I’ve always loved Champagne Ruinart, both its very serious Dom Ruinart versions and its gluggable Rosé NV. But the wine most people say they love a lot from the range is Ruinart Blanc de Blancs NV, in its very distinctive squat bottle. It certainly has lemony race and a whiff of peppery smoke you often find with Blanc de Blancs 100% Chardonnay wines from the Côtes des Blancs but in this version it is tempered with the forcing cream, round weight and hazelnut persistence of Chardonnay grown on the Montagne de Reims and in the south in Sézanne. It has been such a success it is now over one in five bottles of all Ruinart. Currently (UK) it’s £45 in Majestic if you buy at least two, £60 in Selfridges and £57 at Berry’s.
And it’s so attractive in its clear glass bottle, a tempting lemon-gold winking beacon on a white tablecloth. But like people in glass houses, wine in clear glass can spell trouble. The spectrum of visible light from daylight and, to a lesser extent, artificial light can create awful ‘off aromas’ in white and rosé wines if bottled in clear glass. The fault is called ‘lightstruck’ wines in the lingo. Green and brown glass, however, block most of, but not completely, the wavelengths that can damage wine.
Several weeks ago I managed to have a conversation in London with Frédéric Panaïotis, the Ruinart Chef de Cave. We tasted the Blanc de Blancs; it was beautifully fresh. Then I asked what I’d been too scared to say some years ago. Did this wine once have a problem with bad aromas of drains and overboiled cabbage? Fred did not blink and said ‘Oh yes, a big problem. When I arrived at Ruinart in May 2007 in Reims, it was an obvious issue and I saw stocks of the disgorged wine were being left in the sun, certainly daylight, until being stored for a period before shipping. Some of the storage areas also had the wrong kind of artificial lighting. We stopped it and the problem was solved.’
I’ve checked my tasting notes of this wine and I see for several years from 2004 to 2008 that I often found obnoxious smells on this wine. But I see as well, when I asked fellow tasters or read the recommendations of wine critics in the press, the Big Stink was never mentioned. It might as well have not existed. Mystifying? Not every bottle was faulty, but I do wonder if wine writers sometimes ignore or tune out from faults in wine so as not to appear churlish in print or offend brand owners who send them free samples or invitations to tastings and trips. As I’ve said before – when do you ever read a truly critical note about a wine in the press? In contrast, take a good look at the way expert critics write up restaurants, the theatre and books.
The science is fairly clear: the wavelengths of visible light dangerous to wine in clear glass are 70-440 nM, a part of the spectrum in both daylight of course and the kind of fluorescent lighting in shops. The wake-up fact is this: damage from exposure can begin and increase within 3-4 hours. Not all bottles on a shelf in a shop would be affected or affected to the same degree because exposure is less when bottles are stacked behind each other on shelves or are bought quickly. Light struck aromas (LSAs) resulting from methyl and dimethyl sulphide, ethanethiol and methanethiol are listed as: Rotten eggs, drains, burnt match, onion, garlic, cooked cabbage, burnt rubber, cooked/tinned sweetcorn and tinned tomato. Some research on these aromas in bottled beer refers to a chemical 3-Methyl-1-butanethiol which is one of the volatile components of the anal sac secretion from the spotted skunk. So now you know.
But more to the point, Champagne Ruinart Blanc de Blancs is a glorious wine long past its problems. I highly recommend this wine. But caveat emptor. Do not buy any wine in clear glass if it is out on open display, or in other words, make sure you ask for one in a box (as this wine is sold now) or straight out of the box.
* I acknowledge and am grateful for sight of Jo Ahearne MW’s research on lightstruck wines in general. Her MW dissertation is not directly quoted. All opinions are my own.
How far has single estate (‘grower’) champagne come? The top independent estates became so 20-40 years ago. But only recently has it begun to seem grown up and step out in long pants with both serious connoisseurs and the more ephemeral wine fashion fringe. The latter, perhaps simplistically, see it as an artisan and green working challenge to the big champagne brands’ mass-made mainstream styles.
To me, ‘grower’ champagne is the most exciting thing going on in Champagne, although in these hard times more growers feel the pinch and sell more grapes to the big houses because it is harder to sell their own bottles. The cash-strapped French, traditionally the buyers of most small producer champagne, are buying fewer bottles and fewer Dutch, Belgians and Germans and Swiss are coming in their cars to fill their boots.
But for those domaines that manage to export to Europe and beyond, single estate champagne is cool right now, particularly to urban professionals who would not be seen dead serving Prosecco to their friends, even if they opened a sneaky bottle or two in the garden this summer. But outside the coterie of sommeliers and these champagne enthusiasts however, hardly anyone has heard of ‘grower’ champagne. It’s all very well to say ‘grower’ is hip, but ‘hip’ is a pretty closed world to most.
What Is it?
Defining ‘grower’ champagne is as embarrassing to its fans as a dog lover being asked to explain what a labrador looks like. But it may do the little community of champagne aficionados good to take their noses out of the micro niche they are in and smell the coffee now and again. Most talk of ‘grower’ champagne is preaching to the more than converted – me included – and there is work to do, especially in the UK, being a market so dominated by the traditional global champagne brands, if single estate champagne is to gather strength.
OK: heads up. ’Grower’ (please say ‘domaine or ‘single estate’) champagne is made completely only in the producer’s winery (and definitely should not made for them by a coop) and from the grapes grown by the producer on the producer’s own land in Champagne. Look for the little letters RM on the label, meaning récoltant-manipulant. It’s normal for wine lovers to think of the best wines as coming from single estates with their own vineayrds. But the single most vital fact about the vast majoity of champagne is that it is not like that. For the most part, Big Champagne, the global brands, has nothing like enough of their own vineyards to supply the millions of bottles they make.
What Does It Want To Be?
I’ve said before I do not like the term ‘grower champagne’ because it is redolent of mud-caked boots, ruddy faces and general rusticity. It sounds like something you get at the garden centre with grow-your-own tomato bags. It’s just all wrong for the image of champagne. We may worry about macho cars, girls in diamonds and the general tastelessness of much bling champagne promotion but I think you should worry more when Terry Theise, the USA champagne doyen (and Riesling freak) and biggest promoter of the ‘grower’ category in the USA, calls it ‘farmer fizz’.
