The second day of the Champagne sojourn began with a visit to Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC) HQ in Epernay. The Maison de la Champagne held answers to my questions regarding the Champagne history, culture and future. For a drink which has such a celebratory persona attached to it, the people behind are more than just serious about it. The amount of time CIVC puts in to create and uphold the image of Champagne is dramatic; for starters they do not like brand Champagne to be associated with anything but the sparkling wine from the region. Even if it pitches the brand’s superiority. They even won a legal battle against sparkling water brand Perrier in 1983 when the County Court of Munich established that the brand name and its benefits to the people of Champagne and that Perrier was misappropriating the brand. In India, they managed to get Champagne Indage to change their name to Chateau Indage.
CIVC is also looking into changing environmental situations and their impact on the grapes and wines. They have their own vineyards where they do R&D not just to improve methodologies but also to see how impact on the environment can be reduced. So my conversation with Antoine Roland Billecart of Billecart-Salmon did see a satisfactory answer. The region of Champagne has chalk and lime stone sub soil, part of the quintessential wine terroir, it is critical to the wines’ distinctiveness. And the cellars in most of the Champagne houses are carved into this chalky subsoil. These networks of these cellars go back eons and to preserve them further they have put up the region’s Coteaux, Maisons et Caves de Champagne (Vineyard slopes, Champagne Houses and Champagne cellars) to be listed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The wines we had this morning were not from chateaus and maisons but from growers’ cooperatives. Paul Goerg, Blanc de Blancs; Mailly Grand Cru, Blanc de Noirs and Ruinart Brut, all Champagnes but each with its own character. Heading out to lunch cutting across Avenue de Champagne, home to Champagne stalwarts, character of Champagne seemed to be the key thought for me to ponder upon this second day. The lunch was a magnanimous affair at the Restaurant La Grillade Gourmande by Chef Christophe Bernard. Since we are talking about wines, its worth mentioning that the wine list here is by far the biggest, heaviest and longest I have ever seen. And they are all Champagnes! The ones selected to pair with our gourmet meal were Philipponat and Alfred Gratien.
By the time lunch got over, it was raining and it was time to head to the house of Michel Gonet. Headed by Sophie Signolle, viticultrice recoltant-manipulant – who was busy entertaining Japanese clients when we arrived – vouches for quality rather than numbers. She offered us a mix of vintages and non vintage blends which she took more pride in. We tasted Blanc de Blancs Brut, Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut, Brut Reserve and Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru 2004. The conversation again steered back to the character of Champagne and how it makes the biggest difference as to whether one likes or dislikes these wines. Scurrying into the car to head out to the last stop of Champagne Bollinger, we made a quick pit stop at Madame Salvatore’s wine boutique. A quality wine at reasonable prices is her motto; the dear old lady is known to have the best deals on these French sparkling. The opportunity to pick up a few was wasted thanks to a jam-packed suitcase and custom rules back home.
At the Bollinger house, we were greeted by Christian Dennis, who gallantly braved the rains providing the shelter of the umbrella to ladies and took us on a journey across the Champaign house’s properties. While Taittinger has there ancient cellars, Bollinger has taken preserving history in a different way. They have samples of grape varietals that were originally used to vinify Champagnes (most have been delisted from the official Champagne grapes list). They also have the old school style of vines without the modern day trellis; while this system is great for the grapes unfortunately it is also very susceptible to diseases making it unfeasible. Bollinger has a croupier as well. He is a man who is responsible for fixing all the barrels the winery uses. He has his own workshop and according to Dennis, is very temperamental especially about his tools. Dennis then led us to the Bollinger chateau where he left us in very capable hands of Mathieu Kauffman – Chef de Cave. The evening started with Bollinger Special Cuvee and as the dinner progressed the quiet and unassuming Kauffman started unravelling. He came to Bollinger from Alsace’s Cave d’Eguisheim a completely different style of wines but he made Bollinger as much his as the wines made him theirs. (He has recently moved on from Bollinger to German Reichsrat von Buhl) At the dinner Bollinger La Grande Annee Rose 2004, Bollinger La Grande Annee 2002 and Bollinger Rose was served.
With that this delectable and bubbly journey came to a close; and even though I still need to develop my palate and understanding nuances of wines I did better understand how preservation is a key for survival.