Note: What follows is my interview with Benoît Gouez, Chef de Caves, Moët et Chandon, on September 11th this year. In a sense, he has the most powerful wine job in Champagne.
I was exclusively invited to the reception lab at Moët with the harvest 2015 in full swing, the only journalist this year to visit Moët’s ‘mission control’. Imagine a vast room of lab benches and analytical hardware, sample bottles, pipettes, logbooks and laptops, humming with the quiet work of a small army of interns, oenology student ‘stagiaires’ in high viz jackets and white coats, given a dream placement for their future student CVs. The article is a verbatim recording of the tour with Benoît speaking. All I have removed are my interruptions to ask questions.
A little context. Moët is the biggest vineyard owner in Champagne. Even so, the 30million-odd bottles it makes in its Champagne wineries, along with those of Champagne Ruinart too, separate but in the LVMH group, requires a gargantuan supply of bought-in grapes on top. At harvest time, thousands of hectolitres of pressed juice are arriving at Moët in a constant stream of tankers, making parking tricky in the streets around. When a truck arrives, samples of its load are rushed into this laboratory for the quality analysis explained by Benoît here. The lab’ has just 15 minutes to makes the tests and decide on exactly which cuve (and there are over 300) it will be fermented in and how it will be done.
Some readers might raise their eyebrows at the industrial scale of what is happening here. But it might be worth remembering that most of this is done too by the most diligent of small domaine champagne producers with their own juice before it is champagne. What is different is the sheer contrast of scale and some of the high tech kit employed. But it also gave me some inkling of how it is, with such a quality regime as this, that most champagne critics will agree the quality of Moët ‘s wines, especially its Brut Impérial NV, has hugely improved in the last 10 years. A lot of that effort is down to Benoît Gouez.
My thanks to Moët et Chandon and Benoît for taking time in the busiest week of the year. The picture shows an intern checking potential alcohol with a refractometer. And the pic at the end is Mr Gouez at work, who for wine journalists, is usually seen in the world’s capital cities in a suit and tie. Here’s what he told me:
“…..So here we are in ‘maturity control’. In our vineyards we schedule our picking two days in advance, no more than that, and every day we discuss the evolution of the analyses to adjust our picking order and pick every single plot at its optimum. After picking, pressing and about 12 hours of “débourbage”, drivers go into the press houses, load the juice from the press to the tanker and take sample bottles labelled with bar codes and complete identification of the juice they are carrying. On arrival here the bottles come in and we do not empty the trucks into fermentation tanks until every single sample has been tasted and analysed and allocated to a tank. We check everything into the system and it is properly recorded.
We do not fill our tanks just based on variety and the village but also based on the level of maturity, plus whether there is rot or not, and a few other parameters. For instance this Meunier is from Chezy and is taille. This sample is quite brown already, oxidised, when this one is not. The samples are not all the same. This one is cuvee where the SO2 sulfiting has not been done properly. This one the sulfiting has been done properly and this one may have some gluconic acid (a by-product of rot). So even if they are both Meunier from the same origin and press house we do not necessarily mix them in the same tank because in this instance, one of them has already lost some of its potential.
We buy grapes that are pressed in local presses; we don’t want grapes to travel. They are pressed locally and we transport juice. All these will be fermented here in the Epernay winery or in our new plant in Montaigu on the Cotes des Blancs. So we have two sites – in this site we vinify about two thirds of the volume and in Montaigu about one third. And after that some wines come back here for bottling. So what’s important for us is not to mix juices that may be just Chardonnay from Cramant but the different juices may be in different states of quality and need to be separated. So we make a separation based on quality analyses and we will end up with various vins clairs from each village we buy from.
Most importantly when I taste here in this lab, it is to identify if there are some off flavours, mainly due to rot. So far this year it is clean, we do not have off flavours, it is fine. Then we do alcohol potential and over there SO2, gluconic acid that is due to botrytis, glycerol, plus nitrogen, ammonia, total nitrogen automatically and we have two Hitachi analysers – €50,000 each by the way! – that can analyse 600 parameters per hour, totally automated, very efficient, and the results go directly into the computer. And over there we do total acidity and pH, plus turbidity. Based on all the analyses they will decide a quality rating A, B, C, D, or E and gradations.
