The champagne flute is dead. I cannot bring myself to say ‘Long live the flute’. So, just to be clear: it is now sensible and chic to serve champagne in good quality white wine glasses. The move is now normal and even de rigueur amongst champagne classic connoisseurs and hipster bubble freaks too.
I’m sure this may be a mild shock to most. Many will scoff. And I respect those who will get a little kicky like a told-off pet, and say, so what, I’ll drink champagne or my coffee out of whatever I want thank you. And don’t be such a social totalitarian. It’s amazing the heat the choice of wine glass generates. For the truly cynical, any innovation is just an excuse for the highfalutin (sorry) wine glass designers to fleece us. For the devoted, every new glass can be a goad for oodles of verbal pretension and stories of wonderful partnerships between a sommelier, a glass designer and a big champagne house. Everywhere you go in Champagne you meet etch-branded designer glasses at every house or good single estate.
I guess it highlights too the vast chasms of social atomisation of lifestyle and culture now. I know people who don’t blink or doubt themselves for a moment when they serve wine in all kinds of heavy, coloured or cut glass, reaching deep into cupboards to fish out grandmas inherited lumber. With heirlooms you are always forgiven because they came with the loss of a loved one.
It may all have started with Regan Hoffman’s piece in Punch, here, in 2014. Hannah Goldfield weighed in too a year later with this. We are even told that the old saucer, or ‘coupe’, supposedly modelled on Marie Antoinette’s left breast originally, has made a come back. I was never sure why it was the left breast. Is it so you can hold a cupcake resembling the right one? More recently Kate Moss has repeated the stunt. I’m sure the European Commission will look at the weights and measures issues.
The rationale is simple enough. It’s time champagne was treated as a proper wine. The flute exists only to better see the fun of the bubbles. The saucer too, to watch the fizzing surface. The problem is that the aromas are lost (saucer) or struggle to get out (flute). It may be a bit po-faced, a bit killjoy, but the no-flute fatwah is a plea from champagne enthusiasts for a glass that really expresses the complex flavours of good champagne.
And what better champion of the new champagne glass order than Krug? The classic top house, for many the last word in champagne quality, has condemned the flute for good. They even tweet a pic of the music flute and say it’s the only one you will see Krug with from now. Eric Lebel their Chef de Cave, says ‘this outdated stemware should be left for inferior sparkling wines’. And their CEO Maggie Henriquez said using a flute is ‘like listening to opera with earplugs’. So there you have it.
Of course, the fun starts with what to use instead. I’m not too fussed I was going to say, but I realise I am. The name is Zalto. Some say its sweet wine glass is good for fizz, some say the Zalto Universal. But the one I’m in love with right now is the one in the pic. The basic Zalto white wine glass.
I think Richard Geoffroy, wine maker of Dom Perignon, is the best act in the wineworld ‘hood. When he comes to London to launch new nectar, the lucky invitees dutifully report somewhere nice (the 6th floor of Claridge’s on this occasion), pens and voice apps poised. Then we zone out and I for one am left with a head full of soundbites so big Panorama need to investigate. This is not a wine tasting of the normal kind. There should be a disclaimer. Attention: champagne hypnotism you may not come back from. Tell a friend where you’re going before you leave home.
Geoffroy, as a winemaker, is simply the best there is at talking about his wines. And I think for two reasons. First, he is making wines which break with the ordinary and break their rules. He is making claims which other champagne makers and critics question or reject. That is fascinating enough. But second, he can talk, in a stream of apparent consciousness, the Joycian Ulysses of champagne, that seems intellectual (and is) but which conveys stirring emotion about the wines. Commentators sometimes miss the point of what makes (very good) wine special – the emotion it can evoke. Without that, think beverage.
The London release of Dom Pérignon P2 Rosé 1996 (RRP £820 bottle) last week was a case in point. There was little discussion in the group of what the wine tasted like. Maybe because at close quarters it defied quick analysis. Some wines, to borrow T S Eliot on poetry, communicate before they are understood. Maybe the pale amber shade was neither here nor there, except to say this is not young wine.
