I for one do not sneer at the champagne brands’ amusing marketing efforts; those little gestures of promotion dreamt up hot-desking by interns in agencies and sent upstairs for big cheeses’ approval. I often smile too at the way Nike-wearing, Apple-toting, BMW-driving and Emirates-flying puritans then decry the branding of big champagne. I just wish small wine producers were more creative about the ways they try to get our attention, not just for champagne.
I’m not saying that great brand must be made in gargantuan volumes. On the whole, the bigger the production of a wine brand, the lower its quality tends to be. But niche and small brand marketing remain a mystery to most champagne producers and they should not.
Domaine (grower) champagne (and I am a big fan when it is good) needs to up its promotion game and stop wallowing in samey rhetoric about how many generations its family have been working the soil, how ‘artisan’ and ‘peasant farmer’ they are. Terry Theise’s title of ‘farmer fizz’ to dub ‘grower’ single estate champagne is misplaced, backward and romantic. It should be ‘good fizz’, judged on quality, not on the toiling credentials of the guys who make it.
Phew, sorry about the huffing and puffing. But this puffed wheat little branding gesture from Moet this week did amuse me. A glass of Brut Imperial in a bar comes with a mini-box of truffle-flavoured popcorn. A great match, a giggle, and memorable.
The latest edition of ‘La Revue du Vin de France’, has published its ranking of what it calls the ’50 best champagne houses’ – although the website (click the link) will only show you the top 10. You’ll need to buy the magazine itself to see the whole list. Oh hell, I’ll publish the top 20 below anyway and recant if I get a shirty letter about copyright from them.
The weird thing about it all however, is that it has deliberately excluded any ranking within it of domaine or single estate champagne (often called ‘grower’ champagne).
This is quite deliberate, not some inexplicable oversight or traditional bias by the champagne establishment against domaine champagne. The ‘RVF’ is quite clued up on single estate champagne developments, no question.
So why the apparent silliness? After all, they have included seven coops or coop groupings in the list – in rank order Mailly Grand Cru (21st), Palmer & Co (27), Veuve A Devaux (32), Pannier (36), Nicolas Feuillatte (38), Jacquart (45) and Beaumont des Crayères (47). These coops can all make good wine. But no single domaine champagnes, not one.
Their spurious, if that’s not too unkind a word, rationale, is that all producers had to make 300k bottles or more of champagne a year. Sorry, that doesn’t wash. By the same token, in any ranking of international Bordeaux blends, the top five Médoc (including Haut-Brion) first growths would be excluded. Lafite is the only one whose grand vin gets anywhere near 300k bottles sometimes.
So what is going on here? This is not the place to quibble about the actual ranking of those they do include. I’m in favour of rankings. It stimulates debate about excellence in any field of creative human activity. The discussion about canons, the classic and the newcomers and their relative position is at least, a vital part of wine.
But to exclude domaine champagne here, no doubt the subject of a future splash in ‘RVF’, is to fall into the big trap in the Champagne world, in discussion amongst producers, critics and some consumers. And that is to see Champagne and champagne as a binary world – the growers versus the houses and big coops. The false dichotomy is particularly prevalent in the USA and perhaps Japan, where ‘small is good’, hipster and ‘terroir’ accolades are heaped generically on ‘grower’ champagne (what Terry Theise in the US calls ‘farmer fizz’) and the big houses’ wines are often dubbed big volume, heavily marketed industrial swill – but if you happen to be pouring me a glass of it, thanks very much.
This false fork in the road ends up a double blind alley. Champagne should stand or fall by the quality of what it tastes like, not who made it and how. The small and big houses are continually a source of great champagne, but not all of it, and we can discuss the rank. But some of them make champagne often inferior to the best growers too.
Equally, those that talk about growers’ champagne being ‘terroir wine’ in any generic sense are making a fatal error. I’m sure, I’m convinced, that quite a number of great champagne small domaines are as yet undiscovered. But at present, the majority of so-called ‘grower’ champagnes are coop imposters, selling the same wines in their villages as their neighbours but with different labels – the so-called RCs or ‘récoltants-coopérateurs’. The proper domaines or single estates (RMs) may number 1,956 producers (last count in 2013), but only the top few, say 200 tops, are making really interesting champagne with the quality to compete on the international market.
