Bergerac Wine Region, SW France: Confrérie du Raisin D’Or de Sigoulès …..promoting cultural heritage and economic opportunity

July is the month of summer celebrations in many places it seems.   Notices drop into email inboxes about wine promotions, new books – including Saving our Skins,  the latest book by Caro Feely who I mentioned in my last posting, - firework exhibitions, theatre productions, jazz concerts. It’s all there on offer wherever you are over the summer months.  Organizers work double time to attract and welcome tourists and local residents to their events.

It’s no different in the village of Sigoulès in the Dordogne in South West France where volunteer members of the Confrérie du Raisin d’Or de Sigoulès prepare for their annual major event over the July 19 /20 weekend. The wine fair and tastings are on Saturday July 19th, the parade of all the visiting Confréries and the annual general assembly or Chapitre on Sunday, July 20th and the series of guided walks and concerts take place in the area during July and August.   Adding to the excitement in the area this summer is that the Tour de France Stage 20 passes through the Dordogne and Bergerac the following weekend.

Invitation to the 2014 Confrérie du Raisin d'Or event

Invitation to the 2014 Confrérie du Raisin d’Or event

The Confrérie du Raisin d’Or is one of a large network of confréries or organizations of men and women across France whose objective is the promotion of their local area and culture as well as gastronomic products.   The Confrérie du Raisin d’Or de Sigoulès particularly focuses on the wines of the area.

The origin of these confréries dates back to the Middle Ages to the 12th and 13th centuries when occupational groupings were more likely called companies/corporations or guilds. Possibly the most famous of these early organizations was the “La Jurade de Saint Emilion”, created in 1199 and responsible for controlling many aspects of the wine industry in Saint Emilion (Bordeaux).

Similar organizations of apprentices and masters existed until the time of the French Revolution when they were declared illegal in 1791 in the spirit of the free movement of labour.

In the 20th Century, there has been a resurgence of local organizations or confréries which, by reinstating traditional pageantry, costume and ritual are celebrating the gastronomic heritage in the many different regions of France.     Their existence has increased since the 1960’s with the development of tourism.    The Confrérie Saint Emilionnaise took the name of “Jurade” in honour of the earlier organization when it was recreated in 1948.

Confréries are generally linked to a tourism bureau, the local mayor’s office, local festival and/or agricultural initiatives as part of a broader promotional imperative. Not only are the confréries linked locally, they are also aligned regionally and nationally.

For example, the Confrérie du Raisin d’Or de Sigoulès partners locally with the wine fair organization and local wine-maker communities: Foire aux Vins de Sigoulès and the Communauté de Communes des Coteaux de Sigoulès; regionally it is a member of the Chancelleries des Confréries d’Aquitaine, plus the Union des Confréries du Périgord and nationally is a member of the Conseil Français des Confréries.

The Confrérie organizations

The Confrérie organizations

Sometimes, confréries twin with other confréries.   By way of illustration, the Confrérie du Raisin d’Or is twinned with the Confrérie du Pâté de Périgueux.   I wrote about the pâté competition I attended last November in an earlier posting. Many different types of food and gastronomy are represented in the world of confréries: strawberries, cherries, pink garlic, fish, grilled food, mushrooms and so on.

The gastronomic heritage of France is so highly valued that it has been recognized by UNESCO as an expression of Intangible Cultural Heritage and the confréries are included in that recognition.     The Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) identification is promoted by UNESCO as a counterpart to the World Heritage designation which focuses mainly on tangible aspects of culture.

The 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage defines the intangible cultural heritage or living heritage as:

“The practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills as well as the instruments, objects, artifacts and cultural spaces associated therewith, that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage…”

A subtext of confrérie activities includes promoting economic opportunity in the areas through links to tourism.    At the international level, some members of the Confrérie du Raisin d’Or de Sigoulès recently facilitated and conducted a series of events with local wines for Cuisine et Chateau, a Canadian organization from Calgary, Alberta which brings groups of visitors to the area each year for a week of culinary and wine experiences.

Marnie Fudge, co-proprietor of Cuisine et Chateau mentioned to me that their experience was “fabulous” and they valued the professionalism and expertise of the Confrérie members they dealt with during their visit.       As Canada works towards finalizing the details of its trade agreement with the European Union, it feels like we are making a small contribution to that effort!

A comment about the word confrérie whose literal translation is brotherhood.   In a 21st century context, I translate this to mean a group of men and women who associate with each other in a congenial way for a common purpose.   A confrère in French means colleague which underscores this broader interpretation. Collegiality and congeniality in support of cultural heritage are core confrérie values.

This all sounds quite serious, whereas the confréries and their events are also about the joyful celebration of culture with food, wine, music, pageantry and fellowship.

The colourful parade of confréries

The colourful parade of confréries

This joyful celebration will be the cornerstone of the events in Sigoulès over the July 19 and 20th weekend and all the other events organized by the Confrérie du Raisin d’Or de Sigoulès and community partners in July and August.

