This week, Champagne’s population suddenly rose by 100,000. Before you think nearly toute Champagne spent last New Year in bed with each other, these are the harvest picker temps. And they have to be fed, put up and paid.  There would be no champagne without them.

This region still picks by hand because no machine can yet do the job as gently as a pair of hands, two eyes and a sharp pair of secateurs. And gentle is the word. Bruised fruit can colour the wine, oxidise it and leach coarse skin compounds into it – all a no-no to good champagne.  Whole bunch picking is linked to the quality of pressed juice too.  The bunch stems in the press act as a juice-run network, cushioning the density of the pressed mass of grapes as the grapes split under pressure, providing a quicker conduit for juice to run out. The result is much less pick up of astringent microscopic grape fragments and phenolic tannins from skins.  The keys to delicacy and finesse in champagne begin here, at the picking and at the press.

That’s why, uniquely, the ‘champagne method’ sets the yield maximum twice.  First in kilos per hectare (kg/ha) at the picking, and second at the press where only a maximum of 102L of juice can be extracted from each 160kg of grapes. The best juice is called the cuvée, slightly confusingly to us, as the same word is used for each different champagne or ‘cuvée’ made in a producer’s range.

Champagne’s harvest conditions and how good the wine of a vintage might be when it is made, has never quite caught the imagination of champagne fans in the same way as other regions. And that’s because Champagne’s grapes in 2014 will not see the light of day for us in a glass of champagne until 2018 or in some cases, into the 2020s.  Champagne’s superior complexity relies on long ageing in bottle on yeast lees, so a good one will not be on sale for at least 3-4 years.  And more complexity and harmony is often added by blending wines from different vintages.

So what’s the point you may ask, in taking an interest in the harvest and early signs for each vintage in Champagne?  Well, vintage champagnes may only be 5 in every 100 bottles made, but they give a fascinating snapshot of what that year’s quality was like and are often made from a selection of the best grapes.  And the best producers also tell us the composition of the NV wines.  Most of the wine in an NV is from a single year, on average up to 80%. It is very exciting, no matter how anorakish it may seem, to look at the difference between, say majority 2007 and majority 2008 NV champagnes.

So what has the 2013-14 year been like?  Rain, in a word. Record rain from September 2013 to February. But that is not so bad and replenishes the chalk water table.  It got warmer; April was 24% sunnier than average.  The crucial flowering in June was good, near perfect and much of the summer warm.  Veraison was even and successful in July. Then the rain came back in August, the rainiest in 20 years says Pierre Larmandier-Bernier.  But since then the roller-coaster year has picked up and there has been a good deal of ripening warmth to see the vintage home.  Too soon to call, but the quality of fruit will be pretty good, much more uniform across the region than in recent years.  There will be vintage champagnes made.  The ripest villages were allowed to pick, if they chose, from the 8th September in parts of the Aube and Cumières in the Marne, with most beginning this week.  The harvest will go on into late September and early October.

Is there a trend in the nature of Champagne vintages?  It seems so.  The grapes are riper, quicker to ripen and on average harvest begins two weeks earlier now than 20 years ago. Potential alcohol in the region at harvest has risen .8% in the same period. And most experts agree it’s all down to climate change, and pollution, maybe.  Increased CO2 in the air means more CO2 for photosynthesis.  It’s hard to find reliable figures on rainfall trends and what they might mean.  But acidity in the grapes has been falling as sugar levels have risen, prompting bigger fractions of winemaking without malolactic to retain freshness and less chaptalisation and lower dosages.  And there’s plenty of wine in stock as yields have risen over 20 years and now with a fully-planted appellation and the benefit of the economic slowdown.  For exports at least, the slowdown is ending.  There’s plenty of champagne to go around.  I see a leading bar in London sold 18,000 bottles of champagne last year. Moët sell 87000 bottles of champagne globally every 24 hours.

A reservation about some current champagnes I taste is the increasing number that suffer from oxidation.  By this I mean a toffee and overly butterscotch, a burnt treacly note at worst, that gets a thumbs down from me; and normally I welcome the increasing diversity of champagne styles, including those made partly oxidatively in oak. But the oxidation I am finding more of recently is not from oak which used well increases intensity, freshnesss and complexity.  The source I suspect is from tired wine which was just not good enough to be kept so long and used as reserve wines in NV blends.  Of course, some of this over-the-hill wine may have been stored in oak but just as often I’m told the reserves have been in tank.  But I’m wondering if the slowdown in champagne throughput during the economic crisis has led to a small fraction of producers keeping and using reserve wines which should have been used earlier.  I’m interested in others’ views.

But when you pop the cork this week, raise a glass to the pickers and the press teams and I hope they have one too.

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Dom Pérignon’s latest release is called ‘DP 98 P2′ and makes it sound like a space ship. And I was reminded in May, when Dom Pérignon launched the ‘Plénitude 2′ version of their 1998 wine, of the Star Trek credits showing a bottle of DP 2265 christening the hull of the USS Enterprise.

Dom Pérignon is still the best known and most popular de luxe champagne, those top bottles in short supply that form every producer’s pricey top-end of range.  It’s also the oldest de luxe cuvée, launched in 1936 with the 1921. At a current reported (but never confirmed) around 5m bottles of each vintage made, DP is not quite a micro supply and remains indulgently affordable, around the same price point as a Premiership football match outing or a night at the opera for those who do these things.

I can quite happily report that this wine was the best champagne I have tasted so far in 2014 and I’ve tasted oodles.  But what exactly is it?  With its discrete lilac-taupe label, it’s obviously not the straight DP, which comes in the jungle green dress you may know so well, but both are unmistakably Dom P.

