A (virtual) taste of Champagne

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Imagine being able to chat with the grower-producer of the champagne you are tasting – from the comfort of your own living room.

Sally Hillman’s virtual tasting events have been doing just that and people are loving these immersive experiences.

What started as an agile response to the challenge of isolation has proven to be a huge success and these chez vous events will remain on our menu even after the “new normal” is operational.

So far, more than a dozen virtual events have been held, allowing our valued clients to enjoy delightful champagnes, not only with the benefit of Sally Hillman’s encyclopaedic knowledge, but also with input from several of the growers themselves.

Attendees receive a beautifully curated tasting package which includes one of Sally Hillman’s signature maps of the Champagne region, comprehensive tasting notes, a bottle of the champagne/s and a Lehmann Grand Champagne 41 machine-made glass. Free express shipping is offered on individual and mixed case purchases of tasting champagnes made via Le Shop.

The events are conducted using the Zoom platform – another success story of 2020 – and allow attendees to interact not only with each other, but also to meet and ask questions of the French champagne grower-producers and importers.

Each event focuses sharply on the champagnes of a particular House, with the grower-producer setting the scene by explaining their philosophy and the terroir that gives rise to the cuvées being tasted. They also often foreshadow the examples of their champagne which will be featured in future sessions. These introductions provide a wonderful context for discerning champagne aficionados to understand more deeply the genealogy of the House’s cuvées.

Sally Hillman delivered her first Zoom session on Jacquesson Cuvée No. 742, a sentimental favourite of hers. Sally said that Jacquesson was the first grower champagne she had ever experienced, back in 2001, and that it “changed my champagne world and set me on my grower champagne journey”.

The format of the tastings has been designed to provide a friendly but educational experience, creating a virtual visit to the Houses in Champagne but from the safety of home.

The experiences focus on a different House each time and as well as Jacquesson have included: Larmandier-Bernier, Jean-Marc Sélèque, Huré Frères and Laherte Frères – all available from the Le Shop. Sally Hillman varies the format, accommodating both private gatherings and those open to the public, with the guided tastings featuring one to three cuvées.

Putting a face to the name of the grower-producers has given the experiences an authentic feel – hearing the growers speak so passionately about their vines, their terroir and the attention to detail that goes into the production of every cuvée gives insight into the character of the wines and their producers.

François Huré said he has spent most of his life among the vines of the Huré Frères estate started by his father and uncle.  His commitment to the terroir and the wine it produces was palpable. François continued his education and experience in oenology beyond France with stints in Spain, Australia (Coldstream Hills Winery) and New Zealand (Pegasus Bay Winery), however it was clear listening to him that his heart belongs to the chalky slopes of Champagne. One of the key points François impressed on us during the tasting was that champagne is about the wine first, and then the bubbles. He said Huré Frères’ aim is to create the best possible example of their terroir and to put that into a bottle.

Both François Huré and another of our grower-producer presenters, Aurélien Laherte from Laherte Frères, addressed the challenges they have faced from the warmer, wetter winter France experienced in 2019-20.

Aurélien, a seventh generation wine-maker from the Coteaux Sud d’Épernay, said grower-producers were having to adjust their practices as a result of the changing weather in order to maintain the acidity levels which produce the crisp, fresh taste of champagne.

He said the harvest dates from about 1960 to 1990 used to start in the last week of September, but this has gradually moved forward and during the last decade, picking began around the 3rd of September

Aurélien turned his computer to face the window, so that we had a view of his vineyards with the town of Épernay in the distance. He explained how he was meeting the climate challenge by tweaking Laherte Frères’ production, including changing the dosage and the proportion of the different grape varieties, to create the taste they wanted.

Looking out that window with Aurélien, it was easy to imagine we had left the gloom of Melbourne winter and were enjoying the French sun shining down on us as we listened to the sounds of the vineyard at work.

Most recently, we zoomed in to visit Audrey and Aurélien Gerbais of Champagne Pierre Gerbais in the delightful Côte des Bar village of Celles-sur-Ource. They guided us through a live tasting of three exceptional wines: Pierre Gerbais Rosé de Saignée (100% pinot noir); Pierre Gerbais L’Originale (100% pinot blanc); and Pierre Gerbais Grains de Celles (vin d’assemblage).

And we will continue to visit France as armchair travellers! We are delighted to announce that Jean-Marc Sélèque will be ‘Zooming’ in with us once every month for the next three months on Saturday afternoons. This will offer us a great opportunity to visit Jean-Marc ‘at work’ while we taste and discover the best of his range.

If you would like to be a part of this wonderful opportunity to visit Champagne virtually, please book as soon as possible.

While we are looking forward to re-introducing our face-to-face events when the time is right, the opportunity to create these virtual experiences and involve the grower-producers directly has been a blessing in disguise and we look forward to continuing to combine the best of each format.