On the Trail

Vineyards and Old Bottles in Epernay

Gary Westby

(Our Champagne buyer Gary Westby is currently traveling through the region)

There is not a lot of down time on a K&L buying trip, so when I touched down in France I went straight from the airport to my first appointment at Charles Ellner in Epernay. I was tired and jet-lagged when I walked in, but energized by a great vineyard visit and lifted by some excellent Champagne by the time I left. I met with Frederic Ellner first, who manages the vineyards, and we traveled up to the Meltins, a plot that was planted to pinot noir in 2000 on a northeast-facing slope inside the Epernay city limits. There, Pierre Ellner, the fifth generation of the family, was at work pruning and tying the vines. The whole of Champagne is a little late in pruning this year as the winter was so cold and so wet that they could not get into the vineyard to do the work. It is inspiring to me to see a young member of a family like this doing the real work in the vineyard, and that personal attention comes through in the high quality of their finished Champagne.

After the vineyard visit, we went back to the winery and I sat with Willem Schiks (who some of you may have met last year at our Champagne tent event tastings) and Jean Pierre Ellner and tasted through the range. The Ellner family is very patient with their wines and the base years for the non-vintage current releases are from 2011 at the latest, while the Premier Cru that we have in stock being is based on 2006—more than ten years old! They never do malolactic fermentation, and that extra acidity gives the wines the chance to develop the complexity that only time will bring, but without sacrificing that snap and freshness. I particularly loved the Grande Reserve, a blend of 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir from all estate-grown fruit. This non-vintage cuvée is based on 2009 with over a third from older reserves, and has that great balance of power and freshness that really excites me in Champagne. The green apple flavors of a blocked malo bottling were balanced by great brioche flavors—it it had it all and should be well under $40 when it gets here.

Although I had another appointment, Jean-Pierre tempted me into staying longer with a great old vintage from the cellar. I have been lucky enough to taste a lot of the Champagne from the 1976 vintage, but his was one of the best. The color still had a touch of green, and the wine had better acidity and liveliness than any other that I have had from this hot and early harvest. It was loaded with complex, smoky, coffee aromas, a rich, full, nearly caramel like flavor, but no residual sugar was detectable on the long, swelling, mineral driven finish. That is a bottle I won’t forget!

-Gary Westby