Champagne and Alsace
Notes from our trip to France in 2017
Although we have been to Champagne on many occasions our daughter who lived in Australia had never had the chance to make a wine tour with us. So how to organise a first tour? The obvious place to start was with the winemakers who supply the grower champagnes we sell on halfwine.com - see here.
We managed to make it down to Champagne with just enough time to buy goodies for lunch at the Leclerc in Chamfleury. They have excellent 36 month Comte and other cheeses, Jambon and saucisson cut to order, and fruit and veg, all ideal for a picnic in the vineyards.
Our first stop was to taste the Blanc de Noirs in the village of Ecueil where we later had lunch in the vineyards on the hillside above the village as shown in the picture above.
11 Rue de l'Église, 51500 Écueil Tel +33 3 26 49 74 61
They make a number of Blanc de Noir, that is, white wine from red grapes. Theirs are made from Pinot Noir rather than Pinot Meunier (the other black grape used to make champagne) which is more common in the Vallée de la Marne. We find the Pinot Meunier makes wines that are too fruity to our taste; we prefer the elegance and restrained fruit that Pinot Noir gives. Brut Tradition Premier Cru is an excellent example and has the added benefit of a dosage with only 3 gms sugar. We also tasted their Extra Brut which we thought would be great with food because of its seemingly more acidic taste. We bought the Brut Tradition (€16.80).
9 bis, rue Jeanson; Aÿ, 51160; T 03 26 55 21 70
Here the aim was to taste Champagne made from all three grapes. The Brut Tradition was 70% Pinot Noir, 25% Chardonnay and 5% Pinot Meunier. Despite the small percentage of Pinot Meunier its fruitiness was quite obvious. The Premier Cru Prestige was the same blend but was only slightly fruity probably because of the increased quality of the grapes. The 2007 vintage Grand Cru was 75% Pinot Noir and 25% Chardonnay and was a definite step up in quality. We also tasted their Grand Cru Blanc de Noir made from 100% Pinot Noir which was excellent; golden colour and brioche notes. We bought the Premier Cru Prestige (€17.80) and the 2007 Grand Cru (€21.25).
9 rue Pasteur - 51190 Avize Tel : 03 26 57 52 30
Our half bottles of Blanc de Blanc and Rosé come from Bonville. We started with their Blanc de Blanc Grand Cru made solely from Chardonnay. We must confess that we generally find Blanc de Blanc too acidic for our liking but this has become a firm favourite of ours because it is not too acidic and is very fine; great nose and fruit. The 2012 vintage Blanc de Blanc has the added benefit of bottle aging to tone down the acidity; this too was excellent, appely flavours. Finally, we tried the Rosé which we think is the best around – a beautiful soft colour and the pinot noir adds that hint of fruit and Turkish Delight notes. The Brut Prestige is a selection of the best wines from a couple of vintages that are blended and then aged for 5 years. This one was from ’11 and ’12, had a great nose and was full of fruit. Finally, the 2010 Belles Voyes which is vinified in oak barrels from Burgundy that gives it a slight oxidised feel similar to white Burgundy, a good food Champagne. We bought the Grand Cru (€25), the Vintage 2012 (€31), and the Rosé (€27).
That night we stayed at Les Berceaux, 13 rue des Berceaux, Epernay, 51200, Tel 03 26 55 28 84 www.lesberceaux.com
Les Berceaux has a one star Michelin restaurant that we have enjoyed previously but on that night it was closed so we had to settle for their brasserie which was quite acceptable.
12, rue du Pont; Mareuil-sur-Aÿ; T 03 26 52 60 59
We have often bought wines from Charbaut in the past. Their signature is really the aging of wines. They seldom release a champagne with less than 5 years bottle age. Their Selection Brut is 33% Pinot Noir, 33% Pinot Meunier and 34% Chardonnay. There is a significant amount of reserve wines, 50% or so, that is, about 50% of the wine comes from the current vintage and 50% from older vintages. The impact of the Pinot Meunier is quiet substantial but somewhat mellowed by the aging process. We then tried the Cuvee de Reserve Brut Premier Cru which is two-thirds Pinot Noir and one-third Chardonnay with 30% reserve wines which is the wine we have bought in the past; quite a lot of toasty or brioche flavours. The vintage 2008 is blend of the power of Pinot Noir (60%) and the effervescence of Chardonnay (40%); the impact of 9 years of bottle aging on the lees is pronounced. We really like this type of Champagne. Finally we tried their latest addition to the range, a vintage Blanc de Noir made from 100% Pinot Noir grapes from their Premier Cru vineyards. The dosage is around 3 g/litre which is pretty low, most champagnes have around 8g/litre and it has a minimum ageing of 5 years in the bottle. This was really good; Charbaut describes it as “roast coffee bean and honey notes make themselves feel on the palate. The mouthfeel is ample and offers great volume. The body, substance and tannins contribute to this wine’s structure.” Better than we could have put it. We will get some half bottles of the Selection and the Vintage to add a new dimension to our Grower Champagne tasting pack. We bought the Blanc de Noirs (€31.80).