The elite of these single estates can pass muster against many of the producers in the ‘RVF’ ranking. But for some reason, they are not given the chance. Why? Could it be that the RVF are preferring to keep their welcome warm at the really big négociant houses rather than risk putting noses out of joint by listing the odd grower ahead of certain houses?
Just to be cheeky, here’s the top 20 ranking from the RVF. But in bold, and not based on my definitive ranking view, but a putative, provocative suggestion, I’ve spiced things up and thrown the odd domaine into the pot too – in fact 18 of them!
Have mercy on my soul.
Salon (they made an exception to the 300k volume rule here – its about 60k bottles annual)
Bérèche & Fils
De Souza & Fils
I’ve heard a bellyful recently about ‘real’ champagne and how evil are the big ‘brands’. Usually written by people who move effortlessly in their own shiny world of Apple, Nike and Virgin.
And I’m wondering if restaurants and hotels in the UK need to do a serious rethink about the way they sell champagne. Are they too complacent, thinking it will sell itself?
Too many do not think through how to present champagne as both chic and complex. They neglect champagne and relegate it to the shaky ground of ‘celebration’. And too many commentators adopt a lazy rhetoric, missing the brilliant and complex wines of many houses and suggesting crassly that all domaine champagne (grower) exudes artisan ‘terroir’ or that it is just a ‘good value’ price choice.
Of course there are brilliant single estate/ domaine/ grower wines but many are mediocre. Just as many wines from houses can be mediocre while many are top quality. But the daft polarisation of Champagne with capitalist ogres spending marketing budgets on one side and hipster, heroic horny-handed sons and daughters of toil on the other, is mindless. Champagne should be judged by the quality of its taste, not by who makes it or the size of the winery. I love many domaine champagnes and many from houses. But it is silly to draw the line between them. The line to follow is one of quality, of complexity and elegance, delicacy, fragrance and length.
Selling champagne should not be about making people want all of it and more of it. But about wanting more of some of it because it is so good.
And that is what will make it chic in the end.
Gilles Dumangin, head of this small champagne house, can sound convincingly English or French in either language. That’s quite a feat. But this accomplished champagne producer admits he had little idea how to make champagne when in 2001 he returned to France after quite some time in England, where he left a job as export director to a software company. But he jumped at the chance. At arm’s length he had been developing exports to the UK and fondly remembered helping in the vineyard and winery as a boy.
Since then, after an apprenticeship working alongside his father Jacky, who eventually retired in 2008, Gilles has put these wines on the map in various countries. Not least the UK, where they graced Sir Paul McCartney’s 2011 wedding to Nancy Shevell, have been listed by Gordon Ramsey’s eponymous (Michelin 3*) restaurant in London and declared ‘one of my favourite non-vintage champagnes’ by Jancis Robinson.
But there is deep thinking behind the winemaking here and a strategic evolution. Champagne clichés about a monolithic house style are rarely completely true even at the big houses. Things evolve. Terroir and winemaking are constantly in tension in Champagne, not least at Dumangin where there’s a restless striving after a style still emerging from its chrysalis. But the wines here are lovely.
Home in Champagne for this producer is the premier cru village of Chigny-les-Roses, sitting in a trio of premiers crus between Rilly-la-Montagne and Ludes on the northern scarp of the Montagne de Reims, 60% of which is planted to Pinot Meunier along with 24% Pinot Noir and 16% Chardonnay. The major presence of Meunier here is a surprise to many who think the Montagne is all about Pinot Noir. But these three premiers crus have more clay and sand in parts over the chalk which suits Meunier. It is also conveniently late budding which helps against local frost dangers.
Gilles came back to France because his younger brother, whom the family assumed would take the reins, decided not to. Rather than make champagne and then distribute the returns to dormant family stakeholders, Gilles decided on a small-scale négociant (NM) operation. The result is an ingenious supply network, mainly from some 24 parcels around Chigny. About half the grapes come from about 6ha of family vineyards and the rest are purchased, including a little from Sézanne and the Aube. A ‘house’ it may be, with a modest 100k bottles annual production, but things are hands on here and it’s run as a family domaine.
