Recently I’ve heard complaints from some commentators that they wonder if the price of ‘grower’ (single estate or ‘domaine’ champagne, please) is going too high too fast. Part of the problem is that a few critics and some consumers have too long regarded domaine champagne as the ‘Christmas come early’ category. They saw that you could get much cheaper champagne by buying ‘grower’, even more so by popping over the Channel and doing a champagne booze cruise. So ‘grower’ even with enthusiasts, took on something of an unfortunate role as bargain basement champagne in some minds. Imagine, you could get it cheap without the shame of pouring supermarket own label in front of your friends, and seem to have the inside track by serving serious obscure labels and mumbling things about ‘terroir’ and how the big houses just blend it away. And how the ‘grandes maisons’ cost so much because they throw 30-40% of the final price on PR and marketing. Winner! You have the moral high wine ground, still get to pour champagne and be hip, and the gash in the wallet heals quick.
Perhaps not any more. It’s clear ‘grower’ prices have risen but not always clear quite why. There’s now a super-elite of some 10 or so domaines – what I call the ‘Egly-Selosse-Agrapart-Larmandier-Bernier’ axis, whose prices have been on a par with, and higher than, the grandes marques big brands for some time. Then there’s about another 140 or so in a second tier, whose prices have risen smartly recently because they have some export success and that has to be paid for in the trips abroad, websites and tastings in France, and sample bottles they send distributors all over the world. Together, these top 150 domaines make up most of the producers who have formed the groups who show wine at Champagne Week in Reims and Epernay each April, a showcase shop window with increasing international resonance for single estate champagne. Then there is another 100 or so domaines who make good champagne but known only to true and paid up champagne geeks. Some of these may break through to join the higher tiers, some will languish. It’s tough out there.
A further factor is that many restaurants, some independent shops and keen sommeliers think they have to price champagne high on the list or look silly. It makes the list look ‘serious’ perhaps but it is self-defeating. I could mention one top flight London restaurant with more ‘grower’ listed than big brands, but at average £300 a bottle. The sell-through slows and stock sits there too long. Too many restaurants do not work at promoting champagne by the glass or running a champagne of the week showcase. And too many shops think all you need to say is someone is biodynamic and uses barrels and is the champagne wunderkind of a single village and you can ask £70 a bottle.
I think critics need too, to have a good look and speak out about the way grande marque big house champagne is priced. It’s all very well to sound off about marketing and how that makes the price of Moet-Mumm-Veuve high, but supermarkets are shooting their feet and taking the mick when they want £38-45 for NV champagne most of the time and then at Christmas and Easter suddenly say you can have it half price. It makes the punter say, hey, I’ll just buy it twice a year or just buy the £25 supermarket own-label bottle in between and split the difference. That’s why over 50% of champagne sold in shops in the UK is supermarket own label made by coops in Champagne, tasting usually even duller and more samey than the big brands. It’s not just supermarkets but restaurants too. Sometimes the price seems picked out of the air. Especially prestige cuvées. Recently, in a restaurant with friends in Champagne, we were able to drink Dom Pérignon Oenotheque 1962 (it was great!) for €590. The same wine is on a Mayfair list in London for over £3500 a bottle and not far away in another restaurant, for over £4200. I know, if plutocrats are in London with pocket money, you cannot blame restaurants for treating them as champagne jailbait. But even so, quel differentiel, baby!
If prices have been rising, who is buying ‘grower’ champagne? I think it is quite possible to overestimate the sales and knowledge of buyers of ‘grower’ champagnes. Some critics suggest a major new wave is on the rise and the big brands should quake in their boots. Others downplay ‘grower’ as a tiny category. But I think it’s important to assess the effect of a highly segmented wine market and a segmented wine culture. It’s too easy to downplay niche markets and micro niches because we are all dazzled in the headlights of the big brands. I absolutely agree that ‘big house champagne still dominates’ in Germany and Belgium for instance and of course it does in the UK too. But if you delve deep enough you will find a healthy trade in ‘grower’ champagne in all three countries, although tiny in the scheme of things. And you will also find a devoted if not passionate following for them, although not all the consumers of ‘grower’ will be seriously into it. And I think interest often spreads beyond hip coterie level too, especially when the hip can not always afford what is hip as prices rise and they look beyond the elite Egly-Selosse-Agrapart-Larmandier-Bernier axis.
About 5% of champagne exports to the EU, 3.9m bottles, are ‘grower’. The stats do not separate RMs from RCs, but I suspect the RC figure is very much in the minority. If an RC lacks the cash and grit needed to make their own champagne, they are unlikely to be that determined or geared up to export. And when discerning visitors arrive and ask ‘Where’s your press, where’s your winery?’, what do they say? However, the stats certainly do not reflect the cross-border trade from Benelux and Germany and RCs may figure more here. A Belgian trade friend estimates the Belgian cross-border trade at 2-4m bottles but that is a wide spread.
The Comité Champagne (CIVC) export figures for 2014 show of Belgium’s 9.7m imported bottles, 6.4% (620k bottles) were grower (408 growers). In Germany, it is 3% (382.5k bottles) of the exports to that country (321 growers), and that 3% has been about consistent over 9 years. But in Belgium and the UK there was a fall-off in sales of grower by 8.4% (Belgium) and 9.2% (UK) year on year versus 2013. Who knows if the mass grab for Prosecco has something to do with that in these countries, which bears out points made above which surmise price is a factor, or was, with grower. I suspect in the UK it is not that, since ‘grower’ is never in supermarkets, only indies and on the web. I wonder if the mushrooming of independent wine merchants in the UK at the end of the recession, made orders for ‘grower’, only to find it a harder sell than they thought. And consequently they have not re-ordered in the same volume in 2014.
Elsewhere, the market for single estate champagne surged in 2014. +8% in Italy, +18% in Denmark, +13.2% Sweden, + 7.3% USA (where ‘grower’ is 5% of all champagne sold) and +9% Japan.
Champagne drinkers are not simply subject to big brand marketing, but the ‘special occasion / celebration’ role and generic prestige of simply the word ‘champagne’ on every bottle. People often play safe if they feel their wallet is being prised open wide and often make sure the label they shell out for is one people know and admire. The better ‘grower’ champagnes have realised that they may not have quite the same budget as the big brands but they do need to spend time, increasing cash and ingenuity on promoting and marketing their own brands too. The stagnant French market, their traditional hunting ground, spells out this message even more. Just because you are ‘grower’ does not exempt you from the need to incessantly market your wine, and export it, even if it is to a slightly different audience, even niche. You are not so ‘pure’ as a ‘grower’ that you do not need to invest in marketing, and prices inevitably rise, as they have to compete with each other for more and more visibility.
If you can’t be seen by the audience in your niche, or you don’t know where it is, and they don’t taste your wine, forget it. But achieving that does not come so cheap.
I think attitudes to single estate or domaine (what people call ‘grower’) champagne prices in the UK suffer because many see it as a ‘category’ or commodity. But there is clearly grower and grower, in quality and price. An elite group at the top easily now commands prices equal to or often above the grandes marques and has done for years. Look at Selosse, Bereche, Agrapart, Chartogne-Taillet, Larmandier-Bernier, Egly-Ouriet, Cedric Bouchard, Ulysse Colin, Diebolt-Vallois, Jacques Lassaigne, Pierre Moncuit, Pierre Péters, Prévost,Pierre Gimonnet, Vilmart, Eric Rodez and maybe some others. Then there are about 50 others known to enthusiasts who have made their mark. Finally, there may be 100 to 150 other single estates who are good, but I often think those towards the lower end may have been too quickly signed up by some importers who think there may be a bandwagon in the offing. Every now and again, enter stage left a shooting star of a discovery, that gets the champagne geeks talking. Many of this 200 or so, but not all, are in the groupings I wrote about on this site here and on JancisRobinson.com.
