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. ***
Bruce Cakebread was in London to show off his Chardonnays. Not exactly a piece of cake. This is premium Napa, with history and form, founded in 1973 in Oakville-Rutherford, a name which makes the winelover’s heart beat quicker. Except that’s principally an American heart which got giddy about Napa Cabernet in the late 80s. And the main action at Cakebread has always been its opulent Cabernet Sauvignons.
In the UK, loving Californian top wine, a world away from the sweet cheapo Zins and ‘red blends’ from Lodi which form an orderly queue on promo discounts in the supermarkets, has never been easy. Even for the serious wine lover, three boulders block the nirvana road. One, you have to spend £30-50 per bottle on good Californian Chardonnay online or in a shop; it costs the same as premier cru burgundy. Second, that’s if you can find a shop. We’re talking upmarket specialists and the London Bermuda triangle of Harrods, Selfridges, Fortnum where prices go north and meet in the middle, but no cheaper, at Hedonism. There’s a tendency to believe, or want to believe, that the bang you get for your buck therefore, is top notch wine by any standards. It does not help that if you look up a specialist commentator’s view on Cakebread, you get damning with faint praise, which might mean pricey disappointment if you then go and buy. “Overall, the wines are good and reliable, but for some reason they have never been in the top tier, although prices are far from cheap.” (Stephen Brook 1999)
But that was 15 years ago, an aeon for a driven proud owner such as Bruce Cakebread who is also one of wine’s great communicators about what he has done and where he still wants to go. These wines have improved hugely and are nowhere near the oaky, oily, acid-added burning stereotypes of ambitious Napa Chardonnay of the past. Phylloxera after the failure of the ARx1 rootstock was the kickstart, allowing replanting at the estate in the mid-nineties with wider spacing and sunlight more scattered through the canopy than before, rather than directly onto the fruit. The concentration of the Chardonnay vines in cooler Carneros where Cakebread hold 67ha, means longer ripening and less potassium take-up, keeping the natural acid structure brighter. An extra press has been added at the winery so potential alcohol can be averaged down at harvest when sun spikes make sugars soar and acid plummets in the grapes. Picking is by night and manual. Oak is Allier light toast. We don’t want ‘the wood to bury the fruit’ he says. And nowadays, only 15-20% of the fermentations go through malolactic, giving brighter more elegant structure.
It shows. A 2003 still showed a floral, peachy nose but little fat or butteriness, still fresh. The bigger 2005 showed exotic fruit and complex light oak, a really winning wine. But the 2006 marked a sea change to a more slimline style and purity of fruit. Decisively this was the year when sugar (Brix) levels at harvest began to drop below 24. Alcohol levels, now a mite over 14%, are no higher, lower if anything, than in the early noughties. The more recent vintages all show greater freshness and purity of lemony yellow fruits, a nerviness absent from their older cousins. The 2012 Napa Valley Chardonnay showed a sappy intensity of yellow fruits, classy oak veneer, but quite integrated and elegant.
Forget the old models of wide-bottomed, portly rich and buttery Chardonnays from California’s recent past. Some may bemoan their passing and I’m sure you will still find them somewhere if you look. But I for one, am more impressed by the decisive, subtle style showing in the wines shown by Cakebread now.
Cakebread wines are available via Corney and Barrow.
Champagne Billecart-Salmon is a very important leading producer, and every champagne enthusiast needs to be familiar with its wine. Within the top echelon it might be termed a ’boutique house’, neither minuscule nor a gargantuan brand. There’s something about Billecart-Salmon which sets it apart as classy, elegant and understated, both the wine itself and the image the house cultivates. The family leadership must enjoy this tangible but insider status, reinforced by its quiet location tucked just off the streets of Mareuil-sur-Ay outside Epernay, and away from the urban HQs of most big houses. The great finesse and delicacy of the house style might be best contrasted, at the level of top houses, with the butch and full-bodied Pol Roger. But in their different ways, the vintage wines of both houses exhibit a stately longevity.
