I am often struck by the fact that there’s always something new to learn in Champagne and a case in point is a recent visit to Champagne François Secondé in Sillery.
If the name Sillery seems vaguely familiar it may be because you’ve come across it in a list of the 17 Grand Crus villages in Champagne, but that’s probably all you know about it because it’s a little off the beaten track and much less well-known than villages such as Aÿ, Le-Mesnil-sur-Oger, Cramant and Verzenay for example.
However that hasn’t always been the case: in the second half of the XVIII century Sillery was famous for its still wines, mainly red, which were much sought after by the aristocracy “ils ont une qualité si supérieure qu’on les reserve pour la bouche du roi” – so said Edme Béguillet, a lawyer and oenologist at the parliament in Dijon. (Sillery wines are of such superior quality that there are reserved for the king’s enjoyment.”). These days of course the still wines from Champagne – Coteaux Champenois as they are called – are still made although not in large quantities but their fame has long since been eclipsed by the region’s sparkling wines.
However, judging from the collection of old labels at Champagne François Secondé the good vignerons of Sillery were very active and it seems that their champagnes were exported all over the world although for some reason which I have yet to get to the bottom of, they were often just described as ‘mousseux’ (sparkling wine), instead of champagne.
Another of the old labels testifies to the fact that for many years champagne exported to America had a different taste – the goût américain - to champagne sold elsewhere because, rightly or wrongly, it was thought that consumers in the USA wanted something sweeter.
Today Sillery seems far less bustling. There are a handful of champagnes made by the local cooperative and sold under the own label by the members of the cooperative, but Champagne Francois Sécondé is only remaining Récoltant Manipulant in the village. Run by a gentleman of the same name who sold the first bottles under his own name in 1975, the estate now comprises 5.5 hectares planted 2/3 with Pinot Noir and 1/3 Chardonnay situated mainly in the village of Sillery and its neighbour Puisieulx which is also a Grand Cru (and very difficult to pronounce).
There are 7 cuvées in the range which are quite widely exported and well thought of by a number of guides and experts. Strangely though, in a part of Champagne best known for its Pinot Noir, it’s Francois Seconde’s Vintage Blanc de Blancs which is garnering the most medals, winning gold in three successive years (2013 -2015) at the Chardonnay du Monde competition.
The village itself is about 15 kilometres south of Reims in the valley of the River Vesle where the soil is not ideally suited to growing vines and in fact the vineyards are to be found on slightly higher ground at some distance from the village nearer to Mailly-Champagne and Verzenay than to Sillery itself.
Much more can be said about the history and particularities of Sillery and all that will be the subject of a separate article in due course but before leaving François Secondé I have to mention something else unique about this small producer; it’s the only producer making a 100% Puisieulx Grand Cru champagne. In 15 years or more I had never come across this champagne until the other day which just goes to show that there is indeed always something new to discover in Champagne.
A final thought... what a difference between the labels now and all those years ago - how tastes change!