Abaluche Wine Company

Fine Wine Adventures

AWC in Champagne: Cattier, Chiquet et Jacquesson

I know I'm probably breaking a lot of blogging rules here, but honestly, with only a month left in Europe, I couldn't bear the thought of staying inside and writing!  Paris and beyond was waiting for me outside my window, waiting to be explored.  And so, with a fragile American Express card and 100 euros in my pocket, I embarked on what I would lovingly refer to as my last Euro 'suicide mission':  beginning on 16 janvier, I packed an itinerary for a three week tour of France and Italy, focusing on my favorite wine regions and towns, via the superb French TGV rail lines.  It looked like this:
Paris-Champagne-Strasbourg-Beaune-Lyon-Venezia-Verona-Milano-Lyon-Gigondas-Paris.  Yes, slightly insane.  But what else do you do when you're literally a few hours from each of these places??  You go.  And so I did. (Although timing and budget had me cutting Strasbourg, Lyon and Gigondas.  Always next time......)  I'll attempt over the next few posts to break it down and bring you the highlights of the adventure.  Donc, allons-y!

Reims is only a 45 minute TGV ride from the Gare du l'Est in Paris, so why wouldn't this be your first stop?  Especially if you're cou-cou for champers (like me)?  Of course, the reality of how helpful a vehicle would have been is evident as soon as you emerge from the train station.  Sure, there are taxis and a sleek new tram system to take you to the center of town, but if you're bent on visiting the recoltant manipulant houses, not so much the Moet et Chandon/Mumm/Pommery stuff, you need a car.  Alas, I had to do without, but with the help from some wine friends living and working in Champagne, I was able to make it out to my appointments outside of Reims with little trouble.  And outside of Reims is really where all the magic happens.

There were tastings at Lanson, and the obligatory stop at Pommery to appreciate the grandeur of their 100m deep chalk caves.  An upgrade during the tasting to the tete du cuvee, "Louise" proved to be quite uninspiring though.  The following day was much more awe-inspiring with appointments at the grower-producers of Jacquesson and Gaston Chiquet in the township of Dizy.

At Chiquet, I was hosted by the extremely passionate Nicolas Chiquet, grandson of Gaston.  He welcomed me in the foyer of what was once their family home, and was subsequently occupied by the German army during the WWII occupation of Champagne.  Chilling historical context.  And we had not even been out to the estate vineyards yet.  Of course, with their production hovering around 50,000 bottles, they are considered to be a medium-sized recoltant manipulants in Champagne, but  far smaller than others such as Jacquesson (at 300,000 bottles, they are considered the largest).  His passion for small batch fermentations is evident in the tank room, where small tanks await the individual blocks that are brought in from the family's surrounding vineyards for initital fermentation.  Long aging sur lies, and extended time in bottle before disgorgement add to the complexity of the Chiquet wines.  And then....there are the vineyards.

23 hectares, situated on the estate in Dizy and in Ay, Hautvillers and Mauriel-sur-Ay, they sit atop some of the finest soil in Champagne.  Extremely sensitive to natural techniqes in the cellar as well as out in the vineyards, Chiquet does not limit himself with organic or biodynamic certification, but steps are carefully taken in the vineyards and during production to ensure everything returns to the state in which it started.  The wines are sublime, especially the Blanc du Blanc d'Ay, made exclusively from fruit in their vineyard in Ay.  Ay is best known for Pinot Noir; however, Nicolas' grandfather had planted a bit of Chardonnay back in 1935, and it is now the only plot of Chardonnay left on the hill.  A truly outstanding wine, dubbed 'le vin du mariage' and is really worthy of such a celebration.

After time traveling with Nicolas, I walked around the corner to Jacquesson, which was purchased from the Chiquet family in 1974.  Very small world, indeed!  Doing some fine long-age blends in new 4,800 liter foudres and 600 liter tonnes, they are starting to produce (with the 2002 vintage) single-vineyard, single varietal vintage Champagnes.  I sampled the 2002 Dizy 'Corne Bautray' which showcased immense earthy, grassy freshness mixed with a bit of funk that took form in a palate of pumpkin and hay, mixed with laser-focused acidity and chalkiness.  To compare, the 2002 Avize 'Champ Cain' showed much more floral and feminine notes.

The creme de la creme of the trip (outside of the delightful time spent with M. Chiquet), was the following day, at Champagne Cattier in Chigny-les-Roses.  Through the generosity of a friend of a friend, whose cousin is the proprietor (isn't that the way in France!), I garnered an appointment, for which I will forever be grateful.  Having experienced the Cattier Champagnes in the past (at said friend-of-a-friend's apartment in Paris), I was slowly falling in love with their freshness, their complexity, and their appealing hand-crafted nature.  During one lively discussion in French, I picked up that in fact, Cattier is the house that produces the eponymous 'Armand de Brignac' (or 'Ace of Spades', as Jay-Z likes to call it).  Whether or not I would be able to actually taste such highly allocated Champagne was doubtful, but I would extremely excited to tour the cellars, discover the techniques of the house, and sample some additional blends of Cattier.

I was not disappointed.  Accompanied by the company's buyers from Brussels, we had an extremely in-depth (literally!) tour of the estate.  Descending down a rickety iron spiral staircase 30 meters below the warehouse, we were witness  to a veritable cavern of treasures.  Wines are still aged deep inside les crayeres, sur-lie, standing upside-down on their necks.  Spotted were Magnums and Jerobams from the 30's to the 70's, and up to today.  Where all these hand-crafted wines age today, used to be an ammunition storage facility during WWII.  You can still see the soldier's engravings of initials and cartoons on the chalk walls.

The tete du cuvee, Clos du Moulin of Cattier and the Armand de Brignac are both hand riddled for 3 years, and comprise only about 50,000 bottles out of their 3 million bottle production.  The caves which house the Armand de Brignac, and the riddling racks on which they rest, are reminiscent of Ali Baba's cave of riches.  Bathed in warm golden light, with the racks theatrically up-lit to showcase the gilded bottles that await the riddler's expert hands, it is truly breathtaking.  The packaging design, and in fact the concept for Armand de Brignac came from Cattier's proprietor, Jean-Jacques Cattier, who dreamed of doing something unique and special for the few barrels of truly outstanding vin clair that they wanted to keep seperate from the Cattier cuvees.  The fruit came from outside the clos, which could not be considered for their tete du cuvee, and so AdB was born.  And he is proud to admit that he decided on the decadent packaging, while his wife named the wine after a French literary hero.

As for the wines of Cattier, which I had the pleasure of exploring over a lengthy lunch just outside of Reims at on of Cattier's best accounts (which, by the way, was an American WWII Air Force-themed steak restaurant called Le Hangar.  I was not expecting that one!  But, the food was great, the owner friendly and attentive, and we had the luxury of lounging and drinking one bottle after another of the Cattier Champagnes without anyone to hurry us along.).  Brut, Blanc du Blanc, Blanc du Noir, Rose....all fresh, elegant, lively with fruit but balancing with great complexity and richness.  My notes for all the wines echo the same:  round, fresh, beautiful finish.  White flowers, cassis, brioche.....all lovely things to taste among foie gras, crispy duck confit and homemade toffee and caramel profiteroles.

Hearing the stories of the history of the house from Jean-Jacques, his son Alexandre and their General Director Phlippe over lunch, and after the surreal underground experience in the caves of Cattier, no wonder I came away believing even more now than ever, that Champagne is a dream, that can easily turn to reality before your very eyes.

San Francisco, CA 94118  415-409-9645  info@abaluche.com

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