Champagne is vast. The northern sections fan out from Epernay. North across the chalky Montagne de Reims towards Reims, west along the Marne Valley towards Paris, then due southwards, the Chardonnay slopes called the Cote des Blancs. Way further south, there is Montgueux, to the west of Troyes. Finally, in the bottom right hand corner, there is the Aube (also known as the Cote des Bar), our fertile hunting ground for smaller family Champagnes.
In the bottom right hand corner of the Champagne region, half-way between Reims and Dijon, is the Aube, also known as the Cote des Bar. Here, off the beaten track, the tiny village of Loches-sur-Ource is the very rural home of Champagne Amyot. We have been working with Amyot for 18 years. The domaine is run by two brothers, Vincent and Bertrand, and Vincent’s wife Annick (who was known to us as Madame Amyot for the first 17 years). They speak an impenetrable, heavily-accented local dialect. Their champagne Carte Or Brut (a Blanc de Noirs – 100% Pinot Noir, grown on sandy soil) is the biggest selling item in The Winery – always powerful, big and biscuity. At recent blind taste-offs of champagnes versus a spread of sparkling wines for City clients, it came out top, even above vintage champagnes.
Godme (Verzenay/Montagne de Reims)
You can make out the village of Verzenay as you thunder south of Reims on the Autoroute des Anglais towards the Autoroute du Soleil. It nestles below the tree line on the Montagne de Reims (which is more of a gentle incline than a mountain) – the village with the windmill and a lighthouse, built by a grower to remind his wife of Brittany, and which is now a wine museum.
Godme is a small family domaine run by two sisters, Sabine and Dominique, and Hugues, Sabine’s husband. We noticed recently that the label has been undergoing a radical modernisation. It seems that Sabine’s daughter Marie is now involved – she’s fresh out of college and keen to bring some fresh perspective. Whichever labels you might prefer there is no doubting the sheer quality of their Champagnes.
Louis Casters (Damery/Vallee de la Marne)
Champagne is often made from red grapes which are pressed and separated from their skins to avoid taking on the colour. Usually this would be Pinot Noir. Pinot Meunier is the other red grape, considered in the past to be a “filler”, several growers are now making single bottlings which are becoming increasingly fashionable with their bold, upfront flavours. Casters make a single varietal bottling called Cuvee Superieure. Their Cuvee Eugene is stunning. Barrel fermented Pinot Noir blended with their best parcel of Chardonnay.
Michel Henriet (Verzenay/Montagne de Reims)
You can make out the village of Verzenay as you thunder south of Reims on the Autoroute du Soleil. It’s the village nestling below the tree line on the Montagne de Reims (which is more of a gentle incline than a mountain), the one with the windmill and the lighthouse, which was a folly and is now a wine museum. Magali runs the tiny, fifth generation, family domaine which carries her father’s name. We all love her excellent bottlings from the 2004 vintage.
Marie-Noelle Ledru (Ambonnay/Montagne de Reims)
We have been circling Marie-Noelle Ledru for almost two years. It was Arnaud at the fabulous Le Channel Restaurant in Calais who gave us our first taste. Deep Grand Cru Ambonnay flavour with pronounced freshness. Wonderful. Our first visit introduced us to her entire range. Unfortunately she had nothing left to sell. We called again before Christmas. “Sorry, I’m off to Tokyo tomorrow and I still don’t have much right now.” So we phoned again on our trip in March. Her friend answered – “I don’t think she has any, but I’ll ask her when she gets back. She’s out in the vines, on her tractor right now”. Luckily for us Marie-Noelle managed to scrape together some cases to bring back in our van.
She has just 3 hectares, which she does on her own with just one worker – no wonder she doesn’t have much to sell!
Francois Seconde (Sillery/Montagne de Reims)
François Seconde is retiring, supposedly – although visual confirmation is lacking, thankfully. In the meantime, we are delighted to make repeated diversions off the Autoroute des Anglais just after Reims, to the village of Sillery on the chalky Montagne de Reims, to scoop up more of his wonderful, mouthfilling Grand Cru Champagnes.
Brut Grand Cru NV is 2/3 Pinot Noirs and 1/3 Chardonnay. Cuvee Clavier (the one with the, er, distinctive piano keyboard label) is more white than “black” grapes (geddit? More white keys than black), 2/3 Chardonnay and 1/3 Pinot Noir. The exquisite “La Loge” is a Blanc de Noirs, 100% Pinot Noir. Francois’ latest, top bottling is the intense “Puisieulx”, 50/50 Pinot Noir/Chardonnay from the tiny village of Puisieulx.