We do 9 parameters of analysis in total: Tasting, turbidity, alcohol potential, total acidity, pH, gluconic acid, glycerol, SO2, nitrogen, and based on those parameters we will have 5 levels of quality per variety and village and once we say that juice is a certain quality it goes over there and they decide where each juice will be fermented in the winery. At the present moment we are allocating 12 different qualities to tanks.
This year in Epernay we will vinify about 2000 ha in total, about half our own and half from contracted grapes, and another 1000ha in Montaigu. We will have about 500-600 samples per day to taste and analyse. It is all day long. We have to make our decisions in 15 minutes to get all the analyses done before we decide where the trucks will decant the juice, into which tanks so there has to be fast rotation of the tankers’ arrival, analysis and decision and movement of what they bring into our tanks for vinification. The trucks need to turn round fast.
So far, it is full-on, in the middle of harvesting. I have 50,000 hectolitres already in tanks and on my computer here I can see the evolution of the quality parameters over the last week in the form of aggregated and continuous analyses of all the juices that were arriving. As you can see, the harvest features are quite stable, day after day, this means that we have started at the right dates and that we pick the different villages and plots in the right order. We are picking at 10.2 alcohol potential and for total acidity we started quite low at 5.5 but it has gone up and today we pick at 7.0, which makes a nice balance. This is because we have started in the Aube and Sezanne where the musts had lower acidity and today we are looking more at the Chardonnay from the Cotes des Blancs and the Pinot Noir grands crus. And the other parameter which is important for us is glycerol as an index of ripeness and I see the level is increasing which is a sign that we have mature grapes but we can tell too if we have under ripeness or over the optimum.
Another important indicator is gluconic acid which a marker for botrytis (rot) and the evolution over the week is a very low average of 40 this year. In general it is very clean. And I am also studying the evolution of the levels of total sulphur on the juices arriving – it remains at a high level which means there is not so much combination or consumption of the sulphur additions from the press. If we go below 20 on this measure there is a risk of oxidation which we want to avoid but, on the whole, we can see we are receiving correctly-sulfited juice.
Nitrogen is another important parameter which is on average, nice. The global picture shows us Chardonnays from the Cotes des Blancs were at 10.5 potential with a total nitrogen of 70: quite low and here the PN from the grands crus which is also in at about 10.5. Nitrogen is very important to be sure the fermentation will end and go fast and not too many reductive off flavours. One of the issues this year is that as we have low nitrogen so maybe we should keep some turbidity in the juices so we also keep some fine burbs in the juice which are a source of nitrogen. So to raise the nitrogen in juices we have lowered the dose of enzymes and shorten the time of debourbage to limit clarification and keep a higher level of turbidity.
The reason nitrogen might be a concern as slightly too low this year, is because of the relative drought in the Spring. There was a very low mineralisation due to the dryness in the vineyard, especially in the Chardonnay, that is low rainfall does not break down the organic matter in the soil enough (mineralisation) to give the roots and then grapes the best levels of nitrogen nutrition. This nitrogen is important for future yeast multiplication so we need to ensure sometimes that nitrogen is boosted to adequate levels.
In fact the effect of the heat in the summer has been more on the total acidity and especially on the malic acid –quite low levels of malic acid which has been burnt off in the increased vine respiration due to the heat. Meunier maturity is about 9,8 potential which is fine for us; we like Meunier at about 9.5 -10.0. Meunier is not super interesting when it is too fat. We like our Meunier to be a little crisp, not flat and heavy. The one thing we look at in Meunier is gluconic as Meunier is more prone to rot than the other varieties and here you can see that the GA was going up and yesterday down but too early to see all the results today. We pay attention to that and in the vineyards this morning and yesterday we saw some Meunier that was overripe to taste and if you break open the bunches you can see some rot inside. So we are trying to compensate for that by asking them to pick cool and early, not to wait for higher sugar.
The value of seeing the moving picture of the harvest each day in the evolving aggregate figures, is that we can react and send back instructions to the press houses and growers to pick earlier or use more judicious sulfiting. In the first days of the harvest we had only 40% of what was coming in at level A, the best quality, and the main reason for that was low sulphur dioxide and since we have changed our doses quality is improving. This overall quality regime and its reactive function in the process means that we cannot just monitor quality through the harvest but actually raise the quality of the juices we are receiving. This is the regime and mindset of fine craftsmanship that I have worked on technically and in the management of our team and our growers for ten years. The winemaking team meets every night and morning and we make simulations of the quality levels we can aim for or need to adjust and we make these changes to get the best quality we can through the harvest.
