Lucy Jenkins
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Every year is a blank canvas – a grower Champagne masterclass

A recent masterclass held in Hong Kong’s historic China Club, hosted by Champagne Asia, set out to introduce the trade to two renowned but very distinct grower Champagne producers from the Côte des Blancs, Pierre Peters and Vilmart & Cie.

Pierre Peters and Laurent Champs at the China Club

Starting with Vilmart & Cie, which has been estate bottling since 1890 in Rilly-la-Montagne, the fifth generation proprietor, the gentle-mannered Laurent Champs, introduced the audience to his ‘Grande Reserve Premier Cru NV’, which he described as a “paradox” because of its high Pinot Noir content of 70%.

“It’s a search for balance,” he said. “We use no malolactic fermentation, and 40% of the blend is from 2013 and 2014 [vintages] with a dosage of 10 grams per litre. We also respect the soil and wait until absolutely the right moment to pick.”

His second wine, the ‘Grande Cellier Premier Cru NV’, by contrast, is 70% Chardonnay and a blend of the 2011, 2012 and 2013 vintages. A slightly lower dosage of 9g/l also led to a crisper, more elegant style.

The first rosé of the masterclass, Champs’ ‘Cuvée Rubis NV’, is 90% Pinot Noir, produced in the saignée method and made from the 2010 and 2012 vintages, all sourced from Rilly-la-Montagne. “It is tempting to drink it young,” said Champs. “And it is a delight if you do, but the real pleasure is to leave it for a few more years for the intense cherry and red currant flavours to develop and mature.”

Onto his 2011 vintage of his ‘Grand Cellier d’Or’, Champs admitted that it was a “challenging vintage”, characterised by an unusually warm spring, followed by a cool and wet summer and sporadic hailstorms that defied him as a winemaker. “The sugar and acidity levels were low and it was difficult to find that balance,” he said. However, Champs still hailed it as a “triumph”: “We’re lucky that even challenging years yield interesting grapes. Understanding our soils an our vines means we can instinctively know how to handle even disastrous situations with minimal fruit loss.”

Finally, Vilmart & Cie’s 2008 was greeted by a ripple of anticipation in the room with Champs describing it as the “jewel” in his range. Produced from 55 year old vines and comprising 80% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Noir, Champs said 2008 was the, “year for Chardonnay” with its elegant structure making it only ready to drink now. “It’s so important to wait,” he said. “Only now has it got the balance of minerality and fruit which expresses the best of its soil. Still so full of tension, it will thrive for years to come.”

Moving onto the Blanc de Blancs wines of Pierre Peters, the exuberant Rodolphe Peters explained how every year is a “blank canvas” for the estate, owing to the “transparency” of the Chardonnay grape. “It can take on many different characteristics depending where it’s grown,” he said.

“The best part of my job is vinification as you can play around with different factors, and make even tough years produce wonderful results but we always look for a specific freshness.”

His first wine, the ‘Blancs de Blancs Cuvée de Reserve NV’, is a blend of more than 20 harvests with 1988 being the oldest and 2013 the youngest and comprising around 50% of the blend.

“We use no oak, only stainless steel and press very quickly after picking to retain that freshness. I love how the Chardonnay has conveyed the minerality and this wine to me, is the very image of our estate and what we’re trying to do,” he said.

Peters’ ‘Extra Brut NV’ he described as an, “interplay between tension and texture”, hailing from four single vineyards and made up primarily of the 2011 vintage. “I see Extra Brut as a consequence of global warming,” he said. “It demands riper fruit and has a softer, fruitier expression.”

Moving onto the ‘Reserve Oubliée NV’, which Peters described as his Cuvée de Reserve, “that spent an extra year in tank”, it excellently highlighted Peters’ distinctive winemaking style where he keeps a portion of each year’s reserve wine and adds it to his solera over decades. For his Oubliée, the base is 2007 but the reserve dates back to 1988.

“This to me demonstrates the art of what I am trying to do: make a non-vintage with multiple vintages going back several years but still retaining that tension and freshness.”

His rosé cuvée, ‘Rosé for Albane NV’, named after his daughter with the first vintage in 2007 was produced in the saignée method with a 7g dosage and made of 60% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot Meunier and is, as Peters described, “lively and vivacious – just like Albane – with the addition of intense fruit and crushed flowers.”

Finally Peters’ pride and joy was his ‘Les Chetillons 2008’, which was produced from three aged parcels in Les Chetillons in Le Mesnil sur Oger with the vines ranging from 40-70 years old. Production is extremely limited. “We only make 10,000-11,000 bottles per year,” said Peters. And this to me is one of the best expressions of our estate. We vinify the parcels separately, one with malolactic fermentation and two without which lets the wine express its powerful minerality and grace.”

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