The issue of image and recognition is tough however for domaine champagne. In the end, whether you sell psychological counselling, poetry or booze, you have to create a brand. And then you need to identify your market and get in amongst it with a vengeance. You have to create desire and that is marketing which needs to be clever on a budget if it is going to beat bling. I’m not sure either that the answer is to project domaine champagne as a parallel but undecadent form of luxury with words like ‘artisan’, ‘hand-crafted’ and ‘authentic’ just because its owners are usually the producers and it’s small scale. For me, it’s the brilliant, sometimes technical artistry and creativity of great single estate champagne that needs stressing. It dares to be different.
Low and behold, it comes in various styles and often with more individuality than the big global brands of the big houses. Differences between the styles of the leading houses are important; your Bollinger, Moët, Pol Roger and Taittinger are not the same and not an industrial common pot. But there is, at the basic level of the main Brut NVs of a good number of big houses, a style of mainstream champagne. It doesn’t scare the horses because it has to appeal to a broad spectrum of not too fussy opinion. It may have a lively freshness but it is all smoothed out by a honey and cream roundness and some solid weight, and shows a reasonable lick of biscuity flavour and baking bread, perhaps apple pie. I’m reminded of Hugh Johnson’s essay on champagne where he says ‘the better the champagne….the more it recalls the patsisserie’. The baked pastry fruit pie, buttery and juicy, ever so slightly slightly sweet and with a biscuit pastry crust halo, is the model of mainstream champagne. And dare I suggest, slightly boring?
A critical fault line between domaine and big brand champagne is viticulture, how the grapes are grown. This is not so much an issue of industrial farming versus organics or even biodynamics, although some leading domaines work in some of these ways. But most non-producer growers try to get maximum yield for top dollar when they sell the grapes to the big houses and gargantuan coops. The best RM domaines are trying to do two things differently. One is to devigorate their vines and increase vine age so as to up the concentration and vibrancy of the juice and wine. Almost always this means they produce fewer grapes than potentially they could, but they are better, not so much ‘fruitier’, since primary flavours are anathema to champagne’s complexity, but more racy, vibrant and quietly intense, like the best champagnes. Second, domaine champagnes are in the business of discovering and blending the grapes of micro terroirs or small parcels of vineyards they own so as to make the best blends they can. Some of course make cuvées from single villages (crus) or even single vineyards but many make far-flung blends with interesting combinations of terroir.
How Many Is That?
I sometimes ask myself just how many of the huge number of domaine champagnes (RMs or Récoltants-Manipulants) are really good and deserve export and expert attention outside France? For the wine trade it really matters. Maybe there are undiscovered marvels for importers and merchants to ferret out. There are 1,951 RMs in Champagne in 2014. The number is falling a little year on year, just five less than a year ago. I recently named my top 25 small producers here and you could no doubt argue about some but there is wide consensus amongst the world champagnerati on most of them. All 25 are comfortably included by Peter Liem, whose Champagneguide.net is still the best site worldwide for champagne connoisseurs and worth its paywall. Liem currently has 112 RM producers profiled on his site.
There are many other RMs that are very good and are rated by leading specialist critics. Perhaps 200 top whack. About 230 RMs are imported into the USA, some 150 into the UK but often in tiny and stop-start quantities. Japan, Italy and Germany take some significant names too. Very few have a real foothold of regular growing sales and many do not have much champagne to sell to export markets anyway. Last year, a leading grower, feted worldwide by conoisseurs, told me his total export to the UK in 2013 was under 1000 bottles. These sobering figures suggest that for the UK, RM champagne is about .3 of 1% of all UK champagne. It was quite a shock this year to hear the world’s loudest voice shouting the odds for domaine champagne, but in very different tone for once. The USA ‘farmer fizz’ champion importer Terry Theise who has often implied that all grower champagne is preferable to and better than what he regards as the industrial swill of the big brands, says this in his 2014 grower champagne catalogue:
I doubt very much there are more than around fifty
growers whom one could credibly call superb. There are
probably another hundred or so who are, let’s say, very
good. But beyond those, I think there’s some middling
RM Champagnes imported by merchants who wanted to
get in on the action, but all the best growers were spoken
A very different tone from Theise’s cascading, polemical ultra enthusiasm for all things ‘grower’ not so long ago.
In the enclaved world of cool wine hipsters in the world’s major capitals, incessent chatter about the vitality and importance of single estate champagne can exaggerate its foothold. The exciting near certainty that there are stars as yet undiscovered is akin to searching for life in the galaxy, a pioneering impetus, with no guarantee. But the real excitement is in the fact there is now not one monolithic model of how champagne should taste and diversity and interest have never been greater. No professed champagne enthusiast can claim to be one now without knowing the wines of the leading single champagne estates. It’s taken a long time, but domaine champagne is out of shorts.
We all love it when the wine bore gets what for. I’m up to my helpless neck in wine, besotted, especially champagne as you might notice. A proper bore talks about their obsession to people who do not share it, so I try not to, honest. The people who love being in a huddle going on about F1 tyre changes or football with their friends only become bores when they do it in front of those who don’t really give a toss. But wine talk gets some people’s goats more, because wine makes people feel their social class and status is being judged. Wine talk is power. No doubt it should not be. But history has made people feel that way. That’s why so many wine presenters or writers come over all good cause and tell us their mission is to ‘demystify wine one glass at a time’. Personally, it’s the mystery that sucks me in, ‘on my knees looking for the answer’ like the Killers.
It’s the fact that wine is a social marker to many, right or wrong, that makes so many uneasy about it. How easy or even humbly authoritative you are talking about it, earns you cultural worth in many others’ eyes. And if they are your own eyes you are a snob.
And that’s why comedians love to give wine and its hobby world the full satirical treatment. I’m sure it often deserves it. I’m particularly prone to mutter cynical smart remarks myself when I hear people go on endlessly about wine paraphernalia and peripherals like choosing corkscrews, quite when and what to decant, wine fridges or the more abstruse and exotic matching of weird things like Saumur Brut with pork scratchings. That last example actually happened to me last week and I should be careful because it was quite a good match. But what I mean is that my own bugbear tends to rattle the bars when people seem more interested in the manners and folderols of wine than its taste.