Top champagne bottlings have been into micro variants for quite some time.  The aim, when it’s not a single vineyard bottling, is generally to keep a small fraction of production on the second lees for even longer than usual.  The result, having been kept in ideal Champagne cellar conditions, can showcase the extra-complex flavours of long lees-ageing. The best known of these ‘late-release’ styles is probably ‘Bollinger RD’, the RD standing for ‘récemment dégorgé’, which began back in 1961 with the release of a 1951.  RD is extra-age Bollinger vintage released in batches several times a year.  It is not really that different a practice to many other houses who disgorge their vintage de luxe cuvées (as they do their straight vintage cuvées) in batches.  You might object that it means there is rarely just one version of the wine, that each is different because it has had different amounts of cellaring time before disgorgement.  But there is no God’s rule that a vintage champagne stock can only be disgorged in toto simultaneously.  It adds to the fun, for the lucky few at least, to be able to explore differences between champagnes with different times on lees.   And it allows the houses who do it to introduce another category within the de luxe category, and charge a premium for it.

It also, at connoisseur level, drives top champagne right onto the lawn of fine wine.  All that fun and frivolity in champagne’s image gets some serious bottom from the realisation that Champagne also does complexity, stemming from its long time in bottle before it’s sold.  In fact, its real significance in the face of the ‘it’s all bubbly’ and Prosecco-led sparkler boom, is that champagne is the most complex and demanding of all fizz.  By a country mile.  Late released champagne is making a statement which pours its echoes into the glass of every good champagne served, be it non-vintage or vintage:  No other fizz in the world is capable of improving with age into the realms of ultra complexity.

However, the Moët release of Dom Perignon 1998 Plénitude 2, is a new departure in several ways and in general for extra age de luxe champagne.  Firstly, the name Plénitude, obviously new, replaces the category ‘Dom Pérignon Oenothèque’, the previous term for the fraction held back for late release (a normal release would be after about 7 -8 years for Dom Pérignon).  The fraction was a tiny few per cent when the project started but may rise towards 10% of production in future.    This specific cellar however will keep its name, as a ‘wine library’, an ‘oenothèque’, the cellar where back vintage reserve stock is kept at all fine wine domains.  The ‘Plénitude’ wines, as we now should call them, are aged under cork not a crown cap, as Moët believe present caps can deteriorate after 7-8 years.

In itself, the extra-age Dom Pérignon project is not new.  The first Oenothèque release was in 2000 with the 1959.  And since then, these vintages have been late-released: 1962, 1964, 1966, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1973, 1975, 1976, 1978, 1980, 1982, 1983, 1985, 1988, 1990, 1992, 1993, 1995, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2005. (up to 09/2014).

But the launch of this Plénitude (P2) with an explicit new title and label for the 1998 is a new departure for Dom Pérignon which sets it apart from the generalised ‘recently disgorged’ basis of all other houses’ special ‘collection’ or ‘ultra-cuvée’ wines.  And here’s why.  Of course, all wines, including Dom Pérignon, are ‘recently disgorged’ at some point in their drinking lives.  The view has always been that the wine has been kept fresh on its second lees in the bottle. As soon as the disgorgement has been done and the dosage married for a suitable few months before final release, it is ready to drink.  Moreover, so the conventional wisdom has been from the champenois and critics alike, the shock of oxygen ingress at disgorgement means the wine begins to go downhill after its relatively short drinking window on release.  And another fizzy shibboleth was added to this dystopic view of champagne ageing: that the longer the wine had spent on its second lees before disgorgement, the quicker would be its decline after.  Too soon, the toffee-like muddy flavours of oxidation would creep in to the champagne.  Only a minority of eccentric, perhaps British, champagne freaks liked old champagne that way and used weasel words of glee such as ‘..gloriously evolved and nutty..’ when the wine all along was oxidised to kingdom come.

The Dom Pérignon Plénitude project (the word means ‘completeness’ or ‘brimming with expression’) goes directly counter to that. Instead of disgorging most of a vintage batch of RD-type wine after suitable extra age on lees, and then disgorging the rest at intervals and implying it should be drink tout suite, Plénitude is based on the claim that there are three (possibly four in the future?) distinctive plateau-like periods of extended ageing on lees. Plénitude 1 is the first release of the wine at about 7-8 years on lees.  Plénitude 2 refers to ageing on lees of some 12-15 years before disgorgement and release to the market and Plénitude 3 is 20-30 years on lees.  But the decisive new aspect is this:  ’Plénitude’ refers to more than simple the period on lees or the moment of disgorgement.  It also refers to the ability of the wine to hold and express the full complexity of its ageing phase for an appreciable period after disgorgement.  In fact, Chef de Cave Richard Geoffroy claims that, for Dom Pérignon at least, the longer the lees ageing, the more stable the wine after disgorgement.  And this runs quite counter to the gospel according to certain champagne critics in the past.

The Plénitude series wines will be released unevenly, not in vintage order, easy to understand given the uneven development of different vintages of any wine.  And they will have much more time than most champagnes resting in cellar after disgorgement and dosage – in the case of the P2 ’98, two years rest.

There’s no question, as I indicated earlier, that this P2 ’98 is a fabulous fine wine.  It was disgorged in April 2012 (and the date is on the back label) and given a dosage of 6.5g/L.  It showed mid-gold with fabulous bright highlights, a gentle nose of nougat and vanilla and a herbal, smoky and greengage quality developing into crême brulée and warm butter. Above all, it was very fresh, intense and lively but with a subdued creamy mousse, an altogether elegant and racy texture which carried into the long finish with mouthfeel all delicacy and finesse.