In 2000, leading champagne critic, Sweden’s Richard Juhlin, ran a landmark international blind tasting of the top wines in Stockholm. The jury included the UK’s Serena Sutcliffe MW and Robert Joseph. The two top wines of three days and 150 wines, were the 1959 and 1961 vintages of Billecart-Salmon Cuvée Nicolas François. Nowadays, this house’s champagnes are the exclusive pour in eight of the 13 Michelin starred restaurants of Paris.
The general champagne drinker will rarely meet or not know of Billecart-Salmon, sold as it is, deliberately away from supermarkets and only in specialist outlets, good restaurants and hotels. I sometimes think of it as the house that does not want to be too well-known and no doubt its fans bask in this sense of exclusivity too, and call it ‘Billy’.
The story starts in earnest in 1818, when Nicolas François Billecart, whose family had been vintners in Mareuil-sur-Ay since the 16th century, married Elizabeth Salmon whose Chouilly vineyards were brought into the business.
Although the available information is scant, the commercial success of Billecart was not apparently plain sailing. In 1830 things foundered when vast capital was lost in a failed American sales venture and fragility dogged the house into the later 19th century. There is no mention of the name in André Simon’s (1945) review of champagnes in the UK before 1900. Following this came the least auspicious period for champagne in general: first, the Great War when stocks were stolen by the Germans (as they were in 1940-45 by the Nazis), then US prohibition. The Billecart vineyards were sold off in 1926 followed by the economic crisis of the 1930s.
All the more remarkable that, phoenix-like from the ashes, Billecart now seems in rude health. Today some 2.2 million bottles are produced annually and 15 ha of vineyards owned, seven in Damery, four on the Côte des Blancs in Chouilly, Avize and Le Mesnil and four in Ay and Mareuil-sur-Ay. Additionally 50 ha are rented and 100ha of grapes bought in from long-term contracts where the good relationships with growers allow them to apply strict quality standards. In all, 90% of the fruit comes from within 20km radius of Epernay. Expansion has been rapid since 2004 when a hefty 45% of the value went to vineyard investors Compagnie Financière Frey, but the family retain a remarkable controlling independence. Its seniority in the ranks of champagne is recognised with the appointment of house Director Antoine Roland Billecart-Salmon to the role of Commandeur of the Ordre des Coteaux de Champagne in March 2015.
The Chef de Cave here is François Domi, since 1998 one of the longest serving in Champagne. Surprisingly he speaks no English, shy until into his stride over tasting and explaining what he does in French, but his strategic and winemaking expertise is renowned. Since 2001 he has run one of the most high-tech wineries in Champagne, with varied tank sizes to allow small-plot handling and all the usual modern toys of reductive winemaking. This means great care to protect of the must from oxidative influence at every stage. There is a deliberate policy of picking early to lock in the freshness and elegance of the house style. ‘Double jetting’, a recent and smart champagne technique, sprays a micro jet of wine into the neck to provoke foam and expel oxygen, both at bottling and disgorgement, proven to capture and keep freshness.
Vinification here is very distinct for Champagne, with extended cold settling and low-temperature fermentation. The first 100 litres is discarded at the press and no taille is used. After one settling at about 8C and racking, there is a second for 48 hours at about 3-5C. The point is to produce extremely clear, fine-textured must while avoiding filtration and centrifuging too. Fermentation at 12 to 15 C for about three weeks, is very cold and slow for Champagne in general, to emphasise intense fruit aromas along with the fine texture. Malolactic is stopped for the Brut Réserve NV but generally completed for the higher range wines.
While elegance is there in the Brut NV, there is sheer weight and fruitiness too, to the point of piercing, and there is more to the style of this than lean delicacy and finesse in the young wines. While there is silky texture and an assertive freshness, this is unquestionably a Pinot-dominant house with Meunier a big feature (about 40-45% in the Brut NV) and highly-prized. Domi is at some pains to argue the cold fermentation tactic here is partly to capture the fruity essence of Meunier. The Brut Réserve NV, 60% of the total production, shows weighty primary berry flavours and quite ample mild cream and light toasty generosity and is Meunier dominant – 45PM, 30PN and 30CH. But its charm and guile is to deliver all of that with a firm, elegant texture. Recently, as noted below, a new cuvée Sous Bois has been added to the range, given 4-6 months in oak after a four-week fermentation. Oak is used to a degree is all the higher range wines.
