By Jiles Halling.
In part 1 we travelled from Reims along the Montagne de Reims and through some of the villages most famous for their Pinot Noir grapes. The second circuit starts some 25 kilometres from Reims in the town of Epernay, much smaller than Reims in size but not in terms of importance to the champagne trade. Indeed there is still a friendly rivalry between the two towns: Reims calls itself Le Capital de la Champagne (the feminine form of the word champagne “La Champagne” meaning the region of that name) whilst Epernay dubs itself Le Capital du Champagne (in its masculine form “Le Champagne” refers to the wine made here).
Epernay offers several good restaurants and hotels but the jewel in the crown is the Avenue de Champagne a wide street lined on both sides with elegant buildings where you’ll find some of the most famous champagne houses of all: Moët & Chandon, Perrier-Jouët, Pol Roger, to name but three. The avenue has been said to be the most expensive real estate in the world, not because of the sumptuous buildings, lovely though they are, but rather because of the treasure underground. The entire town is cross-crossed by a labyrinth of cellars some 100 kilometres long in total where up to 250 million bottles of champagne lie resting quietly until they are ready to drink. It’s quite a thing to remember as you stroll along above the ground.
It’s here that the ever present layer of chalk in Champagne comes closest to the surface, so much so in fact that you can bend down and pick up chunks of chalk as you stroll through the vineyards. Feel free to do that by the way, as long as you don’t damage the vines.
La Côte des Blancs is home to a style of champagne called Blanc de Blancs made exclusively with Chardonnay, a grape that thrives in the chalky soil on these south-east facing slopes.
Blanc de Blancs champagnes are usually described as having more freshness and elegance than champagnes made from a blend of black and white grapes. They also have what can only be described as a sort of ‘mineral’ quality to them no doubt coming from the nutrients that the vines absorb through the roots they send delving down deep into the bed of chalk beneath the surface. This distinctive, fresh style makes Blanc de Blancs ideal as an aperitif and with foods that have a slightly salty, iodine character such as caviar and shellfish, but Chardonnay also has huge ageing potential and old Blanc de Blancs champagnes have a complexity and depth that make them wonderful matches with a wide variety of foods
Some people argue that Blanc de Blancs is the ‘real’ champagne and that all else is second best and it’s true that some of the greatest champagnes of all are Blanc de Blancs: Salon and Krug’s Clos de Mesnil being two cases in point, but fortunately for the traveller to champagne there are dozens of stunning discoveries to be made amongst the lesser known producers.
As you head off towards La Côte des Blancs the first village you come to is Chouilly one of 6 villages in this area rated as Grand Cru for their Chardonnay grapes and which follow each other in quick succession as you head south. Each village, although separated by just a few kilometres from its neighbours, has its own character and its champagnes are subtly different from one another.
Chouilly is the largest of the villages in La Côte des Blancs in terms of the area planted and the wines of Chouilly are said to be the easiest to like: softer , more supple and a little more fruity than some others, so it’s a great place to start your discovery of La Côte des Blancs. An excellent place to stop in Chouilly is Champagne Vazard-Coquart, right in the in the main street, where you’ll not only have a warm welcome but also a superb introduction to some first class champagnes. Look out too for the geese you’ll find on the labels – the nickname for the inhabitants of Chouilly is ‘The Geese’.
The next village is Cramant whose Chardonnay grapes are said by some to have everything: finesse, depth, richness, in short the best of the best, but of course there are as many opinions as they are wine drinkers.The only solution is to taste them all yourself and find your own favourite.
Instead of taking the main road to Cramant, take the back road through the vineyards that will take you past the magnificent Chàteau de Saran. Perched on the hillside just beneath the forest this former hunting lodge belongs to Moët & Chandon and is used to entertain VIP visitors. From just beside the château you’ll have a fabulous view along the Côte des Blancs as it stretches into the distance whilst directly in front of you is a vast panorama across the plain that extends south away from the vineyards.
After Cramant comes Avize, a slightly larger village than the others and home to the Viticultural College as well as to many of the best known names amongst the smaller champagne producers. Corbon, Agrapart, Selosse, Franck Bonville, not forgetting De Sousa a bio-dynamic producer of outstanding quality. There are several more too and it is impossible to select just one for special mention. You will not go wrong if you visit any of the producers in Avize, but do remember wherever you go that, to avoid disappointment, it is always best to make an appointment in advance.
Oger is next, a sleepy and picturesque little place that you will pass through almost before you realise you have arrived. Its champagnes have a flinty quality to them and they are more often found in blends with grapes from other villages than as a pure Oger champagne.
Just a few kilometres beyond Oger is Le Mesnil-sur-Oger which also produces grapes with a style all of their own. Wines from Le Mesnil-sur-Oger need a long time to reach their peak. When young they can be austere and closed with the minerality going off the scale, but when left to age the quality is hard to surpass. In addition to the two giants of the village: Salon and Krug’s Clos de Mesnil, the grapes for which comes exclusively from a walled vineyard in the heart of the village, there are many superb champagnes to find amongst the smaller producers: Philippe Gonet, Launois, Gimonnet-Gonet, Pierre Peters, Robert Moncuit. It’s very much like Avize, almost every door you knock upon hides a champagne well worth discovering.
If you have time to spare before heading back to Epernay for a well-earned dinner, you might continue for a few more kilometres. In fact La Côte des Blancs extends to Le Mont Aimé a small hill 15 – 20 minutes south of Le-Mesnil-sur-Oger, but the further south you go, the fewer the address worth visiting with the exception, that is, of the village of Vertus.
Unlike the villages we have mentioned so far, Vertus is ranked at 95%, still very respectable but not quite at the pinnacle of Grand Cru. It’s quite a bustling little place though and is unusual in La Côte de Blancs in that it also has a few hectares planted with Pinot Noir. Producers to visit here are Pascal Doquet, Doyard and Larmandier Bernier all three masters of their craft.
There remains one more grape variety, Meunier, and one more region to discover in the northern part of Champagne, La Vallée de la Marne and we’ll take a trip there in part 3.
To contact the champagne makers mentioned click on the links in the text, go to their web sites listed below or go to http://www.francefinewines.eu/
*Selosse also runs a magnificent restaurant and hotel in Avize
Franck Bonville http://www.champagne-franck-bonville.com/
Philippe Gonet http://www.champagne-philippe-gonet.com/
Pierre Peters http://www.champagne-peters.com/en
Robert Moncuit http://www.champagnerobertmoncuit.com/
Pascal Doquet http://www.champagne-doquet.com/
Larmandier Bernier http://www.larmandier.fr/index.php?lang=en
Author: Jiles Halling is an Englishman and long-time resident in Champagne. You can find out more on www.mymaninchampagne.com