What are we to make of Dom Pérignon’s claims for post-disgorgement stability and ageing?  It needs emphasising that top wines that can age are top because they come from great vineyards and Möet has a vast estate to select from for Dom P. And ditto, they are wines from good to great vintages. And Möet’s winemaking rules of stainless steel, a rigid reductive method and no Pinot Meunier in DP (it’s 50/50 Pinot Noir and Chardonnay), all no doubt help.  Just because DP can age long, it would be mad to claim therefore that so can all champagne.

Not that many people worldwide may have the deep pockets and patience needed to chart the three Ps for vintages of DP.  You will need to follow a Plénitude vintage wine for some 30 years and buy all three versions to join the DP time trial lab club.  And how do we know these wines will be kept by everyone in pristine cold, dark cellars once released?  The 3-stage theory of plateau-like character is plausible and has been considered by Möet’s winemakers for some time. I first heard the idea back in late 2003 at a tasting of the Oenothèque vintages 1973, 1980, 1988 and 1990 in London. But there is only scant and fanciful description from Dom Pérignon’s people so far, of the flavours of each Plénitude stage.  Stage one has been dubbed ‘harmony’. Stage 2 is about ‘energy and intensity’ and Stage 3 is ‘calm and complex’. You can understand some reluctance to claim too much since it won’t be Dom Pérignon cellaring these wines once sold and most people who buy this wine will probably have no intention of waiting too long to pop the cork.

But in the meantime, I’ll say it again: this was the best wine I’ve tasted so far in 2014. And I think it would be wasted on a space ship.

Dom Pérignon 1998 Plénitude 2. RRP £260.00

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Champagne is another country. They do things differently there.

Yield, for wine, is how much you make from a unit of land.  Among many wine lovers there is a perhaps naive view: high yield bad, low yield good. The idea is that the less fruit you take per acre or hectare, the more concentrated or intense its flavour and this is a universally good thing for wine.  But the waters, if not the wine, muddy once you investigate.

Most really good harvest vintage years in places like Bordeaux and Burgundy, tend to have pretty high yields.  Not all that much of a surprise perhaps; good weather often means a lot of ripe fruit.  And then remember that ‘planting density’, the number of vines per hectare or acre, is going to make a big difference to yield.  If you have 10,000 vines per hectare, the yield is going to be much higher than if you have 5,000.  And the age of the vines can be crucial too.  Older vines make much less juice in the berries, even if it is more concentrated.  Finally, sadly in many cases, factor in the yo-yo nightmares of growing anything: disease, frost, hail, drought, even forest fires in some countries.

Champagne, or at least the crushed juice it is made from, needs higher yields ideally than grapes for other still wines.  The low vigour thin soils (meaning with low fertility) have set a tradition for high density planting, at about 8,000 vines per hectare, which is going to up the volume ante.  The champenois have argued juice for champagne needs to be more flavour neutral than wines made for fruity emphasis.  The vital complexity of champagne comes from the cellar ageing of very mineral, blended wines, not tutti frutti.  But even so, when you learn the (EU set) total maximum annual legal yield in grapes set for Champagne is 15,500kg/ha and work out what that would mean for a still red or white wine – over 100hls/ha – then it seems very high. Very high say compared to Bordeaux, where we’re told the yield is half that.

Key Point Number 1.

First, there is an annual decision by Comité Champagne (new name for the CIVC ruling body) to set the base yield harvest maximum for that specific year.  This is the maximum amount of grapes that can be picked and turned into champagne immediately, or at least the process right up to to bottling before aging.  This is always below the absolute maximum of 15,500kg/ha set by the EU and is based on the state of the market. The annual base maximum is set as late as possible, usually in July before the harvest.

This maximum used to be a bun fight between the opposing interests of the growers who own most of the vineyard, and the houses, who have to buy the most expensive grapes in the world. In any year, obviously, the growers want to be able to harvest and sell as many grapes as possible; the houses want to buy just what they need and no more.  Since the global financial crisis, much of the political wrangle has been sucked out of this annual ritual by setting up, from 2010 onwards, a more objective statistical operation of Comité Champagne called the ‘observatoire économique’.  The yield figure is arrived at by cross-analysis of sales over 12 months, the total stock of reserve wines and bottles aging in the cellars, and finally, predicted sales.

Why such a need in Champagne for an ‘economic’ or market maximum yield?  The region is not unique in this; both Port and the Sherry producers do the same. Champagne is aged 2-4 years in the producers’ cellars on average before it can be sold. What is harvested and bottled in year x, will not be offered for sale, mostly, until sometime in x+3. But supplying demand in x+3 means calibrating what you make now with what you think that future demand will be, factoring in any unsold stocks from not getting it quite right in the previous two years.  That’s why the grapes you pick now need to be based on a fair idea of what you might sell three years ahead.  Champagne is mostly a ‘price elastic’ good; demand takes a hit in hard times.  Aligning production with demand means trying to second guess the economic cycle.

Comité Champagne have just revealed the yield for harvest 2014, set on July 16th: 10,500kg/ha, quite a cautious small rise given the average set from 2001-10 was 12,285kg/ha, with the maximum in 2013 being 10,000kg/ha, and this reflects the slow pace of the current global economic recovery, particularly continued stagnation in Champagne’s domestic market, France.

But this maximum of 10,500kg/ha or base yield can be increased by producers up to a limit called the ‘rendement butoir’ (top limit).  The difference between the base limit and the top limit is made up by grapes whose product goes into the ‘reserve’ held against each grower’s name if they sell their grapes to the big houses or coops or held by the grower themselves if they make their own champagne.  This ‘reserve’, with ever-changing rules, has existed for a long time in Champagne.  It is a buffer against shortage or surplus of wine to give steady supply in a northern region beset by bad weather and big swings in annual harvests. And all of this Reserve will eventually add to stocks of the reserve wines (wines from vintages older than the last harvest) which are used to give the vital complexity to champagne blends.

