Today we started with a beautiful drive to the far western edge of Champagne, the frontier between the Aisne department and the Paris district. We took the southern route through brie country, as the normal road that follows the Marne is closed for construction here in Epernay. The farm country of Champagne Agricole is scenic and very calm, it is too bad more people don’t go to have a look.
Our destination was Charly-sur-Marne, and when we dropped back into the Marne valley, the dairy land gave way to vines and even under cold, grey skies it was quite beautiful. The Marne is wider here than in the area around Epernay, and everything seems just a little bit more country. We pulled into the winery at Baron Fuente and were greeted by our old friend Eric de Brissis, who many of you know from our big Champagne tent events that we host every October.
Baron Fuente is a negociant, but most of what we buy from them is estate grown from Charly-sur-Marne. First thing, Eric took us out to the vineyard, and we visited the south facing, mid-slope vineyard called Les Trous aux Renards, or the fox holes, in English. The 2017 harvest was challenging out in Charly, and they suffered a little bit from each of the problems that we have heard about for this vintage. Some vines were affected by frost in spring, some hit with hail in early summer, and a few more suffered from the nasty little Suzuki fly and botrytis in August.
When we came back to the winery, Eric explained that their new centralized site, which is just in the middle of all of the vineyards saved the harvest for them. They have four 8000 kilo bladder presses, at least one more than they normally would need, and employ them for custom crush when they are not working their own production. These presses are fed baskets of grapes on conveyor belts that dump them robotically. With four presses, they can work 24/7, and this ability, along with the central location and strict sorting saved 2017 for them, and has also allowed them to drop the amount of sulfur that they add to the wine.
We met with the brother and sister team who own and run Champagne Baron Fuente before the tasting, and it was great to catch up with them. Ignace Baron is the chef de cave and oversees all the winemaking operations, while his sister Sophie Baron manages the vineyards. They are hands on owners, and their hard work and commitment to quality show through in the finished product.
We tasted the entire range of the Champagnes, and four really stood out to me. The Baron-Fuenté "Grande Réserve" Brut Champagne has to stop surprising me one day, but it is so hard to believe that we can sell such a high quality Champagne at under $25. It is aged three years on the lees and has a full 30% of reserves inside, giving it just the right balance between toasty generosity and bracing refreshment. The 2009 Baron-Fuenté "Grand Millesime" Brut Champagne which just arrived is both drier and softer than the 2008 that many of you know so well. It seems like a conundrum, but since the 2009 vintage was so ripe, the dosage was dropped enough to make this finish quite crisply! Any vintage Champagne at under $30 seems like a great deal, but this performs in another realm entirely! Ignace and Sophies tete de cuvee is the Baron-Fuenté "7" Brut Champagne, and although the wine is more than 8 years old, it is the very first release! Champagne of this quality takes a long time, and as the label proudly advertises, this has enjoyed 7 years of ageing on the lees. It has the creamy, nutty, brioche flavors and aromas that only the most patient producers can achieve… I will be drinking more of this when I get home. The big discovery of the tasting was the Baron-Fuenté "Grande Réserve" Demi-Sec Champagne, which we hope to get this fall. I hope to be able to sell this at less than $25, and feature it as our number one recommendation for mixology. Baron Fuente uses only cane sugar for their dosage, and cocktails benefit greatly from having the integrated sugar that six months of post disgorgement resting brings to an excellent quality bottle like this. Time to take my French 75 game up a notch, more on that later!
A toast to you!
- Gary Westby