As quick as popping a cork, it seemed, three weeks ago I was on a Brussels-to-Paris high-speed Thalys train, savoring visions of France’s picturesque Champagne region.
For weeks I’d wanted to visit the fine old Boizel Champagne house in Epernay in the heart of Champagne, 120 km northeast of Paris. Fingers crossed, I’d rung Boizel Aug. 21 and luckily found Evelyne Roques-Boizel, the business director, just back from a vacation with her husband Christophe, a scientist and wine man from a family of distinguished academics.
I arrived in Epernay Aug. 23, and the next day my Boizel initiation began with Christophe’s tour of top vineyards growing the chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot muniere grapes — the “Champagne region trio” — followed by a visit to Boizel’s remarkable cellars tunneled into the bank of Mount Bernon in 1886. Boizel was founded by Auguste Boizel in 1834 as a smaller winery producing world-class connoisseur champagne, its enduring profile.
The Boizel story typifies the vinous vicissitudes in Champagne — indeed, throughout the chancy world of wine. When champagne houses were few and the odds weighed heavily against success, founder Auguste Boizel and his wife Julie, a grape-grower’s daughter, sank every franc they had into making champagne, and succeeded. In 1886 their son Edward took over and built the family home, the present winery and the offices, as well as the cellars, which are still in use.
Edward’s son Jules built up the export business and by 1920 made Boizel world renowned, and Jules’ son Rene brought the house back from the economic devastation of the Great Depression and World War II. Rene’s “Joyau de France,” in 1961, was one of the 20th century’s great harvests. Today, in Asia alone Boizel exports to Australia, New Zealand, and Japan.
Since 1984 Boizel has continued to thrive under the keen fifth-generation eye of Rene’s daughter Evelyne and Christophe. This spontaneous, warm, cheerful couple share Boizel’s many tasks. Evelyne handles management, sales and export and Christophe handles grape-buying and technical, financial and administrative matters. Together, with personal dedication, they also determine Boizel’s champagne style: the all-important cuvee, the blend of wines (i.e. grapes) that will be the face of Boizel’s vintage.
“The wines we sample for the cuvee are at first very austere,” Evelyne said, “so simple that it’s hard to imagine now how they’ll be when mature. When sampling you must follow your feelings, your memory. On a given day many tastings precede that day’s last one. If it’s not conclusive, we stop. The next morning, 10 to 11 a.m. when our palates are fresh, we start again. It helps to be a bit hungry.
“It takes time, but for quality, character and consistency, this is how it must be, year after year. Each year, for nonvintage, we add wines kept in vats from previous harvests for year-to-year consistency. The art lies in maintaining Boizel’s house style and taste while giving expression to the exceptional character of the year.”
Briefly, chardonnay imparts elegance to champagne; pinot noir, body and finesse; and pinot muniere, structure and length. Taking C for chardonnay, PN for pinot noir, and PM for pinot muniere, let’s consider the five brands in the Champagne Boizel line. Brut Reserve (30 percent C, 55 percent PN, 15 percent PM) is straw colored, redolent of fruit, and mellow tasting; good as an aperitif or with fish or seafood courses.
Brut Rose (50 percent PN, 40 percent PM, 10 percent C) is salmon pink, has red-fruit aromas, and is full flavored with good length; a food aperitif, with lamb or with red-fruit desserts.
Champagne Boizel Chardonnay (100 percent) is gold with green tints, floral, with honey, hawthorn and toasted bread on the palate and good mouth-feel, length and delicacy — perfect for sushi!
Brut Millesime (48 percent C, 46 percent PN, 6 percent PM), using only first-pressing juice, is warm gold in color, fresh, full bodied, with honey, gingerbread and fruit flavors; cuvee made each year only from grand crus and premier crus partly barrel vinified; old gold in color, complex, nutty, buttery, full bodied.
Summer is waning and harvest time in the Northern Hemisphere looms ahead. I enjoyed my visits to important wineries like Boizel, as did my young daughter and son. Vineyards give children an unusual communion with nature: the vast expanse of sun-bathed land under vine, the ripening grapes and the glorious vistas from various elevations such as those around Epernay — some of God’s greatest artistry.