The Deal in 2014

In a nutshell (wake up at the back!), here’s the Comité Champagne deal for 2014:

  • Base yield: 10,500kg/ha for beginning making champagne now
  • 400kg/ha of this is from existing Reserve stocks or 500kg/ha if 2014 sales go  over 307m bottles.  So in effect, you can pick only 10,100kg/ha to begin making  champagne now.
  • A maximum (‘butoir’) over the top limit picked of 3,100kg/ha extra – ie a top limit of 13,200kg/ha (10,100 picked plus an extra 3,100) which has to go into the Reserve compulsorily if it is picked.  But the amount put into Reserve cannot allow the Reserve to go over its maximum of 8,000kg/ha.

So, if my crop is 12,000kg/ha, 400kg/ha of this is already accounted for and will be made into champagne from my Reserve of stocked vins clairs – the wines that have completed their first fermentation.  Which leaves 11,600kg/ha.  But that is still 1100kg/ha over the base yield so it has to, compulsorily, go into my Reserve.  My Reserve presently has 5,000kg/ha left in it after the 400kg/ha mentioned above has been used.  So I can stock away 5,000 plus 1100 kg/ha to bring my Reserve to 6,100kg/ha, still well within the 8,000kg/ha limit.  There, easy!

In practice, the grapes in Reserve have of course been made into liquid still wine – the ‘vins clairs’ and this is how they are stored until used in future blends when permission is given by Comité Champagne, the constant overlord and record keeper.

So yield is a tricky thing in champagne.  It’s a bit technical and the mind can wander.  But we’re not finished yet.  You might wonder why Champagne measures yield so far in kg/ha, effectively bunch weight, not the wine made.  And that is because Champagne is uniquely the only wine region in the world (although copied now by Franciacorta in Italy) that controls yield twice; first via the weight of fruit and secondly by the amount of juice and its type that can be separated from the fruit at the press.

Key point number 2.

Yield is only partly set by picking; yield in Champagne is also set a second time, at the press.

Champagne must aim for great delicacy of texture in the mouth.  There is already high acidity and the bubbling mousse, two big facets of mouthfeel.  The ideal of a creamily delicate mousse is partly met later by the long aging on the second lees at an ideal 10-14C, which is directly related to tiny fine bubbles.  But retaining fresh acid and extracting as little as possible of microscopic solids from the grape pulp and skins is fundamental. The grapes for champagne are less ripe so far north than other southerly regions, and have a tendency to give astringent compounds from pressed skin and pulp if not pressed very gently indeed.

So the amount of juice that can be pressed from the solid grapes is the second crucial control over yield.  The ratio rules are pretty simple – 102L of juice from 160kg of grapes, maximum. A basic press load might often be 4,000kg of grapes and 2,550L can be extracted, the best juice from the first 2-3 press cycles being called the ‘cuvée’, or 2,050L. In practice, all the juice has to be pressed but is separated into two quality fractions, this first, the ‘cuvée’ and the second, the ‘taille’.  The second inferior fraction makes up parts of the blend of lesser, lower quality champagnes which have less freshness, age quicker because they have more oxidisable grape compounds in them and have a coarser texture.  If the producer does not want to use all or some the ‘taille’ it can be sold off.

The ratio of 102L from 160kg is a yield of roughly 63.75% of bunch weight into separated juice.  Champagne made from this year’s (2014) effective maximum yield of 10,100kg/ha (remember 400kg is already counted from the reserve) would therefore go on to make finished champagne at roughly 67hls/ha – the final volume in litres will always be a little more than the notional 63.75%, because chaptalisation will make a little more volume, more volume is made from the addition of the yeast/sugar to provoke the second fermentation in bottle and the final wine will be lighter once heavier sweet juice is converted into lighter alcohol and so makes more litres than the figure in original kilos.

Over the last 15 or so years, Champagne’s real yield, outlined in the process above, has averaged 65-75hls/ha, which for such a densely planted vineyard does not seem so bad in the face of occasional charges that yields are too high for the highest quality.

In fact about the same as Bordeaux.

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I admire, drink and promote many so-called ‘grower’ champagnes.  But there is often a slim grasp of the facts and concept out there.  Some say ‘grower’ is the bees knees of ‘terroir’ and authenticity and dismiss the famous ‘grandes marques’ houses.  Others reject ‘grower’ as rustic and overrated and follow only the big name houses.  It can be a dialogue of the deaf which divides champagne into a deadly dualism with one of these worlds often banished to the outer darkness.  It’s time there was less crass simplicity and more clarity.

1  Most ‘grower’ champagne is not made by the growers and not with their own grapes.

Some 58% (2013 figures), the majority of ‘grower’ champagne, is coop members’ identical blended ‘soup’ on which they put their own brand label.  The coop growers RCs (or Récoltant Coopérateurs’) have grown the grapes but the wine is made for them at the local coop and their grapes are pooled into a coop blend.  They are usually selling the same wines as their neighbours, but with different labels or branding.  This ‘coop clone’ champagne can be decent but is rarely high quality and often mediocre.  But if other wine regions sold the same wine like this, but with different producer labels, there would be an international outcry.  Champagne does it but few abroad seem to know or realise how the RC system works, even within the wine trade.  This is no shock revelation, yet an eerie silence reigns.