The range is extensive and moves through quite some gears of complexity after the Brut Reserve, Extra Brut NV, Brut Rosé NV (a pale and discreet favourite with many), the Blanc de Blancs NV, Demi-Sec and the newbie Sous Bois NV. These are followed by the vintage Extra-Brut, vintage Blanc de Blancs, the Cuvée Nicolas François vintage wines, (with the Grande Cuvée wines being these but longer on the second lees). There is a vintaged Cuvée Elizabeth Salmon Rosé and finally, the summit, the single vineyard Clos St Hilaire.
The range shows the clever eclectic and versatile character of the house: freshness and limiting of malolactic and all stainless steel for the NV wines, the use of wood, malolactic and much greater complexity and power in the vintage wines. Wood is now used in 7% of all the production, that is in the vintage wines but not the NVs, bar the new Sous Bois. The house is in fact the fourth biggest user of barrels in Champagne, mainly 228L burgundy pièces. I don’t mind the dual mood of the range here, although the image of the house is based on the greater familiarity most people will have with the NV wines, including the high Chardonnay Brut Rosé, a signature hit with fans of pale and racy, just gently-perfumed, rosé champagne.
Clos St Hilaire, behind the main complex, is a .98ha walled parcel sloping gently south south-west; a tapering western flank from the heights of the Philipponnat Clos des Goisses monopole to the east. Planted in 1964 100% with Pinot Noir vines now over 50 years old and cultivated ‘near-biodynamically’, this plot used to make the red wine for the Brut Rosé. With the launch of Cuvée Clo St Hilaire in the 1995 vintage, this wine became the house flagship, albeit made in tiny volume. Training to Cordon de Royat Simple (one cordon), to accommodate the reduced vigour of the old vines. Vigour and yield in this rich clay over chalk vineyard is rigidly controlled by this system, along with grassed alleys and ploughing to drive roots deeper, and a green harvest. This is tender loving care for concentration before volume and yield is a miserly 35hls/ha. The wine is completely barrel-fermented and aged with a long time on lees and very low to zero dosage. Quite possibly Champagne’s top Blanc de Noirs.
The overall style is Pinot dominated but here they coax a texture and minerality from their fruit that is often breathtaking. The wines are often delightful on release but improve markedly with ageing, including the NV wines for one to three years well kept.
The Billecart-Salmon NV Brut Reserve Tasted often: 30PN 40PM 30CH, high Pinot Meunier, is very consistent in style, pale old gold, brioche, lily and smoky apple nose; very taut but with very primary berry flavours to start, then cream, citrus and pear purée fruit, brilliantly supple texture with a slow mousse and notes of mild autolysis and reserve wines behind. Impressive in a lean style, but recent examples seem to be getting more opulent, sweeter even, albeit with an impressive suspended and poised feel. A recent example tasted in Mareuil-sur-Ay was 2011 base, 40% of reserves and 8g/L.
Extra Brut NV In fact zero dosage, usually. 40PM 30CH 20PN and this cuvée released first in 2006. It is the Brut Reserve NV, with very low dosage and aged a year longer – about five years on lees.Tasted in Mareuil-sur-Ay 02/15 (base 09) this was ultra fresh and slimline with a fine texture but needing more time. Extra Brut 2004: Tasted 11/09 Pale, incisive and persists. Lily-citrus but a ripe core and ends on a filip of candy.Bracing with a smile. Extra Brut 2006 : 70PN and 30PM. Recently tasted in London (11/14) and understandably it showed deeper colour and more complex development than the Brut NV. Very chalky, ‘wet cavern’ and graphite aromas, austere and begging for food. Has lasted well. Tastred again in Mareuil-sur-Ay 02/15 3g/L, disgorged 07/14. Quite yellow and honeysuckle nose. Enticing and rounding out. Some 15% in oak.
The Brut Rosé NV is often a favourite amongst enthusiasts as one of the best rosé champagnes, more discreet in a different style than the more popular (and more expensive) Laurent Perrier Rosé. Very dry impression. Made by addition – about 7%. Juhlin believes it’s even better with age.
