There’s nothing quite like Champagne. Sure, there are plenty of fizzy wines out there, but sometimes only Champagne will do. As Lily Bollinger once famously said "I only drink Champagne when I'm happy, and when I'm sad. Sometimes I drink it when I'm alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I am not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it - unless I'm thirsty".
You have to be careful though because it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of being blinded by branding. Champagne is dominated by several big names (which will no doubt be familiar) yet a drive through the Montagne de Reims or a short detour off the main D3 along the Vallée de la Marne will reveal dozens of smaller producers making Champagne on a much smaller scale. Hidden from view are also hundreds of simple grape growers who do nothing else than concentrate on the viticulture of their land and who sell their entire harvest to larger players.
It’s worth seeking out the producers who see the whole process through from start to finish. They tend their own land, grow their own grapes and make their own wines. Look for the letters “RM” in front of some numbers on the bottom of the label, they stand for Recoltant Manipulant and mean that the chap who grew the grapes also made the wine. “NM” stands for Negiociant Manipulant, where the grapes have largely been bought in from smaller growers.
I passed through the Champagne region a couple of years ago on the way back from a family holiday in the Dordogne for a pre-arranged visit to Champagne Lallier in the village of Ay – a small set up employing about a dozen people. Though they buy some grapes in from other growers, Lallier only make Champagnes from grapes grown on Premier Cru and Grand Cru designated vineyard sites. Their quality is exceptional.
|JW and son at Champagne Lallier in 2011
More recently I visited Rasselet Pere et Fils based in the tiny village of Oeuilly (say it as if you’re The Fonz and you’ll be pretty close) a small family firm run by Joel Rasselet and his wife Edwige whose Champagnes we have shipped direct for many years.
|Joel & Edwige Rasselet with JW in May 2013
Sue and I were well looked after and following a tour, tasting and lunch Joel and Edwige dropped us off back in Epernay at the cellars of Mercier where we did the Mercier cellar tour and tasting. At Mercier you pay for this of course; such tours are big business. The experience itself is worthwhile – a video presentation, a descent by panoramic lift into their 18km of cellars followed by a tour on a laser-guided train, all accompanied by a succession of multi-lingual fashion models…. The trouble is that after all that the tasting at the end is a bit of a let down. Certainly Mercier Champagne is acceptable enough, but there is no depth of flavour, no concentration and just a hint that you’re tasting something that’s been rather rushed to market. To be fair, you could claim that this is in keeping with the aspirations of their founder, Eugene Mercier, whose dream it was to make Champagne accessible to a wider audience. Fair enough I suppose, but unless the drink is as memorable as the tour, why would they buy it again?
This is where the smaller producers like Lallier and Rasselet win. They don’t put you on laser-guided trains, or try and sell you tea towels and baseball caps so you can advertise their brand for them, they simply put a quality product, made with skill and dedication, in a glass in front of you and let you make up your own mind. The care and dedication to quality always shows through. The only variable is you of course, and whether you are able to see beyond the brand names…
The good news is that if you are able to recognise the similarity between the Emperor’s New Clothes and the big branded champagnes it will save you some money too. On our recent trip to Epernay my wife and I paid more for a bottle of one of the well-known brands in a slightly scruffy bar (all they had and it was €57 – acceptable “mais rien especial”, the frites were free….) than we did for a bottle of Lallier Grande Reserve Grand Cru (€45) in a small local restaurant that served up one of the best meals we have had in recent years (if you want to know more about this restaurant just ask me and I’ll give you the details).
Equally, wandering round the Eurotunnel terminal at Calais on our return journey I spotted Veuve Clicquot NV at about the same price as the multiples offer it in the UK (free of duty perhaps, but not free of big fat greedy profit margin it would seem). For about a fiver less (more if the Clicquot isn’t on offer – though it usually is – draw your own conclusions…) Rasselet Brut Reserve sits on our shelves at £27 which makes it both cheaper and better than the celebrity labels and, if entertaining or giving it as a present, also shows a degree of effort on your part too since you have unearthed something relatively unfamiliar rather than lazily bought the one that gets sprayed over Sebasian Vettel every couple of weeks…
Joel Rasselet doesn’t make vast quantities of Champagne but what he does make is great value for money. He has customers in France, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, Holland and Italy though we are the only people bringing his Champagne into the UK. Last year he sold his surplus production to Veuve Clicquot which may tell you all you need to know. After all, that’s the bit he didn’t want…