In April, I was very lucky to head to Champagne, as representative of the Private Clients Wine Team to get to know the Grower Champagnes we are lucky enough to represent. We all know the Grand Marques Houses with their well-marketed stories and legacies, but to truly understand the glorious essence of the region, there is no better way than heading into the heart of Champagne and visiting the “little people”.
During my two day trip I visited 3 grower Champagne houses, all very different to one another, very different sizes and production and although each identity and style is very unique, their desire and goal to producing Champagne of the highest quality was mutual.
Starting off at Gratiot Pillière in the tiny little town of Charly sur Marne, we were invited into the home of Christelle and Olivier Gratiot to enjoy a tasting of the range with a very delicious homemade lunch. Olivier is the grandson of the founder Daniel Gratiot, and continues the family business, now 50yrs strong, with his brother Sébastien. Sharing the duties of winemaker and vigneron respectively, Gratiot-Pillière’s production is a mere 150,000 bottles using a majority of the locally grown Pinot Meunier (80%). Previous to this visit, I had always considered Pinot Meunier to be a mere addition to the blend of Champagne, however the range here was a wonderful example of the fruitiness and freshness it provides.
Sharing stories and enjoying the best of local cuisine, then heading into the vineyards with Olivier, I really got an understanding of the style of Gratiot Pillière. Their values and traditions are paramount, the most important of which is not compromising on quality. I learned a huge amount from this wonderful little house.
From Charly-sur-Marne, we drove through the picturesque region to Cuis, a small town just outside of Epernay for our next visit at Gimonnet et Fils, a slightly larger production (260,000 bottles) grower with a very special uniqueness. Gionnet et Fils are based in the heart of the Côtes des Blancs, and with 16 hectares in Premier Cru vineyards and 12 hectares in Grand Cru vineyards nestled here, they exclusively produce Blanc de Blancs from some of the region's finest Chardonnay.
Met by Didier Gimonnet, we spent an incredible afternoon exploring the Côtes des Blancs, without even leaving his courtyard. An initial tasting in the winery of his base wines set the tone of the quality and precision each plot produces. The difference was baffling and from such an early stage in the Champagne making process, it was a fascinatimg to get an understanding of how each plot contributes to each cuvée.
From there we moved to his home and with a stunning view of his vineyards, we explored each cuvée getting the clearest picture of every corner of the Côtes des Blancs. Chardonnay produces the elegance in Champagnes and Didier’s motto of “Harmony is more important than structure and intensity” could not have been more clearly portrayed than in his wines.
Our third and final visit was early next morning the other side of Epernay at Beaumont des Crayères. Another step up in size, this is a Champagne house born of a collection of growers wanting to produce the finest Champagne of the area – hence the name Beautiful Hill of Chalk! Like our first visit, the majority of the crop is Pinot Meunier, however the production is on a much larger and more modern scale. Still relatively small compared to the big brands (only 550,000 bottles produced), the same principals are applied as with Gratiot-Pillères and Gimonnet et Fils – values, identity and above all quality.
We met with Export Manager Johann Gendron and after visiting the brand new pressing facilities and cellars we headed to the very professional conference room to enjoy the wonderful range.
From my visit I really got a strong understanding of how important these small grower houses are to the region and that these very special producers each give their lives to the Champagnes that offer the most exceptional value we all are desperately seeking.