james debate
james debate

Sunday 21 September 2008

And here I am, back in London again from my travels in Champagne, a little bit older, a little bit wiser, and packing some 20 odd bottles of the world's finest champagne and 24 half bottles, a stock that will last a good few years until I go back to the region.

champagne ephemeric billecart-salmon gratien

Why do I need so much? Well many of these bottles you can't get in this country, and the ones you can cost ridiculous amounts of money. I'm a guy who likes to have a stash of such things at the ready for when I have company and guests over and right now I have a pretty damn fine collection of champagne to share with friends and that special someone.

As such I have decided to run the rule over the various champagne houses I visited during my stay and tell you whether or not they're worth your time and money. Enjoy!

1. Locret-Lachaud
Small, simple champagne house, inexpensive and unremarkable.
The basic brut is about average, but the milleseme (vintage) is the strongest effort from this factory, above average and still very affordable.
Verdict: Moët-Chandon't

2. Prevoteau-Perrier
A small family business, this factory really has a very special personal touch and homemade feeling. We were given a tour of the place and enjoyed an overview of the bottling floor and the cellars underneath. Personally I enjoyed the tasting of freshly squeezed grape juice, as anyone who knows me knows i adore the stuff, only wish champagne companies would start selling it!
Very good value. Prevoteau is very affordable and also very good quality. The brut is decent as is the rosé and milleseme, but the highlight is the Adrienne, a sweet and very easy drinking champagne named after a local french actress.
Verdict: Moët-Chando

3. Billecart-Salmon
Willecart-Wonka's champagne factory. Always a favorite of mine. The true connoisseurs will tell you to forget the big over-hyped names of moët-chandon, krug and perrier-jouer and go for Billecart. Truly magnificent, if often a little pricey, but not in the same outrageous price bracket as the aforementioned hype machines.
The Brut is very good for a basic brut, and the rosé is an absolute classic, one of my all time favorite champagnes for general usage. Going beyond this though, the blanc de blancs, made from 100% chardonnay, is absolutely top notch for a standard champagne. The vintage bottles from this factory, however, are truly top class, the 'Elizabeth' is the vintage rosé which is truly exceptional, as is the vintage blanc de blancs. What we weren't able to try during our visit, however, are the rarer, ultra special champagnes, the grande cuvee and st hilaire, which are both only produced on truly exceptional years and cost ridiculous sums of cash.
The tour, bigger than the mom & pop business of prevoteau but not as big as the over the top shenanigans at the likes of moët-chandon, contained more than just a small hint of willy wonka's chocolate factory, with playful architecture and lavishly big and beautiful garden. Oompa-loompas were conspicuously absent.
Verdict: Moët-Chando

4. Champagne de Castellane
Another smallish company which has taken a gamble in not investing any money in customer visits, seating large numbers of people in a big empty warehouse and selling champagne glasses for tastings, as opposed to giving them away for free like most other places.
It doesn't help that the champagne, frankly, was underwhelming, in fact below average compared to some of the other houses in the area. It is easy to see why they have to charge for tastings, I guess not enough people buy to make free glasses worth their while.
Verdict: Moët-Chandon't you dare

5. Alfred Gratien
Another midsized factory, it had always been an ambition of mine to try champagne from here, as I often see it on menus at more expensive restaurants.
I was not disappointed, a very decent brut to start off with was surpassed by the milleseme, a very tasty champagne with an absolutely heavenly fragrance of honey, definitely the best smelling champagne of the trip.
Worth noting that there was another step up in their champagnes, to the special Paradis label, which i unfortunately didn't try here, but we bought one, so stay tuned and i'll get back to you on that.
Verdict: Moët-Chando

6. Mercier
The Disneyland of champagne factories, this one was certainly the best laugh. Both pretentious and ridiculous, the tour began with a film presentation that reminded me very much of the opening segments of the 'star tours' and 't2' rides at disney and universal studios respectively. This then continued with a very long elevator ride into the cellars, complete with cheesy and pretentious displays visible through large viewing windows, which are apparently vital to the story of how the factory is founded. The ensuing parade of hot air balloons, dusty taverns full of animatronic people and small model villages really had the feeling of pirates of the caribbean, I was expecting the 'yo ho a pirates life for me' jingle to break out at any moment. Best of all was the small train that took us through the cellars, so pointlessly over the top, i had never seen that before.
It was worth the visit just to see these hilarious eccentricities, but how did the champagne itself taste? It was ok. It was very very simple, easy drinking champagne. Smooth but unremarkable. As one of my more esteemed colleagues put it; perfect champagne for mixing into cocktails. Not very expensive and fairly good, this champagne makes a business on affordable, decent champagne, and that's why they can afford all these bells and whistles.
Verdict: Moët-Chando, just for the theme park that comes before the tasting

Debbie award for Best Bottle of Champagne: Billecart-Salmon Blanc de Blancs vintage
Runner Up: Alfred Gratien Milleseme

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