24 Jan 2012

Two ends of the spectrum (Champagne, France – Day Five)

A common theme across all of my visits in Champagne (both in 2010 and 2012), is the importance of vineyards, and particularly growers. This was the major theme of my first visit of the day. Something even more important in Champagne that I have stumbled upon is the pioneering women of the region, many of whom not only kept houses operating after husbands or fathers perished, but dramatically improving quality. It is undeniable that the largest market for champagne in every market is female consumers, so I feel they are missing out on an opportunity to empower their consumers through communications and messaging about the pioneering spirit of women Champenois. This was a discussion point of my second visit of the day.

Unique cellars at Laurent-Perrier

Family-owned and proud of it (Champagne, France – Day Four)

During my week I had several engaging discussions with many of my hosts, and we shared our philosophies on wine and champagne. As this was my second visit to Champagne and considering my history with Domaine Chandon Australia, I feel like I have come to a reasonably good understanding of Champagne and what the most important things are. Champagne as a product is probably the best example of wine marketing, and brand strength and recognition has been built around the category. Today there are many more competitors for champagne around the world, and with so many houses and so much wine coming out of this small region, the question becomes how to stay relevant and competitive in a saturated and (currently) stagnant market?

A lovely welcome at Pol Roger

23 Jan 2012

The Prestige (Champagne, France - Day Three)

As aficionados and visitors to Champagne would know, there are considered to be three main areas where grapes are grown in the region. Two of these areas are between Reims and Epernay; the Montagne de Reims which is famous for pinot noir, and the Marne Valley famous for Pinot Meunier. The third area is to the south of Epernay, and is the Cote de Blanc famous for chardonnay. It just so happened that the majority of the houses I visited in 2010 were in either Reims or Epernay, and occasionally in Ay and Mareuil-Sur-Ay, which are both in the Montagne de Reims. I was very pleased therefore to get the opportunity to drive down into the Cote de Blancs for the first time to make my first appointment for the day. It would no doubt have been nicer during Spring, Summer or Autumn, but at least I got an idea of the terroir of the appellation.

The famous Clos de Mesnil

I see you are a connoisseur, Mr. Bond (Champagne, France - Day Two)

The weather seemed to get colder on the second day I was in Champagne, which makes it harder to acclimatise after six weeks in the South American summer. Possibly because my body is used to being in the Southern Hemisphere, I noticed the early symptoms of a cold, which I also battled with when I was in Northern USA and Canada. I was glad that I had brought my thermals with me, which I had never worn away from the snow in Australia. Some of my hosts laughed that it got much colder, but I’m not used to walking around in zero degree temperatures.

Amazing dessert at Le Table Kobus in Epernay.

Champagne calling (Champagne, France - Day One)

For those following this blog, you may have noticed a large gap since my last post. The reason for this is that it is difficult to make appointments at wineries no matter where between Christmas and the third week of January. Even winemakers, marketers and owners of wineries need a break sometime. Thus I took the opportunity to spend time with friends in Brazil over Christmas and New Years, and then a week in Paris before heading to my first official region in Europe and the perfect aperitif; Champagne. This was my second visit to the home of sparkling wine, having ended a three week journey to France here in 2010. It was a great feeling arriving into Reims on the TGV train early in the morning and seeing the sun rise on a wintery day. You truly appreciate the cold climate here when visiting in winter. I picked up my rental car early as I had my first appointment at 9:00am.

Taittinger is a house that has origins back in 1734, making it one of the oldest existing houses in Champagne. There are several defining features of Taittinger that make it special. The first is the fact that it is one of the few remaining family-owned houses of its size and age, having been purchased by Pierre Taittinger in 1932 and now run by the third generation. The second special thing is their location in Reims on the hill that overlooks the town, relocating here from Mailly. This hill is also the home of such illustrious houses as Ruinart, Pommery, Veuve Cliquot and (formerly) Piper-Heidsieck. To the untrained eye this hill is no different to the rest of Reims, but you discover its treasures when you head underground into the chalk creyeres which houses millions of bottles of champagne. These halls date back to the Roman era, when the chalk was mined to be used for construction. The natural caves that remain are ideal for storing bottles as they are cool, dark and have perfect humidity. This kind of cave can't really be found anywhere else in Champagne, and the white walls are quite a sight to behold.