Then three shocks. First an explosive fresh and powerful perfume ‘Dried rose, citron, saffron, figs and bay leaf’ said Geoffroy’s own note and I would add briar smoke, char and intense redcurrants. Shocking because it breaks the current rule it seems for many makers of ‘serious’ rosé champagne, that the nose should be discreet, fleeting, the dew that slipped off a raspberry. Not this 1996 number, which is more like heaven’s own boudoir in Provence than shy and dilute juice.
What a stroke of winemaking foresight; that 1996s, where acidity and ripeness both hit their highest simultaneous points of any harvest before, need to be packed with fruit for the long haul. Too many 1996s have crumbled as the fruit dies before the tartness tempers. Not this one. The proportion of Pinot Noir red wine added to the blend is huge for any rosé: 20%.
Shock two: the wine had barely any mousse. There’s a vague spritz, the texture of a gentle feather. I know some people who feel cheated if champagne does not slightly bite the cheek. The idea something is wrong if the bubbles don’t break sharp like surf. I can only say, trust the mild sparkle here because of shock number three. And that’s the backbone of Electric Kool-Aid Acid Kid that is all 1996 not 1968. A rapier of stony lemon ice acidity that holds that cloud of fruit perfume in a tight embrace and makes it all harmonious. A freshness that carries and attenuates the bouquet gracefully.
I could go on about the 1996 vintage conditions that make this 20 year old champagne such a goer. I could go on about what ‘P2′ is all about and how those 20 years have been spent by this wine sealed in bottle contact with the yeast deposits it ends up consuming . But if you are keen you will find out yourself.
And it would miss the point. This champagne is deliriously good but not like any other, because it vaults the perimeter fence of what rosé champagne should be like, in a beautiful way, right into your glass. Something quite new from rather some time ago.
I could tell Geoffroy felt quite proud of the wine he had brought to show. As he talked I remembered 1996 was the year he was made Chef de Cave at Dom Pérignon. A new role, a new baby wine. His first wine. But one which is just as new in many ways, as 20 years ago.
My plumber, upside down with a spanner under the kitchen sink, got it right last week: ‘That Pissecho’s good stuff – all the girls love it and I don’t have to stack out a big wad for la-di-da champagne!
So should Champagne look out when Prosecco’s bubble in the UK (and other European countries) sells far more bottles here than champagne? Brits who like the sweet and simple Pizza-juice knocked back over 30m bottles last year. And the USA is now the second biggest export market, but at 31.32m bottles imported this year, is expected to take the box seat away from the UK. Interesting stats when you remember the UK and USA are easily the two biggest drinkers of champagne as well, outside France.
What seems to have happened is that people who only bought champagne for high days and holidays (if you are on a tight budget, it’s funny how reasons to celebrate seem so fewer) and resented it being relatively dear, have now plumped for Pissecho. In the UK, supermarket discounting has taught millions to regard full price for a bottle of grande marque champagne as a joke. Just wait for the next big offer and snaffle a few bottles and you are done and dusted for the year. Even covers that christening at Uncle Fred’s, who you never see anyway. And if you just want the fresh hit of effervescence and get happy too, alco-Fanta Pissecho makes so much more sense.
Students like the everyday low price – you notice the Pissecho bin is always the first to deplete in the Tescobury aisle as udigrads compete with retirees and winos to grab the bottles. And when you know you are going to be staring at a whopping mortgage deposit after the words ‘You may now kiss the bride’ (or anyone else), the Italian Job is a much more sensible choice for the wedding reception than even cheap champers.
But for all that, champagne sales hit an all-time record in 2015, beating the pre-crisis 2007 figure for value for the first time. Exports led the way, growing over 12% in value. The USA, Italy, Australia and Japan made Champagne smile, a lot. The UK still takes the most export bottles, even if a lot are middling quality supermarket own labels, often destined to be discounted anyway. Those who buy fizz only for the deal have gone to Pissecho. But it’s clear a lot still buy champagne, even if they often check the deals there too.
