There is a real underdog quality to the Champagne growers of Les Riceys. Once the preferred tipple of Louis XIV, the wines in this Eastern French commune are now overshadowed by the great Champagne Houses of the North – which only serves to make them more diverse, idiosyncratic and with a point to prove. David Kermode introduces us to five producers of these Grower Champagnes: Champagne Batisse-Lancelot, Pascal Manchin, Péhu-Guiardel, Arnaud Tabourin and Vincent Philpaux, who have collectively formed an Alliance to better promote their wines to the outside world.
“Les Riceys’ Pinot Noir, in particular, has a distinctive Burgundian character that is coveted by the big Champagne houses who source grapes from the region,” writes Kermode.
If an appreciation of ‘Grower Champagne’ is all about being off the beaten track, then the French commune of Les Riceys has to be one step further still. More than a hundred miles from Reims, at the southern end of the Côte des Bar, it is actually far closer to Chablis.
Formed of three villages – Ricey-Bas, Ricey-Haute-Rive and Ricey-Haut – the commune, said to be one of most beautiful in the Champagne region, became prosperous when it attracted the attention of ‘the Sun King’, Louis XIV, who developed a penchant for its distinctive Rosé des Riceys. A candy pink, tannic, savoury-edged still wine, it has its own appellation status, is made by a mere handful of artisanal producers and is sufficiently rare to enjoy a cult status.
These days Les Riceys is probably better known for its other bunch of artisans, making Grower Champagnes that are easier to find, arguably more accessible, and, thanks to some serious recent innovation, rising in stature.
“Les Riceys became enormously fashionable as a result of the patronage of the king, but these days there’s an underdog quality,” says Sarah Abbott MW, “it is often overlooked, or even looked down upon by those further north in the Champagne region.”
Perhaps as a result, its producers have been emboldened to be creative and do things differently, with five separate growers – Champagne Batisse-Lancelot, Pascal Manchin, Péhu-Guiardel, Arnaud Tabourin and Vincent Philpaux – coming together as the Alliance Riceys to promote their brand of diverse, often idiosyncratic, terroir-driven Champagnes.
Les Riceys borders the north of the Côte D’Or, with its rolling slopes consisting of Kimmeridgian chalky marl and limestone, giving its Pinot Noir, in particular, a distinctive Burgundian character that is coveted by the big Champagne houses who source grapes from the region.
“Though Grower Champagne is increasingly popular in the UK, sales are actually rising faster in the United States and Japan and there are only 50% of the ‘Recoltant Manipulant’ brands in UK versus what you would find in those countries, suggesting there’s still plenty of headroom in the British market,” says Abbott, whose Swirl Wine Group is helping the group to find importers.
The Alliance recently offered a short virtual tasting with ten full-bottle samples, two from each of the five producers, all of them certified HVE (Haute Valeur Environnementale) for sustainability. The tasting was segmented – first, classic blends, then those led by Pinot Noir, followed by prestige cuvées – to give potential UK partners some insight into what makes Les Riceys dynamic and different.
So how were the 10 bottles of Champagne tasting?
Champagne Arnaud Tabourin, Brut Tradition, Les Riceys, NV
A fourth generation producer, Tabourin’s father planted in Les Riceys in the 1970s when he saw its potential. Though not declared as vintage, this is from the 2017 harvest, a blend of the classic Champagne varieties. The fruit is generous, there’s real citrus depth and its rich, approachable style makes a lot of its 6 grammes per litre dosage.
Champagne Péhu-Guiardel & Fils, Brut, Les Riceys, NV
With a base year of 2018 and reserve wines from 2013, 80 percent Pinot Noir, the remainder Chardonnay, the nose is charming and floral, with jasmine and citrus zest. The palate offers real delicacy with wild honey on freshly baked baguette.
Champagne Pascal Manchin, Brut Tradition NV
Offering a lively nose of golden delicious apple, yellow plum and quince, the mousse is elegant and creamy, there’s impressive complexity and depth from 36 months of lees ageing and the finish is long and rounded.
Champagne Batisse Lancelot Tradition NV
From a family producer now in its fourth generation, the expressive nose offers ripe greengage and peach. The fruity freshness belies a dosage of 10g per litre and the autolytic character is elegantly woven through to the satisfying mineral finish.
Champagne Philpaux Brut Rosé NV
100 percent Pinot Noir, the colour evokes the rich tradition of Rosé des Riceys, with its shocking candy pink, achieved with between 24 and 48 hours maceration on skins. There’s fresh raspberry, red cherries, strawberries and cream, but this is a serious food wine, with proper structure, red fruit definition and depth. If I’m honest, I enjoyed it a lot more than I had expected.
Champagne Batisse Lancelot Brut Rosé, Les Riceys
First made in 1976, this is from the 2015 harvest, though it’s not declared as vintage. Described by Sarah Abbott MW as an “interesting, attention-grabbing wine, with quite a gourmet style,” it’s relatively lean and precise. In fact, there’s more than a nod to Burgundy, with a savoury edge to the red fruit that would partner perfectly with charcuterie or paté.
Champagne Péhu-Guiardel Blanc de Noirs NV
100% Pinot Noir, from a base year of 2018, there’s a thrilling nose of pithy grapefruit and green apples, with the high wire nerviness continuing on the attack. Offering delicate layers of mouth-watering, plump citrus and a subtle saline finish.
Champagne Philpaux Brut Cuvée Jade ‘Or
80 percent Chardonnay, the remainder Pinot Noir, with delicate beads of honeysuckle, apple blossom, lemon shortbread and wet stone, the fruit is generous and there’s a lovely soft mineral quality that’s interwoven with the rounded autolytic character. (If they made Champagne in Chablis, maybe it might perhaps taste like this).
Champagne Pascal Manchin, Brut Prestige
80 percent Chardonnay, 20 Pinot Noir, with a rich, inviting nose of apricot, mandarin and toasted brioche, there’s a real citrus energy on the attack. The feel is luxurious and powerful, with a lingering finish of toasted pine nuts and subtle spice.
Champagne Arnaud Tabourin, Cuvée Or Brut
Rather touchingly, Tabourin dedicated this particular cuvée to his wife. Exclusively Chardonnay, though oddly not labelled Blanc de Blancs, it is aged in oak for ten months. With 6 grammes per litre of dosage, there’s concentrated citrus character and rich layers of nutty complexity. Idiosyncratic in style, but also very charming with a lovely lemon shortbread finish.