After a year of cancellations, rearrangements and rebookings, we finally made it to Champagne… albeit without Peter. In a whirlwind four-day round trip, Sip co-founder, Daniel Blatchford and I managed to cover off many portions of the Marne, Côte des Blancs and even the Montagne de Reims, meeting 9 producers and sampling some 40 wines along the way. Here’s a snapshot of where we went, who we met and what we learnt…
Day 1: Wed 1st Sep – Leaving London
A couple of hours’ drive followed by a remarkably smooth Eurotunnel check-in saw us arrive in France by early afternoon, with just the right amount of time to make it into the heart of Champagne for our pre-booked antigen test. The thrills of travelling during Covid times!
An evening meal in renowned Épernay establishment, Sacre Bistro, was our reward for a day in the car. We struggled to decide on a bottle to sample from the super extensive Champagne list which, I’m pleased to say, was chock full of Sip favourites. Ably assisted by Peter Crawford via WhatsApp, we settled on a superb single vineyard wine from rising star, Elise Bougy. After a couple of sips it was evident that her wines would sit comfortably in our collection. Watch this space!
Day 2: Thu 2nd Sep – The Vallée de la Marne
We had lined up three new producers to visit today, but ended up popping in to see a Sip stalwart as well.
First on the list was André Heucq, in the village of Cuisles. As André’s English was patchy and our French was probably worse, we relied on his daughter, Fanny, to translate via speakerphone. Wandering over to his adjacent vineyard, we discovered how the wretched weather of 2021 and, in particular, a wet June and July had caused such extensive mildew across André's crop, that he is unable to harvest anything this year. Sadly, it was a theme we heard repeated by producers across the Marne valley. On a more positive note, we were able to glean a great deal of information about his biodynamic philosophy of earth, wind, water and fire, and also found out about a cuvée he producers which is immersed and aged for 12 months in the English channel! But more on that another time.
After visiting André we headed down to the village of Damery on the bank of the Marne river for a spot of lunch with Caillez Lemaire. It was great to catch up with Laurent and Virginie who are among the first ever producers we brought on and also two of the nicest people you’re ever likely to meet. If you’ve never tried a bottle by Caillez Lemaire, it’s a must! Their Champagnes are unlike anything else and really pair well with food, which is just as well, as we were treated to local terrines, cheeses and even patisserie. Our only regret was that we couldn’t stay longer!
Heading west, our next stop was with Geoffrey Delouvin, the young producer taking care of his father’s longstanding operation, Delouvin-Nowack, whilst also striking out with his own style of Champagne under the label, Famille Delouvin. Geoffrey discussed the challenges of breaking from his father’s time-honoured methods to experiment with new techniques and expressions. This conflict between old and new was something we heard more than once from the new wave of growers, who are breaking the mould and revolutionising the Champagne world. Geoffrey also treated us to some displays of à la volée in the courtyard to sample his new cuvées alongside a couple of finished products that currently line the Sip shelves (albeit with different base years). His Semper Fidelis made with 50% solera was a particular favourite.
Heading across the river, our final visit was another winemaker taking on his father’s production, in the form of Xavier Leconte, whilst also building his own personal brand, under his name, Champagne Alexis. It was clear from the outset that Alexis took his winemaking extremely seriously, with an almost scientific approach to the operation and a palate of precision to match. For instance, he told us how he had stopped branding the bottom of his corks (the portion in contact with the wine) as he found in his older vintages, that the burn on the cork imparted a faint smoke taste to the wine. Needless to say, his wines are precise and exceptional, particularly his Aegius made from Pinot Noir in Ay. One of my personal favourites from the entire trip.
Finishing up as the sun cast long shadows across the valley beneath our vantage point in Troissy, we headed to Épernay for dinner and discussions about an incredible day and what still lay ahead.
Day 3: Fri 3rd Sep – Côte des Blancs
I had been really looking forward to today. A lovely loop around a clutch of incredible villages and some of my favourite producers.
At 9am we knocked upon the cellar door of Peter’s long-term pal, Vincent Legras, of Maison Pierre Legras. Call me boring but I’ve always loved his Coste Beert. It’s a no-nonsense Chardonnay from a Grand Cru and a great price point. What more can you ask for?! Alongside this, however, we were able to sample a host of his other lovely vintages, including the ever-impressive Idee de Voyage 2008 as well as a Rosé from Peter’s personal collection (we did ask permission first!).