By the appellation law, once the grapes we have bought are on the press it is our property. We cannot refuse the juices we have contracted, but if there is something we really do not like, I get on my phone and send a picture of the sample and its identity label – the smartphone is now very useful and vital! – I send that to the press house and say this is not acceptable and then ask them to pull up their socks. We discuss and really, the material they then begin to send is usually better.
Finally we can look at the average levels of all these parameters over the last 10 years, so we can see exactly where we sit with this vintage in 2015. For instance I am looking at nitrogen now and we are low, very, very low. In terms of turbidity we are not that low and for SO2, not that low. Alcohol potential is about the same level as 2012. Total acidity is rather lower. But pH is high but we have known it higher, but it is better than TA. We are pretty good on pH, better than TA. It is a more interesting and useful parameter – we have been getting about pH3.09. Nothing like as high as 2003. This vintage is not 2003. So far we have not found a prior vintage to directly compare with it –it is dry like 76 but at a different time of the year. It is not 47, 59 or 76 or 2003.
It is something new. And we will wait to see the result!
Later, from London, I asked Benoit if the substantial rain in the second week of harvest had harmed the quality assessment. His reply:
Luckily the rain hasn’t affected the quality. Gluconic acid has remained very low, even with Meunier. The average alcohol potential per day has just been reduced by 0°2. The final average alcohol potential is 10°2 for a TA of 6.8 H2SO4/vol.
As we sat to begin a remarkable champagne lunch at London’s 2*Michelin Le Gavroche last week, a goody bag for each guest was already on the table. Inside was a jar of honey from Champagne Lenoble’s ‘Le Vallon’ vineyard in Chouilly. At least something with tea and toast if I feel peckish later I thought. And then I realised how apposite the gift was. This kind of sweetener (!), the door of friendship ‘a jar’ (oh no!), is all part of event PR. Of course, the wines on show are the eventual pudding proof, not the honey. But event design is messaging. And the honey was a clear statement by Champagne Lenoble.
Honey is mythically the gift of gods; to Egyptians, bees sprung from the tears of Ra wept onto desert sand. Greeks anointed babies’ lips with honey believing it imparted eloquence. Bees presage truth, diligence and rebirth. Bees suggest bucolic abundance and I’m reminded of the poet Yeats escaping to Innisfree, where he could be ‘all alone in the bee-loud glade’. Ironically, the grapevine is hermaphrodite and self-pollinated; they do not need bees. But nearly all wild plantlife does and 30% of crops would disappear without them. Yet pesticides and loss of habitat are reducing bee populations. But I believe Lenoble is saying something more, about champagne. Right now, the highest quality champagnes are being made by changing vineyard practices. And this is where Lenoble keep their bees, in the vineyard.
Lenoble is down with the bees because Champagne’s old ways of industrial farming, using herbicide and pesticide, keep roots shallow and ripening uneven. It can make short and poor-textured wines. Ploughing and green grass in the rows forces roots to go deeper, and stay in touch with the chalk water table supply to keep ripening even. And the intensity and fine texture of such champagnes made this way, owes much to these new methods. Great champagne is strictly with the bees. For some time, Lenoble’s champagnes have been made this way and it shows in the vibrant flavours and elegance of texture. It has published a clear Charter of Quality work in its vineyards and in 2012 was given certification HVE (Haute Valeur Environnementale), one of the early pioneers. To all intents and purposes Lenoble is organic and also practices many of the disciplines of biodynamism.
The lovely sheeny texture of these Blanc de Blancs wines showed brilliantly with Le Gavroche’s food. The Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Chouilly NV with its butter and spice nose, smoky-menthol palate and pillowy weight created a wonderful ‘third taste’ paired with a lemony Sea Bass ceviche and tropical fruits. The Grand Cru Chouilly 2008, a reined-in powerhouse of a baby wine in a great year, with great persistence, was a good foil for the powerful marine and beach-griddle flavours of Roast Turbot with a meat jus and tomato reduction. And the Gentilhomme 2009 with 100% oak élévage showed excellent tense balance with this dish too. Norfolk Black Chicken in a buttery light gravy reduction with 5 Spice was a warming Autumn dish with very savoury pressing flavours. The intensity and dark complexity of older vintage champagne matches such a dish seemingly effortlessly. But the best way to do this is to have champagne perfectly cellared and showing no toffee-oxidative development and no overblown struck match or crude biscuity autolytic notes. Like a rabbit out of a hat, Lenoble produced their Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Chouilly Collection Rare 1979. It took on the rich white meat and sauce and simply amplified the note of pressing meatiness. Perfect.
