French Wine Tour 2014 - June 10

June 10

There was no doubt today was going to be exceptional; visiting two of the finest Champagne Maisons in the one day. Our first appointment was Louis Roederer whose production facilities, caves, warehousing, offices and family house were all variously located within a few hundred metres of each other in the city of Reims. Our coach was not required as it took our group just 15-20 minutes to walk through the streets of Reims to our appointment where we were greeted and ushered into the reception area.For the next 20-minutes we were presented with a brief overview of the 238-year history of this fabulous Champagne producer. Commencing in 1776 it remains a family owned Maison to this day, which is clearly evident in its business philosophies, entrenched family workplace culture and the pride of its employees. Their history is well worth a read (too much for me to discuss in this blog as it would expand in to a slightly cut down version of War & Peace) and I suggest you log onto the Louis Roederer website if you would like to familiarise yourself.

As we left the reception lounge and descended into the cellars and caves the winemaking philosophy of Louis Roederer unfolded and it was clear to understand why the Champagne of this Maison is so exceptional and its reputation so exalted. They have approximately 7km of underground caves housing around 12-million bottles (production of the Premier Brut Cuvee is circa 3-million bottles per year (1/8th of that of Moet & Chandon and roughly 1/5th of Veuve Clicquot) and their famous prestige cuvee ‘Cristal' around 400,000 bottles per vintage (Dom Perignon is rumoured to be around 6-million) and is only produced in excellent vintages. The fundamental to Louis Roederer's undoubted quality (voted finest Champagne producer in the world in 2013) is the massive holdings of reserve cuvee (the equivalent of more than 1-milion bottles of base table wine ageing on lees in large wooden vats in their cellars), which enables them to add a minimum 20% of reserve cuvee to the Premier Brut NV (even more in lesser vintages as required) to deliver exceptional quality and maintain a true and consistent house style. Exiting the caves we visited the bottling hall where as if on cue they were bottling Magnums and Methuselahs for secondary ferment and ageing in cellars (nothing quite like large format bottles to get a group of wine lovers excited). Our final obligation at the cellars was to taste the new release 2007 vintage of Louis Roederer and I can say it was one of the most superb obligations I have ever had (French regularly refer to doing things as an obligation).

We then ambled two streets away to the Louis Roederer family house for a group luncheon with Export Director Frederick Heidsieck and Export Area Manager Thierry Wallaert. Still undergoing extensive external renovations the inside is complete and is a superb representation of the period. After a brief get to know each other over a glass of the Premier Brut served from magnum (prefer to serve from magnum at lunches/dinners as the Champagne develops more richness and fullness in magnum over time) we adjourned to the dining room (a beautiful room) to be seated for lunch. I was seated directly across from Frederick Heidsieck, a larger than life character whose presence and humour filled the room and alongside me was the charming McKenzie Paton (daughter of Clive & Phyl Paton – owners of Ata Rangi in Martinborough); McKenzie had been studying history in the UK and had come down from Paris by train to tag on the back of our group visit to Louis Roederer and we're delighted she did. It was her first visit to a Champagne House and there could be no more compelling experience to help her understand the passion of our industry that drove and still drives her parents to craft wines of excellence.

The lunch was exquisite; with a 1st course of Tartellet aux Petits Langoustines (small tart with prawns in a delicious dressing), 2nd course of Filet de Turbot Feves et Girolles (delicious filet of Turbot fish with mashed potato, local mushrooms and beans) and a 3rd course ofMacaron Aux Framboises
Et Son Sorbet (fresh raspberries and gorgeous raspberry ice-cream set on a delicious biscuit base).

The courses were accompanied in order by the incomparable 2002 Cristal served from magnum (from a 10/10 vintage it rated 99/100 and is one of the greatest Champagne experiences I have ever had), extraordinary generosity by our hosts. The Brut Rose 2008 was served from magnums with the Turbot fish and the Porto Vintage 1995 of De Ramos Pinto, with the raspberry dessert extravagance.

