Eastern France Part 5 – Bérêche, Champagne

I can tell you two things about my relationship with Bérêche which will inform your reading of the rest of this article. First of all I will name you my favourite four Champagnes. They are Péters Chétillons, Philipponnat Clos des Goisses, Taittinger Comtes and Bérêche Reflet d’Antan. Okay, there are a few others, and if someone gave me Clos du Mesnil more often…but keep it simple. The other fact you should know is that Champagne is the only wine where I could survive on just one producer. No guesses for which.

Bérêche was founded in 1847, so has a proud history from a time when the idea of “grower champagne” was a long way from conception. If a Champagne producer is lucky, every few generations someone will take over who has the drive and vision to take them to another level. Bérêche is most fortunate in that the current fifth generation, in Raphaël and Vincent, has two such people.

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Two young men, with their father, who have grown to become two of the most creative people on the Montagne, with great sensitivity for their terroir

Bérêche & Fils owns around nine hectares of vines. Some are around their winery which sits up on the ridge at Craon de Ludes (or Le Cran). Some sit down in the west of the Marne Valley, at Mareuil-le-Port (not to be confused with Mareuil-sur-Ay). The rest of their vines are at Ormes, which is on the Petite Montagne, not far from the better known Vrigny.

The reason why it is worth detailing this information in this instance is that more than anything else, Bérêche is a producer of “terroir wines”, or certainly of wines where the different terroirs can clearly be seen to contribute to a blend. In fact both of those words, terroir and wine, carry equal weight. These are not just terroir Champagnes (a difficult concept for some aficionados to agree with), but they are also wines.

Every April an event takes place called “Terres et Vins de Champagne“. This was the first professional tasting in the region itself which allowed the trade to taste the vins clairs (still wines, before second fermentation) from a host of producers (now over twenty growers). Raphaël Bérêche was one of the main driving forces behind this event, which is now seen as part of the wider, emerging, idea for a “Printemps des Champagnes“.

This belief that Champagne can, and should, express the terroir on which the grapes were grown just as much as any still wine is central to what the brothers are trying to achieve here. The front page of their web site expresses it thus: “The beginnings of every wine takes place in the vines”. This is not always a popular idea in a region where the large Marques blend their wines from a wide, and often unspecified, area. It is the rallying cry for the “artisan grower”, differentiating his product as a wine of place. But, of course, we all know that in wine, quality begins with meticulous vineyard work.

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It is always a pleasure to visit Bérêche no matter who is there. We most usually see Raphaël, but he was in London with Vincent, pouring at Peter Liem’s very exclusive event at The Savoy, so it gave us the chance to taste again with Catherine, their mother.

The first wine to taste is always the Brut Réserve. Not only does it give the measure of the producer, setting the tone as well as quality, but in my experience if you don’t appreciate the entry level you often find something lacking further up the range. That said, Bérêche Brut Réserve is not a run of the mill “NV”. This one is from the 2014 base, disgorged in July 2017 and dosed at 7g/l, The highest dosage of all their wines. It combines really great fruit from (broadly) equal parts of the three main varieties.

Naturally this wine is not so much a terroir wine in that it blends fruit from every location where they have vines, but nevertheless it is possible to identify what each brings to the blend. For me this is especially the minerality of Ludes fruit and the richness coming from the Pinots off sand and limestone at Ormes. The mineral backbone and precision is amplified by the house producing non-malolactic Champagnes, but they also all have, to a greater or lesser degree, a certain rounded richness. This may be in part down to using 60% oak for fermentation, and (unusually for a wine at the entry level) 30% reserve wines from their perpetual reserve (rather like a solera system). Brut Réserve sees 24 months sur lattes.

Les Beaux Régards is a pure Chardonnay wine, this sample being from a 2013 base, disgorged March 2017 and dosed at just 3g/l. This wine is from two plots of old vines at Ludes on the Montagne. It is quite different to a lot of Chardonnay from the Côte des Blancs, balancing real fruit precision again with a rounded quality (it is aged in 350 litre barrels). A wine which needs more ageing than I fear it gets (I’ve been as guilty as anyone), but capable of some genuine complexity when it gets it.

