Domaine de la Garrelière Milliard d’Etoiles Brut Nature NV

One manner in which my cellar has changed over time has been the almost total disappearance of Champagne; today the bottles can be counted on the fingers of one hand, whereas ten or fifteen years ago I would have maintained a decent stock of non-vintage, vintage and prestige cuvée bottlings. The latter were ideal for special occasions; when there was a milestone to be marked, out would come the Cuvée Winston Churchill, the Grand Siècle, the Belle Epoque, or one of a number of other select bottlings from the big-name houses. There was the odd bottle of Krug too, and I can’t deny that over the years a drop or two of Dom Pérignon may have passed my lips.

Ultimately, however, I began to question myself. Why specialise in Bordeaux and the Loire Valley, only then to buy, drink and talk about the top wines of Champagne, names and houses anybody with a passing interest in wine – and perhaps many people without much interest at all – already know about? In the end I decided it would be more informative and interesting to leave Champagne behind, and to explore in greater depth the sparkling wines of the Loire Valley. After all, this is France’s second-largest sparkling wine region, and yet the number of column inches dedicated to these wines in the mainstream wine press must be close to zero. Or at least it feels that way.

As a consequence, over the past decade I have tasted and drank more and more Loire Valley sparkling wines than I would have imagined possible. Many of these wines are simply joyous, and provide excellent apéro-style drinking. They work really well to kick off a Saturday evening (not infrequently as I wait for the pizza dough to rise – Saturday night is pizza night, right?).

Domaine de la Garrelière Milliard d'Etoiles NV

The challenge when drinking exclusively sparkling wines from the Loire Valley, however, is finding those bottles which lift the experience up a notch or two, and are suitable for more special occasions. There are some good candidates though, dominated by two broad groups. The first group is the top sparkling wines of Vouvray, especially those that have seen a higher degree of selection and extended time sur lattesPhilippe Foreau’s Brut Réserve bottling springs to mind. The second group hails includes a selection of Crémant de Loire bottlings, usually from small growers in Anjou and Saumur rather than the big, sparkling wine houses. The first group of wines are authentically Ligérian, speaking of aubuis and Chenin, while the latter vary in style, and some display, rich, bready, autolytic notes which could easily fool the absent-minded Champagne drinker.

There are exceptions to these two groups though. One such wine which fits the bill yet ticks none of these aforementioned boxes (coming not from Anjou, or Saumur, or Vouvray, nor does it see too many years of ageing sur lattes) is Milliard d’Etoiles from Domaine de la Garrelière.

The first time I tasted this cuvée – quite a few years ago now – I simply fell in love with it. Sadly, my encounters with it during the years that have since passed have been few and far between; as with many of these top sparkling wines, production volumes are limited, and few wine merchants are brave enough to import them into the UK. Last year, however, I managed to get my hands on a few bottles. It is a blend of 40% Chenin Blanc and 40% Cabernet Franc, with the addition of 20% reserve wine which has been aged in barrel for a year. I am certain that it is this latter element that lifts this cuvée above the ordinary. The three components are blended, the first two having had the alcoholic fermentation brought to a halt by refrigeration before completion, giving the blend between 18 and 20g/l unfermented sugars before bottling. The fermentation then completes in bottle, the ultimate style being dry. In essence, therefore, this is a méthode ancestrale cuvée with the benefit of maturity already dialled in. The wine then sees a further twelve months of ageing sur lattes prior to disgorgement.

In the glass the Milliard d’Etoiles Brut Nature from François Plouzeau, of Domaine de la Garrelière in Razines (in southern Touraine) displays a rich honey-gold colour, with a plentiful bead. The nose is concentrated yet fresh, with aromas of dried orange and citrus fruits on toast, with lemon cream and a little touch of white pepper. The palate builds on this with a full and sinewy presence, with creamed citrus fruits set upon a bed of lightly toasted hazelnuts. This is supported and driven along by quite brilliant acidity. The overall combination is just delicious, with the maturity of the reserve wine coming through, intertwined with some hints of autolysis. It concludes with a modest length, characterised by plenty of fresh energy. All in all this is a delicious style suitable for any special occasion. The lot number, for those who have a bottle tucked away and who might wish to compare notes, is L100118 (which I suspect hints at a 2018 origin for the fruit), and the declared alcohol concentration is 13%. 93/100 (3/1/23)

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