I was lucky enough to be invited to join a group of visiting buyers from Belgium for a special program at Taittinger. The first part of the program was a visit into their historic cellars where the group was introduced to the champagne process and the specifics of Taittinger. Whilst the tour was in French and I therefore didn't catch everything, I could gather most of the key information having visited Champagne already, and having worked for Domaine Chandon Australia for four years so familiar with the methode. The second part of the program took place in the historic hall of the Comtes de Champagne, which their prestige cuvee is named after, and was a tasting of several base wines from the 2011 vintage with the Chef de Cave, Loic Dupont. I got chills when I tasted several of the villages, which included Mesnil sur Oger and Chuilly, two grand cru Cotes de Blanc chardonnay wines.

Following the tasting we adjourned to the other side of Epernay, and enjoyed a fabulous lunch at the famous Château de la Marquetterie. The Chateau, located in the village of Pierry, was built in 1734 in a Louis XV style, and was part of the 1932 purchase. The lunch consisted of four courses matched with four champagnes from the Taittinger range, with the Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs 2000 to start with. The found was of course exceptional, but I felt the only match of the meal was the Ballotine de Saumon Fume with the Taittinger Prelude, a NV wine made from exclusively grand cru vineyards. The lunch was hosted by a number of Taittinger people, most notably by Clovis Taittinger, the fourth-generation family member who is currently the Export Director.

For the afternoon I headed into the lower Montagne de Reims to Mareuil-sur-Ay, where I visited Champagne Philipponat. The family that originally owned the house dates back over 500 years, and two of their wines are named after the original 1522 establishment of the first estate. The key component of Philipponat is the famous Clos de Goisses vineyard, which sits to the east of the village, and was purchased 25 years after the house was founded in the village in 1935. The vineyard, which is made up of predominantly pinot noir, is the basis for the single-vineyard prestige cuvee of the house. Extremely rare in nature due to its limited quantity and release only in the best vintages, it is one of the best in the region. The vineyard itself is remarkably steep for the region, and the vines are very small, producing very low yields. You can also see the chalk in the soil, such an important part of the region.

My Italian host Nicoleta took me through the cellars and winery, and then onto a tasting across the range. The Brut Royale Reserve had a lovely brioche and lemon tart complexity, was soft and broad, and yet had lovely freshness to it. I wasn’t as enamoured of the Royale Reserve without a dosage, as it appeared a little flat and sharp, with no approachability or subtlety. The Grand Blanc 2005 had a slightly crunchy and dirty acid and leesy complexity, coupled with a creamy citrus nose. Tasting the Reserve Millesime 2003 was further evidence that in my opinion there were no good wines produced from this vintage due to its heat. Not that they are bad necessarily, they just aren’t champagne as far as I’m concerned. The Cuvee 1522 2002 was probably the highlight, due in part to its vintage. It was very powerful in fruit, yet had very elegant expression. Crème brulee combined with lemon butter and brioche.

The Clos des Goisses 2000 was a very different grand marc than I was used to. Nicoleta had already explained that due in part to the pinot noir dominance and the aspect of the single vineyard being South facing, meant the base wines were generally higher in alcohol after the primary fermentation. The final product after secondary fermentation and lees ageing is a fuller and much more textural champagne than the majority, having about 13% alcohol compared to 12-12.5%. The colour is much more golden than others, a product of its age, variety and ripeness. The textural ripeness results in the wine exhibiting an almost lanoline character, combining with honey and dried peach. I admired the audacity of this style, and imagined the many types of food that would pair with this wine. I did wonder how the wine would age though…

Click here to see more photos from Day One in Champagne.