Gilles Dumangin leaves you in no doubt that his preference is very fresh, racy champagnes which also express their singing fruit flavours. There’s a lusciousness to the wines but a depth and complexity and an incisive cut too. This might be a tall order to achieve in a district with such a high proportion of relatively quick maturing and fruity Pinot Meunier. At Dumangin however, it is done with a coherent wine making strategy but which is still a work in progress. The quest for purity is embedded in practical steps, not rhetoric.
A Champagne tenet is gentle pressing. To keep finesse and fragrance in a white wine from black grapes which can age, you need to strictly limit colour and oxidizable compounds pulled out of the grapes at pressing. At Dumangin two Coquard PAM presses, one for 4000kilos and a baby brother for 2000kilos are highly prized because they do this job so well, even though this press model is discontinued. The enclosed load of grapes is pressed by horizontal plates but the pressed cake is rotated 90° by the slatted base tray in each cycle so, as Gilles explains: ‘the process…presses all the grapes evenly…The fact the (tray) is turning completely creates a perfect retrousse’ – the release of pressure and break up of the ‘cake’ prior to pressing again.
There are no additives here except modest use of SO2, at any stage. This for example includes no pectolytic enzymes for breaking up grape pulp solids in cold settling before the first fermentation. Gilles believes enzymes take some flavours away which he’d rather keep, so does one more time-consuming racking to complete the débourbage. No enzymes means a slightly slower hand remuage or riddling to coax the gummy deposits into the bottle necks after ageing, but in any case he says he hasn’t the space at present for gyropalettes. Rather than stainless steel he prefers compact enamelled steel tanks, for parcel by parcel fermentation. With a slow racking from them he says, nothing sticks, they keep the Dumangin flavours better, even if they are harder to clean between fermentations. And the desire for flavour, freshness and race is consistent to the end, with a recent decision to use Mytik Diamant corks (now over 15% of champagne closures) which elminate almost all risk of cork taint.
There are two further strategic policies for style and quality at Dumangin. Purity and freshness is complemented by complexity with a strikingly high proportion of reserve wines, between 45-70% on the non-vintage cuvées, including even the entry level ’17 Brut’. The Grande Reserve NV has the highest levels, but the Le Rosé NV (now so popular it is 50% of the whole production), seems all the more subtle for the contribution from reserves. These high fractions temper any tendency for the frank fruit here to seem exotic.
Secondly, a recent new move, from the 2012 harvest, malolactic has been blocked to keep the wines showing a fresh attack, especially as warmer harvests seem to be increasing. Gilles would much rather retain natural acid by this than resort to acidification. The impact on style and taste will be gradual given the high level of reserves which of course have been put through malolactic before the change. The only wine released showing this shift so far is the base 2009 Grande Reserve.
So there is excitement and promise here and intriguing and impressive champagne. Altogether, the thought-out and painstaking direction Champagne Dumangin is now moving in has a clear goal and model - to make bracing champagnes with fresh and piercing fruit but with the added subtlety of older reserves to underpin this primary appeal. The finished picture is emerging; but it is wonderful to taste these wines and begin to understand what they will become.
Cuve 17 Brut NV About a one third blend of the varieties. Tasted London 03/13 Very fresh, real bite but bursting with fruit. Certainly modern and zippy.
Grande Réserve 1er cru NV 50PM 25PN 25CH Base 09. 49% of reserve wines. Three years on lees. Disgorged 05/13. Tasted Chigny 10/13. Impressive depth and length. Assertive fruit but a deal of underlying interest, vinosity and complexity from the older wines. Very attractive. About 50% without malolactic.
Blanc de Blancs 1er cru 2006. All the fruit from a single vineyard called Dessous Le Mont in Chigny and dosed at 5g/L/ Tasted Chigny 10/13. Impressive, with honeysuckle and singing fruit notes but a creamy rich undertow too. Very keen finesse. Well made.