The confrérie events, whether this one in Sigoulès or similar events elsewhere in France are a wonderful way to learn more about the culture and history of France, local gastronomic products and, importantly, meet local people.   I have attended several wonderful confrérie events where I’ve met delightful people.

The band accompanies the parade

The band accompanies the parade

Last year, I was delighted to be invited to join the Confrerie du Raisin d’Or de Sigoulès in the role of Ambassadrice, one of two from Canada at present.    The Ambassador initiative includes Confrérie members in other regions of France as well as other countries including Australia and Canada.

My blog is about how wine opens the door to history, culture,food,science…   For me, the Confrérie du Raisin d’Or de Sigoulès is one of those doors.

Bergerac Wine Region showing Sigoulès below Saussignac and Monbazillac

Bergerac Wine Region showing Sigoulès below Saussignac and Monbazillac

 

References:

UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage   www.unesco.org/culture/ich

http://www.pays-de-bergerac.com/english/assos/confrerie-du-raisin-d-or

http://www.confreries-france.com

http://www.federation-grand-est.fr/histoiredesconfr/

http://www.cuisineetchateau.com/culinary-tours/

Tour de France Bergerac 2014   http://www.letour.com

 

 

 

Bergerac Wine Region, SW France: Chateau Haut Garrigue/Terroir Feely – …..creating a biodynamic virtuous circle

 

I arrive at Terroir Feely/Chateau Haut Garrigue to talk to the co-proprietor, Caro Feely about their winemaking and wine tourism business.     On my way here, walking down the country lane towards their farm past the Saussignac Cemetery, dignified yet colourful with the many pots of commemorative flowers, I reflect upon the niche that Caro and Sean have carved for themselves in the highly competitive wine making business.

Terroir Feely

Terroir Feely

Sean and Caro have been in Saussignac, a small village in the Bergerac wine region in the Dordogne since 2005.   That was the year they changed their life and moved from corporate lives in Ireland to become wine makers in the Dordogne. Their initiation to their new life is a compelling read in Caro’s book: Grape Expectations: A Family’s Vineyard Adventure in France.      It’s a page turning book and the reason for my sense of awe when I meet this low-key yet dynamic couple.

Autumn view from Terroir Feely


Autumn view from Terroir Feely

Always intrigued by the process through which people create major life changes, I read Caro’s book with this sense of enquiry in mind.     Caro and Sean embarked upon a new lifestyle of considerable uncertainty: no wine-making experience when they started, language barriers, the burden of French bureaucracy, two small daughters to raise and a host of other challenges.   Yet, they had personal qualities of perseverance, adaptability, optimism and drive together with experience in marketing and financial management.   These personal attributes and competencies have stood them in good stead.   On top of this, their passion for the life-style, the land and region, and organic, sustainable and now biodynamic farming has fueled their energy to make it all happen.

Learning to make good wine wasn’t enough to succeed. Caro has said that the transition to their new life was “beyond hard”.  They soon realized that they needed to diversify in order to survive financially.   This in turn led to the creation of French Wine Adventures with wine courses; wine walks with vineyard lunches, the Harvest Weekend, and the building of their ecological accommodation at the vineyard.   Their brand new swimming pool opens this season. In other words, they have created a biodynamic virtuous circle of wine making and wine tourism.

Terroir Feely/Chateau Haut Garrigue is a Certified Biodynamic farm of approximately 10 hectares under vines.   Demeter, the internationally recognized biodynamic certifying body, certified Terroir Feely/Chateau Haut Garrigue as biodynamic in 2011 following their organic certification from Ecocert in 2009.  In addition, The Great Wine Capitals Network recognized Terroir Feely as the Regional Winner for Sustainable Wine Tourism Practices in 2013.    Their wines are also gaining recognition for quality.

Best of Wine Tourism 2013 Award

Best of Wine Tourism 2013 Award

I ask Caro what draws people to visit them at Terroir Feely/Chateau Haut Garrigue. She doesn’t hesitate to respond:

“ We are passionate about what we do and we create a personal experience for people.   We share common interests with our visitors.   We are eco-friendly; we make certified biodynamic wines; we have ecological buildings. People come to enjoy the vineyard and participate in our Harvest Weekend which is the first weekend in October.”

We talk about wine farming practices and their evolution from organic to biodynamic status in 2011.

Caro explains that it takes 3 years to convert to biodynamic status.   Farming practices are introduced in which the vineyard is cultivated as part of a whole farm system.   It involves making and using preparations for the soil and plants from plant and manure materials as well as caring for the vines and the soil according to the biodynamic calendar which suggests times to sow, harvest, prune in synch with phases of the moon.     She tells me that since they have been following the strict biodynamic approaches that more orchids have appeared on the farm as well as greater biodiversity.   She also believes these practices have benefitted their wines!

Caro says that until she saw the difference biodynamic practices made to their farm, she thought that biodynamics sounded like “dancing with the fairies”.     To gain a better understanding myself, I subsequently looked up various sources and websites including: Demeter, various Rudolf Steiner sites, Berry Bros and Rudd Wine Merchants.    There is a lot of material about the subject.