The cancellation of the UK’s annual big trade beano champagne tasting by the CIVC (Champagne’s powerful ruling body), at least until 2018, hints they think things can tick over in the traditional markets and that Champagne wants to focus more on the possible green pastures of Asia and the BRIC countries. For the UK market we keep hearing education is the name of the game, but so far all we have seen is a quiz app from the CIVC itself. Maybe the onus is now on the producers themselves to do more work. To give them their due, most of the brands of Big Champagne have always thrown big bucks at welcoming visitors and trade launches. And every small single estate will open its doors, and card payment machine, enthusiastically, if you phone ahead.
Yet I can’t help feeling the key trick is being missed. People will always buy champagne when the good times roll. But these are hesitant times. The lure of Pissecho and English fizz seems to fit a Brexit mood in the UK outside of London and on the front lawns and balconies of many professionals.
Perhaps the way to put my plumber’s spanner in the works of Prosecco and other fizz, is to find simple educational messages about why champagne can be a better wine than those. I say ‘can be’ and that may be a problem. Far too much champagne is in the nether regions of quality and in the UK, far too much discounting teaches people champagne is just overpriced Pissecho. Complex flavours from lees-ageing, reserve wines and blending are not easy things to educate about. But that is the challenge.
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)
The small single estate champagne of François Secondé is in the pretty village of Sillery, some 10 kilometres south-east of Reims on the River Vesle and by the main autoroute. The quiet bijou centre and boat marina are pleasingly separated from the charging traffic of the A26.
Champagne students know this as both one of Champagne’s 17 favoured grand cru villages whose grapes used to command top price on the old échelle des crus pecking order, and also that Sillery wines at the court in Paris of the 17th century, were once, with the village of Aÿ, Bouzy and Verzenay, some of the most famous and revered. These were still wines in those days, owing their fame as much for their promotion by the aristocratic Brûlart family (the Marquises de Sillery) as for the fresh slightly pink light wines themselves. Sillery wines, along with a handful of other villages, were famous long before a general idea of Champagne’s regional wine, ‘champagne’, grew up.
Sillery’s vineyards are on the lower slopes and flattish land of the north-facing Montagne de Reims. Without the warmer sun of the slope higher up to ripen Pinot Noir’s red skins, Sillery came to plant a surprising amount of Chardonnay but this grape’s main reputation had shifted to the Côte des Blancs south of Épernay. In 1962 André Simon reported 277ha of vines in Sillery. Now there are but 94ha. Even so, of all the grands crus villages outside the Côtes des Blancs, Sillery has more Chardonnay planted than any other, 48%, with 43% Pinot Noir and 9% Meunier. Champagne Francois Secondé is now the sole Sillery domaine, with some 5.5ha, with 72% of the surface area of vines in Sillery itself. Boutique house Ruinart have a significant holding in Sillery too. The other growers send their grapes to the négoce or coops. Secondé has vines too in Mailly, Puisieulx and Verzenay, meaning all the wines here are Grand Cru. He is the only producer of pure Sillery wine; the vintage Blanc de Blancs and the Blanc de Noirs ‘La Loge’ are always 100% Sillery. The estate’s holding is two thirds Pinot Noir and one third Chardonnay.
After being born into a family of vineyard workers, François Secondé, a young man in 1972, bought his first vines. The single estate has grown from there, accruing land as others left. He is still in charge, ably assisted by Jérôme Groslambert.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the local contiguity of vineyard locations of the estate, the wines here show a clear taste expression of the north-facing escarpment of the Montagne de Reims. If you are familiar with the grand cru wines from Mailly, Verzenay and Verzy and baby-sized Sillery and Puisieulx, you will know they all share a cool persistent, slightly raw intensity and a distinct chalkiness which both can smell like caverns and is texturally slightly astringent. That in itself does not sound super charming. But the good local domaines and best growers coax a ripeness of fruit that packages all this austerity in a mouth-filling and slightly honeysuckle hit of flavour. Suddenly, if the producer is good, especially if the grapes are properly ripe, it all comes into focus. These can be big wines and generous in flavour, but with a delicate cut of structure and detail.
