The Champagne house Vilmart & Cie was founded in 1890 by Désiré Vilmart and is considered by many an authority to be perhaps the leading producer of quality Champagne in the region of Northern France which bears the same name as this celebratory beverage. It’s an area of many fine bottles but some consider Vilmart to be the best and I am not arguing.
Time has passed since the Champagne house was founded. There has been a succession of family members who have taken care of this great Champagne company. The responsibility has passed to sons, and sons of sons, and to sons-in-law, with each generation adding something to the story. Laurent Champs is the present owner and Champagne Master. He received his Viticulture Professional Certificate, Oenology and Viticulture Technical Certificate, and Superior Certificate of Oenology and Viticulture at the University of Champagne in Avize. This man has impeccable pedigree and credentials.
Vilmart owns 11 hectares or so of vineyards in and near the village of Rilly-la-Montagne. The vineyards are planted with around 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir. They do not call themselves organic but they have a commendable ethos and don’t use any chemical fertilizers, herbicides or insecticides. All vineyards that Vilmart sources from are of either Grand Cru or 1er Cru status.
The harvest takes place one hundred days after flowering, around the middle of September, and every bunch is picked by hand in order to ensure that only the best quality grapes are used and that damage is kept to a minimum. Pickers have roughly a three-week period in which to harvest the fruit as beyond that point the grapes will start to deteriorate on the vines. Sometimes as much as 40% of the crop is deemed unsuitable and sold on to other producers, such are the rigorous standards at Vilmart.
Left to settle
The next step is pressing the precious grapes and Vilmart continues its duty of care by using a cool and gentle process in a fairly old machine which extracts the juice in two steps. During this stage the must (the fresh grape juice) drips into small tanks. The juice is left to settle for a day to allow the solids and liquid to separate. The juices are then pumped into large oak barrels. Most of the barrels are already aged, but in some cases new barrels are used. The ranks of large and small barrels hint at the artisanal quality of the wine to come. With casks that look like mellow furniture the wine is bound to be good. It’s a testament to the attention paid to winemaking at every step. No corners are cut at Vilmart and it’s that dedication that has grown their enviable reputation.
Second alcoholic fermentation is what gives champagne its fizz. Natural yeasts transform sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide (the bubbles in the glass) and this happens inside the bottle. Carbon dioxide is trapped, converting still wine into sparkling wine. After a week of resting, the sediment from the used yeast settles in the bottles. They are stacked in the riddling racks and turned twice a day by highly skilled men with strong wrists. This process slowly moves the sediment to the bottle neck.
Dégorgement is the dramatic art of getting the sediment out of the bottle while leaving as much wine as possible inside. The bottle necks are dunked in freezing brine. Turning the bottle upright and releasing the cork expels the sediment, and then a mixture of sugar and wine called “liqueur de dosage” is added to give each wine its “brut” (dry) or “demi-sec” (semi-dry) style. The bottles are then sealed with their traditional corks and metal cages. The bottles are then allowed to mature in the Vilmart cellars which are in themselves a thing of beauty: racks of bottles at different stages of maturation along with riddling racks full of wine and sediment still resting. Bottles wait here from 3 to 4 years for non-vintage wines and from 5 to 7 years for vintage wines.
I don’t consider myself an expert in wine and definitely not an authority on Champagne but it will likely be evident to any visitor to Vilmart that the Champagnes produced here are of superior quality. Grapes are treated with respect and the end result speaks for itself.
Champagne Vilmart & Cie
BP4 – 5 rue des Gravières
51500 Rilly la Montagne
Phone: 33 3 26 03 40 01
Fax: 33 3 26 03 46 57
From Monday to Friday, 9am to 12am and 2pm to 5.30pm
Fares from London to Reims or Chalons en Champagne start at £86 standard class return per person.
For bookings and more information visit here or call 0844 848 5 848.
Travel review by Chrissie Walker © 2018