The New Spring in Champagne
April is a fantastic month for those of us who are professionally involved with champagne. It’s when the Printemps des Champagnes takes place in Reims, where more than 20 winemakers’ associations present their wines in tastings and specialised masterclasses. The audience is largely composed of wine importers, journalists, sommeliers, wine traders and bloggers from all over the world. The perfect setting to experience recent evolutions in Champagne firsthand!
The Girls are Back
Famous widows such as Lily Bollinger, Barbe-Nicole Clicquot and Louise Pommery played an important role in Champagne in the 19th and early 20th century. Many of them stood at the cradle of innovations in the field of vinification, production capacity, sales and marketing. Still, in the past 80 or so years, Champagne often seemed an all-male bastion, with only a handful of female cellar masters in the champagne houses, and a minority of wineries with a woman in charge.
But this is changing. More and more champagne women are stepping forward as confident innovators, as competent custodians of family traditions, as essential links in a wine-growing or production team, or as strong captains of their own champagne ship. To name but a few of my favourites: Agnès Corbon, Colette Bonnet, Françoise Bedel, Geneviève & Sophie Cossy, Géraldine Lacourte, Laurence Michez, Marie Doyard, Marie-Hélène Waris-Larmandier, Marie Loriot, Ophélie Lamiable, Sabine Godmé and of course the brave Fa’Bulleuses de Champagne and last but not least the 10 strong ladies of La Transmission, Femmes en Champagne.
The average age of the people in front of the tasting tables as well as those behind, continues to decrease. Champagne is not / no longer a drink just for mature and established folk – it’s a glass (or bottle) full of concentrated happiness for a wide range of people. Fully in line with this, new generations of winemakers are making their mark and experiment with new – or old, almost forgotten – wine-making techniques. Champagne without added sulphites; spontaneous fermentation with indigenous yeasts; vinification or ageing in oak (or other) barrels or egg-shaped tanks in different materials; revaluation of the grape varieties Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Arbane and Petit Meslier; and continuing to aim for well-crafted low or no-dosage champagnes (Extra Brut or Brut Nature). A few of the many young winemakers to watch: Aurélie & Loïc Barrat-Masson, Benoit Velut, Cyril Bonnet, Etienne Calsac, the Legras brothers, Julien & Sarah Launois and Sébastien Crucifix.
Oaked Champagnes and Cheese
Last year I already wrote about the food and wine pairings we got to taste at the Printemps of 2018. So this year we were on a hunt for more surprises and even more inspiration. This lead us to the “Champagne and Cheese” masterclass organised by the Cercle des Créateurs de Champagnes Confidentiels, an association of vignerons, who all make champagnes in oak barrels created by the Tonnellerie de Champagne.
Oak-aged champagnes often create a division among wine lovers and sommeliers. Some vehemently dislike them, and once and a while you run into people who consider them an absolute abomination. I myself love oaked champagnes, providing the wood has been used with sensitivity and skill. Good examples tend to come into their own after minimum a few years in the cellar, when the spicy, toasted notes of the wood have become interwoven and are layered with mature champagne aromas, such as gingerbread spices, mocha, mushrooms, almonds, honey and candied fruit. Many of these deep and rich flavours also occur in good vintage champagnes, like the gorgeous examples we tasted at AR Lenoble and the old cuvees from Pierre Gimonnet & Fils, Charles Heidsieck and Mailly Grand Cru that were served and discussed in the superb Grands Champagnes by Jeangeorges masterclasses.
It’s this nutty, spicy, fruity and earthy character that often matches well with goat’s and sheep’s cheeses, or with cow’s milk cheeses such as langres, laguiole or parmesan. I won’t go into further details about cheese and champagne pairings here, but I promise I’ll devote an entire article to the topic in the near future.
As always, with food and wine pairings: have fun experimenting! 🙂