Growers’ champagnes

(by susie)

There are some tastings which really don’t feel like work. Tastings that you genuinely look forward to and march towards with a spring in your step.

I don’t wish to sound ungrateful. I know I have a wonderful job and I probably ought to get excited about every tasting I go to. But swirling and spitting low-end supermarket wines for 4-5 hours on the trot isn’t always as enjoyable as it might be.

Anyway, back in May I was lucky enough to attend one of the former, held by Vine Trail, a company specialising in small-domaine French wines and well worth checking out.

On this occasion Vine Trail were showing growers’ champagnes – of which they have an enviable list.  Thirty-four wines were available to taste from twelve small (but perfectly formed) producers. Most are made in small quantities, often from single villages or vineyards, frequently from a single variety (Pinot Meunier in several cases).

The producers of these wines are hugely passionate about what they do and they are particularly known for their willingness to push the boundaries in terms of organics and biodynamics, oak usage and controlled oxidation, lack of dosage, and more. All of which makes for flavour experiences that are hard to beat.

The quality of the wines on show was hugely impressive so the next time you think about treating yourself to a case of champagne I’d suggest you talk to Vine Trail (or a merchant offering a range of growers’ champagnes such as Lea and Sandeman) if you are after something really exciting.

My highlights from the tasting are as follows, listed in the order of tasting. All wines are available from Vine Trail – prices quoted are per bottle inc VAT.

Tasting notes

Agrapart ‘Terroirs’ Grand Cru NV Extra-Brut Blanc de Blancs (£27.50) – Intriguing, minerally aromas are laced with notes of bruised red apple in this structured, sumptuous fizz.  A blend of four Grand Cru sites, aged in old oak for up to 48 months and bottled with 5g/l dosage, it is an intensely spicy and persistent wine. 8/10

Agrapart ‘L’Avizoise’ Grand Cru 2004 Extra-Brut Blanc de Blancs (£53) – Exotic and honeyed this is delightful stuff.  Full of rich, peachy flavours and a smoked spice character, it is incredibly moreish.  Grapes from old vines grown on lieu-dit sites on the Avize hillside are vinified in barrel before the second fermentation, which is carried out under cork.  The wine spends up to 5 years on lees and is bottled with 4-5g/l dosage.  8.5/10

Agrapart ‘Vénus’ Grand Cru 2004 Brut Nature Blanc de Blancs (£72.00) – Outstanding.  Nothing mechanical takes place in the vineyard here thanks to Vénus, a very hard-working horse. Both Vénus and the soil are clearly thriving a result and the wine produced is unique. Aged under cork for five years it is generous, spicy, structured and more complex than its Agrapart siblings. There is intense minerality in the mouth and almost a salty note that is quite exquisite. 8.75/10

Ulysse Collin NV Extra-Brut Blanc de Blancs (£35.95) – From his first vintage in 2004, Olivier Collin has been a winemaker to watch. He produces Champagnes with a distinct nod to fine white Burgundy and, thanks to an initial aging in 225l oak barrels, this is no exception. Ninety percent from the 2006 vintage and 10% from 2005, it was bottled with 1.6g/l dosage. Intensely dry, vibrant and creamy, it is still very young and I would suggest that if you buy this you should tuck it away for a few years before indulging. 8/10

Jacques Lassaigne ‘Les Vignes de Montgueux’ NV Brut Blanc de Blancs (£28.50) – One of my bargains of the tasting.  A lovely, characterful wine with a seductive, spiced apple flavour.  7.5/10

Chartogne-Taillet ‘Cuvée Ste Anne’ NV Brut (£25.15) – A blend of 60% Chardonnay with 40% Pinot Noir and bottled with 3.5g/l dosage, this is another hugely characterful wine that offers great value.  It is becoming increasingly clear to me that anyone who chooses to drink bland, mass-produced NV champagne from the big houses when they could be enjoying something with personality and real flavour like this (or the Lassaigne above) for the same price must be slightly mad. 7.5/10

Chartogne-Taillet ‘Cuvée Les Barres’ NV Brut (£45.50) – My first note on tasting this wine was ‘wow’.  Then ‘lovely, lovely’… A new wine from Chartogne-Taillet made from 100% un-grafted Pinot Meunier it is so wonderfully different. Having spent September 2006 to June2007 in 225l barrels and four years on lees, it is oxidative, generous and hugely compelling. The tasting booklet stated it would be available from June (ie now) and, given there are only 1,000 bottles of it, I’d suggest you grab it while you can. 8.5/10

Jérôme Prévost La Closerie ‘Les Béguines’ NV Extra-Brut (£44) – I first met Jérome Prévost on a bitterly cold, rain-sodden afternoon at his tiny cellar in Gueux. His car had broken down and he was running late – though one gets the impression he is probably always running somewhere and that his mind is racing ahead at a similar speed. He, like Olivier Collin, spent time working with Anselme Selosse and his wines, made from 100% Pinot Meunier, are a fascinating demonstration of what this frequently under-valued variety is capable of. This 2007-based NV is currently showing better than the more restrained and taut 2008, but both are full of personality and robust charm. The wine was aged in barrel prior to bottling and disgorged with no dosage. 8/10

Jérôme Prévost La Closerie ‘Fac-Simile’ Rosé NV Extra-Brut (2008) (£54.60) – Finding a balanced and appealing rosé champagne with a combination of perfect fruit ripeness and complexity isn’t easy.  This is still young but it shows good harmony and finesse along with its characteristic Prévost gutsiness. 7.5/10

Bertrand Gautherot Vouette et Sorbée ‘Blanc d’Argile’ NV Extra-Brut Blanc de Blancs (2007) (£39.85) – Although produced in the Aube, this intriguing wine is apparently made from vines grown from cuttings taken from Anselme Selosse’s Avize vineyard and from an undisclosed Chablis Grand Cru producer.  Whatever its origins, it is an intensely mineral, lemony and waxy style with wonderful depth of flavour. It has a seductive, oxidative feel and is beautifully creamy and characterful.  No dosage.  8.5/10

Bertrand Gautherot Vouette et Sorbée ‘Fidèle’ NV Extra-Brut Blanc de Noirs (2007) (£34.20) – Richer and broader than the Blanc d’Argile, this has a smoky, autumnal orchard fruit feel to it.  8/10