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Champagne to the fore

Published:  26 June, 2019

Champagne expert Giles Fallowfield took a team of UK buyers to Champagne to find out more about the region and hunt down some new potential suppliers

The original concept of this buyers’ trip was to look in particular at the great diversity and terrific quality to price that’s offered by some of Champagne’s leading co-operative brands. That ambition evolved and other producers were added to the itinerary, but value and diversity remained a central theme.

The four-strong buying group come from a wide range of retail environments – two independents, one of the best-known wine-oriented members’ clubs and the UK supermarket that sells the most Champagne. While they boast different backgrounds, they have in common a great enthusiasm for the region and its wines and a desire to get as much as they could from our three-day tour. Champagne is a core interest and all are keen to find potential additional producers to work with to improve their range.

Our tour began at Champagne Collet’s headquarters in the historic heartland of the region, in the north west corner of the Grand Cru village of Aÿ. The importance of Aÿ to the development of brand ‘Champagne’ was quickly underlined. It was right here, back in 1911, that riots broke out when the Fédération de Syndicats (Federation of Champagne Unions), only formed seven years earlier in 1904 and calling for the first demarcation of the Champagne vineyard, discovered that the proposals completely left out the vineyards of the Aube.

One of the main complaints of the vine growers at that time was that certain négociant houses were buying in ‘cheaper’ grapes from outside the region to make ‘Champagne’. The 6,000 growers who assembled to air their grievances set on fire the properties of those suspected of such fraud and in the end the government had to send in more than 40,000 troops to quell the rioting. But importantly, the growers set in process significant reforms and in, 1911, the first law was ratified making it mandatory to label the region’s sparkling wines as Vins Originaires de la Champagne Viticole (wines originating from the Champagne wine region). This ultimately led to the establishment of the Champagne AOC in 1936.

Heavy Investment

COGEVI, the oldest Champagne producers’ union which was set up in 1921 and today produces the Collet brand, has invested heavily, spending some €6m on upgrading its extensive facilities in Aÿ to take advantage of this rich heritage. It has completely transformed the visitor experience with a new boutique and tasting room (Cité du Champagne), plus the tastefully restored Art Déco Villa Collet, located in Aÿ’s rue Jeanson, which is packed with artefacts, old posters and historic documents.

Today Collet’s growers between them own some 828ha of vineyards and the company elaborates around 6m bottles. There are around a dozen wines in the range, five of which UK agent Hallgarten currently brings into the UK. We tasted the Premier Cru Brut Art Deco (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir 40% each plus 20% Meunier), which sees at least four years lees ageing, and the Extra Brut, currently based on the 2012 harvest, before comparing the regular 2008 vintage with the Collection Privée 2008, where part of the 75% Chardonnay in the blend (20% Pinot Noir and 5% Meunier) is vinified in oak.

In the same Collection Privée we also tasted the Vieilles Vignes Meunier and the buyers were excited to try two Coteaux Champenois: a rare 2015-based white Meunier and a (red) Pinot Noir from the Aÿ terroir immediately next to the winery.

Following a lunchtime interlude at Roger Brun, a well-known grower making excellent wines in the centre of Aÿ where the flamboyant Philippe Brun operates one of the two independent pressing centres in the village, we travelled the short distant to Chouilly to visit the massive, recently redeveloped CVC-Nicolas Feuillatte production centre and taste with head winemaker Guillaume Roffiaen.

For our buyers, bar Rob Dixon who already buys Feuillatte Champagne for the Tesco range, this was a chance to come to terms with the sheer scale of the Feuillatte operation and the fact this marque has grown to become the largest seller in France and number three brand worldwide in a little over 40 years, since it was created in 1976.

With the Feuillatte range now clearly delineated between on and off-trade outlets, we split into two groups, coming together to taste the prestige cuvée line Palmes d’Or in white and rosé versions, both based on the forward and generous 2006 vintage. We also had the chance to taste the new ‘bistronomy’ cuvée Terroir Premier Cru, which is a longer-aged, three-way blend based on the 2013 harvest, with 20% reserve wine from 2012 and 2010 rounding it out. An on-trade oriented style, which would of course work in the independents too.

On Wednesday morning we set off for Mareuil-sur-Aÿ and Champagne Philipponnat, starting the visit with a walk through the steeply sloping Clos des Goisses vineyard, arguably Champagne’s most impressive single vineyard site, facing due south, from which a vintage wine is made every year. When you reach the top, you feel like you’re standing at the heart of Champagne, with views towards Epernay and the Marne Valley to the west, while the Côte des Blancs villages stretch out into the distance to the south.