Vintage 2003. Tasted Chigny 10/13. Disgorged 2012, dosed at 4g/L. Quite mature but a tension that will see it through some time yet. Some early smoky biscuit flavours but a good structure and texture too. By no means a soft caricature of this warm year.
Rosé Saignée 2008. Tasted Chigny 10/13. 50PM 25PN 25PN Lovely raspberry cream but a balancing slightly bitter cut to it which makes it seem sophisticated and grown up. A convincing modern take on rosé.
Le Rosé NV 1er cru 2008. Tasted London 03/13 and Chigny 10/13. Blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, about equal. Bursting with fruit but quite a dry and linear impression from the high Chardonnay. Sappy and very moreish, Very fruity but not cloying by any means.
Vinotheque 1er cru Brut 1996. Tasted London 03/13 Pretty advanced and slightly toffeed but a deal of nutty interest and an attractive soft mousse.
Vinotheque 1er cru Brut 1994. Tasted Chigny 10/13 Again a toffeed oxidative note setting in. This and the previous wine date of course from a period prior to the changes brought in by Gilles Dumangain since.
Trio des Ancêtres - Three cuvées sold together, from the 2000 harvest. These are each made from a single variety: Firmin from Chardonnay, Hippolyte from Pinot Noir and Achille from Pinot Meunier. The only wines made with oak, one year of ageing in used burgundy barriques. Presently based on 2000 and disgorged in 2010 and all therefore with a long time on lees. 0g/L. All three showed power and structure and really deep complexity, the oak still evident but a successful style given the overall complexity and freshness from zero dosage, the Pinot Noir especially.
Champagne J Dumangin Fils
F51500 Chigny Les Roses
3 rue de Rilly
Champagne used to be very sweet. Very sweet indeed. You could ask Czar Alexander of Russia if he was still here. Over 200g/L of sweetness in the 18th and much of the 19th centuries. The Brits are probably to blame for it getting drier; it was certainly the fashion to drink champagne with food in the London fleshpots of the 1870s and they wanted it a lot drier than it was. Since then dryish champagne is more or less the norm. The French have always had a tradition of drinking champagne with puddings and cakes but it’s not such a big deal in other countries.
I wonder though if the gradual increase in champagne sales to Asia and the BRIC countries, with their famed sweet teeth and spicy food, has increased demand for sweet champagne. And if you have never had sweet fizz with fois gras, if you are not ethically challenged by the stuff(ing) of ducks, then hurry up. You owe it to civilisation to do it by age 21.
If sweet fizz gets a bigger rep, the the house of Louis Roederer is well placed. Not many people seem to know that the house has a long specialism in sweet fizz and makes a range called Carte Blanche (white label) in three versions. There’s Extra Dry (about 18g/L), and Sec (about 32g/L), although there’s nothing very Sec (the French for dry) about 32g/L. But let’s not carp about terms; there’s one more – Demi-Sec. You might think this means half the sweetness but no it doesn’t. It means even sweeter, about 45g/L. Roederer also make a style called Doux and fair enough, that does mean ‘sweet’. That;’s over 50g/L and made only for special orders. I’m told the Queen Mother used to place an order.
My previous tasting of this sweet style was back in 2006 when I had a fairly old bottle (but NV as all the Roederer sweet wines are, so impossible to say how old) of a wine marked ‘Rich’. I’ve been told this description is now discontinued by Roederer and the wine would nowadays be called ‘Sec’. My note was:
Roederer Rich NV (sec) 09.06 Very pale with soft mousse. Curiously restrained and closed at first and then lovely impression and concentrated flavours. Slight creamy nuttiness. This made from a blend of 4 years, 66% black and 34% CH with 3 yrs of reserve wines too.