Prices in these three rough bands tend to be banded accordingly, but the problem for consumers is the need for more tasting opportunities, more assessments by wine critics and more hard pounding in Champagne over years by buyers and merchants, rather than superficial importing. Many wine lovers in the UK hardly know this field yet and I still meet people who think champagne is hardly a proper wine. In general in the UK, single estate champagne is still largely drowned out by the tradition and presence of the big brands. We don’t ‘get’ it quite like the wine culture of many other countries. It may not be too long, but the ‘burgundising’ of single estate champagne is still small scale here. But I don’t want to dampen enthusiasm for it, far from it!
Although prices have risen, the top single estates had prices vying with and exceeding the big brand champagnes long before the euro weakened against the dollar and sterling. Berry Bros and Rudd list seven growers with an entry level Brut NV over £31 a bottle (although with 10% off right now on all champagne!). Vine Trail, a great single estate champagne pioneer based in Bristol, is much the same but with its grower prices climbing steeply as the cuvées get more vintage or more select. The same with the often good value Wine Society’s grower list, which at the very basic NV level seems bargainish but soon climbs higher. All these producers, even though you will pay average over £30-35 a bottle for many of their single estate champagnes, price the big brands higher. At the Wine Society there’s Pol Roger, Charles Heidsieck and Bollinger Brut NVs, all at £39-45 a bottle.
There are myriad pricing constraints. Small merchants and importers transporting small parcels of wine is always difficult to scale against the vast shipments of the grande marques with their own dedicated London agencies and by the supermarkets. The UK is the world No 1 champagne importer by a country mile. But over half of off-trade champagne sales are supermarket own brand here. Probably less than .4% of all UK champagne sold here is ‘grower’ from single estates / domaines. And that could be an optimistic figure. Terry Theise in the USA thinks the figure there is 5% ‘grower’ to 95% grandes marques and coops’champagnes. That would be 1.5m bottles per annum in the UK. Way to go! How to go from 100k-odd, where we are now, to 1.5m bottles – about the figure for English Sparkling Wine sales in the UK?
Then £7.62 of every UK £30 bottle of champagne is tax. And independent merchants may have been encouraged by the prices in the restaurant enclave of sommeliers and wine buyers. In central London, some restaurants are selling grower champagne to an international and moneyed clientele whose wine culture in their home countries has already twigged onto single estate champagne and with food, to boot. Maybe very top end, but Fera at Claridges has 37 domaine champagnes on the list, more than grande marque cuvées, with an average price of nearly £300 a bottle, although inflated at the top end by Selosse who is in outer space. And yet they price many of the grande marque cuvées even higher. Dom Pérignon Oenotheque 1962 a mere £3700.00.
I think the niche of good single estate champagne is increasingly narrowed down to about 200 domaines that make respectable wine, as I suggest above. Even Terry Theise,the US commentator and distributor, who has plugged ‘farmer fizz’ (a term that makes my skin creep) in toto, now thinks the worthy stuff is about 200 producers. But as there are 16k growers in Champagne. The vast majority do not make wine, only sell grapes to the houses or coops. That leaves (Oct 2014 figs) 4629 which sell champagne in bottle. Of these we might discount the 2648 RCs (57%) because these coop clones are selling usually an identical wine made for them by the local coop blending all the coop members’ grapes. RCs do not make the wine themselves and what is in their bottles is a soup of all the coop’s members.
Many RCs and RMs also sell a proportion of their grapes to the houses, a kind of insurance policy. At €6 per kilo, a modest 12k kilos from a hectare still grosses €72k/annum. So that leaves 1951 RMs, the true single estates. Even if we know the wines of about 200, estates constantly slip and slide, rise and fall in quality and management, as they do in every wine region. In 15 years of visiting champagne I think I’ve been to about 220 single estates. And there are estates that have not joined a group and are a bit harder to ferret out /under the radar so to speak. And who knows what undiscovereds there are in the wings?
And in the UK, grower champagne is a much slower thing than elsewhere. Wine lovers buy more and know much more about it in Benelux, Italy, USA, Japan. I guess because of supermarket dominance here and the tradition of the big houses, which have offices and sales teams in London plying wine journalists with invites and sales teams busy sealing exclusivities with outlets and big events. In general, the big houses would not be seen dead having their wines shown at tastings alongside growers. The only place it ever happens is the Comité Champagne (CIVC) do in March and even then, growers are a small smatter – most can’t afford it or try it and are put off by the tiny serious interest in them versus their spend.
It was interesting that a recent Berry’s tasting in London had the Mesnil and Mailly coops next to their growers, as if the coops are OK. These two coops of course tend to have very good reputations (because both are exclusively based on grands crus monocrus), but as you probably know, most coops tend to concentrate much more on private labels for European supermarkets and in general draw their grapes from lesser fruit than grands or premiers crus.
It’s getting to the point where the ‘artisan’ word makes me think some wine commentators have mortgaged their brains and not made the payments. Everywhere I look I see websites and champagne geeks, wine writers and perhaps just the unthinking, calling small champagne producers ‘artisan’ this and ‘artisan’ that.
I presume they know that every junior marketing and branding account handler, whether it’s watches (watch out for that ‘atelier’ word too), wine, tailoring or cheese, has to learn not to reach for dumb clichés if they want to do well in their chosen profession. And ‘artisan’ has been done to death. Even Domino’s Pizza and McDonald’s use it to describe some of the health threats they sell. Like ‘natural’ applied to wine or any piece of furniture, ‘artisan’ has become one of the biggest weasel words we hear outside of politicians’ speeches. And yet we constantly see wine writing or sommeliers’ lists which showcase domaine or single estate small champagne producers as ‘artisan’. And of course, it’s close to the generic term ‘grower champagne’ which they use to label the whole category.
The image they are falling for, is a conservative, romantic, even reactionary idea, that high quality and desirability is made by a man in specs, poor, in a workshop, covered in woodshavings or flour and with dirt under his nails. And gradually, now a crescendo of foodie/ winey / beery nonsense, this image of the toiling craftsman, has arrived in the restaurant, bakery kitchen, winery, micro brewery and gin still. It’s the idealisation of a non-existent rustic golden age. If you doubt me, just Google ‘artisan’ and click ‘Images’.
The trap is the branding coup that has been pulled off in the mass redefinition of the term ‘luxury’. Luxury of course has money and inessential indulgence in its semantic DNA. The word meant ‘excess’ in Latin and lechery or decadance in middle English. True luxury is things barely anyone can buy, the £40m London Mayfair townhouse, or at the cheap end, the £16,000 First Class long haul flight. No one in their right mind would dream of marketing these things as ‘artisan’. The very idea would be brand death. They are assuredly exclusive. Exclusivity is literally that, it excludes; it means hardly anyone else can buy this, because they can’t afford it. It’s got nothing to do with taste, just you and your bank account. But to pull in the middle masses (you and me mostly) the idea of luxury needed to be rebranded as an idea meaning ‘in fairly short supply’ and made by a craftsman, slowly, with the skill and know-how of a guild insider. And the suggestion is, you made a tasteful choice because you bought into a noble way of life.