Marguet Pere & Fils
1 Place Barancourt; Ambonnay; T 03 26 53 78 61
We have been to Marguet many times before when they were on their journey to biodynamic viticulture; now the transition is complete. This means adding hooves and crystals to the soil as well as herbal medicine (infusion and decoction of healing plants) and aromatherapy (essential oils); in the cellar quartz lamps and no mobile phones; and in the Champagnes little or no sulphur and zero dosage. Having tasted wines from other makers who have gone this route we feared for the worst, but these were great Champagnes. (If you want to experience these types of wines then visit the RAW Wine Fair that is on in London every year.) We bought the Shaman 13 and the Ambonnay 2012 Grand Cru.
After lunch in the vineyards above Bouzy we headed for Ludes to visit another Champagne maker for the first time.
Great place for a picnic lunch with a view across the vineyards towards Bouzy
2, impasse Carnot, Ludes T 03 26 61 11 20
A third generation family business who use environmentally sustainable farming practices. This means
- Use of organic composts
- Minimal tillage of the soil
- Maintenance of natural groundcover
- Careful pruning, and pruning method adapted to each Vine
- Constant and meticulous observation on our vines
- Meticulous thinning of the plants and canopy management
Their desire to produce champagnes with character means that they vinify each village, each varietal and each vineyard separately. The regularity and continuity of their blends is also attributed to reserve Wines. Since they began to make wine, they’ve continuously maintained their stock of reserve wines, which are the “memory of the winery”. These reserves, stored in oak vats and in tanks, are blended with the wines from each harvest using the solera process, primarily in their reserve blend “L’Invitation”. They also age their champagnes on the lees (or yeast sediment) to allow them to mature before they’re sold.
We started by tasting the L’Invitation which other than the use of the Sherry solera process also had another surprise for us in the blend which was 15% Chardonnay, 35% Pinot Noir and 50% Pinot Meunier. The surprise was the Pinot Meunier which we had decided we didn’t really like in the blend. This Pinot Meunier came from nearby on the Montagne de Reims and, as usual, good winemakers make good wine. We loved this Champagne, great for an aperitif. Next up the Rosé, 25% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot noir, 35% Pinot meunier; citrus and red fruits flavours. They suggest it as an aperitif but also say it goes well with dark chocolate and tart candied fruit – sounds more like an after-dinner ‘pick me up’ to us! The Blanc de Blancs 2011 was also a revelation in that we did think that they grew much Chardonnay in that part of Champagne. It was creamy, generous in the mid palate and had only 3g/litre dosage. Each year they make a vintage wine that they think expresses that vintage. Careful ripening and selection of the grapes mean that volumes vary but each is a good wine. We tried the 08 Instantanée that had spent 6 to 7 years on the lees. It had great texture and body. Then their pure solera wine Mémoire containing wines from 1982 to 2012 stored in large foudre or oak barrels about twice the size of normal Burgundy barrels. And finally their 100% Pinot Meunier 2012 4 Eléments. All in all a quite overwhelming tasting that put paid to our blind Pinot Meunier dismissal; some are good and some not to our taste. We bought the L’Invitation (€25), the Rosé (€30) and the Blanc de Blancs (€33); not cheap but worth it.
After this it was off to Taittinger in the centre of Reims to visit their UNESCO Heritage cellars. Once you’ve seen one Champagne cellar you’ve seen them all, so this is the one we recommend – truly impressive!
And then the four-hour drive to Alsace to taste, primarily, Riesling. If you have to do it, we recommend the route via Strasbourg keeping to the motorway all the way; longer but less stressful and quicker.
In Alsace we stayed at Hôtel De La Couronne in the centre of Riquewihr, the only hotel with on-site parking. It was quaint, historic, reasonably comfortable and a great base for wine tasting – what more can one want?
We had a late dinner at La Table du Gourmet, a * Michelin restaurant just up the road where, despite being tired, we certainly overstayed our welcome in an early tasting of the wines that Alsace offers (and a few others). The next night we went to Maximilien a * Michelin in Zellenberg about 5 minutes away. It was exccellent.
We wanted to start our tasting at Marcel Deiss in Bergheim. They do an interesting take on the traditional ‘field blend’ that used to be common in Alsace. Over the years vine growers found that different varietals (Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Sylvaner, Muscat) grew better in different soils, so a vineyard became a mix of all these varietals and they were all picked and vinified together, hence a field blend. Deiss usually just mixes a couple of varietals in a vineyard compared to most winemakers who focus on single varietal wines.
