Wednesday, 26 April 2023

Champagne tour 2023 - Nicolas Feuillatte

If you’ve been following my last posts on my champagne trip you’ll have seen us visit two very old, prestigious Champagne houses, steeped in history and tradition. My third post sees us visiting a very different kind of producer - a co-operative that is very young in the context of Champagne - but has quickly risen to play a very important role in the modern landscape of French wine.

A co-operative taking on the champagne establishment


The winery we feature today is Nicolas Feuillatte, which was founded in 1976 by the eponymous Nicolas Feuillatte who was originally a coffee importer (interesting fact: despite coming from a family that was involved in the wine and spirits trades he made his fortune by setting up imports of African coffee to America). In 1986 Feuillatte merged his brand with a wine co-operative founded by Henri Macquart - the Centre Vinicole de la Champagne. The co-operative model is based on a system where the co-operative buys fruit from farmers with sites of varying sizes and provides them with the winery facilities needed to turn their fruit to wine. Today the co-operative work with over 5,000 different producers! The results are incredibly impressive when you consider how relatively recently they started - Nicolas Feuillatte is the most drunk brand of champagne in the whole of France and number three world-wide, producing more than 20 million bottles per year. In 2022 Nicolas Feuillatte joined up with Terroirs Vignerons de Champagne, which includes other champagne houses such as Champagne Castelnau. This super group now comprises more than one-third of all the growers in the champagne area.

Clearly production on this scale requires a significant operation and we were treated to a tour of the facilities when we visited. I loved watching the dance of the bottles as they went through the production line (see video above). The thing that struck me as we moved around was both how massive the facilities were (it did feel almost industrial in size) but how much care and attention had gone into the operation - and some times in surprising ways. Just one example of this was that they had different music playing in different areas of the winery depending on what was happening to the wine at the different stages - from soothing classical being pumped into the areas where the wine was maturing, to ambient electronic music being played where the grapes were being processed. Another interesting point to note was that throughout the facilities a real effort had been made to incorporate art pieces into the winery - a good example being shown in the picture on the right where you can see that they have a gold printed piece mounted on the ceiling showing the bubbles in champagne at play next to some of the wine tanks - almost like they are trying to inspire the wines in the tank!   

Tasting the wines

So, having finished our tour of the winery it was time to taste the wines! We were taken a rather splendid looking tasing room on the mezzanine of the main entrance. Our fabulous guide Ghislain (who was dressed immaculately in a Nicolas Feuillatte gilet, which I desperately want one of!, see right) guided us through a flight of five wines which showed us the range of wines that Nicolas Feuillatte carries.

We started with a Reserve Exclusive Brut which is their most produced wine and the one that you’re most likely to find on the shelves (available from Waitrose for £29.99/bottle). This wine has 40% of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, with 20% of Chardonnay to make up the blend. This is a thoroughly decent wine - a touch of bready yeatiness on the nose to go with some lighter fruit and floral notes; on the palate it has a fine perlage and just a hint of richness from the slightly higher dosage. Next up was the Exclusive Reserve Rosé, which has a little more of both Pinot grapes (45% of each) and just 10% Chardonnay (currently on offer at Waitrose Cellar, down from £35.99 to £27.99, an absolute bargain!). This was no shrinking violet of a rose champagne - it had a very strong and vibrant colour. The predominant flavours as you would expect were red fruit notes (red cherry and cranberry), it was a very pure, fresh and fruity wine. Time for something a little different now - with the Collection Organic Extra Brut (60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay). As you would expect you immediately felt that this wine was a lot drier and racier than the previous two. I also found there was a slight salinity to this wine. Extra Brut and Zero dosage champagnes are very en vogue at the moment and particularly from a gastronomic perspective - this wine would be a great match for seafood (particularly shell-fish).