2 The term ‘grower’ romanticises small champagne producers

It presents them as artisanal horny-handed sons and daughters of toil, one American critic even calling it ‘farmer fizz.’ This is hopeless urban condescension in many cases. This imagery may please hipsters and help turn some grower champagnes into cult wines with inflated prices.  But champagne with straw in its mouth is no more near the mark than the sometimes overdone glitz and glamour imagery of the global brand champagne ‘houses’.  The best grower champagnes depend more on originality in vitculture, winemaking and technical expertise than the hands-on traditional graft of the artisan farmer.  Even growing top grapes these days is a matter of science and technique.  To stereotype and glorify peasant-farmer trappings leaves the field of sophisticated imagery to the big ‘houses’.

3  Only a fraction of so-called ‘grower champagne’ is high quality

In the same way, but a fraction of the wines of the big global brands is truly outstanding fine wine. Basic to being a candidate for ‘grower’ quality, but just the starting point, is that the domaine is totally self-sufficient: its own land, only its own grapes, and makes everything itself.  But of these RMs (Récoltants Manipulants’, (42% or 1,951 of growers in 2013), probably only roughly 150 are making truly high quality wine at present.  Often, to be noticed, domaine champagne needs to overachieve.

4 ‘Domaine’ or ‘Single Estate’ champagne is the best term for the true ‘grower’  champagnes.

Only RMs should qualify. ’Domaine’ is the term used for a proper wine estate universally by critics, producers and wine lovers worldwide and should be adopted in Champagne.  It expresses the integrity of using only one’s own grapes from one’s own land and making all the wine yourself under your own control.  Already many top champagne ‘growers’, use the name ‘domaine’.

5 We should stop using the term ‘house’ and ‘grower’ interchangably.

Critics, marketeers and sales people often conflate these terms and obscure a vital distinction.  No matter how much of champagne’s vines the houses own (only 10%) they are not self-sufficient and nearly all purchase grapes they have not grown themselves. This is the true definition of a house or ‘negociant’. (NM): a producer who can buy in the raw material to make the wine and usually does.

6  Grower champagnes do not automatically taste of ‘terroir’.

The concept of ‘terroir’ in wine is fragile and poorly established.  Wines do not have ‘terroir’ just because the grapes come from a limited and identifiable vineyard area.  Terroir is not conferred automatically by origin or intent before the wine is made; it must show tangibly in the taste of the wine.  The wines must have a taste unique, characteristic, specific to that vineyard or district.  But many commentators merely assert this in vague metaphors.

Certain villages or districts in Champagne do seem to have a taste profile but winemaking creates taste variables too.  Many domaines do not make only ‘local brews’, but blend as well from quite widespread origins and these cuvées are often excellent and can show other aspects of ‘terroir’.  Champagne has always shown great savoir-faire and excellence by blending across vintages, districts and varieties.  This does not invalidate high quality.  A champagne can still be poor quality, poorly made, even if its grapes come from a limited place.  Mediocre winemaking obscures terroir.  Great wine making is as much a condition of expressing terroir as the terroir itself.

7  Domaine or single estate (old term ‘grower’) champagne should not be virtuously counterposed to the big branded champagne houses’ wines.

Most of the houses, at least within their range, can make fabulous wines.  They have great experience and expertise, possess great cellars and reserve wines and can source wines for many stunning blends and possess the stocks for good aging.  The jibe that houses merely make ‘house styles’ ignores the fact most domaine (‘grower’) champagnes also show the signature of the producer clearly and consistently as at least one aspect of their identity.  Predictable, easy-drinking and crowd-pleaser champagne is as much made by many ‘growers’ as it is by many houses.

Just to be clear, on balance, the average quality of the big houses’ champagnes is at present higher than the majority of so-called ‘grower’ champagne.  A champagne does not score brownie points just because it is ‘grower’.  Nor does a wine from a big house.  It is the taste profile of the final wine in both cases that is the arbiter of quality.  And ‘growers’ benefit enormously from the international prestige of the Champagne appellation; they flourish under its umbrella just as the houses bask in the interest, ‘buzz’ and diversity of domaine champagne.

8  Critics and wine journalists should stop recommending domaine or single estate champagne for its ‘good value’ pricing.

We are often advised to buy domaine champagne because it is cheaper than the big brands. But very good champagne deserves a good price whether made by a house or domaine.  The top domaine champagnes in fact have prices higher than many of the houses’ wines, and why not?  The reason so much mainstream ‘supermarket’ wine is mediocre is because the public have been educated by many wine critics to race to the bottom on price.   If critics do not oppose buying the promo ‘deal’ instead of buying good champagne then all wine, all champagne, will be mainstream and mediocre.  Sometimes a great wine can be found at a modest price.  But this is not the same as recommending plonk just because it is cheap.

9  Domaine or single estate champagne can be and is becoming ineffably ‘cool’.

This is because it dares to be different, at least amongst its greatest exponents. It needs to tell a story which highlights and connects the consumer with the people who make it, because it cannot yet compete with the huge brand resonance of the big brand champagne houses.  It can show a range of flavours – including ‘terroir’ – hooray! –  and stylistic moves that are original, unusual, exciting and astonishing.  This diversity challenges the dogmatism that champagne should taste one way, the samey mainstream champagne style.   Domaine champagne is as great a glory to Champagne as the big houses, and the best show classicism as well as innovation.  But waving the heritage flag of tradition down generations, rather than claiming outstanding quality, proven in taste, is a mistake for domaine champagne.

It is a good thing domaine champagne can sometimes scare the horses.  This is what makes it cool. It changes the imaginative boundaries of champagne winemaking, creates a healthy ‘culture clash’, call it a shake-up if you will, within Champagne.  Domaine champagne should strive to change and develop its wine to ever higher quality and take its customers with it.  There is a sense that the big houses sometimes work hard to get better at making the same thing.  Domaine champagne is not frightened to develop its flavours and styles if it means more finesse, greater precision and balance, complexity with longevity: better and more interesting champagne.

