One more tremendous perk of running a fine shop and import operation is the ability, nay obligation, to turn our gaze outward to the rest of the world of wine. Katie and I have started our next journey, catching up with our wonderful wine partners here in France, and hunt for new treasures to add to our portfolio of imports.
We arrive in Paris shortly before dawn, after two very long but uneventful flights. Thankfully the protesters in Hong Kong have avoided closing down the airport and enable our itinerary to start unaltered. At Charles de Gaulle we collect our rental car and hit the road right away to beat the morning traffic. A thin wisp of mist clings to the fields nearby, but the combination of narrow roads, little sleep, and being on the wrong side of the road means concentration in a more linear direction is appropriate.
With surprising ease we escape the nearby hustle and bustle and onto the almost empty roads through Meaux (where the famous Brie comes from) and on to land of one of France’s other famous exports - Champagne. We pass through a number of idyllic villages before we reach the home of many famous Champagne houses.
Epernay presents immediately as charming, it has more character than Rheims where we travelled to in our prior journey - perhaps as a result of the town not being levelled by German artillery in WWI, there are many exquisite buildings from the 1800s and earlier including several grand Chateaux that dominate the Avenue de Champagne. This is where a number of the Grand Marques are based, some grander than others. Moet seems to own half the town, with huge buildings housing administrative blocks and production facilities.
Not far up the road is Champagne de Venoge, a distinguished house founded in 1837, where we stop for a glass of their Blanc de Noir, made from a blend of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Crisp yet rich offering up green plums, black berries, brioche, and yellow apple. Perfect for the warm afternoon sun but in danger of putting us into an early slumber.
Jet lag means an early start the next morning, and fortified with weak French coffee it seems nowhere in France can make a decent latte up to Wellington standard. They can however make a mean pastry or two.
Our first official appointment of the trip takes us south to the Cotes de Blanc, a prestigious sub region of Champagne that produces rich yet elegant wines made from Chardonnay. Serge Gallois is one of our existing partners, producing stunning Blanc de Blanc wines from a modest plot of 5 hectares. In addition they control several sites close to Epernay, however these produce grapes that are blended with that of 9 other families in a co-operative arrangement. We import two wines from owner Frederic - his Premier Cru Blanc de Blanc all from the acclaimed village of Vertus, and his excellent Vintage Blanc de Blanc, made in tiny volumes in particularly good years, in some cases only 1000 bottles are produced like in the outstanding 2008 vintage, an increasing portion of which now arrive in New Zealand.
Frederic generously gave us a full tour of the winery including the cellars and the specialised equipment for riddling and disgorging the wines. He thoughtfully describes the full process from beginning to end, including some technical detail that we were missing.
After that comes a trip to the vineyards - they are just over one week away from picking so the vines are full of fruit, albeit a significantly lower volume due to early frost damage, combined with extreme heat that has shriveled many of the bunches on the vines. Despite that, assuming that there is not high rain in the next few days it should be an excellent quality vintage for 2019, and almost certain to produce a small amount of top shelf vintage Champagne... however given the current release is 2008 we will to be patient to try this years crop!
We finish with a taste of the two wines among the vines, a perfect end to a wonderful visit.