It was time now to move up a notch on the quality levels. Our next wine was a vintage, the 2017 Collection Vintage Blanc des Blancs (available from Vinatis for £40.65/bottle). This has obviously had a bit of ageing on it, but is still quite young for a vintage BdB champagne. I noted that the perlage on this wine was very fine, with elegant little bubbles evident. On the nose and the palate there was plenty of fruit going on, mainly soft, citrus notes and some crisp green apple bite. It felt very elegant and refined already, which given its relative youth surprised me. This was an excellent wine. Our last wine was a bit of a blockbuster - the 2008 Palme D’Or Brut, which is the premier cuvée from Feuillatte (available from Vinatis for £122/bottle). Made of a blend of 50% Chardonnay and 50% Pinot Noir selected from their best locations (95% of which are from Grand Crus classified sites). This wine was intensely aromatic in the glass, it really sang! On the palate it was certainly the most complex of the wines that we tried, which is no surprise as this is a step up in terms of price from the others. It felt as if it evolved over time as you tasted it, I noted that about 20 seconds after having an initially quite fruity presence, the wine started presenting deeper and richer notes which gave it a very pleasant, mellow feel that lasted for well over a minute. 


This was a very different tour and tasting to the two previous ones that I have covered in the series. These were old, prestigious houses that can trade off their tradition and reputation - they focus on top-end, boutique production and their products are priced accordingly. For many people they are the very epitome of Champagne. On the other hand, Nicolas Feuillatte felt young and ambitious, the parvenu looking to take on the establishment. When you look at the volumes they produce and their evident esteem that they are held in they have to be considered a huge success. They are producing good quality wine at a price point that many people can afford.

I would like to thank Belinda for organising this tour for our group. In addition, I would very much like to thank the team at Nicolas Feuillatte for looking after us so well - particularly Ghislain who gave us a wonderful tour and tasting. If you want to book your own tour you can do so by following this link.

Friday, 24 March 2023

Champagne tour 2023 - Charles Heidsieck

This is the second post from my series on my February 2023 Champagne tour (you can read the first post on our visit to Billecart-Salmon here).  

We chose to base ourselves for our trip in Epernay, but I was adamant that we would head over to the other big centre in Champagne - Reims, as I had not been there before. Reims is a short train ride (c. 30 minutes) from Epernay and is a bigger and more built-up city than sleepy Epernay. It has a long history - Reims was an important Roman town and is actually named after one of the two brothers that according to Roman legend founded Rome (Remus, with the other brother, Romulus giving his name to Rome itself).

‘Champagne Charlie’  

In Reims, I was very excited that we were able to visit Charles Heidsieck - another name that is completely intertwined in the history of champagne. The history of this particular house is really fascinating. Charles Heidsieck came from an important Champagne family - which is why you might also know of the brand Piper-Heidsieck which was founded by Charles’ uncle. Charles set up his own house in the 19th century and was early on committed to trying to open up the American market as he felt there were great possibilities there. On his third visit to the States in 1862 he was actually arrested as it was during the American civil war and he was suspected of being a spy! Indeed, in order to get himself released from prison he had to get Napoleon III to intercede by writing to Abraham Lincoln - talk about friends in high places…! Charles’ exploits in the states earned him the nickname ‘Champagne Charlie’ and the eponymous late Victorian song cemented his fame. After his experiences of incarneration, Charles was understandably reluctant to go back to the states - however, America did help him out greatly, as he later was notified that he had inherited half of Denver from an old business colleague who wanted to recompense him from an earlier wrong. This gift allowed him to raise funds which he then used to buy property and, importantly, a network of vast underground chalk caves - crayères - which would allow him to age his wines.

Indeed - it was these crayères that will be my abiding memory of visiting Charles Heidsieck. We descended from a pretty little garden through what looked like a hobbit house down a large number of stairs. I was not prepared for the scale or grandiosity of these magnificent underground cathedrals. At their greatest depth they are 30m deep. Take another look at the photo at the top of this page to get a sense of the grandeur. 
These pits were dug out by hand during Roman times and create a perfect environment for ageing wine - cool temperatures and a naturally high level of humidity all year round. The crayères for Charles Heidsieck have enough space to store their reserve stock of 1.4 million bottles of wine (and to be honest they had space for a lot more than that!). The crayères really are a wonder - I particularly loved exploring some of the house’s vaults of old vintages of wine going back to 1955. In fact, one of the passage ways through the crayères even inspired the Charles Heidsieck bottle shape - check out the photo on the right! 

