Bubble bath: a three-day immersion in Champagne

Guest blogger, and winemaker par excellence, Jeremy Seysses reports on his recent trip to Champagne.

A few weeks ago, Diana and I joined Etienne de Montille and Christy Canterbury for a few days of tasting Pinot and Chardonnay, but with bubbles in it. We pooled resources together, compromised on the long list of places we wanted to visit and finally agreed on a shorter list, but were still too ambitious to achieve anything like punctuality. Fortunately, the Champenois were incredibly gracious about our tardiness. We were joined by friend and wine writer Peter Liem, whose blog, mostly about Champagne, is a very good read: www.peterliem.com
If one agrees that the center of the world is located somewhere near Morey St Denis and Nuits St Georges, then driving to Reims is easy, you pretty much just head north for a little over 3 hours. Diana and I rose before the crack of dawn, bright eyed and bushy tailed and hit the road, waving at Troyes and the Aube part of Champagne as we whizzed by and made it to Craon de Ludes for our 10 o’clock appointment at



Raphael Berèche

is a member of the young movers and shakers of the area. After a few years of experimenting, he is moving the estate increasingly towards biodynamics. In the winemaking, he adopts a similarly natural approach without letting things go weird. He was one of the few places we visited who uses natural yeasts, for instance. We first tasted through the 2008 vins tranquilles. I must confess that based on my previous experience of this exercise, I was expecting acidic pain and misery. No so. These were certainly acidic, but with body and reminiscent of very good pre-malo burgundy in a number of instances. It was easy enough to relate to them. My personal standouts were the 2 components of the future cuvée “Instant”, which will be pure Ludes 1er Cru wine, as well as the single vineyard Chardonnay “Beaux Regards”, but all were excellent and set a standard that was hard to beat. With bubbles, favorites were the Beaux Regards (pure 2005 vintage) and the Extra-Brut for which we tried two different bottlings. The first was based on 2004 and the next, to be released soon was based on 2005. It is an austere, mineral, long wine, with lots of drive and energy. There is a hint of reduction on the Berèche wines which I find very appealing, but more on that topic later. The 2002 vintage wine, with citrus notes and aromatic herbs, was delicious. The Reflet d’Antan, a cuvée perpétuelle or solera raised in large barrels, is spectacularly complex, with quince, cinnamon, nutmeg, anis and pear notes, but is more oxidative and less my style ultimately. I have high hopes The Sorting Table will soon be importing these wines into the US.
Raphael invited us to a tasty lunch at le Foch in Reims and we arrived a mere hour late in Ambonnay at

Henri Billiot

. Monsieur Billiot was very genial about our tardiness and amenable to fast tasting, skipping winery and facilities visit. Stepping by his grand-daughters Barbie castle/shrine, we sat ourselves at the tasting table and tried the range of wines with the exception of Cuvée Julie. Henri Billiot is a straightforward man. If you ask him why he forgoes malo or uses a particular method, the reason is usually “because I like it that way” or alternatively “because I don’t like it otherwise”. The wines are much in his image. They probably felt a little more rustic following lunch, but were solid, straightforward wines, not flattered by the tiny glasses from which we tasted. The standout for me was very much the vintage 2002. The Cuvée Laetitia, another cuvée perpétuelle from best vintages (18 in it so far) left me a little baffled. Vanilla, biscuits and citrus: attractive aromas, but with this recently disgorged bottle a bit broad and high in dosage for my palate.
Our next appointment was with Laurent Champs of

Champagne Vilmart

, in Rilly-la-Montagne. Quite a contrast with Billiot, there is nothing rustic about the polished operation that is Vilmart. This had some of the feel that Berèche might possibly have in another 20 years attitude-wise (I doubt the wines will ever have much in common). Laurent Champs clearly experimented at one point and his ambition is palpable, but where Berèche is in a phase of aggressive experimentation and searching, Vilmart gives the impression of being where it wants to be. Conclusions have been reached and fewer questions are being asked. The Vilmart style is clearly not for everyone, demanding a tolerance for oakiness as everything goes through foudre or barrel. The style is somewhat reductive, which lends a toasted bread quality to many of the wines, aromas that converge with oak aromas. I was a fan of the Grand Cellier N.V., the fine mousse of this wine delights me and I love it with a couple of years on it. The Grand Cellier d’Or 2002 was closed, but I liked its toasty chocolaty-ness and thought it had potential. Usually a fan of the Coeur de Cuvée, I liked the 2000 less, finding it a little low in acidity and with a few oxidative aromas. The Cuvée Création 1999, the last release of this wine, was a spectacular display of exotic fruits, with a very long, mineral, vibrant, energetic palate and lots of extract. It is a head turner. An interesting fact about Vilmart is that there wines are Chardonnay dominated in an area best known for Pinot noir.
It was dark and cold when we finally rolled into the courtyard of


