Champagne Days

by Dave

I was fortunate enough to go and visit some of Kensington Wine Market’s exclusive wine producers on during my trip to Europe in August. This was my first time heading across the Atlantic and travel to some of the old world wine countries. It has been a dream of mine to do so for quite a while, having researched so much about it and read so many different things. It was absolutely amazing to be able to put a face, not only to some of the wines that we carry but also get a better idea of what the country looks like. To get a feeling for what is “terroir”. To see first hand the differences in the soil, different preferences for making wine, and hear different opinions about everything from wine to politics.

The main reason I am so proud to be part of Kensington Wine Market not only has to do with the people who work there but it is also a big part of the people who we represent through their wines.
The first 2 producers that I met were from Champagne and we have been fortunate enough to carry their wines for quite a few years. I respected and loved their wines even before I met the winemakers but now after meeting them that has gone to a whole other level! The other reason I am so happy that everyone who met me could, is because I happened to be arriving in Champagne right in the middle of harvest and everyone I met was unbelievably busy. However, they generously allowed me to be a fly on the wall and see exactly how production is done.

Marie Courtin
The first winemaker I met was Dominique and we carry her Marie Courtin Champagnes. They have always been some of my favourites and after meeting Dominique I think she is one of the most interesting, honest and amazing people I have met. Dominique only has 2.5 hectares to produce all of the wines from her Marie Courtin line. They are from different plots within that 2.5 hectares and they are all named after how she feels that the wine speaks to her when she first started making them. She uses biodynamic methods for producing all the Marie Courtin wines and focuses on minimal influence. If you are looking for a natural wine this should be one of the tops on your list!

Dominique and I met at her winery, which is more like a medium sized Quonset and then downstairs is another decent sized area where they have their holding tanks for ageing and fermenting the different wines. Her winery is about an hour southeast from Troyes, a very classic historical city with architecture that harkens back in style (and much of the time, the time it was built) to the middle ages. Classical buildings and cobblestone roads which are now filled with restaurants and shopping stores. It also used to be the capital of the Champagne region but that distinction has since passed on to Epernay. Marie Courtin is located in the most southerly region of Champagne. Distance-wise, it is actually closer to parts of Northern Burgundy areas than it is to the current capital of Champagne. Due to this, this area typically sees warmer summers than the rest of Champagne, which can have a big influence on their wines.

As it was the middle of harvest, Dominique met me in some big ol’ rubber boots and a plastic apron – both of which I wish I would have had by the end because there was lots of water getting thrown around as well as grapes, juice and a bit of mud. Since it was so busy we were not able to talk a lot about the wines but I was able to get a very good idea of what she is trying to do.

Dominique is extremely passionate about her wines, the environment, and having a legacy for her family. She wants to make fantastic wines while respecting the environment and the energy that is all around. She also wants to make something that she can feel proud of. She doesn’t have to make her own Champagne – she could easily just grow grapes and sell them to other large producers. She would probably make more profit with less risk in the process, but she loves what she’s doing and hopes that it is something that she can eventually entrust to the next generation of her family.

Dominique was kind enough to invite me for a lunch which ended up being one of my favourite meals on the whole trip. The meal was held together was with the main workers in the winery and also included two other aspiring winemakers who are there for the harvest; helping and learning as much as they can.

It was an incredible gift to listen to and, be involved in, the discussion of different ideas, opinions and thoughts about wine and winemaking with such an experienced, knowledgeable and enthusiastic group of people. In everything that we discussed it was beautifully obvious how much Dominique and the people working with her love making wine and how much she personally cares about the wine that she is making as well.

After lunch, I was able to go through tasting some currently available Marie Courtin releases, and they showed brilliantly! What I love about Dominque’s wines is that she creates entirely vintage-driven bottlings, mostly from single lots. This goes against a lot of the main philosophy espoused by many of the larger, more well-known Champagne houses where they tend to focus much more on non-vintage blends. Her wines are beautiful with lovely acidity, well rounded and amazing complexity and let the vintage and terrior tell their story.

I left Marie Courtin feeling more love for the wines than before and complete admiration for Dominique. It was definitely an unforgettable experience!

One of the other KWM-exclusive producers that I was able to meet was Giles Dumangin. His wines have been the shop’s best selling and most well-priced Champagne for quite a long time and we now get some of his top-end wines, which are astounding!