Tasted 06/06 and often since. In 11/09 I noted: Pale, but a crunchie-bar simplicity to its usual good bite. Slightly syrupy? Wonder what the dosage is. In 02/15, at Mareuil-sur-Ay, this was 40CH, 30PN, 30PM with 7-8% of still red blended from vineyards in Mareuil. Pale copper salmon, very fruity for the paleness and expressive, sur lattes only one year. 9g/L. Relatively simple but I sometimes wonder if the paleness secures its lean and discreet reputation when it is far fruitier in fact.
Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru NV Recently tasted 11/14 in London – pronounced mineral character, linear and very dry and then in Mareuil-sur-Ay: 02/15 A blend of Avize, Cramant, Le Mesnil and Chouilly. This in contrast to the one before: A round and creamy Blanc de Blancs; very persistent, very grand cru. Blanc de Blancs ’98 Tasted 06/06 on my first visit to the house, Mareuil-sur-Ay. Pale, greenish; citrus, honey and mineral. Elegant with compact mousse, not harsh. Some early creamy autolytic notes.
Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru 2004: Tasted London 11/14 and Mareuil-sur-Ay 02/15, 25% in oak, bright but with chocolate and coffee cream notes from the oak. Lean and winey and compact, linear and very 2004. Good. No great hurry. Francois Domi thinks the 06 better than the 04.
Sous Bois NV Tasted 02/15, Mareuil-sur-Ay. 33PM 33PN 33CH, base 08, one third reserves. No malolactic, 5 years on lees 7g/L. Light bâtonnage from time to time. Very expressive light spice and coconut but not overdone oak while evident. Light weight in mouth and elegant.
Cuvée Nicolas Francois ’98 60PN, 40CH. Tasted 06/06 Mareuil-sur-Ay: Mid-deep colour, lovely quince, apple and cream but not blowsy. Quite powerful structure, drinking well but still a little austere.
Cuvée Nicolas François 99. Tasted 11/14 London, and 02/15 Mareuil-sur-Ay. 15% in oak. 5g/L. d/g 01/14, 13 years on lees. Very complete for a recent disgorgement. A real favourite! Lovely round blend of bergamot, lactic notes, coffee and dried peel. Figgy and savoury behind but still very fresh and much to come. Nutritious dough-like character and subtly herbal. Fine wine.
Cuvée Nicolas François ’02 A sweet sugared cashew flash on the first nose, very ripe but refined. 4g/L d/g 12/12. Everything tight and packed in, green lily and nuts. Mareuil Pinot Noir was tremendous in ’02
Cuvée Elizabeth Salmon Rosé ‘98 Tasted 09/06 London. Medium pale coppery colour; great finesse and delicate summer fruits with lingering forest aromas. Quite lovely. Early days
Cuvée Elizabeth Salmon Rosé ’00 Tasted 11/09 London. Pale sunset-amber, slightly tarry burn. Slightly diffuse and rather advanced for its age. Will it go on?
Grande Cuvee ’90 11/07 (At L’Assiette Champenoise, Reims) A longer-aged version of the Cuvée Nicolas Francois. d/g ’98. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay; disgorged ’98. Copper-rose streak. Biscuity, smoky, redcurrants. Quite complex. Fresher than Krug often is on the nose. Richness balanced by lovely acidity; hint of sherry barrel, toffee and pastry. Exquisite.
Clos St Hilaire ’99 Tasted 02/15 at Mareuil-sur-Ay. 100PN. Zero dosage. Francois Domi described this as ‘presque rosé de noirs..’ Deep gold, an obvious great ripeness of fruit, the potential alcohol at harvest was 11.8. Still very fresh but so long and complex, a purity of baked apples and spice. Round and complete but relatively light and certainly not galumphing. A dramatic, joyous wine. Champagne at full gallop and pulling its weight.
40 rue Carnot
Wine and words are tough bedfellows. Barbara Hepworth, asked what a sculpture meant, said ‘If I could put it into words I would have written a book.’ There’s always a deep imprecision about analysing wine but words (unless you are a chemist) is all we’ve got. So no surprise that the more poetic and bathetic attempts to convey the experience and quality of wine in a tasting note, are often the target for a good satirical lashing from the cynical. Doing wine exams in the old days, a friend read some tasting notes and said: It’s all Martian to me. The wine in the photo must be for her.
