Champagne vignettes: a deep, damp, cold chalk cellar in February with rain seeping through the roof, dark because the water has fused the lights. A celebration of rosé at Veuve Clicquot with pink and yellow balloons, pink and yellow flowers, pink and yellow paper lanterns, and monogrammed yellow wellies for walking in the vineyards. A scientist scattering metal bottle tops on a table: this kind of lining allows in a tiny amount of oxygen during lees-ageing, this kind more, this kind none. A promotional video of celebrity models, all flowing hair and fabulousness. A grower apologetically brushing mud and dog’s hair off the seat of his car.
There are many Champagnes. Sometimes they seem barely compatible. Growers might dismiss the big houses, the grandes marques, as producers of safe, industrial wine; a grande marque might comment acidly that the growers are all millionaires now.
There is tourist imagery – cellars dug into the chalk by the Romans and happy growers picking succulent grapes. There is myth – lifestyle, parties, celebrity. And there is reality:
computer-controlled winemaking, intense research and, in places, a return to pre-industrial methods. This is the main tension – between industrial and artisan Champagne.
The big négociant houses – Veuve Clicquot, Pol Roger, Louis Roederer, Moët & Chandon – have spread the taste for Champagne globally with marketing skills and non-vintage cuvées blended for year-to-year consistency. To the world at large, these wines are what Champagne is.
The world should be pleased. To achieve the level of quality of Veuve Clicquot or Roederer or Krug, on such a scale, year in, year out, is only possible because they are extraordinarily good viticulturists and winemakers. It’s just that they don’t talk about it.
Making a blend which tastes the same year after year isn’t easy. Any of the chefs de cave will say their flagship non-vintage is the most challenging and rewarding wine to blend. There may be adjustments to flavour over time – dosage may be reduced, or the use of oak introduced or removed – but consumers aren’t meant to notice. Consistency is what matters. This is where terroir comes in. Every year is different: the chardonnay may be fat and ripe, the pinot noir ruined by rain. The north of the region might be perfect, the south disastrous. There are no rules about consistency of weather.
“Any of the chefs de cave will say their flagship non-vintage is the most challenging and rewarding wine to blend.”
So a chef de cave is supposed to produce the same taste from very different ingredients. They do it by getting grapes from all over the region: the greater the variety of sources and styles, the more blending material they have. Reserve wines, with all the qualities of terroir plus the richness of age, fill the gaps.
The other side of the coin is good growers who challenge all the conventions we’ve accepted from the big houses. Their wines are not the same year after year, and they rejoice in difference, in terroir. They may have lower yields and greater ripeness, and less chaptalisation: the long-standing convention is to pick at 9-10% potential alcohol, and then chaptalise. Cynics, and top growers, say this is because sugar is cheaper than grapes.
These top growers have led Champagne’s slow tiptoe to biodynamics via sustainability; they’ve led the fashion for zero-dosage Champagnes, which sommeliers adore even if most consumers still find them a bit challenging. They’ve led forays into the region’s older grape varieties, like petit meslier and arbane; they may have concrete eggs, or amphorae in their cellars, and they may rejoice in the risks of wild-yeast fermentations. They’re a determined, perfectionist, sometimes cussed lot.
Champagne is a northerly, marginal wine region. Climate change and warmer summers help it, but the acidity from a cool climate and chalk are the foundations of the wine’s flavour. In Champagne, chalk’s damp, water-holding, water-draining whiteness is everywhere. The main grapes are the same as Burgundy: pinot noir and chardonnay, plus pinot meunier, which is more often found in non-vintage blends, where its immediate juiciness works well, than in vintage wines intended for longer ageing. You can find brilliant, stony blanc de blancs and richer, broader blanc de noirs, but for complexity a blend usually does a better job.
How much do the still wines resemble Burgundy? Not much, but they’re mostly not meant to. The process of juice into Champagne is only part-done when the new vins clairs, the still wines, are on the tasting table in January. A novice finds it harder to tell Mesnil from Avize at this age than Puligny from Meursault.
There are four main regions: the Côte des Blancs, the Vallée de la Marne, the Montagne de Reims and the Aube or Côte des Bar. If you think of the Côte des Blancs as growing chardonnay, the Montagne for pinot noir and the Vallée and the Aube for pinot meunier you won’t go far wrong, but there are exceptions. Villages are rated Grand Cru or Premier Cru in their entirety, which is absurd, because nowhere in the wine world is a village homogeneous in quality. Aÿ, one of the most important pinot noir villages, consists of four separate valleys. Aÿ produces pinot noir of weight and fatness, but it’s not all identical. Curiously, chardonnay from Aÿ has a distinct flavour of pinot.
Roughly, pinot noir from the north of Montagne de Reims, from villages like Verzy, Verzenay or Mailly-Champagne, gives fresh, austere wines, while pinot from the southern part of the Montagne and the Vallée de la Marne, from villages like Bouzy, Ambonnay, Aÿ and Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, have more heft. As for chardonnays, the north of the Côte des Blancs gives dark fruit, minerality and firm body. Southern villages, like Le Mesnil or Vertus, give saltier, racier wines. Avize chardonnay has a lead-pencil note; Oger is more stone fruit.
