London’s super St James’s wine club: ’67 Pall Mall’ is hosting 15 top champagne single estates for an upcoming day in London – June 8th.
In the afternoon there is a tasting of all the wines for leading sommeliers and wine managers.
The evening session, for club members and guests will be a walk-around tasting of some 3-4 cuvées from each producer, some 50-60 top champagnes -all from leading growers and small boutique leading houses. See the full list below. It’s booking fast at just £30 a ticket. If you are a member or know one to be his or her guest, be there….A great chance to taste, meet producers and buy if you wish, from UK suppliers. This is how Grant Ashton, CEO of 67 Pall Mall, has billed the event:
New Wave Champagne
A new wind is blowing in Champagne…the top small ‘growers’ (single estate RMs) and an elite group of small boutique houses (NMs) are making more intense and ‘terroir-tasting’ fine wines, and this is very much on trend now amongst fine wine lovers worldwide. But a striking paradox of modern Champagne is that most of its top producers are unknown to many fine wine enthusiasts. These producers share an artisan and family pride in their independence, as well as a determination to revolutionise viticulture and winemaking in Champagne.
So what is all the fuss about? It is often said that unlike the larger marques that blend grapes from many locations to create their blend, the RM’s (Récoltant-Manipulant) and smaller NM (Négociant-Manipulant) Champagnes offer a precise expression of terroir. Clearly a pride in their viticulture isn’t exclusive to the Growers, the top Houses and Négociants are very conscientious in the selection of their fruit as well; however it is the directness of the relationship of what is in the glass via the winemaker to the terroir (that is often family owned) that typifies the category.
We are delighted to welcome 15 of Champagne’s top artisanal producers to 67 Pall Mall to present multiple expressions of their wines. Each producer will be on hand to pour 3-5 different cuvees and to answer your questions – and hopefully to de-mystify this most fascinating and under-explored part of the vinous world.
The 15 producers who will be present:
Champagne André Robert RM Le Mesnil
Champagne Corbon RM Avize
Champagne Dehours RM
Champagne Eric Rodez, RM Ambonnay
Champagne François Secondé, RM Sillery
Champagne Jacquesson, NM Dizy
Champagne La Villesenière RM Boursault
Champagne AR Lenoble NM Damery
Champagne Nathalie Falmet RM, Rouvres-les-Vignes, Côte des Bar
Champagne Nicolas Maillart, NM Ecueil
Champagne Vazart-Coquart RM Chouilly
Champagne Vilmart, RM Rilly-la-Montagne
Champagne Lacourte-Godbillon RM Ecueil
Champagne La Veuve Fourny NM Vertus
Champagne J-M Sélèque, Pierry
Tel: 020 3000 6767
Most of Champagne’s best producers are unknown to most champagne enthusiasts. What other wine is like that? I often meet people who drink quite a bit of champagne maybe several times a week. They are happy to say they are champagne lovers. Heavy users. And they can reel off the names of ten producers at least; usually all big house brands. They drink some high class boutique houses too. Gosset and Ruinart are on their lips; Salon, no probs. Wow, even AR Lenoble. They have good taste.
And of course, these can be lovely wines. But they have never heard of Selosse, Agrapart, Bérêche, Egly-Ouriet, Péters or Chartogne-Taillet. If I gave them these wines blind they would love them too. OK, perhaps not the nose of some Selosse. I love the ‘houses’ above and these names too. It’s my job to know about them. The ‘unknowns’ are ‘grower’champagnes of course.
But in contrast there are bunches of champagne fan fashionistas in leading international champagne markets who know lots about ‘grower’ champagne. The names of Agrapart et al roll easily off their tongues, their lifestyle stock in trade. They are very coterie in the USA, Japan, Italy, France (of course), the Benelux and Germany. Question to world: why is ‘grower’champagne such a slow burn in the UK? But the on trend, and hip and hot, when it comes to champagne, drink almost only ‘grower’, even if, particularly in the UK, they seem for now to be only a fringe. And these complete worshippers of ‘grower’ may even feel drinking the big houses is a bit infra dig.
So, it’s not just that the big house serious champagne drinkers do not know much or anything about ‘grower’. The ‘grower’ people, like a mirror, often give the big houses a wide berth. and may not know that much about them, beyond the big names in lights. We have a curious, polite stand-off, a tension between house and grower, with one side neglecting or even ignoring the other. There’s nothing new in this. I’ve sat and listened to some (a minority I think) leading grande marque house executives and owners who dismiss most ‘grower’ champagnes as rustic, very small production and smelly. Or another, now retired, who raved at how the growers held the houses to ransom with high grape prices, and kept grapes for themselves to make their own champagne. Not good form he thought.
Then, among trade and consumers there are those with a prejudice for big houses because they are well-known, easily bought and marketed in our faces. They are traditional with (in the UK at least) a very conservative fine wine public and if you sell champagne, that’s what has always sold.
Grower fans on their side, point to the largely chemical management of what vineyards they have, by many houses . Not nice. And then there’s the easy finger to point at the marketing budget spent by the big houses. There’s something about branded wine some people don’t like. The same people who adorn their lives with Nike, Apple, Agas and Audi, feel uncomfortable if wine estates spend a polo mint on marketing. Smoke, mirrors and wine should stay away from each other is a view I meet. Of course, there’s a grain of truth in this position too. With the exception of some champagnes, most heavily-branded wines around the world are distinctly mediocre, simple and aimed at the mass market. Branding is hard to stomach for products seen as ‘natural’.
In the end, us champions of ‘single estate’ or ‘domaine’ champagnes (see here why I prefer this term to ‘grower’) need a reality check on how to market these up and coming champagnes. Surely the goal is to help them out of the shadows so they can stand side by side in proud comparison with the wines of the grande marques. The disastrous idea that ‘big house’ and ‘single estate’ belong to two different champagne realities and should not really compare or compete, seems to me the wrong route to take. It is divisive for big Champagne to shun the quality of single estates. It is equally divisive for fans of single estates to regard big Champagne as the untermenschen of mass production and glossy marketing, if only because a huge number of truly high quality champagnes will then be ruled out of court. Remember vintage champagne is only 3% of all champagne made.
But I think too, the wine trade, journalists and consumers who sell, write about and consume ‘grower’ champagne, need to up their information game about ‘grower’ champagne. Here are some of the whoppers that are not true about ‘grower’ champagne. I wish bloggers and wine pundits would stop telling such fibs.
1 There are 5000 growers who make their own champagne. Not so. The true figure they refer to (2015) is 4461. But only 42% of them, some 1891 producers, actually make their own champagne. The rest, 58%, a big majority and 2570 in toto, do not make champagne, they have it made for them by the local coop winery they belong to. Not only that, but their grapes are mixed in with everyone else’s. They get pro rata bottles of champagne back from the coop and they sell it. But just to make it clear, what’s in the bottles is a soup of all the local grapes and they did not make the wine. The ‘true’ growers, called récoltants-manipulants (RMs) are the only ‘grower’ champagnes we should pay any attention. My top 30 is at the end of my last article here. But there is another hundred-odd worth looking at too if you are keen.
