There’s a sense of excitement in the air as we start our drive last October through the vibrant green vineyards of the rolling Champagne countryside. We are going to visit four of the Grande Marque Champagne Houses, see their premises, taste their champagnes and have the opportunity to feel the ambience of these historic businesses.
It’s harvest time and everywhere we see grape pickers at work.
We arrive at Billecart-Salmon, a medium sized Champagne House based in Mareuil sur Aÿ.
It was established in 1818 through the marriage of Nicolas-François Billecart to Elizabeth Salmon and is carried on by their descendants. I was first introduced to their champagne a year ago and enjoy the restrained, elegant style. Billecart-Salmon are known particularly for their rosé champagne but offer the full range of styles.
At a tasting lunch, we experience their different champagnes with a corresponding range of savoury and sweet bouchées (bite sized offerings) from smoked salmon to chocolate, all elegantly presented in ‘silver-service’ style. We are impressed by their gracious hospitality and their pleasure in providing a full tasting and pairing experience.
We visit the cellars where we are interested to see the chalk board listing the different plot harvests. The magic of the grape growing areas come to mind as we read Chardonnay from Cramant, Mesnil, Chouilly; Pinot Noir from Äy, Le Clos Hilaire, Verzenay, Mareuil sur Äy.
We also meet some of the younger generation of staff being groomed for senior positions and it is encouraging to see this kind of organizational development in place.
We continue our drive through the vineyards towards Reims, the famous Gothic Cathedral town and important hub of the Champagne industry. Our second visit is to Krug at their establishment in Reims.
Established in 1843, Joseph Krug, founder, watches solemnly over the present day proceedings from his centrally positioned portrait in the main Salon. Krug has its own allure and dedicated client following supported by the marketing arm of the LVMH, Moët Hennessey Louis Vuitton corporation, purveyors of luxury goods. Krug aficionados are invited to “share your unforgettable experiences at kruglovers.com.’
At Krug, the extraordinary attention which is paid by all the great Champagne Houses to sampling, assessing and recording the year’s wines is emphasized to the extent that we understand the skill, expertise and patience that is in every top quality Champagne. At Krug itself, they sample and assess the year’s wines from nearly 250 plots. They also taste again 150 reserve wines from previous years. Each year over 5000 tasting notes are collected and recorded. This work of the Cellar Master, with Olivier Krug – who we had the opportunity to meet – and other members of their Tasting Committee sets the stage for the blend of wines for the year’s Non Vintage Champagne. We visit their cellars and see the large number of individual vats for the fermentation of wine from the individual plots, secure within a special space in the cellars. This is before we taste their formidable suite of champagnes.
By the end of the day our minds are buzzing with the experience of it all: the countryside, the people we met and their stories, the exhilarating taste of a number of champagne styles, the sights and sounds of the Champagne Region.
More than anything it’s the sense of being there, soaking up the atmosphere and experiencing the Champagne heritage. It’s been a great day.
Fast forward to January, 2014 and France’s culture ministry has proposed the vineyards, houses and cellars of Champagne for world heritage status (UNESCO) along with those of Burgundy. The proposal will go before the UNESCO World Heritage Committee in 2015. If approved, they will join Saint-Emilion (Bordeaux) representatives of French winemaking on the UN body’s list. We applaud this proposed recognition of talent and tradition.
In Optimism in a Bottle post 3 of 3, I describe our visit to Roederer and Bollinger.
Reference: Champagne Billecart-Salmon: http://www.champagne-billecart.fr
Champagne Krug: www.krug.com