In brief, biodynamic agriculture originates in the ideas of Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian  philosopher and agronomist who lived from 1861 – 1926.   He gave a famous agricultural series of lectures in 1924, which predate most of the organic movement. The principles and practices of biodynamics are based on Rudolf Steiner’s spiritual philosophy called anthroposophy, which includes understanding the ecological, the energetic and the spiritual dimensions in nature.   One of Rudolf Steiner’s greatest admirers was Maria Thun (1922 – 2012) who created an annual biodynamic gardening calendar that Caro refers to on the Terroir Feely/Chateau Haut Garrigue website.

The name Rudolf Steiner was familiar to me because of his influence in education.   Waldorf Schools which originated from his humanistic approaches to education are  in evidence today in about 60 countries.

From a viticulture perspective, biodynamics views the farm as a cohesive, interconnected living system. For a vineyard to be considered biodynamic by Demeter, the vine-grower must use the 9 biodynamic preparations described by Rudolf Steiner.   These are all preparations made from plants or manure and applied to the plants and soil.

Biodynamics in viticulture is growing and is practiced by farmers in several countries including France, Italy, Austria, Germany, Chile, South Africa, Canada and the US.      While organic and biodynamic farming doesn’t guarantee great wine, it appears that there is a tendency for wines made with these farming practices to be more highly scored by consumers with respect to expressions of terroir, balance and more vibrant tastes.   Tasters indicate that biodynamic wines are more floral in flavour.

In general, there is a continuum of farming approaches progressing away from industrial practices that rely on chemicals towards using fewer chemical interventions and introducing more sustainable practices leading to organic and biodynamic approaches.   Farming interventions are regulated in the EU, as elsewhere, including the use of mineral substances like copper and sulphur which are permitted in all approaches to wine farming along the continuum– it’s a question of degree.

Literature about biodynamic wine making refers to Certified Biodynamic wine making and also to wine makers who practice “broadly biodynamic” farming approaches. This implies that they subscribe to and follow many of the biodynamic practices yet do not pursue the biodynamic certification.   From our observation visiting many wine makers, this translates into the ever-increasing attention to improved agricultural practices, which is positive for the land, the farmers themselves and the consumer.   Caro and Sean have gone that step further in following the rigorous standards for their farm to be Certified Biodynamic.

Caro tells me that; “ …the Bergerac Wine Region has the highest number of organic wine producers in France after Alsace.”

All to say that the dialogue around farming practices is increasing and the interest in biodynamics is growing. In a competitive wine world, it’s worth noting that over the past 10 years there has been significant growth in the sales of biodynamic wines as consumers shift their interest to biodynamic and sustainable practices.

It’s 9 years since Caro and Sean made their major lifestyle and career leap of faith into wine making in the Dordogne.   Since 2007, they have been practising biodynamic wine making, achieving their certification in 2011.     I have tasted their wines several times over the years and I particularly like their Sauvignon Blanc, “Sincérité”.

Terre de Vins 2013 recommendation

Terre de Vins 2013 recommendation

Caro and Sean have been generous with their time talking to me about their vineyard adventures to date. I close my notebook and say my goodbyes.    It’s time to let Caro and Sean get back to their work.

 

 Bergerac Wine Region

Bergerac Wine Region

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References:     http://www.hautgarrigue.com,   http://www.feelywines.com,    www.tripadvisor.ca….saussignac,    www. rudolfsteinercollege.ed,   http://www.rsarchive.org/lectures      www.steinerbooks.org,  www.demeter.net, http://www.waldorf.ca,   http://www.bbr.com/knowledge (Berry Bros & Rudd)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cyprus Wines: Zambartas Wineries, Agios Amvrosios, Limassol. The stars have aligned…!

It’s a very rainy Cyprus day in February after a dry January.    Highlighting the contrast between a wet today and many dry yesterdays, the heavy rain seems oppressive as we drive along the highway to the Limassol area.

We arrive in the village of Agios Amvrosios looking for Zambartas Wineries.   I phone to check their location in the village and am told the person we are scheduled to meet had to go to Nicosia urgently.  My heart sinks as we have been looking forward to this visit.

Map of Cyprus

Map of Cyprus

Agios Amvrosios, location of Zambartas Wineries

Agios Amvrosios, location of Zambartas Wineries

Fortunately, all is not lost as the man on the phone invites us to continue with our visit. He will show us around. This is not only good; it’s fantastic when I realize that our host is Dr. Akis Zambartas, the founder of the winery.     The stars have aligned to make this a memorable visit with one of the gurus of wine making in Cyprus.

Wine tasting room, Zambartas Wineries, Agios Amvrosias, Limassol

Wine tasting room, Zambartas Wineries, Agios Amvrosias, Limassol

Zambartas Wineries is a boutique winery founded in 2006 by Dr. Akis Zambartas in the Krasochoria Wine Region on the south facing slopes of the Troodos Mountains. The focus is on the production of quality wines while employing environmentally friendly practices. Akis has been joined in this enterprise by his son Marcos and daughter in law, Marleen.

