For me, Vilmart & Cie. is not only one of the greatest grower-estates in Champagne, but one of the finest champagne producers of any type in the region. The estate traces its history back to 1890, when it was founded by Désiré Vilmart, and from the beginning, Vilmart & Cie. has always been a récoltant-manipulant, making wine exclusively from estate-owned vines. Since 1989 the estate has been in the hands of Laurent Champs, the fifth generation of the family to take the helm of the house.
The majority of Vilmart’s 11 hectares of vines lie in Rilly-la-Montagne, although there are a few plots just over the border in the neighboring village of Villers-Allerand, and they are a member of Ampelos, an organization that promotes organic and sustainable viticulture. All of Vilmart’s wines are fermented and aged in oak: foudres for the non-vintage wines (casks ranging in size from 2,200 to 5,500 liters), and 600-liter or 225-liter barrels for vintage-dated ones. Some people say that Vilmart’s wines are too oaky, but I often think that this is because the wines are released very young. In addition, none of Vilmart’s wines go through malolactic, and so they can be very closed and slow to develop, especially as they contain a majority of chardonnay. Personally, I find the handling of wood here to be very sophisticated, and increasingly more so as Champs has continued to refine his methods. When tasting a Vilmart wine in maturity, there is rarely an imbalance of oak.
I’ve often noted confusion among consumers regarding Vilmart’s various wines, so I’ll detail them here. The Grande Réserve (which is not imported into the United States) is the basic brut sans année, and is the only Vilmart wine other than the rosés to contain a majority of pinot noir (70 percent). It’s aged for ten months in large oak foudres. The next step up in the range is the Grand Cellier, a special selection blended from 70 percent chardonnay and 30 percent pinot noir. The Grand Cellier is usually a blend of three different years, aged in foudre for about ten months, and like the vintage wines, it contains only the cuvée, or first pressing.
The vintage wine is the Grand Cellier d’Or, blended from 80 percent chardonnay and 20 percent pinot noir. In the past this was always aged in barrique, but since 1998 some vintages have been made in 600-liter demi-muids, which Champs thinks can sometimes be more harmonious for this wine. “The small barriques give you a vanilla and toast character, but sharp, like a small child,” he says. “The demi-muid is softer and rounder. It’s like the difference between bottles and magnums.”
Vilmart has two prestige cuvées, both vintage-dated and both made of 80 percent chardonnay and 20 percent pinot noir. The Cuvée Création comes from 40 year-old vines in two adjacent vineyards in Rilly, Blanches Voies and Basses Haye Barbettes. This used to be made with a high proportion of new barriques, but Champs prefers to use three to five year-old barrels now. (By the way, Laurent Champs’s father, René Champs, counts among his many talents the making of stained-glass windows, and the window depicted on the label of the Cuvée Création is one of his, which you can see if you visit Vilmart’s cellars.)
The Coeur de Cuvée has been one of Champagne’s elite cult wines ever since champagne expert Tom Stevenson pronounced the 1990 “one of the three greatest champagnes made in the last 25 years.” (He had similar praise for the 1996, his highest-scoring champagne from that remarkable vintage.) Sourced from a parcel of vines over 50 years old in the vineyard of Blanches Voies, this wine derives its name from being a special selection of the very heart of the cuvée—in Champagne, a 4,000 kilogram pressing yields 2,050 liters of juice in the cuvée, and Champs selects only the finest 800 liters from the middle of the pressing to make the Coeur de Cuvée. (Although not an exact comparison, think about the heads and the tails in the distilling of spirits.) It’s fermented and aged entirely in one to three year-old barriques.
Since the inaugural 1989 release, Champs has made the Coeur de Cuvée in every vintage except for 1994, which is a testament to the special character and quality of this site. Champs holds back magnums of the Coeur de Cuvée for late release, and the current offering is the magnificent 1993. I absolutely adored this wine when it was first released, and demonstrating my typical lack of self-control I drank through all of my 750s far too quickly. Naturally I was overjoyed to see the re-release in magnum, and in the larger, later-disgorged format it’s even more racy, vivid and complex than it was in bottle.
Finally, Vilmart produces two rosé champagnes. The Cuvée Rubis is the non-vintage rosé, containing 90 percent pinot noir and 10 percent chardonnnay, blended with ten to 15 percent of red wine. It’s usually made from two vintages (the current release is 2004 and 2005). The Grand Cellier Rubis is a vintage-dated rosé made by a saignée of pinot noir, deriving its color from skin contact rather than the addition of red wine. To this juice is added 40 percent chardonnay, as Champs values the character of the saignée but doesn’t want it to become too heavy. “You have more fruit and more expression with saignée,” he says. “I put in 40 percent of chardonnay just to give it more finesse and elegance.” The production of the Grand Cellier Rubis is small, normally only around 2,000 bottles, and it’s made only in vintages in which Champs feels that the pinot is exceptional: it was first made in 1990, but then not again until 1997; since then there has been a 1998, a 1999 and a 2000.
Vilmart is imported into the United States by Terry Theise Selections/Michael Skurnik Wines, in Syosset, NY.