The comedian and TV quizzer David Mitchell wrote a good piece here last week taking the mick out of wine which will no doubt comfort many Guardian readers who feel between the rock of horror at the high price of good wine in these squeezed times and the hard place of liking to drink it. As in liking to drink it a lot. The way to square the circle of course is to suggest wine is just pleasant happy juice. You don’t need to spend more than a tenner. It’s not noticeably different to the bottle costing £150 unless you are a wine snob. And the best wine to have in your comedy gun sights if you want to have a dig is of course champagne. The wine where image, price and reality seem often in cloud cuckoo land.
David Mitchell can no doubt afford champagne. He’s a media success, white, male, private school and Cambridge and married to millionairess poker player Victoria Coren, white female, private school and Oxford. That Footlights tradition of intelligent down-to-earth public school common sense, lambasting pomposity and pretension, has been strong since David Frost and Beyond the Fringe. Funny coincidence that Mitchell had a programme called The Bubble. If you are proper elite, it makes sense to satirise those who may think they are elite by being poncey about champagne. And it is quite funny. With the added protection for the satirist that if you object to what a wag says, you can be told to lighten up.
Mitchell gently takes apart some hapless wine professional’s comment that champagnes with more developed flavours are better in normal wine glasses than flutes. Not a new idea if you are into wine. And an idea that I don’t always agree with. It depends what kind of developed flavours. Sometimes champagnes with shier and subtle flavours go better in bigger glasses, the very opposite idea. If you want champagnes to lose some fizz quicker to go with food, bigger glasses are good too. Really old stinky champagnes shake themselves together and slough off pooey notes by decanting them or using bigger glasses. It all depends.
There’s nothing ooh la la about all that. It’s just the nuts and bolts of wine service, at home or out. But this is not a discussion about which golf club is good for a shot, or wearing long studs for wet turf at football or which gears to select in your poky motor for that bend near the woods on the way home. Or even where best in the house to settle down and read a book when you want to. Why? Because it’s about wine stupid. And wine is good for a kicking.
And note there’s plenty of previous to do with special glasses for champagne. We’ve heard the Marie Antoinette myth about the coupe glass and her breast and the Kate Moss coupe for Breast Cancer Awareness – probably a special glass for champagne David Mitchell would not dare put down. And there are many different ranges of top crystal champagne glasses to choose from and even pay £100 each for from Riedel and Spiegelau, or even $400k for a pair in crystal and diamonds made by John Calleija in 2008.
Mitchell knows full well that vast numbers of people don’t give a toss and would probably struggle to find granny’s old cut glass flutes in the attic if a bottle of champagne was produced. He’s right too, that the power of champagne for the mass of people has got nothing to do with what it tastes like but its symbolic ability to get the party started in a trice.
His smile piece, and you do, is not really about champagne or special glasses. It’s saying wine is a beverage, get over it. The rest is snobbery. And the problem for wine and the wine trade is that a vast number of wine professionals think that too.
In Reims last week, I was served a very oxidised champagne which had also lost most of its original fizz or mousse. So, if you have come to look at this blog piece because you’re a fan of Prosecco, do not read on.
This is about a champagne that was going off, in fact was ‘gone off’ considerably. I hope we all agree, that although a degree of oxidation can sometimes be part of the great style of some champagnes, generally those where barrels have been used at some stage, the degree of oxidation should not obscure the delicacy and finesse that is champagne and Champagne’s hallmark. I firmly believe the subtle and fresh aromas and flavours of champagne are as much part of its complexity as the myriad effects of oak barrels used in various ways. I love many champagnes clearly marked by oak effects. But barrels should reveal Champagne’s terroir, not obscure it.
But that is another discussion. In this case the over-oxidation was the result of the opened bottle of champagne having been kept too long. The pain for me was not just an ‘off’ glass of champagne. It was also because I was at Au Bon Manger, one of Reims’s current new wave hangouts where Aline and Eric serve glorious cheese, charcuterie and a small selection of fascinating domaine or single estate champagne. I had been before. Do go, it’s tiny, branché, simple and passionate. The quality of the small menu and for sourcing fresh and unprocessed food is exemplary. I highly recommend it.
But in this case they made a mistake. I was alone and on for a quick plate of salad and meat in between champagne meetings in Reims. Nothing wrong with the food. I wanted a glass of champagne and the only way to get that there by the glass is to order the €8.50 good value mystery glass called ‘Bulle’ on the list.
It arrived and looked deep yellow gold, smelt a bit like vin jaune and was only faintly fizzy or pétillant. Since it was served in a normal wine glass (which can suit some champagnes), I even asked if it was champagne. Perhaps this was some tiny biodynamic producer in the Jura making mousseux ancestral. No, I was told, slightly patronisingly, definitely champagne. But it gave off that sharp continuous whiff of caramel and muffled old rags that spell oxidation and the mousse was near zero.
The bottle was brought to the table. It was Dis,’Vin Secret’ (see pic below) from Francoise Bedel ,who actually is completely biodynamic and Biodyvin certified. I have tasted her wines several times but could not remember this cuvée well and asked on Twitter while I ate, if anyone had a recent tasting note. Several people came back (thank you!) saying it it was normally fresh, piercingly so, but with a complex undertow from some wood influence. But if anything the wood made the wine, as it so often can, seem purer and more delicately textured. Several people said much the same thing.
There is a really informative back label. It’s mostly 2005 based. 80% Meunier, 15 Chardonnay, 5 Pinot Noir. Seven years on lees. Disgorged September 2013. The website says it has 9.75g/L dosage, but it tasted much drier. There was complexity and ripeness in the background, no question. But it was shot to bits. When I got back to London, I checked my old tasting notes of this cuvée. One, of the 2003 base version in April 2011 said it was ‘candied and quite advanced but pure and well-balanced’. Another from the end of 2011 said it was ‘very fresh, impressive, creamy and savoury’.
It’s clear what happened. The bottle level showed several glasses of this wine had been poured before me. It had been kept too long and oxidised; it should have been poured away. Even champagne with its CO2, after a few days under a tight champagne stopper, will go off. The best stopper I’ve found for champagne (cue the joke ‘You mean you don’t finish the bottle?’) is the screw-on closer from Metrokane. In the meantime, it would be wonderful to hope the new ‘Flute’ machine from Enomatic may be just the job for places like Au Bon Manger.
