I recently had the privilege of traveling to the Champagne region in France as a guest of the U.S. Champagne Bureau for the 2014 Champagne Harvest Media Trip. Here’s what the Champagne Bureau said about the trip…
The trip to Champagne will be an opportunity for you to learn more about the production of Champagne and its unique qualities, as well as what the region is doing to protect its name in the United States. The week-long trip… will give you the opportunity to visit select Champagne producers – from large houses to cooperatives and small growers – and learn about the appellation as a whole…you will also experience firsthand the winemaking process, from picking and crushing grapes to exquisite Champagne pairing dinners.
This is the second in what will be a series of five posts about my visit to Champagne (Click here for Day 1)
Our itinerary for Day 2 included:
- Visit to Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (C.I.V.C)
- Lunch at the restaurant Les Grains d’Argent
- Tour and tasting at Champagne Roger Coulon
- Tour, tasting and Dinner at Champagne Veuve Clicquot
Visit to C.I.V.C.
On what was a glorious day weather-wise, first up on our itinerary was a visit with the C.I.V.C., the governing body of the Champagne region. The purpose of the meeting was to provide an overview of the mission of the C.I.V.C., and share some specifics about the region. The presentation by Philippe Wibrotte, Head of Public Relations was information. A few of my takeaways were:
- What makes Champagne unique is the combination of climate, the predominately limestone sub-soil, and topography.
- 100% of grapes in Champagne are harvested manually
- There are 15,000 growers in Champagne, and 5,000 of those make Champagne from their own grapes.
- Classification of grapes in Champagne is based on villages rather than specific vineyards. There are 17 villages ranked Grand Cru, and 42 ranked Premier Cru.
- Champagne houses(there are 320) account for two-thirds of all Champagne shipments and represent 90% of the export market.
- There are 34,000 hectares of vines in Champagne. 38% of those are Pinot Noir, 32% are Pinot Meunier, and 30% are Chardonnay. There is a miniscule amount of 4 other permitted grapes - Pinot Gris (sometimes known as Fromenteau), Pinot Blanc, Petit Meslier and Arbane.
- 98% of Champagne sold is multi-vintage (that explains why vintage tends to be more expensive)
- 1.4 billion bottles, about 3.5 years of production are in storage.
- The C.I.V.C. is ferocious when it come to protecting the Champagne name and image of Champagne. In the past, the C.I.V.C. has successfully barred the use of ‘Champagne’ in toothpastes, mineral water for pets, toilet paper, underwear and shoes.
- Champagne producers have been using lighter bottles since 2011.
- Production in Champagne is measured in bottles, not cases as it is here in the U.S.
- The C.I.V.C. determines the dates harvest can begin for the 350 villages in the region. As announced the day after our visit, the 3-week window for picking grapes began on September 8th.
After the presentation there was an educational tasting lead by C.I.V.C. enologist Marie-Pascale Do Dihn Ty
See below for gallery of C.I.V.C. visit
We dined at the restaurant in Les Grains d’Argent, a beautiful hotel surrounded by vineyards for lunch.
See below for gallery from lunch
“More than any other wine, Champagne unlocks wine’s archetypal promise:joy” – Karen MacNeil
Visit to Champagne Roger Coulon
Champagne Roger Coulon is a great example of Grower Champagne. Grower Champagne comes directly from the families who own the vineyards, and make the wine. Located in the village of Vrigny, in the Montagne de Reims region of Champagne, the Coulon family has been winegrowers since 1806. The family has gradually increased its holdings so that there are now 11 hectares under vine, spread over 70 parcels of land in 5 villages, most of which benefit from South-east facing slopes on sand, chalk and clay. Their Premier Cru vineyards are composed of approximately 35% Pinot Meunier, 35% Pinot Noir and 30% Chardonnay with an average vine age of 38 years. Using only wild yeasts, they produce about 90,000 bottles per year. The Coulon’s practice of lutte raisonée (reasoned agriculture) – the minimal use of herbicides and pesticides.
When we arrived, we were greeted by Isabelle Coulon, wife and partner of Eric Coulon, an eighth generation winegrower. After introduction and brief tour, Eric took us on a vineyard tour.