But they were closed so we retreated down the road towards Ribeauvillé
50, route de Bergheim, Ribeauvillé 68150; T 03 89 73 67 10
We started with the ’15 Reserve Particuliere (€14) which had great fresh nose and fruit. Then the Riesling Grand Cru Osterberg ’15 (€22) which had a complex full mouth and needed cellaring for at least 3 years. And, although they had several other Grand Cru Rieslings, we decided to taste their Pinot Gris Grand Cru Kirchberg ’15 (€27) which had a subtle nose and was full of fruit, typically slightly off dry. We bought the Rieslings.
Kientzler cellar door view towards Osterberg Grand Cru vineyards
13, av du gal-de-gaulle, 68150 Ribeauvillé; T 03 89 73 22 50
Bott Frères supply our range of Alsace half bottles so this was a good opportunity to taste their range and see if we were still buying what we preferred most. And taste the range we did. They make half bottles in their entry range ‘Tradition’ and their premium range ‘Réserve Personnelle’. We far preferred the premium range as the varietal flavours were more intense and will order that next time round. We also tried the Riesling Grand Crus ’15 Osterberg and Kirchberg. The former was closed and the latter full of fruit; both need time to develop in the bottle. Then the Pinot Gris Grand Cru Gloeckelberg ’14 whch was less sweet than most and intense; lovely. And finally, the Riesling Vendages Tardives ’11 which had the hint of turpine of aged Rieslings and was intensely sweet – great to accompany fruit tarts. We bought the Rieslings ‘Réserve Personnelle’, Osterberg and Kirchberg.
32, Grand’rue, 68240 Kientzheim; T 03 89 78 23 56
Paul Blanck also has a range of Rieslings from Grand Cru, named vineyards (Lieux-Dits) down to the everyday one. The ’15 Riesling (€10) was quite floral. The Rosenberg was minerally and lemoney whilst the Patergarten was floral with a full mouth feel (€13). Amongst the Grand Crus the ’14 Schlossberg was lemoney, very fresh and slightly turpine (the ’12 had noticeable turpine notes) and the ’14 Furstenberg was sincerely lemoney (the ’11 was sweeter) (€19). Amazing really how different they all were by location and vintage. We bought the ’11 Furstenberg and the ’14 Schlossberg.
Then it was up the Schlossberg Grand Cru vineyards for the picnic lunch.
Great place for a picnic lunch with a view from Schlossberg towards Ammererschwihr
Clos des Capucins, Kayserberg, 68240; T 03 89 47 13 21
Weinbach is a biodynamic winemaker. It was a bit of a let-down since we were really after Riesling and they were all sold out. Still an opportunity to taste great Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer. However they did have an off dry Riesling L’Inedit ’15 made from grapes off old vines, it was neither sweet nor dry. The ’15 Pinot Gris Cuvee Sainte Catherine grapes came from the vineyard next to the cellar and off young vines in the Grand Cru Schlossberg. It had great structure and complexity (€30). The ’15 Grand Cru Furstentum Gewürztraminer had the classic Gewürz nose with intense fruit flavours; it was sweet but finished dry as all good sweet wines should (€45). The ’09 Pinot Gris Grains Nobles was botrytized light raisins (€62). We bought the Sainte Catherine and the Furstentum.
Domaine Barmès Buecher
30 Rue Ste Gertrude, 68920 Wettolsheim; T 03 89 80 62 92
Barmès Buecher is also a biodynamic winemaker who makes wines from a range of Grand Cru and named vineyards. The ’14 Rosenberg (€16) was minerally and fruity, the ’14 Clos Sand (€20) was a light straw colour, fresh and had a hint of spice. The ’12 Leimental (€17) floral, round with layers of flavours, could do with another 5 or so years aging. The ’11 Steingrübler Grand Cru (€25) had a subtle turpine nose, a hint of sweetness but was still very closed and needs more time to open up. The ’11 Hengst Grand Cru (€25) was complex but also still closed. We bought the Clos Sand and the Hengst.
Domaine Albert Mann
13, rue du Chateau, 68920 Wettolsheim T 03 89 80 62 00
Albert Mann is also a biodynamic winemaker who makes wines from a range of Grand Cru and named vineyards. The ‘14 Riesling Cuvée Albert (€20) had great freshness and fruit. The ’15 Grand Cru Schlossberg (€41) was full bodied with a long fruity aftertaste. The ’15 Furstentum (€41) was slightly sweeter but had a tartness at the back of the mouth and aftertaste. We bought the Cuvée Albert.
Alsace is a difficult place to taste wine because in most places one could taste 20 or so wines. One has to focus on what one likes. And with such a variety of grapes there is bound to be one or more that you fancy.