Our newest postcard from the wine world transports us to the French region whose name is synonymous with the best of bubbly. Wine Spectator's current issue features an in-depth report from managing editor and Champagne expert Jim Gordon. But during his recent tasting trip Jim also took time to file this special report just for the Web site.
The most surprising thing about the Champagne region is that it's covered with vines. Dark-skinned Pinot Meunier grapes line the banks of the muddy Marne River as it lazes through Champagne from east to west. Pinot Noir populates the slopes of the Montagne de Reims, the flat-topped hill your car must climb when you drive between the region's two hub cities, Reims and Epernay. And Chardonnay carpets the gentle slopes of the aptly named Cote des Blancs south of Epernay.
In most of France the duty of a quality wine is to tell you about where it came from. And the medium for that message is the grape. Winemakers in Bordeaux and Burgundy can't speak for two minutes without mentioning "terroir," the unique characters that their wines derive from the specific sites where their grapes are grown.
But the first words out of an export-minded Champagne producer's mouth usually have little to do with grapes or soil. He wears an Hermes tie and likes to talk about glamour, celebration, Hollywood, royalty and heads of state. That's why it's a pleasant surprise to learn firsthand that Champagne is made from grapes. When you spend any time here, as I did again in early March, you realize that the glitz is just a marketing veneer and not what the region is really about.
Whenever you leave one cellar to go to the next, you pass through beautifully manicured vineyards, whole hillsides full of them. In early spring they are still bare, standing precisely in rows and waiting to bud out. People are quietly at work, finishing the pruning, tying canes to trellis wires to support the grape bunches that will form the 1998 vintage. Columns of smoke rise here and there where the vine branches that held the 1997 vintage are burnt after pruning.
It's not that the Champagne companies don't realize the importance of the vineyards. They do. In fact, few of the big companies own enough vineyards to meet their winemaking demands, so they are practically obsessed with finding and keeping contracts with the thousands of independent growers who each own a few hectares of vineyard. When pressed, the cellar masters will talk about the 30 villages and countless vineyards from which they blend their products. They just don't think Champagne drinkers care.
But we do care, or at least we would if given the chance. Luckily, there are ways to learn about the vineyards of Champagne. There are a few single-vineyard bottlings produced by the big-name Champagne houses that can give you a few clues. Splurge on a bottle of Krug Clos du Mesnil 1985 ($210, rated 96 points on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale) and you will taste what a great vineyard site in the Cote des Blancs can do for Champagne. Or try Philipponnat's Clos de Goisses 1988 ($99, 91). It's grown on a chalky hill so steep it could be on the banks of the Mosel, not the Marne. Bollinger makes a single-vineyard Champagne, too, from an ancient Pinot Noir vineyard right behind the firm's cellars in Ay, near Epernay. The most recent vintage reviewed is the Bollinger Blanc de Noirs Vielles Vignes Francaise 1989 ($160, 88).
Cheaper alternatives are starting to become available as well. Champagne drinkers in France long ago discovered that dozens of small-scale grape growers make Champagne from their own vineyards. Until now, few of these bottlings were available in the United States, but that situation may be changing. A number of small, high-quality, estate-bottled Champagnes are now available in small quantities in America. Look for such names as Paul Bara, J. Lasalle, Henri Billiot, Chartogne-Taillet, Gaston Chiquet, Rene Geoffroy, Pierre Gimonnet & Fils, Larmandier-Bernier, A. Margaine and Vilmart.
Another way to educate your palate about the taste of Champagne's vineyards is to visit. The region is only a two-hour drive from either of the Paris airports. It makes a beautiful setting for a two- to three-day trip, and has a few outstanding country inns and top-class restaurants to enjoy.
Buy a Michelin "red guide" at a bookstore and it will give you the phone and fax numbers you will need to find food and lodging. You can simply take a train from Paris to the city of Reims and enjoy its cathedral, tour the caves of a dozen famous Champagne houses and dine in good restaurants with diverse selections of Champagne on their wine lists.
But to really explore Champagne you will need to get out into the countryside. Most hotels can give you a map showing a well-marked auto-tour route. Along the way you will discover stirring views of a pastoral landscape first organized into vineyards hundreds of years ago by monks. Here and there are cemeteries and trenches left from World War I. During harvest you will come upon campsites of the migrant grape pickers and smell the fresh-pressed juice as you navigate through the small villages where the press houses are located. And everywhere you will see vines.
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