For so many of us, this year has been one of the most turbulent and chaotic in recent memory. Our individual, collective, and familial loss and sacrifice is on a scale incomparable for all but the eldest amongst us. In years of both prosperity and despair, Christmas is an opportunity to reconnect, reconcile, recharge and reimagine the year ahead. Although both regional and national regulations in much of the Western world mean that this year’s festivities may not match their predecessors in scale, there may never be a better reason to double down on their exuberance. For large families with many extended members, restrictions on the numbers of households able to spend Christmas day together may mean a day usually spent together must now be split amongst households. While they have their downsides, small gatherings also present opportunity, and in light of a rather disastrous year offer more than ample opportunity to toast with something special to an altogether more positive year to follow. In this article, you’ll find my five best Champagne picks for Christmas, all available via iDealwine. I’ve steered clear of the usual suspects, opting for a more exploratory selection that you can share with your nearest and dearest over this years festive period.
Larmandier-Bernier Terre De Vertus Premier Cru 2013 – £50
Far from the workings of the sprawling grand marques which so often fill our glasses at Christmas, Pierre and Sophie Larmandier are committed to making interesting wines which are true to their origins. The pairs holdings are split into around fifty separate vineyard parcels spread across the Côte des Blancs in the grand cru villages of Cramant, Chouilly, Oger and Avize, and the premier cru of Vertus. These are some of the very best villages in Champagne producing showstopping wines.
All but three of these parcels (representing a tiny 0.5 hectares) are farmed using biodynamic methods though the pair are not certified. They do not buy any grapes and as such are technically classified as growers. Their wines, a modest total production, are made entirely from their own 15ha of vines, which have an average age of 33 years. Working in the winery with only natural yeasts, the influence of terroir is of the utmost importance and at the heart of the pair’s philosophy. As is the case at Jacquesson, and amongst so many other ‘hip’ producers, the wines receive a low dosage, if any at all. Though contested by many, it is believed in these circles that dosage can mask the character and place of wine.
Terre de Vertus is made from a single plot of Chardonnay and has been produced as a single-vineyard since 1995. The plot is a parcel named “Les Barillers” and can be found mid-slope in the 541.2ha Premier Cru village of Vertus. After picking, the grapes are gently pressed and the juice is clarified very slightly before going directly into wood. The wine is then matured on the initial lees for a year with no filtering or fining. Following the liqueur de tirage in July the bottles are taken into the cellars where the second fermentation and subsequent ageing takes place over half a decade. These wines are conversation starters, wines to talk about with your family, they are experiences opposed to mere products.
Jacquesson Cuvée 743 – £45
Earlier this year, post-international travel restrictions, I was able to attend Le Vintage Reims’ annual Jacquesson dinner. Sitting humbly amongst patrons, the Chiquet brothers floated casually from table to table throughout the evening. Jean-Hervé explained how steady vine development and accelerated ripening had made 2005, the base vintage of the 733 we were enjoying, particularly interesting in his mind. A year which produced superlative wine also saw Jacquesson recognised by French publication La Revue Des Vins De France as the third-best Champagne house, after only Bollinger and Krug.
The house, located in the 323ha commune of Dizy a little to the north of Epernay, is run by the Chiquet brothers. Before it was hip, the brothers were advocates of zero dosage, a philosophy put to the test with the houses move to release late disgorged cuvées. At Jacquesson this juxtaposition of low-to-no dosage and extended lees ageing produces some of most poised of all wines. Uncommon in the region, the house very clearly categorises their Brut NV, a decision very much at odds with local precedent which has intentionally avoided specifically equating batches with particular vintages. Though only a slight reveal, this labelling reflects the pair’s values which respect both terroir and vintage diversity, values which supersede the anxieties felt by so many Champenois about the conditions of a specific harvest.
Cuvee 743 (2015 base) is a seriously delicious NV Extra Brut Champagne. A blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier sourced from ‘prime vineyards’ in the Vallée de la Marne and Côte des Blancs aged on the lees for three years before disgorging with a 1.5g/l dosage. 743 is a serious but crowd-pleasing Champagne with a real emphasis on precision of fruit and overall complexity. This is an impactful wine from a house relatively undiscovered amongst the uninitiated, one bound to impress guests on Christmas day.
Benoit Lahaye Rosé De Maceration Extra-Brut Blancs De Noirs – £38
Benoît Lahaye took over his family’s estate in 1993 and has been bottling wine under his own label since 1996. Having already developed an interest in a more friendly approach to viticulture and being inspired by Patrick Meyer in Alsace, Lahaye stopped using herbicides in 1994 and by 1996 had begun to work organically. In addition to toying with cover crops and carefully experimenting with biodynamic, the estate was converted entirely to organic in 2003, and certified in 2007. In 2004 Lahaye joined a relatively small number of producers in Champagne who were working all of their vineyards biodynamically. Since 2010, the estate has been certified biodynamic by Biodyvin.
