On the Trail

The Other Side of Epernay

Gary Westby

On the opposite side of Epernay from the glitzy Avenue de Champagne is one of the best kept secrets in the region. Champagne Charles Ellner is a small scale negociant, but everything in his offering is estate grown by the producer. They are lucky to own 120 acres across five sub regions of Champagne, with a very important proportion of old vines, and are one of the biggest land holders in the Côtes d’Epernay, the vineyard inside the city limits. Ellner also has a very large holding in the grand cru of Chouilly, five premier crus on the mountain of Reims, two crus in the western valley of the marne and plots in the Sezanne and the Aube. Almost none of the plantings are less than twenty-five years old, and a full third of their vineyard site is true old vines—planted to old massal selected material. This does a lot to explain the striking quality of their Champagne.

The third generation is now in charge of Ellner and they do not cut corners or rush the wines. I tasted with Jean Pierre Ellner on my last trip to the region. He never allows the wines to go through malolactic, and the youngest wine in his offering was kept for over six years on the lees. Luckily Ellner has more than two kilometers of cellars to store all of the bottles! As a group, the wines have wonderful toasty flavors, richness, and the kind of depth and complexity that can only come from age. The wines are very age worthy if you decide to keep them longer, like the 1973 (my birth year in the photo above) we tasted while I was there.

The all estate grown Charles Ellner "Carte d'Or" Brut Champagne $34.99 is a blend of 75% Chardonnay and 25% Pinot Noir is an outstanding value in top-class Champagne. This wine has been aged for over five years on the lees and has a wonderful lemon curd and brioche nose. They never do malolactic at Charles Ellner, and because of that decision they must age the wines longer. The results are spectacular. This has incredible texture and finesse, but also fantastic mineral-laden length! The Charles Ellner "Premier Cru" Brut Champagne $39.99 comes entirely from the 1er cru vineyards of Dizy, Rilly-la-Montagne, Sermieres and Champillon. It is composed of 75% Chardonnay and 25% Pinot Noir with over six years of ageing on the lees. The current batch is based on 2006. This has the personality of a Champagne with much more Pinot Noir than the composition suggests. I love the black cherry on toast aromas and the incredible hazelnut depth on the palate. This is very concentrated, serious Champagne. If you like Champagne that combines both chalky, high acid drive with a nearly silky, creamy texture, this 2004 Charles Ellner "Prestige" Brut Champagne $49.99. I was also struck by the extraordinary, tiny bead. I imagine this will age for as long as you care to keep it- take note if you were married in 2004 like I was! It is composed of 70% Chouilly Grand Cru Chardonnay and a combination of Tauxieres and Epernay Pinot Noir for the remainder.  I have another bottle in the fridge for tonight!

Do you have enough 2002 Champagne left in your cellar?  If not, grab a bottle of the 2002 Charles Ellner "Séduction" Brut Champagne $49.99. The Seduction Brut is the most exciting older vintage Champagne that we have brought in direct in a long time, and I can't believe the value for money that it offers. The nutty, brioche filled nose gives way to a lively, chalky, bright and dry finish. This wine is so loaded and complex I just about filled up my notebook when tasting it, I found everything from cherry preserves to nougat in it. The finish has the rare peacock tail effect that usually only old great Burgundy brings to me, but with all of the refreshment of Champagne. Yum!

-Gary Westby