The Champagne crush
In A, the heart of France's bubbly country, up close and personal with grapes, Grand Cru and revolution
Much like the stunningly complex sparkling wine that takes its name from the region, Champagne is a place few tire of visiting. The province, 150km east of Paris, consists of 278,000 vineyards spread across 320 crus (villages) over 34,000 hectares. Undulating slopes give vineyards the perfect drainage and exposure to sunlight, and, along with the limestone-enriched subsoil, create a variety of diverse microclimates that contribute significantly to the production of the mineral-rich, crisp sparkling wine.
While Reims and Épernay are the main commercial centres of activity, this time I was visiting the very heart of the region, a village called Aÿ, south of Reims. Aÿ’s vineyards are certified 100% grand cru. Only 17 Champagne villages—5% of all Champagne’s vineyards—are certified grand cru, the highest-quality indication.
Champagne producers generally fall into three categories. The top 100-plus major champagne producers—including high-profile big brands or grandes marques like Moët & Chandon, Taittinger, Louis Roederer, Laurent-Perrier, Veuve Clicquot, Bollinger—are referred to as maisons, or houses. Besides their own vineyards, they also source grapes from other growers in Champagne to create wines in their own cuvées (styles) and are primarily responsible for Champagne’s now legendary status.
The second category comprises 15,800 vignerons (growers), mostly family-owned businesses, which either sell their grapes to the maisons or make their own champagne. Finally, the cooperatives, units of growers which band to combine the product of their vineyards into champagne under specific brands.
Champagne’s biggest success has been its skilled marketing, driven by the all-powerful CIVC (Comité Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne): Few wine-making regions worldwide work to legally protect their name as effectively. This, combined with strict quality-based manufacturing regulations, has built the mystique that is Champagne.
Both white and rosé (pink) champagne are made two ways, from vintner-designed combinations of some or all of the three main grapes (two black varieties, Pinot Noir and Meunier, and the white Chardonnay), reflecting the producer’s signature “house style". The most commonly made and quaffed champagne—say, around 80% of consumption—is the non-vintage (NV) style, a blend of grapes from several years’ harvest. Vintage champagnes (produced only during the best years of harvest, perhaps three-four vintages per decade) are rarer and considerably more expensive.
Aÿ is also significant as the centre of a violent 1911 revolt by the Champenoise, protesting against the counterfeit manufacture of champagne. This led to the government announcing regulatory steps that in turn led to the Champagne appellation in 1936.
My visit included a tour of Champagne Collet, the region’s oldest cooperative. Born in 1921 as COGEVI (Coopérative Générale des Vignerons de la Champagne delimitée), it authored the story of Champagne’s cooperatives, bringing together members with holdings as small as an acre, to help make and market their champagne.
Renaud Paté, my guide, walked me around La Cité du Champagne Collet-COGEVI—as the compound housing the various Collet buildings is known—including Maison COGEVI, which was burnt down by protesters during the revolt. Maison COGEVI today is a museum filled with curiosities from the region’s chequered past. In 1928, COGEVI was renamed Champagne Collet after its director Raoul Collet. Today Collet is a cooperative of 780 growers, all owners of vineyards of varying sizes. “You could say we have 780 bosses," Paté says wryly. But the cooperative movement is vitally important as a means to support and assist young growers with smaller holdings, he adds—“young people are our legacy".
We walk down through the impressive hand-excavated century-old wine cellars housing the Champagne Collet Vinotheque’s 30,000 bottles. A short distance away is the picturesque Villa Collet, a museum dedicated to gastronomy and the glamour of Art Deco. Rooms connect gastronomy, haute couture or art with champagne. The gastronomy room, called Le Cabinet des Chefs, houses a display on the winner of the annual Champagne Collet Culinary Book Prize, instituted in 2013 to award books documenting French cuisine and its history by top French chefs. Winners, judged by a panel of their peers, include Michelin-starred chefs Reno Marca, Frederic Doucet, Eric Guérin and Nicolas Stamm.
In the historic Paquebot Bar, I begin tasting: The delicate Champagne Collet Blanc de Blanc NV, a 100% Chardonnay, is followed by the Champagne Collet Millésime 2004, cellar-aged seven years, and a perfect balance of delicate purity and strength from the troika of champagne grapes. Then the Champagne Collet Brut Art Deco NV, another expressive, richly balanced cuvée showing complexity from four years of cellaring. “This one’s talking to me," says Paté approvingly. “It carries its story from nose to palate."
We finish with the Collet Rosé Brut: lush, ripe fruit aromas and fine bubbles. “Finish a meal with a rosé rather than a coffee," Paté advises. “Champagne is perfect to start and end a meal with."
While champagne is famously drunk as an aperitif before a meal, its acidity and crispness make it a good match with a variety of foods, from seafood to eggs, chicken, duck, fresh berries and many vegetables. Increasingly, multiple-course tasting menus paired with a variety of champagnes are being created by top chefs around the world.
From Collet, it’s a short hop to Champagne Deutz, a noted champagne house. It’s time for my lunch appointment with marketing manager Chloé Verrat at the well-known La Grillade Gourmande in neighbouring Épernay. I have grilled sea bass paired with a glass of—naturally— Champagne Deutz NV, whose perfect acidity and mineral notes highlight the delicate flavours of the fish. Verrat explains the importance of Aÿ’s strategic central location: The grapes do not need to travel far to the wineries once picked, yielding the freshest, and most delicious, wines.
Founded by the German William Deutz in 1838, and currently owned by the Reims-based maison Louis Roederer, it is housed in a lovely chateau filled with family collectibles. In the sunny tasting room, overlooking verdant gardens, the famous Deutz Blanc de Blancs 2009 stands out in its elegance and delicacy. It is made in signature Deutz style—fruity, rich and pure. The fresh, fruity Deutz Rose NV follows, and then the well-structured William Deutz Prestige cuvée, 2002, dominated by Pinot Noir. Finally comes my favourite of the afternoon, and Deutz’s pride and joy, the noted Deutz Amour de Deutz Rosé Brut 2006. A blend of the best Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, it had spent seven years ageing on lees (a process of bottle ageing in cellars which adds complexity, aroma and texture to wine). Verrat explains the silky-velvet creamy mouthfeel, “We didn’t want a fruit basket in a glass."
Champagne Collet guided tours can be booked on www.citeduchampagnecollet cogevi.com. Champagne Deutz does not allow public visits.