Three observations. To be sat as a dozen guests together in the centre of the busy main room of Le Gavroche made the occasion what it properly was – a great social lunch depending on lovely food and champagne in synergy. Champagne can suit many moods, but if it is great, if the company is more than a few and the food aims as high as the wine, there will always be a buzz. Second, none of these champagnes with food was dosed at more than 5g/L and three of them only at 3g/L, technically Brut Nature, very dry. This was the first building block in the winning synthesis of flavour these champagnes made possible. By ‘synthesis’ I mean the new flavour made by the union of the different wine with each dish. It’s high time sommeliers and champagne lovers stopped paying lip service to champagne with food while invariably serving higher-dosaged champagnes only as aperitifs. It’s completely possible and very ‘cool’ to serve champagnes with each course. And on the whole, the drier champagnes work best.
Thirdly and finally, Anne and Antoine Malassagne, Lenoble’s owners, made very convivial and informative hosts in London, along with Christian Holthausen now working with them on ‘Exterior Relations’ but in practice, a genius for the interiority of warm relationships.
35 rue Paul Douce
Champagne specialist Tim Hall, Director, Scala School of Wine, UK Champagne Ambassador 2013-14, files this report of an exclusive interview on 10 September with Louis Roederer’s celebrated winemaker about, inter alia, the small but pretty perfectly-formed 2015 vintage. He took this picture of Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon opening a bottle of Cristal 2007 for them to share after the interview.
This article first appeared in www.Jancisrobinson.com, on 22nd September 2015.
Champagne Louis Roederer needs little introduction to wine lovers, or so I thought. But I find few realise how different Roederer is from other leading champagne houses, even though they know its range is topped by the coveted Cristal. Roederer owns 240 ha of vineyards, some 70% of its needs, and its estate includes a proud raft of mid-slope land set in the top grands crusvillages. Most houses, in contrast, with little land of their own, grow few grapes and have to buy them in from growers.
Where Roederer treads an even more distinctive path is in the viticulture on its estate which rejects the use of both herbicide and pesticide. The vineyard is 98% ploughed, and 26 ha of that by horses. A full 75 ha is now managed biodynamically, making Roederer the most significant exponent of ‘biodynamie‘ in all Champagne. Finally, all the wines in its range are made as single vintages bar one: the Brut Premier NV. This relatively radical approach has been introduced and is driven by Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon who joined Roederer in 1989, spent 10 years with Michel Pansu, his predecessor and was appointed chef de caves in 1999. He is very much supported by the Rouzaud family who own Louis Roederer as well as a expanding portfolio of noted international wine estates, including Ch Pichon Lalande in Pauillac and Ramos Pinto ports.
How do you assess vintage 2015?
I think it is quite a unique vintage because of the dryness we had and the very sunny weather; it’s almost an organic vintage. We had very little downy mildew and almost no oidium, some on Chardonnay, but with sulphur we did very well. Ripeness was good and I’m very happy. I think this was a rare ‘chalky’ year. It worked very well because there was a big store of water in the chalk. I’m very happy because we have been converting all our vineyards to being ploughed since 1996 and almost all of them, 98%, are now cultivated in this way. Fifteen years ago it was not quite obvious what the effect or value of this was. It was a bit strange. Some people thought it was just about stopping chemicals. But this year we could see that the vineyards worked by ploughing were much less stressed [by the drought] in June and July than they had been when they were not ploughed in the past. Because the main roots go deeper when you remove the superficial surface roots and the surface water in winter percolates when you break the soil and adds to the store in the chalk. So the chalk kept slowly giving water, the vines were not stressed, and we had perfect, even ripeness of the bunches.
The chalk also had a good store of water, a hydraulic reservoir from the winter and spring rains?