Tasting the wines

After our tour of the crayères we went to a beautiful pavilion that the house has in its grounds which can host tastings. There our guide (Melissa) took us through a tasting of five of the exquisite wines from the Charles Heidsieck range. 

We started with a NV Blanc des Blancs (75% 2018 vintage, 25% reserve wine) which was lovely and fresh with some notable floral notes on the nose, and just a hint of butteriness on the palate. Next up was the NV Rosé Reserve (available from Hedonism Wines for £59.90/bottle), which is made of 1/3 each of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, which had a little more bite and edge to it, but that softened a little after it had spent some time in the glass. The NV Brut Reserve (available from Petersham Cellars for £45/bottle) was a step up in quality - the colour itself sat as a gentle gold - it is made up of 50% wine from 2017, but the other 50% is reserve wine going back up to 20 years. This reserve wine really gives the wine a more generous, rich profile. On the palate it had notes of lemon meringue pie, but it unfurled in the glass to develop further. I certainly liked this wine as I bought it in magnum!

It was now time to get into the vintage wines! First up we tried the 2012 Brut Millesieme (disgorged in 2021) which is blended from 10 of their top village producers and is made of 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay. The profile was really interesting - tropical fruit notes complemented against butterscotch and brioche, with plenty of layers to it. This was an elegant and complex wine with a long life ahead of it. Available from Hedonism for £105/bottle.
After this we tried the 2007 Blancs des Millenaires (100% Chardonnay), this is only the 7th edition of this wine which they only make when conditions are perfect. The wine was taut and linear with beautifully pure green apple notes. I also felt like I detected a fair amount of salinity and minerality which gave the wine a real tension. In truth, although this is 15 years old, it is probably only just hitting its drinking window and will have a long time ahead of it yet where it will soften and depeen. Available from Hedonism for £194/bottle.

These were truly spectacular wines and I feel that having tried them so close to where they lay when they were developing that it gave the tasting even more resonance.
Charles Heidsieck is not open to visits for the public, so I am hugely grateful to Simon for arranging our trip.

Tuesday, 14 March 2023

Champagne tour 2023 - Billecart-Salmon

If you were looking to go somewhere for a few days to celebrate a special occasion as a wine lover then think most of you would agree that a trip to Champagne is a rather splendid idea. This is exactly what I did last month as we went away to celebrate my sister-in-law’s 40th birthday. Champagne’s reputation as a wine for celebration is long-held and has been carefully crafted over the centuries, so we were very excited for this trip.

This I the first post in a series where I will take you through some of the highlights from our trip as we were lucky to visit some fantastic champagne houses and drink some truly memorable wines. I won’t, however, go over specific information about the Champagne production process here - if you are interested in this then I would recommend checking out this post from Difford’s Guide.

A champagne institution

Situated in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ is the legendary Billecart-Salmon and touring this house with our tour guide Jerome, you were struck with the weight of history and tradition that surrounds this august Champagne house, which can trace its lineage back to the merging of two extant houses when Nicolas François Billecart and Elisabeth Salmon married in 1818. They are commemorated in many ways by the House today with portraits which you can see their portraits in the picture on the left, as well as some of the wines being named after them. The House still belongs to the Billecart-Salmon family, with 7th generation of the family, Mathieu Roland-Billecart, running the company today.

The House produces c. 2.5m bottles per year, which makes them a small-to-medium sized producer (in Champagne House terms). To do this they grow on 200ha of their own land and buy in fruit from a further 100ha. Beneath the streets of Aÿ they have 2km of underground tunnels that they use for storing their wines in - exploring these tunnels was a real highlight of the tour. You really appreciate how perfect the conditions there are for storing and ageing wine - a stable temperature of c. 12 - 14 degrees Celsius all year and c. 90% humidity. It really is impressive as you walk through their subterranean tunnels seeing all the bottles laid out and ageing gracefully.