All of the Bérêche cuvées apart from the Brut Réserve do their lees ageing (32 months for this wine) under cork. Raphaël always stresses how important he feels this is to the gentle development of the wine as it undergoes this crucial lees ageing, and Catherine is no less keen to stress the point.

What is the effect of ageing under cork? Oxygen intake is different, but not necessarily in the way you would think. Research suggests that initially oxygen exchange is lower under cork, although it increases exponentially under natural cork the longer the wine is aged. This is why the Brut Réserve is aged under crown cap (for two years), whereas some wines here are aged eight years or more.

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Le Cran is the vintage wine. The cuvée blends two plots near the winery, Le Cran itself facing west, towards Ludes and St-Jean, facing east towards Mailly.  The former is Chardonnay and the latter, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay slightly dominates the blend (60:40). The soils in both plots are chalk and yield quite high acid juice, but 84 months ageing adds complexity. As with Les Beaux Régards, production is just between 3,000 to 4,000 bottles, but in a normal vintage.

When out in the vines near Ludes I’d noticed whole vineyards of unpicked black grapes. Pinot Noir tends to bud and flower early, and guess what, 2017 was another year of terrible frosts. The problems really occur when spring comes early and the vines wake up, only to be hit by a return to winter in these northerly climes. When this is accompanied by later rains and rot sets in, this is devastating. The Bérêche family lost 30% of their crop, not as bad as some, but they still found some plots wiped out completely.

The grapes on the vines, which look so puzzling to the casual observer in the November sunshine, are actually part of a second crop which are nowhere near mature enough to make wine. If you have already lost a large proportion of your crop you can’t afford to pick them, so they await disposal at winter pruning.

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You can clearly see what looks like a full crop here, near Ludes, but this photo was taken on 3 November

Campania Remensis is one of my favourite Rosé Champagnes. Pink Champagne may not be fashionable, but consumers were for years asked to pay a premium for fairly anodyne rosé wines. Now, producers like Vilmart, Péters, Cédric Bouchard and Bérêche are making wines with character and finesse, and in the case of this wine, there’s a textured (almost earthy) note, and real elegance too. Thirty-six months on lees, this doesn’t need drinking soon. The 3g/l dosage sees the gentle red fruits come to the fore. Mainly Pinot Noir, there’s also 30% Chardonnay in the blend, colour coming from 5% Coteaux Champenois Rouge.

Returning to the idea of terroir wines, it was perhaps a natural progression for Vincent and Raphaël to make still wines. The difficulty with Coteaux Champenois is always the price. Such wines are necessarily expensive to make and the general wine lover will always appear to find better prices for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay still wines elsewhere. But that perhaps is not the point. Those who truly love Champagne see a place for these wines (as we do for Rosé des Riceys from the Côte des Bar).

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There are two Coteaux Champenois – the red Montées (75% Pinot Noir and 25% Meunier from Ormes, planted in 1965) and the white Monts Fournois (Chardonnay from Rilly, planted 1961). The former is the same wine used to colour Campania Remensis. When there is so much fine sparkling wine here, I can quite understand a reluctance to buy these still wines, but I’m guessing you will be hard pushed to find two such masterfully made and well delineated still wines from the Montagne de Reims.

The last of the Champagnes made by Maison Bérêche is Reflet d’Antan (I know I missed out the Pinot Meunier Rive Gauche). I didn’t taste it, but nor did I the Reflet, which is so rare that a bottle isn’t opened very often. As I said at the top of the page, Reflet is one of my very favourite wines from the region. It comes out of the Réserve Perpetuelle, begun in 1985, and is a blend of Chardonnay and the two Pinots in the proportion 30:35:35. It spends 41 months on lees under cork, and is currently bottled with 6g/l dosage.

