I have spent numerous hours pouring through Champagnes in an effort to drown myself in the riches of life. Someday when my liver catches up to me and I do go to the other side I want to be buried with a fine bottle of Champagne. No gold, no coins on my eyes for the trip to the afterlife- just give me a bottle of hand-crafted bubbly. For what greater enjoyment is there in life (and perhaps in death!) than the ethereal brilliance that is a well-made Champagne? What other item in life offers such pure sensual enjoyment? What other product can be so heavenly light and yet devilishly decadent? What other man-made item can be described as full, frothy, elegant, suave, sophisticated, vibrant, complex, tactile and spiritual all at once?
Out of all of my travels down the bubble-lined glass of life, there is one Champagne house that has stood apart from the rest- one producer that has crafted elixir after elixir that stood on the shoulders of giants. This house is Vilmart and Cie. Shortened to just Vilmart for the rest of this article (no need to keep mentioning the "company" part of Vilmart & Cie) this is as good as it gets in Champagne, and since Champagne is generally regarded as to be as good as it gets for bubbles and perhaps even all wine, ergo Vilmart is quite possibly the greatest wine producer in the world.
Whoa! "Them's fightin' words" is what I am sure more than one of you is thinking. But argue not until you have sampled such greatness, and then we may debate until the cows come home. But the wines must be tried first, because they are just that good.
Those of you who read our Winery of the Month feature on a regular basis will know that I have a tendency to ascend a soapbox or two, particularly when it comes to Grower Producer Champagne. So I will leave that fight mostly for another day. But it is worth mentioning that Grower-Producer bubbly is a rapidly growing segment of a rapidly growing market. Champagne sales are up all across the globe, and while the current economic climate may suggest we have little to celebrate there are a million and one reasons as to why great Champagne can be enjoyed on an everyday basis and need not be reserved for weddings, graduations and other festivities.
Vilmart was created in 1872 by Desire Vilmart in the sleepy Hamlet of Rilly, a town situated in the northern section of Champagne known as the Montagne de Reims. Of all the famous areas within Champagne, it is the Montagne de Reims that has for years been dominated by the Grand Marques, or the major players in the Champagne world. I am sure that in addition to their ties, wallets, pens, ice buckets, leather bottle wraps and other paraphernalia that they distribute to trick you into buying their inferior champagne that you may have heard of the famous white chalk cliffs of Montagne de Reims. This area is blessed with such a perfect example of the silky, silty, chalky soil that has made Champagne famous that the phrase "Champagne Powder" originated here. While this is true that the cliffs of Montagne are indeed that famous and offer the most fertile of fertile crescents in terms of rearing amazing Champagne, it is most definitely not true that the large houses source solely from this region. At 1.5 million cases a year or more for many of the large houses this is a statistical impossibility. But for a small and dedicated winery such as Vilmart this is the ideal location.
Champagne Vilmart passed from Desire to his son and then eventually to his grandson Renan who's attention to detail and superb blending abilities did much to establish Vilmart as a top notch wine even at that time. But then fate took the house for a turn. Renan's daughter Nicole fell in love and married a vineyard worker by the name of Rene Champs. If that did not set the locals to gossip, Nicole and Rene completely changed the production methods of Vilmart by switching to fermenting and aging the wines in oak barrels, a practice far from the normal cement vats that were popular at the time. In terms of provincial France this was quite the scandal.
But the change was a success, as the resulting wines offered more depth, clarity and richness than anything that had been seen before. Fast forward about 50 years, and now the estate is run by Rene and Nicole's son Laurent Champs. Laurent has brought Vilmart to its greatest production, a true golden age for this venerable champagne house.
The results have catapulted the wines and the reputation of Vilmart to the very top of the Champagne hill. Noted Champagne writer Richard Juhlin had this to say in regards to Vilmart in his latest book 4000 Champagnes "Vilmart has quickly established cult status . . . since young Laurent [Champs] took over from his father in 1991, the company has become one of the true gems with the perfect wine, Coeur de Cuvée, as its most brilliant star. This wine was the best made in Champagne during the "off" years of '91, '92, '93 and '97. Hunt like a demon for the scarce 5000 bottles that were made of this gem!"
Pretty high praise for a house that most Champagne lovers would be hard pressed to pick out of a lineup of labels. But that is not all. Because of their attention to detail, their full-bodied wines and their use of barrel fermentation Vilmart has been called the "poor man's Krug." Perhaps a more glowing accolade would be that by many accounts Vilmart and Laurent are considered the greatest grape growers in Champagne. In an area that has centuries of fame, hundreds of famous vineyards and thousands of grape growers this is high praise indeed.
Vilmart sits at the 49th parallel, generally considered to be the most northern of wine growing areas. The cool climate is augmented by the cliffs of pure limestone powder in which the vines grow. All vineyards that Vilmart sources from are of either Grand Cru or 1er Cru status. The vines are very old, with many growing on their own root stocks and dating back to the days before many of the old clones were ripped out in favor of more "productive" versions. All work is and has always been done by hand and organically.
