Day 5: Champagne for my real friends

We woke in Épernay after a great night’s sleep, then headed straight to our first appointment in Avize. The Michel Gonet winery where we tasted showed us a range of their wine from cask and bottle, and took us inside their creative process. They were a fun family to taste with: very animated, and snippy with each other in just the right way. We tasted at the table with three generations of the family at once. The grandfather, the son and daughter, and the grandson. Their wines were very elegant and precise. Not a very muscular style of Champagne compared to some other houses we tasted, but finely crafted and delicious.

Next it was off to Robert Moncuit in the village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger. This is the visit we’ve been anticipating for the longest time. This is part of the reason we’re in France. About six months ago, Nelson and I started talking about the possibility of producing a private cuvée Champagne for the restaurant. There were a few names thrown around of potential partnerships, and then we were shown the wines of Robert Moncuit. I would have a hard time stressing enough how impressive these wines are when you first taste them. Intense and full of flavor with substantial structure. Aromatic and playful, yet with gravitas. When the opportunity arose to work with them, we were super excited. We will be putting our own label on a wine to use at Canlis and share with our guests, and this is why we’re here.

Pierre Amillet, the proprietor-winemaker, greeted us at the door with a big smile. His energy and vivacity were visible from the outset. In terms of winery equipment, Robert Moncuit was the most interesting. They have two coquard presses, which are ancient equipment in Champagne. For a couple hundred years, the coquard press was the way by which grapes were turned into champagne. It was a measuring tool and a gentle way of pressing grapes for juice. Every other winery we went to had a mechanical or pneumatic press, but Moncuit had two vintage wooden Coquard presses (see below).

We went from there into their underground stone cellar, dug out in the 1880s. As you can imagine it was ice cold. We tasted from barrel and saw how the 2017s are progressing. Then he took us to the storage room and tasted us on a barrel of their 20 year-old Ratafia, which is a type of liquer made in Champagne from fresh juice and brandy. Then, to our surprise, Pierre brought up a magnum of 1983 Robert Moncuit, from our friend Tom’s birth year.

After tasting through the lineup of finished Champagnes and discussing what our private label might look like, we went outside and Pierre showed us their estate vineyard. One of Champagne’s dark secrets is that for years it was the garbage depository for Paris. They would literally take trash bags and put them right into the vineyards. You can see the remnants of old bags, wrappers, toothpaste tubes, plastic caps, and all manner of other things in the soil. It was seen as quality compost at one point in time. Pierre told me that workers even used to get stuck with used needles through their shoes…ugh. Thankfully the trend has been in reversal for quite a few years, but it’s still surreal to dig your hands in the dirt and see broken up trash from the 1980s. Pierre took the magnum of 1983 from the cellar and disgorged it in the parking lot, then poured it around for us. A funky, complex bottling with loads of character. It’s a treat to be poured old wines straight from the cellar. We had lunch with Pierre and his wife, then headed to our next stop.

Our next appointment was at Frédéric Savart in the village of Ecueil. Fred is a stocky guy with swept back, shoulder length hair, vineyard-soil covered sneakers, and a crazy look on his face. He sized us up and then took us upstairs to his barrel loft to taste with him. Fred’s barrel samples were great like many of the other ones we tasted, but they had a different level of intensity and craziness. Every barrel was diverse, and all of them seemed to exude a little bit of crazy in their personality.

Besides trying France's version of a big burger at Sacré Bistro in Épernay, that's it for the day. We got a great handle on several producers, so I left this day feeling educated and excited about where Champagne is going as a region, and stoked to have our own cuvée for Canlis with the excellent Robert Moncuit.