Domaine champagne is about the science, art and soul of its makers.  It should refuse to be tied down by staid imagery of history, aspirational lifestyles , and ‘bling’.  In London right now, the best restaurant wine list of single estate top quality domaine champagnes in the whole country, and by some way, is at ‘Bubbledogs’ which serves more or less only one item with them: hot dogs.

10  Quality selection rules.  In the UK right now, domaine or single estate champagne needs to reconnect with marketing top quality and not finding ‘growers’ to import at all costs at modest prices.

Too many, not all, importers of these wines seem to have selected their portfolio with less regard for quality, perhaps without enough wine-tasting experience or expertise being applied. Exclusivities are sought for quick direct import when more careful selection of quality is crucial.  Proper selection demands repeated long-term visiting of producers, discussion with them, study of their viticulture and winemaking over an extended period, maybe several years, and exhaustive tasting in Champagne .

A number of web-based marketeers for ‘grower’ champagne adopt the easy lowest common-denominator ‘farmer fizz and ‘artisan’ imagery, and some say they sell only ‘grower’ but lob in some houses or coop wines too. The marketing by growers’ representatives in Champagne treats coop clones as generically equal to proper domaines and little quality sifting goes into the export effort.  A useful promotional body in the proper sense of single estates is www.vigneron-independant.com, although this is not just for indie champagne producers, but all France.

This quality problem does not of course apply to the 25 or so elite domaines already internationally established as the stars of single estate champagne.  But the real work of exploring and finding the next top single domaines has barely begun.  Probably, many of them have yet to be found. Which is exciting and very cool.

The established stars of domaine champagne:

I have included Jacquesson (NM) because they behave like a domaine in so many ways.  In my view, Jacquesson may well be the best quality producer currently, in all Champagne.

Agrapart
Paul Bara
Bérèche et Fils
Cedric Bouchard
Francis Boulard
Chartogne-Taillet
Dehours
Diebolt-Vallois
Doyard
Egly-Ouriet
Pierre Gimonnet
Jacquesson
Lancelot-Pienne
Larmandier-Bernier
Jacques Lassaigne
Serge Mathieu
Pierre Moncuit
Pierre Péters
Jerome Prevost
Eric Rodez
Jacques Selosse
de Sousa
Tarlant
Vilmart
Vouette et Sorbée (Bertrand Gautherot)
*Picture is the Terroir & Talents domaine group poster: 2013 tasting in Epernay
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A link up was announced today, a Huffington post exclusive, between Dom Perignon and Prosecco. There will be a short 6 month second fermentation and ageing in tomb-shaped magnums at a secret location in Sicily before each bottle is blessed by the Pope in Rome, personally signed in Paris by Francois Hollande and packed in Epernay at a plant owned by Johnny Hallyday. It will be called Shamecco.

Dosage will be zero and disgorgement only ‘a la volly’ as Toni Glera said, the CEO of the joint venture. A biodynamic cuvée is planned, once parcels of land planted from the Les Crayeres lawns in Reims and a disused car park in the Sézanne have come on stream.

There are to be new steel-lined barriques for the ageing of the vins clairs, with kiln-dried maple wood from a small forest discovered next to the main runway at Charles de Gaulle airport. The barriques will be flown to cellars in the Cartizze village of the Veneto which have a constant temperature of 25C and a testing humidity of only 10%. A new cultured yeast has been selected from the bedrooms of 5000 teenagers pledged to be in loving relationships, who were secretly commissioned from lycées in Venice, Reims and Les Riceys. A rosé version is expected next year, blended by the addition of bull’s blood from Charolais cattle, buried for five years in unicorn horns at the bottom of the Laguna Veneta.

Shamecco is expected to sell for €7 a bottle on release. New Dom Perignon chef de cave Ricardo Geofferrari said the wine had massive density, matched only by its apparent weightlessness ‘It will be good with chocolate’ he said.

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If you read wine columns, a diminishing habit amongst wine drinkers I’m told, you may have noticed that wine writers almost never criticise a wine.

It’s been in the back of my mind for years but recently I read a lot of restaurant, film, concert and book reviews and it hit me between the eyes.

There’s a time-honoured tradition amongst UK critics in general, of telling the truth or at least speaking your mind.  It’s become part of the entertainment as well as the cultural information on what to see, read or eat. You don’t have to believe every visceral and damning comment from Giles Coren on food or from Fay Maschler or AA Gill.  Or even Derek Malcolm and Mark Kermode on film.  I’m reminded AA Gill does polemic and brimstone about print as well as shrimp.  Only recently he trashed Morrissey’s autobiography as: ‘A sea of Stygian self-justification and stilted self-conscious prose..’ You can file this stuff away and go and try for yourself.  But it is hugely entertaining and can provoke discussion about just what is quality, what are the criteria for judging food out, a good read or a film?  Canons are a good thing – they keep us all alive to just what is entailed in deciding what is good and what is bad.  But most wine writers avoid it like the plague.

I know it’s not because wine writers are just so nice to everything and everybody.  In private, believe you me, they pan a poor wine like the best of us.  And not just wine. Only yesterday, a very good UK wine writer, a brilliant specialist on the scientific aspects of wine and pioneer blogger about wine (OK it is Jamie Goode) said ‘BA sucks’ on Twitter when he had to pay through the nose to change a flight.   But wine writers don’t dish the dirt on wine or do it rarely, in print.  I can only think it is because they are in awe of wine distributors and the PRs they rely on to keep sending them the samples and on the jollies to wine regions.