You may have noticed that the term ‘mineral’ or ‘minerality’, usually applied to certain white wines, is coming in for its fair share of beatings just now. When I wrote this piece over three years ago, the current crescendo was a low hum.
This is a plea really. Literalism, thinking that what we identify in wine’s smells and flavours really has to be there, is nuts. Forget it. When we say mineral, it does not mean we can objectively identify the taste of certain minerals in the wine. That means all the techy argument about whether vine root tips really do suck up (sorry, osmotise) minerals and whether they have a taste even if they do, is by the by. It also means that the deep belief of most French winey people that good wines really do taste of real minerals and this is what ‘terroir’ is, is also toast. Although I am a deep believer in ‘terroir’, I think it’s about something else, but that’s for another day.
But the short of it is that ‘mineral’ is a figure of speech in wine tasting. It’s the metaphor, stupid. It means we imagine this is what a lot of minerals would taste like if they had a taste. It tends to be the opposite of fruity. It tends to fit white wines with high acid, with all the usual northern hemisphere suspects. It is stoniness, but with a crystalline, electrifying sensation. It is always a positive remark. It shows one way the wine sparks the imagination, like great art in all its forms.
The first rule of learning wine-tasting is that it can involve description, but that is not really the important bit. We’ve all read the fruit-salad school, long lists of often obscure fruits and flowers that show just what a nature kid this taster is and how pathetic we poor townies are with just spuds in our market basket. In fact, a good tasting note conveys what seems rapier-like accuracy about the overall structure and impression of the wine. So the important skill we all need to learn is how to identify and then sum up the resultant conjuncture of each component of the wine: texture (acidity, weight, tannin and mousse if they are there) fruit and the mix of specific imagined flavours. We need to learn how these all interact in this specific wine. And then the temporal sequence or development of the wine through the experience: the attack, mid-palate and finish. Someone else’s great note, when you taste the wine and then read the note, is akin to the deep identification we feel when a remark in a novel sparks a feeling we never dreamed anyone else could understand.
Remember there are a large number of ‘convention’ words, mostly depending on extended metaphors, in wine tasting. ‘Minerality’ and ‘mineral’ is only one and not alone. Others are: racy, nervy, four-square, backbone, fat, skeletal, fleshy, sappy, oily, breed and finesse. And there are many, many more.
La Côte des Bar, the Bar-sur-Seine and Bar-sur-Aube combined, sometimes called the ‘Aube’, has renewed importance in Champagne. No serious champagne lover can ignore it with the excuse it’s a bit far from Reims and Epernay. It is. But nowadays half of all Champagne’s Pinot Noir is grown here. But the Côte des Bar is more than Pinot central for the big houses when they come buying grapes. For a start, one of Champagne’s most innovative glories, Champagne Drappier, is here. So too, the important coop network Union Auboise, which helps fill the bottles of Champagne Jacquart and as well, its flagship brand Champagne Devaux. But more eyecatching recently, are a series of single estate small domaine champagnes which have become better known although established, or are rising stars. Champagne Nathalie Falmet is one of the latter. She grew up here, went away to study and now she’s back. Although her first wines appeared only in 2009, she won rapid exports, including to the USA, and is winning a place in the domaine champagne niche. Her estate is a member of the Origines Champagnes group of RMs formed in 2013 who collaborate and first showed their wines together in April 2014 at the Chateau de Pierry.
Mme Falmet has form. After a Paris XI degree in chemistry she qualified as an oenologue (wine scientist) in 1993 and still runs her Bar-sur-Aube consulting laboratory she founded in 1994 before she took over the family estate. Drappier is a client. The estate is tiny (3.2ha, making some 30,000 bottles per annum), mostly in the far flung eastern Côte des Bar hamlet of Rouvres-les-Vignes, with .4ha of it a little distance away the other side of Bar-sur-Aube in Arsonval. Charles de Gaulle is buried just down the road in Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises. The prized vineyard of the estate is a single parcel of senior Pinot Noir and Meunier vines on sharply south-facing Le Val Cornet outside the village, which makes a cuvée of the same name. In all, 2.1ha are planted to Pinot Noir, .5ha is Chardonnay and .6ha Meunier. The viticulture is lutte raisonée, as near to organic as possible, on clay and Kimmeridgian limestone soils. Along with cultivation to encourage soil life, drainage and control weeds, pruning is quite severe to limit yield, especially on lieu-dit Le Val Cornet where it is less than 6,000kg/ha, half Champagne’s norm.