2 Grower champagne is ‘good value.’ By which pundits mean significantly cheaper than the big house bottles. At the top end, see my Top 30, no it’s not. The prices are the same and often higher than Moët-Clicquot-Mumm. And why not? You hear some critics say it should be cheaper because their marketing costs are low. Are they? Per bottle? And in any case, sheer scaling means costs per bottle of a small estate producer are going to be higher per unit than Big Champagne. And if the wine is good enough, why should you pay less?
3 Grower champagne is ‘terroir champagne’. There are two issues here. The first implies that grower champagne is usually the product of single cru villages or even single parcels and vineyards, rather than made by far flung blending on the Big Champagne model. It is true the growers will have, near the top of their range, very small-scale wines from a precise vineyard. But their entry level wines will often be blends from quite widespread origins as is the way in all Champagne. And the grower estates are much more dotted over quite big distances than many commentators realise. The idea growers express a single village is simply not often true. Laherte Frères have 80 parcels, spread over 10 villages. Selosse is in Avize, Cramant, Oger, Le Mesnil, Aÿ, Mareuil-sur-Aÿ and Ambonnay. Bérêche in Ludes, Ormes, Mareuil-le-Port, Trépail and Mailly – about a 90 kilometre round trip. I could go on.
The other issue I have is with the way some commentators attribute ‘terroir’ to a grower’s wines simply because the grower takes enormous care with viticulture and working the soil, along with variations of being organic or bio-dynamic. An admirable concern for the terroir elides neatly into implying the wines therefore taste of the terroir. What is going on here is mixing two different meanings of terroir and I simply ask people to be more precise with what is already a bar of soap. On the other hand, I do absolutely agree that villages and districts of Champagne do make wines often which taste consistently individual. But these tend to be very specific bottles in most growers’ range of cuvées.
That’s enough for now. Do send your views in ‘comment’. Don’t get me wrong, I’m head over heels in love with many champagne single estates. But I worry if a cultish mythology about it means we need to clean up our act a bit when we fashion the identity and quality of ‘grower’ champagne in the media and wine education. See you in the bar of soap.
Champagne Week, the annual showcase of small but increasingly prestigious ‘growers’, took place last month.
My report is here, first published by JancisRobinson.com.
Regular readers know that we at Scalawine are not keen on the term ‘grower champagne’ or the term ‘grower’ for a certain kind of champagne maker. First, these ‘growers’ do far more than grow grapes – they make and market their own wine. But most of the ‘grower’ champagnes (58%) have their wines made for them by their local coop winery; they do not have their own press or winemaking facility. The other 42% are the true independents and we prefer to call them ‘single estate champagnes’ or champagne ‘domaines’. They are designated ‘RM’ on their labels (standing for Récoltant-Manipulant). This is in line with the normal world-wide estate, domaine or ‘chateau’ model of what are usually family-owned, self-contained concerns which own their own vineyards and make their wines themselves, only from their own grapes. Burgundy distinguishes between ‘domaines’ and ‘négociants’ and we think Champagne would make itself clearer if it talked about ‘single estates’ or ‘domaines’ in the same way. They are of course, very different entities to the big ‘houses’ which typically do not own much in the way of vineyards and buy in most or all of their grapes.
The original article used the term ‘grower’ throughout, as it is still the commonly used term. The text here is the same in every way, except we swap the terms ‘single estate’ or ‘domaine’ for ‘grower’.
Most photographs are by the brilliant Australian photographer and champagne specialist Victor Pugatschew. There are more photos than the original publication. The photo above is of Anselme Selosse showing his wines at the Trait-d-Union group tasting.
Three to four champagne tastings a day is ferocious but fun. Champagne Week got off to a fine start at a champagne dinner at Anna’s Table in Reims with the Fa-Bulleuses, a group of seven women champagne producers who form one of the younger promotional groups which make up Champagne Week. Once on the tasting floor of each event my tasting group – four men and four women including a Chinese-Canadian, a Scot, a New Yorker and another American who happens to be based in Switzerland – hunts less as a pack than you might think. We stay in a vast and well-appointed AirBnB apartment in central Reims with discussion, champagne, food and writing up notes flowing into the nights. This was my seventh Champagne Week. The first (which I missed) was in 2009.
Champagne’s annual jamboree is a must-go for champagne trade specialists nowadays and not a few wine writers. Most events are in Reims and a quick walk or taxi ride from each other. The polyglot chatter at every tasting is from a big Asian contingent, Americans and every European country, as well as the sharply dressed young French wine professionals who spill from the Paris TGV each morning and fan out across the city. Champagne Week has become a remarkable success.
About a thousand tasters buzzed round Champagne’s honey pot on the four busiest days. This is admittedly a far cry from the 5,000 or so who go to the Bordeaux primeurs, where a new vintage has more immediate relevance (or did!) to buyers than is the case in Champagne where blending is king, vintage champagne represents only three per cent of production and where vintage wines typically see the light of day only after at least four to five years’ ageing. There is absolutely no primeur market for champagne. But there is a growing buzz about single estate champagne, which is what Champagne Week is about. You can taste and discuss vins clairs to assess the new vintage but the attendees are more interested in discovering new producers, new cuvées and networking. The photo just above shows Géraldine Lacourte and Richard Devignes, proprietors of Champagne Lacourte-Godbillon in Ecueil, at the Les Mains du Terroirs group tasting.
Founding grouplet Terres et Vins de Champagne, alone in Aÿ in 2009 but still the senior grandee of the week, has gradually swelled to 23 producers with illustrious names on show such as Champagnes Tarlant, Agrapart, Bérêche and Chartogne-Taillet. Champagne Suenen (Cramant) was a new member this year. It holds its event for a full day in the banqueting salon of the Palais du Tau, Champagne’s most sumptuous address next to Reims cathedral where kings dined after their coronation. They sensibly limited numbers to 500 this year after the sunshine and a crowd of nearly 800 in 2015 made tasting harder than it should be and the wines too warm in the crush.
The wines on show are in promotional groupings of the truly independent small domaines, the RM (récoltants-manipulants) or independent family champagnes who make champagne only with their own grapes. In contrast, the big-name houses (the NM or négociant-manipulants) buy in most of their grapes to meet their need for high volumes and because few of them have substantial vineyard holdings of their own.
This year 21 different RM groups showed their vins clairs and finished champagnes, six more than in 2015. If you were a giant octopus whose tentacles could span Reims’ simultaneous tastings, you could taste three vins clairs and three or four finished champagnes from 300 different small producers, 16% of Champagne’s 1,900 récoltants-manipulants. Some attempt at avoiding clashes between the competing groups has been introduced. The week was even given a new highfalutin title, Le Printemps des Champagnes, this year with a website listing the main events. It could become hugely bigger in future. Some want it to stay cultish, but as trade shows go, Champagne Week is small beer compared with, say, the Milan furniture fair, which took place in the same week with 2,500 exhibitors and 250,000 visitors from 150 countries. Champagne Week 2025? The photo above shows Cyril Janisson of Champagne Janisson-Baradon (Épernay) at the Les Mains du Terroir event.
