The Latest from Champagne

 


April in Paris is wonderful, but for someone who loves Champagne, April in Reims is even better. Because April is when this city, home to a splendid cathedral and many of the most prestigious Champagne Houses such as Krug, Veuve-Clicquot, Roederer and Pommery, is abuzz with Le Printemps des Champagnes. Now in its tenth year, this five-day event for wine professionals is comprised of many individual salon-like tastings staged by groups of small grower-producers from all over the Champagne region.

Things kicked off quietly with two tastings Saturday afternoon, one of which — a tasting of Meunier-based Champagnes by the Meunier Institut — I managed to attend despite having just arrived in Charles de Gaulle airport that morning to a train strike which delayed my arrival in Reims by 7 hours.
The second day, Sunday there were five tastings, including a very large group of organic producers called “Bulles Bio” at Le Manège de Reims (a former stable) as well as “Les Mains du Terrior” which took place in the ornate salon of the Town Hall. The effervescent frenzy peaked on Monday with 8 events, including both morning and afternoon sessions of “Terres et Vins de Champagne,” one of the original groups of grower-producers that got this whole thing going a decade ago, in the Palace de Tau adjacent to the imposing cathedral. After that the flurry tapered back down with five tastings on Tuesday and three on the final day.

As the strike was still alive and kicking (and still is, as I write this several weeks later), I had to get a ride to the airport at 5:30 Wednesday morning, which made Tuesday my last evening in Reims. But I was not disappointed. After a full day of tasting (including a fantastic collection of wines by a group called Les Artisans du Champagne at the luxurious hotel-restaurant Domaine les Crayères) my final event of Printemps 2018 was a tasting — kind of a party, really — sponsored by the Acadèmie du Vin de Bouzy at an open-air wine bar called Les Clos across from the Boulingrin market.

Bouzy, population 947 (2009), is located in the southern part of the Montagne de Reims area of the Marne department and is a 100% Grand Cru village. But what makes it especially notable is that it is one of the original sub-appellations of Coteaux Champenois AOC.

While it may come as a surprise to many, long before bubbles were embraced and the complex process called the Méthode Champenoise was developed to intentionally create them, the wine produced in Champagne was still. And back at a time when the name of the region didn’t have quite the allure it has today, the name of villages that had developed a reputation for producing wine that what was generally considered to be exceptionally good often got top billing on the label. Bouzy was one of these villages; Aÿ, Cumieres, Sillery and Vertus were others.

We all know what happened: bubbles became a big hit, the kinks in the production process were ironed out, and sparkling Champagne — often copied but never quite duplicated — went on to become a symbol of luxury and the ‘good life’ throughout the world. Needless to say, all the popping corks and foamy fizz greatly overshadowed the still wines that preceded them. But they did not disappear.

In 1974 the ancient practice received its own appellation, Coteaux Champenois AOC, replacing what had up until then been referred to as “Vins Natures de la Champagne,” and a number of stalwart producers kept making still wines (in addition to their Champagnes), despite the fact that there wasn’t much market for them.

When I was spending lots of time in Reims researching my book on Champagne, I would scour restaurant wine lists to see whether they had any, and most of them didn’t. When I asked a restaurateur why there was no Coteaux Champenois on the list of their restaurant in one of the capitals of Champagne she said “We can get better wines of this style for less money from Burgundy; who wants to drink still wine from Champagne?”

Moi, I thought to myself, but she did have part of a point: because the still wines are made from the same grapes and vineyards that are authorized for the production of Champagne, the wines are not inexpensive. Generally, Coteaux costs about the same as the entry-level Champagne from the same producer, but not always: sometimes they can cost much more.

Though Coteaux Champenois are made (mostly) from the same grapes as Burgundy — Pinot Noir and Chardonnay — they are completely different wines: Coteaux Champenois tend to be a bit lighter in color and body, and less fruit-forward than their Burgundian counterparts with higher acidity and a distinct mineral edge. Moreover, these wines offer unadulterated expressions of the unique climate, soils and terroirs of Champagne, and for this reason, while quite delicious on their own terms, they also provide a valuable insight into (bubbly) Champagne.

So I was quite happy to spend my last night in Champagne with a bunch of Bouzy.

There are 17 members of the Académie de Bouzy and each had at least one Coteaux Champenois and a rosé Champagne — “Rouge et Rosé” was the theme of the evening —so this was a great opportunity to have your Coteaux and drink bubbles too. Many also offered a vin clair, a still wine from the most recent 2017 vintage. As Bouzy is located in the Montagne de Reims, Pinot Noir dominates and most of the Coteaux from Bouzy is Rouge. But there were a few remarkable standouts. The Herbert Beaufort winery poured an extremely rare Bouzy Blanc 2017 made from 80% chardonnay and 20% petit meslier, one of the so called ‘lost’ native grape varieties of Champagne, which added an exotic fillip to the taut and focused chalky core. (About 1,000 bottles made.) Another was an extraordinary Bouzy Rosé from the “Clos Barnaut” 2008 made from 100% pinot noir grown in an enclosed vineyard site (Also 1,000 made).

Unfortunately, neither of these wines is available in the US. But here are some that are:

Egly-Ouriet, Ambonnay Rouge Coteaux Champenois AOC “Cuvée des Grands Côtès  2014  - $160/bottle

Rene Geoffroy, Cumieres Rouge Coteaux Champenois 2006 - $70/bottle
    
Bollinger, Aÿ Rouge,Coteaux Champenois “La Côte Aux Enfants” 2013 - $120/bottle

Bérêche et Fils, Coteaux Champenois Ormes Rouge “Les Montées” 2014 (Pinot Noir & Meunier)  - $75/bottle

Pierre Paillard, Bouzy Rouge Coteaux Champenois “Les Mignottes” 2012 -  $40/bottle

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