Les Petits Princes

Drinks: Drinks
Location: Europe, France
Other: People

They may be a tiny minority of overall production, yet Champagne’s small growers are responsible for some of the region’s most majestic wines. Giles Fallowfield goes in search of sparkling royalty

Craon de Ludes, 51500 Ludes;
+33 3 26 61 13 28;

Adopting a non-interventionist approach to both viticulture and winemaking, the Bérêche family farms an increasingly large portion of its 9.5 hectares of vineyard in the Petite Montagne de Reims biodynamically, eschewing chemical treatments and ploughing between the vines by horse. The wines are unfiltered and use natural yeasts for the initial fermentation, partly done in oak. The malo is blocked and dosage levels are low.

While they have great purity of flavour, the wines aren’t overly austere, thanks partly to the large proportion of reserve wine that’s used in the blends. The family’s ultimate blend, Reflet d’Antan, is composed largely of reserve wine that has been stored in barrels in a version of the sherry ‘solera’ system – or réserve perpétuelle, as winemaker Raphaël Bérêche calls it – first set up in 1985.

Vine Trail, 0117 921 1770

63, Avenue de Bammental, 51130 Vertus;
+ 33 3 26 57 52 29;

Brother and sister Benoit and Marie Doyard took over running the 23 hectare family estate back in 2004 and decided on a complete change of direction. They halved their annual production and concentrated on using the best fruit from the family’s premier and grand cru vineyards in Vertus and Le Mesnil.

To do this, they built a new winery in Vertus, investing in 200 barriques of two to six years in age, produced by four different coopers. The new Experience range, where all four wines undergo some oak fermentation, was launched in 2008. Mesnil Experience Grand Cru, based on the 2004 harvest, was quite linear and steely on initial release but after seven years ageing it has blossomed into something richer, more complex and aromatically expressive.

Top Selection, 020 7499 4440

37 et 39, Grand-Rue, 51220 Merfy;
+33 3 26 03 10 17;

I have been visiting this high-quality domain for many years. Alexandre Chartogne took over from his parents Elisabeth and Philippe in 2006 and has made changes both in the vineyards – 10 hectares in Merfy, Chenay and St-Thierry – and in winemaking techniques.

Central to the latter is the introduction of some oak fermentation, lowering sulphur levels, using natural yeasts and cutting the dosage in all wines.

The soil is ploughed by horse, no herbicides or pesticides are used and since 2006 Alexandre has introduced a Rosé de Saignée plus a single-vineyard, 100% Pinot Meunier made from pre-phylloxera ungrafted vines.

Vine Trail, 0117 921 1770

5, Rue de Villers aux Noeuds, 51500 Ecueil;
+ 33 3 26 49 77 89;

Nicolas Maillart is one of a new generation of winemakers who has revolutionised operations since he took over the 8.5 hectare family estate in 2003. He has cut yields, started using locally-produced oak barrels for fermentation, slashed dosage levels and greatly increased the reserve wine element in his blends.

From the outset he chose to vinify his small parcel of ungrafted Pinot Noir – which comes from a south-facing vineyard in Ecueil – separately, to make Extra Brut Premier Cru Franc de Pieds (à la Bollinger). Fermented and aged in oak vats with batonnage, the malolactic fermentation is blocked and its bottled unfiltered with virtually no dosage. It typifies the move towards individual-vineyard, terroir-driven wines in Champagne.

Genesis Wines, 020 7963 9062

28, Rue du Grand Mont, 51190 Le Mesnil-sur-Oger;
+33 3 26 57 52 26;

Delphine Cazals’ family estate has nine hectares of grand and premier cru vineyards in the Côte des Blancs, mainly in Le Mesnil and neighbouring Oger. The jewel in this estate is a 3.7 hectare walled vineyard in Oger, behind the family house and right next to the village church, where the oldest vines, planted in the 1947, have been used each year since 1998 to make the single vineyard Clos Cazals. This clos produces unctuously rich and silken textured wines of pure hedonistic drinking pleasure.

Richards Walford, 01780 460451

9, Rue Pasteur, 51190 Avize;
+33 3 26 57 52 30;

This family business, set up in Avize by Franck Bonville in 1937, is now run by his son Gilles and grandson Olivier, who has taken over winemaking duties. With an exceptional estate of some 20 hectares of prime vineyard in the grands crus of Cramant, Avize and Oger, Olivier’s seemingly modest aim is to accurately express the mineral qualities of this great chalky terroir.

His success may be measured by the excitingly fresh Cuvée Sélection Brut NV. The majority of fruit in the blend comes from Avize, with extra depth and complexity coming from a proportion of reserve wine. The 2006 vintage, which is a blend of 70% Avize and 30% Oger fruit, has a beautiful creamy texture and exudes class.

