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!
I love gadgets, but am sceptical of much wine paraphanelia such as the idea you need different glasses for nearly every wine. But I like the promise of making some red wines nicer, so was keen to see the iFavine machine for softening tannic wines. What with the new Coravin for taking glass samples of wines from good bottles without having to drink them all at once (I’m definitely a fan) and countless wine aeration devices on the market too, most notably the Vinturi, the wine gimmick freak has plenty of toys in the pram right now. But at £1300 a pop for the iFavine (at Harrod’s, London) it lightens your wallet more than the rest by some way.
As you see, it’s quite a package, not necessarily the most elegant and discreet little number. But it will sit nicely in the decanting station of restaurants and at home you may be glad it’s hard to miss if you want to show off to friends. It aims to soften the tannins and overall texture of red wines fast and make them more attractive to drink young. But it’s not just about taste. It potentially gives you and me and the busy sommelier in a restaurant, that priceless commodity we have little of – time. Instead of having to decant young big red wines hours ahead, it claims the same effect can be had in minutes. And if you want fine reds eating out without ordering the stratospheric older bottles you can save phoning for the list and ordering so they can decant before you arrive. All the faff can be forgotten; you arrive, order and the wine is ready in minutes. And you might save on the bill by drinking the 2012 instead of the 1995 at four times the price. In a few years, perhaps sommelier exams won’t want them to decant in front of the judges, but show which buttons to press for which wine on the smart phone app bluetoothed to the iFavine machine.
Entertaining at home, it promises to save you the stress of thinking you know how to decant and while its bubbling away your friends can admire it and talk about house prices and schools to their hearts’ contents while you plate up supper. Some may even think it will save you waiting for fine wine to mature in a cellar. Just buy it young and age it ten years on the time machine in a few minutes.
It works by bubbling near-pure oxygen through wine which has been opened and poured into a special decanter which is then mounted on the machine. The touch of a button will oxygenate the wine in minutes, calibrated to the traditional decanting and ‘breathing’ periods of 30 minutes to several hours. You can see more of it in action and its working on a video here. The technology of stripping air down to O² in a box is a huge hunk of what you’re paying for, but purish O² will work on the wine quicker than mere air, largely because nitrogen, the biggest part of air, won’t soften tannins in a month of Sundays. The science of oxidising tannins is well-established, developed in SW France years ago. The iFavine company is Bordeaux based.
So how did it perform at the trial I was invited to? Pretty well, I must say, and I was impressed. On the techy side I admired you can work it from a smart phone app and that it has an air-intake and treats to remove impurities, water vapour, nitrogen and carbon dioxide to make purish O² for the bubbles. So no expensive cartridges of gas to buy. They claim it will perform well for over 150,000 decants. So if you do fine wine at 10 bottles a day, you’ve got 40 years of fun. Unless you’re a real gadget freak and want the new model ASAP.
The demo wines were Chateau Malartic La Gravière 2009 claret and Penfolds St Henri 2012, both fine, very young still in development, the Australian majoring on Shiraz, the other on Cabernet and Merlot, famously tannic varieties and both in good ripe years with very dense tannins. The 2009 without aeration was slightly more savoury and advanced with drier tannins than the St Henri. With a short aeration both wines had noticably rounder tannins and less ‘grip’, less astringency but also showed brighter primary fruit aromas. Very pleasant indeed, if a little simple. A light aeration from traditional decanting is well-known for blowing away off-odours and opening up primary fruit. With more aeration, equivalent to 1.5, 2 and more hours, I felt neither wine got any more ‘drinkable’ but both seemed a little flatter as if the top notes had been lopped off.
So I think for very big young wines this machine will do the trick if you insist on drinking them so very young and want gentle, fruity sensations. But I would not give them extended bubble time. Perfect for people in a hurry who want to drink icon bruisers from the latest vintages but turn them into suave princes and princesses at an early age with the wave of a wand, or rather the touch of an app. I think you would need to try many different wines than two, whites as well, to get an idea of just how much the iFavine fits your palate.
But I’m left with two doubts. This would not be much use for older wines which have been cellared and thrown a deposit. They will still need classic decanting to separate the sediment. And second, one of the points, for some the main point of top wine, is that it develops fabulous flavours as it improves with age. They need time. The subtlety of great wine is not the same thing as making it nice to drink when still in baby-grows.
Last week, one of Champagne’s elite boutique producers, whose wines I admire very much, set the Champagne chatterati agog. Champagne Lenoble announced they will not put the date of disgorgement on their labels. Wait for a chorus of tut-tutting no doubt, from the blogging, Facebook and mini-army of Champagne followers. Calling for this crucial date to be on every bottle, has been a badge of the serious champagne lover and critical ultimatum from most wine commentators for a number of years. If you want to go to heaven, baby, let’s see your date.
Disgorgement, one of Champagne’s uglier words in both French and English, is the removal of the plug of yeast sediment from a bottle of champagne after it has done its second fermentation and ageing on yeast lees. Left in, the sediment would make champagne pour cloudy and brown. But even those two sentences will have lost 99.9% of people who love champagne and drink it quite often. They do not know about these things and do not care. Even a champagne connoisseur need not know these things. Most will make it their business to know because if you’re nuts about champagne, there’s an obsession with minutiae, as there is with any hobby. Petrolheads love to bore about when Ferrari switched to the Mk6 camshaft on the S9 model. Radio hams go swivel-eyed when they tell you about that chat in Morse with someone on a roof in Peru.