Jean-Pierre Vazart, on a balmy day in June this year, reminds me of that Kipling line learnt in school: ‘If you can keep your head when all around are losing theirs…’ I don’t dare tell him as he fields phone calls driving us up to Montaigu, the most prized vineyard of Chouilly, for a tour of his parcelles. One call is about some mysteriously damaged vines on someone else’s land the night before. Another is from the Chouilly town hall where he is a ‘conseilleur municipal‘ (local councillor). When we arrive back at his house and base a couple are waiting to buy some wine. Yet he pauses in his talk about champagne matters with me and can return to the point without missing a beat. Smiling and open, he has the concentration that can pick up where he left off. He does more. There’s a sideline in hiring out vineyard machinery and the responsibility for pressing the harvest from the Champagne ruling body (the CIVC) experimental vineyard Plumecoq, which so happens to be in Chouilly. A busy man who makes very good champagne.
The basic facts: This single estate of 11ha (making some 80, 000 bottles per annum) run by Jean-Pierre Vazart, makes only monocru wines. The entire estate is in Grand Cru Chouilly, one of only 17 ‘grand cru’ top communes in Champagne, the most northerly wine commune of the Côte des Blancs, just two minutes south of Epernay. Chouilly is big, at 525.5ha of vines, the biggest grand cru. It is the third biggest wine village in all Champagne after Les Riceys and Vertus. While the giant factory winery HQ of the Nicolas Feuillate coop is in Chouilly, pressing 7% of all Champagne’s grapes, there are several high quality independent growers (RMs) making their own wines. You notice a lot are called Legras: there is R&L Legras, Legras & Haas, Pierre Legras. And Michel Genet. But there is also Champagne Vazart-Coquart, a domaine champagne making waves nowadays among champagne aficionados.
Camille Vazart grew grapes in the late 19C and the family is still based in the same house on the main street in Chouilly. Jean-Pierre is the grandson of Camille and took over from his father Jacques in 2005 after a 16 year ‘apprenticeship’. His father had struck out on his own as an independent domaine (‘grower champagne’) in 1954. Clearly and confidently at the helm now, Jean-Pierre talks tellingly of the difficulties of growing into the patron’s shoes. He tells me how for so long he was eaten with self-doubt. Would he ever be able to take over and not mess up? And when it happened came the flood of realisation that this was something he really could do.
Being the Côte des Blancs, only Chardonnay is grown here, but Jean-Pierre has one tiny plot of Pinot Noir to make a Coteaux Champenois. In fact, there are only 4.5ha of Pinot Noir, and 1.9ha of Pinot Meunier in all Chouilly. The estate has parcelles of vines in most great sections of the Chouilly vineyard, including on the prized Montaigu. The viticulture here is gradually reducing synthetic chemical use to an absolute minimum and in 2012 the estate was the third wine domaine to be awarded the highest level of ‘HVE’ certification (Haute Valeur Environmentale), a stringent set of sustainable targets which must always be met. Other Champagne pioneers of this project are Champagne Bollinger, Eric Rodez and Lenoble. When I first met Jean-Pierre in 2012 he said: ‘In my head, I’m organic; it’s not quite so easy all the time.’ Like all good quality single domaines, high value is placed on restricting vigour in the vines and deeper roots, through growing grass in the alleys, and on reducing yield rather than going for maximum volume. The result is greater mineral intensity in the wines.
The multiple vineyard sites, from a far flung grand cru, with many variations of soil and exposure, produce different wines (vins clairs) for the domaine. Vinification is based on small tanks to capture this variation. No barrels are used, only stainless steel, a stylistic decision to preserve the mineral delicacy and buttery, floral fruit which is the signature of Chouilly. In this way, the wines here hum with terroir character. Not because they come from one place, which they do, but because they taste of that place. Complexity and authenticity are built in with malolactic generally completed and by a perpetual ‘solera’ begun in 1982 for reserve wines and using only the cuvée juice. It is replenished with up to 50% of its volume used in the blends each year, with new harvest wine. The solera wine is also used to prepare dosages.
The estate is a proud member of the ‘Club Trésors du Champagne’ (‘Special Club) since 1996 and since a rule of this group is to make your best cuvée in the club livery special bottle, it is important you taste the special club offerings regularly from Vazart-Coquart if you are a fan. Champagne Vazart-Coquart is also a member of the superlative quality promotional grouping: Les Mains du Terroir which has held Epernay tastings in April for the last three years. You see why the phone rings.
The domaine makes eight cuvées, nearly all 100% Chardonnay Blanc de Blancs, bar the rosé and ‘Cuvée Camille’. The house Brut Réserve NV (Brut Sans Année or ‘BSA’) is 60% of production, dosed at about 8-9g/L and with about 25% of ‘solera’ reserves and some 32 months on the second lees. The Demi-Sec Réserve NV is the same as the BSA with extra dosage up to 35g/L, for desserts. The Cuvée Camille NV (named after the original founder) is unusual for Chouilly in that it reflects its former field blend when much more Pinot Noir than now was planted. It is based on the Brut Réserve blended with 35% Pinot Noir. The Extra-Brut Réserve NV is a Blanc de Blancs with just 3.5g/L dosage and is the Réserve blend with an extra year of age sur lattes. There is too a Brut Rosé NV made by blending some 15-20% of Pinot Noir wine into the blend. The vintage wines here are called Grand Bouquet, a strict special selection of the best parcels and 100% Blanc de Blancs and with 5-6 years ageing on lees and some 5/6g/L dosage. The Special Club, always vintage and a premium selection of fruit, is given 6-7 years cellaring and aged on cork rather than cap. The real curiosity is the Special ‘Foie Gras’ Sec Blanc de Blancs NV with some 30g/L made to match foie gras, claimed as the only cuvée in Champagne specifically made for this rich and complex dish.
Brut Réserve NV
(Brut Sans Année or ‘BSA’) Tasted 2012, 65% 09 + solera. Young, incisive, lemony, aromas of wind on sheets, good light texture, compact rather than luxurious. Welcomingly dry. A lot of lifted finesse. Impressive. In 2013, tasted (2010) 10g/L, similar style, slightly fuller. Many times since.
