2018 pinot.

Buildings burnt to the ground, hijacked trucks, cargos destroyed, violent attacks, an angry armed mob baying for blood and a 40,000 strong cavalry sent in to keep the peace. This might conjure images of a major war or revolution, but in the early part of the 20th century, this was reality in Champagne as the region erupted into turmoil.

It was the perfect storm that led to the infamous Champagne riots, a phylloxera louse outbreak in the late 1800s, two disastrous vintages in 1907 and 1910, great resentment that the Champagne houses were using inferior grapes from other regions, and failure by the government to correctly recognise the right geographic area for the Champagne Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (the French certification granted to certain geographical locations for wines, based on terrior). Grape growers had become deeply restless, and rightfully so.

It all came to a head in April 1911. Thousands marched from the town of Epernay to Aÿ, which was less fortified and had fewer cavaliers in defence. Several iconic buildings were burnt to the ground, many wine merchants fled amidst the mayhem and mass destruction until the government finally quelled the violence.

Incredibly, the struggle for stability continued for another decade, until 1921 when Alphonse Perrin and Gaston Poitteven developed a model for grape growers, the coopérateurs, to restore certainty and guarantee the prices they deserved. On September 16, the Coopérative Générale des Vignerons de la Champagne (COGEVI) was officially formed, soon to be known as Champagne Collet following the arrival of Raoul Collet.

View from Collet’s Museum of Champagne Craftsmanship
View from Collet’s Museum of Champagne Craftsmanship.

Fast forward almost 100 years. It’s a beautiful autumnal day and I am standing on a hill above Collet’s grand cru vineyards, gazing across the beautiful buildings of the town of Aÿ, including the Église Saint-Brice d’Aÿ, its pointed steeple providing the totemic symbol of the peace and tranquillity that exists today. It’s a breathtaking view and scanning down along the green canopy of pinot noir grape vines, I spot Collet’s Cité du Champagne.

An enormous precinct of old and restored buildings, the area is the pillar of cooperative Champagne making and continues to inspire, enthral and lead the commerce and community of Aÿ.

“The values, the craftmanship, the skill and the origins of the cooperative born out of the riots of 1911 to defend the know-how of the trade live on today,” says Olivier Charriaud, who took over as Collet’s managing director in 2012.

“I have always been very inspired by our founding fathers and their pioneering spirit, and we are the true followers of that spirit,” Charriaud explains. “There is no such thing as luxury without producing by hand and investing in knowledge, experience and time, there is no substitute for quality and if you do this right, the results are quite magical.”

Spending some time with Charriaud, you get a deep sense of his sharp focus on the growers, the crus (villages), excellence in Collet’s cuvées and how they are marketed.

Locally made oak barrels at Collet.
Locally made oak barrels at Collet.

About 350 million bottles are shipped from Champagne each year. Collet represents some 500,000 of these – Charriaud is acutely aware of the huge challenge the brand faces up against the big houses, mass produced fizz, their established distribution networks and big-budget marketing machines.

“I fell in love with the wines before I joined,” Charriaud says, glancing over the grape vines behind his desk window. “We use a majority of grand and premier cru in our cuvées, which ensures the highest quality.

“We are not content with pushing a quick product onto the market and ensure all of our cuvées undergo secondary fermentation in the bottle for at least three years, more than double the minimum required by law for Champagne. The marketing is in the glass, but in the last few years we have put lots of energy into increasing our offer and letting the world know about Collet.”

Which brings us on to the visitor experience that Charriaud helped create and open in 2015. The Cité du Champagne is an extraordinary accomplishment where you are taken on an historical journey of the Champagne region, luxury, haute couture and Art Deco. It’s so much more than just sampling a fine beverage, although there is plenty of this on offer as well.

The Collet team obsess about every detail. If they know you are visiting from a foreign country, they’ll raise your national flag to sit alongside the French and Collet pennons, a great touch of mutual admiration. “If we receive visitors from the other side of the world who come to visit us, we insist to pay honour,” says Charriaud with a serious smile.

chef de cave Sébastien Walasiak.
Chef de cave Sébastien Walasiak.

