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A Visit to Champagne
By Ed McCarthy
Oct 7, 2014
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The Champagne region in France is my favorite wine region in the world--along with Italy’s Piedmont region.  For the past 30 years, I have visited Champagne dozens of times.  In addition to the fact that I love Champagne, I am singularly impressed with the way the Champenois greet visitors.  They have refined the art of good hosting. 

I recently visited Champagne as a guest of the CIVC (Le Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne), the trade association that regulates the Champagne industry; it is made up of Champagne grape growers and representatives of Champagne houses.  The Champagne Bureau in Washington D.C., which is the arm of the CIVC in the U.S., acted as host.  I visited 11 Champagne producers during my week’s stay in the region--eight négociant houses and three grower-producers.  I discuss five of the producers here, one grower and four Champagne houses.

Champagne Roger Coulon, a grower in the Montagne de Reims (village of Vrigny), just south of the city of Reims, was my first stop.  I had never visited Roger Coulon before; it is a fairly large grower, producing about 90,000 bottles a year, and is well-represented in the U.S., especially on both coasts.  Eric Coulon, an 8th generation grower, is the winemaker-proprietor.  Coulon makes a full range of very impressive Champagnes.  I particularly liked his NV Brut, “Reserve de l’Hommée” Premier Cru, made from the oldest parcels of vineyards on his property--an NV Brut with character and depth.  Coulon also produces an excellent Vintage Blanc de Noirs, a Rosé, a NV Brut Nature, and a Vintage Brut.  Coulon’s current vintage brut is the 2008.  An added plus at Coulon’s winery is a brand-new, superb bed-and breakfast cottage, on the property.

It is admittedly difficult to keep up with all the grower-producers in Champagne.  About 2100 growers are now making their own Champagne and selling it under their own label.  Most of the smaller growers sell their wines only in France, much of it at the winery.  But I see more different grower Champagnes in the U.S. every year.  Fifteen years ago, when I wrote Champagne for Dummies, there were fewer than 50 grower Champagnes in the U.S.; today I would estimate that there are around 500 grower Champagnes available in some part of the U.S.  But Champagne Roger Coulon is one of best that I have tasted. 

The four Champagne houses I am writing about are all family-owned: Champagne Louis Roederer, Champagne Jacquesson, Champagne Bruno Paillard and Champagne Drappier.  Champagne Louis Roederer, a medium-sized House that produces over 3 million bottles annually, is one of my very favorite Champagne producers.  It is also one of the most financially successful houses, mainly because it owns over 70 percent of the vineyards it uses, the highest percentage of any of the major Houses.  Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, the extremely talented winemaker of Roederer, told me that only its NV Brut Premier uses purchased grapes.  And yet Roederer’s Brut Premier is one of the most consistently fine NV Bruts on the market; it is very flavorful, rich, and full-bodied. 

Roederer makes an excellent Vintage Blanc de Blancs--possibly because it owns so many Chardonnay vineyards on the Côte des Blancs, the very best area growing Chardonnay in the region.  The 2008 is the current Blanc de Blancs vintage.  At a tasting at the winery, the one Roederer Champagne that I was most impressed with (other than Cristal) was its Vintage Rosé; it was perfection; so delicious, with strawberry aromas and flavors.  The 2008 is the current Roederer Rosé, but don’t hesitate to buy any recent Louis Roederer Rosé.  The current Roederer Vintage Brut is the 2007; very successful for this vintage.  You can enjoy it now.

When people ask me what my favorite Champagne is, I name two: Cristal and Krug Clos du Mesnil (a Vintage Blanc de Blancs).  Louis Roederer’s Cristal is the essence of “balance and texture,” Lecaillon observes.  It is made from practically all Grand Cru grapes, with 55 to 60 percent Pinot Noir, 40 to 45 percent Chardonnay, depending on the vintage.  Cristal is an outstanding Champagne, but please don’t drink it when is young.  Like most of the great wines of the world, it needs many years of aging (I suggest at least 20 years) for you to fully appreciate its complex flavors.  The Cristal vintages mainly available in the U.S. today are 2002 and 2004, but you’re wasting $200 to $250 if you drink such a young Cristal.  Roederer produces a very small amount of exquisite Cristal Rosé, but the same advice for aging this beauty applies; it retails for $500 to $550. 

Champagne Jacquesson, located in the village of Dizy, just north of Epernay, is not well known in the U.S., but it is one of the best small houses in Champagne, in my opinion.  Jacquesson produces from 250,000 to 450,000 bottles annually (depending on the vintage) of dry, elegant, very traditional Champagne.  Jacquesson is one of the oldest houses; it was founded in 1798.  An early employee was Joseph Krug, who went on to establish his own winery.  Jacquesson resembles Krug in that both of these small houses produce almost hand-made, low dosage Champagnes that age very well.  All of its Champagnes are made from Grand Cru and Premier Cru grapes only.

The Chiquet family bought Jacquesson in 1974; brothers Jean-Hervé and Laurent now run Jacquesson.  The brothers are doing something quite unique in that they name each non-vintage brut with a different number so that you know how old the Champagne is.  For example, the current NV Brut is Cuvée 738, which is based on the 2010 harvest with 33 percent reserve wines, and is predominantly Chardonnay (61percent).  It was disgorged in April, 2014, and its dosage is 2.5 gr/l.  All this information is on the back label.  Jacquesson believes in full disclosure.

