THE authority responsible for safeguarding Champagne’s name and quality turns 70 this year. Founded by producers in 1941 in response to Germany’s impolite ransacking of much of the area’s 280kms of cellars, the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC) exists on an annual budget of 20m Euros. This is raised from bottle tax levied on producers obliged to join. Although a major aspect of the CIVC’s role is to ensure ‘Champagne’ is only applied to traditional method sparkling wine from the region rather than deceitfully promoted £10 spring water for domestic animals, Norwegian orange juice or even Kiwi soap, the body devotes much time to innovation. According to PR head Philippe Wibrotte, in response to environmental concerns (the region gained an average 1.4 degrees Celsius over 40-years) the CIVC cut carbon emissions by 7% by simply deploying a lighter bottle. By skimming shoulders the shed 75g brings the most popular 75cl format to 835g.
10 years-on from the devastating attacks of 9/11 which I recall watching unfold on a pull-down screen in an Epernay café, I return to Champagne’s gently undulating chalk plains to meet a quad of lesser known producers. Most have already picked grapes in what proves a particularly early harvest. Herewith a précis.
Jean-Hervé doesn’t know we’re coming resulting in a Venn diagram of tours, one of which takes in grape pressing to piped Simon and Garfunkel. Of most interest to me is the end of harvest barbecue, preparations of which are underway despite a fierce wind. Following tour two with Hervé, dishevelled chain smoker head of the 1798 house, we eat a trough of peasant lasagne and wan, dun crème brûlée in sight of rotting terracotta lions. I sneak a peek at Herve’s clock collection after as my stomach heaves, which includes some retro examples. Ironic is this interest considering timing and organisation’s clearly not his forte. Unlike the majority of producers, Hervé labels his wines with numbers, almost like upmarket car brands. Even mature wines seem youthful and tightly coiled.
Marie-Noëlle adorns her long, deliberately distressed table with ripe Chardonnay grapes and a wedding gift Alessi bowl of white bread. With direct, flinty Blanc de Blancs she serves moist salt marsh lamb terrine then Blanc de Noirs with three hour stewed boeuf bourguignon. Despite her enthusiastic attempts to match food with wine, the wine of course is a casualty. Harvest cheese Maroilles is served cool – ‘because it’s dangerous if it warms’ she says. An hour of ‘oenovasion’ follows. A branded 4x4 driven by Marie’s husband Nicolas prowls an old railway track then stirringly steep slope to an eccentric lighthouse landmark turned museum.
Champagne Paul-Goerg, Vertus
Appealing Adelaide’s the most immediately memorable aspect of Paul-Goerg, an uncompromisingly modern, almost civic looking plant run by Jean-Philippe Moulin, formerly of Ruinart. Having taken us through his deft range which includes a phenomenally well made coffee scented ’04 Brut and a sadly corked bottle of a line he’s making for Barons de Rothschild we segue to dinner in Epernay. Situated at the start or finish of the L’Avenue de Champagne, Brasserie La Banque dishes out steak tartare wet with ketchup. I get into an argument with Moulin about the rubbish fodder he’s subjecting me to, to which he replies that most restaurants in the area only stock labels that pay to be stocked, and this is now one of the few exceptions that buy on merit. It seems that when mean producers try to spend, the result is actually meaner. The harvest barbecue feels more than ever an inspiring alternative.
As well as making wine, gourmet Laurence lets five rooms of her home, hall of which is patterned with intricate, rust coloured paper. Her cellars are immaculate – cleanliness and tidiness are disciplines instilled in her when working as chef in Canada and Germany. But there’s only so much winemaking paraphernalia a man can take. Overlooking her chickens, one of which survived being plucked by a dog, and remnants of geraniums, her flagship Liess d’Harbonville ’96 proves the wine of the trip. Poised and authored, it gently gains courage in a wide glass as it warms. Compared to our accommodation, a grim Best Western with shockingly shoddy kitchens on which the CIVC spares no expense of their 20m Euros, Florence’s house is charming. Her husband’s presentation of melon, lobster, honey vinaigrette and peppercorns, then turbot and sweet shredded native oyster sauce – is the best food I’ve had in France for a very long time.