I'm currently sitting in a small hotel room in Épernay, the self-styled capital of Champagne, with freezing cold legs, seeing as it's -5 degrees out there. I'm in France for four days on an AWE (Association of Wine Educators) trip to Chablis, but I've decided to tag on an extra day and a half in Champagne en route to Burgundy. It would be daft not to! For this particular mini trip I've decided to eschew the big Champagne houses and focus instead on the small independent Champagne producers, the récoltant manipulants (I discussed the different types of Champagne producer recently in this post), in search of some really good value bubbles.
This afternoon was my first sortie, briefly exploring the Montagne de Reims, one of the classic Champagne sub-zones, where I've had two excellent domain visits...
Firstly I went to Domaine Juillet-Lallement in Verzy. Jean Lallement runs the domaine and was out working his vines (I hope he had thick socks), so instead I had the pleasure to meet M. Lallement Senior, who used to be in charge of the operation before retiring. He was very happy to crack open a bottle for the two of us to try, even though it's unlikely anyone else will pass by to sample it before the bubbles fade. Just what I needed after setting off from London at 3:30 am - a nice glass of 11:30 am fizz to set me up for lunch. The wine was their Brut Selection (NV), which was delicious. With very crisp acidity but good fruit and balance, this was very well priced at €13.80 a bottle. Six for me please.
After that I just had time before lunch to get to Domaine Bernard Brémont in the Grand Cru village of Ambonnay. The domaine is run jointly by Bernard and his son Thibaud where they have 12 hectares (football pitches) of Pinot Noir and 3 of Chardonnay. They don't have any of the third variety of Champagne, Pinot Meunier, as it isn't allowed to be planted in Grand Cru vineyards. I had an appointment and was warmly welcomed by Thibaud, who was a great host and fun company. He gave me a tour of his cavernous caves underneath their property, housing five to six thousand bottles of Champagne! He told me after buying the domaine they dug out under the entire property (though I'm not sure how much he did himself) to maximise their cellar space. It's a very impressive set-up for an outfit that's still family run, selling almost 50% of their wine at the cellar door. We tried his Brut Grand Cru (NV), which is made up of 75% Pinot Noir and 25% Chardonnay . This one was really excellent - very savoury, with full rich and almost chewy flavours that gave away the high percentage of Pinot Noir in the blend. It was also complex and extremely long. One sip kept me going for five minutes. Now before carrying on, it's worth noting an aside on ageing:
The second fermentation of Champagne (the one that gives it the bubbles) takes place in the bottle. After the fermentation is complete the dead yeast cells, called the lees, sit in the bottle and give the Champagne character and complexity as it ages (typically biscuity, yeasty flavours). All NV Champagne has to be aged for at least 18 months on the lees before 'disgorgement', when the lees is removed and the final cork is put in place. At this point the Champagne can be sold. However, as all wine commentators agree, NV Champagne is nearly always at its best at least several months after disgorgement, which the wine is rarely allowed to do, as it's normally disgorged, purchased and drunk in fairly quick succession.
Why am I telling you this now? Well at Bernard Brémont they age their NV Brut for another few months before release. Tasting the wine emphasised to me the importance of this post-disgorgement ageing, really helping the flavours develop and come through. At €13.90 this was a whole 10 cents more expensive than the first purchase, but for me was even better value. Another six for me. A really great wine at the price and based on it's quality I also bought a couple of bottles of his 2002 vintage (a great year) at about €20 a pop. The Vintage offering is 85% Pinot Noir and 15% Chardonnay and Thibaud assures me it's still young - I'm sure it will prove to be a very wise purchase when I sample one. I shall report back!
Well, a very successful afternoon in the Montagne de Reims, which showed how easy it is to visit independent producers and buy excellent Champagne at a reasonable price. Now I can't wait until tomorrow morning, when I'm exploring one of the other classic sub-zones of the region, the Côte des Blancs. I'll let you know how I get on.