CHAMPAGNE time, France: Dec 2023

With the clock ticking down to a new year, it’s time to get out the champagne, and for me to recheck my tips and recap on my journeys to the Champagne region in France

I visited the region in  2016 and 2017, to photograph at the domaines of 17 champagne producers for Parallel 49, a Lyon-based wine agency.  All 17 domaines were ‘grower’ producers, using their own grapes to produce champagne. 

They tended to: 

  • Cultivate less than 10 hectares (25 acres), mainly in Grand & Premier Crus villages, so the best of the best. 
  • Veer towards biodynamic, even if not officially registered, with a minimum-intervention process, characterised by low levels of sulphites, if any, and indigenous yeast, among other features.

We visited: Bérêche & FilsCharles DufourChartogne-TailletDavid LéclapartEmmanuel Brochet François Huré Georges LavalHoriotJL VergnonJ-M SélèqueJ VignierLancelot-PienneLancelot-RoyerMarie CourtinR H CoutierRoger Pouillon & FilsSavart 

To this day, I judge a restaurant, or wine store, by whether they stock these champagnes, or not.  Recently I was with an old friend Dawn (pictured below), founder of The Sampler in Islington, London, where I found quite a few of the above producers. 

That day, Dawn had in her hands a bottle of Jacques Selosse Brut Initial Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru. This is special stuff, so special that the bottle is fitted with a ‘tracker’ to ensure it stays out of the secondary market. But then Anselme Selosse – who took over the domaine from his father in 1980 – is the original guru of grower champagne. 

The four regions of Champagne 

  • Montagne de Reims is a wooded natural park lying between Reims and Épernay, with vineyards on its slopes. 
  • Côtes des Blancs is on the chalk hills south of Éperney. A region best known for growing the Chardonnay grape. 
  • Marne Valley is on the south-facing slopes overlooking the river Marne, running west of Épernay.
  • Côtes des Bar is south of the main champagne area, an island in itself, towards Troyes, where there’s more clay and sun. 

Champagne in winter & summer 

My first trip was in winter 2016, a year after the hillsides, houses and cellars of the Champagne region had been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO

Winter is magical in Champagne. The sunrises and sunsets are colourful.  The vines are pruned. The cuttings burnt, producing mystical plumes of smoke.  Regimented rows of white-frosted vines run across the landscape. And the plentiful glasses of champagne help to provide a winter thrill more reminiscent of Alpine skiing.  

However, it is cold.  As I walked out of the door of where we were staying in the Premier Cru village of Villers-aux-Noeuds, the thermostat read -7oC – the coldest ever that I had experienced.

To mark the end of winter dormancy, the feast of Saint Vincent, the patron saint of winegrowers, is celebrated on 22 Janury. Why Saint Vincent, Spain’s first Christian martyr, who probably did not drink that much wine? One answer is that his name can be divided into ‘vin’ (wine) and ‘cent’ (like sang, the French for blood). 

Saint Vincent’s Day is celebrated in different ways in different villages in Champagne, often with a special brioche, but always with a feast for the vignerons. Darn, I missed it that year, as I had to return to London. 

My next visit to Champagne was in June 2017. The first grapes had formed on the vines and the midday temperatures were a cool 20oC.

In the vineyards the vignerons were tying up the shoots to wires and ‘trellising’, separating and securing the shoots to give the leaves better  exposure to sun and air.  

7 producers at the top of my list 

It’s difficult, and dangerous, to have favourites, but these are the producers I’ve randomly chosen as top of my list (pictured below in the same order):

Emmanuel Brochet has a 2.5-hectare parcel on the east-facing slope of Le Mont Benoit, in the Premier Cru village of Villers-aux-Noeuds.  As well as a producer of fine champagnes, in his spare time he’s also an artist.

Dominique Moreau founded Champagne Marie Courtin, named after her grandmother, in 2005. The domaine is based in the attractive village of Polisot, in the Côte des Bars.  I also took to her Grand Noir du Berry donkeys, which work in the vineyards to avoid the soil getting compacted.

Adrien Dhondt is based, in Flavigny, next to the Grand Cru village of Avize, home to Hotel-Restaurant Les Avisés (well worth a stop for lunch – part of Domaine Jacques Selosse), in the Côte des Blancs. Together with his sister Alice, he took over at  Dhondt-Grellet from his parents in 2016 and a year later was voted Winemaker of the Year 2017 in the Trophées Champenois.

Olivier Horiot is in the Côte des Bars in Les Riceys. The commune is also famous for its rosé wines made from pinot noir grapes. 

Georges Laval converted his vineyards in Cumières, in the Marne Valley to organic in 1971 after seeing a TV documentary by Jacques Cousteau about pesticides finding their way into the ice in the Arctic.  His son, Vincent, has since taken over. 

David Leclapart in Trépail in the Montagne de Reims has been certified biodynamic since 2000. For his entry level L’Amateur champagne, he uses indigenous yeasts in enamelled-steel tanks, as he believes that stainless steel imparts a negative energy to his wines, according to Decanter.  His 3 hectares of vines are divided into 22 parcels. 

Jean-Marc Sélèque sees champagne blends like a musical score. His Partition vintage, for example, is a blend of 7 parcels of land reflecting 7 musical notes.  His vines are in the premier cru village of Pierry.

5 ways to sound like a connaisseur

When I first visited Champagne, I knew little about grower champagne… although I do remember drinking Roses de Jeanne,  a 100% Pinot Noir by Cédric Bouchard, another great name in champagne. And I keep my garden tools in an old wooden Roses de Jeanne wine box – heresy, I am sure, for those in the trade. 

The tips below should help anyone looking to bluff their way through the world of grower champagne this Christmas:

1. Know your crus: the Champagne appellation d’origine controlée region is made up of some 320 villages, also called cru. The villages are graded for their grape-growing potential of which 17 are Grand Cru (top of the top) and 42 Premier Cru (second best). 

2. The main champagne grapes are Chardonnay (the white Burgundy grape on its own is called Blanc de Blancs), Pinot Noir (a red Burgundy grape used to add body) and Pinot Meunier (the fruitier, earlier maturing relative of Pinot Noir, so best for cooler vineyards). Also allowed are Arbane, Petit Meslier, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris

3. A parcelle is just that – a ‘parcel’ of land where grapes are grown. (Note aside – Les Parcelles restaurant in Paris is a good choice for wine lovers.) 

4. Vintage vs. non-vintage: a millésime (vintage) is produced with grapes from the same year – usually when it’s a superb harvest. A cuvée (a non-vintage) is a blend of several different years.

5. NM vs RM: negociant-manipulant buys in the grapes to make champagne; the récoltant-manipulant produce their own grapes. In France, this information is required by law to be on the bottle.

So, cheers, here’s to 2024!

For more info about champagne and the Champagne Region, check out the official champagne site.

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