Saint Chamant (Epernay/Cote des Blancs)
Charming 84 year-old Monsieur Christian Coquillette of Saint Chamant is the postcard picture of a more senior vigneron – lean, lively, moustache, occasionally sporting a beret, poodle. Christian whizzes around in his beaten-up van between his labyrinthine cellars under Epernay and his old Chardonnay vines in Chouilly, the first Grand Cru village on the Cote des Blancs. Champagne made from 100% Chardonnay, known as Blanc de Blancs, is fresh and lemony when young and becomes magnificently nutty with age. Biscuity, deep, round and rich, yet always with the background freshness of Chardonnay. From time to time we take some of his smooth Cuvee Creme, racy Rose and his Brut Integrale, the driest of dry Champagnes. We tend to major on his vintage Blanc de Blancs – a perrenial hit at The Winery. We finally drank the last of his 1999 and have just picked up the brilliant 2002.
Vautrain-Paulet (Dizy/Vallee de la Marne)
How did we find the boldly perfumed Vautrain-Paulet from the strangely appropriately named village of Dizy? We first tasted it at the shiny, metropolitan styled Restaurant La Banque in Epernay. La Banque is an excellent addition to the Epernay restaurant landscape, partly thanks to its long list of small growers’ Champagnes by the glass. A great place to research and orientate. We were concientiously wading through ten glasses of Champagne from different growers when we were mugged by the Vautrain-Paulet.
Despite the grand facade, Arnaud Vautrain produces just 30,000 bottles each year from vines in Dizy and Ay.
Jean Velut (Montgueux)
The wind roars across the flat plains of Champagne 100kms south of Epernay. There is just one small hill – it’s just west of the city of Troyes and covered with vines, many of them Chardonnay. The village at the top of the hill is Montgueux, recently hailed by a French Journalist as “the Montrachet of the Cote des Bars”, and that’s where we found Denis and Anne Velut. After finishing his studies (and an internship in Burgundy at Lafarge, the benchmark grower in Volnay), their 27 year-old son Benoit has recently joined the domaine.
Their range is impressive across the board. Cuvee Tradition is 80% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Noir with fresh citrus, lemon sorbet notes, some caraway, clean, clear and lively.
Cuvee Speciale is 100% Chardonnay – the speciality of Montgueux. Their vintage bottlings are always round and deep. Latest addition to the line-up is a Brut Nature – with zero dosage. Same base wine as the Cuvee Speciale, a blend of 2001 and 2002 bottled in 2004. Excellent.
Every time we visit, ex-teacher Anne Velut, who is a keen pastry chef, offers us a little something. This time was a “sucre sale”, a flat croissant-like sweet and salty pastry filled with apple compote and foie gras. Perfect with a glass of their 2004 vintage Champagne.
Christophe Lefevre (Bonneil/Vallee de la Marne) BIODYNAMIC
In the pecking order of Champagne sub-regions, the Marne valley has tended to be thought of as below the Montagne de Reims and the Cotes des Blancs and above the Aube. It might be time to rethink the order. We have increasingly found more striking, bold-flavoured champagnes along the valley that runs from Epernay west towards Dormans and on to Paris. Christophe Lefevre is west of Dormans, an hour’s drive from Epernay where vineyards are more scattered. His small winery is at the top of a steep slope in a hamlet called Mont de Bonneil. There wasn’t much viticulture in his family. His father was a farmer and, although his grandfather had a few vines, he farmed a mixture of crops. Christophe trained as a mechanic before catching the wine bug. He started in 1997 and has been biodynamic for almost a decade.
Apart from Cuvee Alexandrine (named after his daughter), which is 100% Chardonnay from a single parcel of vines, his other cuvees – Prestige, Reserve and Cuvee Clement (named after his son) are Pinot Meunier-heavy blends. Wild yeasts and old vines bring their influence. These are heavenly champagnes; bold, perfumed, open and polished.
On a more earthbound note, after loading up the van, we asked to use the WC. “Unfortunately, with the family house next door, I didn’t think to put a toilet in the winery. My wife and I have split up and I live with the kids in the next village. I’m afraid you’ll have to go into the woods, over there.” Fortunately it had stopped raining.
Forget-Chemin (Ludes/Montagne de Reims)
Each year Thierry Forget sells some of his output to Veuve Clicquot, jealously keeping the best grapes for himself. He is based in the village of Ludes, between Reims and Epernay, and makes his Champagnes in the classic Montagne de Reims style. He has 12 hectares of prime 1er Cru vines scattered over ten villages, four of which are in the Montagne on chalk. The base Champagne is a blend of three vintages made in equal parts of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. Thierry often runs out of his Rose. Every time there is a great vintage in the area, he makes one or two barrels of old vine Pinot Noir which he blends to make his Rose Champagne.
Bernard Tornay (Bouzy/Montagne de Reims)
Natalie, who runs the family winery that bears the name of her retired father Bernard, can trace their roots in the village back to the 1600s. That village is Bouzy, on the Montagne de Reims (a rather grand name for a gentle hill, crowned by a forest between Reims and Epernay). They went independent 4 generations ago, when everyone had livestock, vegetables, grain and some rows of Grand Cru vines on the chalky Bouzy soil. Vieille Reserve is a classic blend of 70% Pinot Noir and 30% Chardonnay from the 2002 and 2003 vintages. It is deep and rich, with a vigorous body, thanks to the 25 year-old vines. We also mustn’t forget the racy finish.
