As you know, champagne is our passion here at Clos & Cru. We visit the region as often as possible and when better than during the unofficially titled ‘Champagne Week’ each spring. This huge gathering of growers, producers, winemakers and the trade provides a marvellous opportunity to meet with old friends, make new ones, keep ourselves up-to-date by tasting dozens of champagnes, and to discover exciting new wines for our portfolio. With this in mind the full Clos & Cru team convened from London, Stockholm and Vilnius for five days of immersion in our favourite bubbly beverage!
Eager to make the most of the trip the London contingent caught an early Eurotunnel on Saturday and made our first stop before lunch at our good friends Henriet-Bazin in Villers-Marmery. The Henriet and Bazin families have been cultivating vines and making wines in the Montagne de Reims region for five generations. Since the families united the house owns six hectares of vineyards in grand cru villages Verzy and Verzenay, and premier cru plots in Villers-Marmery. Unusually for the areas, which are Pinot Noir dominated, more than half their harvest is Chardonnay, which brings a mineral freshness and floral qualities to their wines. Like a number of producers, Henriet-Bazin believe good wines are born in the vineyards, through top quality grapes which are nurtured to express the pedigree of their terroir. To this end they have carefully mapped their 37 plots and bored into the soils to give them an understanding of the distribution and depth of chalk across their terroir.
We were greeted by Nicolas, husband of Marie-Noelle who with the guidance of her father is the latest generation of the family to curate the Henriet-Bazin cuvees. Nicolas took us into their cellars where we were able to view first-hand the attention to detail of their winemaking process. Henriet-Bazin use the solera system (started in 1968), which adds a nuttiness and depth to their reserve wines, and such is their commitment to terroir they are now experimenting with keeping their solera in barrels produced from local oak from the Montagne de Reims.
To give us a feel for their terroir Nicolas took us up into the Verzy forest and out into their vineyards in his Land Rover, explaining in detail how the different soils and aspects contribute to the character of the grapes grown on each individual plot. There was no time for a tasting on this visit, and we have enjoyed many of Henriet-Bazin’s nine cuvees on previous occasions, but already after a few short hours we were starting to immerse ourselves in the details which make up the rich patchwork of the Champagne region. So thank you, Nicolas, and a bientot!
After a quick check in at our lodgings in Ay and a restorative pizza for lunch we were off again to our next tasting. A spontaneous pit-stop in Mesnil-sur-Oger gave us the opportunity to view Clos du Mesnil, Krug’s unique walled micro-climate of 0.75 hectares located in the heart of this grand cru chardonnay village.
A prodigy of the Selosse school
We were delighted to have been able to arrange a visit with maverick winemaker Olivier Collin at Ulysse Coillin in Congy. Olivier trained with Anselme Selosse in 2001 and credits Selosse with inspiring him to become a winemaker, and to take control of the portion of his family estate that had been rented to Pommery. It has not been an easy path. Olivier made his first wine in 2004 from a 1.2 hectare parcel in a vineyard called Les Perrieres in the nearby village of Vert La Gravelle. In addition, he has some other Chardonnay parcels in Vert La Gravelle and Congy, as well as parcels of Pinot Noir.
Described by Antonio Galloni as “some of the most unique and thrilling wines being made in Champagne. There is little question Collin’s wines are now on the same level as those of his mentor, Anselme Selosse“.
Olivier took us for a walk through his plots in Congy whilst explaining how he set about restoring his soils to health following years of neglect by the negoce. His belief is that working the soil, and increasing the microbiological activity will result in the healthiest vines which produce fruit that expresses its terroir. His winemaking is as natural and non-interventionist as possible. Fermentation is carried out with indigenous yeasts, and the wine is neither fined nor filtered.
Back at the winery the energetic and charismatic Oliver leapt from barrel to barrel sharing samples of his vins clairs from 2014 and his reserve wines from 2011-2013. These are kept in old Burgundy barrels. He separates the base wines from his three distinct parcels (Les Pierrieres, Les Roises, and Les Maillons) and you can clearly see the differences between each. At last it was time to sample the finished product. We tasted the deep blush Rose de Saignee from Les Maillons, which was a little closed, and the 2008 Blanc de Noirs, Les Maillons, with a toffee and treacle nose, soft rich flavours of butter, brioche and a touch of smoke: delicious. We’d only been in Champagne a matter of hours and already we were buzzing with the infectious energy from two different but equally passionate producers.
Day two: two fairs, a Meunier epiphany and a memorable supper
Sunday dawned bright and clear in Ay. Fortified by a generous breakfast and some very strong coffee the team headed to Epernay for our first official tasting: Les Mains du Terroir, at which 17 producers from across the region were represented. We particularly enjoyed the powerful Pinot Noir dominated wines from Eric Rodez and on the Chardonnay side the distinct tropical notes of Champagne De Sousa. Revelation of the morning however was the 1964 Michel Loriot (100% Pinot Meunier), disgorged just the day before. It had an incredibly concentrated nose of roasted hazelnuts, sultanas, rye bread and pine. In the mouth we found tobacco, leather, molasses, and prunes. It was a little dusty but still charming – by far the oldest 100% Meunier we have tried – who said that Meunier can’t age?!
Our next stop was at Origines Champagne, in the picturesque Chateau de Pierry just south of Epernay. This was a much more relaxed affair, with just ten producers gathered in the airy rooms of the chateau. This was also where we were joined by the rest of the Clos & Cru team. We enjoyed the selection from Ambonnay-based Soutiran, especially their Cuvee Signature (60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay) with a base from 2007 and 30% reserve wines. It was textbook Ambonnay – warm sunshine oozed out of the glass, with honey and ripe stone fruits, in the mouth it was rich and creamy. Also noteworthy was Robert Moncuit’s 2008 Les Chetillons from the sought-after plots in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger.
