With the WSET Diploma Unit 2 exam written and two days of class completed, it was time to head off on the little bonus trip that was purely for fun – visiting another wine region, and not just any wine region – Champagne! It gave us an opportunity not only to visit a wonderful friend (@girlsgogrape) who is living there for a year, and her family, but to explore a new-to-me region. And the added bonus above all was the ability to affordably drink champagne , a lot of champagne!
Travelling to the Champagne region from London is very quick and easy. In the end we opted to fly London-Paris, and rented a car to allow us to tour as much of the region as possible in the four and a half days we would be there. I always love driving in France, so was more than happy to take on the role of driver with @vinewineandwander acting as navigator. We arrived after dark in the tiny village of Chavot-Courcourt, about ten minutes south of Épernay, and were greeted with hugs, cheese, charcuterie and, of course, champagne.
We had a full day of appointments planned for our first full day in the Champagne region. Wine touring in France is not the same as it is in North America. With a few exceptions, appointments must be made in advance in order to visit wineries. We had done a bit of research in advance of the trip and had made a few bookings, and @girlsgogrape had made a couple for us as well. We started our day toward the south end of the Côte des Blancs in the lovely town of Vertus for a tour and tasting at Champagne Larmandier-Bernier.
Larmandier-Bernier was established in 1971, although the history of involvement in Champagne for the Larmandier and Bernier families dates back to the French Revolution. The Champagne house is currently owned by Pierre and Sophie Larmandier, and their son Arthur is also now working in the family business. The estate is made up of 17 ha (42 acres) of vineyards throughout the Côte des Blancs, made up of 60 different plots containing 15 ha (37 acres) of Chardonnay and 2 ha (5 acres) of Pinot Noir. Pierre began farming without agrochemicals in 1992 and by 1999 he was farming the estate biodynamically and making use of the natural yeasts present on the grapes in order to begin fermentation without commercial yeast strains. Unlike most champagne which relies on blending for complexity, Larmandier-Bernier has created a series of single vineyard expression wines, in order to showcase the individual terroirs, which is helped greatly by the biodynamic farming.
In the Larmandier-Bernier portfolio, there are 5 blanc de blancs – 2 blended wines and 3 single vineyard wines, a Saignée Rosé champagne and two still wines under the Coteaux Champenois AOC – a Premier Cru Pinot Noir (Vertus Rouge) and a Grand Cru Chardonnay (Cramant Nature). All of the Chardonnay is fermented in Austrian oak, which is becoming more popular in Champagne due to its more delicate flavours, with different size vessels dependent upon the size of the vineyard. After the alcoholic fermentation, it goes through full malolactic fermentation and then remains on the lees for approximately 10 months. For the Saignée Rosé, the Pinot Noir grapes undergo 2-3 days of maceration before the juice is pressed off. The juice is split into two different types of vessels – about 20% goes into concrete eggs and the remainder goes into stainless steel tanks for both the alcoholic and malolactic fermentations. Before bottling, the two lots of Pinot Noir are blended, along with a small amount of both Pinot Gris and Chardonnay (about 2% each). The Rosé and ‘Latitude’, one of the blended blanc de blancs, are both aged for a minimum of two years before disgorgement, whereas all of the other blanc de blancs are aged between four and eight years before disgorgement. All of the wines are dry, with the maximum dosage being a minimal 4g/L of sugar, in the form of concentrated organic grape must. For the blended wines, a solera reserve was started in 2004. Each July, some of the wine is removed from the solera to be added to the new vintage, and then it is topped up with some of the new wine later that fall. This reserve wine is blended in to add complexity to the ‘Latitude’ and ‘Longitude’ blanc de blancs. After a tour of the winemaking facility and the cellar, we returned to the main reception area to taste through five of the wines.
The Rosé de Saignée Premier Cru Extra-brut (56€/bottle) is from the 2015 vintage and has a dosage of 3g/L. It is pale salmon in colour with light red fruit and floral aromas. It is dry with high acidity, a fine mousse and a lovely freshness on the palate. It has flavours of strawberry, raspberry with a wonderful flinty character.
The ‘Latitude’ Extra-brut blanc de blancs (36.50€/bottle) is made exclusively from Chardonnay that comes from the vineyards in Vertus, where the soils are made up of approximately 2 feet of clay on top of chalk. Its base wine (60%) is from the 2015 vintage, with 40% of the solera reserve added to it and a dosage of 4g/L. It has aromas of citrus and toast. It is dry with high acidity and a fine mousse. It is round and creamy on the palate with flavours of lemon and toasty brioche, with some minerality.
