It has been a couple of years since I have led a bike trip in Europe, but since that last trip to Burgundy, the Loire, and the Basque region of Southern of France, I have been back to France several times, including this past summer.
My wife has been to France numerous times with me, but she had only been in Champagne for a heartbeat as we were making our way up to Belgium. Thus, this past summer, as we were planning a trip to take the boys back to France, Champagne came up as a prime target. Even though I have been to the region countless times (if I had to guess, I would say I have led over a dozen bike trips to Champagne), it is easily one of my favorite regions of France, so it was an easy sell.
Even though we were heading there in mid-August, when most of France shuts down for summer vacation, I was itching to get back to the region and visit a few of my favorite producers. A few of them (Piper-Heidsieck, Krug, Collard-Chardelle) would be closed, but I was able to secure appointments for others at the top of my list: Gosset, Bruno Paillard, and Mailly Grand Cru.
The last of that trio intrigued me the most perhaps even though I had visited the winery at least a half of a dozen times. I first visited the producer a dozen or so years ago on one of my bike trips through the region and I was so enamored with the wine, I made sure I stopped in on each subsequent trip.
This visit figured to be different, though, since I would be arriving by car (and therefore not clad in sweaty lycra) and I would be meeting with Mailly’s export manager, Xavier Millard. The connection was made through a mutual good friend, Christophe Bristiel, the Commercial Director at Château la Nerthe in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Moments after arriving late on a Friday afternoon, Xavier emerged from a door behind the tasting bar to greet us. Simply put, Xavier is a dashing dude, taller than your average Frenchman, and dressed the part with a light blue freshly pressed collared shirt and blue fitted sport coat.
We swept out of the tasting room and into the bowels of the winery below. Mailly Grand Cru was founded in 1929, nine years after the declaration of Mailly as a Grand Cru village and during the world-wide financial crisis. Many of the grand marques (the large Champagne houses) were not buying grapes due to the economic uncertainty, so a group of six winemakers in Mailly-Champagne banded together to form the third cooperative in the region, la Société de Producteurs de Mailly Champagne.
Almost immediately after its formation, as the coop was making its first wines, it was also digging a cave to store the soon-to-be produced thousands of bottles. At the head of the charge was Michel Petit, a veteran of World War I and founding member of the co-op, who had plenty of digging experience making trenches across the region during the war. The members of the co-op dug the caves by hand, taking 35 years to complete the first kilometer.
Today, the co-op consists of 25 growers who own vineyards in all 35 of the different lieux-dits (named vineyard sites) in Mailly, giving the production staff a broad base from which it crafts the co-op’s champagnes. The total production is around 500 thousand bottles, 60% of which is exported (about 50% of all champagne produced is consumed in France).
Throughout our tour, Xavier presented a few facts about Mailly’s champagne production that were new to me:
- It takes about a kilogram of grapes (about 2.2 pounds) to make one bottle of champagne. Today, a kilo of Mailly Grand Cru grapes costs about 7€ (~$8). That is just for the fruit—one of the reasons champagne is expensive.
- Mailly Grand Cru only uses the first run of juice (la cuvée). The second run (la taille) is sold off as reserve wines, and the third run (deuxième taille or rebuche) is taken by the government and given to distilleries.
- All Mailly Grand Cru wines go through malolactic fermentation.
- About 5-8% of Brut Réserve is aged in oak, and they also use a solara system (previous reserve wines blended together ), which makes up 5-10% of the blend every year.
- The higher end cuvée blends use new oak to age the wine.
After the tour, we of course tasted some champagne:
NV Mailly Grand Cru Brut Réserve: Retail $40. 75% Pinot Noir, 25% Chardonnay. The base of the wine (66%) comes from the 2013 vintage. 300k bottles produced. I love this stuff. Fruity and still petulant. Fantastic. Outstanding. 90-92 Points.
NV Mailly Grand Cru Extra Brut: Retail $45. Drier than the Brut. 0-2 grams of sugar dosage, depending on the year. 25k bottles produced. From the south-facing slopes to add more richness. Yeasty and salty. The perfect oyster wine? Mineral and bright. Outstanding. 92-94 Points.
NV Mailly Grand Cru Blanc de Noirs: 100% Pinot Noir. Xavier referred to this as their “flagship wine” And it is certainly one of my favorites. Yeasty and rich, with more depth than the Brut Réserve. Worth seeking out. Outstanding. 91-93 Points.
2010 Mailly Grand Cru Intemporelle: Retail $75. 60% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay. The first of several prestiges cuvées, it means “timeless.” Creamy, small bubbles. Ok. Whoa. This really is fantastic and could use some time. Still, whoa. Outstanding. 93-95 Points.
NV Mailly Grand Cru Rosé: Retail $50. 90% Pinot Noir, 10% Chardonnay. Skin maceration instead of blended. Rich and full, my wife’s favorite. Outstanding. 91-93 Points.
2008 Mailly Grand Cru ‘O’ de Mailly: Retail $80. 75% Pinot Noir, 25% Chardonnay. For special vintages, they use special nomenclature. Earth, fire, wind, and now water. Wow this is young. Even nine years out. Rich and incredibly complex. Could go for another decade. Whoa. Outstanding. 93-95 Points.