The only big ‘grande marque’ champagne houses whose wines were on show were the elite boutique house Champagne Jacquesson, the Wine Society supplier Champagne Alfred Gratien, and three micro-houses: Champagnes La Veuve Fourny of the Passion Chardonnay group, Nicolas Maillart from Les Artisans de Champagne (some of whose members’ bottles are shown above), and Champagne Leclerc-Briant of Bulles Bio. But the big houses issue invitations to a selected few, and why not when a good chunk of the world’s champagnerati are in town? And then there are the ‘Offs’, the pop-up events on no official agenda. There is mild chaos, there is no ‘right itinerary’; it’s a bit snakes and ladders. You can seek new finds to import, glean material for blogs and wine publications, expand your mind or even meet your idols who make champagne, network and suck up the heady buzz.
Champagne’s small estates right now may be the only group of wine producers worldwide to have an audience that is young, cool and chic. It ticks boxes by being a little samizdat, not cheap or ‘good value’ but they project an image of being authentic, family-owned and artisan, as well as de luxe. Some of the big-house marketeers must be wondering how to react to the trend that is veering away from bling, from ‘celebration’ to ‘real’. Of course, grandes marques champagnes still dominate the market but this year single estate champagnes accounted for 5% of US champagne imports. These ‘domaine’ champagnes are strong in Japan, Italy, Germany and Benelux too. Only the UK seems to lag behind, its champagne market dominated by big brands and supermarket private labels. The UK may be top importer of champagne by a country mile for volume but this year it was overtaken for value by the US. The photo above shows champagnes of the Les Artisans du Champagne group.
Eight years ago Champagne Week’s pioneers were making two promotional points, firstly that a nucleus of high-quality, small-scale champagne producers had broken through with export sales and kudos in international markets. Under the radar they were, but an elite group of about 30 now export more than 70% of their production and achieve prices in line with, and more than many of, the big-brand champagnes. The four leading groupings (Terres et Vins de Champagnes, Les Artisans du Champagne, Les Mains du Terroir and Trait-d-Union) use Champagne Week quite rightly as an opportunity to blow the trumpet of success, thanking their international fans with part-party, part-tasting.
The second impetus for Champagne Week was to cock a slight snook at established Champagne. It did not spring out of the CIVC, the unifying guardian of the Champagne appellation. The message is that champagne and Champagne is about terroir as much as vast blends. Many of the producers from the core groups are organic, biodynamic or quasi-versions of both. Riper fruit, lower yields and working the soil rather than using chemicals is sine qua non for Champagne Week. The photo here shows the crowd at the Bulles Bio event.
Some commentators even talk about ‘terroir champagnes’ or ‘terroir-driven’ wines and for some the classical idea of terroir – that certain locales or vineyards make wines that taste unique – has slipped into a broader usage, whereby intention and methods alone guarantee ‘terroir’. If you do sustainable viticulture, hey presto you make ‘terroir champagne’. It implies all sites are great if you treat them right, a notion I find hard to accept. Some seem to imply a wine might earn the ‘terroir’ mantle before any one has even opened the bottle and tasted it. But what is clear is that Champagne, with climate change, has no choice but to reform its viticulture and many small récoltants-manipulants, as well as big house Louis Roederer, are in the lead on that.
The CIVC’s promotion of sustainable viticulture and the moves towards quasi-organic HVE (Haute Valeur Environnementale) viticulture reflects an increasing concern that a warmer Champagne makes berry sugars peak faster than flavour, and roots need to go deeper into the chalk water table to reduce stress and allow physiological ripening to catch up with sugar accumulation. Houses are following single estates into HVE. With early adopter Eric Rodez of Ambonnay were Champagnes Bollinger and AR Lenoble. The photo shows wines of Champagne Vazart-Coquart at the Les Mains du Terroir tasting.
One group’s session was an outstanding success. Although not new (this was their seventh
annual tasting) the Bulles Bio group of organic and some biodynamic producers for once held their annual event during Champagne Week. Seemingly from nowhere, with half a dozen of its members also showing in other groups, a good 600 registered visitors turned up at the Reims venue as well as many more unexpected tasters. If you have already broken though to some international recognition and sales, at least with connoisseurs, and if you have green credentials, Champagne Week seems to smile on you. For now, however, tastings organised by several smaller groups of producers seeking their first foreign buyers seemed rather forlorn and ill-attended. One big group, 42 producers of the Vignerons Independents organisation, Les Pépites des Indépendants, took a large space in the vast Centre des Congrès in Reims, yet although 138 tasters registered to attend, only 70 actually turned up for the all-day event. A more spread-out programme would surely help. The photo above shows Eric Rodez at the Les Mains du Terroir day, with his wines from Ambonnay.
Some trends beyond the siren calls of ‘green’ and ‘terroir’ were clear. Virtually all the champagnes I tasted during the week had a dosage no higher than 5 g/l. The proportion of extra brut and zero dosage champagnes is rising, along with the styling of designer labels in stark black and white and the continued return to at least partial oak fermentation. When the ringing dryness is matched with intense ripe flavours, complex reserve wines, some partial malolactic, skilled oak complexity and solid time on the second lees, these champagnes can be vinous wonders. But they can be hit and miss if they miss some depth.
The phrase ‘burgundy with bubbles’ seems popular but I worry if the mousse is sometimestoo aggressive and slightly explosive through too short a cellaring, or the fruit too obviously simple. A texture of finesse is surely critical for champagne along with winemaking and maturation that transcends fizzy fruit. All-Meunier champagnes are hot right now but when a brut nature style (0-3 g/l dosage) is applied to them, there can be little other than rather simple Meunier fruit and gripping acidity with not much in the middle. But boring the array of champagnes was not. And anyway, a golden seam could be mined at every group’s event: the clear quality of many vintage 2008s, with a fine balance and power in check for the future. This is clearly the best champagne year since 2002. The photo above shows Gerhild Burkard, a recent German Champagne Ambassador, discussing the wines of Champagne Alfred Gratien at the Les Artisans du Champagne event.
As so often, my highlights came via special invitations, when something special happens. The food at L’Assiette Champenoise (Champagne’s only three-star restaurant) was artfully matched with the wines of the Champagne Terroirs etC group. The Club Trésors (Special Club) group’s ‘off’ showed some impressively lively wines of the 1980s, and an inspired open-door invitation to boutique house Champagne AR Lenoble served, among other gems and vins clairs, a wonderful 1996 and a stupendous 1959 (see below). One group, Grands Champagnes, intriguingly made up of leading domaine Pierre Gimonnet, the very good co-op Mailly Grand Cru and the established grande marque house Charles Heidsieck, presented workshops one morning of new and older vintage cuvées. It was a brilliant educational initiative that other Champagne Week groups could do well to emulate. Lunch with Michel Drappier down in the Aube, along with Charles Curtis MW, with whom I often share the Champagne trail, provided me with a chance to try the very good Champagne Drappier Grande Sendrée 2008 just released (again, see below). But a thrilling highlight was a trip to Champagne Krug with some music. Feel the vibe indeed.
MY TOP 30 DOMAINES
Interestingly, of these, Diebolt-Vallois, André Jacquart, Pierre Moncuit, Ulysse Collin and Jacques Lassaigne do not belong, for now, to any Champagne Week group. Knocking on the door are a further 50 to 75 top estates and maybe 100-odd more who deserve attention and are improving fast.