In Billecart-Salmon they really focus on developing wines with extra complexity and character. Their NV wines are aged on lees for a minimum of three years, with their vintage wines having at least eight years. Jerome did show us one of their vineyards directly next to the winery (Clos St-Hilaire, which is the photo at the top of this post) where they produce a super small-batch wine, made according to biodynamic principles, which has 12 years on lees - they have only just released the 2005 vintage! 
In the winery they utilise cold temperature fermentation (at 13 degrees Celsius) which is about as low as you can go. This increases the amount of time you need for primary fermentation - it takes six weeks, as opposed to the standard 15 days. The result is that the wines retain more freshness and elegance. 

If you want an indication of the importance that champagne plays in the daily lives of people who live in this region, Jerome told us that when he was baptised as a baby as well as having the holy water sprinkled on him, he was also baptised with some champagne. He tells us that he only found out from his family after he started his current job that the champagne they used was Billecart-Salmon!

Tasting the wines

For our tasting we were taken to a beautiful room in the family house, which was decorated in exquisite, yet under-stated style. We tried three wines, each of which were utterly charming and showed the high quality that the House clearly aims for. 

The first wine was a special release, the ‘Rendez-vous No. 3 edition’, a NV Extra Brut with 2g/l residual sugar and made from 100% Pinot Meunier. It was fresh and clean with a really balanced finish. It had spent five years on the lees, which gave it a little tinge of waxiness. This bottle can be bought from Hedonism wines for £74/bottle.

The 2008 Louis Salmon Blancs de Blanc Grand Cru (disgorged in October 2020) was beautifully heady and expressive. As all good aged BdB wines it had developed those brioche flavours on the nose, but on the palate it was still taut and mineralic, with great poise. This bottle can be bought from Berry Brothers and Rudd for £210/bottle. 

Our last wine was the 2009 Elisabeth Salmon vintage rosé (55% Pinot Noir, 45% Chardonnay), which was light, floral and elegant. The notes were largely crisp red fruit (cherries and strawberries). Compared to the previous wine this felt a but more approachable right now, but that is not to say that this wine will not also benefit from giving it a bit more time. This bottle can be bought from Berry Brothers and Rudd for £178/bottle.

The quality of these wines really shone through for me. I think this was helped by the atmosphere in the magnificent tasting room and Jerome’s naturally considered and reflective style. I also thought that the Billecart-Salmon wines were all really gastronomic wines - yes, they could be sipped and enjoyed as an aperitif, but with their complexity of flavour and texture I really felt that all would really sing when poured to pair with some exquisite food, which is I guess why their wines feature on so many high-end restaurant lists.

I would like to thank Charlie and the team at Billecart-Salmon for organising this magnificent tour and tasting. In particular, I would also like to thank Jerome for his tour and sharing his evident passion and deep love for Champagne with us. Tours can be arranged through the Billecart-Salmon website here - I would highly recommend visiting them.

Look out over the coming days for more posts as I share most of the fabulous things we experienced in Champagne! 

Saturday, 7 January 2023

Discovering the secrets of Parmigiano Reggiano production – and other must-try food and drink specialities in Emilia-Romagna

Parmigiano Reggiano wheels ageing at Caseificio San Bernardino [Photo: Rachael Hogg]

There may be thousands of cheeses around the world, but there aren’t many as globally renowned as Parmigiano Reggiano. It’s so popular, TasteAtlas ranks Parmigiano Reggiano as the world’s fifth most popular cheese (although we’d probably place it even higher). For some, it’s just a cheese you use to sprinkle over pasta, for others, it’s important enough to be used as bank collateral.

We went behind the scenes at Caseificio San Bernardino, which produces around 15,000 wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano a year. It’s one of around 300 consortium-approved dairies near Parma, and has been in the business of cheesemaking since the 1800s. Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium spokesperson Giovanna Rosati said production takes place once a day, every day, including Christmas Day. On the farm, the dairy looks after the whole cheesy supply chain: it breeds the cows in the fields, produces all the milk, produces the cheese, and stores it for aging in the amazingly impressive maturation rooms.

How is Parmigiano Reggiano produced? 

The incredible ageing room at Caseificio San Bernardino [Photo: Rachael Hogg]

As Parmigiano Reggiano is a PDO product (which means Protected Denomination of Origin), it has to follow a pretty strict set of rules and regulations outlined by the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium. It can only be made with milk from local cows, natural calf rennet – some people are surprised to learn Parmigiano Reggiano isn’t vegetarian – and salt. The cows also have to follow a strict diet of 70% local hay, and 30% barley, soy and corn.