Father and son are highly qualified scientists.   Both are chemists with further degrees in oenology.    Akis took his Ph.D. in chemistry at Lyon University in France followed by a degree in oenology from Montpelier University, famous for its oenology program.  Not only is Akis a scientist he also has a wealth of business experience from a previous role as a chief executive officer in the wine and spirit industry in Cyprus.   He has also been a pioneer in the discovery of Cyprus grape varieties. Marcos took a graduate degree in chemistry from Imperial College, London, followed by a degree in oenology from the School of Oenology, Adelaide University.

Dr. Akis Zambartas

Dr. Akis Zambartas opening wine during our visit

After our mutual introductions, we tour the winery and meet Stefan another key member of the team.   We move to the Tasting Room overlooking the winery and begin our exploration of the suite of Zambartas wines, which include several indigenous varieties.  We enjoy them all.    The ones that capture our attention are:

Zambartas Rosé. This is their flagship wine.   It is a blend of Lefkada (a local indigenous variety) and Cabernet Franc.   This is a ripe, red berry and strawberry style Rosé with cherry flavours on the nose, good acidity and freshness.

Zambartas Xynisteri is a white wine from the Xynisteri indigenous grape.   I increasingly enjoy this indigenous variety. For my palate, the experience is like having a glass of Sauvignon Blanc with traces of Pinot Grigio.    The lemony, white fruit and honeyed fresh flavour with good acidity makes this my favourite glass of wine at lunchtime with a fig and Cyprus goat cheese salad.

Zambartas Maratheftiko is a red wine from the Maratheftiko indigenous vine.     These vines can be challenging to grow yet the resulting wine is worth the efforts of the winemakers.    There are subtle herbal flavours as well as those of violets.   It’s a more delicate wine than its full colour would suggest and requires some thoughtful food pairing. Cheese, veal would be good choices.

In challenging economic times in Cyprus, Akis and Marcos have been enterprising in their marketing.  They have remained true to their vision of making quality wine at Zambartas Wineries and steadily increasing their production and expanding their markets.   Their boutique winery of currently 60,000 bottles per year has increased both its domestic and export reach.

Most exciting for wine drinkers in the UK is that Berry Bros and Rudd, the oldest wine and spirit merchants in the UK who have had their offices at  No.3, St. James’s, London since 1698, now list Zambartas Maratheftiko.

Not only is Berry Bros and Rudd representing their Maratheftiko but Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Guide 2014 also mentions Zambartas Wineries. There appears to be increasing interest in “island wines” and Zambartas Wineries is riding this wave.

We spend a very enjoyable hour or so talking with Akis who is able to describe complex matters in straightforward terms.   We hear about their environmental practices, how they apply science to their viticulture decisions, the locations of their parcels of vines, the geology of different sites, their sustainability objectives as well as their efforts to support important initiatives in the evolution of Cyprus wine making.

I ask Akis for his thoughts on the future of wine making in Cyprus.   He says it will be important to continue the modernization of practices and to use and apply knowledge: both the academic knowledge of science and oenology and also the intuitive connection and experiential knowledge of the land and the vines. Akis says that the future of Zambartas Wineries is with his son, Marcos.  This is another example of the power of intergenerational legacies in the wine-making world that we have seen elsewhere.

The heaviness of the rain at the beginning of our visit lifts and soon the sunshine returns.   The almond blossom, harbinger of Spring in Cyprus, opens in the orchards and the annual renewal of nature begins.

The arrival of Spring - Paphos area

The arrival of Spring – Paphos area

Back in British Columbia and it turns out we have another interest in common: TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) whose vision is generating “ideas worth spreading”.

Zambartas Wineries was a sponsor of a TEDX Nicosia event.  These are locally organized events held under a TED license to start a community conversation about issues of concern.   Followers of TED will know that the TED 2014 Conference was recently held in Vancouver. We watched some of the live sessions broadcast for free to local residents via the library system.

We greatly enjoyed our visit to the Zambartas Wineries and our time with Akis.   Whenever I think of our visit, I feel inspired by the dynamism, sense of purpose and the results the family has achieved in a relatively short period of time.

 

References:    www.zambartaswineries.com.,    www.bbr.com (Berry Bros and Rudd)

http://www.ted.com

Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Guide 2014 is reputedly the #1 best selling wine guide and is widely available.

Visitors’ Map of Cyprus courtesy of the Department of Lands and Surveys, Cyprus – Tourist Information.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

South Okanagan Valley Wines, British Columbia, Canada: Letting the photos tell the story

“Tell me more about B.C wines”, a friend said recently.   “Funny you should ask”, I say to myself as I put fingers to the keyboard to add a post about wines from the South Okanagan Valley in British Columbia.

The tourist industry marketers call B.C.:  “Super, Natural British Columbia.”   The Okanagan Valley is such an area of natural beauty that this time I’ve decided it’s easier to let the scenery tell its own story and that of the wines.  We have some particular wine favourites and I am going to mention these as well as mention some new wine acquaintances as we progress with a few photos.

