Sod’s law that the weather in France was grim when I was there last week. One doesn’t expect the weather in Scotland to be better on departure than arrival if you head off to Champagne in June, but on this occasion it was chucking with rain when we landed. I was in France with a bunch of restaurateurs to visit 3 of my suppliers and we had a packed schedule.
The road down from Charles de Gaulle airport is appalling. How they think that the main circular around the top of Paris should only be two lanes, I really don’t know. It didn’t help that one of the lanes was shut due to flooding. I was in dire need of a glass of fizz by the time we reached Epernay. Epernay styles itself as the capital of the region of Champagne and is a delightful small town just South of Reims. It is a great point to base yourself for visiting cellars.
The first winery we visited was the excellent Champagne Gosset in Epernay. Gosset is the oldest house in Champagne, established in 1584, which is quite a while ago by any measure. Gosset production is about 1.5 million bottles a year. By contrast and to give perspective, Moet produce around 33 million bottles, and the whole region’s production is about 350 million bottles. Gosset are now owned by the Cointreau group, but that has meant further investment and the Cointreau family seem to have left the Gosset “house style” well alone. This “house style” is one of the richest and fullest styles of Champagnes. They are quite austere in their youth so Gosset do extra cellar-aging to mellow the wines. Because of the richness of their Champagnes they are also splendid matches to food and this is why you will find their wines served in many Michelin starred restaurants around the world (including Martin Wishart in Edinburgh, for example). After 4 hours of cellar touring and tasting we adjourned to the pub in preparation for our 10.30am rendezvous with Taittinger the following day in Reims.
Taittinger is quite rare in the “Grand Marque” group of big brand in that it is still a family-owned estate. Most of the big brands are now owned by multi-nationals, almost none are in private hands. One reason being that land prices in Champagne are astronomical; a hectare of Champagne vineyard sells for around a million pounds. Champagne is the most expensive agricultural land on the planet. This obviously contributes to the hefty price tag of the wine. Taittinger was a contrast to Gosset as Taittinger has a higher percentage of Chardonnay in the blend which makes it lighter, finer and fresher tasting.
There are three main grapes grown in Champagne. There are two red grapes (Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier) and one white grape (Chardonnay). Pinot Noir gives body and structure. Pinot Meunier gives fruitiness and Chardonnay contributes lightness and a crisp, green-apple acidity. They all have a role to play so most Champagnes are a blend of all three. A morning of Taittinger tasting is definitely one of the better ways to while a way a few hours.
After a lunch of creamy, garlic snails followed by a slab of Iberian black pork I was ready to roll onto our final visit of our tour. This was our star visit. Thierry Gobillard is the main man at the family estate of J. & M. Gobillard et fils. He is a real bon viveur and one of the most hospitable men I know. The wine itself is outstanding, and is also outstanding value. He has vineyards in the premium village of Hautvillers which are sandwiched between Dom Perignon and Roederer Crystal vineyards, except his wines are all under £30! The flavours are just pure dead brilliant and the price tag leaves no bitter aftertaste. I really can’t tell you how many bottles he opened for us to taste, but it was a lot, and I think we might have slightly tipped over our recommended units for the day as a result. The minibus trip back to Paris the next day was a somewhat subdued affair!
I’ve been doing trips to Champagne for just under 3 decades and this was up there with the best of them. Some people might label me an expert in wine and pretty knowledgeable about Champagne, but even after all this time I am still learning. It is just such a fascinating subject, I love it! Please feel free to get in touch with me if you want recommendations if you are planning a Champagne week-end break, I would be delighted to help!