Travelling by train from Paris you notice the vineyards lining the Vallee de la Marne long before you arrive at the surprisingly brutalist railway station in Epernay, an early intimation of just how big and diverse the Champagne appellation is.
With three different grape varieties, a vast arrange of vineyards too choose and the ability to add reserve wine from past vintages into the blend the Champenois enjoy more flexibility than almost anywhere else to produce a palatable tipple. Oh and don’t forget the bubbles, just as carbon dioxide demonstrably improves the flavour of fizzy drinks so does it enhance the taste of most Champagnes.
Synonymous with celebration & the lubricant of a good party it is easy to enjoy & consume Champagne without particularly focusing directly on the wine itself. Large quantities of Champagne are made for just this purpose but more and more there are Champagne makers whose aim is to produce first and foremost wines which just happen to have a few bubbles.
Champagne where the bubbles are almost beside the point! These are the wines that we have concentrated upon in this series of tasting notes.
Bristling with excitement and tension at the imminent harvest Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy, owner and winemaker at Champagne Geoffroy, arrived in dusty boots straight in from the vineyards. As he showed us around the winery and introduced us to his wines, it was impossible not to be caught up in his enthusiasm and it was clear that Jean-Baptiste is someone who absolutely loves what he does.
Although located in Ay almost all vineyards are in Cummieres at the eastern end of the Vallee de Marne and are pinot noir & Pinot Meunier. The plots are all owned by family having been divided up over the generations.
In 2006 Jean Baptiste bought the winery in Ay from a cooperative because an access road at the rear allows grapes at harvest time to be delivered straight into the top floor and then the whole wine making process can be carried out by gravity down through 3 floors and eventually into deep cellars cut into the chalk below. Jean-Baptiste uses the traditional ‘coquart’ vertical wooden wine press unique to champagne. Each press takes 4 hrs and he operates 2 in rotation he feels maintaining the tradition is important and it works for his wines even if it’s more labour intensive.
Champagne Geoffroy believes that some oxidation is beneficial to the wines and so age approximately 35% for their non-vintage and 100% of the vintage wines in used oak barrels. They use a large range of barrel sizes including some large Foudre de chene from Austria along with second hand burgundy barriques. They also use old fashioned enamel vats because Jean-Baptiste finds their use results in less reduction than in stainless steel barrels.
Cuvée Expression Brut NV
A blend of 2 vintages 2011 and 2010 (35%), some oak in the reserve wine and 90% black grapes. It spends a minimum of 3 years in bottle on the lees. Very fruity, bruised red apple, soft red fruit, bread, chalk dust, nice mouthfeel understated fine bubbles, great lift at end nice minerally chalky finish. Dry, complex and engaging, fresh but welcoming with great balance. This champagne really punches well above its weight.
Cuvée Pureté Brut nature NV
Same blend as the Expression but older vintages 09 & 10 and with zero dosage. Lovely, more savoury flavours, a bit fresher but not sharp or austere at all. Just super dry. One for food.
Cuvée Empreinte Brut 2009
Pinot noir driven blend. Made in 80% oak using a mix of large and small barrels. On the nose red fruit, strawberries and ripe red apple, creamy notes and a lingering aroma of rising bread dough. In the mouth red berries, baked apples with spice, minerals, nuttiness and a long finish ending with a minty note. Even more complex. Excellent.
Cuvée Volupté Brut 2007
A blend of 80% chardonnay and 10% PN & PM. Half raised in oak and low dosage that would qualify as an extra brut.
A lovely nose of brioche, a touch of after eight chocolate and lemon zest. In the mouth an interesting chalky character, dry, pastry, some coco powder & more ripe citrus notes with a long finish. A very satisfying wine that remains fresh.
Cuvée Rosé de Saignée
Deep pink colour. This wine is 100% pinot noir from a single year. The colour bleeds from the grape skins rather than coming from an added wine which Jean Baptiste feels does not result in a harmonious and integrated wine. A rather subdued subtle nose, hints of soft red fruit. In the mouth red fruit: cherries, strawberries, fruit salad, and a nice chalky slightly sweeter finish. A touch of red wine body with really great balance overall.
Cuvée Blanc de Rose Extra brut 2011.