The Antique Wine Company,020 7359 1109;
Cadman Fine Wines, 0845 121 4011;
Charles Mitchell Wines, 0161 775 1626;
Revelstoke Wines, 020 8545 0077

2, Rue Petite Montagne, 51390 Gueux;
+33 3 26 03 48 60

I first met Jérôme Prévost in the late 1990s, at which time he was still making his single wine in a corner of Anselme Selosse’s winery in Avize. Fast forward a decade or so and he has become a cult figure, with demand for his tiny production of 13,000 bottles of oak-fermented champagne, produced from 100% Pinot Meunier, now comfortably outstripping supply.

Rich, meaty, savoury and complex, it’s a vinous style that’s outside most consumers’ understanding of champagne and is, essentially, a food wine. Made using natural yeasts from two biodynamically farmed hectares of 40-year-old Pinot Meunier, it’s unfiltered and unfined, with no dosage added at disgorgement. His 2002 vintage still has great life and vivacity.

Vine Trail, 0117 921 1770

19, Avenue du Général de Gaulle, 51130 Vertus;
+33 3 26 52 13 24;

Despite being the most widely-admired grower-producer in Champagne, with his wines achieving great critical acclaim all over the world, Pierre Larmandier remains self-effacingly modest. He and his wife Sophie own vineyards mainly in Vertus – where they have two hectares of Pinot Noir and 14 hectares
of Chardonnay – but also in the grand crus of Avize, Cramant and Oger.

All of the vineyards are farmed biodynamically, and Pierre uses oak barrels and large 500- and 600-litre oak foudres to ferment much of the base wine and store their reserves. Winemaking and attention to detail is meticulous, but Pierre is always adjusting and refining his ideas, trying to improve the wines, which are stunning right across the range and reach a glorious peak in the Terre de Vertus Premier Cru Non-Dosé and the vintage Vielles Vignes de Cramant Grand Cru.

Lea & Sandeman, 020 7244 0522;
Vine Trail, 0117 921 1770

1, Rue la République, 51530 Cuis;
+33 3 26 59 78 70;

Brothers Didier and Olivier Gimonnet make exemplary Côte des Blancs Chardonnays: taut, intense, mineral-edged wines of great finesse and elegance. Based in the fine premier cru of Cuis – where nearly half of their 28-hectare estate is located – they also have vines in Vertus and the grands crus of Chouilly, Oger and Cramant.

Like their cousin, Pierre Larmandier, (see above) they also make a vintage non-dosé style – Oenophile 1er Cru – with a richness and depth that confounds expectations of this type of cuvée. A long-term favourite of mine, the wines just seem to get better and better. 

Armit, 020 7908 0690

4, Rue Jeanson, 51160 Aÿ;
+33 3 26 55 32 31;

The family’s 14 hectares of vineyards are in Cumières, but Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy now has a larger, brand new winery in Aÿ, which gives him the space to fully realise ambitious winemaking plans. One idea is for a five-way vineyard blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Petit Meslier and Arbanne, vinified in stainless steel and aimed at giving a pure idea of the Cumières terroir.

More austere in their youth, his vintage champagnes and top blend Volupté Tête De Cuvée (made from some of the family’s oldest vineyards in Cumières), need time and a large glass to open up – Jean-Baptiste recommends decanting – before they show their class and mineral complexity.

Bancroft Wines, 020 7232 5476

10, Rue St Vincent, 51160 Aÿ;
+33 3 26 55 45 50;

This excellent grower-producer is located right near the centre of the grand cru village of Aÿ. It’s run by the delightful Philippe Brun, who operates one of the main presses in Aÿ used by large négociants and small-scale vignerons alike.

His own wines, made from the family vineyards mainly located in Aÿ, are fine examples of top Pinot Noir-based champagnes, with a purity of fruit in their youth and a lush, textural richness with age. Cuvée des Sires, usually a classic 70/30 blend of Aÿ Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, is a serious wine to be savoured; not, as Brun puts it ‘to be drunk from an actress’s shoe.’ Aÿ La Pelle reaches another level of silken power and complexity.

Andrew Williams Wine, 07944 902501;
Liberty Wines, 020 7720 5350

5, Rue des Gravières, 51500 Rilly-la-Montagne;
+33 3 26 03 40 01;

Vilmart was one of the first grower producers to establish an international reputation in the early 1990s and the wines now command quite stiff prices. Run by Laurent Champs, Vilmart owns 11 hectares of premier cru vineyards mostly planted with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir located in and around the sleepy village of Rilly-la-Montagne.

The Vilmart range, which all sees some wood, splits into two, with the three non-vintage cuvées fermented and aged for 10 months in large old oak foudres (5,000 litres), while the vintage wines are fermented and aged in new, one- and two-year-old barriques. Curiously, the latter (which come from the estate’s best parcels, like Coeur de Cuvée) can seem less overtly oaky.

Gauntleys of Nottingham, 0115 911 0555

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