Mareuil, like Aÿ, is essentially Pinot Noir territory and this is the variety that lies at the heart of the Philipponnat range. Having learned the importance of the reserve wine, kept in a perpetual reserve first set up in 1949, we could see what this and some judicious oak ageing brought to the two Royale Réserve blends, white and rosé, both the current releases based on the 2013 harvest.

Textural complexity was even more in evidence in 2012 Blanc de Noirs and the Mareuil-sur-Aÿ from the similarly impressive 2008 vintage. The 1522 wines, the name a reference to when the Philipponnat family first settled in this part of Champagne, were served with lunch, the 2007 Rosé accompanying a dish of sautéed prawns, the white 2008 with turbot, demonstrating to good effect that these are food friendly wines. The star of the show, Clos des Goisses 1999, had the depth and concentration to work with characterful local cheeses.

Final leg

Moving to Reims for the final leg of our tour, we went to Champagne Palmer’s main base, not far from the city centre. Originally formed when seven vineyard owners in the Côte des Blancs and Montagne de Reims came together, Société des Grands Crus de la Champagne, which produces Palmer, remains a select club. It was first settled in Avize in 1947 but, quickly outgrowing these premises, moved to Rue Jacquart in Reims in 1959. Chardonnay from Sézannais and Pinot Noir from Les Riceys in the Côte des Bar were added to sources of supply at the start of the seventies when production topped the million-bottle mark.

Today Palmer & Co draws on 415ha of vineyard across 40 sites within the appellation. These include 200ha classified as Grands and Premiers Crus in the Montagne de Reims. At the technical tasting we looked at seven of the styles in the range, from the classic Brut Réserve – where Chardonnay accounts for just over 50% of the blend (few major brands have even 40% Chardonnay in their Brut NV) – to the current 2009 vintage release, a roughly 50/50 Chardonnay/Pinot Noir blend, the Pinot coming from the Grands Crus of Mailly and Verzenay while Trépail and Villers-Marmery are the top Premiers Crus sources of the Chardonnay.

Magnums of the Brut Réserve get extra ageing with at least five years on their lees before release, as Palmer is very much the large format specialist and one of the few houses not using ‘transavage’ for its larger bottles. Formats from Methusalem 6-litre right up to the giant 15-litre Nebuchadnezzar are fermented in the bottle in which they are sold, guaranteeing extra freshness.

We adjourned late afternoon to Louise Pommery’s former rural retreat, Domaine du Chalet in Chigny-les-Roses amid the Montagne de Reims vineyards, to sample Palmer’s older vintages and prestige line Amazone – a blend of Palmer’s older vintages, in this case 2002, 2004, 2005 and 2006 – over a dinner built around the wines.

Our final visit was Castelnau, back in Reims and just up the road from Palmer’s base. Here, before a detailed range tasting with chef de cave Elisabeth Sarcelet, who has worked in the winemaking team she now heads since 1985, we walked through the entire winemaking process from where the grapes are received to the bottling line.

Having fielded questions on many facets of the operations from the buyers, mid-tour, while walking through Castelnau’s cellar of older vintages – some of which date back to 1947 – she offered to open a magnum of an undisgorged vintage for us to try. Thanks to two of our group with a decent vintage birth year in common, 1979 Blanc de Blancs was duly selected and hand disgorged by Sarcelet to make a top-class aperitif.

This was a further highlight of a notably successful tour of Champagne.

Andrea Viera, Last Drop Wines

Favourite wine(s):

Philipponnat Mareuil-du-Aÿ Blanc de Noirs 2008 and Palmer Amazone

Most memorable wine:

Roger Brun ‘Romance’ Rosé


“Drinking Palmer Rosé Réserve in the bath at Domaine du Chalet and imagining that Madame Louise Pommery, for whom this property in Chigny-les-Roses was originally built, had done the same in the 1860s.

In general:

“We sell lots of Champagne at Last Drop Wines, it’s a crucial part of our business. In the past three months we’ve shipped three whole pallets. We are looking at taking on more wines too, particularly some growers such as Philippe Brun. We definitely believe there’s growth potential for our Champagne sales.

“We’ve taken on the job of being ambassadors for Champagne in south west London.

“The trip has given me a renewed enthusiasm for Champagne, the region and its wines, though some of my friends will be surprised to hear I ever lost it.

“The top cuvées at Palmer, such as Amazone and the older vintages we tried at dinner (the 1999), showed what they are capable of. I’ve never seen these wines before and immediately thought ‘now we are talking’.”

