Driving south west from Reims along La Montagne de Reims you’ll pass through a cluster of Grand Cru villages recognised for the quality of their Pinot Noir, including three right next door to one another: Mailly-Champagne, Verzenay and Verzy. You’re in the heart of Pinot Noir territory and you might be forgiven for thinking that La Montagne de Reims is all about Pinot Noir and nothing else, but drive just 2 kilometres beyond Verzy and you’ll discover something quite different.
The village of Villers-Marmery: a sea of white grapes in an ocean of Pinot Noir.
Villers-Marmery is one of just four villages just at the tip of La Montagne de Reims, where it starts to curl westwards, that together form a small enclave where Chardonnay rules the roost. The other three villages are Trépail, Billy-Le-Grand and Vaudemanges.
Villers-Marmery Facts and Figures
242 hectares Chardonnay
4 hectares Pinot Noir
The first thing to notice as you enter the village is the WWI cemetery. Villers Marmery was just a kilometre or so from the front line during the war and the immaculately tended cemetery is a stark reminder of destructive visited upon this part of France.
If you leave your car and stroll into the vineyards you may notice that the soil in Villers-Marmery is more predominantly chalky than in the rest of La Montagne de Reims, so much so that in many places the chalk is right at the surface – you can pick chunks up from the ground and use it immediately to write with.
This is one of the reasons why this little area is so well-suited to Chardonnay and hence to making of elegant Blanc de Blancs champagnes which differ from the more full-bodied, powerful Pinot Noir driven champagnes you find in many other parts of La Montagne de Reims.
The second reason why Chardonnay is favoured in these four villages may be to do with the fact that that they are located right at the end of La Montagne de Reims at the point where the hillside curves round in a big arc towards the south and west. All four villages have exactly the same south-east exposure to the sun as La Côte des Blancs, further south, which is considered to be the home of the finest Chardonnay and Blanc de Blancs champagne
Take a look at the map below and you’ll see what we mean.
The four villages of Villers-Marmery, Billy-Le-Grand, Trépail) and Vaudemange that make up this little enclave are circled in red.
The dotted red line shows the exposure of the vineyards and you can see that it’s exactly the same as La Côte des Blancs further down.
Up until the end of the Second World War the vineyards in and around Villers Marmery were planted with Pinot Noir just like the rest of La Montagne, but the results were less than spectacular. The villages were not considered good enough to warrant even Premier Cru status. However in the years after the war subsidies were being offered to encourage more Chardonnay to be planted and the change to Chardonnay was made. Whether this was for purely financial reasons, or whether it was a more reasoned decision based on the exposure of the vineyards, we cannot be sure. Be that as it may, in 1985 all 4 villages were elevated to Premier Cru status and classified as 95 % on the Echelle des Crus (now officially abandoned but still often referred to).
So what can you expect from the champagnes from Villers-Marmery and the other three villages?
Well, the best Blanc de Blancs champagnes from here are in no way inferior to those from La Côte des Bancs, they are just different. They have a similar light, bright, delicate style but whereas some people find that the steely intensity, the minerality and the pronounced freshness of some Chardonnay from La Cote des Blancs is too much for their taste, wines from Villers Marmery can be slightly fuller, softer and a little more fruity.
In fact the locals have even invented a word to describe their Chardonnay grapes. Pinoter which means to behave like Pinot Noir. I don’t think you’ll find this word in the official French dictionary, but when you hear the locals in Villers Mamery say that their Chardonnay grapes pinotent you’ll know what they mean.
Some of the producers already recognised for their quality are
A. Margaine and Henriet-Bazin both in Villers Marmey itself and David Léclapart a biodynamic producerin Trépail.
However in one way at least Villers Marmery is just like almost all Champagne villages you come across, you‘ll be amazed at just how many small champagne producers there are to discover and perhaps you’ll find your own personal favourites to add to this list.