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Still Kicking: The Return of Prestige Coteaux Champenois

The Maisons bringing back still wines with Burgundy prices.


Before Christopher Merrett discovered the secrets to taming the bubble in champagne, the region produced mainly still wines. In actual fact, effervescence was seen as a fault.

So much so that the infamous Dom Perignon, the monk who has been credited with the "creation of champagne", dedicated his life to keeping the bubbles from mysteriously appearing in his wines. It was common to hear the monks say that "one must drink their champagne before Easter, before the wines become possessed by the Devil".

With very little understanding of vinification at the time, they didn't realise that Champagne's cold winters halted fermentation and the yeast would become dormant until Spring. The second fermentation created the diabolical effervescence and "tainted" the wine. The bottles that hadn't exploded were disposed of by the monks, and upon Dom Perignon's death in 1715, not a single drop of sparkling wine was found in the cellars at Hautvillers, with most of the barrels being red wine which he used for blending.



When the monks ruled the vines, champagne wine was known as "œil de perdrix" a still red wine with a very pale pink robe, like an eye of the partridge, and competed with Burgundy reds. But when effervescence in champagne became the trend, a new niche was born. The humble Coteaux Champenois was relegated to the sidelines as it was seen as a cheap lower quality alternative to Burgundy. Production dwindled, with less than 100,000 bottles made for the whole region in 2015.


However, in recent years with global warming and ever rising Burgundy prices, and following in the footsteps of cult growers, more and more Maisons are creating experimental cuvees which are selling for astronomical prices. Some of the greatest chef de caves are even reviewing their massale selection and replanting their vineyards with clones from Burgundy and Alsace, especially for their still wine production.


Of these producers, very few claim their Coteaux Champenois ressembles Burgundy. However their prices are in direct competition. And one cannot help to ask: if there is more room for margin, will more Maisons reignite the Burgundy-Champagne rivalry?


Here is a list of some of the most prestigious Coteaux Champenois, and some of the dearest made by the Grandes Marques.


 

Veuve Clicquot - Clos Colin - The insider's coteaux


The Clos Colin site is located in Bouzy and is normally used for the Grande Dame rose. However as some lucky visitors to the house may know, sometimes they keep a little to create a Coteaux Champenois with as little as six barrels.

The south facing slope is one of Clicquot's historical vineyards as it was purchased back in 1741, and is seen as the holy grail of Bouzy Rouge by connaisseurs.


This year exceptionally, the house has released a small amount of the 2012 with the Grande Dame Rose. This enables the buyer to discover the explore the assemblage method which was first used in Champagne by Barbe Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin in 1818.


Image from Chef de Cave Didier Mariotti.

Price: the wines are yet to be released. Bottles: Less than 2,000



 

Andre Clouet - Côteaux Champenois Versailles Rubis & Diamant


Made as a tribute to the wine served at the table of Louis XIV in Versailles, these are extremely elegant Pinot Noir (Rubis) and Chardonnay (Diamant) wines vinified in the Burgundian style with 20 months in Vicard barrels. The grapes are sourced from the Grand Cru vineyards of Bouzy and Ambonnay and have received incredible reviews. Tyson Stelzer names the Diamant the best Côteau he has tasted to date.


Price: €100 Bottles: 500 of each


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Charles Heidsieck - Coteaux Champenois Blancs 2017

Another recent release from cellar master Cyril Brun which has made waves: four single cru still Chardonnays from the 2017 vintage, representing Montgueux, Villers-Marmery, Vertus and Oger. Vinified and aged in 3-4 year old oak barrels for 15 months, with full malolactic fermentation, these monocrus are sold as a set to enable the drinker to explore the four terroirs and shed a little light on the cellar master's assemblage challenges. The House has also released a red coteaux from Ambonnay from the 2021 vintage.


Price: €300 for the set Bottles: 250 sets of four bottles



 

Louis Roederer - An Ode to Camille


This is one of Champagne Louis Roederer chef de cave Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon's latest project released in early 2021in response to rising temperatures. The Camille Charmont 2018 red and Camille Volibarts 2018 white pay homage to CEO Frédéric Rouzaud's great-grandmother: Camille Olry-Roederer whose bold spirit left her mark on the House in the mid twentieth century. The wines are an expression of a single varietal from a single vineyard: the rouge is a 100% Pinot Noir from a 43-ares plot in the Charmont lieu-dit in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, and the blanc is from a 55-ares plot of old historic Chardonnay vines in the Volibarts lieu-dit in Le Mesnil-Sur-Oger.


In 2002, the plots were replanted with Burgundy and Alsace clones suited to still wines and Lecaillon has invested in a selection of high end equipment to make coteaux, so we can expect to see these released on a regular basis in the near future.


Price: €160 for the Pinot Noir & €140 for the Chardonnay Bottles: 1,631 bottles of the Pinot Noir and 2,880 bottles of the Chardonnay



 

Bollinger - La Côte aux Enfants


One of the best-known Coteaux Champenois AOC is made in Aÿ by Maison Bollinger on a plot which is less than one hectare. This steeply sloping plot called "La Côte aux Enfants" i.e. the children's hill", takes its name from the fact that, in the past, only children could work here due to their small size and high density vines. This vineyard is maintained by the house in an artisanal way and uses the Burgundian method of vinification.


Price: €120 Bottles: Less than 4,000 bottles per vintage



 

Henri Giraud - Cuvée des Froides Terres

Current vintage of this wine is the 2018, and is the best rated coteaux release from the producer known for their use of Argonne oak. The “Les Froides Terres” plot of Pinot Noir in Aÿ Grand Cru is vinified from whole grapes, cold-macerated for more than 10 days and matured on fine lees in oak barrels for 15 months. It is often compared to some of the greatest appelations of Burgundy, namely Chambolle Musigny. It was released with the R000 printed on the bottle, which highlights their Triple Zero guarantee: Zero Pesticide, Zero Insecticide, Zero Herbicide


Price: €120 Bottles: 2023 numbered bottles



 


Egly-Ouriet Cuvée des Grands Côtés Ambonnay Rouge



Although Egly is a RM, collectors say this is the most prestigious of Coteaux, and it certainly is the dearest.


Made from a the midslope of a single vineyard directly below Les Crayères in Ambonnay with 60 year old vines, the "grand côté" is a south facing site, with more clay, which makes it a perfect site for Coteaux Champenois. It is fermented and aged in in Dominique Laurent barrels (30% new) for 22 months.


It's elegance comes from the specific Pinot clone. It is Pinot Fin - the original strain from which noir descended. Incredibly finicky small berries and low yielding, but worth it's weight in gold.


Price: €195 Bottles: less than 3,000 bottles per vintage


 

As France's temperatures and prices continue to rise, we will no doubt see a revival of some familiar old cronnies, like Moët & Chandon Saran Blanc de Blancs which was phased out in the 1980s. Surprisingly, the movement which has been led by growers and houses producing micro cuvees, is unveiling Champagne's forgotten varietals' potential to shine. In a recent tasting including the most respected champagne critics, some, among the best rated coteaux were Etienne Calsac's Coteaux and Drappier's Trop M'en Faut, made with a blend of Chardonnay,Pinot Blanc,Petit Meslier,Arbane and Fromenteau respectively. With the increase in popularity of these varietals, and houses reviewing their massale selction, we will no doubt see more of these pop up in the next decade. Interesting drinking to look forward to!




You can read more about the forgotten varietals in our tasting with Charline Drappier here.


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