In 2013, I had the opportunity to go to the Okanagan twice:  once to the Wine Bloggers’ Conference held in Penticton on Lake Okanagan and again for our annual September visit to the South Okanagan around Oliver and Osoyoos. The South Okanagan is about a four to five hour drive eastwards towards the Rockies from Vancouver.  Once we drive beyond Hope, literally the name of the last small town, where we have a coffee before starting the main part of the journey, it’s mountains, forests, grassland, and wild sage hillsides until we finally see the vast Okanagan Lake.

Many people don’t realize that the Okanagan is home to a desert.  The Sonoran Desert extends from Mexico all the way into British Columbiia in the South Okanagan, continuing past Osoyoos Lake to Skaha Lake and west up the Similkameen Valley.  This “Osoyoos Arid Biotic Zone”  accounts for the semi arid climate and hot and dry summers where it can reach 104 degrees in Oliver and mild winters making Osoyoos Lake the warmest fresh water lake in Canada.  The desert has plants and animals that are found nowhere else in Canada. The Okanagan Valley is home to the First Nations of the area and Osoyoos is an Aboriginal word meaning the narrowing of the Lake.

Grapes have been grown in the South Okanagan as far back as the late 1800s but it is only in the recent past that the 100 miles of the Okanagan Valley have gained international attention for the quality of the wines produced here.   The arid climate with sunny days and cold nights is ideal for the wine industry.  With typical Canadian low-key friendliness, the many wineries welcome visitors to their tasting rooms.

These photos tell the story of the geography and start with a map of the area.

The Okanagan is known not only for wines but also for the quality of restaurants and fresh produce; peaches, apricots, cherries, and many vegetables. We have several favourite restaurants in the area that are attached to wineries.  At the Terrafina restaurant at Hester Creek we like their Merlot.    At the Miradoro restaurant at Tinhorn Creek, the Oldfield Series 2 Bench Red, a Bordeaux style wine, is a new find adding to our good experience of Tinhorn Creek wines and is excellent paired with Miradoro’s flank steak.    At the Sonora Restaurant at Burrowing Owl, we have discovered their Athene red – a blend of Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon – a delicious, rich wine. Burrowing Owl’s Pinot Gris has long been a favourite of ours.

Finally, a few more photos from wine tastings in the South Okanagan last year.     A long time favourite is Osoyoos Larose, a classic Bordeaux blend made through a partnership between Groupe Taillan in Bordeaux and Constellation Brands in Canada.  The “Le Grand Vin” is a bold red with hallmark Bordeaux structure and complexity.    We only recently discovered See Ya Later Ranch in Okanagan Falls and their wines.  I particularly enjoy their rosé which is a blend of Gamay and Pinot Noir with lots of fruit aromas.     Back on the bench lands,  we visited Black Hills Winery.    Noted for their Note Bene red,  we also liked their very drinkable Alibi, a white wine blend of Sauvignon Bland and Semilllon with citrus and tropical fruit flavours. A new discovery last year has been Clos Du Soleil, a certified organic winery in the Similkameen Valley making a small quantity of high quality wines.

The South Okanagan continues to develop as a destination for its natural beauty and related outdoor activities and wine tourism.   It is popular with both British Columbians and Albertans and visitors from across North America and increasingly from other parts of the world.    Our verdict:  an area we really enjoy that is definitely worth a visit.

References:     See Ya Later Ranch  www.sylranch.com

Burrowing Owl  www.bovwine.ca     Tinhorn Creek  www.tinhorn.com

Hester Creek  www.hestercreek.com

Osoyoos Larose  www.osoyooslarose.com

BC Official Tourism and Travel website:   http://www.hellobc.com    Map of the Okanagan Corridor courtesy of the Tourism website.

Champagne Region, NE France: Billecart-Salmon, Krug, Roederer, Bollinger: Optimism in a Bottle, Part 3 of 3

It’s our second day in the Champagne region and another sunny day.  In Reims, we arrive at the House of Roederer and pull up to the main gate, which slowly opens to let us into the parking area.    There to greet us is our guide for the visit, Martine.   Chic in black and white with natural elegance and a straight back that would have merited a Good Deportment Badge at my old school, Martine is the quintessential wine professional; knowledgeable, confident and attentive to her guests.

This style typifies our experience at the House of Roederer whose mantra is “Quest for Perfection”.   Originally established in 1776, it was renamed in 1833 and has built its strength from this 19 Century organization.  Roederer remains a private company under the leadership of Frédéric Rauzaud, the seventh generation of the Roederer family.

House of Roederer, entrance hall with champagne bubbles overhead and bronze bust of Russian Tsar Alexander 11 in the centre

House of Roederer, entrance hall with champagne bubbles overhead and bronze bust of Russian Tsar Alexander 11 in the centre

We are shown into the entrance hall, which immediately speaks to the illustrious, past and present of Roederer.   The bronze bust of Tsar Alexander 11 has pride of place.   He was the Tsar for whom Roederer created Cristal Champagne in 1876.   Already a fan of Roederer champagne, the Tsar requested a new champagne to be unique in style and bottle for his personal consumption only.  It is said the clear crystal bottle with a flat base was designed so that nothing could be hidden either within or underneath the bottle.   This was to forestall any assassination attempt on the Tsar.

