As the TGV pulled up to Reims, Champagne, it didn’t look good. The damp and dreary weather reflected my mood, as for me a 5am alarm usually signifies the end of a long bar shift and the promise of a post-work cold one, as opposed to a day trip to France. Reims, located eighty miles North East of Paris and recognised as the capital of the Champagne region, is undergoing somewhat of a face-lift in preparation for the forthcoming installation of a tram line, resulting in closed roads and construction, blemishing an otherwise regal and charming town.
No matter. We were immediately put at ease once meeting our welcoming hosts, Messieurs Jean-Jacques Cattier, the patriarch of the Cattier Champagne house and the appropriately named Philippe Bienvenu, the Commercial Director. They immediately whisked us away to Ct Cuisine, a classic French restaurant with a contemporary edge. There the reassuring pop of a Cattier Blanc de Blancs being opened reminded us why we were here and the restaurants slogan, the pleasure starts here, reassured us yet further.
Over a recommended meal of steak tartar, we proceeded to learn about the Cattier family’s long-established history in the fine art of producing world-class champagne and their latest wine, the new prestige cuvée, Armand de Brignac, better known to the linguistically challenged among us – or the generally forgetful as The Ace of Spades.
The Cattier family have records showing that they owned vineyards in the Champagne region as far back as 1763, although back then, like many families in the region, they were producing still wines as opposed to the fizzy stuff. Those bubbles were somewhat of a novelty to the French back then, since it was the English who held the secret to bottles strong enough to withstand the carbonated pressure. In 1918 the family established itself as a company, and now produces around a million bottles of champagne a year from their 31 hectares, shipping off sixty percent of it to over seventy countries, from the United States to Oz, Japan and Switzerland. Even at thirty-thousand feet, you will be served a Cattier champagne, a bottle of Clos du Moulin is the tipple of choice in BA First Class.
Clos du Moulin roughly translates as Vineyard of the Windmill and is held in extremely high regard by champagne enthusiasts. It is a specially selected single vineyard surrounded by a protective wall and, due to the particular terroir (soil, weather conditions and so forth) is known to produce the finest grapes of the region. There are just over a dozen clos (vineyards) in Champagne and Clos du Moulin is one of the oldest, it has been around since Louis XV was still on the throne. It is from here that Armand de Brignac gets a proportion of its grapes.
Not content with producing champagne with finesse and complexity, the Cattier family has taken further steps to ensure that their prestige cuvée stands apart from the rest. They were the first (and to their knowledge remain the only) champagne house to blend their prestige cuvée from three separate vintages, the years of which are stated on their label (currently 2002, 2003 and 2005).
Furthermore, the bottle itself is another first, it is completely paperless, coated in pewter and its metal labels applied by hand. Designed by renowned French designer Monsieur Courage who rose to prominence in the Eighties, it certainly breaks the mould of tradition and can be described best as, well, bling. Since Armand de Brignac has no marketing budget and is never conventionally advertised, (tastings, dinners, word of mouth and trips to Champagne like this, avoids feeling too commercial) the stand-out bottle almost acts as its own PR. It is very likely that this is what got it noticed by hip hop legend Jay Z, who found himself at odds with his usual prestige cuvée of choice, Cristal. He was quick to endorse the product, including it in various music videos and getting the attention of the hip hop glitterati. Cattier, far from frowning on such celebrity endorsement, welcomes it, pleased that they haven’t had to do anything to receive so much coverage and that it simply increases the chances that people, celebrity or not, are enjoying their champagne.
Of course, on the other hand, such a radical, modern and unapologetic bottle has resulted in its fair share of sceptics; how can something so bling be taken seriously? Well, there is one simple solution: as a fellow bartender likes to say, When in doubt, put it in your mouth.. So, after a tour of the impressive Cattier cellars (of which there are three, in Roman, Gothic and Renaissance styles; thats one hundred kilometres of cellars containing bottles dating back to the 1930s) we settled down in Monsieur Cattiers childhood home to taste the Armand de Brignac range.
First up was the Blanc de Blancs, in other words champagne produced solely from Chardonnay grapes. Like other blanc de blancs, it is floral and a little citrussy and, although quite direct and easy drinking, has a lovely complexity; sweet tropical fruits such as pineapple and honey melon are well-balanced by a minerality, with an unusual shade of anise creeping in and a light dry finish. As well as being an obvious apritif or pairing for crustaceans, I felt this expression would work well in a bar, without an emphasis on food, as a refreshing, stand-alone champagne. Quaffable and more-ish.
Next, the Brut, the flagship of the Armand de Brignac range. The colour is a little darker, akin to pale gold. This one just kept giving with each sip revealing increasingly intriguing flavours. First apples, red berries and brioche, then it takes a different turn, opening up herbaceous and floral notes like coriander and lavender. Finally a long, dry finish with a hint of marshmallow. This is a serious, weighty, complex champagne and, I felt, one to be enjoyed with rich food such as duck, caviar or red meat, such as game, providing diners are given ample time to fully appreciate it; one to drink sitting down with brows furrowed in concentration.
Then, the Rosé, with a dominance of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, a grape M. Cattier describes as most under-rated (in fact, he will be working on a tribute to the grape in the future you heard it here first!), which gives a fruitiness and roundness to the wine. The colour is more like a peach than a rosé, with the nose revealing a whole bouquet of aromas including red apples and berries, peach and vanilla. It tastes soft and floral. Cassis, rose and green banana would lead you to assume this is a great pairing for a dessert like a berry cheesecake. This was confirmed by our hosts but, after pressing for an answer to which of the range is their personal favourite, I got the distinct impression that this was the one. One they feel can be drunk before, during and after a meal, at the end of the night or the beginning of the afternoon. An anytime wine and a good example of why the popularity of rosé wines are, once again, all the rage and no longer confined to a cheap tipple, for the laydeez.
Before we leave, one final question, almost criminally forgotten by me now that I am sporting a belly full of bubbles. Who is Armand de Brignac? Truth is, no-one. A fictional central character of a now lost book Jean-Jacquess mother used to enjoy reading. De Brignac, Jean-Jacques remembers, was a valiant character and it was his sister who suggested Armand as an elegant blue-blooded first name. It works for me and this contrast of myth and history, old and new, classic and contemporary, clearly works well for it.