But the important thing about the new luxury is, it is very cheap as luxury goes. It’s the special loaf of bread, the restaurant meal, champagne and hand-made shoes, jewellery from that market stall made by someone with a diploma and a loan from the parents. Its ‘affordable luxury’, even if you have to save up and still feel guilty after. Suddenly the A word comes into play. To make these things seem special, rare, good taste and keep you feeling you’re not slumming it eating sourdough, they come over all ‘artisan’. There’s even ‘artisan’ cappuccino. When you do ‘craft’ or ‘artisan’ you buy into a lifestyle that promises a bond with the maker, that man in the workshop toiling for you, a bond that seems to promise more fulfillment than mere consumption of the end result. And for that, in its class, even if it’s only a beer, you are prepared to pay top dollar.
I learn the Irish Food Standards Authority is insisting ‘artisanal’ can only be used for products made in one place and by fewer than 10 people. Think about it. This could be a small factory, high tech, making niche ‘natural’ soup for grocers. And that labour force of 10 doesn’t quite describe the £.5m investment, the outsourced design, food tech consultancy, packaging, off-site sales agency, distribution and the PR accounts that all help you to notice and buy this wonderful ‘artisan’ product. The money spent designing and making you believe this product is ‘artisan’ is just as important as the wages of the 10 only modestly skilled or unskilled people who actually make it. And the critical economic input here is provided by the knowledge economy: the concept, financial planning, manufacturing and marketing consultancy and the skills of getting to market. ‘Artisan’ here is both misuse of the term and a lie to the consumer. Tinker, tailor, butcher, baker, champagne maker – who says they are all the same and ‘artisan’?
The ‘artisan’ tag is a disastrous road , I suggest, for domaine or single estate champagne. The term ‘artisan’ or ‘grower’ only confirms the traditional image of sophisticated grande marque houses on the one hand and farmers toiling to make a few bottles of rustic stuff on the other. Hey, don’t expect too much, its scrumpy to the big brand cider, but it’s fun and you can go and visit a real family, meet real people, pack it in the boot of the car on holiday. Hey, and you pay much less than that Moët or Lanson stuff even on promo in the UK supermarket.
The great single estate champagnes I love have little to do with old ‘artisan’, so get over it. The top names and rising stars may be hiring horses to plough vineyards, especially those that can be seen near roads with passing cars, but they do it because of a scientific understanding of how to make grapes with more subtle and intense flavour and texture. Each day begins with a management briefing for vineyard wage labourers and winery hands. And the grapes will usually arrive to be pressed in a very high tech press costing hefty sums. Days are spent looking at meteorology, discussing with the local oenological lab, trading with suppliers and agents, designing and updating websites or labels and brochures. It is not hands-on, it is brains-on. Even the skills of meeting and selling to visitors who come to taste. There is room for subtle judgment and instinct, myriad skills it takes years to acquire. But in the end, there’s more science and management and brand thinking than being an old style artisan.
The champagne of single estates is often made by small, very committed families with devotion and skills passed down from father to son and daughter. The precious independence they have and the blood-driven pride and will to succeed together may well spell great potential. But single estate champagne, for now, is more so-so than great and remember, there are (in 2014) 1,950 of these RM (récoltant-manipulant) producers. What makes the good ones great, has little to do with the fact some people stupidly call them ‘artisan’.
Recently I was invited to a central London townhouse with a bunch of other wine professionals. But unlike the enclave of law offices nearby, I was welcomed into a special interior. The black front door threshold was the wardrobe leading to Narnia. Because this house had been made over to evoke the mind and the dream world of Champagne Dom Pérignon. A magic pop-up open for two weeks only.
Each floor was a metaphorical stage-set for each of the three wines served, propped with furniture, decor and lighting to match. Brilliantly done; I will never doubt the art of the production designer again. Here were colours and light to make it Autumn. DP’s bottle hues and tastes came flooding in, the herbal-aromatic crackle of dry leaves, the acrid-sweet gentle whiff of grass bonfire smoke. The black and neon-white pantones evoking the Dark Knight of Batman mirrored surreally in the shield-shape of DP’s label. Everything looked and felt like DP tends to taste. And even the food, cooked with such finesse by the Skye Gingell team from Spring restaurant, seemed to have DP written on its flavours: all delicate creamy crab, samphire and shaved wild asparagus, (Ground Floor, DP 2005), an umami fest of guinea fowl and morels (Middle Floor, DP 1998 P2), then strawberries, ice-cream and shortbread to end, (Top Floor, Dom Perignon 1971 P3) giving the senior wine a focus and enlivened freshness.
Dom Pérignon used to call their longer aged or late disgorged wines ‘Oenothèque’, referring to their own ‘library’ cellars in Épernay where they kept them perfectly and assessed their development before deciding to release them. Champagne connoisseurs have long known how complex DP can be with extra age on lees before disgorgement. This wine is usually aged on lees 6-8 years, but the ‘oenothèque wines have been kept much longer before disgorgement, anything from 13-26 years depending on the year. I remember attending a great Dom Pérignon tasting in London in October 2003 and my records show the ‘oenothèque’ wines on show had spent the following time on lees before disgorgement: 1990 12 years, 1988 13 years, 1980 18 years, 1973 25 years. The only difference in treatment of these long aged wines as opposed to the normal DPs, is that they are aged on cork from the beginning rather than a crown cap as they found crown caps could not be guaranteed to last too well after about 7 years. Another adjustment is that the dosage of the later-aged wines is reduced in the batch of bottles selected for late release, at about 6.5g/L instead of 8/9g/L for the normally-released DP.
Dom Pérignon have now renamed the Oenothèque wines Plénitude, although even back then in 2003 I had been told there were three tasting stages of DP, so you can’t accuse DP of being in a hurry for taking 11 years to launch the Plénitude concept to the world. The name is apt, referring (at least in its Oxford definition) to a Celtic god of wealth and food, but more relevantly perhaps, to a sense of abundance, fullness, completion and maturity. The intention is to convey the idea of release dates which are not arbitrary or predetermined but only when the wines have reached a specific stage of development – the three ‘peaks’ of maturity identified by Chef de Cave Richard Geoffroy, which are more plateaux than linear curves.
For the time being, these three stages (Plénitudes 1-3 or P1, P2, P3) are described with a typically vague marketing tag: the normal first release of DP with about 8 years ageing before disgorgement, embodies ‘harmony’, perhaps referring to an emphatic structure, in balance but still with potential to develop. The second, after some 16 years of ageing on lees, is dubbed ‘energy’. And the third, released after at least 25 years, is ‘complexity’. In more technical terms, to practised tasters and judges of wine, the notions of youthful balance (P1), autolytic (P2) and oxidative-autolytic (P3) might be less fanciful terms. But in truth, DP’s marketing story has to speak to at least two distinct mini-tribes. First, the deep-pocketed who accept DP as a ticket on the Marrakesh Express of wide-eyed, high-end consumption. And second the wine professional and connoisseur who craves technical information and may feel suspicious of the way marketing inveigles you into the dream world of this super quality wine. One camp treats DP as life accessory, liquid stilletos, one stop on the train line going everywhere exclusive, the other wants it to be all hard facts, inside information for those in wine’s ivory tower.
As wine trade invitees we probably belonged to the latter camp. But over lunch most penetrating questions to know more about the wine-making and future plans of Dom Pérignon were met with a politician’s evasive charm by assistant winemaker Vincent Chaperon. We are going to pay more attention to the quality potential of the pressing phase. OK. We are always looking to go further with viticulture. OK, but we were none the wiser. Even one journalist’s stock question about how much DP is made was batted routinely away with laughter. Champagne’s big houses, for the time being most of them, seem coy and sold on avoiding fans’ information seeking, presumably because they believe secrecy builds mystique and desire. Most of them are being dragged reluctantly into explaining and educating their public on disgorgement dates and ageing time and dosage and putting these obvious facts on their back labels. But this is in stark contrast to many small champagne domaines which have become more willing to answer their public’s questions openly. Am I mistaken or has the modern demand for transparency in food and drink fallen often on deaf ears in Champagne?
