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.

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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.

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This article first appeared 4th May on Jancis Robinson.com

Tim Hall, director of the Scala School of Wine in London and a champagne specialist, reports on the increasing importance of the tasting opportunity known as Champagne Week at which
visitors may taste the wines of the following groups:

Terres et Vins de Champagne

Les Artisans du Champagne

Passion Chardonnay en Champagne

Les Mains du Terroir de Champagne

Des Pieds et des Vins

Champagne Special Club

Trait d-union (which has no website but does have a facebook page)

Origines Champagne

Génération Champagne

The sun shone gloriously last week in Champagne as a cosmopolitan crowd of champagne specialists, journalists, buyers and importers attended what may be the wine world’s fastest growing annual showcase. Given the heat and clear blue skies, ‘snowball’ may not best convey the breakneck annual growth of this off-piste April jamboree, but its future seems set fair not to melt away.

It began in 2009 with pioneer grouplet Terres et Vins de Champagne, comprising 20-odd champagne growers, many of them already with kudos for quality, a certain hipness and cool,and mostly committed to at least organic, if not quasi or full-blooded biodynamic methods. In 2009, 200 attended this group’s tasting in Aÿ. Last week, according to Benoît Tarlant of Champagne Tarlant, a leading light of this group, 800+ came through the doors of a much grander venue, the Palais du Tau in Reims (pictured top right), next to the Cathedral NôtreDame itself. This is the grandest space in all Champagne, where coronation feasts preceded this modern global horde of fizzy supplicants bearing, admittedly classy, Zalto tasting glasses. Each one of what are now myriad ‘salon’ groupings was abuzz last week with the sound of popping corks, the ping of spittoons used, and avid champagne talk. What’s in, what’s out, new finds, disappointments, and some rather too variable serving temperatures at several tastings. The vinous crowning glory was that so many producers were able to show their 2008s, easily Champagne’s best vintage since 2002.

The world’s champagnerati who make this April pilgrimage were faced this year, and each year it seems, with giant steps up in scale. If you had the stamina, determination to spit samples religiously, and a fast car to flit between the tastings in Reims, Épernay and around, you could taste the wines (and the as yet unbubbly vins clairs) of more than 150 domaines divided among 10 separate promotional groupings. There were three complete newcomers this year and no fewer than six have emerged in the last two years. One of these recent six is only ‘new’ in the sense that the Club Trésors, otherwise known as the Champagne Special Club, was formed as long ago as 1971 but held its first-ever ‘public’ professional tasting only during last year’s Champagne Week. I ended up writing just over 400 tasting notes, but I can be a bit slow and love to chat. A paragon would have managed many more.

The 150 producers showing their wines at these busy events were almost exclusively singleestate growers of the RM kind – the tiny letters on their bottles denoting their récoltantmanipulant status, signifying independent champagne producers who grow all their own grapes on their own land and make their wine only from these, completely in their own winery. This ‘domaine’ or ‘single-estate’ status, perhaps inadequately conveyed by the common parlance of ‘grower champagne’, is the usual ‘château’ or ‘family estate’ model found in many other wine regions.

The big brand (grande marque) ‘houses’, Moët, Mumm and the rest, have the separate status of négociant-manipulant, the NM on their labels signifying that, lacking enough vineyards, and given their scale of production, they need to buy in most of their grapes from growers who make no wine or, if they do, choose to boost their income by selling a portion of their crop. With two interesting exceptions this year, Champagne Charles Heidsieck and Champagne Alfred Gratien (well-known to fans of UK mail order jewel The Wine Society), the large champagne houses generally give Champagne Week a wide berth. They seem to prefer to stay aloof from any collective action, and instead tend to offer at great individual expense some of the most generous hospitality in the wine business. Nevertheless, the houses have twigged what a wonderful opportunity Champagne Week is and increasingly issue private invitations to some of the journalists and specialists who have come so far.

Champagne Henri Giraud of Aÿ organised a private seminar. Charles Heidsieck participated in a fine tasting of vintage wines organised by a PR company in Reims on the Monday, and Alfred Gratien returned to the star-studded group Les Artisans du Champagne after a year of absence ‘to clarify their status’, I was gnomically told. I was lucky enough to be invited on Wednesday afternoon for lunch at Moët’s Épernay Résidence de Trianon and then treated to a private Dom Pérignon tasting at the Abbaye de Hautvillers, along with Charles Curtis MW, who was representing the soon-to–be-launched Le Pan wine magazine. A six-strong grouping entitled Trait-d-union shows wines only every two years in Champagne. Comprising renowned domaines Roger Coulon, Egly-Ouriet, Jacquesson, La Closerie (Jérôme Prévost), Larmandier-Bernier and Jacques Selosse, they dashed off instead to tasting events in Australia this year,having been to Jerez two years ago.

