A few days in Champagne

Marne

Tasted July 10, 2006 - July 12, 2006 by psmith with 870 views

Introduction

This was the second stop (after two wine-free days and nights in London) of a 16-day trip. We stayed at The Royal Champagne in Champillon, a small village just off N51 in the Vallee de la Marne a couple of kilometers north of Epernay. The hotel was quite nice with a rather traditional 1* restaurant and a beautiful view from the room of the 1er cru Champillon vineyards with Dizy and Epernay in the background.

Flight 1 (1 note)

We spent most of the day getting acquainted with the French driving via the Epernay road signs. Unfortunately this led us to a smaller square in the city and my goal of finding a wine store wasn't successful as most of the better shops are in the main (and well marked) city center. We returned to the hotel empty handed but for a few chocolates and went to the hotel restaurant for dinner. The food was quite good though the overpriced wine list made the meal seem expensive for what it was. After some browsing we settled on:

White - Sparkling
1999 Philipponnat Champagne Grand Blanc France, Champagne
89 points
Crisp young Blanc de Blancs with austere green apple and leesy dough notes. High relative acidity with an ample, if not excessive, mousse. A patrician wine with clear potential, though too young to be really expressive now.

Flight 2 (2 notes)

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We had a visit planned early the next morning at Vilmart, a personal favorite grower in Rilly-la-Montagne. Vilmart is small (though not tiny) by Champagne standards and isn't really we equipped to handle visitors. The tour consisted of a very brief (think 5 min.) tour of the barrel aging room followed by a couple of their basic wines:

White - Sparkling
N.V. Vilmart & Cie Champagne Premier Cru Grande Réserve France, Champagne, Champagne Premier Cru
87 points
Bold and yeasty, richly textured.
White - Sparkling
N.V. Vilmart & Cie Champagne Premier Cru Grand Cellier Brut France, Champagne, Champagne Premier Cru
89 points
An expressive, elegant wine with crisp flavors and a pronounced floral component. An excellent value.

Flight 3 (1 note)

Prices at the winery were excellent, less than 50% of what the wines regularly cost me, so while we weren't really trying to buy any more than we could drink on the trip I did pick up a few bottles to drink later.

We spent the rest of the day wandering around Reims. The cathedral is truly spectacular - more impressive than Notre Dame in my opinion. Wine stores and restaurants are also quite easy to find. For lunch we stopped at Le Vigneron, a simple, rather rustic restaurant offering good food at relatively high prices. With lunch we had a wine unknown to me:

White - Sparkling
N.V. Henri Abele Champagne Brut Cuvée Spéciale France, Champagne
83 points
Rather neutral, almost frizzante rather than fully sparkling and textured accordingly. Subdued seawater-type notes and a rather acid finish for an initially quite round wine. A bit out of whack.

Flight 4 (1 note)

On a whim we decided to stop by Taittinger for a visit. Large houses seem well set up to handle tourists and Taittinger is certainly no exception. The tour started with a movie going over the history of the house and the basics of champagne production. The tour lasted about an hour and included visits to the impressive Roman-era chalk tunnels and a tasting of their NV Brut Reserve which, while clearly well made, is hardly really inspiring either. Prices at the winery were generally higher than one could find in the shops (which generally didn't offer many screaming deals either).

We went back to our hotel to relax with:

Rosé - Sparkling
1999 Vilmart & Cie Champagne Premier Cru Grand Cellier Rubis France, Champagne, Champagne Premier Cru
92 points
Peachy dough notes with delightfully pronounced red berry. More classic rosé than in some vintages. Persistent and youthful, almond paste with candied orange peel and cherry notes. A bit short on the palate, but nicely balanced throughout and with a nutty, slightly oxidative, finish.

