It’s the end of the year again and champagne is the topic du moment. Wine writers are compiling their lists of go-to champagnes and champagne buying tips while partygoers-to-be are standing in store aisles with their freshly-read champagne knowledge poring over labels in search of an RM code or a vintage year (but really only interested in knowing whether or not those bubbles inside are dry and toasty).
While we are happy to oblige with the requisite list of our favorite champagnes, we pose the question: “Why limit yourself to drinking champagne only once a year?” For champagne is one of the most flexible food pairing wines and most refreshing aperitifs. There are even some who say drinking champagne every day (three glasses nonetheless!) can prevent losing your mind to dementia or Alzheimers, though we suspect anyone who is in a position to drink three glasses of champagne per day has so little stress in his or her life the relationship with champagne might not be causative. Champagne can and should be drunk at any time of day and for any occasion. Napoleon famously said "In victory you deserve champagne, in defeat you need it" while Coco Chanel quipped "I only drink champagne on two occasions: when I'm in love and when I'm not."
This list is more than your compulsory New Year’s Eve Champagne List; consider it a call to explore more of what many consider the paragon of winemaking. Why not make your New Year’s resolution to drink more champagne! With this as your goal we guarantee your 2017 will far outshine your 2016, though given the circumstances it will likely improve regardless.
With a wine whose success can be attributed as much to commercial and political forces as to its high quality, it’s no surprise champagne buyers often gravitate toward the big Champagne houses that have a long legacy and a big advertising budget. Large multinational corporations and luxury brands have bought out many of the bigger Champagne houses, some of them with lucrative labels like Veuve Clicquot and Dom Perignon named after brave (the former, the first woman to ever run a Champagne house) and selfless (the latter, a monk) individuals (anyone else see the irony here?) who were pivotal in making champagne what it is today. However, there is a “new wave” of champagne making in which grape growers in are producing and bottling their own wines rather than selling their fruit to big houses.
True to our mission at Henry & Son, the following list of champagnes showcases winemakers who embrace traditional practices but don’t necessarily eschew innovation as long as it doesn’t harm the land or the people who care for it. Like all the champagnes we sell, these champagnes are terroir driven wines produced by vignerons who work in the vineyard without the use of chemicals or pesticides. These winemakers all have a long family history of winemaking – one vigneron is a 12th generation winemaker! All of them are producing wines with integrity and character. Of course, this list is not exhaustive - there are many other champagnes we have and love that did not make the list - we had to select just a few examples, each with something unique or particularly representative of its region or style.
Tarlant Champagne Zero Brut Nature NV | Oeuilly, Valle de la Marne | Chardonnay, Pinot meunier, Pinot noir $49.99
The Tarlant family has a rich and important position in the history of Champagne. The Tarlants have been growing grapes in the region since 1687, first in Aisne and later in Oeuilly, where the Tarlant house is today. At the turn of the 20th century, when many Champagne growers were importing fruit from other countries and manipulating wines with heavy doses of sugars and syrups, Louis Tarlant was one of the leaders in what is known as the Champagne Revolution. This movement resulted in the creation of the AOC (appellation d’origine controlée), a system designed to protect Champagne growers and buyers alike by providing strict regulations around methods of production and the sourcing of materials that exists to this day.
Current vigneron Benoit Tarlant is a 12th-generation Champagne maker. The Valle de La Marne, the sub-appellation where Tarlant is located, has extremely diverse terroir; Benoit alters his biodynamic growing practices for each individual parcel of land using the microclimate, soil, and grapes as his guide. This specificity and rigor makes Tarlant’s terroir driven wines shine.
The Zero Brut Nature is Tarlant’s signature champagne. This wine is made of equal parts Chardonnay, Pinot noir, and Pinot meunier – the Champagne trinity. Following the tradition started by Benoit’s father Jean-Mary, it is non-dosage, meaning there is no sugar added, a unique approach to Champagne growing that is slowly gaining popularity. It has a golden hue with hints of green and a nose with notes of beeswax, citrus fruits, and honey. It is citrusy, fresh, and dry with minerality that reflects the sand, chalk, and limestone terroir.
Piollot Colas Robin | Polisot, Aube | Blanc de blanc (100% pinot blanc) $62.99
Roland Piollot is the 5th generation of Piollots making wine in the Aube. His father was extremely dedicated to his work in the vineyards and Rolland has taken up the torch. The vineyards are organically farmed and he is converting his practices to biodynamic. The Colas Robin vines are planted on limestone and red clay slopes overlooking the Seine with a wonderful exposure to sunlight that allows the grapes to ripen beautifully.