The Cité du Champagne is broken up into several key areas, La Maison COGEVI, the chalk caves (cellars) and vinoteque (wine library), a museum, a vineyard walk with dedicated trails, and the Collet Villa. The tours are available with an English-speaking guide and in small groups. It feels very intimate and personal as you discover the Collet story.

The first stop is La Maison COGEVI, a fascinating journey through several periods, from the early 1900s to today and beyond. Rooms focus in on key eras with photos, original parchments, advertisements, bottles, medals, and preserved equipment, including an ancient wooden fridge for cooling Champagne, all on show.

Below the Maison are the magnificent chalk caves and the vinoteque. Descending up to 30 metres below ground, the walls are lined with chalk and brick resulting in an ambient temperature of around 12 degrees. The caves are as much a library as a storage place for the cuvées. For example, every vintage is held along one section, you can walk past and see bottles from your birth year.

Winding through the catacomb cellars takes you to a museum of the tools and equipment used to create Champagne. The dichotomy between past and present is clear, with iPads used to explain about the bubbles and its creators.

The magic of Collet is that they have made a large investment in promoting Champagne, its history, the growers and the intrinsic value of the cooperative arrangement. It’s a selfless act of remembering so much more than just their own brand, a rare feature as in many wine experiences it can just be about family lineage.

Josh Martin inspecting Collet’s grape vines.
Josh Martin inspecting Collet’s grape vines.

Down the road is a modern tasting room and shop where you can sample fine cuvées and buy other luxury products, to complete the experience.

A short stroll up an adjacent laneway and you are at Raoul Collet’s house, known as La Villa Collet. The villa is nothing short of astonishing and depending on the time of year, is
available for a walk-through to view featured art installations. Rooms are specifically themed around the cuvées and you see the relationship between Champagne, art, fashion and food vividly demonstrated.

Vineyards surround the Cité du Champagne and for those who like the outdoors for walking and exploring, there are plenty of trails, covering about 50 kilometres. There are several areas with great elevation for photos back to Aÿ, Epernay and the surrounding regions. Much of this area is UNESCO World Heritage listed – it’s simply stunning.

About 20 minutes south of Epernay in the town of Oger is Collet’s production facility, where their Champagne is fermented and other cuvées for the Collet cooperative are made. I arrive to find Sébastien Walasiak, Collet’s chef de cave since 2011, happily contemplating the 2018 vintage.

“It’s an unusual year in that I have never seen quality like this before,” he announces. “In Champagne we say, ‘Aout fait le moût’ (August makes the must), and conditions during this time were almost perfect. Dry warm days and cool nights with no rain, the best combination for a big harvest with balanced fruit and acidity and no disease.”

Walasiak is, to say the least, a walking encyclopedia on all things Champagne as well as the production at Collet. His attention to detail is meticulous as he oversees hundreds of fermentation tanks and barrels, as well as two hectares of underground cellars that reach up to 10 metres high, the scale of which I have not seen before.

Detailed mapping and documentation means he knows every grape, every cru, every trace of the ferments in the winery. It’s part of his philosophy of ensuring the cuvées are the best they can be and ensuring the growers have complete transparency over their precious juice.

Pressed juice.
Pressed juice.

“With 800 growers across 817 hectares, we have access to high quality grapes and we are famous for receiving a large portion of grand and premier cru,” he says. “This year we received 152 different crus for Collet, which, compared to other négociants, is a lot!”

Like Picasso, Walasiak uses a palette of crus and grapes for the flavours and textures of the blends that will form the final cuvées. I was lucky enough to sample some of the 2018 ferments out of tank from a variety of crus: chardonnays ripening with apple and pear flavours; pinot noirs already showing luscious red fruits and structure; and pinot meuniers, still taut, with austerity but freshness.

