Champagne. A word. A place. A drink. There is possibly no other drink mentioned more times in literature, quotations and song.
I drink champagne when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it – unless I’m thirsty.
~ Madame Lilly Bollinger
From the misguided belief that the 17th century Hautvillers Monk Dom Perignon was the first person to “create” Champagne (actually, the English have more than a slim chance of claiming the invention of the creation process) to modern day gold-toothed rappers drowning their posse in Roederer Cristal, the bubbly stuff captivates people with its association of class, elegance and celebrations. Sprayed on winner’s podiums. Obligatory for toasts. Used to anoint ancient Kings. This was one stop on our trip that was always going to be on the highlight reel.
We had no pre-booked accommodation for the area, so we settled on the Grand Cru town of Ay on the Marne River in the Reims Mountain area, close to Epernay and a short drive to Reims. As we settled in that night, we planned which houses we had planned to visit. Nadine had secured a contact at G.H Mumm and Twitter proved it was a powerful tool again, connecting us with Champagne Tarlant in Oeuilly. Through a lot of hoping and wishing and smooth work by Wining Pom Patrick Haddock and Alle Grace of Pernod-Ricard, we had secured a tasting appointment at the House of Perrier-Jouët. This was no easy feat as the house doesn’t usually open their doors to tastings to consumers. I had already been (politely) re-buffed in previous queries. We were very very lucky indeed.
PJ has a very sentimental place in our lives, as the first Champagne that my now wife and I drank on our first New Year’s Eve together as a couple: the Belle Epoque 1996. Potent and complex with creamed honey and lemon, it still holds a bench mark in my palate for Champagnes. We’ve since celebrated our wedding anniversary with the Marque, so you can imagine, we were quite excited to have been accepted for the visit.
That left us to pick from huge list of other houses in the region ranging from tiny producers to behemoth international giants. We decided upon Mercier for the almost novelty factor of touring their labyrinthine Caves via laser guided train. Mercier is almost unheard of in Australia as a brand, but apparently is one of the highest selling labels in France. Producing a Brut, a Rose, Demi Sec and a Reserve (Cuvee Eugene Mercier). The wines were pleasant and quite fruit driven with the Rose high on the strawberry aromas from the Pinots Noir and Meunier. The other surprise at Mercier, was the immense Tun with a 200,000 bottle capacity on display that was built for the Paris World’s Fair exhibition in 1889, the same which saw the erection of the Eiffel Tower.
Arriving slightly early at our Perrier-Jouët appointment, we rang the security buzzer, announced ourselves and received a quizzical response regarding our presence. We were let in as the appointment book was checked and that’s when one of the most horrible feelings ever hit me hard and I frantically checked my emails confirming the visit. We weren’t early for the appointment…we were late. From the look on my wife’s face when I told her this, I wasn’t sure if I was going to be celebrating a 2nd wedding anniversary with PJ or any other Champagne.
Luckily Ivan, the VIP guide made space for us in the schedule and we embarked on one of our most amazing cellar visits of the trip. Explaining the 200 year history of the house; its association with artists such as Makoto Azuma (f0r a modern, living interpretation on the floral label) and Daniel Arsham (to create the Bicentennial sculpture pieces) Ivan emphasised the feminine qualities of Perrier-Jouët, leading him to say that Pernod-Ricard stable mate G.H Mumm was the brother and PJ the sister.
The tour of the caves also unearthed a slightly darker history: during World War II, they were a prison for Italian Communist Prisoners of War. Their carvings of names, dates, symbols and even a grotesque version of Munch’s “The Scream” looked fresh, preserved in the soft chalky walls. We ascended from the caves to one of the most beautiful tasting rooms I have ever been in; beautiful mats set with glassware and exquisite tasting booklets.
The wines were incredible and whilst I wanted simply to drink and enjoy, I couldn’t help but take some notes…
Grand Brut: A blend of 3 and 6 year old wines at 40% Pinot Noir, 40% Pinot Meunier and 20% Chardonnay. Pale straw blonde in colour, beaucoup bubbles and a fine bead dancing and swirling up through the glass. Soft lemon and nutty nose with hints of sweet pineapple and some light toasty/yeasty characters. A little nutmeg spice. Smooth on the front palate with slight sweetness from the red fruits. Fresh, alive and balanced.
Belle Epoque 2004: 50% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot Noir and 5% Pinot Meunier. Polished soft gold in the glass with a lovely thick head of mousse. The nose has sweet honey and brioche with lemon tart nuances. White flowers and jasmine reveal themselves with a little air. Powerful mouthfeel with breadth and length. Exquisite.
Blason Rosé: 50% Pinot Noir, 25% Chardonnay and 25% Pinot Meunier. A lovely pale rose gold in the glass with less bubbles than the whites. Plenty of sweet strawberry on the nose and quite rich on the palate.
Belle Epoque Rosé 2004: 45% Chardonnay, 50% Pinot Noir and 5% Pinot Meunier. Light blush colour, almost Peach. A complex nose with blood orange, brioche and honey. The palate delivers a good mousse to a medium bodied, racy and almost “diamond cut” acidity edge that will soften and develop into something even more wonderful than it is.
We headed back to Ay for a picnic lunch on the banks of the Marne. The autumnal weather and sunshine fresh on our faces as we enjoyed fresh baguettes, rich jambon and creamy cheese and a lovely 2008 Chassagne Montrachet from Alex Gambal. The cut of the acidity perfect for the fat and protein.
Champagne House Ayala was within staggering distance of our Chambre d’Hotes and having enjoyed their wines in Australia previously, it would have been remiss not to take advantage of our location. We turned up without prior notice, but we were welcomed for a quick tasting. The Brut Nature (zero dosage) and Brut Majeur are quality well made wines with structure and integrity. The Blanc de Blancs razor shape and full of flavour.
We ended the day with the Ayala visit, a day full of emotions, happiness and amazing Champagne. The next morning we were to experience the other side of Champagne houses, a small(ish) family run affair Champagne Tarlant.
To be continued….