Notes from our trip to France in 2011
A weekend in Champagne
Itinerary, Accommodation and Notes
We caught the Friday 8h20 channel tunnel train so as to be near Reims by 12h30. First stop off the new péage was the le Clerc on the road to Epernay for baguette, cold meats and cheese for a picnic on the Montagne de Reims looking out over the vineyards to Reims. (The above picture was taken from just outside the village of Verzenay looking over grand cru vinyards to the Montagne de Reims forest in all its fall colour glory.) Tasting the north side of the mountain on Friday pm, the south side on Saturday am and the Côte des Blancs on Saturday pm. Sunday am before driving back to Calais in the afternoon could be used for a tour of one of the big houses – Pommery and Taittinger were the only ones we saw that were open. Generally these have to be booked.
Auberge le Relais
We stayed at a very pleasant hotel, really a one star Michelin restaurant with rooms, in the Marne river valley about half an hour west of Epernay, the Auberge le Relais in Reuilly T 03 23 70 35 36 www.relaisreuilly.com . The first night we had the 3 course set menu (€52) and were really disappointed. The choices were not that great and we landed up having all duck – foie gras and breast. The cheese selection was definitely the high point. The Alex Corton 2004 (€60) was fair enough. On our way out we spoke to a couple who were having the menu degustation (€85) and they were more than happy so this is what we had the second night. Like chalk and cheese. We thought it was the right quality. We had a Dm Courbis St Joseph 2007 (€53) decanted and it was excellent, really fruity with soft tannins.
Rilly la Montagne
After our picnic in the vineyards we started our tastings at Vilmart; 4, rue de la République, Rilly la Montagne; T 03 26 03 40 01. Despite sign postings of the name we found this place difficult to find; it is right next door to the town hall. We had a quick look at their fermentation cellars shown above. We tasted the Grand Réserve (€18.50 or €13 for a half bottle) and the Grand Cellier Brut 1er cru (€24.00) both of which had been made in the large oak foudres. The former had 70% Pinot Noir, was very fruity and had a hard edge whilst the latter was 70% Chardonnay, was less fruity but although there was no hard edge it still needs to be put down for some time to soften the acidity. The 2006 Grand Cellier d’Or Brut 1er cru (€32.00) was made in the small oak barrels and the taste and smell of oak was unmissable. Vilmart is certified as using organic methods by the Ampelos group. We bought one each of the 1er Crus to ‘pay’ for the tasting.
Around the corner (more or less) is Roger Manceaux; 5-7, rue de la liberté; T 03 26 03 42 57. Here we tasted their Cuvée de Réserve Brut (€15.60 or €8.80 for a half bottle), the Grande Réserve Brut (€19.00) and the Rosé (€16.80). The Cuvée de Réserve was full of fruit being 45% Pinot and 25% Meunier. We bought quite a bit of this.
The next village along the mountain is Chigny-les-Roses, the home to Cattier which is located on the main road; 6 rue Dom Perignon; T 03 26 03 42 11. This is a small (relative to the likes of Bollinger) family owned house but, being on the main road, I guess they have to treat you like the big places. Still, they make good champagne. We tried their Brut (€17.80) and their Blanc de Blanc (€21.20). We bought the Brut which was very smooth and refined.
Then we headed for Grand Cru vineyard country and tasted at 2 places almost opposite each other in Verzenay.
Jean-Yves de Carlini
Jean-Yves de Carlini; 13, rue de Mailly;T 03 26 49 43 91. One of our criteria of where to taste is good looking buildings because in our experience if it looks like tip the wines taste like it. This house has a great looking building. We tasted their Brut (€14.40 or €8 for a half), Cuvée de Réserve (€15.50) and their Rosé (€16.20), the latter two made from Grand Cru grapes. The Brut was fruity (75% Pinot Noir) whilst the Réserve was lighter with fine bubbles (50% Chardonnay). The Rosé got its red colour from the addition of 12% red wine from Bouzy. We bought a bottle each of the Réserve and the Rosé.
Michel Arnould; 28, rue de Mailly; T 03 26 49 40 06. The Brut Tradition (€15.60 or €9.40 for a half bottle) was 100% Pinot and tasted full and fruity. The Brut Réserve had 30% chardonnay, was well balanced and not too fruity. The Grand Cuvée Michel Arnould 2006 (€19.90) included 35% Chardonnay sourced from the Côte des Blancs and had a musty nose reminiscent of old oak but they said there was no oak used in production. We bought a couple of each.
We went on to Verzy but couldn’t locate anywhere to taste so as time for tasting was almost up we went back to Verzenay and took the mountain road back towards our hotel via Aÿ.
We started Saturday's tasting in Ambonnay – the furthest point from our hotel.
Marguet Pere & Fils
Marguet Pere & Fils; 1 Place Barancourt; Ambonnay; T 03 26 537 861. Benoit Marguet’s vineyards are mostly organic and tilled by horse power. Interestingly he is investing in barrel maturation and bottling as late as possible as he believes the micro-oxidation improves the wine and makes it more robust relative to stainless steel. He is using old barrels from Bordeaux. Similarly he is going to do single vineyard wines to again improve quality. Here we tasted the Cuvee Tradition Blanc de Noirs (€15.50, €9.50 for a half bottle that was recently added to the range) and grand crus Reserve (€16.70) and vintage 2004 (€19.00). The Blanc de Noirs was typically fruity; the reserve did not strike us as as pleasant as the one we tasted in 2010; the vintage 2004 had added bottle age to its complexity but was still fresh. We bought the 2004.
