By Jiles Halling.
In part 1 we travelled from Reims along the Montagne de Reims and through some of the villages most famous for their Pinot Noir grapes. The second circuit starts some 25 kilometres from Reims in the town of Epernay, much smaller than Reims in size but not in terms of importance to the champagne trade. Indeed there is still a friendly rivalry between the two towns: Reims calls itself Le Capital de la Champagne (the feminine form of the word champagne “La Champagne” meaning the region of that name) whilst Epernay dubs itself Le Capital du Champagne (in its masculine form “Le Champagne” refers to the wine made here).
It’s here that the ever present layer of chalk in Champagne comes closest to the surface, so much so in fact that you can bend down and pick up chunks of chalk as you stroll through the vineyards. Feel free to do that by the way, as long as you don’t damage the vines.
La Côte des Blancs is home to a style of champagne called Blanc de Blancs made exclusively with Chardonnay, a grape that thrives in the chalky soil on these south-east facing slopes.
Blanc de Blancs champagnes are usually described as having more freshness and elegance than champagnes made from a blend of black and white grapes. They also have what can only be described as a sort of ‘mineral’ quality to them no doubt coming from the nutrients that the vines absorb through the roots they send delving down deep into the bed of chalk beneath the surface. This distinctive, fresh style makes Blanc de Blancs ideal as an aperitif and with foods that have a slightly salty, iodine character such as caviar and shellfish, but Chardonnay also has huge ageing potential and old Blanc de Blancs champagnes have a complexity and depth that make them wonderful matches with a wide variety of foods
Some people argue that Blanc de Blancs is the ‘real’ champagne and that all else is second best and it’s true that some of the greatest champagnes of all are Blanc de Blancs: Salon and Krug’s Clos de Mesnil being two cases in point, but fortunately for the traveller to champagne there are dozens of stunning discoveries to be made amongst the lesser known producers.
As you head off towards La Côte des Blancs the first village you come to is Chouilly one of 6 villages in this area rated as Grand Cru for their Chardonnay grapes and which follow each other in quick succession as you head south. Each village, although separated by just a few kilometres from its neighbours, has its own character and its champagnes are subtly different from one another.
The next village is Cramant whose Chardonnay grapes are said by some to have everything: finesse, depth, richness, in short the best of the best, but of course there are as many opinions as they are wine drinkers.The only solution is to taste them all yourself and find your own favourite.
Instead of taking the main road to Cramant, take the back road through the vineyards that will take you past the magnificent Chàteau de Saran. Perched on the hillside just beneath the forest this former hunting lodge belongs to Moët & Chandon and is used to entertain VIP visitors. From just beside the château you’ll have a fabulous view along the Côte des Blancs as it stretches into the distance whilst directly in front of you is a vast panorama across the plain that extends south away from the vineyards.
Oger is next, a sleepy and picturesque little place that you will pass through almost before you realise you have arrived. Its champagnes have a flinty quality to them and they are more often found in blends with grapes from other villages than as a pure Oger champagne.
If you have time to spare before heading back to Epernay for a well-earned dinner, you might continue for a few more kilometres. In fact La Côte des Blancs extends to Le Mont Aimé a small hill 15 – 20 minutes south of Le-Mesnil-sur-Oger, but the further south you go, the fewer the address worth visiting with the exception, that is, of the village of Vertus.
There remains one more grape variety, Meunier, and one more region to discover in the northern part of Champagne, La Vallée de la Marne and we’ll take a trip there in part 3.
To contact the champagne makers mentioned click on the links in the text, go to their web sites listed below or go to http://www.francefinewines.eu/
*Selosse also runs a magnificent restaurant and hotel in Avize
Franck Bonville http://www.champagne-franck-bonville.com/
Philippe Gonet http://www.champagne-philippe-gonet.com/
Pierre Peters http://www.champagne-peters.com/en
Robert Moncuit http://www.champagnerobertmoncuit.com/
Pascal Doquet http://www.champagne-doquet.com/
Larmandier Bernier http://www.larmandier.fr/index.php?lang=en
Author: Jiles Halling is an Englishman and long-time resident in Champagne. You can find out more on www.mymaninchampagne.com