And perhaps the most striking claim of this new Plénitude departure was not discussed: that DP have begun to challenge the old adage which claims champagnes tend to decline more rapidly after the oxidative shock of disgorgement. Instead we have the idea that the longer a champagne has been on lees (or does this apply only to DP?) the longer it may develop further after disgorgement. The moment of release of each Plénitude does not mean ‘drink up now’ but only the beginning of a sizeable period as it travels across the stage of its plateau. Champagne geeks seem split over what is ‘decline’ post-disgorgement and what is ‘development’. Watch the DP and champagne space for more on this issue.
Funnily enough, there was little discussion of what the three P wines actually tasted like and how good they were, even though they were generously poured. Even if there is an unspoken consensus among wine critics that DP is the bees knees, I do not often hear critics detail what makes it so distinctive and such high quality. And for me, they are qualities which criss-cross every vintage version. It’s a de luxe cuvée that used to decide quite often that the year was not good enough to make DP. In the 80s and 90s, seven vintages were missed: ’84, ’86, ’87 and ’89 and then ’91, ’94, ’97. In the noughties so far, only 2001 has been missed. But if you know the ’00, ’02, ’03 and’04 they are no slackers. The current ‘P1′ served at this tasting, was the DP 2005, just released and which I had been served two weeks before at the Dom Pérignon Abbey in Hautvillers.
The Dom Pérignon 2005, both times, showed a very new DP green-gold tint. Then a green herbal smokey and gunflint note on the nose. There is quite a rich fruit and butter palate and a voluptuous honey bread character. But the texture from the mousse is very tell-tale DP, light and caressing, very gentle. This is a bigger wine than the ’04 but very promising and impressive. The colour when young, the smoke and matchstick reductive nose all beguiling, and the great finesse of texture, are what seems to mark DP out, vintage after vintage. 6.5g/L For champagne, 2005 gets a poor rap from many as a vintage, but this is absolutely dependable, although very young still in the scheme of things.
The Dom Pérignon 1998 P2 was a huge stride ahead in complexity. This was the fourth time I had tasted this wine in a year and each time I see new things. Overall there is much more density, energy and intensity than the normally current DP. The green herbal note is now in the background and there are rounder brioche and ‘Instant Whip’ comforts on show. The fruit is all lemon-butter, ripe pears and vanilla but once again, the lasting impression is the relative freshness and signature lightness of texture. Nowhere near the end of its life as it develops further.
Finally, Dom Pérignon 1971 P3. Pale to mid-gold, the green almost gone. A super complex nose of black truffle and smoke, dust and brick. A very lemon marmalade touch to the end and the mousse gone to a light spritz. But absolutely humming along with tension still, not flabby and still pointed and bright. A sweet echo all the way through, not actually a full sweet flavour, but a lingering and complex bitter note too.
‘Now here is a vintage! More than good, at its best the epitome of elegance.’ Michael Broadbent’s old note on 1971 champagne seems to apply to most vintages of Dom Pérignon, because what marks this prestige cuvée out over others is consistency and longevity. History can repeat itself with DP, the first time as good, the second, (and third!) even better. The Plénitude model of releases seems designed to highlight exactly those qualities.
House wine with a difference.
I appreciate the deep sympathy you all feel for the suffering I undergo tasting champagne. But the will to carry burdens gets worse. I belong to an informal small group in London who make it worthwhile.
They meet up every so often to taste champagne blind. We cogitate, make notes, discuss, reveal the identities of the bottles we’ve brought, and then drink them up. Please, no flowers, just donations to charity.
The good thing about this group, drawn from the wine trade and all paid up champagne nuts, is we share two vital features. Firstly, no egos that are anxious about looking silly when we get it wrong and no one who crows if they get it right. We all know how hard it is. Secondly, we all believe it’s important to practise tasting champagne blind because this wine, of all wine, has the biggest separation of image and quality. You have to learn how to see past the label. And sometimes the only way is not to see the label at all.
Our latest theme was vintage rosé. There were eight wines. Of course, you don’t know in advance what has been brought along. But this session is worth telling you about because the selection turned out to be stunning. It showed that rosé champagne can be profound stuff, not party pink. Here are my notes as I made them, blind:
Billecart-Salmon Cuvée Elizabeth Salmon Brut Rosé 2002
Salmon-copper, like Perrier-Jouët. But a lean texture and touch leafy, unlike PJ. But there’s ripeness behind the tight structure, real delicate texture and relative paleness so assemblage, not saignée? Really fresh, nice dried orange peel notes. Medium intensity, bags of life left. 2004 or even 2002 but would like it to be a little more forceful if it is. Classy, grande marque for its finesse and glossiness.
Dom Pérignon Rosé 2002
Again, salmon-copper. A real step up in intensity versus the last and even finer texture. This has a gunflint whiff of reduction that is so classy. 2002? Such a saline nose and only embryonic development as yet. But top drawer. Precision and less luxuriously full than Krug, so DP? Especially for that matchstick note.
Dom Pérignon Rosé 1995
Coppery but lighter than the previous two. Slightly funky spuds-in-a-bag nose, interesting and not off-putting. Slightly whisky-barrel note; very compact structure; older than ’02, firmer than 2000, 98 or 99? Even older? This is pretty developed but could still live long. Very good and grown up.
Vilmart Grand Cellier Rubis 2009
A deep salmon hue. Saline nose and slightly stewed rhubarby fruit and a definite whiff of whisky and butter and yet quite a skinny texture. Very intriguing and individual flavours. A single estate. Very young – ’07 or ’08? Gorgeous.
Dom Ruinart Rosé 1990
Pale deep orange. An oxidative note but from development, not woody particularly. Mocha and chocolate. A deep core of fruit and mushroomy botrytic note, like Tokaji. Savoury and a marmalade filip on the end. This is quite old, but brilliant and humming. 1982 or 1988 and Dom Ruinart or Veuve?
Veuve Clicquot Rare Vintage Rosé 1985
Also really orange and mushroomy and oxidative. Peachy and a very delicate smokiness, not overdone. Low bead, this is old but such elegance and fluidity, impressive balance but not stark. Older than the ’90? 1988? Top producer of rosé – Ruinart or VCP.
Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Rosé 1993
Pale orange, hazy, slightly soapy but underneath it is mineral, savoury and all toffee-choc. 89/90? This is characterful and developing fast with the oxidative notes but impressive and fun. Either not a great vintage or not kept so well?
Moët et Chandon Grand Vintage Rosé 2004
(I knew what this was in advance as it was my contribution). Bright, shining and orange-pink. Matchstick reduction. Some people think oak here? Classic biscuit and smoke and a green herbal note, a little stalky but that makes it seems more discreet and grown-up, even though there’s a sweet core to the fruit. Pretty early days; good. But in some stunning company which overshadows it.
If you are an obsessive about your work or hobby, more so if they are the same thing, pilgrimages or milestones queue up. I had a climber friend at school who used to doodle karabiners in maths. He died far too young on an ice-climb 25 years later. Literary lovers conquer Finnegan’s Wake, distance swimmers the English Channel; cyclists the Col de la Madeleine.
