Champagne Tour '17 - epic greatness...
Wow. Whoa. What a trip! Our Champagne Tour 2017 is in the books, and it was a great one. I am blessed to have the best customers on the planet, and the group who joined me here in Champagne for our annual Insider’s Immersion tour was quite simply a wonderful group of folks. Customers from Chicago, Minnesota, and Oregon this time around, and man, we had a blast. We ate, we drank, we ate, we drank, and then we ate and drank some more. And then we got up the next day and did it again. (And I also managed to get in some nice runs along the Marne river - you gotta do something to keep all that foie gras from clogging your arteries too badly!)
We kicked off our adventure with a welcoming lunch at Le Jardin in Reims, out on the terrace on a perfect day, overlooking the stunning park and grounds that are all part of the Les Crayères complex. Had some nice Agrapart Blanc de Blancs, which was really nice with my veal medallions.
One of the great French moments is that feeling every morning when you’re walking out of the bakery with a fresh baguette in your hand, and you realize it’s still warm from the oven and the crust is perfect and you’ve got that great butter and jam waiting in the kitchen at home and you know that life is good and it’s going to be an awesome day. But I digress…
We kicked off our tasting adventures at Laherte Frères in Chavot, where Aurélien Laherte took us through the vineyards and cellar, and then seven of his current release cuvées. As always, the Les Beaudier Rosé de Saignée blew everyone away.
Dinner was at Michelin 1-star La Briqueterie - where the best foie gras of the week was a perfect match for the Georges Laval Rosé Brut Nature - one of my favorite wines on earth with or without the foie.
The next morning we hit the road to head up to Jouy-lès-Reims to see Sophie Cossy, and spend time in her vines and in her tasting room (where I do my blends and dosage decisions for the Caveau Champagnes). Sophie is truly a force of nature, and her energy and enthusiasm is always inspiring. Her range was showing really well, and the Extra-Brut “Origine” and the 2008 Vieilles Vines were the hits of the day.
Then it was lunch at the magnificent, lush, elegant, refined, and breathtakingly delicious Michelin 3-star l’Assiette Champenoise. It was great to see chef Arnaud Lallement again after our two trips last year and the amazing meal he did for us at our Paulée in Burgundy back in 2015. On this day he was in rare form. Every dish dazzled - but the main dessert course - with strawberries and honey mousse was a candidate for dish of the tour. We washed it all down with three bottles of the Laval Rosé Brut Nature (I sense a theme here) - a truly unforgettable meal.
Note to self - schedule about 4 hours for lunch at l’Assiette - not a place to be in a rush!)
I was blown away that Vincent Laval agreed to see the group for a tasting - his cellar can barely hold 10 people! We were running late, and I was fearing he’d be pretty chapped, but in the end it all worked out. The group was treated to tastes of the ’15 Brut Nature, ’12 Haute Chèvre (the rarest of the rare), and the ’15 Rosé Brut Nature. Are there any finer non-dosage Champagnes anywhere? I don’t think so…
Clotilde Chauvet was away in Italy on a marketing trip, so her brother Nicolas greeted us for a tasting and cellar tour at Marc Chauvet next. Nico hand-disgorged a bottle of the new cuvée of Brut Sélection for us, so we could taste it side by side with the previously disgorged and dosaged version - a great learning experience for the group. The Chauvet 2009 Initiales is really stunning, with great acidity and beautiful fruit richness - a killer balance.
I love the small-town (Pop. 25,000) vibe of Épernay, but I must say the lack of anywhere really excellent to eat is a bummer. There are a few good places here, but nothing exceptional. All the really special spots are in Reims these days. Grillade Gourmand has always enjoyed the best reputation in Épernay, and it is pretty good, but nothing more. The wine list is clogged up with mostly mediocre negotiant juice - we did have some nice Agrapart “Terroirs” Blanc de Blancs that was a big hit with our dinner Thursday night.
