Small producers are the ones to beat a path to on a trip to Champagne. Lee Osborne shares six of his favourites
Everyone is familiar with the grand maisons of Champagne. The Moëts, Dom Perignons and Krugs of this world. They are all fantastic, of course, but if you swerve the bigger guns in favour of small producers and grower champagnes, you’ll find fabulous quality and more affordable prices at the cellar door.
G. Tribaut, Hautvillers
A vineyard visit to Dom Perignon isn’t really an option unless, of course, you’re an A-lister like Lady Gaga. But G. Tribaut is in the same chi-chi premier cru village as its more illustrious neighbour and arguably boasts better views across the chalky slopes of the Marne Valley from its glass-fronted tasting room in Hautvillers. The wines here, even in these cash-strapped times of mega inflation, are an absolute steal. Tribault Rosé, blended from the holy trinity of champagne grapes – chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier – and derived from four distinct terroirs – Romery, Damery, Fleury-la-Rivière and Ay – is worth the trip alone at under £20 a bottle from the cellar door. A tasting here will set you back five euros a glass, so you can work out exactly which bubbles float your boat before filling your car boot to capacity for the drive home. Rest assured, tasting measures are such that you don’t need to say “when”. 88 Rue d’Eguisheim, 51160 Hautvillers; champagne-tribaut-hautvillers.com/gb
Domaine Jacques Selosse
Headed up by colourful father-and-son winemakers Anselme and Guillaume Selosse, whose animated demeanours, great manes of uncontrollable hair and laid-back approach to winemaking are a refreshing change from some of the snootier Champagne houses, Domaine Jacques Selosse is a must-visit. And don’t let their offbeat demeanours fool you. Anselme is held in great esteem as one of the world’s most original and visionary winemakers, although both the man and his eponymous wines court strong opinion. His winemaking traits are influenced by the Burgundian method: every one of the 35 parcels of chardonnay vines he owns in the Côte des Blancs (be they in Avize, Cramant, Oger, Le Mesnil and so on) are vinified separately in small Burgundian wine barrels he invested in from Domaine Leflaive. Some of the best champagnes I’ve had the pleasure of tasting have been from here. I’ll also be forever indebted to Guillaume, for introducing me to the delights of Sacré Bistro in Épernay, now an established favourite.
59 Rue de Cramant, 51190 Avize
An hour’s drive south of Épernay, saxophone-playing winemaker Emmanuel Lassaigne owns a 3.5-hectare smallholding of vieilles vignes (old vine) chardonnay in the remote village of Montgueux in the picturesque Côte des Bar. It lies just to the west of the medieval city of Troyes, in an area known as the Aube, which many feel doesn’t get the recognition it deserves being in the southern extremity of the Champagne region, a world away from the glitz of les grandes maisons in Reims. Yet it represents 20 per cent of the total champagne production of the whole region. Lassaigne also buys in grapes from trusted sources to fulfil his harvest quota – 2.5ha of old vines planted on a Cretaceous stratum of chalk, which remarkably, is 15 million years older than those in the Côte des Blancs, yielding wines which are noticeably less taut, asserting themselves in a more exotic and delicate profile.
Ayala is the little sister to Bollinger, founded in 1860 by Edmond de Ayala, just a couple of streets away from its more illustrious sibling in the village of Ay in the heart of les grands crus. Ayala pioneered the creation of low-dosage wines (those which have less than three grammes of sugar per litre) and has flourished in recent years under the stewardship of its Chef de Cave Caroline Latrive. Her passion for chardonnay has led to the creation of a beguilingly pure, elegant and linear house style. The panorama from the top of the hill to the right of the winery is particularly rewarding on a clear day, with a bird’s eye view of the village of Ay and across to Épernay. There’s a rather nice artisan boulangerie called La Pétrie at the bottom of the street on Avenue du Général Leclerc – perfect to load up on picnic supplies to feast upon down by the river.
Snappy dresser Laurent Champs, owner and Chef de Cave of Vilmart is one of the region’s unsung heroes. Vilmart, whose bijou winery is based in the cutesy village of Rilly-la-Montagne on the outskirts of Reims, is what’s referred to as “grower champagne”, meaning he owns all his own vines (11 hectares of them), rather than buying in grapes from elsewhere, as many other houses do, and this allows him to control the whole process from grape to glass. Wine critic Robert Parker, who has almost God-like status in the US for his 100-point system of scoring wines, even went so far as saying that ‘Vilmart cuvées are among the most complex, powerful and structured wines in Champagne’. Big praise indeed. Champs is a man of exacting standards, insisting on harvesting all his grapes by hand, with no machinery involved. His champagnes are vinified entirely in oak barrels which lends a rather wonderful richness and complexity, difficult to find elsewhere at this price. His entry-level champagne Grande Reserve starts at €32, with a jeroboam of Grande Cellier the most expensive at €285.
It’s a delightful drive from Épernay, via Dizy, skirting the famous grand cru vineyards of the bigger guns like Bollinger and Louis Roederer, then onwards to the quaint little village of Mareuil-sur-Ay beside the tranquil River Marne, a popular boating spot. Here you’ll find Champagne Billecart-Salmon, founded in 1818 by the original owners Nicolas Francois Billecart and Elisabeth Salmon, who lent their surnames to create the brand when they married. It is one of the few remaining champagne houses to remain family owned, cultivating an area of some 100 hectares. The cellars here combine the old and new harmoniously: traditional wooden barrels in The Chais meet state-of-the-art stainless-steel vats, enclosed behind floor-to-ceiling glass doors in The Cuverie. All very James Bond. Billecart-Salmon is revered for the quality of its delicate brut rosé – arguably the most famous rosé wine in the world – priced around €70, while the brut reserve (a blend of three vintages) at €60 is a beautifully harmonious and balanced wine. It’s fair to say all have the ability to age very well. Beautifully ornate gardens at the back of the winery are a nice spot to sit and ponder after you’ve worked your way through several glasses of divine bubbles.
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