After graduating from business school into the economic recession of 2001, Speers began hanging out at a wine bar called Vigne. “Peter Liem, one of the owners, had put together a stellar selection of exceptional, quirky wines, including many obscure grower-Champagnes,” Speers says. “They really blew my mind and turned me on to a whole other side of Champagne I never knew existed. ‘Wouldn’t it be cool,’ I thought, ‘to open a Champagne-only bar?’”
Cool but a bit unpractical, he thought—until a small space came up for rent in the same building where Speers was already operating Red Slate, a popular space for wine tastings and events. In 2011, he opened Ambonnay, a 20-seat wine bar dedicated exclusively to sparkling wines—95 percent of which are Champagne.
Speers made his first pilgrimage to Champagne in 2014: “What most impressed me,” he says, “was how closely most of the producers I visited are connected to their terroir and how both their personalities and their terroirs show up in their wines.”
Speers selected these six wines, he says, not only because they are all delicious Champagnes, but because each one represents an essential feature of the village they come from and together add up to a complete portrait of the Côte des Blancs.
1. Pierre Gimonnet & Fils Brut Cuis 1er Cru
“The Côte des Blancs offers a fascinating opportunity to explore the impact of terroir because it’s a small area with a single slope, mostly eastern exposure, and one predominant grape: chardonnay. Because wines from all the towns in the Côte share many similar characteristics—a pronounced chalky minerality, green apple, pear and citrus—finding truly terroir-specific
wines can be a challenge. But a closer look reveals some notable distinctions. Starting in the north of the Côte, the village of Cuis is often overlooked because of its more famous Grand Cru neighbors, but that doesn’t deter the Gimonnets, who have been the uncontested champions of this village for three generations and whose wines offer very convincing evidence of the town’s potential. Because many of the vineyards in Cuis face north, the town tends to make lean, intense wines with significant ability to age: for this reason they are often used in multi-village cuvées to give structure. This wine, however, is pure Cuis Chardonnay made in a style that shows green-apple and citrus tones while highlighting the tension that comes from the minerality and acidity that is typical of the village.”
2. Larmandier-Bernier Vieille Vigne du Levant (Cramant)
“Cramant is prized for big body and darker notes like baking spices, raisins and burnt sugar. This wine, made from several east-facing parcels of old vines in the mid-slope of the Butte de Saran—a distinctive high flat-topped hill that straddles Chouilly and Cramant—expresses the character of the village by balancing great acidity with power, plenty of chalky minerality and those typical ‘dark’ elements.”
3. Varnier-Fannière Brut Blanc de Blancs Cuvée Saint-Denis (Avize)
“Avize is possibly my favorite village in the Côte. Its wines typically demonstrate a perfect harmony of elegance and body, while the characteristic flavor of the village leans toward orange citrus rather than lemon. Sometimes I also find stone fruit here, along with other bright flavors I don’t normally associate with Chardonnay in Champagne. Cuvée Saint-Denis comes from a parcel of old vines in the Clos du Grand Père, on the lower slope where the ripest fruit is usually found, so it is a bit more opulent than most wines of Avize, but the elegance is still present, along with a fantastic blend of oranges and almonds.”
4. José Dhondt Brut Blanc de Blancs Mes Vieilles Vignes (Oger)
“The village of Oger lies in the valley between the hills of Mesnil and Avize, meaning warmer temperatures and a higher degree of ripeness for the grapes. Some people think the wines of Oger are clunky and overblown, but that is certainly not the case with this one, from a small parcel of 56-year-old vines that was planted by José’s grandfather, and captures the richness of the village in flavors of white flowers and ripe pears, while maintaining a prominent minerality that creates perfect balance.”
5. Pierre Péters Brut Blanc de Blancs Cuvée Spéciale Les Chétillons (Mesnil-sur-Oger)
“Mesnil-sur-Oger, home to superstars Salon and Krug Clos du Mesnil, is generally considered the top village in the Côte, and much of this reputation is tied to the fact that the town sits right on top of a thick vein of chalk, which gives its wines a distinctive chalky character with tremendous aging potential and a pronounced racy acidity. In fact, Mesnil wines are often referred to as razor blades, but the sharp edge softens over time, allowing the wines to express their complex fruit character as well. While less well known than Clos du Mesnil, Les Chétillons is one of the most sought-after vineyards by insiders, and Péters Cuvée Spéciale—structured and intense, with loads of chalk and acidity, but enough fruit to balance it out —really captures the essence of Mesnil.”
6. Veuve Fourny & Fils Blanc de Blancs Premier Cru Millésime (Vertus)
“Anchoring the southern end of the Côte, Vertus is a large village known for producing generous and easy-drinking wines. While the southern part of town has lots of clay, the northern end mimics the chalkiness of neighboring Mesnil, and this is where Veuve Fourny’s vintage blanc de blancs comes from. What I really love about this wine is that it has all the generous easy-drinking character of Vertus with a nice touch of Mesnil-like minerality and edgy acidity, adding up to a delightful expression of the southern Côte.”
This article first appeared in W&S Fall 2016.