Then the other day I had a Carte Blanche NV demi-sec, apparently some 42g/L, but it didn’t feel like it. The wine was sweet for sure, but the lean complexity of the fruit went well as an aperitif with duck liver pâté. These sweet Louis Roederer wines are not simply their Brut NVs tarted up with sweeter dosages. The fruit is pre-selected for making these styles for its intensity and leanness, so as to balance the sugar. The 40% Chardonnay, 40 Pinot Noir and 20 Pinot Meunier blend will lend freshness with quite a high fraction of white grapes, emphasised even more by the partial malolactic. This is no syrup bomb. And of course, there is the trade mark Roederer addition of foudre-aged reserve wines to give an undertow of complexity.
With the right foods, these styles are sensational. But the food doesn’t have to be the rich savoury fois gras sort. Recently I also tasted a Laurent-Perrier NV demi-sec served with a pudding described on the menu at London’s Greenhouse restaurant as ‘Orange, Saffron/ Date/Filo Pastry’. The match was sensational, a tightrope of precisely calibrated levels of sweetness. And here’s a secret – sweet champagne, pretty sweet champagne and chocolate, preferably dark. Go on, you’re worth it.
Wouldn’t it be funny if the cool yen for zero dosage these days, suddenly turned into new interest in sweet champagne?
I love Blanc de Blancs champagne; elegant, high tension stuff from the great grands crus and premier crus Vertus and Cuis on the Côte des Blancs. And it can age very well to a hazlenut and multi-faceted complexity from great producers. From elsewhere its clean cut jib and a lighter sense of purity and poise can be charming, even if not quite so intense and thrilling as from Chardonnay central, the grands crus of the Côte.
Champagne can be thought of as ‘before the fizz’ and ‘after the fizz’. The first period to 1700-odd prized still wine above all, even if annoyingly it often started to ferment and fizz again in the spring. After that, when a fashion broke out for the fizzy stuff with the Paris and London aristocracies, sparkling champagne developed in parallel with still champagne. It would not be until about 1845 that organised sparkling champagne production overtook the still stuff.
Before fizz took off, Chardonnay from the Côte was looked down on – thin, acidic and rasping. But once fizz triumphed Chardonnay became highly prized. Its high acidity and lower sugars meant it fermented more slowly and produced a gentler mousse in the spring which could be captured in the bottle. The great wines from Pinot Noir, on the Montagne de Reims and the Epernay area of the Marne, and especially Aÿ, tended to ferment fast and furiously and be too still when it came to the spring. The answer was to make champagne by blending black and white grapes. Chardonnay was on its way.
Eventually Blanc de Blancs emerged as a special style apart from the grape blends. André Simon wrote in 1962 it was ‘always very pale in colour, and it is usually also lighter in body, but not necessarily in alcoholic strength…Dry and elegant, it is an ideal wine to serve before a meal, or as the first wine of the day in the forenoon after a late night.’ Bless.
Now it’s a major style it’s made from all over Champagne. I recently had the chance to taste 17 examples, care of a great tasting run by Richard Dudley Craig of The Wine Scholar in London. Here are the tasting notes. We were asked to rate them out of 20 for quality and 5 for value on price, as in 20/5. I have omitted repeating ‘Blanc de Blancs’ for each wine.