Many critics use a scoring system for wines and this works to soften their blows. The 100 point scale weirdly only begins at 50.  But aficionados know that less than 90 on this scale is merely OK, and less than 80 rubbish.  But 70+ is a first for a university degree, so forgive the poor consumer for not realising an 84 for a wine from a critic is a definite thumbs down. The scale allows critics to give what seem quite high marks and avoid having to write the weasel words or even, say exactly what they think.  As revered Hugh Johnson said recently about the 100-point scale:  “…the whole thing was idiotic from the start – it’s time we shelved it.”

You could argue that of the 1000s of wines out there, many are made by small families doing their honest best and the last thing we want to do is smash their chances of selling their wine for a small income or even break even.  Especially when we know how rapacious the supermarkets can be when bargaining with suppliers over price.  But I don’t see many people buying things on such a charitable basis.  Least of all wine critics.  They generally tote mass brands to drive, make calls, go jogging and be online.  And they comb reviews and blogs like the rest of us to find the weaknesses or poor experiences with products.  And you can argue that a small family wine producer making so-so wines, will never get better unless criticism is made.  If you don’t criticise wines when they deserve it but simply stay silent, the wines will probably stay bad.

Perhaps, most wine critics would agree, 90% of all the wine on sale out there is plonk. I do not mean 90% of all the different wines, but 90% of the volume.  A limited number of branded wines make up the ocean of what is sold (and they sell 80% of all the bottles bought in the UK) by supermarkets.  Most of them sell for or under around the average £5.20 spent on a bottle of wine in the UK.  And in a bottle of wine for that much, once you have paid transport, duty, the profit margin and tax, the wine in the bottle is 83p. And it is plonk.  But hardly anyone says so.  Why?  And one can go further – there are plenty of mediocre bottles, that should know better given the competition from 1000s of wonderful good quality wines, which sell for much more than £5.20 but give the drinker a shabby deal.

Maybe wine columns are on the wane because they are so bland. The odd reservation here and there but in the end they are all about recommendations and price.  The best you get often is slight condescension – phrases such as : ‘Not thrilling..’ or ‘perfectly serviceable…’. The message is, it’all good for its price, so just buy on price.  But this mistakes consumer journalism’s real mission.  Wine so happens to be a product where there is a big price and quality gap.  And even a big gap between prices for the same quality.  All wine critics agree on that.  Just go on Wine-Searcher to see the yawning chasm or tiny hole the same wine can make in your wallet.  That’s one of the reasons the punter is anxious about buying wine.

It might be a start if wine critics said more often: Here’s a gem, buy it.  And it’s much better than that one over there that isn’t good enough, for a similar price.

Why don’t they ever mention ‘that one over there’?

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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.

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I think today I may have tasted my best wine of 2014.  Not bad for January 13th, but by the law of averages this augers well; surely something will be even better to come over the next 353 days. But the bar is now set high.

Weingut Schäfer-Fröhlich is in the Nahe, a rising star since 1995 when Tim Fröhlich’s potential football career ended with injury.  It has been wine’s gain and the estate is now one of the best in Germany and definitely in the Nahe elite. Quite amazing; to have arrived in the company of Dönnhof in so short a time.

The Schäfer-Fröhlich Felseneck Riesling Eiswein 2010, just 6% abv if you happen to be cutting down in the New Year, and coming only in half bottles, so even more abstemious, has density but a filigree texture from wonderfully natural acidity that holds the wine through its great length.  There’s a saline minerality cosseted in bitter honey.  It’s very young, hard not to drink now but surely promises wonders in maturity too. Very good indeed. I’m afraid I could only dream of the foie-gras it made me crave, surely a destiny the angels have marked down for it if you are lucky.  Perhaps another time.

The joy does not come without a ticket – probably well in excess of £100 per half bottle.  UK stockist: The Winebarn, Dummer, Hants RG25 2AE This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . www.thewinebarn.co.uk

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Apparently in the ‘squeezed middle’, Boden wearing Volkswagen Passat people are not afraid to do ‘thrift’ now, even though they would never call it poverty.  But surely, they would never be seen dead (or in pink track suits and new trainers) in Lidl. Think again, or choke on your next Waitrose bill.  The day may be coming when the mortgageazzi of England worry how far it is to a Lidl like they do about good schools. Especially as it’s eco-cool to take your own bag shopping now.  You won’t be spotted by neighbours when you drag the Lidl swag from the car.  And what a relief Lidl don’t do home delivery.

Cleverly Lidl have made a big push to attract the belt-tightening ABC1s and now crow of a great Christmas with 25% of their customers reading books and going on short city breaks sur le continont.  That is when they are not the ‘middle class…being the…Lidl class’, as Claire Bowman put it, writing in the Times.

And shock horror, this is not being achieved by downmarket ploys of free coffee and newspapers but by reversing the age-old supermarket tactic of doing price offers on posh goods like wine so as to suck in footfall – I do love my footfall being sucked – who get the BOGOF on Chablis and fill their trolleys with a big shop on top. It works, but far too simple for Lidl.  They seem to have done it with upmarket goods that nevertheless seem bargains. ‘Which?’ thought their mince pies better than Fortnum & Mason’s for Christmas. Goodness you think, Lidl will be selling foie gras next.  And then there’s those lobsters for £4.99.  OK, small, frozen, cooked, not that great, but they make a good mousse starter. It’s the lobster word, stupid.

All of this is beautifully illustrated with Lid’s wine innovation.  They have pulled in a panel of Masters of Wine to rate their new Wine Cellar range.  Even after Christmas, when I went to my nearest Lidl – OK, Finsbury Park is not too far from Crouch End, I mean Highgate borders – most of the latest additions to this range were in stock.  I served them blind to my wine geek (will discuss wine as much as clothes) and wine loving, (not too fussed if it tastes nice) friends.  They were impressed.