There’s a lot of chalk, and it goes very deep. The cellars were dug by the Romans, and have been used for shelter as well as storage. In World War I the people of Reims hid in the cellars while the city was being shelled – they lived, worked, and went to school and hospital in the chalk cellars. There are over 200 kilometres of chalk tunnels under Reims alone.
There’s also clay, alluvial sand, and flint. The Aube is largely clay and limestone. But chalk’s acidity seems different. The experience of the infant English sparkling wine industry – which makes fizz from many different soils, including the same chalk as in Champagne – is that acidity from chalk isn’t different analytically, but is different on the palate – finer, softer, longer.
The chalk has formed itself into gentle, pillowy hills and ridges: this is an open, welcoming landscape. Vines sweep across slopes in barely broken swathes; hilltops are forested. Montagne de Reims is topped with woodland. It’s a national park; you can walk here for miles. When you come to the edge you’ll look down on vines and villages, villages and vines, in pleasing contrast. There are medieval churches, and even a few medieval bits of villages; but villages are often at their most picturesque from a distance. This has been one of Europe’s battlefields.
In the Middle Ages, before anyone thought bubbles would improve Champagne’s thin, austere wines, the area was famous for cloth. Sparkling wine arrived later. In Hautvillers, one of the most beautiful villages, they’ll tell you the 17th-century monk Dom Pérignon set out to invent Champagne. In fact, he wanted to make still wine to rival Burgundy and never made sparkling wine, as far as anyone knows. Fizzy alcoholic drinks were pioneered in England, with cider. Champagne is one of the world’s great unintended consequences.
Dom Pérignon looked to Burgundy. Modern growers increasingly do the same in their search for greater precision, perfect aromatic ripeness and for perfecting pinot noir. Burgundian attitudes to terroir, to biodynamics, to returning life to the soil, to picking dates, are permeating Champagne. Louis Roederer aims to be entirely biodynamic. Veuve Clicquot has introduced big oak vats in its cellars, for the most subtle seasoning of creaminess. Dom Pérignon is obsessed with ever-great tension, via perfect aromatic ripeness. They try to emphasise differences of terroir site-to-site – even if they blend them away.
The other strain of Champagne’s history, trade, explains why the food you’ll be offered – most of it very good – may not have very deep local roots. Champagne was for other markets – London, Paris, Versailles, New York. Visitors didn’t want the sturdy, unglamorous traditional food of northern France: they wanted something to suit the wine’s pizzazz. Champagne is a centre of good food, but its ideas are taken from everywhere.
Another vignette: a carpaccio of artichoke with curls of foie gras and a touch of parmesan, cooked by star chef Joël Robuchon and matched with 2006 Veuve Clicquot Grande Dame Rosé. Or marinated Atlantic sea bass, betel leaves and golden caviar, invented by chef David Thompson to match 2008 Dom Pérignon. This sort of thing, rather than chalk on your shoes, is the reason most people visit Champagne; but it’s the chalk that makes it all possible. That and the rain dripping through the electric fittings.
Plan your visits to avoid crossing and re-crossing the Montagne de Reims. It’s beautiful up on the Montagne – deep forest, full of flowers in spring and glorious colours in autumn. But the narrow roads can be slow. Take a picnic, and take your time.
The big names are thoroughly geared up for visitors. Expect guides who can be glamorous in several languages, but who might not tell you very much. But note the smaller négociants, which have a grower mentality and terroir-driven wines.
Reims house Veuve Clicquot (veuveclicquot.com) makes excellent, generous, ripe Yellow Label, roughly 50% pinot noir. Cellar master Dominique Demarville is constantly working on greater precision and complexity.
Henriot (champagne-henriot.com) makes toasty, chardonnay-dominant wines of great purity. Taste the Brut Souverain, the NV, and the beautiful, subtle Rosé. Based in Reims.
Louis Roederer (louis-roederer.com), family-owned, is almost more of a grower than a négociant, and is a leader in biodynamics. Lovely wines of perfect finesse and poise across the range. Based in Reims.
Bollinger (champagne-bollinger.com) is the epitome of toasty, oak-aged, pinot noir-based Champagne, but has become a tad fresher of late. RD is the star wine. The virtually unobtainable Vieilles Vignes Françaises comes from three tiny plots of ungrafted vines grown en foule – propagated from canes buried in the soil to grow roots. Based in Aÿ, where at least you can see the VVF vines, even if you can’t drink the wine.
Jacquesson (champagnejacquesson.com), in Dizy, is technically a négociant, but buys in only about 20% of its grapes and has the attitudes of a grower. Small-scale. Wines of extreme precision and vigour, with very low dosage. The NV is different every year and is numbered, rather than named: 741 is based on the 2013 vintage. All other wines are from single vineyards.
AR Lenoble (champagne-arlenoble.com) is a small, perfectionist négociant in Damery. Look for the single-vineyard, multi-vintage, low-dosage Les Aventures Blanc de Blancs – firm, concentrated and winey.
