Tasting the Stars in the Champagne Region

Gary’s Wine Team Member & Educator, Julie Margolis recounts a special trip to the Champagne region…
In the late 17th century, Dom Perignon—largely credited with creating champagne, famously uttered the phrase, “Come quickly. I am tasting the stars.” Fast forward 100 years, champagne is a world-renowned symbol of luxury and celebration!

On a recent trip to the Champagne region, I had the opportunity to visit several top champagne producers—some of which we carry at Gary’s Wine and Marketplace.

From the largest most famous House (Maison)* to the smallest Grower (Vigneron)* —all share a sense of pride in their history, a commitment to quality in their vineyards and cellars and a belief in a tangible point of difference versus all other champagnes.

Perhaps, thanks to Dom Perignon, all of our travel stars were aligned. Not only did the flight take off and land on time in Paris, but we rented our tiny Renault and miraculously made it to Reims in under two hours for our first morning appointment.

Champagne for breakfast? Yes, please.

Fittingly our first stop was the first Champagne House founded in the region. Dating back to 1729, Ruinart is home to the oldest and deepest chalk caves (crayères) in Champagne. Wandering the caves was an experience in and of itself—the sheer age and magnitude of my surroundings left me in awe. These massive, impressive caves were originally a source to build the city of Reims. The stones got their second life as the perfect place for the slow, cool and careful ageing of wine.

Ruinart is known for making their champagne from 100% Chardonnay grapes, the style known as Blanc de Blancs. Fermented in stainless steel, the wine is linear and pure and one of my absolute favorites of this style. They also make a bright, elegant, Rosé Champagne which tastes of peaches and raspberries made by blending a small amount of Pinot Noir into the wine. Last, we enjoyed Dom Ruinart—their prestige cuvée (top of the line) champagne, named for the family patriarch and contemporary of Dom Perignon. Powerful and complex with notes of almonds, honey and brioche, this wine would be perfect served with a full meal. We may very well have these two monks to thank for the bubbly we enjoy today, as it was Dom Ruinart who foresaw the potential of champagne and convinced his family to begin production.

Next up we visited the House of Moet & Chandon and Dom Perignon on the Avenue of Champagne. This long, wide street is literally lined with the world’s most famous Champagne producers. Moet is the largest in the world and their Maison is the epitome of luxury with more marble, velvet and art than the eye can take in at once. To walk the 18 miles of underground caves aging all of the Moet and DP for the world, is to see at once the vast history, the miracle of modern management and the passionate expression of the winemakers.

Moet is a wine designed for all champagne lovers and intended to be shared and enjoyed for any occasion. And we did just that during our special lunch at the House—from the well-balanced Imperial Brut to the soon to be introduced, Grand Vintage 2012 offering up white flowers, red apples, pastry and walnuts.

If Moet is the champagne to please everyone, then Dom Perignon represents the pinnacle of the company’s production. Our visit to Dom Perignon’s Abby outside of Epernay was almost spiritual in nature. What began with a visit to the church—where the monk prayed as he tended the surrounding vineyards, ended in a sumptuous room where we enjoyed three wines. We started with the 2009 Dom Perignon which came from a particularly warm vintage and showed Myer lemon, white cherry, peach, brioche and candied ginger. This was followed by the 2005 Rosé—very floral on the nose and tasted of raspberries and blood orange with a spicy note and a mouthwatering, long finish.

Finally, we tasted the 2000 P2, a wine for which a certain amount was previously released in 2000, and then another portion, aged even longer on the lees, to create the miraculous elixir we sipped. It was mature, yet fresh, complex and rich with aromas and flavors of citrus, baked fruit, toast, honey and hay and a flinty, smoky minerality.

Then, it was on to Larmandier-Bernier—a different kind of experience from the first two visits. Larmandier-Bernier is a Vigneron established upon the marriage of Philippe Larmandier and Elisabeth Bernier in 1971 with both of their families active in the region since the French Revolution. Larmandier-Bernier has about 35 acres under vine in the most highly rated land of the Cote de Blanc. Most of the family’s vineyards are planted with Chardonnay that grows best in the chalky soils of this sub-region.

They are certified biodynamic and truly passionate about capturing the essence of the land in the bottle with single vineyard, single vintage wines. Their champagnes display a vibrancy and purity that reflects their genuine connection to every single step of the process, and the land itself.
My favorite of the four tasted was the Les Chemins d’Avize Blanc de Blanc Extra Brut 2011. On the nose, the wine was very flinty with a hint of white blossom and citrus. The citrus and flint extended to the palate with grapefruit, lemon and lime and a stony minerality in a very structured wine with a lot of power and a long finish. I truly felt I could taste the earth on which the grapes were grown in this wine.

The entire region is beautiful and easy to drive. Reims and Epernay, the twin capitals of Champagne, are small cities in the North of the region and Troyes is a stunning medieval city that anchors the south. The rest of Champagne is agricultural. Gently rolling hills dotted with farms and vineyards are punctuated by charming French villages with old squares, a multitude of churches and some fantastic restaurants. Funny enough, almost all of the food here is a perfect match with champagne.

The final visit was to Vilmart & Cie, a Vigneron since 1890, currently run by the fifth generation of the family. Vilmart has 27 acres under vine with plantings of all three Champagne grapes: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. They practice sustainable methods in the vineyard using no chemical fertilizers or pesticides and vinify all of their wines in oak for 10 months to allow for micro-oxygenation (the extremely slow addition of oxygen to create a richer texture and stabilize wine/allow it to age longer). At Vilmart they use large oak foudres for their non-vintage base wines and small Burgundy barrels for their reserve wines. While we were not able to taste any oak per se, they were all extremely rich in flavor and texture while still maintaining impeccable balance and freshness. The Vilmart Grand Cellier Brut Premier Cru NV offered a whiff of sweet white flowers and green apple on the nose while the palate added green pear, lemon and ginger to the apples and finished long and elegant leaving us thirsty for more.

Champagne is a glorious beverage and the region, its people, landscape and history are just as beautiful. In 2017, the Champagne region exported 23 million bottles of champagne to the United States. Thank your lucky stars Gary’s Wine and Marketplace has an impressive supply for the holiday season so that each and everyone of us can, as Dom Perignon did, “taste the stars”.

*There are three types of Champagne producers and we sell all of them at Gary’s Wine and Marketplace: Houses (Maisons), Growers (Vignerons) and Cooperatives.
The Maisons include the famous brands like Moet & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Ruinart, Perrier-Jouet as well as many smaller houses. Houses grow some of their own grapes but they also purchase a large percentage from grape growers around the Champagne region that they then blend together to come up with a consistent product from year to year. These are non-vintage (NV) champagnes that make up the majority of each house’s production and sales. In addition, each house makes a vintage champagne in particularly good growing years and many houses make a prestige cuvée, their top-of-the-line wine. Dom Perignon is Moet’s prestige cuvée.
The Vignerons are smaller artisanal winemakers who grow grapes and produce champagne only from their own vineyards. Because the grapes for these wines come from such distinct vineyards and are made in the personal style of a winemaker, there is more emphasis on the concept of terroir (place) and less priority given to creating wine that tastes the same year to year. The trend with Vignerons has been to create wines that are single vineyard, single vintage and even single varietal. Vilmart& Cie, Larmandier Bernier and Chartogne Taillet are three of many Vignerons we sell at Gary’s.
Cooperatives are a group of growers who band together. All of the members contribute grapes that are vinified together and sold under one name. Nicholas Feuillatte is the largest co-op in the region currently, one of the top champagnes sold worldwide and one that we sell at all of our stores.

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