Spring is tasting season for the wine trade. A winter of watching snow reports is abruptly ended and the serious job of finalising your selection for the new season takes over. Prices need to be firmed up. Old favourites need to be tasted, with fingers crossed, to check that the new releases are up to scratch. But most important is the search for that new discovery with which to wow your friends and, hopefully, all of theirs too.
A preoccupied bolt to the latest tasting at the Negresco Hotel in Nice was interrupted by a very spring-like sun and those magnificent blues of sky and sea along the Promenade des Anglais, a welcome reminder of a delight too often taken for granted. It was a day for such reminders as I reacquainted myself with the work of the Chiquet brothers of Champagne Jacquesson.
For me, Champagne is the quintessential wine region: the perfect combination of vineyard, wine and a little bit of magic. My first visit to the area followed fresh on the back of a farewell tour of the vine growing regions of Australia, capped by a stint on the magnificent sands of Margaret River. The ferry from Dover to Calais and lunch in Arras only served to heighten excitement and expectation. The vast sweeps of open farmland and memorials lent an appropriate air of majesty and occasion. But as we approached Reims, where were the vines? A growing sense that Reims was not a temple exclusively dedicated to producing heavenly fizz was dawning. Industry was evident, and too much of it. Quite deflated, we climbed the Montagne de Reims on our way to Épernay. As we crested the peak to emerge from the forest, there it was, a meticulous emerald carpet of vines stretching in every direction down to the Marne river and beyond Épernay, a city truly dedicated to champagne and its enjoyment. Expectations exceeded, I was hooked.
Breath recovered, to the right is the village of Hautvillers, with its abbey, resting place or more importantly, lifetime retreat of Dom Pérignon, creator, discoverer or exploiter, depending on your preferred history, of wine with bubbles. With its plantings of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (and Meunier), Champagne is really a northern extension of the Burgundy vineyard. Climatic extremes mean still wines from Champagne will never have the ripe richness of their southern cousins, but the high levels of acidity are perfect for making a vibrant sparkling wine that these same cousins could never rival. Whatever happy accident led to the discovery, Dom Pérignon certainly helped refine quality. He championed the use of white juice from red grapes and techniques of blending that would not be out of place in a modern champagne cellar.
Yet it is the concept of blending that still leaves me slightly puzzled. Different varieties and sites bring different flavours to their still wines. Throw in different conditions from the annual vagaries of the weather and you soon have a vast larder of flavours. Like all great chefs, the master blenders of each champagne house use these diverse ingredients to produce their own signature wines. Each house aims to achieve a blend consistent year on year that keeps you coming back to your favourite house for every special occasion or your daily apéro tipple. However, typically this is the route followed for the humble “non-vintage” offerings of the house. The grander Prestige cuvées tend to be vintage or site specific. I may be nitpicking but is this not missing a trick?
That sun-soaked day at the Negresco reminded me that I was not alone. For some twenty-five years the Chiquet brothers have been revelling in the joyous individuality of each vintage and its relationship with different sites. Their non- or rather multi-vintage blends are released under a batch number, a specific blend that captures the essence of time, site and house philosophy. As a result, their wines are wonderfully pure and focused; they make you search for house continuity. Wine to think about (if you are in the mood) or simply enjoy as you contemplate the Azur in our Côte.
Champagne’s terrain may not be unique, as growers on the South Downs rightly point out: their grapes are those of Burgundy, their climate not dissimilar to many, their techniques well borrowed and their history matched also. But for me it is the meticulous dedication to their vineyard, method and history, coupled with an almost contradictory commitment to the cutting edge, that keeps champagne unique amongst sparkling wines. Perhaps only with such history can the new come so easily.
For more information contact Alex or Melanie at L’Emporium du Vin on 04 93 49 27 01 or visit www.emporiumduvin.com