Tuesday, May 6, 2008

In Praise of Coteaux Champenois

So unfortunately the vast majority of you have no chance at all of buying this wine, but I’m going to tell you about it anyway. It’s a Bouzy rouge from Georges Vesselle, the former mayor of Bouzy and probably the most highly regarded of all the producers named Vesselle in that village. Unfortunately for us, Georges has retired and apparently there are no heirs, as the estate has stopped producing and is now refusing to sell any wine. As they won’t even let me stop by for a visit, I have no real idea what’s going on, but by chance I was able to find a bottle of Bouzy rouge for sale the other day.

I like the still wines of Champagne quite a bit, although sometimes I feel like I’m the only one in the world who does. Sold under the appellation Coteaux Champenois, they exist in both red and white versions: red is by far the most common color, as well as the most successful. While there are producers making relatively rich, complex red wines here, such as René Geoffroy or Egly-Ouriet, the majority of wines are quite light in body and high in acidity. This wine by Georges Vesselle is particularly old-fashioned in character, with a pale, limpid color—I’ve had poulsard recently that’s been darker than this! It’s tart and brisk, its pungent aromas of red plum and sour cherry underlined by pleasant, fleeting hints of five-spice and Chinese medicinal herbs. Its texture is silky and alluring, and its lightness of body makes it go down easy—the label says 12 percent alcohol, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were closer to 11.5. While it’s a very particular wine, and certainly not to everyone’s taste, I find it delicious.

The problem with Coteaux Champenois is that it needs to be grown in the warmest places in order to attain sufficient ripeness, which is why the most famous examples are from villages such as Bouzy, Ambonnay, Aÿ or Cumières, all of which have sunny, south-facing slopes that see plenty of sunshine. This means that Coteaux Champenois is just as expensive, and in some cases even more expensive, than bubbly champagne, since it comes from the best vineyards. And while it’s delicious, even the best Coteaux Champenois isn’t anywhere near the level of quality of the sparkling stuff.

My Bouzy rouge, for example, cost me 18 euros, which in France is quite a bit of money to pay for a red wine. Is it worth it? Probably not. I can buy much better champagne, even champagne from Bouzy, for 18 euros. But it’s great to drink, and it offers an intriguing and alternate perspective on the region. In fact, if you ever find yourself in Champagne, it’s worth sampling a bottle or two of Coteaux Champenois from a good producer. You certainly won’t find much of it elsewhere.


Louise said...

Coteaux Champenois is indeed a rarity on local (U.S.) shelves, though you can sometimes find Bollinger's La Cote aux Enfants. A single, vinyard Ay rouge. I imagine you know it and know too that it's grown on ungrafted rootstock (I wonder if that really does make it taste like 19th century wines...). It's a novelty wine, that comes, unfortunately, at a cult wine price. That said, it's interesting to pair alongside Chiquet's Ay chard. If you're into comparing dirt.

Jon Webster said...

I was fortunate to have been able to visit the cellars of George Vesselle about 2 years ago. It was a lovely visit arranged by my previous employer who was bringing Vesselle wines into the U.S. under a 2nd label. I was particularly enamoured of the Bouzy Rouge, the color almost as light as a rose, distinctively bright and funky, positively delicious. It's a shame to hear that the estate is no longer producing as the Brut Vintage and the Rosé were just delicious.

Anonymous said...

It is nice to find some other fans of Coteaux Champenois. I've only had a few but I've found them to be facinating wines. The 2002 Coteaux Champenois from Larmandier-Bernier was really good. I also had a bottle recently of 1996 Coutier Coteaux Champenois and I had the fortunate pleasure of having a Coteaux Champenois from 1976 when I visited Coutier a couple of summers ago....I've been begging a friend of mine who represents Philipponnat in the US to get me a bottle of Coteaux Champenois blanc from the Clos des Goisses vineyard but have yet to score a bottle. Again Peter keep up the great work. You are my new favorite blog.

Cheers to you,

Peter Liem said...

Hello David,

La Cote aux Enfants is indeed a hallowed vineyard, and that's a particularly good sector of Ay. The vines aren't ungrafted, however -- the only ungrafted vines that Bollinger has are the two plots for Vieilles Vignes Françaises.

Peter Liem said...

Hello Skinny,

That 1996 Coutier is terrific. My friends and I had bought a bunch of it back in the day, but unfortunately we just drank our last bottle a few months ago.

Clos des Goisses blanc is wild stuff. How did you even hear about it? There were only 300 bottles (one barrel) made in 2004 – I’m saving my last bottle to taste alongside the 2004 bubbly someday. As I noted in my post on these “other” wines from the Clos back in December, the Clos des Goisses is the only example I can think of where it’s possible to taste sparkling wine, sparkling rosé and still white wine from the same vineyard. Slightly different parcels, to be sure, but the same type of terroir. (There’s also a still red version, but technically it’s not Clos des Goisses – it was labeled incorrectly.)

Louise said...

Good knowledge by you. I was on a weird (wankery?) educational mission and buying any ungrafted wines I could find. Bollinger's Vielles Vignes Français is on my list; La Cote aux Enfants is not. So now I have no idea how this bottle ended up in my cellar. I could have worse problems, I suppose...
best, David

Peter Liem said...

There's certainly nothing wrong with having a bottle of Côte aux Enfants in your cellar. Speaking of ungrafted, have you tasted the Vigne d'Antan by Benoît Tarlant, which is from a plot of 50-year old, ungrafted chardonnay in Oeuilly?

Anonymous said...

I don't recall how I heard about the Clos des Goisses blanc. I think it was from my friend that works for the importer. There was another Coteaux Champenois blanc that I've been trying to get over state-side from Lassaigne. It's supposed to be pretty good. Have you had any of their Champagnes yet?


Louise said...

The Tarlant ungrafted is on my wine-searcher e-mail alert list. As much as I enjoy the pleasures of instant gratification, I'm forced to wait for this one.
best, David

PS. "ungrafted" might be a good blog topic?

Peter Liem said...

I've tasted Lassaigne's wines and I like them very much, although I've never had their Coteaux Champenois. It ought to be interesting, as Montgueux gets so ripe.

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