Dehours et Fils
Domaine La Closerie
MY RISING STARS 2016
Jean Velut, Montgueux
Florence Duchêne, Cumières
Ruppert Leroy, Essoyes (Aube)
Robert Moncuit, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger
Dosnon, Avirey-Lingey (Aube)
MY TOP SIX WINES OF THE WEEK
No apologies that all bar one of these came my way outside the scheduled group events. That’s why Champagne Week can be so surprisingly surprising.
Krug 2002 Tasted after the 2003 and two Grande Cuvées (ID 314057 and ID 108001 on the Krug app if you want to know more), this wine moved Champagne Week onto a different plane. After we had tasted and made a first note it was repoured and the music track Bon Iver, ‘Perth (mi ka remix) Feel the Vibe’ was played. My note hardly changed. Inevitably I compared this wine with the many 2002 champagnes I have tasted before, from about 2006 onwards. It was so youthful, so cut-glass and lapidary, it reminded me of the 2002s released as early as 10 years ago. This is younger in terms of development than most post-2002 vintage champagnes so far released. Shimmery gold with emerald lights, this is tremendously pointed and detailed with a low hum of gentle weight and persistence. Savoury, austere, glacial but beguilingly delicate in texture and the sun is there in a blue sky. Whispery notes of charcoal tinder and greengage. This has a very long life I would say, but it will be great to taste its changes all the way through. Very contrasted to the bigger scale of 2003 and quite different from Grande Cuvée’s more burnished style.
AR Lenoble 1959 Served to my group by external relations dynamo Christian Holthausen at this Damery house, with owners Anne and Antoine Malassagne hosting us.
Drappier, Grande Sendrée 2008 Stately and honeyed, all rather young and athletic still, but a rich yet taut version of this vintage with surely a long future. Drappier’s prestige cuvée.
André Jacquart, Brut Expérience Rosé de Saignée NV Smoky and complex, but so winningly fresh. A maceration of 24 hours in the press, 80% Pinot Noir from Vertus, 20% Chardonnay from Le Mesnil, all made in used oak. New release.
Domaine Jacques Selosse, Les Carelles A solera lieu-dit blend of Chardonnay from Le Mesnil. Peel, pith and honeyed, gentle texture. Quite masterly and not at all oxidised.
Champagne Duménil 1982 (magnum) Sometimes you think it must be a lucky bottle, sometimes you know a producer so well you feel this would be good all along. I’m not sure. I do not know this producer too well. Disgorged December 2002. Matchstick, cream and lemon and gently fizzy. So young and so alive.
THE CHAMPAGNE WEEK GROUPS – In order of events – quite a few simultaneous
Le Cercle des Createurs de Champagne Confidentiels
Les Mains du Terroir De Champagne
Champagne Terroirs etC
Terres et Vins de Champagne
Des Pieds et Des Vins
Verzenay Grand Cru de Champagne
Les Artisans de Champagne
Académie du Vin de Bouzy
Le Club Trésors de Champagne (Special Club)
Les Pépites des Indépendants
Grands Crus d’Exception de Champagne
Champagne For You (Vignerons de la Vallée de la Marne)
Les Contrées Ricetonnees (Les Riceys – Aube)
The photo below shows the April fields of rapeseed blooming by a peaceful cemetery in La Côte des Bar (Aube)
Paul Pontallier, who died aged 59 from cancer this week, was a towering figure in wine. Partly because he was Director (‘regisseur’) of Chateau Margaux, but beyond that, because he embodied a healthy and rational counterpoint to the view that winemakers are only the servants of a great terroir and finally unimportant. He brought a creative, technical and artistic drive to Margaux since arriving in 1983 which of course is a superb site, but whose wines are a brilliant human creation too. He once said: ‘Terroir is not just a site, but the collective intelligence of the people who worked and work at that site.’
In 1983, appointed by Corinne Mentzelopoulos, he defied local tradition. No years of quiet service helping the incumbent estate manager before stepping into well-fitting shoes. No seamless inside appointment. Corinne said she wanted, as Nicholas Faith wrote (see below) ‘someone of my own age with whom I could work for a long time.’ He was 27, inexperienced, had only ever made wine at a small estate in Chile and an unabashed oenology academic. He had been the star graduate of Bordeaux University’s Institute of Vine and Wine Sciences, toting a Ph.D on barrel maturation.
My direct experience of him was through taking wine enthusiasts on Bordeaux tours run by my Scala School of Wine, in London, from the late 90s onwards. We would visit Margaux from time to time. I may have expected a mad professor in specs but met a polished operator with a charismatic human touch. He came over as a global wine oracle, rather belying he was French and a Bordeaux local. He was an Anglo-French wizard amalgum of gallic noblesse oblige and the English country gentleman. That could, in theory, be an annoying combination. But in his case it came with great charm, impeccable tweed jackets, silk ties and sharp suits and a very sharp mind. He always managed to speak crafted prose in English as though from a heavily-edited dense text and deliver it with the emotional force of someone speaking right off the top of their head, spontaneously.
With wine people, he paid attention, looking for and at every speaker who asked a question, as I once observed in a PR seminar I went to in London. But I remember too how he came along the corridor at Margaux to talk to my rather small and modest group of seven London people. The guide who had led the tour said he might have ten minutes for us. But when he came and presented several chateau wines, he stayed an hour. Although speaking English far better than most English people, his commentary always showed that trick French intellectuals can pull off – the mix of detail and airy generalisation but delivered with a progression and oral paragraphing that is pyrotechnic but convincing.
And it all came with great modesty and ease. I asked him once how he made such a legendary vintage at Margaux in 1983 having just walked through the door. He laughed. ‘I did not dare to do anything’, he said. ‘I watched and asked things. It wasn’t me’. When he focused on an issue, there were the researcher’s ‘maybes’ and the hedging ‘we will have to observe and check carefully over the next period’. He wore his erudition quietly. I last met him in April 2013 on an en primeur tasting visit at the chateau. Our group was regaled by his son Thibault Pontallier and Paul popped in with Corinne Mentzelopoulos but stayed on the side and did not take over. Then at the end he made a round of each person in the room.
His interest was always piqued, more than anything else, by what he was tasting and what there was to discuss about the glass of wine in front of him. I find that a litmus test of wine people – those who are helplessly in love with what the liquid itself may convey. He was, another reason why he was the embodiment of more than Margaux.
Chateau Margaux – Nicholas Faith, 1991, Mitchell Beazley
Bordeaux Legends – The 1855 First Growth Wines, Jane Anson, 2013, Stewart, Tabori & Chang
Australian wine writer Stelzer does a great service to the world of champagne lovers, especially its international fans who treat it, or at least the good stuff, as the fine wine it deserves to be. Nicolas Faith, in what is still for me the best book I’ve ever read on Champagne, ‘The Story of Champagne’ (Hamish Hamilton, 1988), wrote: ‘The essential paradox at the heart of champagne is that it is a serious drink usually consumed carelessly’. Stelzer clearly loves the stuff but he could never be accused of not paying close attention. The devotion and the detail here is remarkable in what is only one of two worldwide, print published, regular gazetters of champagne. The other is the ‘Guide Curien de la Champagne 2015-16′, essential as an address book rather than for its evaluations. There are of course, occasional updates of Richard Juhlin’s tasting notes produced by his self-styled ‘photographic tasting memory’ and the Juhlin, Essi Avellan and Peter Liem paywalled websites. But the Stelzer book is the lone updated print guide.