“We have about four people who work with the growers throughout the year to ensure the best quality across the vineyards,” says Walasiak. “Sometimes we make small batches from one grower, maybe only 5,000 bottles, which is quite rare for Champagne. I’m proud to make wine for Collet because we represent the whole of Champagne, we represent growers from everywhere and work closely with them to make the cuvées we love.”

The proof is in the pudding, the growers speak fondly of the house and the cooperative model. Over at a crushing facility at Hautvillers (1er Cru), I meet grower James Chevillet who has been growing chardonnay and pinot meunier for Collet for the last nine harvests.

“The people and the Collet team who work with us in the vineyards are very good,” says Chevillet. “There is also so much flexibility, I can keep some fruit and make bottles for myself, as well as sell juice to Collet, which is not possible with other négociants. The brand and the quality of wine are very special and something we can be proud of.”

Collet’s focus on local people and production is relentless. I was able to spend a morning with artisan tonnelier (cooper) Jerome Viard over near Reims, who talked about the importance of using locally grown oak from trees within Champagne.

Chalk cellar at Collet – there’s two hectares in total.

“This year we will be using oak from a forest owned by a grower,” Viard says. “It’s full circle, their grapes and oak will be from the same source, truly local and authentic, and you get the marriage of flavours.”

Viard is a true artisan producing everything by hand, including 205-litre Champagne barrels, as well as gift boxes for Collet. “The shape of the barrels has not changed for 2,000 years; it still works and we still make them by hand today,” he says with a sense of nostalgic pride. “I work closely with chef de cave Sébastian to meet his special requirements. He knows his wine and I make the oak casks to maximise his winemaking.”

Back at the Cité du Champagne, over a glass of a 1971 cuvée (not my birth year, but an excellent vintage) in the cellar, Olivier Charriaud takes a serious tone to sum up the cooperative model.

“We are part of a family, which includes many generations. We are genuine,” Charriaud says, watching the fine bead bubbling in his glass. “Many people fought to get us to where we are today and we will continue our legacy with honesty and sincerity.”

If the rioting cooperatives had been told that in 100 years’ time an Australian flag would be raised for a visitor arriving to sample the harvest in Collet’s fine cuvées, surely, they wouldn’t have believed it. Reflecting today on the longevity and the continued success of Collet and its growers, that must have been worth fighting for.

2018 Longview Kühl Grüner Veltliner

About the Cuvées

NV Champagne Collet Extra Brut, A$75
A chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier blend with 3 grams of sugar per litre. The bouquet reveals yuzu sorbet and sherbet. It’s lively with saline characters and a dry finish of lemon and white grapefruit. Taut acid and crispness makes for a refreshing back palate. Perfect for shellfish.

NV Champagne Collet Brut Art Déco, A$70
Same blend as above, with 9 grams per litre of sugar. The nose shows baked apple and pear tart with toasty brioche notes and almonds. Dosage and lees-ageing symbiosis adds fruit complexity and richness. Excellent length.

NV Champagne Collet Blanc de Blancs, A$100
100% chardonnay grapes produce red-apple characters supported by lemon, pear pastry notes, ruby grapefruit and surf mist. Around 20% oak adds complexity with a touch of vanilla and nougat. Lovely finesse and length; a dab of oyster shell balances the fruit. Mum’s Christmas ham awaits.

2018 Longview Kühl Grüner Veltliner

2008 Champagne Collet Brut Millésime, A$150
This vintage had ripe fruit and plenty of acid to ensure long ageing. The bouquet is round; salinity and brioche move into apple tarte tatin. The mousse, vibrant from extended ageing, has refined lemon acidity; other complex notes include white tea leaf and herbs. Drinks well now.

NV Champagne Collet Blanc de Noirs Premier Cru, A$100
A pinot noir-pinot meunier blend. Raspberry and strawberry aromas meld into toasty notes. A crisp acid line, with green apple and ruby grapefruit. Spice and root notes add complexity. Versatile.