The ‘Longitude’ Premier Cru Extra-brut (39€/bottle) is made from Chardonnay that comes from vineyards in Vertus, Oger, Avize and Cramant, running further north up the Côte des Blancs, where the soils have about half the amount clay on top of the chalk soils. Its base wine (70%) is from the 2014 vintage, with 30% of the solera reserve added to it and a dosage of 4g/L. It has a toasty brioche nose. It is dry with high acidity and a fine mousse and flavours of lemon, green apple, some nutty toastiness and minerality. It has a lot of complexity and is one of the bottles that came home with me.
The Terre de Vertus Premier Cru Non Dosé 2012 (53€/bottle) is one of the single vineyard expressions, coming from the mid-slope terroir of Vertus. It is a Brut Nature, which means that it has not received any dosage after disgorgement – it is simply topped up with the same wine that is in the bottle. It has a nose that I could just smell endlessly – very complex. It is dry, with high acidity and is medium-bodied – fuller than the previous wines, with a creamy round mouthfeel. It has aromas and flavours of lemon, apple, pear, brioche, honey and has noticeable salinity/minerality. We were given a little tip to look for on bottles of Larmandier-Bernier champagne – there is a laser code imprinted on all the bottles at the time of disgorgement. It contains a code for each lot. In the case of this bottle the code was TV12 0318 – ‘TV’ for Terre Vertus, ’12’ for vintage 2012, ‘0318’ for having been disgorged in March of 2018.
The Vieille Vigne du Levant Grand Cru Extra-brut 2009 (72€/bottle) comes from 50 to 80 year old vines in a single vineyard in Cramant. It has a dosage of 2g/L. It has a lovely nose of citrus and stonefruit and some floral notes. It is dry with medium (+) acidity, medium (-) body and a complex palate of lemon, honey, peach, apricot, tropical fruit, some herbal notes with lean minerality and a very long finish. It is delicious!
Following a lovely lunch at a café in Vertus (I’d like to comment on how wonderful the restaurant meals were around Champagne, and for reasonable prices – two huge courses, including delicious cheese plates and a glass of wine for only 13€) we went to our second appointment of the day. This had been a recommendation of @girlsgogrape – Champagne Jean Milan in Oger, about 10 minutes up the road from Vertus. After ringing the bell out at the street, we were escorted through their courtyard to the main tasting room. Champagne Jean Milan is a small family operation (only 8 people on staff, including 3 family members) that was started in 1864 and is now in the hands of the 5th generation – Jean-Charles Milan. The estate consists of 6 ha (15 acres) of vineyards in the Grand Cru appellation of Oger. They are open year-round for tastings by appointment.
The first wine that we tasted was their Extra-Brut Blanc de Blancs (20€/bottle), which is a blend of Chardonnay from the 2014 and 2015 vintages with three years ‘en tirage‘ and a dosage of 3g/L. It has a honeyed nose, is dry with high acidity, refreshing fruit and flavours of lemon, lime, green apple, nice complexity and minerality with a medium (+) finish.
The Brut Blanc de Blancs (23€/bottle) is a blend of Chardonnay from the 2013 and 2014 vintages with four years ‘en tirage‘ and a dosage of 8g/L. It has aromas of lemon, peach, apple and pear on the nose. It is dry with high acidity, fine mousse, a round mouthfeel and flavours of red apple,ripe pear, peach and lemon, with a long finish. It is delicious and approachable.
The Brut Grande Reserve 1864 Sélection 2013 Blanc de Blancs (38€/bottle) is made of reserve wine vinified in oak for 12 months before spending a further four years ‘en tirage‘ and being riddled by hand. It has a dosage of 6g/L and is then bottled not with the traditional cork and cage, but the more ancient method of cork with string and wax. It has aromas of toast, brioche, lemon curd and apple on the nose. It is dry, with high acidity and medium body with complex flavours of lemon-lime, green apple, brioche, toasted nuts and baking spice, with nice minerality and a long finish.
The Coteaux Champenois Blanc 2016 (29€/bottle) is a limited edition still Chardonnay that was aged for 1 year in an oak barrel – only 200 bottles were produced! It has aromas of peach, apricot, pear and apple. It is dry with high acidity, medium body, a lovely minerality/salinity and flavours of lemon-lime, green apple, peach and toasty pie crust, with a long finish. It is fresh and nicely balanced.