In 2011 I gave the first edition of this publication short shrift here. This is far better. Some 95 producers are evaluated now, up from 52, and the scoring system, ranking cuvées on the 100 scale and producers out of 10, is far more consistent, with an admirable attempt to assess different disgorgments of the same cuvée on the market. There is a useful summary of vintages 1995-2014 which is new, and eye-catching photography (by Stelzer himself) which yearns for coffee-table size plates rather than book pages. It is a beautiful object, even anachronistic, in its old-style gloss paper and designed heavy board covers, published by Hardie Grant, printed in China and weighs in at 1.17kg, so the real book version has quite a carbon footprint.
My important doubt about the book is for its literal omissions. Nearly 50 of the 95 entries are single estates (‘growers’) maybe a high number to some, but the first lesson a novice champagne connoisseur must learn nowadays is that most of the important producers of champagne are simply unknown to the vast majority of champagne drinkers. The bright lights of the Big Champagne houses stop most people looking much further. But for all its serious engagement with single estate champagne, there are simply not enough enough of them evaluated in the book. So you will look in vain for names that most champagne tyros agree are top drawer: Chattogne-Taillet, Dehours, Doyard, Jacques Lassaigne, Léclapart, Nicolas Maillart, Lilbert, Margaine, Pierre Moncuit, Vouette et Sorbée, Janisson-Baradon and Cedric Bouchard, Doquet. I could add another 50 which should be in any serious gazetter. I met Tyson recently in Champagne and enjoyed tasting with him. His month-long tour in March means he will miss Champagne Week in April – the chance to taste and meet with 200+ grower producers and surely de rigueur for any commentator. But the overall discusssion and opinion is hugely better-balanced than in the first edition I reviewed and is definitely less caught in the (admittedly impressive) headlights of Billecart-Salmon.
Having said the book promotes good domaines (Egly-Ouriet top four with 10/10 alongside Krug, Salon and Bollinger) but not enough, the biggest single omission of the whole book is a house: Champagne Drappier from the Côtes des Bar. Surely we deserve a note of explanation as to why one of Champagne’s leading innovators and quality leaders with a high-detail range of exciting cuvées, gets the silent treatment; not even in the book. And while we are on the issue, where is Pommery? Current performance may be patchy but surely its historical importance deserves an assessment.
There are interesting general discussion sections and quite rightly he defends Champagnes Gosset and Bollinger against recent over-generalised charges of oxidation problems when what we’re seeing from Stevenson seems more a very deep conservatism, a somewhat dogmatic view that champagne should taste one way – essentially the style of reductive winemaking. I think there are too many, and perhaps increasing levels of poor toffeed and burnt-orange notes in many champagnes right now. One explanation may be that sulphur levels are too low in some producers. But I also think the rise of small production single estates is showing how much harder it is for small batch wine-making to avoid the ravages of oxygen in the cellar without the utmost care. I sometimes wonder if the fact oxygen is more soluble in cold wine happens too often in Champagne these days and some wines are not protected enough. Add in the fact some reserve wines possibly hung around too long in the recession and that aroma of tired toffee on too many cuvées, most of them made in stainless steel, may have a culprit.
A slightly weak section looks at the ‘grower versus house’ fallacy. While the book champions many growers and is right to insist houses and single estates should not be assessed as separate categories (La Revue du Vin de France please note), there is more to say than just: it is all champagne, let’s be friends. We are told by Stelzer: ‘Any qualitative attempt to distinguish between estate-grown and purchased fruit is tenuous at best.’ But it is a fact that the vast majority of fruit bought in by the big houses and coops is still encouraged to be high-yield and treated with herbicide, pesticide and NPK synthetic fertilisers and grown over a grey hard-pan of compacted tractored ruts making deep roots for even-ripening problematic. When you are a grower with a contract only to sell grapes you make as many as you can as cheaply as possible. With the exception of Louis Roederer, and more limited initiatives at other houses such as Bollinger and Lenoble, the viticulture initiatives to reduce vigour, lower yield, make more intense juice and protect the environment, are largely coming from the elite leading single estates.
But do buy this book. You will need a high threshold for purple prose in places and just plain over-writing. I wondered if what Australians think is good prose is a different model to the limpid concision of a European liberal education. I think most editors would bristle to learn that an idea “..bores to the very core of the fundamental question of what…” But who knows, you might thrill to know that “bronzed biceps are hurling crate after crate with robotic precision” and that then the “aromas erupt…elegantly subtle, delicately fresh and euphorically pure, the essence of the graceful innocence that is champagne.” By and large, the tasting notes are more focused but they can abound with three-legged, two epithet noun phrases that give the impression of authority by piling one quality on another in a single hammer blow. So we get: “bitter grapefruit notes”. “remarkable focus and freshness”, “barrel-aged complexity”, “chalk mineral texture”, “exuberant yet immaculate refinement, and the dodgier still something which is “seemlessly dovetailing expansive generosity..”
A champagne book therefore for the intelligent, questioning devotee.
So a family friend slips me this neatly-folded Sunday paper full-page splash before Christmas. I know you love champagne, she said. And there they were, the well-known brands and BOBs (the cheaper supermarket own labels made for them by the factory coops in Champagne), all with deep-cut promotional prices. Christmas and Easter used to be the season, but nowadays every big UK grocer seems to have at least one champagne promo on the go, all the time.
Fill That Trolley
We know why SainTesMoAsWait do it. It’s the most tried and trusted ‘traffic-builder’ going. Slash a selected price, especially on a big branded booze item and magically ‘footfall’ (that’s you and me queuing for the car park with all the other saps) zooms up. The UKs offer-holics ram the shop, feel smug as they lift the bargain bottles into the trolley, and then fill it full with other groceries. Low price champagne makes us buy everything else. And it’s win-win, because it is Mo-Mumm champagne that takes the hit – the champagne houses are paid a cost-less-discount-price (often little or nothing) for what is sold in a promo. If they object, there is always the threat of being delisted.
But wait a minute, aren’t I on the consumer’s side? Don’t I love those wine journalists out there who write supermarket PR columns telling us all where the price cuts are each week? I am on the consumer’s side. But the worst deal in wine is to be taught to buy on price. And that is exactly what the UK supermarkets have achieved with wine in the UK: they have nurtured a Pavlovian army of wine buyers whose tongues hang ready to slurp the cheapest bottles each week, most of it on promo at some point.
More than any other advanced economy, the general mass of the UK’s wine buyers treat wine as a commodity beverage to be bought on price. It’s not about quality or interest in wine on the whole, it’s about finding the bargain happy juice. Quite unlike many other ‘discretionary spend’ items (those we could survive without but which define our lifestyle and life’s pleasures) most people expect a discount when they buy wine, all wine. This is not the same as waiting for the sales twice a year for big ticket items. This is now a conviction of constant mass entitlement. The weekly wine must be a deal, every week. The supermarkets sell 8 of 10 bottles of all retail wine, almost all of it fairly dull brands which are promoted ceaselessly. But the other 20% in indie wine stores, online and in restaurants, is bought by the same people who, when they are not buying something a bit special to take to friends, are in the supermarket shopping the offers. When wine is bought it has little to do with an investment in quality, it’s about ensuring you get it for less than it is said to have cost the week before. And many wine journos have become town cryers for the supermarkets, giving them a free ad by shouting the odds.