. We were greeted by one of Olivier Krug’s assistants, Julie, whom I strongly suspect of having “I love Krug” tattooed in crimson red somewhere under her skin. Talking about the “emotion of Krug” and “the Krug way” (Krugdo in Japanese), we froze our buns through the impressive stacks of empty barrels used for fermentation (they are full for only 3 months of the year – amazing!) and the cellar. The cellar was full of bottles, mostly of Krug. We tasted three different wines. The Grande Cuvée was attractively complex, with a fine mousse, spice, cinnamon and baked apples. The Krug wines are distinctly on the oxidation side of the spectrum, and I admit to favoring the more reductive school of Champagne. The wines don’t taste oaky, but taste of going through barrel, or rather have that sort of austere drying texture. The 1998 vintage showed some of the extremes of the vintage, with very high acidity but also ripe fruit in the form of dried apricots on the nose, real finesse and some hints of mushrooms. It is the first Krug to have a majority of Chardonnay. The 1996 vintage doesn’t taste any older, just different, with more lemon and orange fruit and lots of acidity of a more austere inherent nature. It is more saline and savory, and quite a beast.
Hungry and tired, we were ready for some red wine. Dinner at les Berceaux was good, but foolishly ordering Côteaux Champenois 2003 did not do it on the red wine front. We had to leave it till the next day though.
On our second morning, we headed to the birthplace of Champagne, the Abbaye d’Hautvillers, where

Dom Pérignon

is said to have stumbled across invented secondary fermentation. Now as a small wine producer, I have an inherent distrust of large houses and there are none larger than LVMH, who own the place and the iconic brand that is Dom Pérignon. Wording this next sentence is difficult, and I want it to come out right. There is something hugely satisfying about having ones prejudices validated. Richard Geoffroy denied me this pleasure, instead replacing it with an absurdly good line up of wines served by a white gloved sommelier in a monastic white-walled 30m long room in the Abbaye. The only thing one might have criticized was the perhaps over the top white gloves, but really… The 2000 vintage of DP and DP Rosé were really delicious. The “normal” DP had just a hint of reduction that I loved. Richard Geoffroy touched on the topic of grey flavors (= associated with reduction) vs. brown flavors (oxidation) and you can read an interesting summary here http://www.peterliem.com/2008/11/grey-somber-characters.html While Geoffroy associates coffee, toast and chocolate with grey rather than brown, the shorthand is convenient. I’m a grey flavor guy. The Oenothèque 1995 was a model of toasty, creamy complexity. Toast and cream were recurrent descriptors. The 1995, poor thing, was blown away by the sneak preview into the Oenothèque 1996, which was all focused harmony and length, with some toasted almonds. I’m getting thirsty and hungry just thinking back to it. The texture was silky and sexy. A pity that buying some will cost me an internal organ, but I may still give in. Where does one go from there? The answer was provided swiftly in the form of Oenothèque 1975; Wow that wine is good! Toast, maybe even a little petrol, followed by brioche, apricots and iodine, a micro bubbled mousse, it was dreamy. What next? Ahh, a magnum of 1966 Oenothèque, of course! Unfortunately, this last one proved to be lightly corked. The palate said something about the fact that this is probably a truly great wine, but once I spot TCA, I have a hard time ignoring it, so I returned to the other wines and drank them as fast as I could before they were taken away admired them thoughtfully. The 1999 DP served over lunch was good, but a notch down from the 2000 or any of the Oenothèque wines, but I am now a fan of Dom Pérignon, much to my dismay.
This of course made us late for our tasting at

René Geoffroy

where Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy took us through his full range of 2008 vins tranquilles and the current releases. Our second Geoffroy of the day was a model of enthusiasm and energy, running us up and down his new winery in Ay. His 2008s were universally excellent, with my standouts being the Empreinte, Vintage 2008 and Rosé de Saignée, an interesting blend of 60% Pinot noir and 40% Chardonnay grapes macerated together for 60 hours before being pressed. It should make a stellar rosé. In bottle, I found the wines a little coarse bubble-wise, but I found this to be somewhat universal of these post lunch tastings, so perhaps I was more sensitive to it in my digestive state… My obvious standout for the bottled wines was the Vintage 2000, quite Krug in style, firm, powerful, austere, very mineral and complex. The other wines were attractive, but did not instantly resonate with me.
Looking more bushy eyed and bright tailed than the reverse, we began the day in Cramant at