It is unusual to see a Blanc de blanc made from 100% Pinot blanc, though it is one of the four white grapes allowed in champagne (along with Chardonnay, Petit meslier and Arbane). Once you have tried this Blanc de Pinot blanc you will be searching for more wines like it. It has a light golden hue and fine bubbles with spice and citrus aromas and a savory balanced palate. Like all of Piollot’s wines, it is elegant and quaffable with enough complexity to keep you smelling and sipping all night.
Marguet Père et Fils Shaman 12 Grand Cru Brut NV | Ambonnay and Bouzy, Montagne de Reims | 70% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot noir $64.99
Fifth-generation winemaker Benoit Marguet has farmed 8 hectares in two Grand Cru villages, Ambonnay and Bouzy, biodynamically since 2009 and his wines carry the Demeter certification (of biodynamics). His vineyards are planted to about half Pinot noir (58%) and half Chardonnay (42%) and the vines are about 40 years old, on average. Benoit uses two horses to work his vineyards and in the cellar he uses only indigenous yeasts and no sulfur. His all-natural wines are great with food or on their own. We challenge you to find a better Grand Cru champagne at this price.
Champagne Fleury Fleur de L’Europe NV | Courteron, Aube | 85% Pinot noir, 15% Chardonnay | $76.99
The Fleury family has been making Champagne for over a century. They began as grape growers and their viticultural practices are the foundation of their wine making. Their rich history highlights some of what makes their wines so unique.
At the turn of the century, Emil Fleury was the first grower to replant Pinot noir grapes after phylloxera – the virtually microscopic pest that feeds on the roots and leaves of grapevines - ravaged Champagne’s vines. In 1929, the family decided to start bottling their own wine – a rarity for Champagne growers. In the 1970s, Jean-Pierre Fleury grew concerned with the environmental impact of pesticides and began experimenting with biodynamic growing practices. 3 years later, he had converted the entire estate.
These principles continue to guide the Fleury estate. They believe that maintaining the health of the soils is what creates great terroir and great wine. The clay and limestone soils give the Fleur de L’Europe wine a beautiful minerality. Notes of crushed flowers, baked apples and pears invigorate the nose. The palate tastes of toasty, grilled bread, almonds and marzipan; its long, clean, acidic finish creates balance. This wine has character, complexity and a rich history at a price point that cannot be beat.
Ulysse Collin Les Pierrieres Extra Brut Blanc de Blanc Champagne NV | Congy, Valle De la Marne | Blanc de blancs (Chardonnay) $99.99
Ulysse Collin had to fight to get back control of his family vines after they were rented out in the 90s. He studied law to reclaim his vines and he apprenticed in Avize with Anselme Selosse, the father of the “new wave” of Champagne practices which focuses on grower-produced Champagne that pays homage to a healthy terroir, to learn more about wine. Under Selosse’s tutelage, Collin shifted his focus to organic and biodynamic grape growing and terroir driven wines with little intervention. He now applies these principles using the vines he eventually reclaimed in the early 2000s.
Though not certified organic or biodynamic, Ulysse incorporates as much of this into his grape growing as possible as he grows the company and continues to purchase the equipment he needs to work the vines as he would like to. He harvests his grapes late in the season when they are very ripe and subsequently uses very little dosage (1-2 grams). He only uses native yeasts.
This wine is a juicy and fruity Blanc de blanc made with 100% Chardonnay. This full-bodied wine is juicy and fruity with notes of tropical fruits and citrus, a subtle smokiness, hints of vanilla resulting from the use French oak barrels while aging, and a chalky minerality from Collin’s unusual terroir of chalk and black silex. It is structured and has a dry finish.
Bérêche et Fils has gained a cult following – and with good reason. Their domaine was founded in 1847. The vignerons, Raphael and Vincent Bérêche, learned winemaking from their father; they are curious and experimental and continue to push the envelope when making their sensational wines.
In order to maintain the health of their soils they stopped using herbicides in 2003 and returned to manual labor. They are moving towards fully biodynamic practices on all of their land. They have a disproportionate number of staff working the land to ensure that the grapes are of the highest possible quality.
The Reflet D’Antan is their crown jewel. This wine is the typical triumvirate of equal parts Pinot noir, Chardonnay and Pinot meunier. What makes this wine so special is that this mélange is drawn from solera barrels begun in 1985 by their father. The solera process indicates an ongoing cuvée; each year they draw off two-thirds of the barrel and replace it with the latest vintage giving the wine more consistency. It begets a wine that is rich and complex with lift, texture and depth. It is soft and smooth with a buttery richness and a sweet apple nose. Notes of vanilla bean and a fuller body are the result of oak aging. This is the most supple, rich and luxurious of our champagne selections. It would be a great companion to a cheese platter or even as a digestif.
Surprise everyone this New Year’s with a unique champagne that in and of itself is worthy of a celebration!