Rob Dixon, Tesco Champagne and sparkling wine buyer

Favourite wine:

Castelnau Blanc de Blancs 2005

Most memorable wine:

The white 100% Meunier Coteaux Champenois at Collet


Philippe Brun at Roger Brun in Aÿ. “In every region of France you come across an individual who brings it to life, who can excite and enthuse people – not just about their own wines, but the whole region.

In general:

“It was great to have as our guide someone with the ability to talk technically and personably about every aspect of the region. His knowledge has enriched the trip.

“The mix of buyers worked really well. At no point did I feel uncomfortable talking about our separate businesses. It’s very unusual for someone in my position to be able to go on such a trip and it was rewarding getting to see parts of the region and producers we wouldn’t normally get the chance to visit.

“At Collet it was fascinating to hear about the 1911 strikes and to see the incredible collection of artefacts relating to this period.

On Nicholas Feuillatte: “To become such a huge brand globally in such a short time is impressive.

“Having visited Philipponnat’s Clos des Goisses I have an emotional connection to the brand. Reserve wines and the solera system add a depth to the non-vintage cuvées – something I’ll always think of when tasting them.

“We tried some exceptional wines with Palmer at Domaine du Chalet which took the visit there to another level.

“We saw the production side in detail at Castelnau and our visit benefited enormously from the expertise of Elisabeth Sarcelet.”

Riaz Syed, Owner, Stone Wines

Favourite wine:

Castelnau Brut Rosé and the quality of the Philipponnat range made them the outstanding wineries of the tour.

Most memorable wine:

Roger Brun Grand Cru Brut Réserve


Other than the glass of Castelnau Réserve on the train at the outset, which set the tone for the trip, it was the Collet museum and room commemorating the 1911 Champagne Riots. I had no previous knowledge of this moment in history and the growers helping shape the future of the industry.

In general:

“Before the trip I had the impression Champagne was a special-occasion wine, a one-off treat, but I was pleasantly surprised that it is a great food wine, versatile beyond my expectations.

“For us sales of Champagne have been modest in the past. We do well with crémants from Alsace and Jura, but we are keen to build a level of quality we can offer customers by sourcing some great wines but at prices they feel comfortable with.

“Philippe from Roger Brun is a man who makes you want to drink Champagne every day, a great ambassador for the region.

Paul Richards, Byer and wine logistics manager at 67 Pall Mall

Favourite wine:

Philipponnat 1999 Clos des Goisses

Most memorable wine:

Castelnau Blanc de Blancs 1979


Elisabeth Sarcelet’s tasting and tour at Castelnau was great, she was very honest and open and her vintage wines both in the tasting room and at lunch were great, her hand and the quality of the growers showing through.

In general:

“Champagne sells well at the club. Members enjoy a wide offering from growers to major houses, starting at £8 a glass. We’ll normally have a prestige cuvée on at around £35-45 a glass, and five or six others priced in between. Grant Ashton, our founder, was even inspired to design an ingenious iceless Champagne bucket that you need to see to truly appreciate.

“Given the eye-watering pricing of the best white Burgundies more people are showing interest in the artisan houses of Champagne and smaller growers; the new wave. But many still go to their brand favourite, even if our 17 sommeliers are constantly challenging them to look beyond the tried and tested. Food pairings help open up our expansive list.”

Reflections on the trip from the four buyers

All the buyers are in general agreement that the whole trip was very well thought out, organised and run, with all the producers we visited being very welcoming. What worked well was that each producer presented a different picture of their operation, emphasising a different aspect of the business as well as their own philosophy. So, while at Collet we looked in depth at some of the historical references and the impact growers had on the development of brand ‘Champagne’, at Feuillatte it was about scale and the amazingly rapid growth of a major brand in the 20th century.

With Philipponnat the emphasis was on the location of the house in the vineyard, and the connection the Philipponnats have to the terroir of Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, as exemplified by the steep slopes of Clos des Goisses. At Palmer there was the contrast between the working cellars in Reims and the technical tasting and the dinner in the delightful, luxury, rural setting of Domaine de Chalet, former home of Madame Louise Pommery. At Castelnau we had a detailed trip through the winery looking at every stage of the production process, right through to the bottling line, with the experienced winemaker Elisabeth Sarcelet on hand to bring everything to life and explain every detail.

And finally, the interlude with Philippe Brun at Roger Brun in Aÿ provided a grower’s perspective, a refreshingly honest appraisal the buyers clearly enjoyed with some well-informed insights into the mysterious workings of the Champagne market.