In total Lahaye tends to a rather modest 4.8 hectares which are planted mostly to pinot noir (88%) Three hectares lie in Bouzy, one in Ambonnay and another 60 are (a unit of area) in Tauxières. Lahaye also managers a tiny 20-are parcel of 50-year old chardonnay in the little-discussed Premier Cru village of Voipreux, in the southern Côte des Blancs. Interesting to some, in 2010, Lahaye began ploughing two hectares of his land by horse, a method favoured on small plots as it compacts the soil far less than ploughing with a tractor. As of 2012, all of Lahaye’s base wines are fermented in barrel with natural yeasts, giving them an interesting textural dimension.
Rose de Maceration, an intensely concentrated and visually striking wine, is made from100% Pinot Noir grapes grown in a single vineyard, Les Juliennes, planted in 1973 and is in part a byproduct of 2 to 3 days of whole cluster maceration before direct pressing, with just 2-3g/L dosage and only 4,000 bottles produced in total. Far from being a gentle, delicate, pinkish rosé, Rose de Maceration is flamboyant, showy and a sure-fire way to grab guests attention.
Champagne Ruppert-Leroy Fosse-Grely Brut Nature 2017 – £44
Bénédicte Ruppert and Manu Leroy own 4 hectares of vineyards around Essoyes near the medieval city of Aube, an hour southwest of the heart of Champagne. Though not commonly discussed, this is a region home to some of the most exciting winemakers in the world. The vineyards were planted by Bénédicte’s father in the 1980s, have been farmed organically since 2010, and were certified biodynamic in 2014. Except for the perpetual reserve cuvée, a pooled reserve of wines from several years, each wine is the product of a single vintage and a single vineyard. Interestingly, Bénédicte and Manu also have a small biodynamic farm where they raise animals, grow grains and vegetables, and produce their own biodynamic preparations. Extinction rebellion eat your heart out.
Fosse-Grely is a 1.5ha single vineyard located in the quiet but rather large village of Essoyes. The lieu-dit sits at an altitude of around 260m and was where Bénédicte’s father first planted vines back in the 1980s. The site is surrounded by forest, the vines are planted on south to southwest facing slope on a thin layer of red clay with thick compacted limestone beneath. The wine is 80% Pinot Noir, 20% Chardonnay with just 7000 bottles made each year. Fosse means ditch, and Grely is an old local word that means gravel, the name a nod to the site’s position and composition. At £44 this is a steal and a real centrepiece that’s bound to pique interest.
Extra Brut Complantée Agrapart & Fils – £57
Founded in 1894, Agrapart has become one of the most sought after and thought-provoking growers in the Côte des Blancs. Under its current proprietor, Pascal Agrapart, who has been making wines here since 1984, the estate has gone from strength to strength. These days the estate’s vineyards span a little over 12 hectares, this spread over more than 70 parcels planted at around 8,000 vines/hectare. Much of this hectarage consists of grand cru plots in the Côte des Blancs. 9.5 hectares of Chardonnay in Avize, Oger, Cramant and Oiry and a further by 1.5 hectares of Chardonnay in Avenay-val-d’or, located in the slope above Mareuil-sur-Aÿ. Additionally the estate farms around 1ha of Pinot noir also planted in Avenay-val-d’or and a number of ‘ancient varieties’.
Though Pascal states he is uninterested in being labelled organic or biodynamic, he does work according to what he calls sensibilities. There are no chemical pesticides or herbicides used at any point. In the winery, Pascal ferments with indigenous yeasts, this he feels is crucial to wholly the expression of terroir, an interesting concept mirrored by several others. A portion of the wines is also aged in old, 600-litre oak casks, adding interesting depth.
Complantée is perhaps the most interesting bottle in my top five pick. This bottle is a ‘field blend’ of 6 varieties. The three ‘modern’ grapes of Champagne we all know and love, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier. And a further three ancient varieties. Arbane, Petit Meslier, and Pinot Blanc. The blend consists of two vintages with grapes almost entirely from the village of Avize. This is a bottle that will excite even the most seasoned of drinkers and one bound to leave a lasting memory on guests this Christmas.
Champagne is a broad, diverse and exciting region, despite this, in the UK only a handful of growers are represented at scale with the grand marques filling glasses in households up and down the country. With the prospect of significantly smaller festive celebrations and a particularly turbulent year to toast goodbye to, there’s never been a more fitting time to share something special with your loved ones. My aim in this piece was to help you explore beyond the typical and spark conversation amongst family and friends this year as you celebrate with loved ones. All of my five best Champagne picks, as well as a whole heap more wines, are available at iDealwine now. If you’re buying for Christmas the last guaranteed date for shipping is the 17th December across much of Europe.