After the vineyard tour we returned their family home, which includes an amazing B&B - Le Clos des Terres Soudées, before settling down for a quick tasting. We only tasted three wines because we were strapped for time.
My favorite was the Réserve de L’Hommée Cuvée which is made with family’s oldest grapes. It’s intentionally made less sparkling(4.6 atmospheres instead of the typical 6) in order to get tiny bubbles that last a long time. An equal blend of Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay, it’s aged five years before disgorgement. It’s yeasty, and generous with apple, roast hazelnut, spiced orange and mineral character with a long finish. >>Find this wine<<
Learned about: Sexual confusion (er…this relates to moths, not humans) – A treatment against the grape moth, in which small packets of synthetic pheromones of female moths are distributed among the vines to confuse male moths and prevent them from mating. It’s considered a much more eco-friendly solution, albeit more expensive alternative to spraying vines with various chemical products.
Insider’s tip: Their B&B is awesome! If I ever go back to Champagne, I know where I’m going to stay!
See below for gallery from visit to Champagne Roger Coulon
Visit to Champagne Veuve Clicquot
When I saw a visit to Veuve Clicquot (“VC”) on our itinerary, it needed no introduction. The Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Champagne Brut (a.k.a. Yellow Label) seems to be the most popular Champagne sold in the U.S., and is certainly the most marketed brand of Champagne in the U.S. It’s currently the second largest house in Champagne producing about 14 million bottles a year. Approximately 20 % of their fruit comes from their own vineyards. The other 80% is purchased from growers, with most of whom they have long-term (20-25 year) contracts.
Founded in 1772 by Philippe Clicquot-Muiron,VC has played a pivotal role in establishing Champagne as a luxury product. They are credited with many firsts including the riddling rack, and being the first Champagne house to produce rosé Champagne.
When we arrived at the Veuve Clicquot facility, we were met by their Chef de Cave (cellarmaster) Dominique Demarville, and winemaker Cyril Brun for a tour of one of their vineyards. It’s clear that V.C. is laser-focused on working towards more natural viticulture for both estate and purchased grapes.
We must never forget that Champagne is a wine, and the quality is in the vines. – Dominque Demarville
After our vineyard tour we headed into Reims to V.C.’s private residence L’Hotel du Marc for dinner. It’s a spectacular 19th century mansion that underwent a complete remodeling after V.C. was acquired by luxury group LVMH.
Inside the mansion, we tasted through eight still wines (vin clair in French) from various vintages that were both base and reserve wines used to make V.C Champagnes. The wines were tart and very acidic, and I could barely discern the subtle differences the wines. Though, the final vin clair we tasted was a multi-vintage blend with a 2013 base wine that showed the grapefruit profile I associate with the V.C. Yellow Label. I came away from the experience with a whole new respect for the art of blending.
Vins clairs tastings are a rare opportunity to catch a glimpse of the wine before the bubbles, and to imagine their development over time; they are a unique foray into the magical kingdom of champagne. – Caroline Henry
After the vin clair tasting, we tasted four more wines including a 2003 Bouzy Rouge, an outstanding still red wine not for sale to the public, and had dinner in the magnificent dining room.
My favorite was the 2004 Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Champagne Brut Rosé Vintage – It has a harmonious, refreshing, slightly savory, strawberry, raspberry, citrus and mineral character. And it paired very well with the second and third courses of our meal.
Learned about: Inspired by the discovery of 47 bottles of Veuve Clicquot from 1839 to 1841 at the bottom of the Baltic Sea in 2010, that were in great condition, VC is experimenting with a “Cellar in the Sea“.
Insider’s tip: With about two-thirds of VC Yellow Label being composed of black grapes, it’s a great example of a medium-bodied Champagne that will work well not only as an aperitif, but also with a diverse selection of main courses, especially seafood!
See below for gallery from visit to Champagne Veuve Clicquot
After dinner we found ourselves hanging out on the patio outside the stately Hotel du Marc, and I found myself savoring what was a deeply satisfying day on all levels. What a fantastic day!
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