For champagne and Champagne freaks, one of them, is visiting Dom Perignon’s Abbaye d’Hautvillers in the premier cru (how cruel it cannot be ‘grand cru’) village of, well, Hautvillers. The famous Benedictine monk came here in 1668 to make the wine and died there 47 years later and with many champagne lovers in his future debt. Scholars and wine lovers debate quite what his contribution to champagne was. It was clear he worked painstakingly to give the Hautvillers wines distinction in their day. It’s also clear they were generally still wines, not fizzy. It’s daft to say he ‘invented’ champagne, like those comic book ‘eureka’ moment history books with a chapter on ‘the wheel’. About as daft as saying champagne was ‘invented’ in England just because someone made a wine referment, although there’s folks who do.
When my invitation to go to the Abbaye came in April, after quite a diary of near misses, events I could not fit in, never in the right place at the right time, I saw it as a tick in the book of ticks. Embarrassing in a way because there are people in wine who mention it to show off, like reminding you of “when I was at Chateau Margaux” and similar tedium. But its impact on me, something, perhaps naively, I will treasure, I had not bargained for.
It’s about the importance of myth I guess. It’s important to remember myths are not lies. They are stories, which may not be strictly true, about things that are true. Of course the story and the true things they are based on, are separate. Stories change things. They are made up. Historians even argue about how true things are that are supposed to be true. I remember once doing the Moët et Chandon tourist visit in Épernay, incognito. Which means I kept my mouth shut. At the end the guide said, bold as brass, in answer to someone’s question, that Dom Perignon invented the second fermentation. Not true, definitely not true. But stories that make the monk’s work at the Abbaye into myth, as long as they are not guide’s porkies, are fair enough. He was there. He worked hard at making good wine. The Abbaye garnered a reputation for good wine. In 1794, Moët et Chandon bought it and the rest is history. Sorry, myth. He’s the Father of Champagne. Why not?
It was a very warm, blue sky Spring day. The visit included my good friend of many a Champagne trail, Charles Curtis MW. It was very ably led by our guide Andrea Marx who had entertained us to lunch at the Épernay Trianon earlier. The entrance to the public church of St Sidulphe is guarded by one of the most pungent honeysuckle bushes I’ve ever met. Dom P is buried in front of the high altar (see pic). The private grounds are A for atmospheric, vinous goosebumps on every corner, every vista. We sat in the sun and discussed Dom Pérignon the wine. Then we were served the 2005 (just launched in Barcelona but not at that point in the UK) and a wine I’d tasted a couple of times before in London, the 1998 ‘oenothèque’, the long-aged versions of Dom P. It’s now been renamed with a new ‘concept’ (those marketeers!) of ‘Plénitude’ to mark periods of its ageing which Richard Geoffroy the Chef de Cave believes are specific and identifiable. My notes on these wines I will include in a near future profile of Dom Pérignon the wine.
Did the wines taste different in their namesake’s place? At first, yes. Each bottle initially was corked and a second bottle had to be opened. The sommelier, one month in post, was a touch flustered. It had never happened before. But the second bottle of each was absolutely fine. The tell-tale velvet mousse and quiet intensity, nothing forcing, was all Dom P.
Requiscat in Pace. Thank you.
Tim Hall, director of the Scala School of Wine in London and a champagne specialist, reports on the increasing importance of the tasting opportunity known as Champagne Week at which
visitors may taste the wines of the following groups:
Terres et Vins de Champagne
Les Artisans du Champagne
Passion Chardonnay en Champagne
Les Mains du Terroir de Champagne
Des Pieds et des Vins
Champagne Special Club
Trait d-union (which has no website but does have a facebook page)
The sun shone gloriously last week in Champagne as a cosmopolitan crowd of champagne specialists, journalists, buyers and importers attended what may be the wine world’s fastest growing annual showcase. Given the heat and clear blue skies, ‘snowball’ may not best convey the breakneck annual growth of this off-piste April jamboree, but its future seems set fair not to melt away.
It began in 2009 with pioneer grouplet Terres et Vins de Champagne, comprising 20-odd champagne growers, many of them already with kudos for quality, a certain hipness and cool,and mostly committed to at least organic, if not quasi or full-blooded biodynamic methods. In 2009, 200 attended this group’s tasting in Aÿ. Last week, according to Benoît Tarlant of Champagne Tarlant, a leading light of this group, 800+ came through the doors of a much grander venue, the Palais du Tau in Reims (pictured top right), next to the Cathedral NôtreDame itself. This is the grandest space in all Champagne, where coronation feasts preceded this modern global horde of fizzy supplicants bearing, admittedly classy, Zalto tasting glasses. Each one of what are now myriad ‘salon’ groupings was abuzz last week with the sound of popping corks, the ping of spittoons used, and avid champagne talk. What’s in, what’s out, new finds, disappointments, and some rather too variable serving temperatures at several tastings. The vinous crowning glory was that so many producers were able to show their 2008s, easily Champagne’s best vintage since 2002.
The world’s champagnerati who make this April pilgrimage were faced this year, and each year it seems, with giant steps up in scale. If you had the stamina, determination to spit samples religiously, and a fast car to flit between the tastings in Reims, Épernay and around, you could taste the wines (and the as yet unbubbly vins clairs) of more than 150 domaines divided among 10 separate promotional groupings. There were three complete newcomers this year and no fewer than six have emerged in the last two years. One of these recent six is only ‘new’ in the sense that the Club Trésors, otherwise known as the Champagne Special Club, was formed as long ago as 1971 but held its first-ever ‘public’ professional tasting only during last year’s Champagne Week. I ended up writing just over 400 tasting notes, but I can be a bit slow and love to chat. A paragon would have managed many more.
The 150 producers showing their wines at these busy events were almost exclusively singleestate growers of the RM kind – the tiny letters on their bottles denoting their récoltantmanipulant status, signifying independent champagne producers who grow all their own grapes on their own land and make their wine only from these, completely in their own winery. This ‘domaine’ or ‘single-estate’ status, perhaps inadequately conveyed by the common parlance of ‘grower champagne’, is the usual ‘château’ or ‘family estate’ model found in many other wine regions.
The big brand (grande marque) ‘houses’, Moët, Mumm and the rest, have the separate status of négociant-manipulant, the NM on their labels signifying that, lacking enough vineyards, and given their scale of production, they need to buy in most of their grapes from growers who make no wine or, if they do, choose to boost their income by selling a portion of their crop. With two interesting exceptions this year, Champagne Charles Heidsieck and Champagne Alfred Gratien (well-known to fans of UK mail order jewel The Wine Society), the large champagne houses generally give Champagne Week a wide berth. They seem to prefer to stay aloof from any collective action, and instead tend to offer at great individual expense some of the most generous hospitality in the wine business. Nevertheless, the houses have twigged what a wonderful opportunity Champagne Week is and increasingly issue private invitations to some of the journalists and specialists who have come so far.
Champagne Henri Giraud of Aÿ organised a private seminar. Charles Heidsieck participated in a fine tasting of vintage wines organised by a PR company in Reims on the Monday, and Alfred Gratien returned to the star-studded group Les Artisans du Champagne after a year of absence ‘to clarify their status’, I was gnomically told. I was lucky enough to be invited on Wednesday afternoon for lunch at Moët’s Épernay Résidence de Trianon and then treated to a private Dom Pérignon tasting at the Abbaye de Hautvillers, along with Charles Curtis MW, who was representing the soon-to–be-launched Le Pan wine magazine. A six-strong grouping entitled Trait-d-union shows wines only every two years in Champagne. Comprising renowned domaines Roger Coulon, Egly-Ouriet, Jacquesson, La Closerie (Jérôme Prévost), Larmandier-Bernier and Jacques Selosse, they dashed off instead to tasting events in Australia this year,having been to Jerez two years ago.