Exactly, it did. The chalk kept giving water which meant things went well, we protected the roots from the dryness and it did not stress and we have perfect phenolic ripeness today, which you don’t always have on vineyards that are not ploughed, except on very special terroirs. The chalk reservoir was full from winter and spring rain but at the same time we had a superficial dryness so it was not a deep drought. This is a year that responds to the growers who promote deep roots. I think it’s unique, this combination of a very dry year and good water table levels, but we have to wait because when I say the phenolics are good they were not that good 10 days ago. The sugar was already there but not the phenolics. And all Champagne was very smart. The decisions on the dates about picking were good but the phenolic ripening had slowed. We always have that when we have a dry year: we have a disconnect between sugar or technical ripeness and the phenolic ripeness of the skins. The ripening of the skins slows in the hot weather so you have to push the sugar high to get the phenolic ripeness. You have to wait.
I noticed some uneven ripening on bunches of Pinot Noir and Meunier.
Exactly, that’s what I call non-phenolic ripeness. You can see some Pinot Noir is still rose-skinned and you should not be happy with that. But on the whole the vast majority of the harvest has now caught up, with the skins ripe. So it’s a year of phenolic ripeness, it’s a year of no dilution, with small berries. The CIVC has officially said, statistically, this is the driest and the warmest year ever – lowest rainfall from budburst to picking and the highest average daytime temperatures. We did not have the very marked heat of 2003 but April was warm, May not that warm but July and August pretty warm and dry. In places a little grilling of bunches on the sunny side was more from the effects of heat on sulphur-sprayed grapes. There were some oidium issues so a lot of sulphur spraying has been done and if you spray a little but late in the day, say mid-morning or when the peak of temperature is there, you get burning of some berries; the warmth on the sulphur reacts and you can get burn on the bunches. More people become organic maybe, but organics fights against oidium with sulphur, so when they move to organic this is a bit of a problem.
But having said that, with all my figures in, we started harvesting slowly with Meunier on Friday [4 September] but we do not have much of that. We started the first Pinot on Sunday but really got going on Monday in A? and Cumières, with an average alcohol level at the A? press house of 11.1 but overall now the average is 11.7. That is high; we have pushed hard as I said. There was no botrytis. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are really fine, but the Meunier is not always at its best in a dry year. The bunches of the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are smaller because of the dryness. The yield will be down (but not the Meunier which is as big as usual, with packed bunches). There is a little ‘hen and chickens’ (millerandange) on some Chardonnay and Pinot Noir but that leaves some room for the berries to grow, but there was not so much room and aeration with Meunier and so there have been some problems with mould.
You said on Twitter that this was a ‘continental’ vintage.
Yes, the climate of Champagne is oceanic with a continental influence. I always say Champagne has three secrets. First it is made in low northern temperature. Second is the chalk but third is the modelling of the weather by the ocean and the continent. In the summer you have some heat from the continent but you also have some storms and rain coming through in the winter and in some summers which irrigates the soil, keeps moisture and mineralisation in the soil and is held in the chalk. This keeps the vines growing, slowly, but they keep growing, they do not shut down in the heat of summer – which explains why we have such a good acidity. The tartaric and especially malic acidity does not collapse because respiration does not get that desperate. That is my way to classify the vintage with this oceanic – continental continuum. We have a distinctly ‘continental’ 2015 because of the long dry period. So every year we have a dry summer in Champagne we make beautiful Pinot Noir. I’m sure we will this year. And we will also make great Chardonnay but more powerful, richer Chardonnay than in an ‘oceanic’ year when we get more elegance. So it will be a Pinot Noir and Chardonnay year.
A good way to see this issue is in the Cristal estate which is planted 60% Pinot, 40% Chardonnay and my blend is not always made with all the parcelles. I can see the parcelles work in different ways in a cooler ‘oceanic’ year than in a ‘continental’ year, so my blend will become this year perhaps more Pinot Noir, perhaps 60-65% Pinot. Pinot will be the driving force of the vintage of the Cristal, more than average, while in an ‘oceanic’ year it will shift to Chardonnay to stress the elegance of the year and the Pinot will be a little less ripe, slightly vegetal. As I do not do malolactic fermentation, there is no correction of acidity and so my only chance is to work in the vineyards to get the Pinot as ripe as I can in those cases. That’s why I am so happy in this year 2015 because my job has been done properly and it will be easy to make the wine.