Yields in the vineyards are less than 2 tons per acre. The grapes are given a strict tirage, and even though they are such a small estate with just 11ha of vines all fruit that is not deemed worthy is immediately sold to the bulk market, often times up to 40% of the total crop.
Production methods range regarding the different specialty cuvees, but along with just a few other producers (Krug, Bollinger, Pierre Morlet) Vilmart uses a combination of Fouder and Barrique for fermentation and aging purposes. The wines spend an inordinate amount of time on their lees, with even the non-vintage wines receiving at least 36 months or more. Most of the barrels are neutral, but in some cases new barrels are used, but only as a means of adding complexity and depth to the wines, and only if a wine is deemed profound enough to carry the oak.
While it would be remiss to ignore the fact that these are still Champagnes, and Vilmart makes several specialty cuvees that test the boundaries of both the highest quality and also high prices. But like many things in life it is not about the price, but the value, and the Champagnes of Vilmart offer enough quality that they remain a value at any price. Besides, over 50,000 cases of Dom Perrignon are produced per year, and a scant 57 cases of the Vilmart Couer de Cuvee were brought into the United States last year. So for all you collectors out there, would you prefer a one of a kind product that is the epitome of family-made champagne, or something that 620,000 other people got to enjoy last year?
The Brut NV 1er Cru Grand Cellier is the first in a line of specialty and Tete de Cuvees is the Vilmart line up. The most basic of all Vilmart Champagnes is not even imported into the U.S. So for domestic Bubbleheads, we get to start halfway up the ladder. A blend of 70% Chardonnay and 30% Pinot Noir that is sourced primarily from the 2005 vintage and then aged 3.5 years on the lees before digorgement. This is simply the greatest NV champagne in the market, with incredible length, sophistication and mineral strength that is not usually found in a non-vintage champagne. The high percentage of Chardonnay provides a fresh apple and light tropical fruit note that is a beautiful and harmonious balance between crisp and full.
Another stunning non vintage wine is the Brut Rose NV Cuvee Rubis. Crafted from 90% Pinot Noir and just a splash of Chardonnay, the Cuvee Rubis is a fresh and fragrant version of rose that has all the perfume of a finely crafted Burgundy mixed with a tart palate that melds the finest raspberry sorbet with lemon zest, fresh cream and a tingling and lengthy mousse. Rose champagne is all the rage right now, but this wine has so much more to it than being part of a fad. Non-vintage Champagne is often best consumed immediately upon its release from the winery, but the Rubis still is tightly wound and has a touch of tannin, which hints at a future to come.
The 2002 Brut Rose Grand Cellier Rubis is a blend of 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay that is fermented in Barrique and then given a further five years on the lees before release. This is a wild and seductive style of rose, with a floral note on the nose that ranges from orange zest to orange-colored roses. The palate is spicy and sweet-tart, with gobs of red apple, wild berry notes, a roasted chestnut creaminess in the center and then a finish that goes on and on with a dark and earthy umame note underneath. It is wrapped in tight acidity and a firm feel that will undoubtedly soften will cellar time.
A truly unique wine is the 1998 Brut Cuvee Creation, a specialty cuvee that is fermented and aged in Barrique as well as given five years on the lees in an effort to promote depth and complexity. The blend of 70% Chardonnay and 30% Pinot Noir is still incredibly youthful after over a decade. It is culled from the oldest vines on the estate and represents a mix of old and new for Vilmart- the old of the vineyards and the new of the barrique barrels that it is fermented in. Fresh and fragrant, but with a firm core of minerality and citrus fruit that sings all the way from the attack to the very long finish. This wine also brings a note of creamy brioche to the mid-palate, and steps in a touch of smoke and coffee beans.
The 2000 Brut Couer de Cuvee is the greatest bottling from Vilmart and represents the greatest and truest expression of the terroir, skill and family history of the estate. A blend of 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir that is fermented in barrique and then given a ridiculous six years on the lees before release, this is a profound and sublime confluence of wonderful raw materials and inherently brilliant winemaking skill. It is produced from only the "heart" of the pressed juice in which the first and last portions of the barrel are bled off to allow only the greatest elements of the wine to remain. Silky smooth, yet crisp and vibrant, this is a wine that is has every base covered yet each facet of the wine melds harmoniously with the next. The floral perfume goes on and on, the lemon curd, fresh baked bread, sweet toasty oak and chalky minerality seem to jump out of the glass before the long, complex and expressive finish really kicks into gear. This wine lingered on the palate long after swallow, yet never felt cloying or heavy. Truly a magical wine. Dom Perignon, eat your heart out!
So many champagnes are purchased because of name recognition, which is why so many of the big houses work so hard on their branding. But which would you prefer? A wine that has been made in the finest way possible with no expense spared in an effort to craft a fine work of art, or a wine that costs ten dollars more than it should because of the company's gigantic marketing arm. Next fall when you absolutely have to buy your boss/ secretary/ wife/ father-in-law/ etc. a bottle of Champagne, make it one that they will truly enjoy such as these amazing wines from Vilmart.