A Champagne Christmas in Vertus

Date: 17 December, 2021 / Author: Andrew James

There is something about sipping really good champagne at Christmas. You can open the bottle with a bang and even let the cork carom off the ceiling, but once your fluted glass is full, make sure you take a good look inside. You won’t see oversized bubbles exploding like waves against a rocky shore, but tiny, symmetrical spheres, streaming upwards in the straightest of lines, bringing with them magical aromas and flavours. All over the world, wherever Christmas is celebrated, families will now be thinking about reuniting, to exchange gifts and stories, but also to share special regional drinks and dishes. Have you ever wondered what Christmas dinner would be like at the source of those beautiful bubbles? Two champagne producers in Vertus, a town in the heart of the Côte des Blancs, opened their doors and shared their Christmas menus to help us make the most of the season.

Champagne René Rutat has seven hectares of vines spread over 26 plots in Vertus. Since 2016 Flavien and Baptiste Rutat have been in charge and they farm organically. Flavien took me through his vineyards by four-wheel drive, zigzagging up the hillside until the road ended in a precipitous slope. Then the truck paused, groaned and climbed a little more through underbrush, arriving at a severely angled patch of vines.

‘I want to do a lot of work in this plot,’ Flavien said, ‘because I am convinced we can make a good wine. It’s a very good exposition. Lower down the hill it is chalk, but here it is clay. There is no chalk. During the summer it is really dry and there are no reserves of water and in winter it is wet. For the vines it is difficult to make a good development. To make wine from this plot we need to have a minimum of 5,000 kilograms of grapes. The best year that we’ve had is 8,000, but that was just once in 20 years.’

Flavien’s optimism was tested by 2021, a year marked by a brutal spring frost, oidium and a heatwave in August, but it remains intact. He and his brother have invested in smaller tanks and wooden barrels so that they can conduct single vineyard experiments. The Blanc de Blancs wines have aromas of lemon, orange zest and crushed seashells, sometimes with an intriguing smoky note from the minerality. The complexity in the mouth of the older vintages is particularly impressive. For Pinot Noir fans, Vertus Rouge is a special treat that must be tried. The Rutats always open a vintage bottle for Christmas.

This is the menu for the standard three-hour Rutat Christmas dinner. It is held on the 24th December for a party of 15, kicking off at 8pm. Magnums are the bottle of choice.

After cheese the Rutats will enjoy a few more glasses of Brut Blanc de Blancs and then, following dessert, some champagne from 1992 or 2000. As I counted up the bottles I was reminded of the description of an army mess dinner in the classic book Through the Wine List (1924) in which officers toasted each other until they could no longer sit upright, then gave up the fight and slid beneath the table. ‘Accidents of this kind were provided for,’ wrote A E Manning Foster, ‘in the shape of a death-chamber fitted with couches, to which the guest was carried and dosed with a white mixture which brought him round in a wonderfully short space of time.’ Hot coffee may be a good modern substitute for that mysterious white mixture.

Flavien’s answers to my menu queries are listed below.

Champagne’s rare still red wine is called Coteaux Champenois. How do you make your Vertus rouge?

‘We destem and put the berries in the tank, then add dry ice to cause thermic shock and CO2 to reduce the risk of oxidation. After 15 days of maceration we do a pigeage [punching down] and remontage [pumping over] three or four times per day. When the fermentation is over, we put the berries in the press and extract the juice. We don’t use oak to make our Vertus rouge because we just want red fruits and Pinot Noir aroma.’

And your rosé de saignée?

‘It’s an original Vertus wine made from Pinot Noir. This was the first one we made in 2016, and there are only 1,200 bottles. We did the maceration for 8 or 12 hours and the dosage was three grams per litre. Thirty percent of the wine was aged in oak barrels. I know that not all our customers will like this wine because there are a lot of aromas – like cerises griottes – and many people think that rosé champagne is all about colour. They want it to be sweet, not overly aromatic, maybe with a light note of grenadine. But I like it!’

And the 2003 vintage? Wasn’t that another tough year?

‘It’s really surprising because in 2003 there were no other wineries that made vintage champagne. They said with less acidity the wine can’t be kept for a long time, but that’s not the reality. Some years for Christmas we serve this wine in the Jeroboam as an apéritif.’

***

Meanwhile, at my other Vertus destination, Champagne Guy Larmandier located in the centre of town, Marie-Hélène Larmandier was waiting in the doorway with a smile. ‘I spoke with my brother,’ she said, ‘and you are very lucky today because we can show you a specialty that we produce for birthdays and Christmas. It is a special hare terrine made by François.’ But first she showed me the cellar, which dates to 1789, and the buildings in the enclosed courtyard that recall a bygone era of mixed agriculture. Marie-Hélène’s grandfather was a Champagne grower and a farmer with horses, pigs and rabbits.

Guy Larmandier currently has nine hectares of vineyards in Chouilly, Cramant and Vertus. Its Brut champagnes are dignified, restrained and invitingly soft, with aromas of pear, apricot, eglantine rose and brioche. These are perfect food companions. Here is Marie-Hélène’s Christmas Eve menu. Highlights include the terrine made by her brother, the winemaker François, and some intriguing dessert combinations.

For the oysters and the terrine, please explain your champagne suggestions.

‘The best champagne should always be served with the apéritif. The Perlée, which my parents created, has small bubbles. Usually you have six bars of pressure but this one has five so for people who have problems with their stomach this is better.

‘My grandfather came from a small village called Cramant and our champagne from those vineyards is the trademark of this house. It has minerality and the typical aroma of biscuits. If you have a small group for a wedding, you can present a Cramant but sometimes people don’t know the difference. They say, “Oh, Cramant, it’s not champagne!” But it’s CRA-MANT, not CRE-MANT! If you know that your friend appreciates fine champagne you can propose it but with a big room full of people, the Premier Cru is enough.’

What a decadent dessert!

‘The rosé is also nice with vanilla ice cream and strawberries, or fruits with mint and biscuits. Simple but so pleasant. In the Premier Cru rosé we use Chardonnay from Vertus and 15 or 20 percent Pinot Noir. We like to have a colour like rose petals. If you have a darker, brooding rosé champagne it tastes very nice for the first six months but after that you have a taste of the vignes, we say. For me, I like the refined, fresh Chardonnay with minerality and a small amount of red fruit.’

And what about the ladyfingers?

‘For some Christmases my mother prepared a beautiful Charlotte Malakoff. It’s very good with mint too. We have a few kinds throughout the year. The Charlotte with chocolate is a favorite dessert for rosé champagne.’

If you wish to recreate one or both of these menus, be sure to plan ahead. Either reserve part of the family couch or prepare a champagne cushion chamber within sliding distance of the dinner table. Many thanks to the Rutats and Larmandiers and best wishes to all for a wonderful Christmas that bubbles over with conversation and culinary delights!

Andrew James is a professor of English literature at the School of Commerce at Meiji University in Tokyo, Japan. He is currently on sabbatical leave in France at Université Grenoble Alpes in order to write a book on Bandol wine. His great interest as a wine researcher is understanding the evolution of wine-speak, and the reflection of culture in wine language.

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