Demi-Sec Réserve NV Grand Cru Chouilly
Cuvée Camille NV Grand Cru Chouilly
Pale gold; lean, chalky, wet-earth nose. Citrus-orange, sherbet -jasmine and honey pastille on palate. The fine texture stands out, great finesse, reined in autolytic note and jasmine smoke impression. Lovely.
Extra-Brut Réserve NV Grand Cru Chouilly
First tasted 2013 and impressed with the linear style, purity and reverberation and length. Tasted often since: In 04/2014 it had savoury interest and bite. Aromas and affinity (!) with oyster shells, rock and flint. A light and lyrical chalkiness. A similar note 06.2014. Based on 09. This is, from experience, a wonderful match with seafood of all kinds. 3g/L
Brut Rosé NV
A hedonistic fruity style, not complex; sometimes exactly what rosé champagne can do so well. A frank basket of fruit, not especially complex.
Grand Bouquet Grand Cru Chouilly
In 2012, the 2006: Incisive and very mineral for a ripe vintage; lemony and fresh. Very good. 6g/L . In 04.2013, the 2004: A touch bruised apple and a hint of early oxidation. Charm but not as lithe and compact as many 2004s. In 02.2014: The 2007: Lovely linear and mineral character with savoury and grapefruit pith cut. Charm and not wet-chalky as Cramant and Avize can be. Again in Champagne 04.2014: Lovely and rather obvious fruit but poise and bite too. Peach and agrume together. In 04.2014: The 1989 – A touch oxidised with a nutty maturity but attractive honeysuckle and dried flowers notes. Great finesse. In 04.2014, The 2008: disgorged 04/14, just launched: 9g/L A sense of power pent up, real presence and a good lily / citrus note. Brimming with 2008 imminence, all wound up for now. Impressive. In 06.2014 too, the 2008 again: More compact and integrated than anticipated; Real cream, savoury and chocolate. Powerful but a fine texture and finesse. In 06.2014 too: The 1979 at the domaine: Maderised and high-toned. Disgorged 1999. Some nuts and spice on the palate with a long figs and marmalade end. This has not lasted well, but is a welcome historical peep at 35 years ago. A 1985 tasted in 2014 with zero dosage – not a regular cuvée, was medium oxidised but with an attractive smonky and nutty aspect and res fruit paloate. An enjoyable curiosity.
The ‘Special Club’ Grand Cru Chouilly
In 2012, the 2005: Very opulent, a whiff of aldehydic whisky too. Complex and individual. In 2013: the 2006 semed round and slightly lacking in tension. A vintage with full expression. In 04.2014: The 2006 – Complex but open and great length. 6g/L In 04.2014: The 2007: A lovely Chouilly lightness and finesse offset with mango and peach. All freshness and a baby yet but lots to come.
Special ‘Foie Gras’ Sec Blanc de Blancs Sec NV Grand Cru Chouilly Tasted 02.2014: 30g/L A gentle mousse; the sugar softens it. Light honey flavours but the structure is attractive. A clean and linear aspect for all the sweetness and much drier an impression than most wines aimed at foie gras. Leaves an enticing mineral edge to balance the palate with foie gras. Excellent.
Champagne Vazart-Coquart et fils
6 rue des Partelaines
0033 3 26 55 40 04
This week, Champagne’s population suddenly rose by 100,000. Before you think nearly toute Champagne spent last New Year in bed with each other, these are the harvest picker temps. And they have to be fed, put up and paid. There would be no champagne without them.
This region still picks by hand because no machine can yet do the job as gently as a pair of hands, two eyes and a sharp pair of secateurs. And gentle is the word. Bruised fruit can colour the wine, oxidise it and leach coarse skin compounds into it – all a no-no to good champagne. Whole bunch picking is linked to the quality of pressed juice too. The bunch stems in the press act as a juice-run network, cushioning the density of the pressed mass of grapes as the grapes split under pressure, providing a quicker conduit for juice to run out. The result is much less pick up of astringent microscopic grape fragments and phenolic tannins from skins. The keys to delicacy and finesse in champagne begin here, at the picking and at the press.
That’s why, uniquely, the ‘champagne method’ sets the yield maximum twice. First in kilos per hectare (kg/ha) at the picking, and second at the press where only a maximum of 102L of juice can be extracted from each 160kg of grapes. The best juice is called the cuvée, slightly confusingly to us, as the same word is used for each different champagne or ‘cuvée’ made in a producer’s range.
Champagne’s harvest conditions and how good the wine of a vintage might be when it is made, has never quite caught the imagination of champagne fans in the same way as other regions. And that’s because Champagne’s grapes in 2014 will not see the light of day for us in a glass of champagne until 2018 or in some cases, into the 2020s. Champagne’s superior complexity relies on long ageing in bottle on yeast lees, so a good one will not be on sale for at least 3-4 years. And more complexity and harmony is often added by blending wines from different vintages.
So what’s the point you may ask, in taking an interest in the harvest and early signs for each vintage in Champagne? Well, vintage champagnes may only be 5 in every 100 bottles made, but they give a fascinating snapshot of what that year’s quality was like and are often made from a selection of the best grapes. And the best producers also tell us the composition of the NV wines. Most of the wine in an NV is from a single year, on average up to 80%. It is very exciting, no matter how anorakish it may seem, to look at the difference between, say majority 2007 and majority 2008 NV champagnes.
So what has the 2013-14 year been like? Rain, in a word. Record rain from September 2013 to February. But that is not so bad and replenishes the chalk water table. It got warmer; April was 24% sunnier than average. The crucial flowering in June was good, near perfect and much of the summer warm. Veraison was even and successful in July. Then the rain came back in August, the rainiest in 20 years says Pierre Larmandier-Bernier. But since then the roller-coaster year has picked up and there has been a good deal of ripening warmth to see the vintage home. Too soon to call, but the quality of fruit will be pretty good, much more uniform across the region than in recent years. There will be vintage champagnes made. The ripest villages were allowed to pick, if they chose, from the 8th September in parts of the Aube and Cumières in the Marne, with most beginning this week. The harvest will go on into late September and early October.
