Tasting Champagne’s terroir
Author: Edwin Dublin
A recent whistle-stop tour of 15 Champagne producers in three days re-affirmed to me just how different Champagnes can be. However, what shone through all of the producers, villages and styles I visited was a sense of terroir and individuality – especially among the growers – which Champagne is sometimes accused of lacking.
We began at Gaston Chiquet, one of our long-standing growers, with a tasting in the drawing-room of its late 19th-century house, which also serves as suitably elegant offices. Based in the wonderful-sounding premier cru village of Dizy, Chiquet showcases the importance of the Pinot Meunier grape in this village, which lends its Brut Tradition appealing zesty, fresh notes.
Paul Bara’s Pinot Noir-dominated cuvees, meanwhile, hail from Bouzy (pronounced “boozy”!), one of the great Champagne grand crus. The power, warmth and richness of this village shone through Bara’s wines, especially the 2005 Vintage Brut.
Bouzy’s Pinot Noirs make for a fascinating contrast with the equally powerful wines from the grand cru villages of Ambonnay and Mailly (the latter being home to the cooperative which makes our own-label Champagne). The wines from Mailly in particular have a firm streak beneath the weight. The Mailly co-operative’s 1998 magnum, aged en pointe (literally upside-down, which slows down the ageing process), is poised between freshness and maturity. Over in Ambonnay, Eric Rodez is a passionate advocate of biodynamics and maintaining balanced vineyards. The result is wines which manage to combine Mailly structure with Bouzy richness, such as in his Cuvée des Grands Vintages, which really is classic Ambonnay.
The Côte des Blancs, where Chardonnay is king, brings another opportunity to compare how one grape variety can be interpreted by several villages. There is the linear, rapier-like, mineral precision of the long-lived wines from Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, exquisitely expressed at Pierre Peters (most notably in its top cuvée Chetillons), and also by the co-operative Le Mesnil. The near-by village of Cramant, meanwhile, is renowned more for the delicate, filigree minerality of its wines, as evidenced in the Champagnes of Guy Larmandier and the slightly more structured Lancelot-Pienne.
Traditional methods are key at Epernay-based producer Alfred Gratien, where wines are made under the careful eye of fourth generation cellar-master Nicolas Jaeger. Barrel-fermentation (using old wood so no oak flavours), no malolactic fermentation and long ageing under cork for its vintage wines produced one of the freshest vintage 2000 Champagnes currently available.
One producer currently flying the flag for oak is small grower Vilmart in Rilly-la-Montagne, which has garnered acclaim for its concentrated style of Champagne. Almost defiantly vins de garde, these wines are ripe for contemplation, reflecting perhaps the somewhat ecclesiastical interior of the tasting room, with its vinous-related stained glass windows. A standout for me was the almost savoury Grand Cellier Rubis, which demonstrates how serious rosé Champagne can get.
It is fascinating to see how these producers create wines that convey something both of themselves and also of the village from whence they came. And, judging from the way these Champagnes have prospered within our range, this expression of personality and terroir has become something our Champagne devotees celebrate.