There’s nothing like visiting a vineyard, cellar or a winemaker when it comes to getting a true understanding of a wine. The winemaker will share the vision for the wine; the vineyard lets you see and feel its development and seeing the cellar puts you in touch with the place where the magic happens and gives an overview of how it all works. It’s a chance to witness the beginning, middle and the end of the wine-making process.
I write this after having been on a visit to Champagne. Champagne is very beautiful, in an unassuming way that belies the superlative sparkling wines that are made there. The slopes are gentle and vividly green with neat rows of vines that lazily soak up all the sunlight on offer.
My visit was to Chigny les Roses. It’s a small, sleepy, rustic little village: the only action I saw was when a well-loved dog lethargically padded across the quiet road to take a nap in the shade of a tree. On a bright Wednesday afternoon I didn’t see a single car pass by. It’s a very serene place.
But the rural serenity hides the international significance of this place, where the world’s best sparking wines are sitting beneath our feet, hidden in cellars, coming slowly to maturity. Wines that will be uncorked the world over to celebrate special occasions and to make great memories unforgettable.
Behind an unmarked door in this quiet village lay the cellars of Cattier, growers of grapes since the 18th Century and champagne makers since the turn of the 20th. However, the purpose of my visit was not to only to see the 3 million bottles housed there, but also to unlock the story of Armand de Brignac, the luxury champagne they have been working on since the turn of this century.
Yvonne Lardner, normally Global Director of Communications, served as my guide – it’s a hands-on operation and everyone does their bit. It’s a trip of 119 steps down to the cellars that stretch for more than a mile. With each step the air becomes cooler and heavier with moisture. The chalk walls still show the tool marks of their excavation and the soft stone has been an easy target for graffiti for nearly 300 years.
We walk past row after row of bottles, all at different stages of their evolution until we reach a wrought iron gate, I’m handed the key and I unlock the private cellar of Armand de Brignac. It’s a remarkable juxtaposition to be standing in what is effectively a cave but to be surrounded by hundreds of golden bottles glinting as they stand upside down in the riddling tables. In the centre of the room are five oak barrels in which the dosage wine is matured, it emphasises the blend of modernism and tradition.
Back in the open air, we pass through the small car park lined with modest family cars into the warehouse where palates of wine are ready to be shipped to all parts. I then meet the three women who work by hand: today they are labelling the bottles, on another day they might be helping as the wine is disgorged and corked manually – there’s no place for machines; for Armand de Brignac is a hand made wine.
The time came to taste the wines with its makers – Jean-Jacques Cattier and Philippe Bienvenu. Jean-Jacques is the head of the family and although wearing a smart suit, his hands are those of a farmer, a wine-maker. He has a deep passion for wine, honed over decades and many vintages that gives him a deep understanding of one of the wine world’s most subtle and difficult skills – the art of blending. Philippe runs the commercial side of the business and when I ask him why they decided to make Armand de Brignac his face lights up with childlike enthusiasm – we wanted to make the champagne that we would dream about drinking, he says. It’s a powerful statement.
We begin by tasting the Blanc de Blancs, a wine made only from chardonnay grapes. For the wine they went on a search for the very best fruit the region produces and have taken only the very best grapes.
The results are spectacular in the most seamless way. The wine offers firstly an explosion of freshness and vivacity – as might be expected. However, it then enters into another dimension as the fruit flavours begin to develop on the palate. It now seems to be a very rich wine full of berry flavours, but also soft fruit – apricots and peach. The finish is clean but the taste lingers. Perhaps most important of all, the wine is incredibly moreish. One sip demands another. I’ve been fortunate enough to have tasted many great champagnes but I’ve never before encountered such a harmony of the rich with the refreshing of the full and the clean.
We move onto the Brut next in it’s now famous golden bottle. It has been praised in the wine press before, notably by Jancis Robinson and was rated the number 1 champagne in the world at a tasting of 1000 wines of the region. Again, the wine enters and offers instant refreshment that builds to a crescendo of well developed fruit and berry flavours. The tasting note I took at the time is short, but I think apt: Beautiful acidity, perfectly balanced by well rounded fruit, amazing poise, full marks.
To finish we tasted the Rosé; beautiful and pale, blushing with a pale ‘eye of the partridge’ (oeil de perdix) colour. Amazing refreshment again with strawberry and blackcurrant fruit filling the palate; here is a wine both full bodied and ethereal and it sums up the amazing job that has been pulled off in making these wines. It’s another example that’s at the head of the class.
Sipping the wine I began to dream about the menu I’d chose to pair with the wines. Perhaps some yellow tail tuna sashimi with the blanc de blancs, something richer, even duck confit, with the brut and then to finish, the rosé paired with something very simple like fresh, dark skinned raspberries on home baked butter short bread.
Excellence isn’t easy to achieve and they’ve done it. It’s a project that’s taken more than a decade to get off the ground as vineyard sites were chosen, grapes grown, wine was made, matured and blended. The small scale of the production has allowed them to hone their art, like a poet working relentlessly on a poem. And that’s what these wines ultimately are, they’re poetic. Subtle, beautiful and with the power, as Ted Hughes once wrote, to hit you like a 10,000 volt shock.
Before writing this piece, I wanted to see what some other people thought of the wines, to make sure that I hadn’t been seduced by the romance of the setting and the enthusiasm of the small team that makes the wines. So before having dinner this week, I treated some friends at home to a small blind tasting, where the identities of the wines were concealed. I served Armand de Brignac Brut along with two other very fine champagnes. The reactions to the first two wines were very enthusiastic; but when I served the third wine, the Armand de Brignac, its gold bottle hidden underneath a bottle sock, the reaction was different. There was a hush and then one of my friends emitted a long, contented, Hmmmmm, sound. This is special, he said; and he was right.