A 2009-built unprepossessing shed houses the winery where a Pera pneumatic press keeps stainless steel tanks company, which in turn look down on a burgeoning stock of oak barriques and an arriviste of an earthenware amphora bought last summer in Florence, Tuscany. The vin clair from this tasted lemony, saline-mineral but pretty. Malolactic proceeds on all the wines. But the style combines ripeness with a very fresh intensity and great length. Production is very thought out. A perpetual solera-type reserve begun in 2009 provides the reserve wines, giving a growing complexity of options to a small producer who does not have the volume to store a high proportion of reserves each harvest. The solera is replenished with about 20% of the assembled Brut NV (currently about 80PN 20CH) each year after 20% has been decanted for reserve wines. The Brut NV is thus based on a single year plus 20% solera reserves, but the Brut Nature NV and other wines are all from one year. The blends spend about two years or slightly more on lees before disgorgement. The single harvest wines cannot have vintage dated labels as they see less than the mandatory three years on lees for vintage champagne. About 20% of production is in oak. The modest level of reserves or none, along with the relatively short time on lees, create a crystalline Pinot fruit style along with subtle oak that seems to add clarity to the texture rather than suppress fruit. Flavours are focused and intense, stemming from the low yields.
Not many champagne producers prune their vines and look down a microscope the same day to analyse a tank of wine. Nathalie Falmet’s enigmatic grin suggests she loves the feel of farming as much as the dispassionate empiricism of wine science. They say people make wines like themselves and it’s not hard to find journalistic comment about Mme Falmet’s ‘elegant’ and ‘feminine’ wines. Believe me, when I met her I saw resolve, ambition and a burning curiosity, which says far more. Expect this estate to impress in the future at the cutting edge of champagne styles.
Brut NV Tasted Rouvres-les-Vignes 02/15. 50PN 30CH+ 20% reserves. Base 2011. 7g/L Almost exotic fruit but very taut on the palate, well-textured mousse and surprisingly long.
Brut Nature NV 100PN, single year. Base 2011. The first time I tasted this (Pierry 04/14) there was an odd fruit pastel note but since then it was delicious at Rouvres-les-Vignes 02/15 and since. It has about 6 months extra ageing on lees – 30 months. A pink tinge, almost rosé perhaps for some, but a great and linear impression of iced raspberry. Fresh, assertive and mouth-watering. Very good.
Le Val Cornet Single parcel of that name. Roughly 80PN 20PM depending on the year, 50% inox, 50% wood. Always vintage but not on label. In 04/14, Pierry, this was 2009, d/g 2012 and 5g/L. Nutty and gentle texture. In Rouvres-les-Vignes 02/15 this was 2011, goldy and complex, with density and length and a wood-complexed fruit and minerality that is very effective. Again, very long.
Parcelle ZH302 A new cuvée, single parcel from within the Val Cornet lieu-dit, just launched in 2015. Named after the cadastral reference block. Base 2010. 100%PM. 0g/L. Part barrel-fermented and aged. Extremely concentrated, nutty, vanilla and very evident oak but with sublime light texture and lingering complexity.
Rosé de Saignée Tentation Rosée 50/50 PN/PM 7g/L Base 2010. A 48 hour maceration. A Bitter almond note and dry. Great finesse and gentle texture for a saignée. Beautiful cool fruit aromas; wild strawberries and spicy. Nathalie suggested ‘peony’ . Bursting with fruit, yet a delightful bitter cherry hint. Slimline and linear in proportion.
