14 October 2011

La Côte des Blancs (1)

One afternoon in Champagne, we took a drive south from Bouzy to see the area where Chardonnay grapes for making bubbly wine are grown. It's called La Côte des Blancs. Nearly all champagne contains some Chardonnay wine, along with wines from Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes. Champagne is often an assemblage or blend of wines made from different grapes and in different years.

The hokey side of the Côte des Blancs

There are exceptions. Some champagnes are millésimés, or vintage. That is, all the wines that go into them are from the same year's crop, so a year is specified on the label. Another exception is champagne made with Chardonnay grapes exclusively. It's called Blanc de Blancs — white champagne made with white wine only. It's 100% or pur Chardonnay. It can be millésimé — all Chardonnay and all from the same year — or not millésimé — Chardonnay wine from different years.

Cramant is one of the prime Champagne villages
for Chardonnay grapes

One of the villages on the Côte des Blancs — the "hillside of white grapes" — is Cramant; you'll see its giant bottle in the pictures. Cramant and the villages just to the south — Avize, Oger, and Le Mesnil-sur-Oger — are all located on the east-facing slope of a vast plateau that extends westward toward the Paris area. The elevation differential from the top of the plateau down to the eastern plain is about 250 meters (nearly 900 feet).

In the picture below, you can really see the hillside — la côte — with it's east-facing slopes. That's the so called "mountain" of Reims in the background. It too is a big forested plateau with grapes planted all down its slopes.

We were driving a Renault Kangoo on the trip — a sort of
station wagon that is almost a little SUV

The east- and south-facing slopes are warmer than the surrounding countryside — they sort of face the sun. And the soil is very chalky, which gives the wines made from grapes grown in it a dry, chalky taste. Once the wines are processed by the "Champagne Method" to add sparkle, the result is a wine that is (according to different writers) "more graceful" or "lighter" than blended champagnes.

Looking down over Le Mesnil-sur-Oger...

We didn't actually stop to taste any wines while we were driving down the Côte des Blancs, which is all of 10 miles from north to south. We were driving, after all. But our goal was to find a champagne winery we had visited with a French friend 10 years ago and buy a couple of bottles there just for old time's sake. The earlier visit was a good memory. And we eventually found the place.

...and a closer view

It's in the village of Gionges, up on the plateau above Le Mesnil-sur-Oger. Walt remembered it better than I did — the house with dark blue shutters, and barn containing the wine press and bottling equipment across the road. The tasting we did in the owners' house, around a big round table, was more like a little party than a business transaction. However, when we got there this time, there was nobody around and a sign on a door said
« Dégustations sur rendez-vous exclusivement » — "Tastings by appointment only." And we didn't have an appointment.

The pictures in this post are some I took at Cramant and some others I took as we drove up the Côte des Blancs toward Gionges. More to come...


  1. The 'Blanc de Blancs' Champagnes are my favourite. I find them more delicate, elegant and purer. That's problably why I also like Vouvray sparkling wines. Although they are made from Chenin instead of Chardonnay grapes, they have that same elegance.

    Looks you had a fabulous vacation in the Champagne! Looking forward to read more ...

  2. I'm wondering what you thought of the Renault Kangou (sp?) I've seen it listed as an auto choice and wondered about it.

    What a nice drive that must have been. I love it when you can drive up a hill and have a gorgeous view of the valley below.

    Mary in Oregon

  3. Martine, we enjoyed a nice bottle of Blanc de Blancs from chez Guy Charbaud in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ before lunch today, with friends. Very nice.

    Mary, the Kangoo is a little quirky but comfortable and spacious. The seatbacks in the back seat are too vertical, Walt and I think, and we didn't find any way to adjust them. Otherwise, for three people, a medium-size dog, luggage including bath and bed linens for three, plus a cooler or two and a bag of groceries, we had plenty of room and a comfortable ride.

  4. I found your description of the wine tasting venue interesting because it was the same at the tasting to which we went in Barcelona.

  5. Many French people also prefer Blanc de Blancs Champagnes...
    Since I'm not that keen on champagne, I prefer of "Champagne" rosé...

    And, eventually, would you think of buying a Kangoo if you decided to buy a second car ?

    Bises from Mary in a very sunny Normandy, nice weather over here, which is very pleasant after the rainy days...

  6. Hi Mary in Normandy, it's sunny here in Touraine also. No, I wouldn't buy a Kangoo. It's too quirky for me. And too wide and too high. I don't think it would fit through my garage door. Glad to hear from you, bises...


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