We kicked off Friday morning with a tasting at Forget-Chemin in the village of Ludes on the Montagne de Reims. The always engaging Thierry Forget does a tremendous job taking folks through his philosophy and techniques and facility and wines - and he’s a huge soccer fan to boot. (His ring-tome is the Champions League theme song - I was impressed!) All the wines in the Forget-Chemin range have a streak of purity and precision running through them, but none more so than his top of the line Special Club bottling. He poured the 2010 - a truly great bottle, followed by the soon-to-be-released 2012, which is probably the best wine he has ever made. OMG. Elegance and intensity all in one beautiful package…
Is is sacrilege to say I enjoy Michelin 1-star Racine in Reims even more than 3-star l’Assiette? The food is certainly as amazingly good, perhaps even better on some dishes, and without the pomp and circumstance that go with the 3-star circus, I like the vibe a lot better. I was excited to get back to Racine and see their new location - they moved in the last few months to bigger space just a few hundred yards from the original. I was also very excited to learn that they’ve kept their previous location and opened a new bistro in it - Doko Koko - which does a prix-fixe 29-Euro Appetizer-Main Course-Dessert for lunch and dinner. Run, do not walk, to reserve your table!
The shortest and simplest option for lunch at Racine is the “Sûgo” tasting menu, which, with assorted amuse-bouche courses and extra sweets, runs to 10 dishes in all. I do not say this lightly - it is one of the great meals, and great values in fine dining, you are ever likely to encounter. Do not miss an opportunity to eat there. It is flat-out great. Kudos to chef Kazu and his wife Marine - they are knocking it out of the park in food, ambience, and service.
One of the great little secrets in Champagne is how good the wines are at Marion-Bosser - where vigneronne Elodie Marion is the 4th generation to run the estate - every generation has had a woman in charge. Hautvillers has got to be the most picturesque and charming village in Champagne, and Elodie’s tasting room just around the corner from the famous Abbey (home of Dom Perignon and the “cradle of Champagne”) has a great vibe. We tasted through another great range of wines here, with her 2008 Millesime absolutely leading the pack.
Dinner Friday night was at a simple little bistro that I love - La Gare in Mesnil-sur-Öger. The food is just good, but i love it for the fact that they have the lowest price on the planet I’ve ever seen for Salon - one of the true benchmark Blanc de Blancs. The 2006 is currently on the list - still a baby, but what a stunning baby indeed. And the Champagne list is exclusively Côte des Blancs BdBs - from a very tasty array of producers. Yum indeed.
After a week in cellars of producers who make a few hundred, or at most a few thousand cases, it is interesting to take the group to see the dog & pony show at Moët & Chandon in Épernay - the Disneyland of winery tours. They truly do an excellent job of hospitality, and the LVMH group is the best in the world at luxury marketing, but it’s really too bad about the wines. An illustrative experience, for sure.
Lunch was at the reliably good La Banque in Épernay with bottles of Pierre Peters and Marion-Bosser Blanc de Blancs, and then it was on to an afternoon of sparkling entertainment with Cyril Janisson at Janisson-Baradon in Épernay. Cyril and his brother Maxence are the 5th generation of the family to run the estate, and we were treated to a visit by the 4th generation when his dad popped in. Cyril was in rare form and had everyone in stitches of laughter for over an hour. The wines are no laughing matter however - especially his new cuvée 7C - another of the exceedingly rare Champagnes to use all 7 permissible grape varieties (Pinot Noir, Meunier, Chardonnay, Petit Meslier, Arbanne, Fromentau, and Pinot Blanc.) This one and the Laherte Frères Les 7 are the only two you’ll likely ever see (and they will both be in our Champagne Club package this fall - hint, hint…)
In all, it was a truly spectacular adventure, made even more so by the great group of customers who made the pilgrimage this year. Please let me know if you’re interested in being a part of it next year - we’d love to have you join us!
Now I’ve got a few days in Champagne to scope out some potential new producers to add to our portfolio, and to see a few of our existing vignerons that we weren’t able to see on the tour. Then I’ll be off to Burgundy to meet another group of customers for our 7th annual Insider’s tour down there. More tasting and eating and tasting and eating to come. Oh, and I managed to pick this gem up at 520 Vins in Épernay, my favorite Champagne shop in the world.
And here's your intrepid importer, off to hit the running trails along the river and get ready to do it again in Burgundy...