Red Champagne? And one that has no bubbles?
Sometimes, the most interesting wines are those that are historic oddities, ones that have been set aside as the tides of wine history have shifted to a different direction.
Such is the case with a handful of table wines that are made primarily from Pinot Noir grapes and produced in Champagne’s Marne Valley. These reds are technically called “Coteaux Champenois” to distinguish them from “Champagne,” the world’s most famous sparkling wine that shares the same vineyards. The best of these red Champagnes can be compared with the red Burgundies from the famous Côte d’Or.
“It is such a cult wine that we don’t really have to sell it; people seek it out on their own.” —Cyril Delarue, commercial director, Champagne Bollinger
There are not many Champagne producers who still make a red Coteaux Champenois, and only a few hundred bottles of them are exported to the United States annually. While the price of individual wines varies, some of these red Champagnes are highly sought-after treasures, such as Bollinger’s “La Côte aux Enfants,” which is produced from a single, 10-acre vineyard located on a chalky hillside near the town of Aÿ. A single bottle of “La Côte” can sell for more than $100 when you can find it—and much more on fine restaurants’ wine lists. That’s almost double the price of a bottle of Bollinger’s Special Cuvée brut.
“It is such a cult wine that we don’t really have to sell it; people seek it out on their own,” says Bollinger’s Cyril Delarue, a fifth generation Bollinger family member and the company’s U.S. commercial director. Typically, only about 120 bottles of “Côte aux Enfants,” whose current vintage is 2013, are reserved annually for the American market.
What is the story behind red Champagne?
Red Champagne has an interesting history. For centuries, most of the wine made in the Marne Valley was a very light Pinot Noir produced from grapes that often had trouble ripening due to the region’s northern location. But, by the early 1800s, the then-revolutionary technique of turning Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier grapes into fine sparkling wines was refined, and the methodology for keeping bottles from exploding was successfully figured out.
Sparkling wine is best vinified from grapes that are not as ripe as preferred for table wines. As Champagne came in demand in royal courts from England to France to Russia, the price for the region’s sparkling wines was much better than could be demanded for light table wines.
What’s the current state of red Champagne?
Red table wines continued to be produced, especially those from the Bouzy region, but seldom widely marketed. Now, however, there is a renewed interest in these traditional reds, especially as global climate change has caused grapes in certain vineyards to ripen more before being picked.
“We own beautiful Pinot Noir vineyards in Bouzy and Ambonnay,” says Dominique Demarville, chef de caves for Veuve Clicquot, “so we make a Coteaux Champenois rouge as our house wines to be used on special occasions.” Demarville hints that this Pinot Noir, whose current vintage is 2013, may soon be available in some markets, including the U.S.
“Coteaux Champenois rouge is lighter than Burgundy with a bit more acidity because of less maturation of grapes, less alcohol—11 to 11.5 percent—with a finale that is tannic, but overall much lighter than Burgundy.” —Sébastien Walasiak, cellar master, Champagne Collet
“Pinot Noir grown in Champagne is different from Pinot Noir grown in Burgundy,” says Demarville. “Through the years, it has evolved a different DNA from Pinot Noir in Burgundy because of different terroirs.”
Although each Coteaux Champenois is indeed different, Demarville says that Pinot Noirs from the Champagne region are generally light, fresh-tasting and delicate, reminding him of red Burgundies from Marsannay at the cool, northern end of the Côte d’Or. However, Champagne Pinots may also have greener tannins and more-herbal characteristics, a trait which some connoisseurs prize, though many others may not.
Sébastien Walasiak, cellar master for Champagne Collet, agrees with Demarville’s analysis. “Coteaux Champenois rouge is lighter than Burgundy with a bit more acidity because of less maturation of grapes, less alcohol—11 to 11.5 percent—with a finale that is tannic, but overall much lighter than Burgundy,” he says.
“[Côteaux Champenois reds] don’t keep for many years,” adds Walasiak. He also notes that these red Champagnes may not be made in cooler years when the grapes don’t fully ripen.
A sampling of other red Champagnes on the market includes ones from Egly-Ouriet, Gonet-Médevile, Bérêche & Fils, Larmandier-Bernier and Domaine Jean Vesselle. It should be noted that there are also white Coteaux Champenois, as well as a pink called Rosé des Riceys, but they are less common and not held in quite as high esteem as the reds.
Even for a wine rooted in history, red Champagne continues to be re-defined. “Since 2016, we have been experimenting with using some whole clusters,” says Bollinger’s Delarue, to give the wine more concentration. But some things never change. “We don’t make Côte aux Enfants every year,” he says, “only when we are happy with it.”