Giles was kind enough to let me come and meet him as well and I have to say that I was blown away. This guy is a machine! There were only 3 people in the winery doing all of the jobs and none of them was that young either. When I arrived it was 10 in the morning and you could tell that Giles was tired. He told me that he had been up since 4 in the morning working away and the day before he had an 18 hour day. He told me that is how it has to be all through harvest – with them working like mad. Giles has a larger production than Marie Courtin but when you first enter you would never imagine.

The entrance to his winery is one one of the main streets of a small village. You walk up the driveway to a small storefront where they have some of their Dumangin wines on display. That’s where I met Giles. After greetings were exchanged, we headed to the very back of the storefront where he opened a door and voila – we were suddenly in the center of Dumangin’s operation! The winery seems entirely hidden from the shop in front of it and the village itself. It is packed to the brim with the business of winemaking: full of wine bottles, grapes, grape bins, stainless steel containers and two grape pressing machines. His office is a small desk in the middle of it all with papers strewn all over and a computer in the middle.

During the time that I was with him, Giles was running from one place to another, filling up a press, getting rid of grape skins, moving wine into different containers, weighing grapes, cleaning, everything! Within the winery, he was the central character in a non-stop diorama showing the start of the wine-making process! Even though he was hard at work, he was still able to explain the processes to me, as well as answer any question I had, whether it be about wine, how he makes things, what his experience is, and of course his opinions and ideas on how things should be done at Dumangin.

Even though Giles and Dumangin have a larger production compared to Dominique at Marie Courtin, he is still not a big producer by Champagne standards. Giles is very much a part of everything, especially since there were only three people in the winery during the whole process while I was there. These are handmade wines, and he is determined and focused on what he wants from each one of his labels. One of the things that I found very interesting is that Giles uses smaller plastic bins to harvest his grapes than what is normal in Champagne. At 16 kgs, they are about half the size of what is typically used in the region. He explained that he does this because when they are bigger containers the grapes can start pressing themselves with the natural weight that they have and this will take away from what he hopes will be expressed by the final product.

Giles was kind enough to invite me to lunch as well, where we were able to taste a couple of his wines with the lunch. While we were having lunch and tasting some Champagne one of the workers there told me the story of how he got to know Giles. Giles was pouring his wine at a large Champagne tasting. This gentleman was there with a grumpy face and so Giles asked him what the problem was? He told Giles that he was bored, that all of the wines there were boring and that he couldn’t find anything he liked. So Giles brought him a taste of one of his wines and let him stew over it for quite a while. After a bit Giles went back again and gave him a taste of a different one, leaving him for even longer to think about it. Finally, he went back with a third different sample and then left him alone. The gentlemen had thought that Giles would go looking for him to explain what they are or something because he was absolutely amazed by all 3 of them and couldn’t believe what he was tasting. Giles never did look for him though so he had to track Giles down and find out what they were. They were 3 different vintage Champagnes all from the same vintage 15 years past. All done from single lots and each one devoted to 100% of a specific grape varietal: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. From these wines, a friendship was created that has lasted for years and he even goes to help Giles during the harvest now.

I have yet to taste these unique wines myself, but Giles will be visiting us soon and we will hopefully be setting up a tasting with him and Dumangin. With any luck, I will have my chance then and our customers will get the chance too!

I have always loved Champagne and enjoyed the Champagnes that we have but after this trip. I am more amazed and in love with them now than ever before. I know Champagne is looked at as a celebratory wine and rightfully so, but I don’t think you should wait just for a special occasion. They are so delicious that they deserve to be had for any occasion. They go amazing with so many foods and honestly just an amazing taste sensation that is hard to get over.

What I learned the most on this trip was that everyone has their opinions on how things should be done, and they are very clear about what they are as well. It was very interesting to hear all of the differing ideas voiced by the people making wine on my trip. I realized quickly that these people and their opinions, whether they agree or disagree with each other, are made from personal experience and the endeavour to make the best bottle possible to showcase what their wineries are capable of.

If you haven’t had a chance to go to Champagne and you’re looking for somewhere different and amazing to check out, I would definitely put it on your bucket list!

Dave Tyler



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