Then we enter the spacious, pale wood paneled tasting room where the 19th and 20th century Royal Warrants of several devoted European royal families are displayed around the room.   There are other contemporary symbols of recognition and awards on display.  They all demonstrate the high esteem in which Roederer has been widely held over the centuries.

Tasting Room at Roederer

Tasting Room at Roederer

Martine guides us through a tasting of several Roederer champagnes.  She talks about each champagne and as she does so, in true connoisseur style, silently opens each bottle with a gentle twist of her wrist.  No popping of corks here.

Roederer champagnes are known for acidity and fruitiness, which together develop the refreshing citrus and biscuity characteristics with a subtle explosion of bubbles in the mouth.   An unsophisticated yet definite “Wow” exclamation was my response to those bubbles.  We particularly liked the Blanc de Blancs 2006 (Chardonnay) and a primarily Pinot Noir 2006 vintage from the Montagne de Reims vineyards.  We also enjoyed the non-vintage Brut Premier for its fresh style.

Cristal champagne, created by Roederer for Tsar Alexander II of Russia in 1876

Cristal Champagne, created by Roederer for Tsar Alexander II of Russia in 1876

For the finale, we tasted Cristal.   While all the champagnes we tasted were memorable, there was something special about Cristal, perhaps an added silkiness. Cristal is made from Pinot Noir (60%), Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier from the seven finest vineyards on the estate and is only created in the best years. The vines for the grapes for Cristal have to be a minimum of twenty-five years old. The champagne is aged in the cellars at Roederer for six years and can be kept for many years before it is drunk.

We leave Roederer before lunch and drive on to the House of Bollinger, arriving at the imposing former home of the family and present day premises in Ay.  The House of Bollinger was established in 1829 and named for one of the founders, Jacques Bollinger.  There are currently three branches of the Bollinger family involved in managing the business.

House of Bollinger, Ay, Champagne, France

House of Bollinger – the original family home, Ay, Champagne.

Bollinger has been a popular champagne in Great Britain for many decades and one third of their sales go to Britain.  The House has been providing champagne to the Royal Family since the time of Queen Victoria.  The Royal Warrant was granted in 1884 and it is said that it was Edward V11 who originally coined the phrase:  “…a bottle of Bolly”.  In addition to their royal connection, Bollinger is, of course, known in the world of film, for over four decades now, as James Bond’s favourite champagne. These long standing connections are a source of immense pride to the company.

Champagne Bollinger

Champagne Bollinger

Behind all the publicity and fun there is a deep respect for tradition at Bollinger, which has received the first award given to a champagne house for their efforts in preserving and handing on the best of the traditional techniques and heritage.  This is the Living Heritage Company award – EPV or Entreprise du Patrimonie Vivant.   At the same time, modernization and innovation have been encouraged.

We enjoyed a delicious lunch at Bollinger with paired champagnes.  Lobster in a soup of tomatoes and zucchinis/courgettes, guinea fowl with truffles, cheese, followed by a warm apricot and peach fruit soup with apricot sorbet.  We started with Bollinger Rosé, followed by Bollinger La Grande Année 2004 and finally, Bollinger Special Cuvée. Bollinger’s style is distinctive for its full bodied toasty characteristics, possibly as a result of the higher percentage of Pinot (60%) typically blended in their champagnes.  Like all the Champagne Houses,  they have adapted to the   changing tastes of customers over the centuries;  from the sweeter style of the 19 Century to the current preference for dry (brut) champagne.

The pairings, needless to say, are excellent.  Bollinger recommends the Grande Année 2004 for duck breast, quail or quinea fowl. The Rosé is recommended for both seafood and fruit dishes.  Bollinger Special Cuvée, the third champagne we taste, is regarded by many connoisseurs as one of the finest of all French champagnes.

'007' and Bollinger

’007′ and Bollinger

After this unforgettable lunch we are shown the extensive Bollinger cellars.  During this time we are reminded of Mme. Jacques Bollinger’s interview with the Daily Mail newspaper during a visit to London in 1961.  When asked: “When do you drink champagne?” she replied:

“ I drink it when I’m happy and when I’m sad.  Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone.  When I have company I consider it obligatory.  I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am.  Otherwise, I never touch it – unless I’m thirsty”.

When it came to choosing champagne to drink on New Year’s Eve, we would have been delighted to enjoy a bottle from any of these Houses.   As it turned out, we selected Roederer Brut Premier.

Roederer Champagne and Smoked Salmon

Roederer Champagne and Smoked Salmon

We enjoyed that characteristic taste of medium acidity, lemony-citrus, biscuit/almond flavour and its refreshing style with soft yet pronounced bubbles, and savoured the moment.  We drank the champagne as an apéritif and paired it with smoked salmon on rye toast. The appetizer was prepared with toasted rye bread cut into slices and spread with cream cheese, and then topped with smoked salmon, capers, chopped fresh cilantro leaves (coriander), and freshly squeezed lemon juice.