The UK’s Most Boring Champagne
And so we come to the bubbly stuff again. The logic is inexorable. If it’s only about price then champagne is just expensive Prosecco. Home in one for why Prosecco has become, at the bottom end of the champagne market, a common substitute deal, for parties, dinner with friends and even weddings. And the price of Prosecco now snaps at the heels of the supermarkets’ own label-champagnes and one or two big champagne coop brands, such as Nicolas Feuillatte, for me the most boring, mediocre, near flavourless, mass-sale champagne in Britain. And of course the supermarket answer to this new Prosecco interloper spoiling the BOB party is to discount their own brands even more. Some 53% of all supermarket champagne bought in the UK is their own BOB private labels. And they BOB on the surface of the tsunami wave of alcoholic sugar-water Prosecco pouring off the shelves.
The UK is proud to be, by a country mile, the world’s biggest importer of champagne. We have held this position unbroken since 1996. And sales are on the rise post-recession, up 4.5% this year and even a modest 7.3% on value, reflecting mostly price rises of 2.8% once you factor in the 4.5% value rise down to the volume rise itself. But a new figure was presented at the Champagne trade tasting in London this week. After the UK, the world No2 volume importer is the USA, drinking some 20.5m bottles of champagne a year against the thirstier UK taking 34.2m bottles across the English Channel in 2015. We pop nearly 14m more champagne corks than the yanks each year. But here’s the rub. The total sale value of champagne in the USA now exceeds that of the UK for the first time: €514.8m versus the UKs champagne shame: €512.2m. So the average trade cost price of an imported UK bottle of champagne is €14.98. But it’s landing on American shores at an average price of €25.11. That’s 10 euros more, or about £8 more per bottle. A whacking value gap.
The USA market has nothing like the supermarket domination of the UK. There is much less champagne discounting. Supermarket own label champagne in the USA is peanuts compared to the UK. BOBs and cheaper coop labels are near invisible. The name of Champagne’s allure has not been reduced to the promo price or the deal. The big brands dominate slightly less therefore and ‘grower’ (single estate) or domaine champagne, often more interesting and better quality than the gargantuan Mo-Mumm brands of Big Champagne, is now 5% of the market, while still barely .5% in the UK, perhaps a mere 150k bottles annual for all its hip image amongst many sommeliers in London.
UK champagne basks in the halo after-glow of being world top importer. But much of that liquid fills the underbelly of champagne’s quality lower end. It’s the BOBs and the cheap brands and its all being discounted. Champagne and champagne educators in the UK need to begin a loud and clear campaign: Good champagne is always worth paying more for. It is the world’s most complex wine to make and can show more intensity and complexity than any other fizz. Stop the discounting. Make it Champagne glory, not Champagne shame.
Imagine if websites and magazines and newspapers, when reviewing books and restaurants, divided them into two sorts. Let’s take eateries as an example. You know, those pieces that emerge a few times a year when restos get ranked. We scan the list to see if our fave bolthole is in the Top 20, or even if any places we like are in the list at all. It’s all good fun, who’s in, who’s out. It may even get places at the top to work harder to stay there and those given a relative thumbs down, bend over to pull up their socks. But suppose you suddenly realise that trusted Publication X has mysteriously decided there are two league tables and never the twain shall meet. Basically, big ones and small ones. Anything over 75 seats has its own list and those with less, a completely separate article and rank. And hey presto, when the accolades and stars are handed out, there’s no way of knowing if a top gong for that big place in Mayfair means the same standard as the three stars handed out to that tiny family-run outfit in the middle of rural Brasserie-on-Bray. You might shake your head.
Fast forward to Champagne, not a million miles away. Prestigious wine rag, the French La Revue du Vin de France (RVF), manages to pull this stunt with its rankings of champagne producers. Every year, with a stately few months in between, expect this oracle of Parisian champagne expertise to issue its ‘Palmarès Inédit’ – ‘the latest ranking awards’- in two parts. The picture shows the latest effort to do this – a ranking of the 100 best ‘grower’ (better called ‘single estate’ or ‘domaines’) champagnes published in the RVF last November 2015. As you see, the RVF calls the growers champagnes ‘Champagnes de Vignerons’ And I also have an RVF edition from January 2014, although perhaps there’s been another since, that gives us a completely separate ranking of houses and cooperative producers.
My eyebrows are stuck up high over this but not at all because of the actual rankings. One could carp and humm and ha, that after all is part of the reason for doing such beauty parades and giving a ranking. There will always be a debate that House P is nowhere near as deserving as House Q and the same goes for the single estates.
But just to whet your curiosity, the house ranking top 5 is: 1 Roederer, 2 Pol Roger, 3 Bollinger, 4 Gosset 5 Dom Pérignon. (I can hear you screaming What?? Krug down in 7th place?? Sacre Bleu!! We was robbed!) And the single estate similar top line is: 1 Selosse, 2 Egly-Ouriet, 3 Agrapart 4 Larmandier-Bernier, 5 Georges Laval. And again, I hear the diminishing death sirens of those jumping off cliffs faced with the outrage that Péters is down in 8th.
So, you know what’s coming. Why? Why can’t these bottles be judged side by side? I thought they all had champagne inside. Sorry if I am wrong about that. Will the RVF please explain? I mean, perhaps they have discovered a bombshell of champagne research, that quality is based clearly on the number of employees or the bottles you make. It would be nice to know. But it needs clearing up surely, just in case anyone thinks the houses do not like to be compared directly with the rustic unwashed of single estate champagne.
Would it be unthinkable if the actual Top 10 went something like this: Larmandier-Bernier, Jacquesson, Krug, Selosse, Dom Pérignon, Péters, Bollinger, Egly-Ouriet, Salon?
This producer is, along with Champagne Vilmart, one of only two elite champagne domaines to emerge so far from the premiers crus triumvirate villages of Rilly-la-Montage, Chigny-les-Roses and Ludes, which sit at the western edge of the northern Montage de Reims. The relative isolation of the property when you visit, in woodland and on a winding road at Craon de Ludes, just above Ludes itself, reinforces a sense there is a quiet determination here to plough an individual furrow.
Transforming the vineyard
The high quality, strikingly intense and delicate champagnes made here reflect the Bérêche belief it is above all vineyard work which makes great wine. And in Champagne viticulture needs to be radically different from the conventional farming of most big champagne brands. But no great champagne is made without high skill in winemaking too and at Bérêche the coherence in the cellar matches the work in the vineyard. The basic wines of most big houses tend to share a bland, easy drinking style for the mass market they are aimed at; you could call it variations on ‘honey-apple-pie, with the odd drizzle of lemon rain’. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But it can be an easy read, an easy look. Horses do not get scared by many houses. But many small single estates (‘grower champagnes’ to many) are using ploughing and rejuvenated soil life an often near-organic practice and the careful use of oak barrels, to make champagne with a different vision.