Leclerc-Briant (Epernay) BIODYNAMIC
UK Premiere of Leclerc-Briant’s biodynamic Champagnes from two single vineyards around the village of Cumieres across the river Marne from the city of Epernay. Biodynamic is the extreme end of organic farming with every decision ruled by the Lunar Calendar. Both made with wild yeasts, the Chevres Pierreuses (stony goats) has a striking, almost herbal aroma that is constantly changing. Crayeres is broader and more opulent.
Also check out their Rose Champagne, called Rubis. Instead of making their Rose by blending still red wine (Pinot Noir) into their base Champagne, as most growers do, they make it by leaving the juice on the skins of their red grapes until it is the exact colour they are looking for before briskly drawing off the juice and then fermenting as normal. This is a very risky process.
Delavenne (Bouzy/Montagne de Reims)
This is the everyday story of a family Domaine in the village of Bouzy, started 4 generations ago when everyone had livestock, vegetables, grain…and some rows of Grand Cru vines on chalky Bouzy soil. The current Madame, Marie-Paule, was from the neighbouring village of Cramant, duly bringing a parcel of Cramant vines to the marriage. Their Cuvee Tradition is 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay. They tell us “there is never any Pinot Meunier in Grand Cru.” It is very impressive – fresh and bright in the nose with a vigorous body, thanks to the 25 year-old vines. There’s even a savoury tang at the end.
Gerard Dubois (Avize/Cote des Blancs)
Gerard Dubois retired in 2008. He loves it. “I have given my vines to my brother and nephew, I have a full cellar, can do a few meetings with my favourite clients (that’ll be us!) have lunch with my Mother more frequently and go Scuba-Diving in the Red Sea.” Not that he ever looked particularly stressed before, he is tanned and very smiley now. We always take his delicious vintage Blanc de Blancs, 100% Chardonnay from the legendary vineyards around his village of Avize. This time we have 1999 and 2001 and his top-of-the-range Prestige bottling of a parcel of old vines which he ages traditionally under cork. His wines often make us think of Meursault with bubbles. Yum.
Tribaut-Schloesser (Romery/Vallee de la Marne)
Our recent trawl around Champagne was long and gruelling. The hard work at the chalk face is etched in our faces (and waistlines). After the daily agony of tasting Champagne from dawn until well after dusk comes the pleasure of returning with a full vanload of bubbly beauties.
UK Premiere of this delicious, utterly classic, Non-Vintage Brut Champagne from Tribaut-Schloesser, a small family domaine in the small village of Romery tucked in a hollow at the Epernay end of the Marne valley. Utterly classic in the sense that it’s a blend of all three varietals: 40% Pinot Noir from parcels in the Montagne de Reims, 30% Chardonnay from the Cote des Blancs and 30% Pinot Meunier from their own village in the Vallee de la Marne. Classic too as it’s a blend of multiple vintages; 2007, 2006 with some older, Reserve wines. We were struck by the sensory journey this wine takes you on. A journey to the centre of Champagne, as it were. Do not miss their top-of-the-range Cuvee l’Authentique, a brilliant Champagne made from their best parcels, the old fashioned way with long bottle aging under cork rather than crown.
Henry de Vaugency (Oger/Cote des Blancs)
Sounds shallow but it was the label which made us want to try Henry de Vaugency. Spotted recently at 10 metres across a restaurant in Epernay with all the Fleur de Lys and bold use of colour, we were slightly sceptical about how the contents may taste. Against all our preconceptions the wine was delicious – classic Cote des Blancs Chardonnay. Right in the centre of the village, the de Vaugency domain is an eccentric set-up. Pascal Henry is the son-in-charge. His parents started a collection of marriage artefacts and now run a “Museum of Love” from the same location. There is something fabulously Gracelands about it – a private shrine not to Elvis, but Marriage. Hope you (like us) fall in love with these champagnes.
A family Domaine for 3 generations in the tiny village of Colombey-les-Sec, near the de Gaulle memorial at Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises. Across the range they are beautifully made, with impressive complexity, bright freshness and good depth of flavour. Tradition is 80% Pinot Noir with 20% Chardonnay from a sunny slope overlooking the village.
Georges Laval (Cumieres/Vallee de la Marne) BIODYNAMIC
Georges Laval, along with Jacques Beaufort above, was one of the pioneers of Bio-dynamism in Champagne. Now made by his son Vincent, the wines are high-class with their complex fennel, caraway nose and classic Cumieres raciness. We often think of the village of Cumieres as something of a Montagne de Reims/Cote des Blancs hermaphrodite – plenty of Pinot but also more Chardonnay present than usual, providing racy freshness more often associated with the Cote des Blancs just across the Marne. Vincent also showed us a barrel of 100% old-vine Pinot Meunier which, if all goes well, he will bottle separately. We hope so – it was fascinating.