Do you know Champagne?
Champagne – Chances are that you probably drink Champagne during the Christmas holidays or during St-Valentine days. I have seen people that pick a bottle of Moet Chandon or La Veuve Clicquot during those times at the SAQ without giving much thought about where it comes from or how it is made. They just identify the name and after the producer. My idea for this article is not to give a full detailed lecture of Champagne but to create an awareness of the sparkling wine.
The Champagne production zone AOC comprises around 34,000 hectares of vineyards, 150 km away from Paris. The vineyards are spread around 320 villages ( also called crus) in five departments: the Marne (66% of plantings), Aube (23%),Aisne (10%) ,Haute-Marne and Seine-et-Marne. These are grouped in regions which are called The Montagne de Reims, The Vallée de la Marne, The Côte des Blancs and The Côte des Bar.
The principal grapes permitted for the production of Champagne are: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay. Other approved varieties include the white Arbane, Petit Meslier, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris. The choice of grapes will depend on the climate and terroir which leads me to my next topic.
The terroir in Champagne is quite special: it’s the aftermath of an incredible geological formation ( such as landslide of the Parisian basin and Alpine orogeny). As a result, there is a chalky subsoil, which represents a crucial point for the roots of the vines (it allows a perfect drainage of the soil) but also for the wine cellars: the chalk makes a cooling effect for the cellar.
Situated at a northern latitude of 49°N, the Champagne region lies at the northern frontier of the world’s vineyard-growing areas, with cooler average temperatures than any other French wine region. In this kind of cool climate, the growing season is just warm enough to ripen grapes to the levels required for standard winemaking.
Each Champagne has it own style, and that’s why we see different bottles at the market. Champagne styles stand out in their colour, sweetness, dominant grape varieties, and whether their origins come from a single vintage or blend (Non-Vintage). Champagne may be either Blanc de Noirs (made from black-skinned grapes), Blanc de Blancs (made from green-skinned grapes) or just plain Blanc (made from any combination of the permitted varieties). Pink Champagne Rosé is made either by adding red wine to a white blend or sometimes by fermenting the juice in contact with the skins. These types all come with varying degrees of sweetness – not the result of residual sugar, but due to the addition of a dosage just before the wine is finally bottled.
Traditionally, most Champagne on the market has been produced by the larger Champagne houses. They typically source the grapes from independent growers across the region and they blend. As a result, these Champagnes are a regional expression rather than a singular expression of a single-estate. Some of these houses may be already familiar names to you and they include: Moët et Chandon, Bollinger, Krug,Taittinger,Louis Roederer, Mumm, Veuve Clicquot, Piper-Heidsieck and Dom Pérignon.
Then, there is Grower Champagne which is made by the vine growers themselves. This is a style of Champagne that is becoming more popular nowadays. These wines make shine a specific terroir rather than the overall Champagne region. A recent phenomenon, It’s only been in the last couple of decades that growers have been capable to produce this style for themselves, adding a terroir driven dimension to Champagne. Some of my favorite grower Champagnes include Agrapart, Vilmart, Doquet.
Now that you are more familiar with Champagne, I can tell you about my producer that I recently got to know better. Recently, Francis Tribaut, the owner and cellar master of Lallier was in Montreal and I got to taste a pretty good range of their Champagnes available in the Quebec market. The invitation was a courtesy of their importer, Vins Fins ( http://www.sdvf.ca/fr/). Follow below for my favourite picks:
The Lallier family has been in the Champagne business for over 5 generations. Established in Ay, their holdings are in the best vineyards of Champagne ( Grand Cru) . Only 17 villages in Champagne can claim the coveted name of ‘Grand Cru’. Ay was one of the first to obtain it in 1936. Champagne Lallier use only Pinot Noir and Chardonnay for their ‘Grand Cru’ cuvees.
Lallier’s vision of Champagne is to nurture the complex nuances of Champagne ( secondary and tertiary aromas), and not too much on the fruity side. They practice extended elevage sur lattes. This technique concerns only the sparkling wines from Champagne and the Loire Valley. After fermentation, the wine is bottled with a small dose of sugar, so refermentation starts and carbonic gas is produced. The bottles are keep horizontally in wooden slats for a minimum of one year, so the Champagne gets their fine mousse that is so much appreciated for. This technique is required for all types of Champagne. It ranges from 12 months to 3 years for the vintage Champagnes.
The tasting started off with the Lallier Grande Réserve Grand Cru ( SAQ # 11374251, $47.50). Grapes are 65% pinot noir from Ay and Verzenay and 35% chardonnay from Avize and Cramant. Lovely with nuances of pain au levain, pear, roasted barley and hazelnut. Dry, voluminous with flavors of lemon brioche. Crispy and elegant, austere and earthy. Saline taste with a pristine structure. Gorgeous flavors of yellow apples and ground cherries. A gastronomical champagne. Perfect with a seafood platter or rich fish based salads such as couscous with seared tuna.
We continued with the powerful Lallier R012 N-Brut Nature ( Private Import), which has no sugar added.The blend is composed of 62% Pinot Noir and 38% Chardonnay from the 2012 vintage. Mind boggling nose bringing to mind chalk, grated lemon and lime peel.Very saline with a well developed mineral angle reminiscent of seaweed, iodine and soya. Energetic and structured with a nervy acidity. Chiseled and austere finale yet very refreshing Piquant finale. Pair it with charcuterie or smoked salmon. Definitely a must buy case for the Christmas holidays to come.
Off we went after with the Champagne Lallier Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru ( SAQ # 13369106, $50.50), 100% Chardonnay from Ay, this is one of the best Champagnes that money can buy at the SAQ. A peculiar Champagne quite earthy with nuances of white tea, chalk, and lactic nuances such as herbed cream cheese. In addition, ripe pineapple as well. Quite austere with a pronounced mineral profile. It actually feels like crumbling in your mouth. Very aerial and fine with marvelous power and concentration. A citric finale bringing to mind escabeche. Pair it with poultry cream dishes or pastas with cheese sauces.
Last but not least was the Lallier Vintage 2008 ( Private Import) was enticing with notes of Brioche ( Panettone), dry tropical fruits ( passion fruit, white grapefruit) and green apple. Dry and structured. Very elegant and quite smooth. Pairing perfectly on its own.
Disclaimer: Information for this article was sourced from the Comité Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne ( https://www.champagne.fr/en/) and Wine Folly ( www.winefolly.com). If you want to get more information or procure some of Lallier private imports bottle, please contact: Marguerite Aghaby, Vins Fins L’Agence, (438) 821-9971.