Champagne Nathalie Falmet
Chemin de Courcelles
Champagne visitors might overlook this important house founded in 1825, for no other reason than its relative isolation from the rest, situated in Châlons-en-Champagne, some way beyond Reims to the south-east. Until 1998 named Châlons-sur-Marne, this large town, a quarter the size of Reims, was in fact the capital, and still is the administrative capital of Champagne-Ardenne and I wonder if the Prefet feels a little out of it. It used to be home to some significant champagne houses, in particular Champagne Jacquesson, but the town has no immediate vineyards and now hosts only one important name, Champagne Joseph Perrier, one of the traditional grandes marques and a supplier to Queen Victoria and Edward VII. The house is now within the Groupe Alain Thiénot but led capably by Jean-Claude Fourmon great grandson of the 1880s owner Paul Pithiot.
When I visited, one surprise was the imposing frontage with a forecourt, brass plate and gates out of kilter with the nondescript dull street, reminiscent of a faded glory perhaps. Surprise number two was the long galleries of imposing cellars dug horizontally into the chalk hillside behind the main building. They were not underground but their depth into the rock made conditions ideal. And there’s a novel mirror system to reflect light into the galleries from above. The Chef de Cave here is Claude Dervin, increasingly aided by his son Jerôme.
The house owns but 21ha of vineyards, 25% of its needs, making somewhat over one million bottles per annum. Most of their holdings and supply contracts are in Cumieres, Damery, Hautvillers and Verneuil, quite some diametric step in the Marne Valley west of Epernay. Grapes are bought in too from the Côte des Blancs and Montagne de Reims. But I wonder if the intriguing secret weapon here is the very special Chardonnay they use from the vineyard enclave some 35 kilometres away in Vitry-le-Francois – lean, high acid and healthy grapes from an exposed location in Bassuet. Claude Dervin explained that the young vines in particular here produce a piercingly mineral but also melony and assertive Chardonnay that gives the ripe richness of their cuvées an often ratcheted bright purchase and elegance in the mouth. The lack of any oak used here also keeps the style fresh given the overall full ripeness of the fruit used from the Marne.
The style is successful if not quite the current champagne fashion amongst afficionados for lean and mineral very dry styles. Although there’s a fine balance and the interesting melony component often from Vitry fruit, the impression is always slightly opulent, ripe and rich and a touch old school. They taste reassuring and a little luxurious though and are none the worse for that. I recommend them.
Cuvée Royale Brut NV The house main production and entry level wine. The last example I tasted was in Châlons, 04/14, base 2010 with 25% 09 and 08. At least 3 years on lees. Always about one third of the three main varieties. There was a very fresh attack and then exotic pineapple and melon notes, ripe and rich but zipped up and neat too. 6g/L
Blanc de Blancs Brut NV Tasted 04/14 in Châlons. Chardonnay from Cote des Blancs, Vitry and Cumières. Fresh flowers and hazlenutes, a round and ripe version but beautifully balanced and all creamy nougat too. Good. Elegant softly-breaking texture.
Blanc de Blancs Brut 02 Tasted 02/12 at a Jancis Robinson.com event Lovely focus and intensity, real identity, cream and light crunch. Touch of aldehyde whisky barrel on palate, complexity developing from great vintage. The star for me of a big range of the champagnes on that occasion, which included some top names.
Esprit de Victoria 2006 Blanc de Blancs Tasted in Châlons o4/14 A slight note of reduction; would have been better left for some minutes or decanted. But a pleasing saline and mineral bite as well as a long roundness I was told was from the Cumières fruit.
Cuvée Josephine ’95 12/12 New Year’s Eve. Plenty of lively texture still but some burnt treacly sugar, oxidised notes and a bit dusty overall. Quite big boned still and classy texture. A case of age before beauty perhaps. Quite long. This has waited just a bit too long or could have been stored better. I need a wider experience with this Cuvée, usually 60CH and 40PN, which is reported in some vintages by others as excellent.
Champagne Joseph Perrier
69 Ave de Paris,
0033 3 26 68 29 51
My piece below was written responding to a series of questions posed by a member of Jancis Robinson’s ‘Purple Pagers’, asking about lower levels of dosage in champagne.
He said he was ‘on the fence’ and not sure what opinion to have. The Discussion Forum on that site is behind the paywall, so for those of you that do not have a sub, I thought I’d share. I’d be interested in your ideas too. Incidentally, if you are not a subscriber to Jancisrobinson.com I certainly think you should be if you count yourself a serious wine lover. It is simply the best wine site out there.