Almost completely absent from the Champagne Week groupings is the problematic producers’ category récoltant-coopérateurs (RC). Even many in the wine trade seem unaware that what is in bottles so designated is normally a blend of local co-operative members’ grapes made for them by their co-op. This is hardly the authentic wine of a single estate, yet this type of producer forms the majority of growers in Champagne – some 58% of the 4,000-odd members of the Syndicat Général des Vignerons (SGV). But that still leaves nearly 2,000 growers who are genuine RM domaines, a vast number for even champagne geeks to get their heads and palates round. It makes the 150 or so producers in these Champagne Week groupings seem a drop in the ocean. And there is, inevitably, a swathe of significant producers who eschew, at least for now, affiliation with any group. The announcement and titles of new groups always seems abenignly Byzantine, Gallic assemblage of friendships between producers and combinations of ideas linking the concepts of ‘artisan’, ‘terroir’ and ‘authentic’. The name of Passion Chardonnay, a new group from 2014, at least indicates clearly that this is exclusively devoted to Blanc de Blancs.
By and large, this is a youthful movement, made up of a new generation who have taken the reins from their parents, often after a long apprenticeship for sons and daughters alongside their father during which they nursed, argued and planned new approaches and cuvées to represent their freedom. At least it’s exciting. Who would have thought Champagne had so much ore to pan for gold?
One ponders what is driving this apparent copycat race to form promotional and tasting grouplets. Thanks to recession and a desperately slow recovery in France and the Eurozone so far, grower champagne sales have faltered, and have mostly been to France and nearby countries. The steady stream of private consumers who have traditionally driven their cars into the Champagne region from the rest of France, Benelux and Germany to fill their boots/trunks at their favourite small producer’s cellar door, has been drying up. Growers have begun to increase the fraction of grapes they sell to the négoce. The pressure is on to seek foreign sales. But to show at the main Comité Champagne (CIVC – Champagne’s governing body) annual tastings in European capitals (such as the one described recently in Current champagne vintages) is expensive, more expensive than pooling costs by forming a group and making Muhammad come to the mountain.
Yet there seems to be a dual dynamic. The first few groups formed already had a track record of significant exports and critical acclaim, at least among the leading lights in each of these groups. Their champagnes sell for prices at least as high as the leading houses. Terre et Vins could boast Agrapart, Bérèche, Tarlant and Chartogne-Taillet. Similarly, the Les Artisans group has such star growers as Doyard, Pierre Péters, Vilmart, Dehours and Fleury. Les Mains du Terroir counts Eric Rodez, Serge Mathieu and De Sousa. And Trait-d-union’s starry line-up I’ve already mentioned.
The other groups are different kettles of fish, invariably hunting a first break into export sales. But they are no less exciting and a source of rising stars as well as discoveries completely under the radar. Merchants know that the big grower names already supply exclusive agencies in mostimportant champagne markets and this made for quite an atmosphere of bears round a honeypot in several of the newer and smaller groups. Attendance was the highest ever of any Champagne Week. Terre et Vins, the biggest showing, reported doubled visitor numbers of 800. Les Artisans drew 400 registrations, Les Mains du Terroir over 300 and, perhaps surprisingly, the young guns in a new outfit calling itself Salon des Pieds et des Vins, attracted over 170 people at their inaugural event held in the bijou village hall of Saint-Imoges on the Montagne between Reims and Épernay. The Special Club group packed out Reims’ lovely 13th-century Demeure des Comtes de Champagne (below) on the final day.
See below for a complete list of my favourite wines.
Before I left Champagne I dropped in on Jean-Pierre Vazart-Coquart, who makes entirely Grand Cru Chouilly Blanc de Blancs from his 11 hectares there and is a mainstay of the Mains du Terroir group and a long-standing Special Club member. He was excited by the success of his group’s latest salon five days earlier but thinks it can be bigger and better. It was great to have sunshine and crowds. But, typically for the multi-tasking owner of a small champagne estate, he anxiously thumbed the weather app on his smartphone. Late spring frost cost him sleep now that a mini-heatwave had unfurled four delicate leaves from buds and new shoots had put on two fragile centimetres in six days. He looked as intently at a forecast of zero degrees Celsius the following Tuesday as he listened to what champagne specialists thought of his Champagne Brut Zéro the Sunday before.
My out-and-out Champagne Week stars
Bérèche et fils, Ludes
Pierre Gimonnet, Cuis
Marc Hébrart, Mareuil-sur-Aÿ
Charles Heidsieck, Reims
Nicolas Maillart, Écueil
Mailly Grand Cru, Mailly
Pierre Péters, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger
Eric Rodez, Ambonnay
My rising stars
Nathalie Falmet, Côte des Bar
Agnès Corbon, Avize
Jean-Pierre Vazart-Coquart, Chouilly
Daniel Savart, Écueil
My best newcomers
Emmanuel Brochet, Villers aux Noeuds
My top three champagnes of the week
Nicholas Maillart Platine Premier Cru NV Dégorgement Tardif (from magnum)
Charles Heidsieck 2005
Dom Pérignon 1998 Plénitude 2
Frédéric Panaïotis (see pic), Chef de Cave of Champagne Ruinart, was in London last week showing off Dom Ruinart Rosés. We were in an art gallery, not a church, but it felt the same. Pretty uplifting, and when it was over, I felt better.
But wait a minute, the name Dom Ruinart is normally the prestige vintage Blanc de Blancs, no? The pinnacle of what this decidedly Chardonnay specialist house does, no? And it vies with Salon, Clos du Mesnil and Comtes de Champagne as a top reference for prestige Blanc de Blancs. Not long ago, brows would have knit to think this house would make a big push and risk muddying waters by promoting the pink version of its Dom Ruinart. The white Dom was first launched as a 1959 vintage and in fact, Dom Rosé came hard on its heels as a 1966. It may have played second fiddle to the lead white then, but rosé champagne has come a long way since.
So far in fact that rosé is now 10% of all champagne. It’s on a roll, but it was not always so. For the 17th and 18th centuries, Champagne’s mostly still wines and even much of the early fizzy champagne, meant to be ‘white’, tended to pick up some colour at the press, which tinted the final wines. Not surprising given the simple presses of those days and the fact most champagne was pressing red grapes to make white wine. These pale red wines were called ‘vins gris’ and they were what the locals drank. Other wines meant to be definitely red but not red enough to compete with darker burgundy, were often adulterated with cochineal or elderberry juice boiled with stabilising potassium bitartrate (Cream of Tartar) to give it viscosity. This red elderberry dye was called Teinture de Fismes after the village which specialised in it, and many early rosé champagnes used this in the dosage to add the all important colour, a practice banned in 1907.
But the fact is, when the bubbly market took off in Europe by the mid-19th century, the main effort was to make it as star-bright white as possible. Pink tinges were something many looked down on. Cyrus Redding’s important History and Description of Modern Wines (1833) declared: “No one who knows what the wines are at all, would drink rose-coloured champagne, if he could obtain the other kind.” Rosé wines were made and were intermittently in demand, but more a passing curiosity rather than classic. André Simon. in The History of Champagne (1962) shows how they were priced just below their white counterparts. Fast forward to 2015 and it’s all change. We pay a serious premium for rosé over white cuvées.
Along with Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin, Ruinart has always had a penchant for rosé. Both houses devote major investment and resources to their rosé wines, Clicquot making no less than four rosé cuvées, three of them vintage-dated. But Ruinart have just stolen a friendly march on VCP – they are both houses in the LVMH stable – by discovering a record of a shipment of Ruinart rosé dated 1764. This eclipses VCP’s hitherto first mention in 1777.
