Last tuesday I drove up from the rocky outcrops of the Jura (home of vins de terroir with a vengeance) onto the bucolic plateau of the Hauts Doubs, 800 metres above sea level. A little less dramatic than the Jura, the Doubs plateau is a natural place for the Gentian bitter herb, an ingredient in Vermouth and, notoriously, Absinthe: the exact length of Gentian's stem is said to foretell how harsh the next winter will be. On this glorious August morning, the benign landscape was dotted with the red & brown Montbéliard cows whose milk makes fine Morbier and great Comté cheese. It's a good place too for horse riding and for cross-country skiing, come January. And if you like things simple, a gentle art de vivre thrives in a land of wines, aperitifs and morteau sausage.
Montbéliardes grazing (photo Arnaud 25)
Passing through a quiet village called comically Pissenvache, I suddenly felt very hungry and looked at my watch: 1 15pm and time for lunch! Five minutes later, I fell on my feet and in a one- horse town found a neat little resto with a board advertising Menu du Jour €13 - it turned out to be exceptional value for honest food of high quality: a super tranche of tete de cochon made by the butcher/livestock farmer father of the young patron; paupiette de porc with spaghetti; a great tranche of Comté; apricot tart; a demi carafe of Vin de pays de Vaucluse, coffee, all in.
Vive la Vieille France! And to add a modern touch, the svelte young patronne and a subtle voice for her husband looked as if she would be just at home in the left-bank rue du Cherche Midi as in the Hauts Doubs. Engagingly, she confessed she much preferred Burgundy to Jura wines: if one had to make the choice, who wouldn't! The blonde lady also told me that the nearby town Pontarlier was a rich place, as many of its inhabitants worked across the border in Switzerland, where they could earn four times what they would in France. I drove happily into Switzerland and on down through a heavenly green fir valley to the Pinot vineyards of Neufchatel. Another story for another day.
Hôtel du Marc, Reims 25 May 2012
The impetus for this occasion realised by Veuve Clicquot was the raising in 2010 of venerable bottles of champagne from the bottom of the Baltic Sea, off the coast of the Åland archipelago. Though theVCP ‘1839’ was the intended climax of the day, the bottle we tasted was not in the condition we had hoped for. Luckily, the showing of some of the Widow’s greatest wines from the 20th century made this a great moment indeed. And all in the presence of the current Chef de Cave Dominique Demarville and his two great predecessors, Jacques Péters and Charles Lahaye, now in his 91st year.
The Tasting (in sequential order)
Yellow label (blanc) Base 2008 -Luminous green gold –a fine medley of life-giving acidity ripe fruit and multi-layered mineral flavours. Classic balance. More expressive than Yellow Label Blends of recent years pre- 08 - the re-introduction of a soupcon of oak fermentation seems to have done the trick. Excellent. 17
Yellow Label (Rosé) Base 2008 – rose-petal/salmon. As you’d expect from one of the two best vintages of the’noughties forming the base, there’s a lot of wine here for your dollar. Yet typical of the unhurried pace of Pinot Noir to express itself, the latent richness of red orchard fruits is still tight and contained. But what vigour and vinosity lie ahead- behind the veil of youth today. A lovely bottle, come2013/ 2014 . 17.5
La Grande Dame Rosé 1988 - subtle evolving colour, salmon ceding to mature tuile rim. Complex nose, acidity melding with crystallized red stone-fruits (cherries?) and a Burgundian touch of undergrowth . Exceptional poised vinosity, like fine Volnay (with bubbles), perfect balance. Great wine 19
La Grande Dame
La Grande Dame (blanc) 1962 - old gold, reflects its fermentation in oak in this first vintage of Grande Dame. As Charles Lahaye says “ the main impression is one of walking down into the cellar, the whiff of oak unmistakable.” Still a complex Champagne, citrus character as evident as orchard fruits, reflecting the slightly higher proportion of Chardonnay. Makes excellent drinking now 17
Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label NV1953 Base – luminous green-gold. Aged sur lie under a clamped cork. Late-disgorged November 2008. Amazingly fresh, vital and alive – black grapes power and chardonnay delicacy in textbook balance with a swirling mousse. Remarkable, in the fullness of its life. 18