At San Bernardino, the milk arrives at the dairy within a couple of hours and it’s poured into large upside down bell-shaped vats which hold 1,300 litres of milk. To make each wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano, it takes a whopping 550 litres of milk. Fermented whey is added to the milk from the previous day’s processing, before some rennet, which allows the milk to naturally coagulate.

It’s then workout time, as the master cheesemaker has to turn the curd into small granules using a large tool called ‘spino’, which resembles a large sieve on the end of a big pole.

A skilled Parmigiano Reggiano cheesemaker wields his spino [Photo: Rachael Hogg]

Everything is then heated to 55 degrees Celsius, which leads to the cheese bits sinking to the bottom of the vat and joining together into a large mass. This process takes around 50 minutes, before the cheesemaker hauls the cheese out of the liquid with a linen cloth, and chops it in two. Rosati said, “The only two that are the same are the ones in the vat.”

Once the cheese has been cut, it’s placed first in a plastic mould, then a metal mould to take on its final, recogniable shape. From there, it’s branding time. The cheese is wrapped with a plate which features a unique code, “like a car’s numberplate,” Rosati said. This means the cheese can be traced anywhere in the world. And it’s marked with the month and year of production, along with the special cheese factory registration number and dotted inscriptions you’ll likely recognise from the rind of the cheese.

After a few days, it’s bath time, as the cheeses are put in a large vat of salt water. It’s then just a matter of patience as each wheel is moved into the amazingly impressive storage facility.

How long does the cheese mature for?

The hammer used by quality inspectors to test Parmigiano Reggiano wheels [Photo: Rachael Hogg]

The cheese is left to mature for 12 months. While it’s maturing, it’s looked after by a robot which picks up, cleans and rotates each wheel to help the process. After a year, it undergoes an inspection, and it’s back to traditional methods. The wheel is tapped with a hammer and the impressive quality inspectors can hear if there are any issues or defects inside the cheese.

If it is up to scratch, it’s fire branded with the Parmigiano Reggiano logo. If it doesn’t make the cut – apparently a not-insignificant 8% of all Parmigiano Reggiano falls at this hurdle – all the marks and signs are removed from the cheese and it can no longer be called Parmesan. Rosati said, “Each wheel must not weigh less than 35kg.”

From here, the cheese may be sold, or continue maturing for 24, 36, 40 months, or even longer. In fact, during the 2021 International Cheese Festival, a 21-year-old Parmigiano Reggiano wheel was sold at auction.

What should you eat Parmigiano Reggiano with?

Parmigiano Reggiano chunks cut with the traditional almond-shaped knife [Photo: Rachael Hogg]

Ok, so first up, Parmigiano Reggiano is worth so much more than just grating it on pasta. Yes, it’s joyous to do that and wholeheartedly encouraged, but when you discover how versatile the cheese is, you’ll be reaching for it in so many other situations.

We love Parmigiano Reggiano on a cheeseboard – a huge hunk of it you can cut away at with the traditional almond-shaped cutter. You can use the rinds to flavour soups and stews, carve off large slivers to adorn beef carpaccio, or eat more mature Parmigiano Reggiano (40 months +) with a couple of drops of balsamic vinegar.

The younger cheese at 12-18 months makes a delightful pairing with sparkling or white wines, while the more mature cheese can stand up to bolder red wine. Or keep it local and enjoy with a glass of Lambrusco.

Other must-try specialities from Emilia-Romagna

The window of La Prosciutteria Silvano Romani in Parma [Photo: Rachael Hogg]

While you could easily enjoy every meal in Emilia-Romagna with Parmesan – and if you’re anything like us, definitely will – the region is renowned for all kinds of world-class produce and local dishes. Here are seven other things you need to try.