The wines Panaïotis, brought to London were thrilling. I’ve followed most of them over several years and it was fascinating to see their development. The message is clear: these wines are not passing pretty ephemera, an image rosé champagne has suffered from, but can age and be complex like all fine wine. And they have great finesse, clearly linked to the fact they are all high in the Chardonnay component before being blended with red wine. The Rosé Brut NV (£55-60, various outlets), has always had a glorious hit of fresh crushed berries with, on this occasion, a cherry high note. Perhaps it’s a little lighter-coloured than in the noughties but no less impressive as the entry-level pink of the house. It was 2011 base, 24-28 months on lees and dosed 8/9g/L. 45CH 35PN, premiers crus, and 20% added red PN An easy-drinking intro to the range.
The Dom Ruinart Rosé 2002 (£215 Berry Bros & Rudd), has vast silky finesse like all the Dom Ruinart Rosés which followed, because they are all the Dom Ruinart Chardonnay blend with red wine from Sillery and Verzenay added. If you like, you are drinking Blanc de Blancs rosé. And the Chardonnay is all from grands crus. This was hardly changed from six months ago, light copper and burnished, smoke and smoulder, mocha and chocolate with a peppery race on the nose. 80CH, 20 added red wine. This was disgorged 09/12 and dosed at 5.5g/L. Showing some development but years ahead of it. Still in school.
Next was Dom Ruinart Rosé 1998 This was 85CH, 15 red wine, disgorged 11/11 and dosed 5g/L. It was less smoky and peppery than the 2002, slightly smaller scale, calmer and less forcing than the 2002 too, but with some very subtle umami and chilli spice notes. A fascinating wine, still good for 10-15 years. (£755/6, Fine and Rare)
Dom Ruinart Rosé 1996 came from that high acid, high sugar ripe vintage called legendary but sometimes prone to oxidation now. Not this one. It showed the usual suspects of high tension balance between big fruit and steely acidity, but a lovely citrus lemon and orange oil aspect too. 83CH 17 red wine, disgorged 04/08, dosage 10g/L (£230 Berry Bos & Rudd)
The Dom Ruinart Rosé 1990. I had tasted this before in 2003, 2004 and 2005 and recently in October 2014 in magnum. This single bottle had not developed hugely since those early years but was of course, much faster developed than the magnum. There is some orange. coppery depth, toffee and nuts oxidation and a fascinating stony minerality now but all with a fungal botrytic note in this bottle that reminded me of great Tokaji and is absolutely wonderful! It was dosed at 10.5g/L. Very long and complex. If you are a fan of old champagne, here’s a very good vintage just entering the mid-slopes of its climb to real old greatness. (only on the secondary market now).
And so to Dom Ruinart Rosé 1988, a vintage I often love. 80CH 20 red wine. Disgorged 03/01. Dosed 8g/L. My favourite from the line up and I think we were a little lucky with the bottle which although older, was less developed and showed a fresher minerality than the 1990. Showed a very concentrated mid-palate but humming with vibrant current, citrus but peachy too. A paeon to what great champagne can do over 25 years old.
And so to the Peace from one of Champagne’s altars, and we went out to a sunnier London.
Should I be ashamed? I love this rosé champagne. Of all the four champagnes I tasted this Easter, oh, what the hell, drank, this was my favourite. It helped the host had made some die-for-grilled-haloumi-over-pesto-on-blini-base-canapés. It helped the sun shone.
But I always feel guilty to confess my shameless love for this vulgar-label wine and I fall every time it dips its eye and grins in my direction. I’m gone, a champagne slut. If you’re a certified champagne sectioned nut like me, been around the block and know the small print, you’re not supposed to be besotted by Piper Heidsieck. That’s the one that does very well in the USA. It’s a bit sweet, especially for those yanks who can’t get off candy and get fat. This is the house that’s in all the supermarkets and often on promo. It’s the house that used to advertise on the back of London buses, with a damsel in a tight dress and a shapely bum as big as, well…the back of a London bus. This is fizz for those who think finesse is a sand bar in Devon. It’s lovely.
Sound of gong wielded by muscle man. But that was then. The truth is that Regis Camus and his winemaking team at P& C Heidsieck have been upping the quality anti of Piper for some time now and I suggest you call it in and look again. Obviously, and especially if you are talking the vintage super luxe thing they called Rare, Piper was not always dull. But Cécile Bonnefond’s arrival a few years ago from Veuve Clicquot and a change of owner, have done this house a big favour. Instead of Piper always being on the card at hick race meetings no one knew about, while Charles Heidsieck, the classy one, was always at Longchamps, now they are more often neck and neck. OK, let’s just say Piper has crept up the inside rail.
But to some extent, it’s all by the by. I’ve always been dawdling in the back room with this rosé. When you are helpless, the views of experts don’t matter. It’s just strictly between me and Rosé Sauvage.
Why? It’s so dark and dusky; gets you thinking, ha, saignée. But it’s not. It’s about 75% ripe raspberry Pinot Noir and the rest Meunier, I think (see, I’m supposed to know but don’t even care really). But it gets a ginormous fraction of added Ambonnay red wine poured into its lovely body, about 20% at least. That might be the rosé with the mostest added red blend wine I know of. But who really cares.. I say it again. There’s a lick of tannin, you know, that pull of rough on the end of a kiss, just inside the cheek. Some people in smart wine books call that ‘rustic’. But who cares, it’s down and gone and I’m up for air and it’s here again. No need to read that book on Mindfulness.
It’s all musky cherry and saffron spice. There’s a whiff of Earl Gray tea, honey, as in you with buttered toast. No worries that here you have to comment on how pale and sophisticated it looks or is bone dry and very complex, because it isn’t. It has about 9gm/L sweetness, the average for big house champagne Brut these days.
But it’s here and in my glass and right now that’s all that matters. I’ve turned off my phone.
Less than four bottles of champagne in 100 are made from a single harvest. This statistic seals Champagne’s fact-pact with Port, where the proper vintage-dated stuff is under 2% of all Port made. And like Port, vintage champagne is only made in exceptional years, when the sun shines (but not burningly too hot!), the grapes are healthy and the all important succulent fresh acidity is substantial and stays in balance. That’s the story, anyway. Some producers regularly seem to think lots of years are great and the wines they make seem rather average. But they know a vintage champagne is always sold for one and a half times the price of non-vintage (NV), at least. And the de luxe bottlings for much more. But there are always pleasant surprises even in weaker years.
Vintage champagne should give more than the quality of the producer’s NV. Its grapes should be ruthlessly selected as the best to be had from the best sites available to a producer. It’s about selection, selection, selection. Vintage champagnes should show more intensity and concentration than NV. And more complexity. They traditionally are aged on the second lees in bottle far longer than NV and this gives not only the tell-take superior champagne baking and biscuit ‘autolytic’ notes, but a silky mousse texture and a longer lingering finish in the mouth. Finally, while the champagne will reflect the specific conditions of that year it will also reveal the winemaking signature of the producer, and sometimes even the tastes associated with the vineyards the grapes have come from. I remember Richard Geoffroy, Chef de Cave of Dom Perignon saying once that they make “the vintage within the envelope of Dom Pérignon” but above all “repetition is the enemy.” Not all vintage ‘x’ champagnes are alike, thank goodness, just as the vintage wines of any region show the different vineyards and predelictions of their makers. In the end, the specific year has to shine through the prism of human intent.
