Wine Tasting in Champagne

I know it sounds glamorous and I can’t deny it was a great pleasure BUT it still counts as work!! A trip by car to the UK to celebrate hubby Nigel’s 60th in birthday in March and the happy coincidence of needing to source a “house” champagne for our newly launched small (but perfect) Fine Wine Works “Wine List” meant that we would be driving down past Reims and Epernay on our way home to the Cote d’Azur.
vilmart tastingvilmart-barriques

Until such time as we can source a New World Fizz (or indeed an English sparkler!) at the right price and which delivers a real point of difference, we decided we needed to offer just one Champagne. But it’s a “Name Dropping Fizz” – we’ve dropped the idea of using big names! Rather than go for a brand or so called Grande Marque which I believe hold falsely high retail prices almost through a monopoly pricing strategy, we’ve hunted out a small but highly regarded Champagne house to be the FWW Champagne of choice.

In starting to do some research into the sourcing, I soon decided that a Grower Champagne (you may see the words Récoltant- Manipulant on a bottle which shows the producer to be grower who sells to the Houses as well as making his own champagne) could be the most interesting. We were looking for a non “big brand” to use for our events and wine tastings; to use as a model example in our wine training courses and to sell to our discerning clients – all at a fair price. To unveil some of the mystery of Champagne it is worth unravelling a few key facts: There are around 260 Champagne houses (some names such as Bollinger, Moet & Chandon, Laurent Perrier are instantly recognisable) which account for nearly 90% of all Champagne exports, more outside of Europe yet they only own approximately 12% of the vineyard area within the appellation. But there are just over 40 co-operatives and in excess of 5,000 growers (out of some 19,000 grape producers in the region) selling under their own name. So how to stumble on the perfect one to meet the FWW criteria? Working backwards then, and starting with my own favourite fizzy tipple – I’ve always been a Krug girl, (so never a “cheap date”) and understanding that what makes Krug “special” and very different is the use of oak – fermented in small barriques without malolactic fermentation and with serious quantities of reserve wines from older vintages to give ultra fine bubbles, aromas of dried fruits and toasted nuts and a profoundly rich palate. Very few champagne houses follow this path, preferring the purity of stainless steel for first fermentation BUT (and here’s the exciting part), there is a small Grower Champagne which most people won’t have heard of but which commands an almost cult following from those in the know.

Vilmart & Cie from Rilly–la–Montagne have producing their distinctive Champagnes since 1890 from their own bio-dynamically farmed Premier Cru status vineyards and use larger oak “foudres” for all their non vintage Cuvées and smaller 225 litre “barriques” for their vintage and premium wines. Owner and winemaker, since taking over from his father in 1990, Laurent Champs kindly invited us to visit and taste the range, which we duly did last week. To say I was bowled over by the tasting is putting it mildly – a real “wow” factor made its presence felt and I felt an almost evangelical need to bring at least one of the range to a wider customer base here on the Riviera and to share this very special experience.

Grande Reserve NV: Can’t quite believe this is their “entry level” champagne! 70% Pinot Noir in the blend (actually no Pinot Meunier used in any of their Cuvées), this had such finesse and delicate aromatics – fresh fern, honeysuckle and jasmine and notable white fruits (pear, nectarine and Mirabelle plum) on the palate then a delectable length with a hint of ginger-nut biscuit on the finish. This is the one we’re opting for initially, although I would hope to offer perhaps one or two of the more premium wines at a later stage once word spreads. 22.90€ TTC

Grande Cellier NV: Here the blend is reversed with more briochy Chardonnay to the fore. Pale gold, with almonds and hazelnuts on the nose then a frank citrus explosion of tangerine and grapefruit and crystalised lemons. This one would improve in bottle for a few years – if you can resist its youthful charms now!

Grande Cellier d’Or 2002: Brioche and vanilla are the first notes that strike then exquisite apricot flavours. Fresh yet nutty, this delivers striking complexity and length. No wonder that top sparkling wine writer, Tom Stevenson says of Vilmart that they are “ the greatest Grower Champagne I know”.

Coeur de Cuvée 2000: The finest selection and the unsurpassed king of the Vilmart range, this is the one critics acclaim as a “mini – Krug”. Kirsch and coffee compliment the grassy vanilla scents, more tropical fruit on the palate and taut tingly acidity as the backbone. Balanced like a true diva!
Robert Parker gives it 94/100:
“This is a richly textured, intense wine loaded with ripe fruit and sweet toasted oak. Today it remains quite primary, but it will be stunner in a few years’ time, once the full range of its tertiary aromas and flavors have developed. Patience is the key. Coeur de Cuvee is 80% Chardonnay and 20% Pinot Noir from 50-year old vines.”

To sum up, we are bursting with anticipation to start showcasing the Grande Reserve at our Events and Tastings and although perhaps the English translation is a little quirky, I like the quote from Laurent Champs, the winemaker at Vilmart, that it “will accompany any peculiar moment of your life” – in other words, one to drink anytime, any place, anywhere! Vive la Vilmart!!!!

Helen Brotherton