Amyot Brut NV. An RM domaine from Loches-sur-Ource in the Aube Bar-Séquanais. A warm honied nose; pleasant lemony-bread and light biscuit tones. Roundish texture. Lots of sweet ripness; pleasant and poised, if not very thrilling. 14/4
Pierre Moncuit NV. (Moncuit-Delos) RM Domaine in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger on the Côte. This is grand cru, all from Le Mesnil. A very focused peachstone and lily nose. Ripe but racy and streaky minerality. Lemony detail and crystalline with a chalky-earthy undertow. Rather good in a very Mesnil mold. Finer than their other Blanc de Blancs made from Sézanne grapes. 16.5/4
Jean Velut Brut NV Montgueux, RM domaine. This tiny satellite district is a single south-east facing scarp west of Troyes. Ripe and full with a chocolatey complexity. Bready, umami, with a touch of caramel. Has power and expression but short of finesse, with quite a hard mousse. A ripe exotic note and just a touch rustic. 14/3.5
Saint-Chamant Brut NV, Epernay RM domaine. Greeny gold, charming, ripe and bready; quite autolytic, full and assertive. Round and slightly ponderous. 14/3.5
Pierre Gimonnet Cuvée 1er cru Cuis NV Precise, pointed with a lovely focus and chalky minerality. Intense and linear with a good deal of finesse and a balancing undertow of quite forcing white chocolate and bread. Stylish and resonant if not the longest finish. 16.5/4.5 They have some 28ha, a very big holding for an RM. 16.5/4.5
Andre Jacquart 1er cru Brut NV Expérience A blend of Le Mesnil and Vertus (60%) where this domaine (RM) is based. Dosage 4g/L – so in fact an Extra Brut. Malolactic blocked. Lovely race and tight structure and powerful enough to meet the concentrated oak (30%). A particularly fine texture, creamy and seeming pure. A real array of lily, coffee, citrus and umami flavours. A stunning wine for the entry level cuvée of this producer. 17/4
Legras Grand Cru Chouilly Brut NV A small house (NM) based in Chouilly, but with a very good reputation. Typical Chouilly charming fruit, light, racy and less chalky than further down the Côte. A rather assertive mousse. Warm and roundish in the end but slightly brutal texture. 14/3
Legras Grand Cru Présidence 2004 Floral, peachstone and smoke. Ripe but some biscuit development and autolytic too. Complex and satisfying. Compact but intense reflection of the medium term but concentrated 2004 character. 17/4
Larmandier-Bernier NV Extra Brut 1er cru This cuvée is now called Latitude in its latest version. This is about 65% Vertus and the rest Mainly Avize and Cramant fruit with a little from Oger and Chouilly. Very persistent, long nose. Density and interest, Concentrated, oak-influenced with a racy palate. Rock and dust, peach and spice. So many layers of interest. Marvellous linear intensity. About 4/5g/L dosage. 18/4
Larmandier-Bernier Terre de Vertus ’08 1er cru This is zero dosage. A single parcel on the Vertus mid-slope. Bread and rock; such complexity. Honied and ripe but with cut and intensity. Finesse and chewy substance. Really challenging, in a good way. Far from the mainstream flavours of champagne. 18.5/4
Larmandier-Bernier ’06 Grand Cru Vieilles Vignes de Cramant Extra Brut How disappointing! Caramel oxidation and reduction. An odd bottle. Quite gold with coffee, toffee and premature development; decaying. There’s a honey and steel reminder of the quality behind it perhaps but this has to be an off bottle. 13/1
Saint-Chamant Brut ’02 Cuvée Chardonnay, Epernay A rounder style of Blanc de Blancs than the Côte. Floral and full, earthy but still quite gathereed and well-structured impression. Bready in a light way, fresh, early complexity and well done. A domaine (RM).
Ruinart Brut NV Real fragrance on the nose. Fresh, enticing and floral and an array of dark chocolate and spice and mothball/menthol. A green, smoky note. A touch exotic and a touch sweet. 10g/L dosage? 15/2
Jean-Paul Deville NV A fresh acacia nose, fullness and mild biscuit. But quite a short and conventional champagne taste with a Turkish Delight almost botrytic note. A touch confected and well-behaved, although refreshing. Slightly brazen, superficial stuff. 14/4
Philipponnat Grand Blanc 2004, Mareuil-sur-Ay Ripe, smoky and biscuit, classic with a full and fine balance of assertive components. Very ripe but a good mineral streak runs through. Any Clos des Goisses in this? Disgorged 02/10. 5g/L 17.5/3.5
Pol Roger Brut 2002 Bready classic aromas and that pressing, forceful, powerful 2002 presence. Touch of mothballs. A little lush, rich and easy-peasy. Impressive just stylishly a bit well-mannered; cookie-cutter champagne. 16.5/3.5
Francis Boulard et Fille Les Rachais 2005 Brut Nature Very woodland sous bois nose. Earth, dough, stone and putty. Aldehydic from barrels. Pure and crystalline detail. Very dry and needing food. 0g/L Disgorged 29/01/2011. Complex and demanding original champagne from a single parcel. 17.5/3.5 Domaine champagne (RM)