Gold pink colour. This rose is also made by allowing the colour to bleed from the Pinot noir grapes but is 50:50 Chardonnay and Pinot noir. The blend is made by mixing the grapes together and then macerating and fermenting them together. Floral on the nose, rose and chalk. In the mouth lemon peel, pink grapefruit, dry with good body and freshness, dried red fruit. Sophisticated. Really unique, would be great with a ceviche fish starter.
Cuvée Millesime Extra Brut 2005.
This is a blend of about half Chardonnay, 30% PN and the rest pinot meunier. Made in 100% oak and left for a minimum of 8 years on the lees. Jean-Baptiste recommends to decant older vintages as this allows any initial closed oxidative character to blow off. He also says that this wine which is only made in great vintages is better to taste a day or two after opening.
First bottle which had been opened two days previously. Slightly smokey nose, delicate. A silky mouth feel with minimal bubbles. Delicate citrus, cream, slightly saline, very Burgundian, nice nuttiness and subtle oak notes. A long mineral finish.
Second freshly opened bottle. Bit more edge, more freshness, less of the subtlety of the opened version but made up for with greater vitality and intensity. Very long. Really really good!
Jean Baptiste suggests that this wine can be cellared easily for 10 + years and is beginning to keep back 500 bottles of each vintage to age further on the lees before disgorgement. The first to be released will be the 1999.
The oldest wine house in Champagne founded by Pierre Gosset in 1584 in the days when the wines were still. The wine is sourced from around 200 growers from 70 villages mostly in the Montagne de Reims and the Cote de Blancs. The freshly pressed juice of each grape type from each village is vinified separately and even the non-vintage champagnes are left to develop in the lees for a minimum of three years. Finally all the wines are bottled in the distinctive shaped bottle that champagne used to use in the 18th century.
In 1994 Gosset was bought by the Renaud-Cointreau group and under new management the annual production has doubled to around one million bottles a year. This may sound like a large production operation but isn’t when compared to many of the larger Champagne houses. The focus here is on making high quality chardonnay led wines and the recent investment has clearly achieved this. With new wine making premises and cellars in Epernay bought in 2009 the house has capacity for further expansion and as we discovered when we tasted the wines this can only be very good news!
Blanc de Blanc Brut. NV.
Chardonnay sourced 2/3 from the Cote de Blanc and 1/3 from the south east corner of le Montagne de Reims. Dosage 9g. A lovely peanut brittle nose with chalky notes. Vigorous mouse. Nice ripe lemon peels some flinty notes, and tasty leesy notes.
Grand Rose NV
Gosset’s biggest seller at 12% of the production. A 50:50 blend of Pinot Noir and chardonnay with 8% PN red wine. Salmon pink, peach colour with tiny bubbles. Chalkiness on nose, a bit reticent with a touch of soft red fruit & lemon zest.Similar flavours on the palate, chalky with soft red fruit a hint of cumin. This would be a great pair with Asian food.
Grande Reserve Brut NV
Aged 4 years on lees and with about 20% reserve wines often from 3 different vintages in the blend. The wine is Pinot dominant with 40% Pinot Noir, 20% pinot meunier & 40% chardonnay all from premier cru villages. Rich bright gold colour. A tight nose of honey, smoke, nuts. Concentrated, rich & intense, on the palette with cooked lemon, pastry, and a great structure. Very long. Put this one in the cellar for a year or two and it will uncoil beautifully.
Grand Milleseme Brut 2006.
The blend is 55%PN & 45% chardonnay with a dosage of 6g. Richer darker gold colour. On the nose fragrant Manuka honey, roasted nuts, biscuit then crystallised orange & lemon a touch of dark chocolate, really complex. Lovely ripe grapefruit, nuts, biscuit a compelling luscious sweet zesty finish. Very long.
Celebris Vintage 2002 Extra Brut.
The blend 52% chardonnay & 48% Pinot noir. Aged 10 years on the lees before disgorgement. A struck match nose over ripe mango, roasted nuts, and with floral notes. Very sophisticated delicate palate of exotic fruits, mango, lemon and cheesecake, really elegant long & complex a superb wine!
‘15 Ans de Cave a Minima’ Brut
A limited edition late disgorgement release originally cellared in 1999 60:40 chardonnay pinot noir with 7g dosage. Even more golden in colour tiny bubbles. On the nose honey, biscuit, dried fruits a nice touch of oxidation and maturity. On the palate lemon tart, honey, baked fruit, spice fuller body, complex and very long. A wine for those that enjoy maturity & sophistication.