Sublime.

Our visit to the Champagne region and these four Grande Marque Champagne Houses has provided us with lasting memories. Our stories about the people and their pursuit of excellence, the historic places and delicious champagnes that we tasted will linger on.

References:    www.champagne-bollinger.com          www.louis-roederer.com

Champagne Region, NE France: Billecart-Salmon, Krug, Roederer, Bollinger – Optimism in a Bottle Part 2 of 3

There’s a sense of excitement in the air as we start our drive last October through the vibrant green vineyards of the rolling Champagne countryside.   We are going to visit four of the Grande Marque Champagne Houses, see their premises, taste their champagnes and have the opportunity to feel the ambience of these historic businesses.  

Caravans of the grape pickers - Champagne

Caravans of the grape pickers – Champagne

It’s harvest time and everywhere we see grape pickers at work. 

We arrive at Billecart-Salmon,  a medium sized Champagne House based in Mareuil sur Aÿ. 

Door Sign at Champagne Billecart-Salmon

Door Sign at Champagne Billecart-Salmon

  It was established in 1818 through the marriage of  Nicolas-François Billecart to Elizabeth Salmon and is carried on by their descendants.  I was first introduced to their champagne a year ago and enjoy the restrained, elegant style.   Billecart-Salmon are known particularly for their rosé champagne but offer the full range of styles.  

Four legged friends trimming the grass at Billecart-Salmon

Four legged friends trimming the grass at Billecart-Salmon

 At a tasting lunch, we experience their different champagnes with a corresponding range of savoury and sweet bouchées (bite sized offerings) from smoked salmon to chocolate, all elegantly presented in ‘silver-service’ style.   We are impressed by their gracious hospitality and their pleasure in providing a full tasting and pairing experience.  

Suite of Billecart-Salmon champagnes for tasting lunch

Suite of Billecart-Salmon champagnes for tasting lunch

   We visit the cellars where we are interested to see the chalk board listing the different plot harvests. The magic of the grape growing areas come to mind as we read Chardonnay from Cramant, Mesnil, Chouilly;  Pinot Noir from Äy, Le Clos Hilaire, Verzenay,  Mareuil sur Äy. 

We also meet some of the younger generation of staff being groomed for senior positions and it is encouraging to see this kind of organizational development in place.

Krug premises in Reims

Krug premises in Reims

We continue our drive through the vineyards towards Reims, the famous Gothic Cathedral town and important hub of the Champagne industry. Our second visit is to Krug at their establishment in Reims.

Established in 1843, Joseph Krug, founder,  watches solemnly over the  present day proceedings from his centrally positioned portrait in the main Salon.    Krug has its own allure and dedicated client following supported by the marketing arm of the LVMH, Moët Hennessey Louis Vuitton corporation, purveyors of luxury goods.    Krug aficionados are invited to “share your unforgettable experiences at kruglovers.com.’

Joseph Krug and his famous notebook

Joseph Krug, Founder and his famous notebook

At Krug, the extraordinary attention which is paid by all the great Champagne Houses to sampling, assessing and recording the year’s wines is emphasized to the extent that  we understand the skill, expertise and patience that is in every top quality Champagne.     At Krug itself,  they sample and assess the year’s wines from nearly 250 plots.   They also taste again 150 reserve wines from previous years.    Each year over 5000 tasting notes are collected and recorded.      This work of the Cellar Master, with Olivier Krug – who we had the opportunity to meet – and other members of their Tasting Committee sets the stage for the blend of wines for the year’s Non Vintage Champagne.  We visit their cellars and see the large number of individual vats for the fermentation of wine from the individual plots, secure within a special space in the cellars.  This is before we taste their formidable suite of champagnes.

Krug - individual vats for first fermentation from individual plots

Krug – individual vats for first fermentation from individual plots

By the end of the day our minds are buzzing with the experience of it all: the countryside, the people we met and their stories, the  exhilarating taste of a number of champagne styles, the sights and sounds of the Champagne Region.

The hills and vineyards of Champagne

The hills and vineyards of Champagne

More than anything it’s the sense of being there, soaking up the atmosphere and experiencing the Champagne heritage.    It’s been a great day.

Fast forward to January, 2014 and France’s culture ministry has proposed the vineyards, houses and cellars of Champagne for world heritage status (UNESCO) along with those of Burgundy.   The proposal will go before the UNESCO World Heritage Committee in 2015.   If approved, they will join Saint-Emilion (Bordeaux) representatives of French winemaking on the UN body’s list.  We applaud this proposed recognition of talent and tradition.

 In Optimism in a Bottle post 3 of 3,  I describe our visit to Roederer and Bollinger.

Reference:   Champagne Billecart-Salmon: http://www.champagne-billecart.fr

Champagne Krug:    www.krug.com

Champagne Region, NE France: Four Grande Marque Champagne Houses: Billecart-Salmon, Krug, Roederer, Bollinger: Optimism in a Bottle, Part 1 of 3 – Introduction

Champagne – the great celebratory sparkling wine.    For me, it’s optimism in a bottle;  an immediate feel-good emotion.