Aceto Balsamico di Modena PDO

The amazing Aceto Balsamico di Modena PDO at Acetaia di Georgio [Photo: Rachael Hogg]

Balsamic vinegar is (understandably) one of the more misunderstood products. Yes, you can buy balsamic vinegar at the supermarket for a couple of pounds. No, you can’t buy Aceto Balsamico di Modena PDO in the same way. Then there’s Aceto Balsamico IGP, which is somewhere in between the two. The rules are the most strict – and the product is the most expensive – when it comes to the PDO product. This is controlled by a consortium, which states the vinegar can only be made with cooked grape must, using varieties that are typical to Modena. The vinegar must be aged for a minimum of 12 years in wood barrels (made from oak, chestnut, mulberry, cherry or juniper, nothing else) which decrease in size. The only other age permitted for sale is 25 years. You can seriously taste the difference though, and the intensity is incredible. Just a couple of drops is enough, and will have to be, as it can only be sold in 100ml bottles. Book a guided tour of Acetaia di Georgio to see which wood finish you like best. Our favourite was the 25-year-old juniper.

Prosciutto di Parma

Prosciutto di Parma on Foccacia at Croce di Malta [Photo: Rachael Hogg]

Like many PDO products, Prosciutto di Parma is strictly controlled, with lots of quality rules and regulations. The process originated thousands of years ago, and hasn’t changed much since. To start the process, the pork hind legs are tagged to show when the curing process began, before being salted by a salt master. Other than air and time, salt is the only added ingredient. The minimum time it takes to make Prosciutto di Parma is 400 days, but it could take up to three years. To check you’re enjoying the real deal – and you’ll definitely want to – check for the five-point Ducal Crown, which guarantees the quality.

Culatello di Zibello

Culatello di Zibello aging in the cellars at Antica Corte Pallavicina [Photo: Rachael Hogg]

This cured meat packs a serious punch, and it’s unlikely you will have had the chance to try it outside of Emilia-Romagna as it’s rarely exported. It’s made by ageing the hind leg muscle of pigs which have been raised and slaughtered in the region. First, the meat is salted and wrapped in twine. After a few days, it’s wrapped in a pig’s bladder, then wrapped in twine again and aged for at least a year. When ready, it’s cleaned, washed in Fontana del Taro wine and thinly sliced. There aren’t many better places to try Culatello di Zibello than Antica Corte Pallavicina, a Michelin-starred restaurant and agriturismo with an entire ham-scented cellar packed with Culatello. Head chef Massimo Spigaroli even sells his Culatello to Massimo Bottura at Osteria Francescana – and King Charles is a fan too.


Podere Il Saliceto L'Albone Lambrusco di Modena [Photo: Rachael Hogg]

Get those thoughts of the cheap, incredibly sweet, fizzy wine your grandma used to drink as a treat out of your head. Although you can find white and rosé Lambrusco, it’s most known as a sparkling deep red wine, available from dry to sweet. Lambrusco is the name of the wine, and a grape, but it’s also the collective name for different grapes. Some common grapes used in the production of Lambrusco are Grasparossa, Maestri, Marani, Monstericco, Salamino and Sorbara.

Mortadella Bologna
Known as the Pink Queen, this meat originated in – as the name suggests – Bologna. It’s had a bit of a revival of late, with deli cold cuts trending all over TikTok. Mortadella is made with pork shoulder and lardons, and spiced with pistachios, olives, black pepper and myrtle berries. With its signature white against pink polka dots, it’s very recognisable.

Anolini in Brodo
Every region, town and village in Italy has a different pasta shape. Of course there are plenty of arguments about which is the best. Parma’s pasta shape is anolini. Like a little flying saucer, each anolino is stuffed with slow-cooked beef, and the pasta is then served in a beef broth. The whole lot should of course be liberally dusted with Parmigiano Reggiano.

Gnocco Fritto

Pillowy soft gnocco fritto at Antica Moka, just outside Modena [Photo: Rachael Hogg]

Find yourself a back street salumeria, or book yourself a table at Antica Moka, a gorgeous restaurant serving local food and modern interpretations of classic cooking, and enjoy a generous heap of gnocco fritto. Like biting into the softest pillow, these fried, lard-enriched dough squares are heavenly. Pile with Mortadella, Culatello or Prosciutto and delight in the combination of sweet, succulent meat and rich yet incredibly light dough.