the box above.  They maintain a close link between the place the grapes are grown – the terroir –  and the final product in your glass.

Grapes – The Big 3 Stars

Most new areas producing quality sparkling wine will use the big three Champagne grapes, whether we’re talking Tasmania, Marlborough or Sussex.

Chardonnay (C) gives lifted lemon citrus notes, which make it the lightest grape out of the three.  All-Chardonnay cuvées need some serious ageing on the lees to gain complexity – they can be pleasant but rather simple if they are disgorged and released straight after the legal minimum ageing (15 months for NV).  Approx. 29% of total vines

Pinot Noir (PN) gives red fruit aromas and flavours – particularly strawberry and raspberry – just as you get in a still red Pinot Noir.  It also gives body and richness – sometimes even chewiness.  It’s this Pinot whose colour is used for rosé Champagne.  Approx. 38% of total vines

Pinot Meunier (PM) is often regarded as the ugly sister of the big three, and while it might be true to say that it doesn’t hit the heights of the other two on its own, it can play an excellent supporting role.  It tends to show soft fruit characteristics such as pear and lychee when young, and then a certain earthiness with more age.  Approx. 32% of total vines

Grapes – The Supporting Cast

If any of you did the maths from the three grapes above you will have noticed that the total proportion of Champagne’s area under vine represented by them is 99% – so what is planted in the remaining 1%?

These are four traditional grapes that have fallen out of favour in the area, but where they are planted the owners can keep on farming them.  Such minuscule amounts means the wines are very hand to get hold of, but if you fancy trying something different then Laherte Frères make a Champagne from all seven grapes.

Pinot Blanc is often a component of Crémant d’Alsace and Franciacorta (where it is known as Pinot Bianco.  It gives soft apple and citrus flavours.

Pinot Gris sometimes hides in Champagne under the pseudonym Fromenteau – but it’s really the same grape which does so well in Alsace and still pops up occasionally in Burgundy.  When picked early it (as is often the case in Italy) it can show high levels of acidity which of course make it ideal for sparkling wine.

Petit Meslier is an appley variety that has a flagwaver based in – rather bizarrely – South Australia’s Eden Valley!  In a region best known for dry as a bone Riesling, Irvine Wines make a varietal Petit Meslier sparkling wine which they claim was the first to be commercially bottled anywhere in the world

Arbane also has a champion, but this time in Champagne itself.  The house of Moutard Père et Fils make the only varietal Arbane Champagne.  Their vintage wine spends over 6 years on the lees so it’s the yeast rather than grape variety which are most apparent.

Home Ground

Champagne has a single Appellation for the whole region, but there are recognised sub regions within it.  They can be grouped as:

The Vallée de la Marne is the most equally balanced between the three main grapes – 24% Chardonnay, 36% P Meunier and 40% P Noir

The Montagne de Reims is the large hill (mountain is pushing it a bit!) just south of the city of Reims.  Here Pinot Meunier has the lead with 62% of the total.

The Côte des Blancs (which also has the more southerly Côte de Sezanne grouped with it for statistical purposes) is a chalky slope which majors in Chardonnay (82% overall and 95% in the central Côte itself – hence the name.

The Côte des Bar is the most southerly and highest of all the Champagne areas.  Pinot Noir is the king down here with 87% of the land under vine.

Part two will look at some specific grower Champagnes.

Information, Opinion

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!




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!

Information, Opinion

Of Champagne and Serendipity, part 1

The subject of my first blog was prompted by an unexpected discovery.  While clearing a bit of space in the porch last week I thought to use the sturdy empty wooden box I had spotted to collect all the knick-knacks lying around.  To my delight the box was actually full, containing six bottles of Varnier Fannière Champagne!  I suppose I ought to tidy up more often, who knows what else I might find!

Despite being a self-confessed wino for twenty years, I’m a relative latecomer to the charms and intricacies of Champagne.  For a long time I’d see it as something for celebrations and posing without any inherent character as a wine.  The Champagnes I’d tried had been either terribly acidic (bye bye tooth enamel) or just bland – neither of which are good enough when the ticket price is so high.  Don’t get me wrong, if offered a glass of Moët I’d sup away, but it’s almost offensive in its inoffensiveness – it’s wet, fizzy and alcoholic but lacking in character.

Two books gave me cause to reconsider my stance:

Terry Theise’s Reading Between The Wines is an impassioned championing of artisanal wines, including “Grower Champagnes”.  Above all, Champagne can and should be treated primarily as a wine, and it can be a fine wine.  This might sound self-evident to some people but it needs to be stated explicity.

Michael Edwards’ The Finest Wines Of Champagne was the first of the Fine Wine Editions that I bought (or received as a gift, as in this case).  As well as an introduction on the history of Champagne and viticulture and winemaking of the region, this book contains engaging profiles of ninety producers, both big and small.  So engaging, in fact, that I resolved to travel to the area and taste some for myself!

The commercial landscape of Champagne has traditionally been dominated by grandes maisons (Négociants manipulants, the big names everyone has heard of, with huge marketing budgets) on one side and grape growers (farmers who happen to produce grapes) on the other.  Several cooperatives (Coopératives de manipulation) have bridged the gap somewhat, but it is only in the last five to ten years that grape growers making their own Champagne have come to prominence.

As the Growers (Récoltants manipulants) usually own small parcels of land within a distinct subregion of Champagne their wines are somewhat likely to reflect the place where the grapes are grown, compared to the consistent “House Style” which most big houses try to attain.  Of course viticultural and winemaking choices also have significant impacts, but the grower’s terroir (more on this elusive term in future posts) is laid bare without the blending regime of larger producers.

Ironically, despite prestige cuvées such as Louis Roederer’s Cristal, Moët & Chandon’s Dom Pérignon and Taittinger’s Comtes de Champagne being blended from sources all over the Champagne region, among the most expensive bottles available are Krug’s Clos du Mesnil and Clos d’Ambonnay.  These Blanc de Blancs (made from white grapes only, i.e. Chardonnay) and Blanc de Noirs (made from black grapes only, i.e. Pinots Noir & Meunier) respectively are made from tiny single vineyards.  Is this not a return to terroir?

More in my next post.