Is there a trend in the nature of Champagne vintages? It seems so. The grapes are riper, quicker to ripen and on average harvest begins two weeks earlier now than 20 years ago. Potential alcohol in the region at harvest has risen .8% in the same period. And most experts agree it’s all down to climate change, and pollution, maybe. Increased CO2 in the air means more CO2 for photosynthesis. It’s hard to find reliable figures on rainfall trends and what they might mean. But acidity in the grapes has been falling as sugar levels have risen, prompting bigger fractions of winemaking without malolactic to retain freshness and less chaptalisation and lower dosages. And there’s plenty of wine in stock as yields have risen over 20 years and now with a fully-planted appellation and the benefit of the economic slowdown. For exports at least, the slowdown is ending. There’s plenty of champagne to go around. I see a leading bar in London sold 18,000 bottles of champagne last year. Moët sell 87000 bottles of champagne globally every 24 hours.
A reservation about some current champagnes I taste is the increasing number that suffer from oxidation. By this I mean a toffee and overly butterscotch, a burnt treacly note at worst, that gets a thumbs down from me; and normally I welcome the increasing diversity of champagne styles, including those made partly oxidatively in oak. But the oxidation I am finding more of recently is not from oak which used well increases intensity, freshnesss and complexity. The source I suspect is from tired wine which was just not good enough to be kept so long and used as reserve wines in NV blends. Of course, some of this over-the-hill wine may have been stored in oak but just as often I’m told the reserves have been in tank. But I’m wondering if the slowdown in champagne throughput during the economic crisis has led to a small fraction of producers keeping and using reserve wines which should have been used earlier. I’m interested in others’ views.
But when you pop the cork this week, raise a glass to the pickers and the press teams and I hope they have one too.
Dom Pérignon’s latest release is called ‘DP 98 P2′ and makes it sound like a space ship. And I was reminded in May, when Dom Pérignon launched the ‘Plénitude 2′ version of their 1998 wine, of the Star Trek credits showing a bottle of DP 2265 christening the hull of the USS Enterprise.
Dom Pérignon is still the best known and most popular de luxe champagne, those top bottles in short supply that form every producer’s pricey top-end of range. It’s also the oldest de luxe cuvée, launched in 1936 with the 1921. At a current reported (but never confirmed) around 5m bottles of each vintage made, DP is not quite a micro supply and remains indulgently affordable, around the same price point as a Premiership football match outing or a night at the opera for those who do these things.
I can quite happily report that this wine was the best champagne I have tasted so far in 2014 and I’ve tasted oodles. But what exactly is it? With its discrete lilac-taupe label, it’s obviously not the straight DP, which comes in the jungle green dress you may know so well, but both are unmistakably Dom P.
Top champagne bottlings have been into micro variants for quite some time. The aim, when it’s not a single vineyard bottling, is generally to keep a small fraction of production on the second lees for even longer than usual. The result, having been kept in ideal Champagne cellar conditions, can showcase the extra-complex flavours of long lees-ageing. The best known of these ‘late-release’ styles is probably ‘Bollinger RD’, the RD standing for ‘récemment dégorgé’, which began back in 1961 with the release of a 1951. RD is extra-age Bollinger vintage released in batches several times a year. It is not really that different a practice to many other houses who disgorge their vintage de luxe cuvées (as they do their straight vintage cuvées) in batches. You might object that it means there is rarely just one version of the wine, that each is different because it has had different amounts of cellaring time before disgorgement. But there is no God’s rule that a vintage champagne stock can only be disgorged in toto simultaneously. It adds to the fun, for the lucky few at least, to be able to explore differences between champagnes with different times on lees. And it allows the houses who do it to introduce another category within the de luxe category, and charge a premium for it.
It also, at connoisseur level, drives top champagne right onto the lawn of fine wine. All that fun and frivolity in champagne’s image gets some serious bottom from the realisation that Champagne also does complexity, stemming from its long time in bottle before it’s sold. In fact, its real significance in the face of the ‘it’s all bubbly’ and Prosecco-led sparkler boom, is that champagne is the most complex and demanding of all fizz. By a country mile. Late released champagne is making a statement which pours its echoes into the glass of every good champagne served, be it non-vintage or vintage: No other fizz in the world is capable of improving with age into the realms of ultra complexity.
However, the Moët release of Dom Perignon 1998 Plénitude 2, is a new departure in several ways and in general for extra age de luxe champagne. Firstly, the name Plénitude, obviously new, replaces the category ‘Dom Pérignon Oenothèque’, the previous term for the fraction held back for late release (a normal release would be after about 7 -8 years for Dom Pérignon). The fraction was a tiny few per cent when the project started but may rise towards 10% of production in future. This specific cellar however will keep its name, as a ‘wine library’, an ‘oenothèque’, the cellar where back vintage reserve stock is kept at all fine wine domains. The ‘Plénitude’ wines, as we now should call them, are aged under cork not a crown cap, as Moët believe present caps can deteriorate after 7-8 years.
In itself, the extra-age Dom Pérignon project is not new. The first Oenothèque release was in 2000 with the 1959. And since then, these vintages have been late-released: 1962, 1964, 1966, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1973, 1975, 1976, 1978, 1980, 1982, 1983, 1985, 1988, 1990, 1992, 1993, 1995, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2005. (up to 09/2014).
But the launch of this Plénitude (P2) with an explicit new title and label for the 1998 is a new departure for Dom Pérignon which sets it apart from the generalised ‘recently disgorged’ basis of all other houses’ special ‘collection’ or ‘ultra-cuvée’ wines. And here’s why. Of course, all wines, including Dom Pérignon, are ‘recently disgorged’ at some point in their drinking lives. The view has always been that the wine has been kept fresh on its second lees in the bottle. As soon as the disgorgement has been done and the dosage married for a suitable few months before final release, it is ready to drink. Moreover, so the conventional wisdom has been from the champenois and critics alike, the shock of oxygen ingress at disgorgement means the wine begins to go downhill after its relatively short drinking window on release. And another fizzy shibboleth was added to this dystopic view of champagne ageing: that the longer the wine had spent on its second lees before disgorgement, the quicker would be its decline after. Too soon, the toffee-like muddy flavours of oxidation would creep in to the champagne. Only a minority of eccentric, perhaps British, champagne freaks liked old champagne that way and used weasel words of glee such as ‘..gloriously evolved and nutty..’ when the wine all along was oxidised to kingdom come.