Jacquesson makes two outstanding single-vineyard Grand Cru Prestige Cuvées.  First, I tasted the Avize Champ Cain 2004 from the Côte des Blancs; 1.5 gr/l dosage.  It was stunning, still young, but a great Champagne.  In some warmer vintages, this Champagne has no dosage.  As great as the Avize Champ Cain was, it was topped by the Jacquesson Aÿ Vauzelle Terme 2004 Blanc de Noirs, 100 percent Pinot Noir, also 1.5 gr/l dosage.  It was one of the greatest Champagnes I have tasted all year, powerful, brimming with berry fruit flavors, and with an amazing length on the palate.

In contrast to all of the older, established Houses, Champagne Bruno Paillard is the youngest major House in Champagne, founded by Bruno Paillard in 1981.  Paillard built a state-of-the-art, glass and stainless steel winery in the southern part of Reims in 1990.
As Champagne Houses go, Bruno Paillard is fairly small, producing 400,000 to 500,000   bottles a year.  But it is well-represented in wine shops around the U.S.  Except for its Prestige Cuvée, Bruno Paillard Champagnes are lighter bodied, stressing elegance and finesse rather than power, and they all very dry, with a very low dosage.  The Paillard style is expressed in its NV Brut Prèmiere Cuvée, the perfect aperitif Champagne.  I particularly love Paillard’s Blanc de Blanc Champagnes; he is now making a Vintage Blanc de Blancs (current vintage, 2004) as well as a NV Blanc de Blancs.  They are very dry, zesty, lemony, and delicate.  Both are made from Grand Cru Chardonnay grapes from the Côte des Blancs.

It took me a while to understand Paillard’s Prestige Cuvée, N.P.U. (nec plus ultra), a Vintage, barrel-aged Champagne made exclusively with Grand Cru grapes, and aged for 12 years (!) before release.  Paillard has made it in only four vintages so far: 1990, 1995, 1996, and the current release, 1999.  I first tasted the 1995 N.P.U. shortly after it was released; it was quite huge, powerful, and un-giving.  I came back to it this year; what a difference!  Like so many prestige cuvees, it just needed time (19 years) to mature.  Today it is explosive on the palate, a fantastic Champagne.  I own one 1999 N.P.U.; I tasted the 1999 on this trip, at Bruno Paillard’s winery.  It is more approachable than the 1995; in another year or two it should be great.  I have nothing but deep respect for Bruno Paillard and all of his Champagnes.

Visiting Champagne Drappier was a new experience for me.  I would have visited it sooner except for its location, a two-hour drive south from the main Champagne towns (Reims, Epernay, and Aÿ).  Drappier is located in Urville, in the Bar-sur-Aube region, and is clearly the leading Champagne House in the Aube.  Pinot Noir rules in this slightly warmer area; in fact, owner-winemaker Michel Drappier, the 7th generation Drappier to run Champagne Drappier, told me that he sells a great deal of Pinot Noir grapes from his extensive vineyards to the huge houses up north, such as Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, and Laurent-Perrier.  I was very impressed with Drappier’s Champagnes, most of which are Pinot Noir-dominated.  Two standouts were Drappier NV Brut Nature (no dosage), a specialty of the House (very dry, but with lots of fruit flavor; not austere); and his single-vineyard Prestige Cuvée, Grande Sendrée.

Drappier Grand Sendrée is the best Champagne made in the Aube region.  Its grapes come from an 80-year old vineyard covered with ash (from a devastating fire in the region in the 19th century).  Made from 55 percent Pinot Noir and 45 percent Chardonnay, Grande Sendrée is full-bodied and very complex in flavor; the 2006 is the current vintage.  The best news is its price (if you can find it--only about 40,000 bottles usually made); it retails for about $80, an unheard of price for a Prestige Cuvée in the U.S.!  The 2006 Grande Sendrée is arriving in the U.S.  shortly (you can find 2004 and 2005 Grande Sendrée now in a few shops).  A small amount of Grande Sendrée Rosé (100 percent pinot Noir) is made, but right now it is only available in Europe--mainly France.

A word about Champagne vintages: the best current vintage is the 2008, a fairly cool vintage that is being compared to the remarkable 1996; we shall see.  2002 is a huge, powerful vintage that still needs time; it should be great.  The greatest vintage of the generation is 1996, which now, after 18 years, is becoming ready to drink--excepting Krug, Salon and a few others.  I recently drank a 1996 Philipponnat Blanc de Blancs that made me ecstatic!  The best of the older vintages is 1988, which is perfect now, if you are fortunate enough to own any.

Other wineries in Champagne that I recommend you visit are Veuve Clicquot, with its great old cellars; Ruinart, a gem of a Champagne House with arguably the greatest Gallo-Roman cellars of all; the sister-houses Piper-Heidsieck and Charles Heidsieck--you can ride a train around Piper’s cellars; and the great House of Krug.  All five of these Houses are in Reims.  In nearby Aÿ, another great family-owned House is Bollinger.  And my old friends at Gosset have recently moved from Aÿ to Epernay.  Also in Epernay is the wonderful house, Pol Roger.

If you have not yet visited the Champagne region--less than an hour’s train ride from Paris--I urge you to do so.  You wlll drink a lot of good Champagne and learn a lot about the region.  I learn something new every time I visit.