Flight 5 (2 notes)

Dinner was near Dizy at La Grains d'Argent. While the aim of the restaurant may not have been really high, its execution was quite good, better than expected given what were, by Champagne standards, very reasonable prices. We enjoyed a couple of half-bottles with dinner:

White - Sparkling
N.V. Michel Genet Champagne Grand Cru Brut France, Champagne, Champagne Grand Cru
86 points
Almost extract and doughy notes with white flowers. A full, round, and weighty palate with hints of both sweetness and alcohol. Somewhat chemical flavors with time, but a nice wine overall.
Red
N.V. René Geoffroy Pinot Noir Coteaux Champenois Cumières Rouge France, Champagne, Coteaux Champenois
87 points
Barely ripe plum and flower aromas - quite expressive on the nose. Delightful cold-weather Pinot, well balanced with brambly fruit. Firm, but not excessively acid finish. Great purity of Pinot flavors. Quite a value.

Flight 6 (1 note)

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The next morning we had an appointment at Billecart-Salmon in Mareuil-sur-Ay. This was a really nice visit which included trips to their Clos Ste. Hillaire vineyard, the cellars, and winemaking facilities. The tour finished with a tasting of the always tasty Brut Rose in their gardens. Interestingly, the Champenois, including Billecart, seem to view the current popularity of rose champagne as something of a fashion that would pass, not seeming to put in on the same level as the non-rose wines.

We had a quick, but excellent and well priced, lunch at La Table Kabus in Epernay that included another bottle of Rene Geoffroy Coteaux Champenois Cumieres Rouge before returning to our room for a nap and a really nice champagne:

White - Sparkling
1990 Philipponnat Champagne Brut Clos des Goisses France, Champagne
93 points
Disgorged 4/2000. Nutty, caramelized apple nose that's both bold and expressive. A still-aggressive palate with a fine, almost secondary mousse and a sugary tartness that begs age. More nut than yeast, but a very winey champagne that's just starting to show hints of maturity.

Flight 7 (1 note)

Dinner was, again, at The Royal Champagne. In the lounge beforehand we enjoyed a glass of the always tasty '98 Dom Pérignon:

White - Sparkling
1998 Moët & Chandon Champagne Cuvée Dom Pérignon France, Champagne
92 points
Built to please. Wonderfully round and balanced young champagne. Somewhat fishy or steely young Chardonnay flavors with an explosive, coarse mousse. Darker plum notes on the palate with floral traces. Will really benefit from time.

Flight 8 (1 note)

The meal was excellent, only marred by the smarmy prick of a sommelier (a different one from the previous night) who felt the need to let me know how influenced us mindless Americans are by Robert Parker. Early in the evening, and before I realized that I didn't really like him, I had accepted his offer to recommend a wine with the hope that he might turn me on to a lesser known house. He picked a decent enough bottle:

White - Sparkling
N.V. Ayala Champagne Brut Nature France, Champagne
87 points
Pure flavors and quite drying - gives the impression of a steely young BdB, though with a Pinot roundness. Tart green apples and very primary flavors.

Flight 9 (1 note)

After presenting it he poured a taste and played a game with us by asking "can you guess what's different about this wine". Well, I had clearly seen "non-dosage" on the label and the fact that I actually knew what that meant threw him off and seemed to disappoint him as he sort of stormed off and didn't stop by much the rest of the night. As I looked around I realized that every table with Americans had the same bottle.....nice that he put some thought into it. The fact that I could have done better for the 95€ price didn't help.

After dinner we went back for our last night and a bottle we had bought earlier in town:

Rosé - Sparkling
1996 Taittinger Champagne Comtes de Champagne Rosé Brut France, Champagne
93 points
Orange-salmon color. Elegant nose with almond, yeast, orange oil, and red berry flavors. More restrained palate. Not a powerhouse wine by any means, but shows good depth and balanced flavors, clipped by a sharp, slightly aggressive mousse on the finish. Cake frosting and yellow flower flavors. Fills out and actually gains power with time. Excellent young rosé.

Closing

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The next morning we left for 5 nights in Beaune.

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