The Dom Pérignon Plénitude project (the word means ‘completeness’ or ‘brimming with expression’) goes directly counter to that. Instead of disgorging most of a vintage batch of RD-type wine after suitable extra age on lees, and then disgorging the rest at intervals and implying it should be drink tout suite, Plénitude is based on the claim that there are three (possibly four in the future?) distinctive plateau-like periods of extended ageing on lees. Plénitude 1 is the first release of the wine at about 7-8 years on lees. Plénitude 2 refers to ageing on lees of some 12-15 years before disgorgement and release to the market and Plénitude 3 is 20-30 years on lees. But the decisive new aspect is this: ’Plénitude’ refers to more than simple the period on lees or the moment of disgorgement. It also refers to the ability of the wine to hold and express the full complexity of its ageing phase for an appreciable period after disgorgement. In fact, Chef de Cave Richard Geoffroy claims that, for Dom Pérignon at least, the longer the lees ageing, the more stable the wine after disgorgement. And this runs quite counter to the gospel according to certain champagne critics in the past.
The Plénitude series wines will be released unevenly, not in vintage order, easy to understand given the uneven development of different vintages of any wine. And they will have much more time than most champagnes resting in cellar after disgorgement and dosage – in the case of the P2 ’98, two years rest.
There’s no question, as I indicated earlier, that this P2 ’98 is a fabulous fine wine. It was disgorged in April 2012 (and the date is on the back label) and given a dosage of 6.5g/L. It showed mid-gold with fabulous bright highlights, a gentle nose of nougat and vanilla and a herbal, smoky and greengage quality developing into crême brulée and warm butter. Above all, it was very fresh, intense and lively but with a subdued creamy mousse, an altogether elegant and racy texture which carried into the long finish with mouthfeel all delicacy and finesse.
What are we to make of Dom Pérignon’s claims for post-disgorgement stability and ageing? It needs emphasising that top wines that can age are top because they come from great vineyards and Möet has a vast estate to select from for Dom P. And ditto, they are wines from good to great vintages. And Möet’s winemaking rules of stainless steel, a rigid reductive method and no Pinot Meunier in DP (it’s 50/50 Pinot Noir and Chardonnay), all no doubt help. Just because DP can age long, it would be mad to claim therefore that so can all champagne.
Not that many people worldwide may have the deep pockets and patience needed to chart the three Ps for vintages of DP. You will need to follow a Plénitude vintage wine for some 30 years and buy all three versions to join the DP time trial lab club. And how do we know these wines will be kept by everyone in pristine cold, dark cellars once released? The 3-stage theory of plateau-like character is plausible and has been considered by Möet’s winemakers for some time. I first heard the idea back in late 2003 at a tasting of the Oenothèque vintages 1973, 1980, 1988 and 1990 in London. But there is only scant and fanciful description from Dom Pérignon’s people so far, of the flavours of each Plénitude stage. Stage one has been dubbed ‘harmony’. Stage 2 is about ‘energy and intensity’ and Stage 3 is ‘calm and complex’. You can understand some reluctance to claim too much since it won’t be Dom Pérignon cellaring these wines once sold and most people who buy this wine will probably have no intention of waiting too long to pop the cork.
But in the meantime, I’ll say it again: this was the best wine I’ve tasted so far in 2014. And I think it would be wasted on a space ship.
Dom Pérignon 1998 Plénitude 2. RRP £260.00
Alexandre Chartogne-Taillet has driven the family domaine out of Champagne’s shadows in a remarkably short period of time. He is relatively young and his puppyish enthusiasm and relaxed manner belie the fact he took over here from his parents in 2006. Let’s face it, he has charisma, looks to match and can hold a knot of admirers at a tasting of his wines like a magnet.
The wines are very good indeed. Arriving to visit here you press the bell on a discreet frontage and gradually discover riches within. It’s a little like the quietly-spoken patron himself. He speaks human but his wines can seem other-wordly.
Champagne Chartogne-Taillet now basks in the sunshine of success as one of the leading and much talked about new generation of single estate champagnes. If you count yourself a champagne freak and lover, then you need to know these wines if you don’t already. They are current required drinking. If you are a general champagne lover but do not venture beyond the limited circle of the big names into domaine or what many call ‘grower’ champagne, then you should surely try these wines. For once, do not be put off by the cultish status this producer is beginning to acquire.
The updated (2013) Tom Stevenson / Essi Avellan MW Christie’s Encyclopaedia of Champagne sparkling wine, ranks Chartogne-Taillet, with 89/100 points, the fifth-rated ‘grower’ / single estate champagne, only one point behind the top four, which are Larmandier-Bernier, Jacques Lassaigne, Vilmart and Pierre Gimonnet. If you need famous négociant house comparisons, the same book rates Chartogne-Taillet on a par with Gosset, Delamotte and Bruno Paillard.
The estate is in the village of Merfy, and the only single estate (RM grower) in the village. Merfy is north-west of Reims, in the modest and relatively unknown sub-district of the Montagne de Reims called the Massif de St Thierry, where once the vineyards and (still) wines of the St Thierry Abbey were not just large, but famous, powerful and exported. Two world wars particularly denuded Merfy from 105ha to just 45ha of vines today as the Massif is a strategic shelling position looking south to Reims. All the Chartogne-Taillet wines made here now are monocru, entirely from the domaine’s parcels in Merfy. Taillets grew vines there in 1485 but the Chartognes did not arrive until 1870 and the Chartogne-Taillet estate began by marriage between the two families in 1920. Alexandre is a proud archiviste and curator of family records going back over 300 years.
The estate comprises some 14ha, with 10ha currently vinified and 2ha more on stream in 1-2 years’ time. Production will then be potentially 110k bottles per annum. The recent small expansion resulted from the acquisition of working rights (but not ownership) of five parcels of 65 year old vines in St Thierry. The field blend overall is 50PN 10PM 40CH and some 5% of Chardonnay is legally bought in from Avise.