A recent trip last October to the Champagne region of NE France about 130 kms from Paris was an experience in geography, history, tradition, science and an exploration of champagne style and tastes.

Harvesting in Champagne vineyards near Eperney

Harvesting in Champagne vineyards near Epernay

While drinking champagne epitomizes fun and frivolity and the marketing is conducted with great hyperbole and lyrical language, the wine making production behind this façade is serious, detailed, patient, professional and exacting.     As they say at Billecart-Salmon:  “Give priority to quality, strive for excellence.”

In each of these four Grande Marque Champagne Houses  of Billecart-Salmon, Krug, Roederer and Bollinger, we were impressed by the infinite attention to quality and detail.   This was particularly evident in the precise knowledge of hundreds of individual small plots of vines throughout this most northerly wine region of France.     It is the nuances of soil composition, orientation to the sun, topography and other details which singularly or together create the subtle differences in the wine from each plot which is so important in the essential blending process to make top quality champagne.

The Champagne Appellation d’Origine Controllée (AOC) designation governs all aspects of the production of champagne from planting to labeling and production in the Champagne delineated area of over 35,000 hectares.    Only sparkling wine produced in this area can be called champagne and the Champagne Houses are relentless in their protection of this name.

Three main grape varieties are permitted in champagne making:  Chardonnay,  Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.   Generally, champagne is white although most Houses create a rosé.    There are exceptions to the standard approach:  Blanc de Blancs is made from Chardonnay and Blanc de Noirs is made from Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.

The four most important wine growing areas are Montaigne de Reims (mainly black grapes) ,  Côte des Blancs (mainly Chardonnay),  Vallée de la Marne and Côte des Bur .  These areas are outlined on the Wine Spectator map included.   It identifies the “heart of Champagne” around Epernay and Reims, however, there is a Champagne area further to the south which is not visible on the map.

Wine Spectator map of the Heart of Champagne

Wine Spectator map of the Heart of Champagne

So where do the champagne bubbles come from?   The quick answer is that they are made through a natural process in the bottle. The Champagne AOC requires that the traditional method of champagne production is used which requires both the mandatory secondary fermentation in the bottle and minimum periods of maturation on the lees (dead yeast molecules) of 15 months for non vintage champagne and 3 years for vintage.  The top Champagne Houses allow for much longer maturation periods – 10 years is not unusual – to create their signature styles.

Champagne is made in several complex steps which I won’t attempt to elaborate.  Some key elements only are referred to below.  Each Champagne House uses their own specific approaches to create their Champagne House signature style and flavour.   An important fact to note is that the grapes are harvested according to the plot where they are grown and the still wine produced from each plot is kept separate until the blending stage.   This means that the nuances from the individual plots are retained.

This individuality is important in the detailed and exacting process of sampling and assessing the still wine from each of hundreds of plots.   In non-vintage wine where consistency across years is the objective, the chosen individual wines are blended together with reserved wines from previous years to create the assemblage (blend) for that year.

The reputation of each Champagne House rests significantly on this sampling, assessing and blending of different wines.   It’s the alchemy of champagne making and the responsibility of the cellar master and the blending committee.   It is after bottling and with the addition of a liqueur de tirage  ( including sugars and yeast nutrients) that the bubbles are made during the secondary fermentation.

The mystery and sophistication of champagne has been carefully nurtured over time.   The four Champagne Houses we visited were founded in the 19th century although Roederer has its origins in the 18th C.   Apart from Krug which is part of the LVMH Moet Hennessey Louis Vuitton corporation, the Houses are independent and have passed from generation to generation.   Even at Krug, Olivier Krug, 6th generation of the Krug family is still actively involved in the business.

Reims Cathedral - the west portal with rose window and tympanum

Reims Cathedral – the west portal with rose window and tympanum

The Champagne region is steeped in history.     Much of the area was significantly affected by World War 1.  Half the Louis Roederer vineyards were destroyed in that war.  During that period the Bollinger cellars were used as a hospital, courtesy of Mme. Bollinger.    The history of Reims, a major hub in the Champagne industry goes back to the Roman times.   For more than one thousand years the sovereigns of the Franks and then France came to the Cathedral or its predecessor to be crowned (816 – 1825).     Keeping pace with more modern times, the great Gothic Cathedral is home to stained glass designed by Marc Chagall and installed in 1974.

With only time for a brief visit, we walked from the bright October afternoon sunshine into the shadowy, chiaroscuro atmosphere of Reims Cathedral.   Our footsteps sounded heavy as we walked up the aisle admiring the vaulting and the brilliance of blue and red shafts of light from the stained glass.    Before leaving this inspiring place we followed our usual practice of lighting a wax taper, casting our own pencil of light into the shadows.

In the Part 2 of 3,  I will write about our visit the same day to Billecart-Salmon and Krug.

References:  With thanks to Wine Spectator for the map of the Heart of Champagne