A couple of minutes down the road is Bouzy where we visited Benoît Lahaye; 33, rue Jeanne d’Arc, Bouzy; T 03 26 57 03 05. Ordinarily only open for visits by appointment, we were lucky that someone else had just finished their visit so we could also do a tasting. Lahaye has had an Ecocert organic certificate since 2007 and they moved to Biodynamic viticulture in 2009. In 2010 started using horse power in the vineyards which cover 4.5 hectare of primarily pinot noir vines. We tried their Brut Essential (90% pinot and 10% chardonnay; 40% of the wine from older vintages; 80% fermented in oak barrels) (€19.50), the Brut Nature which had no dosage (€20.00), the Prestige (100% Pinot Noir) (€22.80), the 2006 vintage which had 30% Chardonnay without malolactic fermentation (€30.10) and finally the Rosé made from 100 Pinot Noir with 20 hours of skin contact (€21.70). We were impressed by them all and bought the Brut Essential.
We headed back towards Ay and stopped off in Mareuil-sur-Ay to taste at two of our favourite producers Guy Charbaut and Marc Hebrart who produce very different champagnes. Charbaut believes in long lees contact and the biscuity flavours that produces whilst Hebrart produces fresh fruity champagnes.
We started at Guy Charbaut; 12, rue du Pont; Mareuil-sur-Ay; T 03 26 52 60 59. Here we tasted his Blanc de Blanc (€16.30), Reserve (€16.50), and 2005 (€18) vintage champagnes. Because we picked up a newly opened Reserve as corked they also opened a bottle of the 2000 vintage (€25.00) for us to taste. The Blanc de Blanc was far less acidic than one normally tastes probably because of the 48 months on the lees. The vintage champagnes were both lovely with the 2000 having the added bottle age complexity. We bought the Blanc de Blanc for a party in the new year and the 2000 and 2005 vintages. Charbaut makes half bottles for all his range and we offer his Reserve champagne – see here.
Just round the corner is Marc Hebrart; 18 et 20, rue du Pont; T 03 26 52 60 75. This domaine is one of the few small producers mentioned in Robert Parker’s review of champagne and his champagnes regularly score above 90 points. We tasted the Selection (€16.10), Blanc de Blanc (€15.50) and 2006 vintage (€22.60) champagnes. He offers a basic brut in half bottles which we have selected as one of our champagnes - see here. The selection was nice and fruity but a little sharp which we thought would probably disappear if the wine was kept for 6 months. The Blanc de Blanc was a mixture of chardonnays from Mareuil-sur-Ay and the Côte des Blancs and again not too sharp. The 2006 was in the new ‘traditional’ bottle the growers all now seem to use for their premium champagnes – don’t like this innovation as the wines are difficult to store because they are fatter than the normal bottle. We bought the Blanc de Blanc and the Selection.
We got to Aÿ just before lunch so only had time for one place so we tried an old favourite, Richard-Fliniaux at 12 rue Roulot: T 03 26 55 14 97 just off the road through the middle of town. We tasted the Fliiaux Perle (€14.90, €8.70 a half bottle) and the Richard Prestige Grand-Cru (€17.90). The former was fruity but simple in style with 40% Chardonnay. We bought the Grand-Cru which was far more complex but still had fruit (60% Chardonnay and 30% of the wine from older vintages).
We bought a baguette (and macaroons and little pink biscuits) and cold meats in the centre of Aÿ before heading off to Cramant on the Côte des Blancs for a picnic in the vineyards. After lunch we ambled through Avize and Oger looking for places that might be open with the usual blank haul.
J L Vergnon
We started our tastings on the Côte des Blancs, the Chardonnay epicentre of Champagne at J L Vergnon; 1, Grand Rue, Le Mesnil-sur-Orger; T 03 26 57 53 86. Tasted grand cru blanc de blanc champagne – Extra Brut (very dry) and the Brut which was a typical blanc de blanc, light and fruity – both €18. As we still had what we bought in 2010 we only bought the Brut.
We haven’t often been to Vertus, the last village on the Côte des Blancs but have heard of several good small producers. We visited Guy Larmandier; 30, Rue du Général Kœnig; T 03 26 52 12 41. Here we gate-crashed a tasting for some Belgiums with some glee as we had been turned away a couple of times over the weekend because of wall-to-wall Belgiums. We tasted GL Brut 1er cru (€15.00, €8.50 a half bottle); the Cramant grand cru blanc de blancs (€17.90, €9.50 a half bottle); the Perlée grand cru blanc de blancs (€16.70) with, as the name suggests, a very fine bead of bubbles and the Cuveé Prestige grand cru blanc de blancs (€24) that had won a coup de coeur in the recent Guide Hachette. What was a real eye-opener for us was how much fruit and balance there was in these blanc de blancs relative to those we normally taste – a style we much prefer. We bought some of each except the basic Brut.