Veuve Clicquot Rosé 1947 – russet/bronze, tawny rim. Extraordinary density and ripe maturity of grapes (12◦ + natural abv!) typical of this wonderful sunny vintage. Impressively unctuous but not cloying; the vinosity of great old Pinot sings to the taster, a real vino di contemplazione. Still a giant. 18.5
Veuve Clicquot 1904 - disgorged mid 1950s. Good colour, still clearish gold. Tertiary aromas, peat-like with a fine whiff akin to old malt whisky. Rich arresting palate, vinous, a touch of caramel, still fresh. Holding up 17
Veuve Clicquot de la Mer Baltique circa. 1839. This wine had to be re-corked with 11 others; one suspects considerable bottle variation. This one emitted an off-putting whiff of old Champenois cheese (Brie de Meaux or an overripe Maroilles). It did have some fizz, popping when opened. Intensely sweet (dosage 149 grams of sugar/litre) with flavours unfamiliar to the modern drinkers. Charles Lahaye says that it could well have had elements like Pinots Meslier and Blanc and Arbanne, common in this pre-phylloxera period 14
© Michael Edwards
At last, this central grand cru village of Champagne’s Côte des Blancs has the delightful and original restaurant it deserves, complete with ten sumptuous bedrooms. It’s quite fitting that the driver of Les Avisés should be Anselme Selosse, Avize’s - even Champagne’s - most celebrated vigneron: a visionary who has inspired a whole generation of younger growers by taking Champagne back to its roots in, to use his own phrase, “the essence of earth”. Selosse’s leadership by example has staked a claim to a place at the top tables for the smaller Champagne producer-winemaker. That 1980s’ ambition is now a reality in the best restaurants and cafés of New York, Paris, London, Milan and Tokyo, causing the middling négoce some sleepless nights. Ironically, the white neo-classical mansion of what is now Les Avisés has always been a house of distinguished wine since 1805 – until recently it was the chateau d’accueil of Champagne Bricout, a far from middling maison.
Christophe & Stephane share a glass
Despite the grandeur of its setting, with lovely views of the Côte and the Montagne in the distance, there’s nothing formal or chi-chi about the place. It’s all about conviviality, conversation and friendship. You’re invited (but not obliged) to sit at a communal table, rather like London’s Garrick Club, where lunch is served, Wednesday to Sunday. There’s no or little choice, the menu is chalked on a blackboard and changes daily. But don’t worry, Chef Stéphane Rossillon and his wife, Nathalie, at front of house, have the confidence to keep it simple and imaginative in natural dishes that major on top –class ingredients full of flavour and finesse. Last month, I was lucky to be invited here by Christophe Constant of J-L Vergnon, a friend of Anselme’s and rising star in nearby Le Mesnil . We kicked off with oeuf confit, ecrassé de patates douces à la coriandre, hareng fumé, (a fine assembly of poached egg, mashed sweet potato, coriander and smoked herring), the flavours subtly merged to avoid upstaging a delicate mineral Mesnil blanc de blancs. Then a terrific cuisine de grand’mère entrée - tendons of veal, braised with capers, and poelée of spring vegetables, which drank perfectly with an intense but poised Saumur Champigny from the best producer. His name, which I scribbled on a piece of paper is illegible in my spidery scrawl; I’ll let you know next time. The wines from the board also sport some intriguing white burgundies, known to insiders (St Bris from Goiset, Philippe Charlopin’s Chablis Fourchaumes.) On such a sunny day, we ate out in the garden by a lawn that would not disgrace an Englishman’s home, closely watched by the Selosses’ Jack Russell, Ugo.
Le menu du jour
Anselme’s wife, Corinne, has masterminded the project in general and the décor of the lovely bedrooms in particular: each is different and individual, some traditional and plush, others modern, elegantly airy, all luxurious and cosseting. The showers all work on high pressure. As an old hotel inspector, I was immensely impressed by the attention to detail, with one device that passed my acid test, a short-wave/FM radio that could be adjusted minutely on a wheel insert-tuner – play it again, Wolfgang! None of these comforts come cheap but are certainly worth the asking price for two, from €235-00. I can’t think of a better place for a romantic weekend.
Hotel-Restaurant Les Avisés 59 rue du Cramant, 51190 Avize en Champagne
Closed Tuesday and Wednesday
Tel +33 (0)3 26. 57.70. 06