So Meunier is left somewhere in the middle on this continuum model. For a house like Louis Roederer which has a lot of grand cru vineyard on chalky soils, I see Meunier a bit like Merlot in the Médoc where you need Merlot to bring some light and a smile to the Cabernet Sauvignon, which can be a little bit too austere. It brings a little bit of sunshine into a monotone blend. And I think it is the same with Meunier between Pinot and Chardonnay: Meunier brings a smile, especially if it comes from the Marne Valley. If it comes from the Petite Montagne it brings crispiness like a preserved fruit – something sappy, spicy without much weight but with good fruit.
I’ve heard some people say they are worried the acidity may be relatively low in 2015. Are you concerned?
No, I’m not concerned at all. I think this is a completely wrong vision of champagne, which is quite recent and comes from some oenologists. We have measured the acidity but it does not mean we have a measure of freshness. Acidity is not freshness. We do look for freshness in a wine, of course, but an acidic wine is acidic. I really strongly believe that the source of freshness in champagne is in the dry extract. If you have only acidity and no dry extract you go quickly to oxidation.
Acidity is a wrong vision of champagne. If you look at the history and I draw my conclusion from this history, look at 1928, 1947, 1955, 1959 and 1976. All those were low-acid years but they aged beautifully with a lot of freshness. The key is dry extract measured as phenolic ripeness, total phenolics; it’s all about phenolics. I don’t say you have to have full phenolic ripeness, but you have to reach a point where you can judge visually first, second by tasting the pips and skins and aromatics. When the pips start to be brown and start to be crispy but not bitter, without vegetal flavours, then you are there! Of course you look at the numbers you get from monitoring trials but you have to check and taste everything. In some years in Champagne, phenolic ripeness can come before the sugar is ready!
So do we need better words to use in tasting champagne? You can’t make a note that says ‘great dry extract’.
It is texture. Obviously you are looking for finesse and creaminess in the tactile mousse but the dry extract transposes in a finished champagne, in the drink itself, into the sensation of a persistent density and concentration, a sense of weight without being heavy or dull. Lively and fresh at the same time and very precise and focused. When I do my blending sessions I concentrate only on texture to begin with and then I search to stretch the sensation of texture as long as I can across the palate. It can be boring as well if it is just round and very concentrated, so I have to stretch it in my blend, to make it persistent and to increase in intensity in the mouth. The texture has to magnify, to increase. This is what I am looking for, not just flavours or power but density and a lightness. It’s an oxymoron, but the holy grail is this idea of ‘weightless density’. And this comes back to those who may complain, perhaps in this vintage, about ‘low acidity’. I say, well, you might spend your time doing malolactic fermentation, but you are decreasing acidity that way. We have a perfect opportunity to reduce or stop malolactic in this vintage.
To come back to acidity worries, I look for three things. Malic acid is the most important; I know very precisely where I have to be with the malic acid so as not to be on the green side. The second is pH and the third, very important, is nitrogen in the must. I look at it because it is my way to ensure that the yeast does a proper development. You have 40-70 million of these little organisms per millilitre and to do their job they do not have their complete food, nutrition. This can undo your quality. You need a low level of nitrogen at the beginning to encourage yeasts, with a little stress, to get them to strive and suffer to get them fit like an athlete at the beginning, and with a low temperature too. And then near the end of the race they need some fuel on board to give them the stamina to finish the fermentation.
One last question. Do vintages matter much in Champagne, because most of it does not have a vintage, it is blended, and it is years before we can drink the wines, even more so for those that are vintage champagnes?
I think this is one of the things we need to work on to improve understanding of champagne. My job, nine months out of 12, is to make vintage wines. In the vineyard, I fight against the climate or with the climate, to make the year’s best grapes I can. At the first fermentation we separate everything to make sure the identity of every terroir is preserved. So I spend my time doing ‘vintage’ single-vineyard wines. Without this devotion to terroir it’s impossible to understand how to blend those wines into the Brut Premier. Our Brut Premier NV is the only non-vintage (or ‘multi-vintage’) that we make. All our range apart from that is completely vintage wine. But it is the most complex of all our wines to make. I like very much the image of the painter’s palette; you are presented with some basic colours but you have to mix colours from them in ways that might be slightly different each year according to the vintage, in order to make something completely different.
