On the north side of Reims’ city center you’ll find a surprisingly modern wine bar, a sleek and minimal space set at the edge of the city’s more staid, stereotypically French pedestrian zone. Inside, a map of Champagne covers the floor; bottles hang on cables from the ceiling. Enter and pull on one of the bottles down to eye-level and you’ll get a description of a Champagne producer, conveniently suspended over the region where they’re located on the map. Even more conveniently, their Champagne is on the shelves on the wall nearby. Grab a bottle, or a glass…and now you’re in the Club.
Actually you’re in the Club’s Boutique. And while the Boutique is new – it opened last year – the Club itself is celebrating its 45th year. This is the Club Trésors, or Special Club, and you don’t have to visit Reims to enjoy the wines.
Today the Club consists of 29 members, all Grower-Producers; other members, like Larmandier-Bernier and Pierre Peters, have come and gone. In most cases their vineyards are confined to just a commune or two, which explains the map; terroir is inherent to most of these Champagnes, and visiting the boutique and tasting one’s way across the map is a great way to dip one’s toes into the complexities of Champagne’s landscape. The Club was formed to helped create a presence for high-quality Grower-Producers that allowed them to punch above their weight in terms of marketing; between them, they make about a million bottles annually -- larger in volume than, say, a modest house like Deutz or Billecart-Salmon.
That’s the members’ total output, not the small amount of Champagnes that bear the Special Club designation and embossed bottle. While members are selected based on the quality of their output, they are also called upon to submit specific, vintage cuvées that will bear that designation. A panel tastes the wines, as still wines and then three years later, after the second fermentation and aging on the lees. Sometimes these wines are atypical for a given producer, sometimes they’re the epitome of their style. But in either case, the panel system creates a high bar for all the wines. Someday I hope to taste the Special Club Champagnes more comprehensively, but for now here are some notes on examples that have stood out in recent memory:
Angeline Templier of J. Lassalle was at the Boutique when I visited; the producers take turns helping staff the venue, so you’re almost guaranteed an encounter with an owner. She had three of her wines open; the 2007 Special Club showed dried fruit and anise aromas, and its freshness belied the 9 years it spent on the lees. A touch of mocha and grilled bread aromas are beginning to emerge.
Gaston Chiquet lies not far from J. Lassalle, in the Montagne de Reims. Despite being in the heart of Pinot Noir country, their 2009 Special Club is 70% Chardonnay (the Lasalle is 60%), and is a floral wine, with notes of pear and quince. Laying it down for a few years will draw more depth out of it.
A. Margaine is a small property (6.5 ha) on the eastern edge of the Montagne de Reims. Again, the property -- in fact, the village -- is an anomaly, planted to 95% Chardonnay. The 2008 Special Club is a Blanc de Blancs, with a saline and citrus character and plentiful minerality. Definitely an acid-driven style. For a more characteristically “Montagne” wine, the Henri Goutorbe Special Club shows the preference for Pinot Noir one expects from the area, which makes up 70% of the cuvée. The results are a riper tree fruit character and a bit more toastiness. Rather unusually, Paul Bara produced the Club’s first rosé in 2004; the 2008 preserves a mineral character under its more opulent cherry and strawberry fruit tones.
Moving south into the Vallée de la Marne, Marc Hebrart makes an elegant wine from a mix of Marne Pinot and Chardonnay from two Côte des Blancs communes. The 2010 is already released; not a vintage that’s generally highly regarded in Champagne, but Hebrart’s wine shows a mineral core and lots of citrus while still feeling rich and fleshy on the palate.
In the Côte des Blancs proper, Pierre Gimmonet, with 28 hectares of vineyards, is one of the larger members, growing Chardonnay exclusively. Their 2008 Special Club is complex, with ripe apricot, quince, flint, and honey aromas. It’s relatively full-bodied, with good length. Gimmonet was the first Special Club member whose wines I ever had the chance to taste, and one whose wines I’ve had the chance to age myself to some small degree; they typically become plumper and toastier with age.
That’s just a sample of the Club’s wines, which also extend into the southerly reaches of Champagne with producers like Remy Massin in the Côte des Bar. If Grower-Producer Champagnes have a greater presence in the market that they once did, the Club can take some credit and, one imagines, some satisfaction in the fact.