For any wine aficionado, a journey into the old world wine country is a holy grail of sorts. Depending on the personal bent of mind, Bordeaux will conquer Loire, so on and so forth, but the highest high is perhaps the land of the effervescence emanating king of sparkling wines – Champagne. My invitation came by the hands of CIVC ambassador for Champagne in India – Rajiv Singhal. Under his tutelage, I along with a connoisseur, a sommelier and an editor gleefully arrived in the town of Epernay. In the whirlwind two and a half day trip to Champagne we visited five wineries as well as the CIVC HQ. Before proceeding, I think I need to put across the statutory explanation – Champagne is a sparkling wine. But all sparkling wines are NOT Champagnes. Sparkling wines that are produced exclusively from the Cote de Blancs, Cote des bar, Montagne de Reims and Vallée de la Marne regions (in Champagne) of France have the legal right to be called Champagne.
First stop on this sparkling sojourn was the house of Billecart-Salmon. Located in Mareuil-Sur-Ay, Epernay, centre of Billecart Salmon’s operation was this little maison with perfectly manicured lawns. The tour began with hand outs of safety glasses for when when see the cellars– the pressure in a faulty bottle makes them pop and therefore dangerous! Off we went, trudging on gravel paths, crossing streets to see a small patch of the vineyard, vatting room, the cellars onto the tasting. Antoine Roland Billecart, the man of the house was the perfect host to our curious set. His was the perfect setting to open the world of subtlety that Champagnes hold within. With him we tasted seven house specialties — Brut Reserve, Brut Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru, Extra Reserve, Brut Rose 2002, Brut Sous Bois, Brut 2000 and Vintage 2004. The first three were tasted in a pre-lunch tasting and the remaining with lunch. Of the wines, my favourite was Brut Sous Bois, named so because the wines had spent some time in oak barrels; the taste and nose were enigmatic and unique to say the least Few things about the strictures of Champagne have always baffled me – the need to keep the name Champagne sacrosanct; limiting the grape varietals that can be used for the wines; discomfort in adopting newer/evolved winemaking techniques; etc. Billecart’s grey hair are no deception, he is a man who follows traditions with a perspective firmly rooted in the future and thanks to that didn’t take offence to my baffled curiosity.
His answers may not have satisfied me, but they did open my eyes to a different approach. He said that these wines and the wine making process are centuries old and that is what makes them special, with the new world wines taking over with their volumes and even their quality, it is a fight for survival. These rules, however strict, help maintain that individuality and distinctiveness. As for modernising, he smiled, it is also happening; wherever technology can help simplify the age old practices they are being implemented. With that food for thought and a lavish lunch in our bellies, we were off to the glamorous house of Champagne Cattier. While the Billecart-Salmon cellars were old school with years of cobwebs gathering, the Cattier cellars were showcase of perfection. Known to be one of the deepest cellars in the region, the three floors of this cellar was home to three historic eras in them – Gothic, Roman and Renaissance. The house of Cattier apart from the home brand also has Armand de Brignac, Champagne with a very high end, ostentatious, luxury positioning. The cellars, too, screamed opulence with the metallic sheen of the bottles sparkling (literally) under the mood lighting. Back from the cellars owner Jean Cattier and Philippe Bienvenu, director commercial took us through the tasting. Brut Blanc de Blancs Premier Cru, Brut Vintage 2003 Premier Cru, Blanc de Noir Brut and Clos du Moulin Brut Premier Cru were what we tasted. The one which stood out for me was Blanc de Noir Brut simply because this was the first time I ever tasted a sparkling made completely of red grapes. The term ‘blanc de noir’ also means exactly that – white from dark. Cattier is very keen on India as a market, but for some reason negotiations with Indian importers just wouldn’t click. Finally earlier in 2013 they made their maiden foray into the country. As for Armand de Brignac it is still too early. Excursions for day one ended with the renowned Taittinger. This was one of the visits that I was patiently looking forward to. It started with the tour of their historic cellars which are open to visitors. Remains of St Nicais Abbey have been incorporated and preserved as part of the cellar. The Benedictine Abbey monks were the first to use these cellars to age Champagnes. An hour’s drive took us to Chateau de la Marquetterie, part of the Taittinger estates. Steeped in history, the estate is named after the alternate patches of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay giving it a chessboard like look. Dominique Garreta, directrice marketing et communication for the Champagne house was our host for the evening; as she filled us in on the history of the Champagne brand and the chateau as the heavenly liquid kept pouring — La Cuvee Comptes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs 2002, Tainttinger Prelude Grands Crus Brut, Taittinger Brut Millesime 2005, The Famous Gate Carneros 2006 and Taittinger Nocturne Sec. Each of these wines were superb but La Cuvee Comptes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs 2002 was the one which created memories with the perfect balance of lightness, nose and taste; the experience became even more memorable thanks to the vineyards amidst which we tasted it. That was the end of a very active and bubbly day one for us. Hitting the hotel bed that night anticipation and expectations for day two just went up a notch. In Part two, next: Visit to Michel Gonet, Bollinger and CIVC HQ (To read more of my writing on Champagne please check — The character of Champagne and Demystifying the bubbly)