Wine houses in Champagne consider the art of making sparkling wine not just one of skill and science, but also of patience.
Recently, my fair lady and I visited Champagne. No invitations, no FAM trip, just a desire to go and discover the region, one village after another. We wanted to feel first-hand that magic, which enraptured the monks all those centuries ago and understand the admiration that people express the world over everytime a bottle is popped. We wanted to immerse ourselves in the vines and the vats, and then rise up with a renewed sense of knowledge and understanding, just like the fizz in a glass of bubbly.
And yet, we couldn’t find one oyster bar in Reims (or Epernay) to pair with all that lovely vin mousseux—we barely found a half-decent bistro in Reims for that matter. The wine lists weren’t always exhaustive and when they were, the local servers weren’t all that informed about the styles in their stash. So much for Champagne, we thought.
But then, thankfully, we had chosen, ay, curated our visits. We had steered clear of the biggest and more popular names, trying to pursue houses that pursue quality before all else. We carefully chose to spend our time in the company of vignerons who consider the art of making Champagne not just one of skill and science, but also of patience.
We started with Taittinger, where the current scion, Clovis, generously welcomed us into the folds of his family-owned winery—a house, which has stayed true to making classic wine styles without being distracted by ‘trends’ and yet deftly balances volumes and values. Their history is entwined with the history of Thibeaud IV, conqueror, poet and also a wine purveyor, for it was he who brought back the grape (Damascina), which then became one of the two parent species for Chardonnay, the backbone grape for the region today. Taittinger were also the official Champagne for World Cup 2018—maybe that’s why Les Bleus won! We walked away mesmerised by the charm of Comtes de Champagne both in the (Blanc de Blancs) Brut and Rosé versions.
Next on our list was Salon and so precious is this little exploit that it was hard to find even on a map (well, look for Delamotte instead, the Siamese twin, I daresay). Here again, it was the passionate story of Aimé Salon who decided to make a single-grape, small-batch wine from vineyards he considered prestigious long before the AOC system of France was put in place or even recognised the Grands Crus of Champagne. It remained a pet project for almost a decade-and-a-half before the first vintage was commercialised. Today, Salon is a rare one, made about four times in a decade and is still true to its original ‘recipe’.
En suite we found ourselves at Tarlant, a much smaller house, but few can match the magnitude of experimentation that this family-owned winery is always up for. Their secret lies in the approach to their art—curious and patient, for they let their wines come of age before they’re released no matter how long that may take (one cuvée is disgorged after 16 years of ageing minimum!). The wines show more power and persistence than one expects of most Champagnes in general, or even from aged and complex white wines (from, let’s say, the region that rhymes with ‘Burundi’. Shhh…).
And then we landed up at Billecart-Salmon. The visit took us through all the stages of champagne-making, ending with a smashing tasting of their line-up. While most popular for their rosé, their extra brut is a style that we particularly enjoyed. It showed finesse and structure, and never once seems austere and linear, like many zero-dosage/extra-brut-style wines often do.
By the time we were packed to leave, our bags were overflowing with ‘Shampoo’, not just from the people we visited, but also from smaller independent producers who toil away hard from the limelight of the big brands, turning out some formidable produce, but often get relegated to the shadows. All in all, the one thing that all good wine share is undying passion; in Champagne, in France, wine-making isn’t just a job, it’s what defines the people behind it. This is what puts the real sparkle in the bottles. This is the magic that we were possibly searching for all along. Good then, we found it, lots of it, and we won’t need to get that cleared through customs on our way back in!
The writer is a sommelier