Opening Cheval Blanc has been a voyage of discovery as well as a quest for excellence for owner Keith Marsden.
And there are fewer places better than the Champagne region of France to undertake such a search.
Keith paid a visit this summer to understand better the Champagnes stocked at the recently-opened wine bar and kitchen and to search out new gems.
He said: “Lots of things go into making great wine.
“The landscape and climate, the grapes, the tradition and the history and, not least, the people involved.
“That’s why visiting wine regions and producers is important – it helps you understand the wine and what went into its making.
“Before arriving, I had the vague idea that Champagne was Champagne.
“I knew there was rosé Champagne, obviously, but didn’t realise the differences between, for instance, blanc de blancs and blanc de noirs or brut and demi-sec.
“But seeing how it produced and speaking to the characters who are involved, I started to appreciate what a fantastic and varied wine it is.
“From a personal perspective, I learned I especially enjoy blanc de blancs, made only from chardonnay grapes. Something about its purity, I guess. It takes on a natural buttery note as it ages.”
Keith learned how Champagne has to age for a minimum of 18 months before it can be sold, though most is aged for far longer. Vintage fizz is aged for more than three years.
“The bubbles come from a second fermentation,” he said.
“A still wine is made in the usual way, with ageing in oak after that if the style required is that it should oaked.
“Then the wine goes into bottles with additional sugar and yeast which starts a second fermentation when carbon dioxide is produced, creating the fizz.
“The Champagne is aged on the lees – the yeast – which gives it that wonderful buttery richness.”
He said his arrival in Champagne couldn’t have been more magical.
“We were driving west from Germany and the sun was setting across the wide landscape. It was one of the most fantastic sunsets I’ve ever seen,” added Keith.
“We were looking out over land that costs €2 million per hectare.
“It’s here that they grow the grapes used to make the liquid – mainly chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier.”
Some Champagne houses buy the juice from selected growers in a designated area and then use it to produce their Champagnes. Others have their own vineyards.
It’s very carefully controlled, with very strict regulations on how much can be grown.
Keith continued: “We started off in the ‘Capital of Champagne’, Epernay, a large market town on the River Marne.
“Here there are 50 brokers, who match find growers for Champagne producers who want to buy their grapes.
They’re based within yards of each other and many have family connections. It’s incredibly tightly-knit.
“Epernay’s in a valley. It’s a delightful place, with a theatre, an old church and L’Avenue de Champagne, where many of the leading Champagne producers are based.
“The avenue marks the end of the chalk soil so that cellars can be built there without fear of flooding.
“Our first visit was Pol Roger – a splendid and revered producer with a history dating back to 1849 and still in the hands of the same family.
“The Champagne was a favourite of Winston Churchill and they have an invoice to him from 1905.
“We were told he was a great customer, but not such a good payer.
There’s a statue of Winston in the entrance and a Royal Warrant on the wall. It feels almost English.
“Inevitably, since I share Sir Winston’s taste for cigars, I was drawn to the Champagne named after him.
“It’s made only in the best vintages from grapes from Grand Cru vineyards hat were under vine during Churchill’s lifetime.
“Rest assured, it will be on the list at Cheval Blanc.”
The operation at Pol Roger is a blend of very modern stainless steel vats and equipment and old-fashioned techniques.
They employ four riddlers whose job is to turn the bottles, slightly tilted in racks, so that the sediment gathers in the neck and can be extracted later.
Kith said: “It takes five years to train to be a riddler – the art isn’t in the initial turns, when there is a lot of sediment, but in the later ones, when the bottles have almost be be caressed to coax the last remnants of sediment.
“There are seven kilometres of cellars under Pol Roger containing about £180m worth of Champagne. It’s mind-boggling.
“Afterwards came a visit to Champagne Gardet a 25-minute drive from Epernay in the rural village of Chigny-les-Roses.
“It’s a smaller producer that’s highly-regarded and is sold at Cheval Blanc and at Connolly’s Wine Merchants in Birmingham and Solihull.
“Here they use oak as well as stainless steel and the fizz has a lovely rich flavour.
“But they riddle by machine rather than manually. The machines are called gyro-palettes.
“We learned how at the end of maturing in bottles, the bottles goes through a process that freezes the sediment in the neck so the ‘plug’ can easily be extracted and the bottle topped up.
“It’s at this point where the wine remains brut – or dry – or semi-sec – which is sweet.
“They add reserved wine and, if it’s to become demi-sec, more sugar than the very small amount that goes into brut.
“As at Pol Roger, we appreciated the skill, knowledge, passion and time that goes into making great Champagnes.”
145 Alcester Road, Moseley, Birmingham B13 8JP. 0121 449 6344.
I’m working on a freelance basis with Cheval Blanc.