A quick hop south (literally 5 mins away) found us at the unassuming door of Pertois Lebrun, in the village of Cramant. Antoine and his brother Clement, hail from the South of France but returned to Champagne to take over the family business a decade or so ago. In this short time they have revolutionised production and continue to boost their yield and expand their operation with every passing year. They own a bounty of wonderful vineyards that pepper the Côte des Blancs and so, perhaps unsurprisingly, they have a real focus on single vineyard wines, and they blow me away every time I taste them! Dan and I got to retry both Le Fond de Bateau and Derrière Le Mont de Aigu, which sat on display alongside a sample of the soil profile demonstrating just how much chalk there is in the Côte des Blancs! We also heard a little more about their new single vineyard wine from the legendary terroir of Les Chetillons. Keep your eyes peeled for that one!
After a spot of lunch and some photos of the never-ending vineyards that sprawl across this region, we made our way into Oger to sit with Marine Zabarino from Domaine Vincey. A young and dynamic couple, Marine and Quentin have a pure organic ‘at one with nature’ approach to their winemaking. Such is their devotion, they spent hours every night for weeks this year hand picking caterpillars from their vines! The couple have grand plans for this Maison and, judging by their wines to date, they can’t come soon enough! Strolling around their empty cellar, was further proof that the world of wine-drinkers has really embraced their products and, sadly, Marine wasn’t even able to offer us a couple of personal bottles of Oger 16 to take away… although we did get our hands on the last three Jeroboams of La Première 15.
Feeling that the day could not be topped, but full of anticipation nonetheless, we headed south to the village of Beaunay, home to Champagne Oudiette. If you were lucky enough to get your hands on the limited number of Les Gras D’Huile we had access to back in Spring 2021 you’ll know what the fuss is about. As Dan and I are so committed to our customers we had, until this point, had to forgo sampling this exceptional cuvée to leave more for you guys! So, as you can imagine, we were more than a little excited when we headed into the tasting room. On first sip, it was everything it had been billed as and more – complex, rich, oh so smooth. It left Dan and I speechless… until he brought out a sample bottle of his new Rosé! Created using an entirely unique process that was begrudgingly sanctioned by the CIVC for a very small number of bottles, it would take me pages to discuss, so that will have to wait for now. All I do know is that 1) Peter is incredibly jealous that Dan and I have tried it before he has 2) we will have a very few of these coming to us in November along with the new Les Gras D’Huile. Are you as excited as we are?!
Another evening in Épernay followed (if it ain’t broke don’t fix it!) and a final night’s rest before one more producer.
Day 4: Sat 4th Sep – Gaspard Brochet & home
Cutting a path through the Montage de Reims we reflected on how much we’d seen, photographed and discussed… but we still had one very important guy to meet before the long drive home.
It’s fair to say that no one in the Sip collection has managed to attain the cult following and dedication to their wines that Gaspard Brochet has. The fact that he’s only a couple of cuvées into his career makes it all the more astonishing. We met a relaxed looking Gaspard outside his father’s operation, Vincent Brochet, in Écueil, which is where Gaspard’s winemaking takes place – currently ensconced in a small, oak-barrel packed room. As per some other producers, Gaspard bemoaned a poor harvest ahead, with likely just 15% of his crops salvageable. Fortunately, he already has plenty of other wines in the pipeline and Dan and I were only too happy to sit down and sample them. Inverted in an antiquated crate were a clutch of bottles ready and waiting to be disgorged. Written in chalk marker, they read: Ane Tome II, Pie Tome II, Lion Tome III and the brand new Écureuil Tome I. Whilst Dan and I can’t profess to appreciate the nuances of Champagne or rate them in the same way Peter can (far few people can!) it was obvious we were dealing with a range of wines that are exciting, thought-provoking and each so different. Disgorging is set for December and release February/March 2022. I know, it just seems so far away right now!
Back in the car again, heading North, we both pledged to return as soon as we possibly can.
Thank you Chris. Really appreciate you getting in touch and so pleased you enjoyed reading the article.
I absolutely loved reading this article – there are very few places to find such enthusiastic and unpretentious detail! I’ve only been around Sip for a short period of time and i’m already loving it here. Thanks for the update! I’m very excited to find out more about Champagne Oudiette’s new unique rose!!