The best and quickest way to find hidden gems in the back-roads of Champagne isn’t by driving aimlessly, hoping to stumble upon an open winery which just happens to have exceptional wines. Instead, gird your loins and prepare for total immersion in grower champagne!
Every summer in the southern part of Champagne, a historic region known as the Aube, dozens of independent winemakers open their doors for “La Route de Champagne en Fête.” As many as 40,000 people can pass through in two days, enjoying live music, entertainers, art, and corks popping left and right. The location changes each year, and sometimes covers more than one village, but will normally be within walking distance.
For 15 euros (about $20), you receive an elegant logoed champagne flute, a passbook, map, and ethylotest, so drivers can be sure that their breath alcohol level is low enough to drive safely. Having a designated driver is always a good idea, and there are lots of gendarmes around to discourage drunk driving. Each page of the passbook gives information about a different “grower champagne” producer, with a little tear-off stub to exchange for a taste of their champagne. Pours range from 2 oz to nearly 10 oz, depending upon the generosity of the host, the time of day, the charm and/or beauty of the visitor, and how much the server has had to drink. The weekend provides an opportunity for these small producers to introduce their wines to a larger audience, and some visitors will pick up a bottle or a case or two (6 bottles per case is standard in Champagne, due to the extra weight of the bottles which are made to withstand 6 atmospheres of pressure). Most revelers just view the weekend as a chance to try a wide variety of champagnes for a very reasonable price.
What is “grower champagne” you ask? The people who own the land* and grow the grapes for champagne have traditionally sold their grapes to the big houses (think yellow labels or flowers), sometimes keeping back enough to make champagne for their family and friends. In recent years, more of these growers have been making their own champagnes and selling them in France and abroad, but in the thousands of bottles, rather than millions. As word has spread, and the demand for “Recoltant-Manipulant” (i.e. grower-winemaker) champagne has grown, more families are getting into the act.
This year it was beastly hot on Saturday July 27th, in the 90s with very little shade. Despite the heat, there were a few visitors dressed in costumes of antiquity, just for the fun of it. The town of Celles sur Ource hosted the fête, where 31 houses offered one or more champagnes to visitors. How does one approach such a wealth of tasting opportunities? The wineries are spread out throughout the town, well within walking distance, yet not exactly cheek-by-jowl. As soon as I received my map and passbook, I found a table in the shade, and sat down to plan my strategy. I was looking for more unusual champagnes, including a few made with Pinot Blanc. This is one of the four less-used grape varietals allowed in the making of champagne. The other three are Arbanne, Petit Meslier, and Pinot Gris.
I was also attracted to wineries offering special additions, such as cheese tasting, local craftspeople, or artists. Many had brought in local artisans to display their works, including a couple that certainly grabbed my attention. Didier Paganessi is an artisanal producer of champagne-themed furniture built with impeccable craftsmanship. He displayed stools fashioned to look like muselets and capsules, which are the metal caps and wire cages that surround champagne corks and hold them securely in the bottle. Replacing the metal cap with beautifully carved wood and often with leather pads, and sturdy yet elegant “legs” made from metal, I found these charming and lovely. In addition, there were bouchons, stools shaped like the champagne corks themselves.
I enjoyed the artistic expressions of many different painters, yet I was most impressed by photographer Jessy Khau, who utilizes modern methods to create ethereal, memorable images which transport the viewer into a realm of sensory memory. One such arresting image was the triptych “Frisson d’hiver” meaning the chill of winter. It certainly gave me goosebumps!
The champagnes themselves? I tried about twenty. Here are my personal favorites from Celles sur Ource:
1) Jean Laurent’s Blanc de Noirs Brut (100% Pinot Noir) from the harvest of 2009. Certain champagnes made exclusively from Pinot Noir evoke red fruits, but this one has more notes of yellow plums, white nectarines, and a little caramel.
2) Veuve Cheurlin’s Réserve Brut – This lovely, light bubbly is made only from white grapes: Pinot Blanc (60%) and Chardonnay (40%). I found the nose sweetly herbaceous, almost like newly cut grass. In the mouth there was a predominance of white fruits, such as white peaches, with a finish of crisp green apples.
Note: There are four different champagne houses in Celles sur Ource with the name Cheurlin, and it’s easy to get confused. There are a couple of reasons for this common occurrence in champagne. Traditionally, only the eldest son would inherit the property and winery, but over the past couple of generations, the French inheritance laws have evolved, and now each child is entitled to an equal piece of the winery pie. Some divide up the vineyards, allowing the next generation to establish new wineries, or to sell off their land. This explains the predominance of small parcels, rather than huge swaths of land owned by a single family. In addition, when a woman marries, if she is also a vineyard owner, she often adds her family name to that of her husband. Thus you find hyphenated names such as Champagne Simon-Devaux (not to be confused with the much larger Champagne Devaux in Bar sur Seine).
3) Eric Legrand’s Cuvée Préstige – This delightful Blanc de Blancs is 100% Chardonnay, with aromas of sweet pastry, citrus and spice in the mouth, and a long finish. I was thrilled to be able to taste a wide range of champagnes from this producer, by finding an enthusiastic (and cute!) member of their staff who was proud to show off their wines. I asked a lot of questions, showing real interest and batting my eyelashes to good effect.
One of the most delightful discoveries of the weekend wasn’t a champagne, but rather, a red wine producer from the Médoc in Bordeaux. At Champagne Marcel Vézien, I was unimpressed with their Brut, but I was thrilled to find that they had brought in the owner of Château Croix de Mai, which make really lovely wines from the Médoc region of Bordeaux.
A Merlot-heavy blend (90%, plus 5% each of Malbec and Petit Verdot), I tasted both the 2010 and the 2011 releases, the latter of which was in a pre-release, hand-labeled bottle. It should be available now, and is an elegant wine, best put aside for a minimum of 3-5 years, and certainly worth the search. The 2010, on the other hand, is a young powerhouse which is an absolute charmer right now, but probably won’t hold up to long-term aging. I know these wines are being exported to the US, so grab them if you can!
Next year, the Route de Champagne en Fête 2014 will include the towns of Buxeuil, Neuville sur Seine, Gyé sur Seine (my present home!), and several others. My employer Champagne Vincent Couche will be pouring his wines, so make sure to block out the 26th and 27th of July 2014 to discover some great new “grower” champagnes.
(Note: a few of the 2014 details have just been released. You can find some info on the local tourist board website here in English, and the Route promoters should be updating their website soon, a chance for you to practice your French.)
*There are over 15,000 vineyard owners in Champagne alone, and the majority own less than 1 hectare/2.5 acres. For more detailed info about the Champagne region and regulations, check out my earlier blog post.
Do you have a favorite grower champagne? Share it with your fellow wine lovers in the comments below.