Richard's trip to Champagne
Posted on June 09 2022
A late spring visit to the Champagne region is often full of tension: will there be a late spring frost that kills many of the newly burst buds? Not in 2022 – the growers were relaxed and the weather forecast was set fair with warmer and sunnier conditions in the following weeks. So, despite a cool start to Spring, just like in the UK, conditions look encouraging at this stage.
Rather than driving or flying, this time I took the Eurostar. Once through the check-in and on the train, the big dilemma was how soon could we open the Champers. This being my first trip overseas for just over two years, we decided to wait until we reached France to pop the cork, toast new adventures and this busman’s holiday.
The gentle rolling hills of the rural Val de Marne was my destination. In the absence of the sound of traffic noise from the Chiswick High Road, the contrasting tweeting of bird song and peeling church bells presented a bucolic note to French village life and a sense of well-being and mindfulness. Helped by a glass of Blanc de Noirs and the hissing of a côte de boeuf on the barbecue, I drifted into a blissful state – I was a world away from London in just a few short hours.
In the meantime, out in the vineyards, it is the healthy soils and chalky mother rock that really give these wines life and tension and not the worrying farmers. The older vines send deep roots into the soft chalk to search for the water they need to survive, photosynthesise and reproduce. The gently sloping, south-facing vineyards capture the warm summer sunshine and give the grapes a healthy potential without the need to dose them up and balance them with lots of sugar.
Ironically, despite the absence of Spring frost, the small growers were busy debudding, to allow better ripeness in the grapes and to reduce the treatments they use to prevent mildew – a lot was lost to mildew last year during a cold, damp growing season.
Back in the winery, I donned my gilet vest and dropped 17 metres below ground to the cool cellars, where 100’s of 1,000’s of bottles are aged for years on their yeasty lees, ready to be disgorged and dressed for market. The occasional sight of an exploded bottle had me thinking how a domino effect of the precariously stacked bottles could be disastrous, not to mention very expensive. Thankfully, it is a rare phenomenon but until stronger glass was used to withstand the pressure, it was once known as the ‘devil's wines’ as so many blew up unexpectedly.
One of my discoveries was the certified organic family Champagne Pierre Paillard and what better way to celebrate our newfound freedoms than with a magnum of Les Parcelles from the Grand Cru village of Bouzy, one of my favourite named villages in not just Champagne but the whole of France.
A new wine that I described as "dazzling" on first taste a few months back is Valentin Leflaive 16 40 Blanc de Blancs. It has such energy and a vinous, steely, Chablis-esq mineral drive. It is a must-try if you like your Champagne bone dry and chalky.
Lastly, check out the slightly nerdy new addition that is 100% Pinot Meunier from the Delouvin family. Look out for a Bramley apple tension and then a toasty, powerful but balanced style. There is a small percentage of reserve wine added which comes from every vintage from 1992 to 2017 and adds great complexity and a touch of class.