One final note from Tim: Since I got back from Champagne, the skies opened in the second week of harvest, ending the dry period which had held since May, bar some showers just prior to harvest. Most growers were already well into their picking and it seems that most of the rains, even where substantial, drained quickly on the parched ground and periods of sun followed. And the rain was moderate, if persistent, for a day, rather than torrential. There was no hail. Last Wednesday Lecaillon sent this email about how this affected Louis Roederer: ‘The rain is not a problem as we have done 80% of harvest and the last 20% are usually a little bit behind in ripeness, therefore more “geared” to face the rainfalls. As far as Roederer is concerned, we finished Aÿ last Monday, today Côte des Blancs and Verzenay tomorrow… ‘
Yesterday, certainly in the UK, most champagne lovers were basking in Saturday afternoon sunshine, planning BBQs with friends or shopping for their holiday departures. Meanwhile an important new step in the prestige of the Champagne region was being considered in Bonn by UNESCO’s World Heritage Site Committee. UNESCO is the United Nations Economic, Social and Cultural Organisation, charged with recognising the common global assets whose historic and cultural importance celebrate humanity’s sustained innovative brilliance. About what we call ‘teatime’ in London, we had a result. Champagne was given World Heritage status. The dossier and award refer to the key Champagne sites as a global heritage ‘Property’ or ‘Asset’ – in French, the ‘Bien’.
I immediately put a bottle of champagne in the freezer (sorry, no time for ice buckets) and we celebrated. A perfect champagne-and-Champagne weekend. This Sunday morning in Champagne itself, a crowd of champagne makers and Champagne’s people will gather in the village of Hautvillers, the spiritual home of champagne where Dom Pérignon plied his trade at the Abbaye d’Hautvillers (see pic), to celebrate too.
The Bonn decision about Champagne’s dossier of application submitted several years ago and analysed by UN officials, historians and cultural experts, was a double first for French wine – the vineyards of Burgundy were similarly recognised on the same day. But just to prove the global span and reach of UNESCO’s communitarian responsibility, the same World Heritage Committee also gave similar status to two sites in Iran — the troglodyte settlements of Maymand and the ancient city of Susa — as well as Singapore’s Botanical Gardens and the Great Burkhan Khaldun Mountain sacred landscape in Mongolia. The legendary Alamo battleground in Texas was also being considered for the distinction at the session.
World Heritage sites are not a new thing in Champagne. There were already four such sites before this decision was made – the Cathedral Nôtre Dame in Reims and the Palais du Tau next door, as well as the glorious Basilique St Rémi and its museum in the same city. But this latest honour focuses on the winemaking heritage and the historical roots of the champagne industry from the symbolic early activity of Dom Pérignon himself to the beginnings of large scale production of proper ‘champagne method’ fizz in the first half of the 19th century. One might carp a little that one of the dossier analyses focuses on the Cave Coop of Hautvillers which was not formed until 1931, but nevertheless, this neatly enfolds the important coop movement into the story.
If such modern references are to be allowed entrance to the ‘heritage ‘, then perhaps a future update might also recognise the contribution of the single estate domaines producers who make 20% of all champagne now (often called ‘grower’ champagne) and also the Côtes des Bar (Aube) vineyards, nowadays source of half the Pinot Noir grown in Champagne and some top producers.
But for now, the citation is awarded for the ‘Vineyards, Houses and Cellars’ of the central region and three representative districts share the spotlight of its analysis: the home of the vital champagne mythology of Hautvillers and the Dom Pérignon story, the remarkable chalk pit cellars preserved and still in use by big houses Ruinart, Taittinger, Charles Heidsieck, Pommery and Veuve Clicquot on the St Niçaise hillside in the east of Reims and finally the central Marne Valley swathe of ancient vineyards from Cumières to Mareuil-sur-Aÿ and encompassing the parade of ‘grandes maisons’ on the Avenue de Champagne in Epernay. You can read the detail of the submission in English version here.
This recognition was well due and reminds champagne lovers that the success of champagne is often lived in the moment of celebration and long may it continue, but in fact depends on a long and winding historical road across three centuries of innovation, dedication, conflict and remarkable unity. It’s brilliant timing that the 300th anniversary of the death of Dom Pérignon comes in just two months time – 15th September 2015.
That’s enough time to plan your champagne party and unlike me, chill the bubbles properly this time. Congratulations Champagne!
Posted in Champagne
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.