Everyone who visits Champagne passes through Reims sooner or later – which is no bad thing. With its wide boulevards, cobbled squares and magnificent cathedral, the region’s unofficial capital is a very civilised place for a wander. For 1,000 years, it was the city where French kings came to be crowned, and since 1729 it’s been home to champagne royalty too: Taittinger, Krug, Ruinart and Louis Roederer all have their HQs here.
The city’s quirky side takes a bit more ferreting out. But it’s there in places like the Trésors de Champagne boutique, a little establishment near the Boulingrin market that deals exclusively in champagnes made by the Club Trésors de Champagne, a collective of 28 grower houses that have been banging the drum for independent winemaking since 1971. To be a member of the Club, champagne producers have to fulfil the usual grower criteria – growing all their own grapes, making all their champagne on the premises, small-scale production, a strong focus on terroir – but rather more importantly their champagnes must also pass muster, every year, at the Club’s annual blind tasting. The very best are awarded the coveted “Special Club” status – if you see a Special Club bottling by any of this lot, then snap it up.
One I enjoyed very much last year was the 2008 Special Club bottling from Vazart-Coquart et Fils (£59.95, from thefinestbubble.com), a lovingly turned blanc de blancs with a touch of the tutti frutti about it. The succulent champagnes of Gaston Chiquet (from £27, from bbr.com) and the delightfully pure, floral blanc de blancs of Pierre Gimonnet et Fils (from £32, from armitwines.co.uk) are also, invariably, delicious.
The Club’s wines are fun and the shop in Reims is too. Decorated in cool gold, silver and black and lit by a huge installation of glowing bottles on the ceiling, it feels more like a fashion store than a wine merchant. The walls are lined with bottles in the usual way, but all the background information on each grower is affixed to the bottles that dangle overhead on elastic ropes, so you can pull them down (and then let poing back up again). In the centre of the shop, a bar offers a regularly changing selection of six champagnes by the glass, as well as tables and chairs so you can taste at leisure. On Saturdays, there’s a Special Club winemaker on hand for questioning.
Grower champagnes have got a lot more trendy in the past few years. And it’s easy to see why – they have a personality, a sense of place, a human scale that’s very seductive. And their numbers are swelling all the time, as a new generation abandons contract grape‑growing in favour of making champagne with their own fruit.
At the last count, there were around 5,500 in Champagne. But only a few are still really, really good. If you want to find those, then pay a visit to the Club Trésors de Champagne boutique – it will save you kissing a lot of frogs.