Louis Roederer owns several wine estates in France plus the De Ramos Port house in Portugal. With the selection of cheeses a 2008 Bordeaux Cabernet dominant red from Château de Pez (the estate is located in St. Estephe on the left bank of Bordeaux) was poured to enhance the Plateau de Fromages (platter of cheeses); it had perfect ripeness with a cool elegance and was concentrated with black fruit, herbs, spices and typical Bordeaux complexities; the mouth feel was both grainy and velvety. Needless to say I immediately received inquiries from group members as to whether I could secure this wine for their cellars. The Port was aged and seductive and surprisingly to me was a perfect suitor to the sweet tanginess of the decadent raspberry dessert. Two and a half hours went all too quickly given we were all so engaged with the place, our gregarious hosts, the delicious (as good as it gets) cuisine and the mesmerising wines of the house. On behalf of our group Rex Howe gave a superb thank you speech to our hosts, which truly befitted the occasion. What a stunning visit it had been and as we bade Frederick and Thierry farewell and sauntered back through the streets of Reims to our hotel for a brief freshen in readiness for our afternoon/evening appointment at Champagne Billecart- Salmon. I'm sure the locals might have wondered who were these animated alien visitors carrying gifts of Louis Roederer and oblivious to all around them.

Afternoon visit to Billecart- Salmon

Billecart-Salmon are located in the village like Champagne town of Mareuil-sur-Ay one hour's drive from Reims. As usual our driver Herve had us at the gates perfectly on time where we were greeted by Jérôme LAFOUGE. After a brief introduction Jérôme had us fitted out with safety glasses (a health & safety requirement when visiting the caves in the event of exploding bottles) and setting off on a tour of the Maison's grape reception, oak fermentation cellars, tank rooms, caves and the very special 1-hectare ‘Clos Saint Hilairre' vineyard abutting the winery facilities. It was planted in 1964 with 100% Pinot Noir grapes with the consideration of supply to their famous Rosé Champagne. However when the vintage permits, (only 3-times in its history) a single Clos Champagne is made, the most recent of these being from 1998.

Jérôme proved a very informed and articulate host whose humour spiced delivery increased in frequency throughout our visit; no doubt prompted by light-hearted quips from our group led by Royce Everett in particular. It took little time for Jérôme to discern that our FWD Co. group were well informed and genuinely interested visitors… and his respect and treatment mirrored that as the tour progressed.

Clearly Billecart-Salmon have invested heavily in buildings and equipment over the last decade and their individualised philosophy to Champagne production is reflected in their unique house style. Prolonged cool ferments and the use of cold stabilisation all add time and expense to the process but are well worth the investment when you experience the complex floral notes and delicate freshness of their Brut Reserve NV which is aged approximately 4-years on lees (appellation requirement is only 15-months). Their underground cellars crisscross for 3km directly under the surrounding buildings and roads and were manmade for the purpose; as opposed to the chalk caves of Reims, which were a by-product of the Romans mining chalk to construct buildings.

After completing the tour we arrived back in the Maison reception lounge to be served with a glass of Billecart-Salmon Reserve Brut NV and nibbles. Soon thereafter we were joined by 6th generation family member Antoine ROLLAND-BILLECART who hosted us for the next two hours while we experienced the full range of Champagnes from the house; the Vintage 2004, Blanc de Blancs 2004, Nicholas Françoise Prestige Cuvee 2004, Brut Sous Bois NV (entirely vinified in old Burgundy barrels), finishing with the legendary NV Rose Champagne that is served by the glass at 21 of the 23 Michelin restaurants in Paris. All the while a seemingly endless procession of Hors d'oeuvres were offered and although the servings were small and varied to match the diverse offering of Champagne they soon mounted in volume and we eventually hand to put our hands up in surrender to their generous hospitality.

Cathy MacKinlay gave an impassioned thank you speech to Antoine (including a partial delivery in French) commenting on the generous hospitality and also asking him to pass on our appreciation to Jérôme who had “earlier left for a date”, to quote Antoine. We were walked to the coach and bade a fond farewell and extracted a promise from Antoine to come to FWD Co. later in 2014 and present a Billecart-Salmon Champagne evening to our customers; we will advise of the dinner opportunity later in October.It was almost an hour's drive back to our hotel in Reims and I think most of us closed our eyelids for some time and with Herve's fine driving and the smoothness of our new Mercedes coach that was easy to do. Everyone headed straight for their rooms, not requiring anymore Champagne and ready for a deep sleep in anticipation of our free day in Beaune tomorrow.