There is now a diversity of more striking intensity and flavours in Champagne from these smaller producers and their ‘disruptive’ concerns make them the new conscience of Champagne. They have no wish on the whole to be seen reverentially as a cult avant garde. Instead of the arrogance one meets from time to time from champagne domaines, which assumes one is merely the latest supplicant to bow down before greatness, the creativity of the best single estates is worn with a smiling and interested enquiry – ‘Tell me how you think this tastes’. Bérêche is like this.
This is a particularly far flung estate, belying the inaccurate claim by some that single estate (‘grower’) domaines blend less than the houses and therefore make ‘terroir champagnes’. There is in fact big variation in the extent and location of single estate vineyards as well as the resulting cuvées. Bérêche farms 9.5ha in over 20 parcels, 3ha in Ludes, 3ha on the sandy deep soils over chalk in Ormes just west of Reims in the northern Petite Montagne and 3ha way to the west of Epernay in the Marne around Mareuil-le-Port, where the clay-calcareous parcels are north-facing on the Marne left bank. There are further satellites in Chigny-les-Roses, Trépail (both Grande Montagne) and Festigny, south of Mareuil-le-Port and on the winding tributary of the Marne, the Flagot. If you visited each parcel, round trip, shortest route, look to cover about 60 kilometres. This intriguing morcellation of the estate, and a field blend of about one third of the big three champagne varieties, permits a thrilling diversity of blends and single parcel wines.
The modern driving force here has been Raphael Bérêche who took over in 2004 from parents Jean-Pierre and Catherine in what seems to be a successful generational transition. He was joined by his brother Vincent in 2008. The principal changes have been to devigorate their vines with cover crops, so reducing yield and upping the intensity of the must. Ploughing is now the norm here and no herbicide or pesticide is used; methods are near organic and a portion is farmed biodynamically. There is certification for HVE (Haute Valeur Environnementale). Working the soil and applying only organic fertilisers increases the mineralisation and availability of nutrients for deep roots, both because of increased solubilisation by percolating rain through the soil horizon and because of increased bacterial and fungal activity to break down soil minerals for root tip uptake. Increasing evidence shows that more balanced vine feeding in the rhizosphere – the soil zone in which roots feed – produces both more intensely-flavoured must and healthier vines. This is what has been going on at Bérêche for the 7-11 years deemed transitional in organic farming. The vineyards are likely now to be giving back improved wine quality.
The brave new wave
The new dispensation’s dozen years has transformed the cellar work too. Enamelled tanks are still used, along with new stainless steel but 300L to demi-muid (600L) used oak is now 25% of the entry level fermentations and 100% for the top cuvées here. Indiginous yeasts are used, malolactic is routinely blocked and the wines spend longer periods than at most domaines on the gross and fine lees. Cold stabilisation is natural. The top wines are aged in bottle on the second lees sealed with a cork and staple (tirage sur liège) rather than the commoner crown cap. The thinking is that cork and staple seals fail less, allow less rapid and less variable oxygen ingress into bottles for long lees storage. At the same time, the micro-oxygenation that occurs makes for greater complexity too.
In 2013, the Bérêche brothers became a small négociant (NM). This new departure is first to increase production of the entry level Brut Réserve by one third, (raising the total domaine production to over 100k bottles) using local bought-in grapes from the closest Montagne villages. They also launched a range of bought-in finished wines clearly separately labelled Raphael & Vincent Bérêche, Crus Selectionnés. The laudable idea was to represent the wider specific origins of champagne and each wine first launched was from a single village. Two ranges with vintages from 1999 to 2008 came out in 2014 and 2015. The main labels are district names Côte, Montagne and Vallée. My notes on three of these are below and I have not tasted enough of them to come to a view on quality, but perhaps that is pointless anyway if the aim is a snapshot of the typicity of a cru in a particular vintage. Of course, the disgorgement and dosage has been done by Bérêche but these wines were not made by them. They are not quite the same as ‘sur latte’ traded wines, one of Champagne’s legal shames whereby wines made by others are bought by a house and sold under their own label as if they had made them. Bérêche are quite open with their négociant label that these are ‘Selected Crus’. But to me, it is not quite satisfactory. The back labels tell us a lot, including time on lees and disgorgement date. Yet the most important fact we are not told: who made them? I am glad that from now on Bérêche says they will only produce such wines themselves with bought-in grapes, not sur-latte wines.
The main house cuvées, the completely ‘Bérêche’ wines, are all very special. Les Beaux Regards is unusual for being a Blanc de Blancs from 70% on a single Ludes parcel and the rest from near Mareuil-le-Port. The vines are very old and it is part-vinified in wood. The Rive Gauche Wine is a remarkable completely Meunier effort, from a parcel Les Misy at Binson near Mareuil-le-Port and takes a good deal of intensity from both the north-facing aspect and the over-45 year old vines there on argile-calcaire (clay-chalk) soil. The house vintage wine since 2005 is ‘Le Cran’ from mainly two mid-slope single parcels of old vines in Ludes, about 50/50 Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, barrel-fermented and aged on cork and staple. Campania Remensis is the rosé, made entirely from Ormes fruit, hence the name -The Fields of Reims. It is 65% Pinot, 30% Chardonnay with 5% added red wine, made in wood, aged three years under cork and given 4g/L. The Reflets DÁntan cuvée is a 1985 initiated solera-blend in demi-muids old wood (600L) which bottles two-thirds of the volume each harvest, replacing that the new wine.
There are various discontinued or since-tweaked cuvées which makes for quite a complicated long list of Bérêche labels which must delight geek Bérêcheistas or annoy, depending on how tidy you like a house’s range to be. I love it. It spells out the essential creativity, ‘to boldly go’, which is the heart and soul of great single estate champagne. And here they seem to capture not just bold flavours, but a good deal of poise and elegance too.
Bérêche is a leading member of the ‘Terres et Vins’ grouping and I have tasted their wines at the annual group tasting over the last six years in Champagne. And as well, the following:
Rosé NV London, 02/10 Mid-pink and dry; leafy red berries. Elegant, not ‘juicy’ – good and taut.
Le Cran 2007 London 12/14. 3g/L. Lovely fine finessed texture. A combination of full, deep fruit, really quite fruity and then a tight very strict dry structure; seemingly no malo or limited. Ripe and low dosage – very ‘winey’. Impressive power with finesse. 21007 reminds me of 2004 to a degree, perhaps a touch lighter.
In Ludes 04/15:
Les Beaux Regards 100 CH from Ludes, Mareuil-le-Port. Part oak vinified. Very intense aromatics of quince and citrus, but real depth and creamy texture too. Honeysuckle and an arresting biting expression. A touch of whisky barrel. Grown-up and special.
Vallée de la Marne Rive Gauche 2010 London 08/15. 100M. Opulent fruit. but so elegant with a lingering texture that flows all through. Fine example of multiple top pedigrees – old vines, a single parcel, north -facing, on the south bank of the Marne.
Reflet d’Antan A great seaweed and saline aroma, very intriguing and independent but with a background of humming dusty fruit and dried peel. Amazingly detailed and persistent in the mouth. Clearly oxidative but with bright highlights. pressing highlights that keep it fresh and demanding.
