By Christopher Matthews
Champagne is a big deal in the US, which is the second largest market outside of France for the iconic French bubbly (the UK remains first). And not only does it comprise over 20% of the total American sparkling wine market, but it also had its best year in the US since 2007 in 2015 (some 20.5 million bottles sold), growing at a 7% clip per annum. C’est les bon temps!
While the big global brands — e.g. Moët et Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, G. H. Mumm — still dominate the US Champagne landscape, the small “grower” Champagnes, made by vignerons who once just sold their grapes/wines solely to the big houses, have captivated sommeliers and cognoscenti alike, giving added impulse to the category. Between these two extremes lies Champagne Collet, a medium-sized, cooperative producer, and a historic house in its own right. At a recent event at Ai Fiori in Manhattan, I had an opportunity to taste through Champagne Collet’s US portfolio, and my conclusion is clear: these fine wines need to be better known in the US.
Collet is the flagship brand of the oldest cooperative in Champagne, the COGEVI. Founded in 1921, the co-op was a concrete reaction to the rampant counterfeit Champagne trade of the early 20th century, with the aim to protect the good name – and quality – the region’s eponymous tipple, a major step towards the French appellation system in place today. Reflecting its formative years, Collet’s visual identity, including its distinctive bottle labels, is in the Art Deco style.
Located in Äy, the heart of the region, Collet’s member vineyards are comprised mainly of Premier and Grand Cru parcels, representing diverse terroirs, and a rich palette for Chef de Cave Sebastien Walasiak ‘s various cuvees.
Though not a household name here, Collet is available in over 40 countries and is well-regarded, both in France and internationally, as a “Champagne of gastronomy”. Leveraging this (deserved) reputation, it confers an annual award for the most interesting cookbooks penned by chefs – Le Prix Champagne Collet du Livre de Chef.
Along these culinary contours, the event at Ai Fiori was great showcase for the Collet wines that are available in the US, via Old Bridge Cellars. Known for aging its wines well beyond the minimum requirements (i.e. 15 months in bottle for NV, 3 years for vintage), Collet’s wines range in age from 4 to 10 years in bottle before release, leading to expressive wines of finesse and elegance.
All the wines showed well; here are some highlights (all prices approximate):
Bright, fresh and fruit-driven, but with depth and richness on the finish, the Brut Art Deco (NV), the most well-known Collet cuvee, is extremely versatile, be it as an elegant aperitif, or at the table with light fare ($45).
Speaking of the table, my favorite of the Collet line, the Blanc de Blanc, is a dynamite food companion. Dry, slightly toasty and with bright citrus and clear mineral notes , the Blanc de Blanc (100% Chardonnay) is vibrant and complex, and was a knock-out food match for fluke crudo with American caviar ($50).
The Vintage 2006 Collection Privée actually provoked an ovation from the gathered scribes and wine industry folks, led by none other than Mr. Champagne himself, Ed McCarthy (author of Champagne for Dummies). Pretty pale gold with aromas of vanilla, brioche and marzipan, this vintage cuvee is big, rich and complex with tremendous length, one that could make it through an entire dinner, finishing with hard cheeses ($70).
I was also taken with the Brut Rosé, a blend of 40% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay and 20% Pinot Meunier. A pretty, deep orange-pink, the rosé is floral with red berry aromas, and rich yet refreshing on the palate, sporting tart berry and stone fruit flavors on a lively mineral finish ($50).
Finally, the house Tête de Cuvee is the Esprit Coulture. Floral with vanilla undertones, the Esprit is fragrant, smooth, elegant and persistent, with clean red berry and stone fruit character. And the stylized bottle resembles one for fragrance ($100).
For most, Champagne is not really associated with value for money, and too often is only considered for special celebrations. But these excellent Collet bubblies over-deliver on their price-points, and would be a hit at any occasion, including dinner for two…or 20!