This is a rich wine, in large part from the “solera-syle” ageing in 600 litre oak which effectively increases the age of the blend, and from the richness of the juice which goes into the reserve to begin with. You get quite a nutty hit and also more dried fruits than fresh ones. It is one Champagne where the adjective “honeyed” is not out of place. There is nuance, of course, but that is perhaps not the point. It is a little different, a wine of truly singular character and personality. It is also a Champagne of great length. Bottle age mellows it magnificently.

Even with the dosage being slightly higher than the majority of the wines at Bérêche (bar the Brut Réserve), and all my comments about richness, it finishes very dry with texture and extract. For me, amazing, and generally still good value compared to most prestige cuvées (my last bottle purchased retail in the UK this year was £85 and you may even squeeze a bottle or two for less).

Raphaël and Vincent have also begun to work as micro negociants, being very careful in what they select. The Crus Sélectionnés are not a range set in stone, but a Collection is released each year to represent Côte, Montagne and Vallée. For the 2016 release there is Côte from Cramant (2007, 4,000 bottles); Montagne from Verzenay (100 magnums of 2002, and 1,000 bottles and 100 magnums of 2004); and Vallée, this latter being a non-vintage wine with 4,990 bottles aged 66 months in cave and 2,371 bottles aged 60 months. I’ve a particular liking for the Côte from previous releases, and I enjoy seeing what Raphaël can do with fruit from the Côte des Blancs. The 2005 Côte had more than ten years ageing (you read that correctly) and there might still be some knocking around in the UK. Remarkable!

If you are beginning to explore this producer do try everything you can, although all of the wines genuinely benefit from time in the cellar, more time than I’ve probably had the patience to give them in the past. A word of warning – there is more often than not no wine to sell at the domaine and several friends have been disappointed. Their UK agent, however, is Vinetrail, who generally has stocks. Individual wines are often available at the usual good independent wine shops.

You’ll pass the Bérêche premises on the brow of the hill at Craon de Ludes on the Montagne de Reims. If you are coming up from Reims, or indeed if you are frustrated at having driven past, driving from Epernay, do beware of the speed camera (facing uphill on the Reims side) as the speed limit is very low.

Check out their web site here

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About dccrossley

Writing here and elsewhere mainly about the outer reaches of the wine universe and the availability of wonderful, characterful, wines from all over the globe. Very wide interests but a soft spot for Jura, Austria and Champagne, with a general preference for low intervention in vineyard and winery. Other passions include music (equally wide tastes) and travel. Co-organiser of the Oddities wine lunches.
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2 Responses to Eastern France Part 5 – Bérêche, Champagne

  1. ilbe says:

    What is surprising to me is that not everybody seems to love Reflet d’Antan. A friend of mine who is massively knowledgeable about Champagne in general and a true grower Champagne fiend loves all things Bérêche but this wine. She does not say that she dislikes it but clearly she is not enthusiastic about it and it’s not that it is a solera wine as she is a crazy Selosse fan girl. Also Peter Liem in his book I believe leaves Reflet d’Antan (correct me if I’m wrong) completely unmentioned in the producer profile, which seems quite odd to me.

    Like

    • dccrossley says:

      I know what you mean about loving it or not, although my friends all seem to love it, or at least often ask me to bring a bottle if we are going BYO (tough as my supply is limited). Those who are less keen joke about my equal passion for Equipo Navazos Sherries.

      True, Peter Liem doesn’t mention it in the producer profile (he only mentions five wines and oddly says Bérêche are in Ludes, which for me is a good car ride from the winery in the hamlet of Craon, but a minor quibble with that amazing book).

      Peter does mention Perpetual Cuvée (sic) with a single para on the method earlier on in the book, and lists Reflet, but makes no qualitative assessment.

      He says “a number of grower[s] store wines in what they call a solera…should more properly be called a perpetual cuvée”. Actually, Raphaël hates “solera” and says I must call it a PC, so I should not even have mentioned solera. In fact only Selosse has a proper solera in the Sherry sense, as Peter rightly notes. That is because in a perpetual reserve all the barrels (etc) contain the same proportions of each year, whereas a true solera goes from youngest to oldest (but by no means always stacked on top of one another).

      Liked by 1 person

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