The soils here are significantly different than the more famous terroirs of the Montagne de Reims and Côte des Blancs. The solid chalk lies under much thicker deposits of marine and glacial wash admixtures of clay, sand and various forms of broken calcite and calcium carbonate. Alexandre, when I visited, was at pains to show how a new viticulture is vital to care for the nutrient life in the deeper soils here than on the classic grand cru slopes of Champagne elsewhere. Classic Champagne viticulture compacts vineyard soil by using herbicide, not ploughing the soil. Compaction is increased with numerous tractor passes to deliver fungicides too. The answer is a much more delicate cultivation that does not mix too much deeper clay with the light horizon of soil on top. In this way the vital aerobic bacteria of the top soil levels are encouraged to give the main root zone ideal conditions for mineral nutrient uptake. Cover crops are used to give competition to roots, devigorate the vines and make roots go deeper for nutrients. You will not be surprised to know Alexandre studied briefly with Anselme Selosse although the style of wine here is different.
In each of his vineyards he has done soil and horizon analysis to adapt the viticulture to each parcel. Some of his parcels are ungrafted against phylloxera and he is increasing these plantings in the belief they make more intense juice with lower potential alcohol in the context of climate change.
The same enterprise and restless creativity is clear in the winemaking here. You will see concrete eggs and earthenware jar fermenters as well as tanks and barrels and fermentation with natural yeasts, a specific Merfy culture taken from each plot and combined. Wood is 4-10 year old barriques, not new.
The wine range begins with a 50% CH and 50PN bottling Cuvée Ste Anne NV (the saint of Merfy) which is always crisp and steely on release and repays keeping a year or two. Even so, if not stunned too cold, you can see the persistence and interest. Recent tastings have shown me this wine is taking on more complexity and depth and is a great introduction to the domaine. There is a dry and brightly fruity Le Rosé NV made to the Ste Anne blend with little or no reserves and made by assemblage with a little Pinot Noir red wine from the Orizeaux vineyard and no Pinot Meunier. A Millésime vintage wine is made 60PN and 40CH from a vineyard Les Couarres, entirely in stainless steel and with long aging.
I particularly love the gentleness and finesse of mousse this producer achieves, apparently across all the cuvées. He explains he thinks this results from not mechanically filtering his wines and all of them are described in the same way: No Filtration.
The glories of this estate are four single vineyard wines, three of them Blanc de Noirs but each made with one variety. The Les Barres is 100% Meunier, ungrafted, since the very sandy soils in this half-hectare parcel are so sandy they have resisted phylloxera. Alexandre is convinced the ungrafted 55-year old vines ripen quicker but are also physiologically ripe at lower sugar levels than grafted vines as the graft does not inhibit sap flow metabolism in the same way. The wine is non-vintage as aged less than three years but is always from one harvest and dosed at least Extra Brut (0-6gms/L). The cuvée Les Orizeaux is 100PN from old vines in a grafted parcel with more calcareous soil but a lot of sand too and vinified all in wood with natural yeasts. Les Alliées is a single 60 ares block of 100%PM vines from sandy soils and again is made in wood, from a single year but not vintage dated. Finally in this group is a Blanc de Blancs Les Heurtebise, from a sand-clay south-faced vineyard ad made in stainless steel. Its round flavours make it quite different to Côte des Blancs classics but there is penetrating minerality.
There is also a prestige cuvée, Fiacre, made 60CH 40PN in stainless steel from a lieu-dit Chemin de Reims and Les Orizeaux.
Brut NV Cuvée Sainte Anne 11.08 group tasting. 80% ‘04, 20% ’02 and ’00. 50CH 40PN 10PM, disgorged 11/07. 4.5g/L. Mid-pale; appley Pinot nose, balanced but very conventional flavours with modest autolytic notes. Lime and treacle tart with a pastry finish. Quite lively but not especially elegant.
Brut NV Cuvée Sainte Anne 02.09 With Clare Gardner-Medwin. Seemed to have taken on rather more depth and complexity than in the 11.08 group tasting. Though still certainly pretty severe.
Tasted at Terres et Vins 04/2010 Aÿ, Champagne
Two 09 vins claire were perfumed, almost Eau-de-Cologne, including a non-grefées Les Barres. Obvious acidity.
Les Heurtebise ’07 100CH 2 years on lees. An early disgorgement for this tasting. Rather chalky and tough but the mineral persistence and hit of more nutty flavours on the end were just beginning.
Les Orizeaux ’07 100PN 55yr old vines. Extra Brut. Roots go very deep. Power and interest here.
Les Barres ’06 100PM ungrafted. Lovely lily and chalk power; more sand here, so not grafted.
Tasted at Terres et Vins 04/2011 Aÿ, Champagne
Les Heurtebise ’07 100CH Crunchy and crystalline, earthy tones below. Concentrated and long.
Les Barres ’07. Really compelling and more mature, deeper coloured and concentrated. Leesy with a chocolate and raisin note. Very good.
Les Orizeaux 07. Again, a crystalline dry impression with some chalky texture but very mouth-filling and complex
Tasted in Merfy 03/2013
Brut NV Cuvée Sainte Anne A blend of 09 with 30% 08. 50CH 50PN Bottled 07/10, 33 months on lees. This has taken on a depth and roundness I’ve not seen before in this Brut NV, darker and more complex. It really magnifies on the palate and with a lovely fine texture of mousse. White chocolate and floral notes. Very good for the ‘BSA’ wine.
Les Barres ’08 100PM Tasted in two dosage versions. One with 1,5g/L was tighter, deeper in flavour with more detail, roundness on the end and more interesting than the second. The other, at 4.5g/L, had more of a pastille nose, less penetrating although a very satisfying sense of volume. The cuvée was bottled in between these dosages in the end. A wine of tremendous finesse and interest, slightly deeper in colour than anticipated, as Meunier can be, but not at all blowsy or crudely autolytic.
Les Orizeaux 08 100PN A version with zero dosage was extremely austere; one at 1.5g/L was similar, a little longer on the end. An extra brut at 4.5g/l really expressed the structure and fruit, while one at 5.5g/L seemed too sweet. A wine of gentle power in the higher dosaged versions, not at all shrill but well-reined in and opening in the mouth with an eye-opening depth and complexity.
37 Grande Rue
0033 03 26 03 10 17