The vineyard work here avoids nearly all chemical use and works the soil, doing more than merely the basics of ‘viticulture durable‘. The vinification is principally in stainless steel but used barriques are used for small fractions of the top cuvées, in particular the vintage wines, 5% of which are made in oak for 6 months but without bâtonnage. A high portion of the reserve wines are from a solera begun in 1982, replenished with the new vintage each harvest. Malolactic is always completed. The make-up of all the cuvees is given below in the tasting notes. I do wish the labels could be redesigned. Perhaps they are a success in mainland Europe but they seem rather old-fashioned for the UK.
This is an important single estate (RM) producer whose wines are much better than being a surviving anomaly of a village origin that is now not as current in Champagne as it once was. There is typical power and structure from the location, but the wines are made with a light touch too, making them attractively persistent and full of finesse.
Brut Grand Cru NV Tasted 2015, London and Sillery. A blend of Sillery (70%), Mailly (20%), Puisieulx (5-6%) and Verzenay (5%). This is some 50-55% of production and was 66% Pinot Noir and 33% Chardonnay. Malolactic done. All stainless steel. 24-36 months on second lees. 8g/L. Lean and chalky and quite persistent, honey and vanilla notes and ripe. Not hugely powerful, but a very good reflection of the northern Montagne style. Truly refreshing.
Sillery Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs 2008 Tasted 2015, London and Sillery. 100%CH. There is no filtration of the vintage wines here. 5% is put into used barrels after beginning fermentation in stainless steel. About 5 years on second lees. Real concentration and length. Creamy and expressive but very much a chalky note yet not an agressive acidity. Quite some finesse and lots holding back here for the future.
Brut Integrale NV Tasted 2015, London and Sillery. Zero dosage. Same blend as the Brut NV Grand Cru. 70% 2011 and 30% solera reserve. Full flavoured and frank and much rounder and expressive than anticipated. Would not have thought zero. Beautifdully ripe but held in its linear structure.
Brut Rosé NV Tasted 2015, London and Sillery. 100%PN. A blanc de noirs rosé style. Unusually a mix of saignée and traditional blending in of the red wine. 8g/L 20% reserves. Palish copper. Dry and complex, but quite earthy, at least this bottle. Quite demanding and I would need to taste more versions of this in the future to have a view. A touch rustic on this showing.
Cuvée Clavier NV Tasted 2015, London and Sillery. Base 2011 and solera reserves. Small proportion finished fermentation in oak. 66%CH 33%PN. All from Grand Cru vineyards. Very fresh. Fine aromas and some finesse here. Opens up and really builds and full-bodied but all tightly enclosed by the Montagne chalkiness and cut. Very good. Named after François’s children Claire and François-Xavier.
Grand Cru Sillery Cuvée La Loge Blanc de Noirs NV Tasted 2015, London and Sillery. Solely from Sillery and the best parcels of Pinot Noir. 100%PN. Small proportion given short oak ageing. 18-24 months aging. 8g/L ’La Loge’ is derived from a small house in the vineyard. Old vines – some 45 years. This is very characterful, with great depth and expression of red fruits and yet very fresh. I wonder, as I do with the other wines, whether a longer time in bottle would produce even more intensity and complexity. Only the vintage wine has a traditional 3-5 years on lees, the rest, more or less this same short period.
Grand Cru Puisieulx ‘Les Petites Vignes’ NV Tasted 2015, London and Sillery. 50%PN 50%CH Blend of 09/10/11 in a solera begun in 1009. 10% finishes fermentation in barrique. 50% solera reserve addition. From a vineyard of .35ha Les Petites Vignes. Complex wine, ripe and full, with an aldehydic note that is attractive, then some earthiness. Very bold but a crisp boundary to everything. Quite a connoisseur and demanding wine, but a brilliant expression and the only 100% Puisieulx wine I know of.
Coteaux Champenois 2013. A white blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Quite oily in texture and marked by oak; big and linear but an arresting and burgundian-inspired bottling. Impressive.
Coteaux Champenois 2012. 100% PN. Smoky and spicy and with real fruit concentration. Long and integrated. Very impressive.
Champagne François Secondé
6, rue des Galipes
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.