Here are my verdicts on a recent chance to taste a big range of vintages you can buy pretty easily. Of course, this is a selection from what was in the tasting, not everything that’s out there. But it does include all the standouts. I had tasted a good number of these before; the value in the exercise was to judge them side by side. The order goes from oldest to youngest on show. The star ratings are:
Very dull * Fair if unexciting ** Good to Excellent *** Outstanding **** Speechless *****
Alfred Gratien Millesime 2000 Developed but fresh; real yeasty bite and some power. Not as soft and soppy as some 2000s now, by any means. ***
Besserat de Bellefon Cuvée des Moines Brut 2002 Served too warm and slightly foaming texture. Firm and forcing very 2002 character but a tiring note of toffee oxidation creeping in now.**
Billecart-Salmon Cuvée Nicolas Francois 2002 Very fresh, some development but tip top. Winey, mango and melon and a clean, chalky cut to the texture. Very good and no hurry to drink. ***
De Castelnau Blanc de Blancs 2003 Open and fruity and enticing. No great mineral cut or intensity. Comfortable, fleshy, polite champagne. **
Bruno Paillard Brut Blanc de Blancs 2004 Complex; clean and neat and very 2004. Compact but magnifies. Quite biscuit but biting after the finesse of the nose and entry. Very good indeed. ***
Gosset Grand Millésime 2004 Lovely whisky and winey aldehyde notes. Exotic and spicy wood influence. Texturally alluring fine bubbles, well set. So impressive and a big future. ****
Joseph Perrier Cuvée Royale 2004 Biscuit and nutty and firm and a touch of oxidation toffee starting but not problematic. But would drink up soon. A rather predictable toasty style here. **
Pol Roger Brut 2004 A slightly pooey reduction smell. Rich style and a note of burnt toffee that is not very attractive to me and I’ve noticed on this wine often. Firm and very pinot, and muscular but not at all cloying. More of a burly fast winger than an old style outside half. ***
Ruinart Dom Ruinart 2004 Seriously smoky toasty style. Real bite and cut but perhaps too young for the Chardonnay finesse to show through much. Archetypal and admirable but not genius or terribly striking. But impressive of its type ***
Bollinger La Grande Année 2005 Served too warm. Quite oxidative style but oh so detailed and really complex magnetism. Butter and nuts but a really fine texture stops them being plonky. Mango and quince and a sort of mashed yellow compote. A second, colder bottle showed it rich but with a more impressive balance. Such assurance, a real ‘f-off’ wine. Two people asked my if I thought it was quite right. It definitely is! This is very Bollinger and distinctive. ****
Charles Heidsieck Brut Millésime 2005 Yellow, quite developed and a little touch of toffee. Great depth and length and biscuit complexity. Savoury, meat stew but mango too! Such mellifluous texture too. Must be a contender for a house’s champagne of 2005, a vintage which can so often be a fail with me. ****
Chassenay d’Arce 2005 Respectable, simple, fruity and fresh. I am not bowled over by this coop’s wines. *
Paul Déthune Grand Cru Ambonnay Brut 2005. A very good RM domaine. Wow! Really big structure; fresh high tensile stuff. Very pinot and assertive but complex and stately too. Wood-influenced with a whisky note. Full throttle but a good deal of finesse from its terrific balance. ****
Lanson Gold Label Brut 2005 A bright and lively cut, but complex behind. Linear and fresh and rather appealing. ***
Paul Goerg 2005 The Vertus coop that with a bit of legal jiggery pokery manages to put NM on the label. A touch ashy and nondescript in a light Blanc de Blanc style. But this is nothing distinctive or showing finesse. *
Pommery Grand Cru 2005 An earthy note of reduction on the nose. But fine on the palate. A nice dry impression when so many Pommery wines seem over-sweet. A fresh and biscuit finish. Rather successful wine. ***
Devaux ‘D Millésime’ Brut 2006 Attractive saline whiff on the nose, but then quite soft and open and very 2006. Not exciting.**
Duval-Leroy Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Brut 2006 Fresh and lemony and jasmine boiled rice, but quite soft and open and easy drinking . This will surely be a very winsome popular wine. Charm but a little empty in the end. **
GH Mumm Le Millésime 2006 Has really fresh stuffing for 2006. Tense and some early biscuit, lively and exciting. Quite classic and impressive in a vintage which is so often too well-girthed, ripe and comfortable to really make us take notice. ***
Jacquart Blanc de Blancs 2006 Lively, fresh and lemony but lacks middle interest. A straw note and accurate Blanc de Blanc proportion. But not compelling and a bit short. **
Laurent-Perrier 2006 In the context of round and forward 2006, one of the freshest. Quite gorgeous, bright and lovely. Lemon posset, red berries and some mineral cold stones. Not forcing but good. ***
Henri Mandois Millésime Brut 2006 Slightly soft and sweet and fruity. An OK popular style and very open; well made and still fresh on the nose and attack. ***
Moët & Chandon Grand Vintage 2006 Note of reduction. Then very lively and smokey biscuit and a rather stately assertive balance for 2006. Persistent and well turned out. ***
Nicolas Feuillatte Blanc de Blancs 2006 What a nice surprise from this giant coop! A complex whisky note and still lively and fresh. A touch confected maybe but the white chocolate and mango note is luxurious and the whole thing is a neat package. ***
Thiénot 2006 Again, a real surprise. Very fresh and still firm. Not massively complex but in the mango and biscuit spectrum and its feet lightly but surely on the ground. ***
André Jacquart Le Mesnil Grand Cru 2007 Very marked by new oak but the oak also gives the wine vibrant clarity of texture, showing precision and finesse. Real intensity from ths Vertus RM I have long admired and terrific balanced detail Positively hums, even in this young and rather slight 2007 model. Classy wine. ****
Ayala Blanc de Blancs 2007 Lean and lively and a steely cut with lemony fruit. But the texture is finely done and quite long. This slimline 2007 vintage is such a contrast to 2006 and 2005. ***
De Castellane 2007 Quite easy drinking, simple and biscuit. **
De Saint Gall Premier Cru 2007 A round and easy pastry pie style from the large Union Avize coop. **
Delamotte Blanc de Blancs 2007 Served too warm, But a baby with a lovely balance. Steely for now rather than the usual nougat ice-cream style of Delamotte. ***
Deutz 2007 Tight and too wound up yet. This will unfurl but will pay to keep two years at least. Elegant, but asleep. ***
Le Mesnil Millésime Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru 2007 Bright start with tight structure but then a soft toffeed oxidative note I often notice in this coop’s wines. Fades away.**
Brice Bouzy Grand Cru 2008 Rather sweet seeming, especially after the spare flesh of the 2007s. Bright and breezy, should we call it a ‘Bricey’ style? From my first visit here 10 years ago, I’ve never ‘got’ these wines, finding them confected often with odd pear-drop and sweet shop notes, and unconvincing. Not sure if this bottle did not have a basic fault, too. *
Drappier Millésime Exception 2008 Still unyielding and needs to unwind. Ripe but still all locked up in its steely cage. This will proceed down the runway and the I think open out its wings beautifully in about three years. ***
Louis Roederer Brut 2008 So steely and a baby. Citrus and penetrating and jangling with energy. But shows hints of chocolate and bread behind. Seems quite complex now and I wished there was time to let it open in the glass. This is a great vintage. ****
Philipponnat Blanc de Noirs 2008 Chewy and quite a biscuit style. Very accessible fruit, ripe but not very incisive. A bit unformed and diffuse, probably too early. Would love to see this in 2-3 years. ***