Pierre Peters (champagne-peters.com), in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, focuses on chardonnay and wines of drive and tension. Keeps a solera of reserve wines. Don’t miss the Reserve Oubliée.
Vilmart (champagnevilmart.com) is in Rilly la Montagne – pinot noir country – although Vilmart focuses on chardonnay. The wines are oak-aged, toasty, rich and creamy. Look out for the Coeur de Cuvée. Wines to lay down.
Henri Giraud (champagne-giraud.com). Fanatical about Argonne oak. Pinot noir-dominated (he’s in Aÿ) wines of toastiness, deep fruit, concentration. Not open for visits.
Geoffroy (champagne-geoffroy.com), also in Aÿ, avoids malolactic fermentation and practises low-intervention winemaking. The Volupté Brut is based on chardonnay, and full of buttery minerality, if there is such a thing.
Larmandier-Bernier (larmandier.fr) is based in Vertus, and is one of Champagne’s determined biodynamic pioneers. Four single-terroir wines: Terre de Vertus, Vieille Vigne de Levant, from Cramant, Les Chemins d’Avize and Rosé de Saignée.
In Avize, Jacques Selosse (selosse-lesavises.com) and Agrapart (champagne-agrapart.com) are at different ends of the style spectrum (Selosse vinous, ripe, rich; Agrapart earlier-picked, racy) but both are cult growers of firm beliefs and perfectionist viticulture and winemaking. Anselme Selosse (son of Jacques) is more extravagant; Pascal Agrapart is more restrained, but both think deeply and widely; both seek perfect terroir expression. At Agrapart, L’Avizoise is crystalline and powerful. At Selosse, try the saline, complex 2002 vintage.
In Ambonnay, go to cult grower Egly-Ouriet (+33 3 26 57 00 70) for pinot noir-based wines, including the still Coteaux Champenois Ambonnay Rouge. A believer in natural yeasts for fermentation, and long lees-ageing.
Ambonnay grower Eric Rodez (en.champagne-rodez.com) finds sameness in wines extremely boring. He’s biodynamic and into terroir. Try the single-vineyard Les Genettes – rich and opulent.
You’ll see a lot of foie gras, and it goes well with Champagne. The wine needs a bit of weight and age for it to work. With hot-seared foie gras, order a very good old vintage: it works superbly, and it’s about the only thing that does.
Sightseeing in Reims should include the medieval cathedral (restored after 1918) and the splendid Roman Porte de Mars, originally a city gate. Various grandes marques are based here, and there’s good shopping. The Best Western Premier Hôtel de la Paix (bestwestern-lapaix-reims.com) is reckoned the best regular place to stay: it’s not glamorous, but it’s very comfortable, and central.
For real luxe, Les Crayères (lescrayeres.com) is a belle-epoque restaurant with rooms, and feels like you’re staying in someone’s grand home. The restaurant has two Michelin stars; the more relaxed Le Jardin brasserie is in the garden. Everything is brilliant. Samples from the current menu: wild razor clams, or turbot, or Roscoff lobster.
L’Assiette Champenoise (assiettechampenoise.com), with three-Michelin stars, Arnaud Lallement’s establishment on the edges of Reims is a hotel as well. Turbot, langoustines, pigeon and sweetbreads are prepared with amazing subtlety. The décor is contemporary, and there’s a pool.
Epernay is smaller, but boasts the Avenue de Champagne – a long millionaire’s row flanked by big houses like Pol Roger, Moët & Chandon, Vranken, Boizel and (less excitingly) Mercier. My view of spending time in Epernay is slightly coloured by a dismal cold, rainy, slushy February Monday I spent here trying vainly to find some shops that were open. But there are an abundance of good hotels and restaurants, like the traditional French grandeur of La Villa Eugene (villa-eugene.com); Les Berceaux (lesberceaux.com) – really a restaurant with rooms, and two restaurants, the Michelin-starred Michelon and the more casual Bistrot 7 – or Hôtel Jean Moët (hoteljeanmoet.com; yes, that Moët) with its mix of 18th-century architecture and modern interiors.
I’ve had many excellent meals over the years at La Table Kobus (la-table-kobus.fr). The interior is simple, the food is traditional but updated. Good growers are on the wine list as well as famous houses. The set menus are good value.
La Grillade Gourmande (lagrilladegourmande.com) has a simple interior and terrific food, particularly fish and snails. Young pigeon stuffed with foie gras and baked in puff pastry is a speciality, as are divine veal sweetbreads en cocotte.
Just outside Epernay, La Briqueterie (labriqueterie.fr), was recently done up in traditional French country-house style. There’s a pool, gardens and an excellent restaurant.
In the country nearer Epernay than Reims, the Royal Champagne (relaischateaux.com), is a Relais & Châteaux hotel which reopened in 2018. There’s now a spa and wonderful views over the vineyards. Near Avize, chez cult grower Anselme Selosse, is his own Hôtel Les Avizes (selosse-lesavises.com), ten rooms and a superb restaurant. The ambience is modern, the food light and local, and very, very good.