Tasting the Stars in Champagne
Updated: Nov 29, 2019
A visit to Champagne
Dom Perignon, the Benedictine monk credited with creating Champagne in the late 17th century, famously uttered the phrase “Come quickly. I am tasting the stars.” Within the next 100 years, champagne became the symbol of luxury and celebration that we know today. It is my favorite beverage in the world and if I were only able to drink one wine for the rest of my life, there is not even a close second.
On a recent trip to the Champagne region, Ross and I had the opportunity to visit several top champagne producers making exciting and varied wines. It was apparent that from the largest, most famous House to the smallest Grower, all shared a sense of pride in their own specific history, a commitment to quality in their vineyards and cellars and a belief in a tangible point of difference versus all other champagnes. Perhaps, thanks to that famous monk, even the travel stars were aligned. Not only did the flight take off and land on time in Paris, but we were also able to rent our tiny Renault and make it to Reims and our first morning appointment in under two hours. Champagne for breakfast? Yes, please.
We visited the House of Ruinart first. This was fitting as Ruinart was the first Champagne House founded in the region in 1729. Ruinart is home to the oldest and deepest chalk caves (crayères) in Champagne. These massive caves were originally dug to remove stone to build the city of Reims and then got their second life as the perfect humid and cool place for the slow, careful aging of wine. Wandering the caves was an experience that is difficult to describe but it filled me with wonder at the sheer age and magnitude of my surroundings.
Ruinart is known for making their champagne from 100% Chardonnay grapes, the style known as Blanc de Blancs. Fermented in stainless steel, the wine is linear and pure and one of my absolute favorites of this style. They also make a bright, elegant Rosé Champagne that tastes of peaches and raspberries made by blending a small amount of Pinot Noir into the wine. Last, we tasted their prestige cuvee (top of the line) champagne, Dom Ruinart, named for the family patriarch and contemporary of Dom Perignon. Powerful and complex with notes of almonds, honey and brioche, this wine would be perfect served with a full meal. We may very well have these two monks to thank for the bubbly we enjoy today as it was Dom Ruinart who saw the future potential of champagne and convinced his family to begin production.
If Moët is the champagne to please everyone, then Dom Perignon represents the pinnacle of the company’s production. Our visit to Dom Perignon’s Abby outside of Epernay was almost spiritual in nature, beginning as it did with a visit to the church where the monk prayed even as he tended the surrounding vineyards, and ending in a sumptuous room where we were served three wines. We began with the 2009 Dom Perignon that came from a particularly warm vintage and showed myer lemon, white cherry, peach, brioche and candied ginger. This was followed by the 2005 Rose which was very floral on the nose and tasted of raspberries and blood orange with a spicy note and a mouthwatering, long finish. Finally, we tasted the 2000 P2, a wine for which a certain amount was previously released in 2000, and then another portion was aged even longer on the lees (dead yeast cells) to create the miraculous elixir we sipped. This was both mature and fresh, complex and rich with aromas and flavors of citrus, baked fruit, toast, honey and hay and a flinty, smoky minerality.
Our next visit was to Vilmart & Cie, a Vigneron since 1890, currently run by the fifth generation of the family. Vilmart has 27 acres under vine making them the second smallest of our visit with plantings of all three Champagne grapes: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. They practice sustainable methods in the vineyard using no chemical fertilizers or pesticides and vinify all of their wines in oak for 10 months to allow for micro-oxygenation (the extremely slow addition of oxygen to create a richer texture and stabilize wine/allow it to age longer). At Vilmart they use large oak foudres for their non-vintage base wines and small Burgundy barrels for their reserve wines. While we were not able to taste any oak per se, they were all extremely rich in flavor and texture while still maintaining impeccable balance and freshness. The Vilmart Grand Cellier Brut Premier Cru NV offered a whiff of sweet white flowers and green apple on the nose while the palate added green pear, lemon and ginger to the apples and finished long and elegant leaving us thirsty for more.
Most are single village bottlings from Grand Cru sites although we started with the lovely (and available in the U.S.) Shaman, which is a non-vintage blend of different vineyard sites and a blend of 2/3 Pinot Noir and 1/3 Chardonnay. Shaman offered notes of red and yellow apples as well as brioche and white flowers on the nose. This followed through on the palate with citrus and cherry notes added to the apples and brioche. An Extra Brut Champagne, it was well balanced with layered flavors and powerful minerality. We then tasted wines from Ambonnay, Chouilly, Ay, Avize, Le Mesnil and Bouzy. Each wine was unique and displayed its particular origin along with the fruit. We were blown away by the connection to the earth that each displayed. But there was more. The wine Benoit is most excited about is his Champagne Sapience. This is his version of a prestige cuvee. The base wine spends two years aging in barrels before the second fermentation in bottle. It is released 9 years after the grapes are harvested and is a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Before he opened the 2009, Benoit meditated and then said a brief silent prayer over the wine with us. I am not going to lie. I felt the presence of a higher being when I tasted it. Both the aromas and the flavors were powerful and layered with lots of yeasty notes on top of citrus, orchard and red berry. The finish went on forever. This wine is produced in minute quantities and is very difficult to find here in the U.S. We brought one bottle home (alas all we could afford) in our luggage and are saving it for a very special occasion (or perhaps the perfect Tuesday night).
Champagne is a glorious beverage and the region is an historical and beautiful place to visit. Each and every person I met shared with me their compelling brand story and their beautiful, unique wines. I tell anyone who will listen that sparkling wine is the most versatile wine to pair with wonderful food, whether café casual or Michelin formal, and equally dreamy on its own. Champagne is the pinnacle of sparkling wines and to me, my favorite beverage. As we move into the holiday season, there are so many opportunities to toast to our family, our friends, and our precious lives. Dom Perignon was not the only famous person to wax poetic about champagne. To me, Mark Twain may have said it best, “Too much of anything is bad, but too much Champagne is just right.”