. This perked us up no end. An impressive lineup of 2008 vins tranquilles, including the components of what should be a marvelous Fleur de Passion, was followed by an extraordinary tasting of wines in bottle. Beginning with the Cuvée Prestige, a round, creamy Blanc de Blanc, with aromas of toast and brioche, we moved straight into the big boy wines with the Fleur de Passion 2000. Surprisingly for a wine made of pure Chardonnay, the wine had real red fruit aromas, especially wild strawberry, but it was also very floral and fine, in need of time to reveal itself more. The logical follow up to this wine was to see a mature example, such as say 1976 Blanc de Blanc the Fleur de Passion cuvée did not exist back then. Hurray! Lovely aromas of lime blossoms, almonds, honey and brioche, and remarkably fresh, this was an incredible wine that made us into real Diebolt fans. The irrepressible Jacques Diebolt, though, was not about to stop there and disgorged a bottle of the legendary 1953 on the spot. Legendary is fitting for that wine, which was certainly one of the great Champagnes and wines I have had the privilege to taste. Complex, fresh, fine and long, it had all the attributes of greatness in scores and was the inspiration behind the cuvée Fleur de Passion, which marked a return to barrel fermentation and no-malo. My mouth is watering just thinking back to that wine. I was scolded by my travel companions and Mr. Diebolt for having foolishly planned another appointment that morning, with his daughter’s companion no less.
We reluctantly dragged ourselves out of the cellar and headed to Mareuil and the house of Jean-Paul


. He kindly spared us a tasting of the full line up, concentrating on a selection of his top wines and some really impressive vins tranquilles from 2008, which promises to be a truly great vintage. I found the Special Club wines very good, but a little high in dosage for my taste, something that might not be an issue with age. I truly loved his Rosé, a charming, elegant and fresh wine with lots of fruit. I intend to drink lots of it as soon as the sun comes out.
It was high time and even possibly past time for lunch. La Table Kobus, in Epernay, welcomed us with a smile and wonderful attitude and amazed us by having a bring Your Own Bottle policy right in the heart of a wine region. This allowed for Christy to whip out the bottle of


Cabernet Reserve 1976 that she always carries in her purse for such occasions. It was a brilliant example of what made Mondavi’s reputation in their heyday and satisfied our longing for red wine. Incidentally, the food was good too.
Post lunch, we visited

Champagne Jean Milan

, where we were received by the delightful daughter of Mr. Milan. I must learn to never schedule tastings after lunch… As on previous days, many of the wines appeared to be rather coarse mousse-wise, and fairly inexpressive aromatically. That said, I suspect many of them to have been disgorged very recently too, hence their bubbly vigor. I personally enjoyed the Brut Special, with its low dosage, and good clean clear personality. The Brut Millénaire, which is the same wine with another year prior to disgorgement and higher dosage, may well be better most years, but currently, with its base of 2003 and 2004, it is less compelling than the 2004/2005 blend making up the Brut Special. My standout was the Cuvée Symphorine 2004, fresh, crisp and long, with a lot of green apple flavors. I ultimately liked it better than the dramatic Terres de Noel 2004. Full of spices, nutmeg cinnamon and apple pie, it appeared a little ponderous to me on this occasion. The Réserve and Grande Réserve wines were very good, but on this occasion did not capture my imagination. I fully intend to revisit Milan again in future as I do feel that the taster may have been the one guilty, rather than the wines.
Back to le Mesnil for our final tasting, we rolled an hour late into the

Champagne Pierre Peters

where the very kind Madame Diot, Rodolphe Peters’ secretary, was waiting for us. An employee of some 38 years, this is the third generation of Peters she works for. This is the kind of person who somehow still smiles as you show up an hour late on a Friday night. The wines were smiling too. There are few non-vintage wines that can compete with Pierre Peters Brut de Réserve. Made from a blend of 15 vintages and a 100% Grand Cru Blanc de Blanc, this wine is pure class and charm. This depth in reserve wines is clearly part of this Domaine’s strength and a source of consistency. I can’t imagine that there are many growers with such stocks. The 2002 Vintage was predictably tight and youthful, reassuringly so. It should be great in time. We also tried a bottle of the 1998 Vintage, which has some of the characteristic toast and ripe fruit of the vintage, underlined by sharp minerality and acidity. The 2000 Cuvée Spéciale “les Chétillons” (formerly known as just “Cuvée Spéciale”) is rich, with a very elegant hint of bitterness and tannin. This wine borders on heavy, but should be great in time. The 1996 Cuvée Spéciale, kindly left for us to try by Mr. Peters was a model of exuberant freshness, combining youth, intensity and light-footedness. It was creamy and lovely and I wish I had some in my cellar. I must confess to stocking up on Pierre Peters. The magnums of Brut Réserve are one wine I want to keep a slowly rolling stock of in the cellar at all times. Testing the suspension of our little Audi, we hit the road back to Nuits St. Georges and had to take a full 36hrs off of Champagne before opening our next bottle…