Almost completely absent from the Champagne Week groupings is the problematic producers’ category récoltant-coopérateurs (RC). Even many in the wine trade seem unaware that what is in bottles so designated is normally a blend of local co-operative members’ grapes made for them by their co-op. This is hardly the authentic wine of a single estate, yet this type of producer forms the majority of growers in Champagne – some 58% of the 4,000-odd members of the Syndicat Général des Vignerons (SGV). But that still leaves nearly 2,000 growers who are genuine RM domaines, a vast number for even champagne geeks to get their heads and palates round. It makes the 150 or so producers in these Champagne Week groupings seem a drop in the ocean. And there is, inevitably, a swathe of significant producers who eschew, at least for now, affiliation with any group. The announcement and titles of new groups always seems abenignly Byzantine, Gallic assemblage of friendships between producers and combinations of ideas linking the concepts of ‘artisan’, ‘terroir’ and ‘authentic’. The name of Passion Chardonnay, a new group from 2014, at least indicates clearly that this is exclusively devoted to Blanc de Blancs.

By and large, this is a youthful movement, made up of a new generation who have taken the reins from their parents, often after a long apprenticeship for sons and daughters alongside their father during which they nursed, argued and planned new approaches and cuvées to represent their freedom. At least it’s exciting. Who would have thought Champagne had so much ore to pan for gold?

One ponders what is driving this apparent copycat race to form promotional and tasting grouplets. Thanks to recession and a desperately slow recovery in France and the Eurozone so far, grower champagne sales have faltered, and have mostly been to France and nearby countries. The steady stream of private consumers who have traditionally driven their cars into the Champagne region from the rest of France, Benelux and Germany to fill their boots/trunks at their favourite small producer’s cellar door, has been drying up. Growers have begun to increase the fraction of grapes they sell to the négoce. The pressure is on to seek foreign sales. But to show at the main Comité Champagne (CIVC – Champagne’s governing body) annual tastings in European capitals (such as the one described recently in Current champagne vintages) is expensive, more expensive than pooling costs by forming a group and making Muhammad come to the mountain.

Yet there seems to be a dual dynamic. The first few groups formed already had a track record of significant exports and critical acclaim, at least among the leading lights in each of these groups. Their champagnes sell for prices at least as high as the leading houses. Terre et Vins could boast Agrapart, Bérèche, Tarlant and Chartogne-Taillet. Similarly, the Les Artisans group has such star growers as Doyard, Pierre Péters, Vilmart, Dehours and Fleury. Les Mains du Terroir counts Eric Rodez, Serge Mathieu and De Sousa. And Trait-d-union’s starry line-up I’ve already mentioned.

The other groups are different kettles of fish, invariably hunting a first break into export sales. But they are no less exciting and a source of rising stars as well as discoveries completely under the radar. Merchants know that the big grower names already supply exclusive agencies in mostimportant champagne markets and this made for quite an atmosphere of bears round a honeypot in several of the newer and smaller groups. Attendance was the highest ever of any Champagne Week. Terre et Vins, the biggest showing, reported doubled visitor numbers of 800. Les Artisans drew 400 registrations, Les Mains du Terroir over 300 and, perhaps surprisingly, the young guns in a new outfit calling itself Salon des Pieds et des Vins, attracted over 170 people at their inaugural event held in the bijou village hall of Saint-Imoges on the Montagne between Reims and Épernay. The Special Club group packed out Reims’ lovely 13th-century Demeure des Comtes de Champagne (below) on the final day.

See below for a complete list of my favourite wines.

Before I left Champagne I dropped in on Jean-Pierre Vazart-Coquart, who makes entirely Grand Cru Chouilly Blanc de Blancs from his 11 hectares there and is a mainstay of the Mains du Terroir group and a long-standing Special Club member. He was excited by the success of his group’s latest salon five days earlier but thinks it can be bigger and better. It was great to have sunshine and crowds. But, typically for the multi-tasking owner of a small champagne estate, he anxiously thumbed the weather app on his smartphone. Late spring frost cost him sleep now that a mini-heatwave had unfurled four delicate leaves from buds and new shoots had put on two fragile centimetres in six days. He looked as intently at a forecast of zero degrees Celsius the following Tuesday as he listened to what champagne specialists thought of his Champagne Brut Zéro the Sunday before.

My out-and-out Champagne Week stars

Agrapart, Avize
Bérèche et fils, Ludes
Dehours, Mareuil-le-Port
Pierre Gimonnet, Cuis
Marc Hébrart, Mareuil-sur-Aÿ
Charles Heidsieck, Reims
Nicolas Maillart, Écueil
Mailly Grand Cru, Mailly
Pierre Péters, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger
Eric Rodez, Ambonnay
Tarlant, Oeuilly
Vilmart, Rilly-la-Montagne

My rising stars

Nathalie Falmet, Côte des Bar
Agnès Corbon, Avize
Jean-Pierre Vazart-Coquart, Chouilly
Daniel Savart, Écueil

My best newcomers

Emmanuel Brochet, Villers aux Noeuds
Lacourte-Godbillon, Écueil

My top three champagnes of the week

Nicholas Maillart Platine Premier Cru NV Dégorgement Tardif (from magnum)
Charles Heidsieck 2005
Dom Pérignon 1998 Plénitude 2
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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.

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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.

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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. ***

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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.

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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 Wines

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.

Champagne Billecart-Salmon
40 rue Carnot
51160 Mareuil-sur-Ay
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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.

