New kid on the pop
Launching a new champagne marque is an ambitious undertaking, but Giles MacDonogh discovers that the team at Brimoncourt has created a range that is winning the praises of connoisseurs
April 21 2020
BY GILES MACDONOGH
It isn’t easy to be new in the world of Champagne. It is the one wine that really is mostly about brands, and Champagne brands aren’t built in a day. The simple, still wines of Champagne are as old as many in France, and planted by the Romans, but they have largely fallen from grace. The bubbly wine that provides joy all over the world is a 350-year old stripling, but it has put down some mighty roots so it’s not exactly novel, either.
Brimoncourt is not completely new. The name refers to a small family firm created in Reims at the end of the 19th century, but which dried up in the Fifties. Alexandre Cornot, a former naval officer from Reims and a notary turned-art dealer, bought the name from the family in 2008. He worked latterly for Christie’s in New York before returning to Paris in 2006. Soon after his arrival, a family friend with a business on the verge of bankruptcy asked him for help.
It was a 200-year-old label-printing business situated in the Grand Cru village of Aÿ – home to Bollinger, among others – in the Marne Valley, housed in a building designed by Gustave Eiffel of Tower fame. Cornot stepped in and bought it, and though he sold it two years later, he retained the premises. The pieces fitted together: now he had a place to make and store it in Aÿ, he was going to make champagne. He went on to acquire grandiose offices in Reims.
Cornot was “to the manner” born. He was well versed in stuffy French receptions where Pinot Noir-based grande marque champagne was inevitable. But he preferred the more down-to-earth way things were done in New York, where his hosts would pour him a glass of wine in the kitchen while cooking; something that might have come from anywhere in the world. In France, wine was forbiddingly French.
Cornot wanted to make champagnes for a modern lifestyle, but he had to secure the grapes first. The purchase of the company had cleaned him out. He had no land and no long-term contracts. (To give you an idea of price, 1 kilo of grand cru grapes cost €7.15 in 2019.) However, he had acquired friends through the printing works, many of whom possessed contacts who were prepared to sell grapes. Very soon he had enough produce from Grand Cru Pinot Noir vineyards on the Montagne to the south of Reims and Grand Cru Chardonnay plots in the Côte des Blancs near Epernay. He now needed a first-rate chef de caves, who could create the wine by blending the grapes from different villages. His eyes fell upon François Huré, from the small but respected family firm of Huré et Frères on the Montagne de Reims.
Brimoncourt’s maiden harvest was in 2009, just ten years ago, but no champagne was released until 2013, when the first bottle of Régence appeared. I asked Brimoncourt’s brand manager, Diogo Veiga, about the name. Cornot, he says, is a devotee of the Regency period in French history that followed the death of King Louis XIV in 1715. Louis had spent his last decade old and ill, consoled only by the still wines of Aÿ. When he died, his heir Louis XV was a boy of five and his nephew, the duc d’Orléans, was appointed Regent. His time was marked by sexual license (it was the Regent who coined the phrase “all cats are grey in the dark”) and France’s first enthusiasm for saute bouchon or sparkling champagne. Fizzy champagne, corked before the fermentation had been fully achieved, had been popular in England at the Restoration, 50 years before, but it had yet to come into fashion in France. The famous painting, Le Déjeuner d’huitres by Jean-François de Troy (1735) depicts the sort of party you might have expected to take place in Paris at the time. Cornot keeps a portrait of the Regent in his tasting room.
I met Diogo at 67 Pall Mall, the wine trade’s posh club. They have already adopted Brimoncourt, pouring the Régence upstairs in the bar and the Extra Brut downstairs in the restaurant. With a membership brimming with Masters of Wine and Master Sommeliers, that can only be a good omen. We tasted three wines: Régence, Extra Brut and Rosé. The only one missing was the Côte de Blancs.
Cornot prefers elegance to power, says Diogo, and that means more Chardonnay than Pinot Noir. Régence is 80 percent Chardonnay, but the grapes come from the southern end of the Côte as well as from the Sézannais, where they get that little bit riper. It spends four years on its lees before disgorgement and has a relatively low dosage (added sugar) of six grams.
Pure Chardonnay champagnes can be on the sharp side when they are young, but the riper Chardonnay together with 20 percent Montagne Pinot Noir produces a champagne that may be consumed earlier. I liked the delicate little bubbles and the nose of baked apples and vanilla. The wine is long and elegant. It would make a fine aperitif, but Diogo tells me that it won an impressive Japanese award for pairing with sushi.
Made more in the traditional “English taste”, the Extra Brut reverses the percentages of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. All the grapes come from Grand Cru vineyards – the blacks from the Aÿ, Ambonnay and the deliciously named Bouzy; and the greens from Cramant, Mesnil and Ogier. It spends five years on its lees and with just two grams has hardly any added sweetness at all. It is rather more golden than the Régence but with a similarly fine bead and a proper Pinot red-fruit nose. Its power and length suggests food. Diogo went Japanese again, but I rather imagined it with stewed fowl, something more like a classic poule au pot. Returning to the 18th century, the label reproduces a plan of the gardens at Versailles.
The last of the trio was the Rosé, made from 40 per cent Pinot Noir, of which 18 per cent was red wine. The rest was made up of Chardonnay (35 per cent) and Pinot Meunier (25 per cent). The red was intended to give it some proper Pinot character: Cornot is an admirer of the Burgundy wines of Givry, and likes to smell them in his rosé, which spends four years on its lees and has seven to eight grams dosage – light for a rosé. It has a lovely salmon-pink colour and the tiniest bubbles. Diogo found mangoes and oil of bergamot, while I was in the rather more prosaic territory of raspberries. I detected a smokiness that was not the product of a barrel, as the wines see no oak. What impressed me was a soft, lushness followed by a piercing acidity. Diogo told me he liked to serve it with game – grouse, pheasant or pigeon; foie gras; or even soft local cheese such as Chaource or Brie de Meaux.
The last man to start a champagne house from scratch (as opposed to bottling the wines from his own vines) was Bruno Paillard, back in 1981. Since then Paillard has built an empire as some venerable houses have come under his sway. Cornot has no such ambitions. At present he makes about 200,000 bottles a year. He could triple or quadruple that in the future, but draws the line at one million.
Deep roots have their advantages: When your house is just a decade old, grapes can be hard to find as many growers are already contracted elsewhere. The best way to ensure supplies is to own land. Brimoncourt has recently bought just under a hectare in Aÿ, which might be used for a luxury cuvée one day. Ideally he would like three or four more hectares.
Champagne producers also need to build stocks of reserve wines to make sure that the wine is consistent from year to year, but Brimoncourt has made a brilliant start and I predict it will only get better and better.
Giles MacDonogh is a British writer, historian and translator