This is what I said:
Nature or Nurture?
First, a few remarks on your opening ideas before the questions proper. I’m not sure an issue is to be for or against zero or low dosage champagne, or sit on the fence. For me it is a question of how good is each champagne you taste, whatever its style. Quality is the issue.
As with all champagne, the point is not how good the style is per se, but: how good is this particular version of that style?
There is a recent trend but it almost certainly will stabilise at the level of being a style a good number of producers have in their range; meanwhile their other cuvées will be dosaged. It is becoming more mainstream, not specifically hipster. Louis Roederer for instance have just produced one, their first new cuvée since 1974. And remember the first zero brut of the modern era is not that modern: Laurent Perrier’s Ultra Brut launched in 1981. In fact their 1889 ‘Grand Vin Sans Sucre’ was all the rage in London society and through the 1890s there was a huge London fashion for dry champagne.
Most producers aim to make a balanced wine rather than a zero dosage wine at all costs. All the single estate producers you mention (Pierre Larmandier, Francis Boulard, Laherte, Chartogne-Taillet) make a range of wines with various dosage levels, not just a zero cuvée.
The cliché that sugar hides terroir and therefore zero dosage reveals it, is suspect in logic. Sugar certainly can soften very underripe fruit and candy-up the dregs of the press full of harsh phenolics, if you want to make champagne from cheap materials. But dosage is also there because that is what the mass of mainstream champagne drinkers want and love – a slightly honeyed easy to drink pleaser.
Yes, dosage levels have reduced with the riper fruit of climate change, which I discuss more below. The best non or low dosage wines are selected from riper fruit with more intensity, often therefore old vines. They tend to need high %s of reserve wines, often complexed from wood or a perpetual ‘solera’ type reserve. Malolactic may also be used to add body and butteriness so some blend fractions may be chosen for high malic acid initially. The best Brut Nature (0-3g/L), Extra Brut (0-6) or even low dosed Brut (0-12) often do not seem to have low dosage but their full and subtle flavours from a lot of wine making do stand out.
The easy marketing talk and hyperbole from some commentators that zero and low dosage wines are ‘pure’ and reveal the ‘terroir’ is questionable. If the terroir is only truly revealed by low dosage or zero, how is that to be tested as a hypothesis? Since logically you can only know terroir through the taste of a wine, you cannot claim the genuine terroir shows in one type of wine only since you make it impossible to know what the terroir (taste) is like except through that style of wine. You cannot set up a disproof trial. Wine does not evince terroir just by being dry. Which more than begs the question. It is empty reasoning. In wine, there is many a move twixt vine and lip. My experience tells me I can taste the character of certain districts in Champagne with wines having various levels of dosage.
Forgive me if I feel a lot of the hype about low dosage being the magic dipstick into the profundity of terroir is baloney. Equally suspect in my view is Tom Stevenson’s claim that zero or low dosage champagnes do not age, ie improve with age. Dosage may have some influence, but the quality of the original fruit, the time on second lees, how good and well kept the reserve wines are, the use of SO2 at disgorgement, how the wine is cellared since disgorgement (ie by the consumer), is always decisive IMHO.
1 The sweetness levels of finished wine should be the same as the specific dosage. But notice the level is always expressed in a range unless a producer says definitiely ’0′. As you know, few producers say what the exact dosage is on the bottle. In theory the wines are bone dry before dosage.
2 The sugar added in solution at tirage is in theory fermented out to dryness in the bottle. It has to be precisely calibrated or too much alcohol is made and, more dangerously, too much CO2, leading to exploding bottles. After the 2nd fermentation is over (40-60 days) and yeast death, the wine on lees should be dry.
3 Dosage levels on average are being reduced because the grapes are riper when harvested, in overall flavour but also with lower acidity. Less sweetness is needed at dosage therefore to balance the rasping acid presence. The big houses champagnes for instance tend to have the same balance they always have in their style. It is just that less sugar is needed to achieve it. There is an impression things are getting drier but it’s not a simple curve. When there’s more flavour from ripeness, the sugar tends to stick out less, even though it may be at levels which are reducing very slowly.