Champagne Leclerc Briant
For someone in charge of the complete the rebirth of Champagne house Leclerc Briant Frédéric Zeimett looks pretty calm and collected. In fact he is clearly enjoying the opportunity of creating something new and unique.
Three years ago when he bought the biodynamic winery with American investors Frédéric embarked upon an ambitious program to rebuild the winery which is now nearing completion. With a keen eye for aesthetics the new winery brings style and function together with state of the art equipment. Rows of double stacked stainless steel tanks flank each side of the chapel like fermentation room with tall slot windows at each end adding to the effect.
Along with the modern Coquart press we noticed interesting egg shaped terracotta casks and Frédéric explained that he has brought in leading biodynamic wine consultant & ‘wine whisperer’ Hervé Jestin with an open brief to explore and push the boundaries of biodynamic winemaking. Hervé is experimenting with different the energy that different materials such and terracotta, wood and even glass give to the wine.
This is where the intriguing mix of sophisticated style and esoteric biodynamic ideas that Frédéric calls Bio-chic starts to become evident.
Frédéric elaborates upon his concept of Bio-Chic.
Leclerc Briant. Brut Reserve.
All from 2013, 40% pinot noir 40% pinot meunier and 20% chardonnay with 4g dosage.Served in burgundy glasses at 11 to 13 degrees. Only bottled in June/ July 2014, 30% of the wine having been raised in barrels then disgorged 2 years later. The wine is only bottled so late because it is a biodynamic principle to wait until the next years flowers arrive on vine. Minimal bubbles. On the nose fruity & chalky with a slightly dusty spicy cumin note. In the mouth very dry, lime with pink grapefruit a fresh saline thread lingers in mouth. Lovely!
Blanc de Meuniers Chamery 1er cru
Served blind a sample bottle of a 100% pinot meunier champagne harvested 2013. 100% raised in wooden barrels for 9 months with zero dosage. Unfortunately we failed to identify this as 100% pinot meunier from Vale de Marne! On the nose leesy with a touch of spice nice cumin. In the mouth dry, fresh lime, grapefruit, chalky and a bit spicy. Frédéric mused whether the final wine would benefit from the addition of some dosage or remain zero? Interesting as it was and not austere but my feeling was that more fruit might manifest itself with a lift in sweetness.
La Croisette from the single vineyard range.
100% chardonnay all from the 2013 vintage and all vinified and aged in old Sauternes barrels, zero dosage. A spicy nose, lemon peel and a little hint of marmalade perhaps from the barrels.On palate more citrus, spicy notes minimal bubbles and a nice subtle toastiness. Long.
Champagne Leclerc Briant
Agnes Corbon almost single headedly runs this gem of a winery in the heart of Avize on the Cote de Blancs. Lovingly producing just 10,000 bottles a year Agnes believes in long aging on the lees and minimal intervention. Since Claude Corbon started the tradition 40 years ago the house has always made a vintage wine every year. Agnes explains her wine making approach in the video below.
Approximately 50% chardonnay and 25% PN & 25% PM zero dosage. Base wine 2010 bottled in 2011 disgorged after about 4 years on the lees in June 2015. Minimal bubbles. Red berries on the nose, lemon rind, white flowers, chalky nuts & a hint of cumin. Dry but not austere, complex buttery, nutty and long.
Solera style perpetual blend with 50% new wine added each vintage into a large 30 hectolitre oak foudre. Bottled in 2008. The blend is 80 to 85% chardonnay and about 15% pinot noir although moving towards 100%. The blend was started by Agnes’ father in about 1982. Quite mind boggling but resulting in a wine of lovely complexity with ripe fruit: apples, & lemon, dried fruit, spices & toasted nuts. In the mouth, honey & hazel nuts with a nice sweetness. Very long. Again minimal bubbles. An extraordinary wine!
Champagne Chardonnay vintage 2005.
100% chardonnay aged 10 years on the lees with 6g dosage. To keep the wine fresh no malolactic fermentation is allowed and the wine is made in 100% stainless steel barrels. On the nose a whiff of smoke, candy fruit & pear drop. In the mouth intense baked lemon a touch of honey& some slightly resinous notes great balance and lift.
These wines somehow reflect the both the location and the winemakers patient approach quirky yet captivating! Well worth seeking out.