On the day Dom Perignon shouted to his fellow Benedictine monks in the Abbey of Hautvillers “Come quick brothers, I am tasting the stars!” little did he know that he had just changed the wine world forever. Dom Perignon was the legendary monk in the Champagne region who first experimented with blending different grape varieties in the 17th century to obtain a rounder, more complex and interesting wine by drawing from the best characteristics of each varietal. Because of the colder winters in Champagne, wine had to be bottled before it had reached peak fermentation which would be re-awakened upon the arrival of spring, due to the residual yeasts within the bottles, as temperatures rose. The result – bubbles! And lots of them…
Nowadays the vinification and production of Champagne wine is a multi-billion Euro industry which employs tens of thousands of people within the region. Around 300 million bottles are currently produced annually with about 50% of that volume destined for export. The UK is by far the world’s largest export market for Champagne in volume with some 34 million bottles consumed in 2015.
By playing such a significant role in global sales, the UK and London in particular, are seen as immense strategic importance by the ‘prestige’ Champagne houses, keen to expose their brand, attract new markets and cement their foothold within top venues and establishments within the capital. As a member of the Food & Beverage Managers’ Association of London I had the privilege of being invited to visit the region back in April alongside a group of fellow F&B managers representing some of the best hotels, venues and restaurants that London has to offer.
Our hosts were Maison Jacquart, a recently established Champagne house – certainly by comparison with other world renowned brands such as Moët & Chandon or Veuve Clicquot which have been around since the 18th century – that have only been labeling their own bottles since 1964. Jacquart is owned by around 1,800 winegrowers, an unusual scenario within a wine region where only around 10% of vineyards are owned by the Houses. Their philosophy is based on the premise that by owning the vineyards they can more effectively control the growing process and only select the highest quality grapes, an essential pre-requisite to attain their so-called signature style of fresh, delicate and bright wines with a modern character.
Upon arrival and welcome at the ‘Hôtel de Brimont’, a magnificent 19th century palace and Jacquart’s headquarters in a very fashionable part of Reims, we were taken to their tasting room where we were introduced to the Jacquart-owned brand Montaudon, from Brut, to Rosé, Blanc de Noirs and Vintage. This was followed by the entire Jacquart range. Both labels have distinctive styles: Montaudon is predominately Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier-based whilst Jacquart is blended with a higher percentage of Chardonnay, and up to 100% for their excellent ‘Blanc de Blancs’. The first has a subtle, fresh and distinguished style while the latter is marked by its roundness, purity and richer character. Both, however, possess that distinctive mineral appeal so typical of top quality Champagnes. The tasting culminated with Jacquart’s prestige cuvée, The Alpha, a wine of such finesse and maturity, it is only made in exceptional vintage years (this was the 2006 vintage, even though the 2010 has just been released) and requires a minimum of six years of cellaring before it’s deemed ready. A rare treat! By this time it was only 12:00 noon. Some of us do have to work so hard some days!
A magnificent three course lunch with Champagne from different vintages paired with some outstanding cuisine ensued in the grand dining room before our group travelled to Château-Thierry, a town 35 miles to the west of Reims in the Vallée de la Marne for a visit to the House cellars. There, we were greeted by the Cellar Master for a detailed tour that covered the whole cycle from processing of the grapes through to fermentation, bottling, cellaring and packaging for distribution.
All those steps are done on site. As we sipped yet another few examples of the brand’s relatively new range ‘Mosaïque’, according to him, at any one point, including the reserve wines stored in gigantic stainless steel tanks and all the cellared bottles, Jacquart holds approximately 200 million Euros worth of stock within their cellar! Quite impressive.
This marked the end of the first day. Phew!
On the second and final day, after much caffeine-taking in the morning, our group was treated to a picnic in one of the House’s vineyards, south of the Montagne de Reims, on the left bank of the Marne river. The weather could not have been sunnier and warmer which, being only April, was a real bonus. There we could see the vines just starting to bud as well as how the ‘terroir’, or the geography and climate of the area offer such ideal conditions for the growing of grapes.
The afternoon, on that very spot, was made even more special when our hosts toasted to our visit with an exceptional Montaudon 2007 vintage, a fully mature Champagne with a very unique character and complexity which can only be obtained from blending the best wines from different grape varieties from possibly even different vineyards, a technique pioneered by Dom Perignon all those centuries ago. On average, a vintage year is declared only three to four times every decade, depending on how the weather conditions have ‘blessed’ the quality of the grapes. Champagnes with this level of finesse often require between four to six years of cellaring before they can truly blossom and fully express the uniqueness of the particular vintage year.
I’m not sure if it was because of the location but I thought, amongst the exquisite fruit, I could also almost taste the freshness of the air, the acidity of the soil and the warmness of the sunlight within that glass. Well, it was more than just the one glass… and it was magical! I will return to Champagne, someday again.
Montaudon Brut NV is the House Champagne of One Great George Street and is available on our Beverage List which also includes Montaudon Rosé NV.