Sweeping vineyard landscapes dotted by fairytale hamlets. Chalk caves. Ethereal wines. Visiting the Champagne region of France is a dream come true. We have appointments at Champagne houses, large to small. Now that I’m here, I’m realizing tiny grower-producer Champagne is what all savvy locals drink. Producers I’ve never heard of. And some I thought I knew.
‘Grower Champagne’ is sparkling wine from that region that is both grown and produced by the same folks. Large Champagne houses (maisons) must buy grapes from many growers to meet massive quotas. Growers have their own set of hurdles. And, distinct advantages. One is the ability to offer us adventurous and industrious oenophiles a singular, memorable experience: sharing their story and incredible wines on an intimate level, the way I enjoy wine the most.
We arrive just before our 10AM tasting and winery tour, wandering around the walled estate–likely entering areas we’re not allowed. I snap a few photos and check my phone; It’s time. The ancient house’s doors open.
“Welcome to Gaston Chiquet. I’m so glad you could make it. We’ve been looking forward to your visit.” says our smiling guide, who treats us like we’re long-lost friends. And, we are: we’ve been enjoying GC wines for years. What we didn’t know: they produce a variety of delicious wines, and have been since 1746. Twenty years before the United States was born? Whoa.
We quickly tour the house, hear more history, then move onto their production facilities.
Everything is immaculate in the winery. Stainless steel gleams in massive halls. As big as it all seems, it’s tiny by comparison to large, well-known Champagne houses. Those houses produce vast quantities, yet GC is quite happy not to. Presses are small, so they’re gentle. Vineyards are small, so they’re manageable. That translates to the wines.
Descending below the house, temp drops and humidity rises. Dim lights. Cobwebs. Mold. It’s surprising how petit their cellar is. Wines are lovingly stacked, with numbered signs above lots. Contrary to some thinking, mold regulates conditions in cellars, keeping humidity levels favorably constant.
I spy a few dusty bottles with labels–rare for the cellar: 1996 “Special Club”? Oh my. That must be pretty tasty.
We file through the bottling and shipping areas, and it’s explained how important and expensive the piece of machinery in front of us is: the bottler. Its complex of gears, doors, belts and buttons remind me of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. It makes noises as it shoots quick bursts of compressed air into awaiting capsules which are then vacuum-sealed onto each bottle. Slick.
Back at the house, we move into the parlor: a cozy, antique-studded room complete with persian rug and carved walnut furniture. Our tiny group settles into the velvet-covered settee and matching chairs, while our guide prepares wines for tasting.
Though GC produces eight different bottlings, we’re tasting the crème de la crème. We start with their Premier Cru non-vintage brut “Tradition” (multi-vintage, 40% Pinot Meunier, 35% Chardonnay and 25% Pinot Noir), a clean, crisp style. Delightful.
We move on to Grand Cru non-vintage brut “Blanc de Blancs d’Aÿ” (multi-vintage, 100% Chardonnay), showing much more minerality, complexity and persistence. Impressive.
Next, non-vintage brut “Cuvée de Réserve” (multi-vintage, 40% Pinot Meunier, 35% Chardonnay, 25% Pinot Noir) is rich and luscious, also having great persistence. Damn.
Then, Premier Cru brut 2005 (60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay), showing even more richness, yet lightness. Ummm. I might need a moment.
We finish with the dazzling Grand Cru brut 2007 “Spécial Club” (70% Chardonnay and 30% Pinot Noir). Only winegrowers belonging to the “Club Trésors de Champagne” may produce a “Spécial Club” cuvée, and each must pass rigorous testing from fellow members to be awarded the “Spécial Club” moniker and bottle. Very special indeed.
Pours are generous, without pretense. Information and time are freely shared, and no question is dumb. We linger over open bottles while our guide tallies orders. I am shocked by the affordability of such high quality wines. I want to buy cases. Except we’re traveling again in a couple days, so extra bulk and weight are unwanted. I cannot leave without buying something–It’s just too delicious to pass up. A few minutes later, our purchases are custom boxed and labeled, and we are bid bon voyage. I am humbled by the experience, especially after we visit other houses and see the differences.
Evening comes, and we’re too tired to go out for dinner. “We’ve got that magnum of 2005 Blanc de Blancs d’Aÿ.” A picnic dinner in the courtyard of our hotel is a welcome shift from dining out. And the wine is amazing.
I highly recommend anyone who enjoys Champagne try grower Champagne. Get to know the producer and their wines. Visit. Taste and tour–You’ll be richly rewarded by quality, value, and sincerity.