I'm currently having a quick trip round Champagne in search of good value Grower Champagne. The region is split into four principle areas and with only two half days at my disposal I focussed on the two most classic of Champagne zones, the Montagne de Reims and the Côte des Blancs. The former excels in Pinot Noir (I had a superb Pinot dominated Grand Cru NV at Domaine Bernard Brémont yesterday) whereas the latter (as the name gives away) is mainly about fine Chardonnay.
So following an excellent afternoon in the Montagne de Reims yesterday, this morning I continued my tour with a visit to the Côte des Blancs. Naturally enough, today I was primarily looking for that fine and elegant style of Champagne, Blanc de Blancs, which is made from pure Chardonnay. There were three producers to visit before lunch, so I had to head out early...
The first thing I noticed as soon as I stepped outside was a ridiculous blast of freezing cold air smashing into my cheeks. I thought yesterday was cold at -6 but today was a finger-numbing -10! Lucky I had my thick socks on, but I really lamented not having ear flaps on my hat. The photo below shows the Côte des Blancs as I was driving through. No laughing matter for the vignerons I spotted finishing off their winter pruning and burning it in the vineyards.
My first visit was in one of the most famous Grand Cru villages in Champagne, if not the most famous, which is Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, where I found Domaine Pierre Moncuit. They had a couple of lesser cuvées but I went straight for their Grand Cru Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs (NV). With very linear, clean citrus and green apple fruit flavours it was elegant, refreshing and pretty long. A lovely wine at €19 and a good start to the day. 4 bottles for me please.
Next up was, Domaine Larmandier-Bernier in the town of Vertus just south of Le Mesnil, where Pierre Larmandier is viticulteur, winemaker and a real class act. They farm biodynamically (organic+) and are proponents of the increasing practices of minimal intervention, wild yeasts, low dosages (when in Champagne) and low sulphur levels. The most extreme examples of this practice have coined the phrase 'natural wine' for their ethos, which in my opinion can be excellent but can also be over the top, particularly when no sulphur at all is used. However, the general principle of having healthy natural vineyards, minimising sprays and intervening in the winemaking as little as possible has got to be a good thing if well handled. At Domaine Larmandier-Bernier, in complete contrast to the majority of Champagne, they carry out the first fermentation with wild yeasts and then leave the base wine on the lees (dead yeast cells) for a full nine months after fermentation is complete. They also practice some battonage (stirring up the lees in the fermentation vessels) during this period to add character. Madame Larmandier told me they do this in order to have as good a first wine as possible, with as much terroir and character as they can get, which bubbles are then added to. This is opposed to the more normal practice of starting with a much more neutral base wine with most of the character being created after the second fermentation.
Anyway, technical details aside, the result is some stunningly good wines. I went for the Champagne Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut, which had superb depth, minerality, vitality, elegance and length. A really excellent wine and at €30 actually fairly reasonable too. This would have cost at least twice that if it had been from one of the big Champagne Houses and was my wine of the trip. 3 bottles for me. One producer to go...
Finally I stopped at Domaine Guy Larmandier, the uncle of Pierre Larmandier. In great contrast to their relatives, this branch of the family makes traditional style Champagne, but also excellent in their own way. They also had a big roaring fire in their tasting room which was most welcome on such a freezing day. I started with their Champagne Brut Grand Cru Cramant Blanc de Blancs (NV). Much like the first Blanc de Blanc at the start of the day (at Pierre Moncuit), this was classic, fine, elegant Blanc de Blancs. Great at €17.90 I had a case of six. Unfortunately I also tried the Champagne Prestige Blanc de Blancs Vintage 2005 . I say unfortunately as it was superb and demanded one more purchase. Rich and round but still elegant and crisp it had extra depth, complexity and length - a lovely vintage Blanc de Blancs and superb value at €24. Three for me and that's my lot.
Having finished an brief but excellent tour of the Montagne de Reims and the Côte des Blancs over two half days, I was really taken with the idea of whizzing over to Champagne and buying some superb bottles of Grower Champagne at great prices. Next time you're driving through France, stop off and give it a go.