Sometimes you find somewhere really special, and you almost don’t want to share it in case suddenly it becomes impossible to book yourself. Logis des Pressureurs at Roger Brun is such a place. The accommodation isn’t palatial but the welcome from the ebullient Phillipe Brun and the charming Sophie is so warm, and the hospitality so generous, I’d stay here over a grand chateau any day!
True to form Phillipe had invited their guests – ten of us in all – to dine with them in their apartment upstairs. It was a very convivial group with five of us from Clos & Cru plus guests, and a group of Italian Prosecco producers accompanied by elder statesman of the Champagne world Michael Edwards. We started with aperitifs – a selection of Roger Brun bien sur – and a few other surprises including an Italian and an English sparkling, whatever next! Then we moved upstairs, where Sophie had laid on a feast of foie gras, pates and melt in the mouth roast duck legs, followed by cheese and some delicious home made tarts. The meal was accompanied by 2006 Cuvee des Sires from Roger Brun en magnum, a selection of 2010 Barolos (Dagromis from Gaja and Pio Cesare) and a 1982 Chateauneuf-du-Pape from Jaboulet. As Lou Reed sang, “Oh what a perfect day!”
Day three: a whirlwind of tastings
Another glorious morning and an early start despite the late night. Our first stop this morning was Terres & Vins, the show that was the catalyst for Champagne Week. This year, having outgrown its original Ay location, it took place in the impressive Palais du Tau in Reims, next to the cathedral. With 22 producers including some of the most feted names in grower champagne, Pascal Agrapart, David Leclapart, Georges Laval… it is difficult to list the highlights. I particularly enjoyed the terroir driven examples from Pascal Doquet. Bereche, Le Cran 2007 en magnum was an unusual treat and Rose de Saignee from Rene Geoffroy was seriously good.
After a quick sandwich in the sun we were off to the next tasting, Generation Champagne. After the craziness of Terres & Vins it was quite a relief to be in a quieter environment with time to chat to the producers and taste their wines at leisure. Our highlight here was the 1990 Herbert Beaufort Extra Brut, Vinotheque. Not on the official tasting list but kindly offered by Ludovic and Hugues Beaufort.
The day finished on a high note with dinner in Epernay and a blind tasting of 2007 Agrapart Venus, such a treat.
Day four: two tastings and an introduction to biodynamics
We couldn’t have asked for better weather for our visit, with not a cloud in the sky as we headed in to Reims to the Salon des Artisans du Champagne, which this year was being held at the stunning Domaine Les Crayeres in Reims. It wasn’t just the setting that was five star, the line up of 17 producers was pretty stellar too. Favorites included Pierre Peters and Vilmart. Highlights: 2008 Francs du Pied from Nicloas Maillart: just 3,000 bottles of this cuvee are made from ungrafted wines, far too young to drink now but huge potential.
The team regrouped for a light lunch on the sunny terrace and a catch up on what we’d tried, then it was on to the next tasting, Passion Chardonnay – where unsurprisingly the focus was on blanc de blancs, and with producers aiming to represent the specific characteristics of their terroirs. It was great to see Nicolas and Marie-Noelle from Henriet-Bazin showcasing their Blanc de Blancs 2011 and their Cuvee Marie-Amelie Millesime 2008. We also enjoyed Lilbert Fils from Cramant and Veuve Fourne from Vertus.
The day was still young so we took a drive along the edge of the Montagne de Reims, through some glorious scenery to Ambonnay. We’d heard on the grapevine (no pun intended!) that today was the once-a-year opportunity to taste a vertical of Sapience with Benoît Marguet-Bonnerave, the 5th generation in the family at the helm of Champagne Marguet. Benoît converted his vineyards (10 hectares in Ambonnay and Bouzy) to biodynamic farming in 2009-10 and uses extremely low quantities of sulphites in his winemaking.
Sapience is the first prestige cuvee produced only from certified organic grapes. To make this blend Benoit buys grapes from other biodynamic producers: Benoit Lahaye (Pinot Noir), Vincent Laval (Pinot Meunier), and David Leclapart (Chardonnay). The results across 2011 to 2007 vintages show huge variation, Benoit describes wine as “Like a teenager, never constant… you have to let it go and accept its life”.
Ambonnay is also home to Krug’s special walled plot of Pinot Noir – Clos d’Ambonnay. The gates were open and we couldn’t resist a quick peek at this hallowed Champagne turf. Then it was back to Ay at top speed for our last dinner of the trip. And what a dinner it was, on the terrace of Le Vieux Puits, with the heady scent of orange blossom. Thank you Phillipe for generously hosting us. As it was our last night we brought some rather special wines, but the richly tropical yet pure Selosse Initial (2008 base vintage) stole the show.
Day five: a wine making masterclass with Raphael Bereche and one last wine fair…
An energetic, smiling Raphael Bereche met us at their winery in Ludes, and took us for an incredibly educational tour of the facilities including a detailed explanation of his methods. The tour neatly ended in his tasting room where we tried almost the whole range of his wines. We loved the Cote (blanc de blancs), the 2008 had intense, rounded aromas of honey; the 2001 was taking on some earthy, truffle characters but still with freshness on the finish. He is so knowledgeable for such a young man that one can only wonder what he will be creating in 20 or 40 years time!
Last stop of our trip was Club Tresors. Paul Bara was a strong performer here and his new release of 2004 Comtesse Marie de France was probably the wine of this tasting.
How the time had flown, a whirlwind of people, champagnes, learning, and memorable experiences. A tired but elated Clos & Cru team said our goodbyes and headed home newly enthused by our favourite region. Watch this space for more detailed reports from the trip and offers on the exciting new producers that we discovered.