Next day my Harley Street dentist neighbour texted me to say how great it was to taste good wine that does not cost the earth.  She would say that – the average price of the eight wines was £10.60 a bottle, double the average paid for wine in the UK. But she was right.  The wines do taste good; everyone thought so.   Here are our favourites, with Italy doing well:

Brunello di Montalcino DOCG 14% 2008 £19.99 14%abv Medici Riccardi. Our most liked, though we considered it could be Burgundy before we saw the label.  It is 100% Sangiovese Grosso in fact with fruit and yet great cut from its fresh but talcum smooth tannin.  Worth the money.

Vernaccia di San Gimignano 2012 DOCG 2012 £6.99 13%abv Podere Macinatico The 2011 won a bronze medal in the International Wine Challenge.  This lovely Italian white had a quiet, airy intensity and a lingering almond finish.  Good.

Barbera d’Asti Superiore 2010 DOCG  2010 £9.99, 13.5%abv, Cascina Posine A lovely warm, smouldery note and gentle aromas of violets.  Neat, fresh structure and cut; well done.  Often one of Italy’s better mid-market red sources.





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1 Don’t Be Lazy About Wine Don’t be impressed by ‘experts’ who say they have a mission to demystify wine. If you want more out of wine than a pick-me-up after work, happy juice for the middle classes, then make some effort.  Music, art, science, poetry, astronomy, photography and angling are complex pursuits; wine is too.

Don’t fall for the dumb-downers who say knowing about wine and caring about quality makes you a snob. How much time and effort does an avid reader, amateur musician, car freak or angler put into what turns them on?  Be ready to devote at least as much time to the subject of wine as they do to their bag.  Of course there are endless levels of commitment in between.  But don’t fall for the idea that pursuits with effort are no fun.

2  Drink less, drink better. Stop buying plonk (ie most wine under £8.00 before a discount) and cut your consumption in two if not more.   If you don’t want to spend more than £30 a week on wine at home, buy one or two bottles for £30 / £15 each.  Your liver will benefit and you give yourself a chance to learn and drink something good at least 50 times a year.

3  Join the Wine Society. This only applies to UK readers.  If you do not already belong you are missing out on the best wine seller in the UK.  www.winesociety.com

4  Wine Writer’s Opinions. Don’t let wine sites or articles talk down to you, as though you need a guru to tell you what to buy or what’s in, what’s out. Take control and learn to judge quality so you can make up your own mind.  The best wine writers don’t shout the odds or tell you what to drink, they lay out their opinions and ask you to consider them. And the best have dumped the silly 100 point scale that falsely starts at 50.

5  Read More If you are a wine freak already, you have never been better served for wine books and digital downloads.  Wine Grapes (Robinson, Harding, Vouillamoz), Penguin, Allen Lane, for starters – e-book version too.  The World Atlas of Wine 7th Edition (Johnson, Robinson), Mitchell Beazley, also e-book, is a new wine nut survival tool – love those maps!! Two recent books on Bordeaux are really tasty:  Bordeaux Legends – The 1855 First Growth Wines (Jane Anson) and Neal Martin’s self-published Pomerol (https://www.pomerolbook.com/order.php).  Peter Liem and Jesus Barquin’s Sherry, Manzanilla and Montilla is terrific (http://www.sherryguide.net/).  Just out The Christie’s World Encyclopaedia of Champagne Sparkling Wine (Tom Stevenson, Essi Avellan) is required reading for fizz freaks too.

Similarly, You cannot be a serious joyful wine hobbyist unless you go through the pay wall of at least one expert wine site online.   Start with a sub to www.JancisRobinson.com, easily the best wine site for those who love wine and want to learn more.

Most wine blogs, (and there are too many) could be better written, even when the author clearly knows a lot.  Many wine columns are readable because foremost, the writer is a professional journalist.  By all means read blogs, but sift to find the best and move on if they falter or peter out or start shouting at you.

6 The Prosecco Procession. By all means drink Prosecco if you are desperate and broke, but accept it is mostly sweet fizzy pop with ethanol.  It may have gained some cachet in a recession but this does not stop it being poor quality wine on the whole. If you love it anyway, fine!

7  Bordeaux Stop making the excuse that Bordeaux is a busted flush as Asian plutocrats price it out of your league.  That is no reason to turn your back on a region still making the most complex long-lived red wine.  Or think you don’t need to learn about Bordeaux wine any more.  About 30 chateaux may now be well out of the league of the average wine punter.  That still leaves 100s of estates making good to great wine at more reasonable prices.  The same, to a lesser degree, goes for Burgundy, the Rhone and Champagne.

8 Australia For slightly different reasons, if you have veered away from Australia because of its BBQ and ‘sunshine in a bottle’ image, or even its appalling oily cheaply-oaked Chardonnays of the past, then come back.  Australian wine quality has now pulled significantly ahead of the rest of the New World, except for California and the US west coast.

9  Eating Out. Have the courage to tell some restaurants their wine mark ups are rapacious, including the mark-ups in trendy ‘natural’ wine bars.  Wines by the glass are great, but usually marked up far more than the whole bottle.  Do cook more for friends at home and avoid paying to have your wallet filched so often by wine lists when you eat out.

10 Natural Wine Natural wine is a big misnomer. Wine is not a natural product, ever.  It does not make itself.  Growing grapes and making wine is a major human intervention in nature.  Wine making must make sure things reproduce well and save many things from decay using techniques which are far from natural.  Many so-called natural wines in fact contain appreciable levels of SO2; I’m glad they do.  Nevertheless, many so-called ‘natural’ wines can be delicious, although rarely profound and fine.  Remember what Bobby Dylan said: I am against nature. I don’t dig nature at all. I think nature is very unnatural. I think the truly natural things are dreams, which nature can’t touch with decay.

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