Tuesday, August 26, 2008
Undiscovered Treasures - the little guys
LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton is the Unilever of champagne. This uber-conglomerate owns a slew of top brands including Moet et Chandon, Castellane, Mercier, Dom Perignon and Veuve Clicquot. In fact, LVMH takes something like 20% of the global champagne market. All of the above are separate houses, however, with the sole exception of Dom Perignon, which is the ‘high end’ brand of Moet et Chandon: the relationship appears to be solely at the holding company level, as each of these houses (as you’ll see later) have a distinctly different heritage, approach and product. And of course from Perrier Jouet, through Bollinger to Ruinart and Gosset, there are a good many great houses that aren’t owned by the LVMH leviathan.
Alongside these ‘great’ houses, Champagne contains thousands of smaller producers as well as co-operatives and a good number of first class family businesses (like the highly recommended Canard-Duchêne). And despite the effort that the ‘posh’ houses put into telling everyone about their hundreds of grands crus, most champagne contains a good wallop of co-operative sourced wines as well as the ‘special stuff’ from those prized chalky, hillside crus. Many people who own crus just as grand as those belonging to the Moets and Jouets also make their own wines, which means there’s actually an amazing variety of champagnes to be had out there - and often at great value and with that added delight of having discovered something closed to the vast majority of people. It's a bit like going back to the days when you got to wander around the sweetshop with your pocket money clasped in a grubby mitt...
There are some great little champagnes to be had outside the beaten brand name path and at prices that provide distinct relief compared to UK high street (let alone MMI!) prices - €16-20 for vintage grand cru wines of quality and distinction from smaller houses is money well spent. Sure, there are some second rate wines on offer out there, but sorting the wheat from the chaff is part of the fun...
These days, you can even buy champagnes from smaller producers online thanks to the wonders of the Internet. After a huge amount of assiduous travel around the region and many tasting sessions, here are some Fat Expat recommendations from some less mainstream producers. Do note that the names are links to websites apart from Clouet, which doesn't seem to have one:
Among the largest of the small producers, or even possibly one of the smaller large producers, Canard-Duchêne is big enough to have a funky website but small enough to still be family owned and friendly to visitors. It’s a little off the beaten track, nestled in the vineyard-rich vales south of Reims in the village of Ludes, but it’s worth the detour because Canard-Duchêne produces some truly exceptional champagnes. The brut is excellent and the Millésime Vintage 2002 is a little slice of luxury, fruity and aromatic on the palate, fizzy and fresh. The company also produces a blanc de blancs a blanc de noirs and a rosé, the latter having been thoroughly enjoyed when we visited.
The Colin family enjoy a significant heritage in viticulture and wine and champagne making that stretches back to 1829. But it was only recently that the ‘bloody minded’ owner took the decision to go it completely alone and leave the local co-operative to focus solely on producing his own champagnes. With a relatively recent expansion of the family’s facilities, Champagne Colin produces some remarkable champagnes, including the delicious Blanche de Castille, a blanc de blancs that impressed us so much that we set off to find the house behind the wine. Nestled in the southern, chardonnay-dominated area of Champagne (the cote des blancs, south of Epernay), in the village of Vertus, Colin’s name provided us endless childish amusement (a champagne called ‘Colin’ – it’s like a rabbit called ‘Keith’ or a piece of fine jewellery called ‘George’) but sitting down with Delphine Colin to taste a selection of the cuvées that Colin produces was no laughing matter – they’re excellent value and can be magnificent. The brut and rosé are good stuff, but it’s when you start getting to the Cuvée Coup de Coeur de Vertus Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs Premier Cru Millésimé that you start getting a whole lot of champagne for your money (it’s easier to drink than it is to say!). Colin also produces a delicious ratafia – a fortified sweet wine made by a number of champagne makers.
Just in case you’re interested, Lamiable is one of the few producers to have moved across to a new type of synthetic cork called Mytik Diamant, which binds treated cork to give a corky cork that’s not a cork, but which stops your cork corking your pop. The yeasty ‘on the edge’ taste of corked champagne is something we encountered a couple of times when tasting wines from smaller houses and Lamiable certainly didn’t suffer from that. Their extra brut was a true adventure into excellence, avoiding the trap of being simply sour, but with a dryness that gave way to floral tastes and a depth that was surprising and a delight – it was one of the wines that we ended up taking back home with us. We also tried the Cuvée Meslaines millésime 2004 , a vintage blanc de noirs which didn’t have the same sheer impact on us as the extra brut. If you ever see a Lamiable champagne, however, I can only suggest that you snap it up – particularly the amazing extra brut.
Phone: +33 326570082 Fax: +33 326516513
Andre Clouet is a small producer in the village of, wait for it, Bouzy but with a strong and growing international reputation among champagne buffs, snobs, poseurs and nose-wrinklers. We tried the brut rosé and liked it a lot, enjoying a fine champagne with smallish bubbles and a deliciously fruity, dry taste – Clouet produces in the Pinot Noir growing region but we completely failed to find Clouet’s place in Bouzy itself. We’d recommend this wine heartily – Clouet’s labels are instantly recognisable, busy and intricately designed, they’re a remarkable counterpart to the often humdrum labels on small producer Champagnes. Clouet is well known for his ‘1911’ wine, a limited production of 1911 bottles of wine blended from specific years’ production and also for his ‘silver brut’ which has no dosage added. We didn’t get to try those, though!