Campania Remensis Extra Brut Rosé A lovely gentle texture and beguiling spice and crushed cherry flavours; cinnamon, pepper, nougat and passion fruit. Unfolds calmly and finishes very sappy and dry. This would be good even with savoury food.
NÉGOCIANT WINES – LES CRUS SELECTIONÉES Tasted 04./5, Ludes. All ‘sur-lattes’ examples.
‘Côte’ Blanc de Blancs 1er cru Vertus 2008 Green ,earth and herbs, wet chalk. A brilliant wine. The mandarin juice of the angels. Very good gentle texture and quite a life to come I would say.
‘Montagne’ Verzenay and Mailly 2006 Goldy and concentrated and showing the tell-take astringency, almost phenolic sensations of Mailly – 70% of the wine. Really sappy and mouth-watering. A good freshness.
‘Côte’ Blanc de Blancs grand cru Oger 2001 100CH from Oger. A good effort in a very tough year. Lively lemon oil notes but more than touch of oxidation. Real interest but not a very successful wine I felt. One tends to suspect the year but it may be the bottle.
Champagne Bérêche et Fils
Route de Louvois
Le Craon de Ludes
51500 Ludes, France
+33 3 26 61 13 28
Anyone who knows me or reads my stuff, knows I adore champagne, including many so-called ‘grower’ champagnes. That gives me licence to criticise it too. Not often I may add, but this week I saw things which pressed more buttons than my granny’s cardigan. I tasted some gorgeous champagnes as well, so I’m not morose. But perhaps more wine specialists do need to speak out against the mediocrity sometimes put into wine bottles. Far too many UK wine writers write about wines they like, leaving the dross largely unmentioned. If only they could copy film, restaurant and book critics a bit more and hand out some brickbats with the accolades, the consumer might get a better deal. Looking back, I’m bad at it myself; I think this is the first time in print I have a go at particular champagnes.
So, some detail on my champagne groundhog week. I’ve said before I cringe at the term ‘grower’ champagne. It means those made by producers only from their own vineyards and in their own winery. They have RM in little letters on the label. But ‘grower champagne’ is a hopelessly peasant and condescending implication and ignores the complex winemaking and marketing needed to make the great ‘grower’wines. I prefer the term ‘single estate or ‘domaine champagne’, as does any self-respecting small, family, or ‘chateau’ wine producer worldwide.
That’s got the laugh-a-line preamble out of the way. Sit back and enjoy my three champagne car crashes of the week.
Crash 1: Grower champagne is cheaper and obviously better than Big House
First up, I object to the crass counterposition of single estate and that from the houses. This comes from some hipster critics and UK merchant sales people equally. These people have internalised a false simplicity: grower good, houses bad. If champagne grew legs, George Orwell would invent it. I came across this sales flier on a website from a UK merchant who shall remain nameless, making this point to make us buy a champagne:
If it’s one thing I always bang on about when customers come in to buy Champagne, it’s the fact that you can spend half the money you would on a well known, branded bottle and get infinitely better quality and therefore amazing value. Smaller grower champagnes offer some of the biggest ban-to-buck ratios out there but are so often eclipsed by the Grand Marques with their marketing budgets and stranglehold on our romantic view of fizzy wine. If you want a bottle to prove this point, this is the one.
Spelling and big C or small c muddle aside, it’s the airy generalisation and plain wrongness here which is a disservice to Champagne and consumers. It is not true, in the UK at least, that you can buy single estate champagne at half the price of a grande marque house. Let me know who’s selling domaine champagne for £15 a bottle. Weirdly, the champagne this blurb was selling is priced by the writer at £30 a bottle. So that makes all big brand champagne £60? Next, there are over 1900 single estate (RM) champagne producers out there. If you believe this drivel you may be bitterly disappointed when you taste about 1600 of them. Sure many well-known branded bottles may be uninspiring, but babies and bathwater come to mind. I take a dim view of the champagne conspiracy theory skulking above: the idea we’re all fooled by Big House champagne marketing. Smoke and mirrors, Eva Herzagova lolling in suspenders slurping Dom Perignon Rosé. Not that the writer above would ever dare to market anything of course, on a website trying to sell champagne. And I love the idea Champagne is strangleholding Romance’s hand. Especially when the fizz most Brits buy is Prosecco and Mateus Rosé has announced more engagements than hot dinners.
Crash 2: The Drivel on many ‘grower’ websites
Next in the cross hairs are Champagne single estates shooting themselves in the foot, with the franglais clichés they churn out on their websites. When the website is only in French, most small producers seem to get the text from the Central Bank of Bullshit. Every website landing page seems to revolve around one original and startling statement: ‘Champagne Blah-Blah is the result of five generations of savoir-faire bringing you nectars of refined elegance that will excite romance and excitement in you and your friends.’ Indeed.
It gets worse when they try to write in English. Why does it never occur to them that if you want to impress online, when you write in a foreign language, get it right and get it mildly interesting? Even only half original will do. Suffice as evidence two examples randomly noted this week from the clunky websites of single estate champagne, but I could show you hundreds:
‘This champagne is appreciate with fishes, shellfishes, chickens…
‘This is the champagne for aperitif ‘par excellence’, which combines harmony and elegance with aromatic support.
The second sounds like an advert in the Daily Telegraph for clinic grade hosiery to treat varicose veins.
Crash 3: The so-so quality of many would be imported single estate champagnes
Finally, to actual champagne. I tasted the wines of four champagne single estates showing at a ‘Vignerons Independants’ trade tasting in London, all looking to be imported into the UK. I’m very positive about these ‘looking for an importer’ tastings but I have to report the hit rate with me is about one in 20 champagne single estates I taste at them. I’m left wondering why the Champagne authorities do so little to help would-be small exporters know where their champagnes stack up in the quality stakes. I tasted the champagnes of Jacques Robin (Buxieres-sur-Arce, Aube), Alexandre Le Brun (Monthelon, S Epernay), Champagne Thomas Perseval (Chamery Premier Cru) and Vincent Renoir (Grand Cru Verzy).
One of them was at least in the starting blocks of reasonable quality: the Perseval. More on that in a second. The three others shared two negative features: first, nearly all their cuvées were ‘short’. That is, lacked intensity. This is not about power and absolutely is about low-pitch, delicate, subtle but very persistent aromas and flavours that are the crux of good champagne. Second, all of them showed a low key but fatal toffee and tired note of oxidation. This was not about wood aromas or any objections to oxidative styles; I often love them. This was about handling in the winery and wines ageing too quickly, losing freshness and ‘attack’ and taking on caramelly and brown sugar notes, which some may like but I do not. Although not massive or terminal, these flavours tended to drench out the others. My thumb turned down. Small batch winemaking faces difficulties avoiding oxidation in its tanks or barrels and you need to know well which parcels of vines make longer potential wine than others. But the better single estate champagnes have conquered these challenges. The Perseval wines showed these problems less and were fresher. I see too that Thomas has been organic since 2009 which may have something to do with this. I will go and visit. There could be interesting things happening here.
So at least I can finish with hope and a smile!