The Brut Rosé 2014 (30€/bottle) is a special release for the 150th celebration of Jean Milan. It is a blend of 90% Grand Cru Chardonnay from Oger and 10% Grand Cru Pinot Noir from Bouzy, with a dosage of 8g/L. It is medium salmon in colour with loads of red fruit on the nose – strawberry, raspberry and red currant, along with some more savoury/earthy notes. It is dry with high acidity, persistent bubbles and flavours of strawberry, red currant, cranberry, cherry and lemon with flinty minerality and a medium (+) finish.
The Sec ‘Tendresse’ Blanc de Blancs (20€/bottle) uses the same base wine as the Extra-Brut, from the 2014 and 2015 vintages and with three years ‘en tirage‘, but with a dosage of 20g/L. It has aromas of peach, apricot, apple, pear and floral notes on the nose. It is off-dry with high acidity and flavours of green apple, peach, apricot and ripe pear. It is rounder but still fresh, and has a long finish.
Our final appointment of the day, at Champagne J&H Fagot, was a bit of a further drive away (32 kms to Rilly-La-Montagne on the northern slopes of la Montagne de Reims) but we had some time to spare so decided to take the scenic route of smaller roadways, avoiding going through the centre of Épernay. It was very cool to be driving past all these vineyards and seeing all the small markers to the side of the road with the familiar names of the bigger champagne houses that we see in the BC market (Moët et Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Tattinger, Laurent-Perrier, etc.) Rilly-La-Montagne is a picturesque little town overlooking the sprawling Reims and is home to 314 ha (775 acres) of Premier Cru vineyards, 6 Champagne Houses, 36 Champagne Growers and 1 Cooperative. The majority of the vines in the area are Pinot Meunier, followed by Pinot Noir and some Chardonnay. J&H Fagot is one of the growers, controlling 12 ha (30 acres) of vines that are split between 60 different plots and are dedicated to equal amounts of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. After tasting primarily Chardonnay-based wines earlier in the day it was interesting to see how Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier can alter the texture and flavours in champagne. All of the wines listed below are Premier Cru.
The Blanc de blancs Brut (15.50€/bottle) is 100% Chardonnay with two years ‘en tirage‘ and a dosage of 5.5g/L. It has fresh, clean aromas of citrus. It is dry with high acidity and a fine mousse, with flavours of lemon and hazelnut with a creamy texture and a long finish.
The ‘Carte Blanche’ Brut (14.50€/bottle) is a blend of one third each of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay with two years ‘en tirage‘ and a dosage of 8g/L. It has a lot of red fruit notes on the nose, along with some lemon, apple and toasty brioche. It is dry with high acidity, a fine mousse and flavours of lemon, apple, pear, red currant and hazelnut. It is well-balanced with a long finish. A half bottle (7.90€/bottle) made its way back to Canada to share with friends.
The Rosé Brut (16.50€/bottle) is 100% Pinot Noir – 80% of it pressed off directly, and 20% of it has 8-10 days of skin contact before pressing. It spends 3 years ‘en tirage‘ and has a dosage of 8g/L. It has lovely aromas of strawberry, raspberry and cherry. It is dry with high acidity, medium (+) body and a fine mousse, with pronounced intensity on the palate with some savoury notes and flavours of strawberry, cherry, raspberry, red currant, along with minerality, lots of complexity, persistent bubbles and a long finish. I quite enjoyed this wine and it was among my purchases here.
The Millésime vintage 2009 (19.30€/bottle) is a blend of 40% Pinot Noir and 60% Chardonnay with 7 years spent ‘en tirage‘ and a dosage of 5.5g/L. It has a very complex nose with aromas of apple, pear, some salinity and almost something along the lines of some biological ageing. It is dry with high acidity and pronounced intensity on the palate with flavours of green apple, pear, lemon curd, pie crust and a hint of baking spice with good length.
The ‘Cuvée Fondateur’ (24.30€/bottle) is a blend of 50% Pinot Noir and 50% Chardonnay with 5 years spent ‘en tirage‘ and a dosage of 4g/L. Both of the cuvées are from 2011. It has a complex and intense nose with smoky, flinty aromas along with lemon and some nuttiness. It is dry with high acidity and pronounced intensity with flavours of hazelnut, lemon, green apple, pie crust and minerality. It is rich, complex, elegant and beautifully balanced with a very long finish. This also made its way back to Canada with me.
After our tasting, Béatrice Fagot showed us down to the cellar as she put together our orders. We got to see the labelling machine in operation, getting some bottles ready for export to Asia.
By the end of the day, @vinewineandwander and I both felt like we had exercised restraint in our purchases, yet this is what the trunk of the little Fiat looked like upon our return to Chavot-Courcourt…
Yes, that’s restraint shown by two WSET Diploma students in Champagne. 😉