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In the world of good wine, more or less anything over £30 a bottle, this week has seen a minor mushroom cloud over London.

Robert Parker (photo Sam Chin) has handed the Bordeaux ‘en primeur’ baton to Neil Martin, the UK-grown and based claret specialist who has been employed by Parker’s The Wine Advocate several years already. This means that each Bordeaux new vintage will get the thumbs up, or cocked at various angles through 180 degrees, from a new palate.  Critics will gossip about the impact of this anointing – ‘Arise Sir Neal!’ – and what Martin will now be paid.

Parker has been a massive influence on fine wine since he had the guts and gumption to call 1982 bordeaux a great vintage while others said it was not. It was. I admire his success and while he loves the heaving breasts of ‘big red wines’, with the Rhône his first love,  I do not go along with many’s view that his palate could only discern fruit bombs.  Longevity, finesse and complexity are well-honed pillars of his judgemental repertoire as well.  He is a great and hard-working taster who became the decider of the prices of top bordeaux worldwide for the last 30 years.  The ticking time-bomb that went off over London this week, chosen no doubt as London is the digital capital of fine wine trading, was inevitable. Parker is 67.

Many importers and merchants making fine wine ‘en primeur’ offers are in thrall to Parker.  Not least because he cornered the market with the ’100-point scale’.  Merchants, chateaux owners and wine writers have waited with anxious tongues out every year and licked their columns into shape spattered liberally with the Parker points awarded.  If Parker scored scored a wine low, it was toast.  If you did not say what Parker gave each wine in your piece, you were not even a slice of bread. Many critics then used the ’100-point’ or its near equivalent, the 20-point, scale, to make their own scores, making the scale seem the DNA of wine appreciation and wine competition awards. And for those wines that got the max 100 or 20 points, see here, traders rubbed their hands, fought over allocations and put up the price.

I have never had any time for the 100-point scale and think its slavish use by most wine writers is a shame.  I wrote about it here.  I agree with Hugh Johnson who openly calls it silly and needing to go.  The Parker scale absurdly begins at 50. Anything under 90 is seen as so-so, where, in the normal world, scoring 70-90 for your essay or degree class, indeed any % score, is seen as top class.  As a result, there is vast bunching of marks around 90 points or 16 on a 20-point wine scale.  Swathes of wine articles score 20-40 wines with very similar scores with perhaps the odd stand-out high scorer. We are none the wiser and does it mean the rest are not worth buying?  Madness.

I can only think a scale that gives 50% just because a wine is a wine, is designed not to hurt the feelings and favours of producers and merchants.  After all, it is their goodwill and willingness to be scored that provides critics with their constant stream of free samples and trade tastings. I am not against giving wines marks as an unreliable but useful shorthand for a view about the quality of one bottle, one day.  I sometimes use a 20-point scale but I use the whole scale, in a similar way to The World of Fine Wine.

Parker has planned his abdication of the Bordeaux throne for some time. He may look like the dad of a hipster London lumbersexual (see here) and I’ve always found him curiously humourless, but I’m probably wrong.  I’ve been in the same room but never met him; my shelves contain his well-thumbed tomes. It seems the PRs ruffled feathers this week by not inviting some wine critics, see here, to the court of King Robert’s declaration.  But it is part of a clear process to manage the Parker brand in a post-Parker world.  Not long ago, a chunk of the The Wine Advocate business was sold to an Asian consortium for $15m. There was an acrimonious parting of the ways with Antonio Galloni, an apparently ambitious suitor for the Parker mantle and The Wine Advocate and its web version eRobertParker. A proper management team was set up under Lisa Perotti-Brown MW.

There is no doubt Neil Martin is an accomplished and prolific taster and a largely self-taught and engaging UK home grown claret expert.  It’s refreshing he does not come out of the classic fine wine critics’ mould and I have fond memories of his hilarious Wine-Journal.com, his blog before elevation to His Bobness, which came replete with rock music tips as well as his shrewd take on all things Gironde.  I love his book on Pomerol. I’m sure I will prefer him to the coterie of largely US-based names who have long-envied Parker’s position: Tanzer, Galloni, Suckling and The Wine Spectator.

But this end of era moment is not about a mere promotion and the founder’s semi- retirement. Fine wine since the 80s is no longer fed by a few books from gurus. Traditional fine wine fans are getting older. Are cohorts of younger tyros with 5-figure annual wine budgets stepping into their shoes?  It’s not clear.  Sales of wine books are in free fall, their prices too. Bordeaux is sitting on three mediocre vintages in a row with vast stocks unsold. The small number of paywall wine critic sites vying to give 100-point scores faster than each other for each new release are facing crossroads.

Instead of building their own fan base for their tasting note database, they also need to convince new people about fine wine who in the past already were.  It demands a bigger educational role, more stories about fine wine and not just scores of tasting notes. It may mean running fine wine public tastings of their picks to firm up a new fan base, such as Bettane and Dessauve from France have already run in London and which The Wine Advocate tried this weekend in London.  In the latter case, although there was plenty of middle rank fine wine on show, it was overcrowded and the tasting booklet inept.  There is clearly a lot to learn.

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