My recent trip to France included a one-day stop in Champagne, and I looked forward to visiting with great anticipation. I have had the privilege to visit many wineries around the world and go into their barrel rooms and cellars. But since I first began studying wine, I have been dreaming about going to Champagne. I remember reading about the damp cellars in Champagne that have survived the centuries that have included two world wars. I recall reading about the cellar walls of chalk that rubs off onto your hands when you touch the walls.
When I would conjure up Champagne, I pictured grey skies, a cold climate, large chateaus and slopes lined with vineyards. Located in the north of France, the region of Champagne is actually home to the northernmost vineyards in France, more northern than Alsace. It is a region known for a cold climate with harsh weather conditions. With an average temperature in the low 50s, Champagne receives barely 1,650 hours of sunshine annually. The oceanic climate brings steady rainfall and the weather, coupled with limestone and chalk soils, is what contribute to the minerality, high acidity and lack of ripeness found in the grapes of Champagne.
The day we arrived in Champagne was a rare sunny day. While I did not imagine sunshine, it was otherwise how I imagined it would be. In fact, I felt like I was in a dream. We drove past rolling hills of vineyards and drove into the town of Épernay. We passed buildings that were homes to many recognizable names and stopped at Champagne Gosset where we sat down for lunch with owner Jean-Pierre Cointreau and winemaker Odilion de Varine.
Champagne Gosset is the oldest winehouse in Champagne, dating more than four centuries to 1584. Champagne Gosset was making wine before there were bubbles in it, as the bubbles did not become a part of Champagne until the 18th century. It was founded by Pierre Gosset, the former mayor of Aÿ, where Gosset was started as a negotiant of fine wine. The business was owned by the Gosset family for 16 generations and when they decided to sell, they wanted to sell to another family.
Champagne Gosset was purchased by Jean-Pierre Cointreau in 1994. Jean-Pierre’s roots are in Cognac where his mother’s family traces back to 1270. It was from Cognac that he began developing a group of wine and spirits in France, starting with Gosset. Today, Gosset is one of the smallest negotiants worldwide, only producing 1 million bottles per year. Even though the Gosset family no longer owns Champagne Gosset, it is still a family-owned business, owned by the Cointreau family. It is a business that runs on passion and focuses on quality.
Gosset owns one acre of vineyards and sources grapes almost entirely from premier cru and grand cru vineyards. One unique aspect of Gosset is that the wines do not go through malolactic fermentation, the secondary fermentation that typically takes place. The wines, has a result, have a high acidity. The grapes are fermented in stainless steel tanks, with each village and variety vinified separately. Fermentation lasts for three weeks. The juice is kept on the lees for longer periods of time in order to get roundness and maturity in the flavor. The wines are kept in dark cellars for a minimum of three years, with the vintage champagnes for up to seven years and the Celebris cuvees for up to 10 years before release.
Another element unique to Champagne Gosset is the trademarked shape of the bottle, modeled after an 18th century bottle. And each bottle has as different color label on it to differentiate the various styles.
— Red Label: Grande Reserve Brut (45 percent pinot noir, 45 percent chardonnay, 8-10 percent pinot meunier) – The exact blend of grapes varies from year to year, the wine spend four-and-a-half years on the lees, resulting in a wine with notes of lemon and green apple with high acidity with a richness in the mid-palate.
— Pink Label: Grand Rose Brut (50 percent chardonnay and 50 percent pinot noir, with added vin rouge for color.) The wine spends four years on the lees. The chardonnay address a crispness to the wine and the pinot noir adds the fruitiness. The wine is fresh and elegant and can be drunk as an aperitif or with food.
— Green Label: Grand Millésime 2006 (56 percent pinot noir, 44 percent chardonnay) – The wine is soft and rich, with notes of grapefruit, golden apple and dried apricots.
— Gold Label: Celebris Extra Brut 2004 (55 percent chardonnay, 45 percent pinot noir) – Celebris is made in exceptional vintages and has only been made in five vintages to date. While this wine is more than a decade old, it seems younger on the palate with notes of lemon, lime, yuzu and grapefruit.
— Light Purple Label: Petite Douceur Rose Extra Dry (60 percent pinot noir, 40 percent chardonnay, with added vin rouge pinot noir) – A salmon-pink color, the wine has notes of ripe strawberry, raspberry and lemon. There are 17 grams of sugar in the wine but it thanks to the high acidity, it does not taste sweet.
— Dark Purple Label: Cuvée 15 Brut (60 percent chardonnay, 40 percent pinot noir) – The newest wine to be launched by Champagne Gosset, this wine has spent a minimum of 15 years on the lees and is a blend of harvests from the late 1990s. Gosset is the first Champagne house to make a long-aged non-vintage cuvee.
The long-aged wine is still fresh and elegant but also complex and full-bodied.
After our lunch and tasting the Champagnes, my fantasy to visit the damp cellars came true. We entered the dark cellars where the wines age, and just as I had read, the chalk walls of the cellars were damp to the touch. And, as I pulled my hand away from the wall, it was covered in white. A few pieces of chalk even crumbled into my hand, which ended up in my pocket and came back home with me.
The pieces of chalk sit on my desk and when I look at them, I think about all of the history in those pieces. It was a dream come true to visit Champagne and for my first visit to be at the oldest winehouse in Champagne.