Champaganinis are no different. Champagne after all, is a story with more twists and turns in its making than other wines. But what a true connoisseur will have above all, is a regular and vast experience of tasting many different champagnes, of different ages and origin and producers and be able to judge their style and quality. That’s all that really matters.
Connoisseurship may seem old hat and the best I’ve met modestly play down their expertise and say there’s so much more to learn. But they understand that with champagne as much as any wine, you do not taste the label, only what is in the bottle. If you believe a champagne’s taste can be inferred from a list of facts on a back label you simply do not understand how even from a Big House, with what seem like standardised production methods, bottles can differ and styles evolve. This means a disgorgement date or a tasting note all come with the first caveat of wine: only the taste matters. You can more or less forget the rest. And the second caveat is: learn to taste, learn to make good tasting notes, keep records, and discuss champagnes you taste with others. OK, sorry, five caveats.
So I’m intrigued by occasional calls from holy-holy champagnistas, often who say grower’ champagne is the only sort worth drinking, who seem to think the disgorgement date on the bottle is a red line, and if it is refused then a cynical big business fraud is being perpetrated on the consumer. It quickly becomes a David and Goliath issue for some, big secretive business huffily resisting transparency demands. The hipster rumour mill cranks out that Big House so-and-so say their Brut NV has a ‘minimum three years on the lees’, but everyone knows (OK, a few of us) that it’s really only two. And QED, if the house won’t tell us the date, then they must be wearing emperor’s clothes. Smoke and mirrors and champagne suddenly share a conspiratorial bed. Cue posturing. Pierre-Antoine Rovani, who for ten years was Robert Parker’s champagne critic, in the end announced his refusal to review any champagnes which did not show a disgorgement date.
But more and more champagne houses are stepping out of the shadows and put the information on bottles or via QR and other codes (see Krug) which let you look it up on their website. The early pioneers were Champagne Bruno Paillard in 1983, then Champagne Philipponnat (1996). Nowadays it is de rigeur for cool single estate (‘grower’) producers to put the date on the bottle. And more of the bigger champagne houses now follow suit, notably Moët et Chandon who now put it on their latest Grande Vintage bottles, but not on their NV wines. But the bulk of Big Champagne still hold back on this apparently easy and transparent fact.
So why might the disgorgement date be important for us to know? The first and most obvious answer, the no-brainer, is because unlike most premium wine, 96% of champagne is non-vintage. No single year stares back at you from the front label. So a disgorgement date is the next best, since 2-3 months after the day of disgorgement, and the dosage and cork going in seconds later, the champagne is put on the market. Disgorgement day more or less tells you how long it is since the wine was done and dusted. And you can infer a bit more perhaps, though it gets a little fuzzy. For most NV, go back three years from disgorgement to the bottling and then the year of most of the wine, average, say, some 75% of what is in the bottle, will come from the year before that. The rest of the wine will be reserve wines blended from other years. If it says disgorgement is October 2015, then you might assume 2011 is the majority year of the wine.
But so what? You also need to know the grape blend, what kind of vintage conditions there were in 2011 and where the grapes came from. Knowing how the wine was made and what was in the dosage are big factors too. And even this NV ready-reckoner is going to be very rough and ready. It only works for ‘average’ champagne. Do the stats: very few bottles of champagne will actually be ‘average’ in this numbers game – there are too many variables. The wine only has to spend four or five years, not three, on its second lees before disgorgement, and all your reasoning and sums are blown out of the water. Reliable sums on this can only be done if you know two dates: either the date of bottling and the date of disgorgement or one of those facts and a clear statement of how long the wine was on lees in bottle. Easy, yes? Even more facts need to be on the back label and a growing number of single estates in fact do give this information, but still a tiny number of producers in toto. I’m wholly a supporter, but I’m already thinking what a campaign to explain all this needs to look like and what ideas it would try to elucidate.
The further out from disgorgement day you are, the more the information might be useful. If the NV bottle in my hand says disgorgement was, say, ten years ago, and you don’t know where the wine has been since, then you will probably put the bottle back on the shop shelf and slip away. A risky buy. Unless it was Krug Grande Cuvée (you’ve checked on the website of course on your phone as you stand there) or Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle, who incidentally, don’t put the disgorgement date on the bottle. But finding 10 year old NV champagne on sale is not very likely for most consumers, even enthusiasts, for all that. But even short-dated NV champagne, from the Big Houses, can be made and disgorged in three different batches a year, with different reserves, tweaked grape blends and dosages. A disgorgement date won’t tell you that much. The jigsaw puzzle has a lot of pieces and the picture on the box is blurred.
There’s a second, less obvious set of arguments which claim the disgorgement date is vital to know, not just because it might tell you how old the wine is. They depend on theoretical positions about two technical things – so stay awake at the back. First, ideas about the effect of disgorgement on the wine. Second, the relation between how long a wine is cellared on its second lees before disgorgement and how long it is kept before drinking after that. Everyone agrees that at the moment of disgorgement oxygen is taken up suddenly and dissolved in the wine. The old thinking is that a vast amount of oxygen gets in to the champagne and is a huge oxidative shock. The conventional wisdom of established commentators, but shared by many champagne producers, says that because of this big O² gulp, and particularly if the champagne has been aged on lees a long time before disgorgement, it will age more quickly after disgorgement and the oxidative effect of this operation. So a wine kept say 7-10 years on lees will go down hill faster after disgorgement and therefore needs to be drunk sooner, than one kept say four years before disgorgement. With this theory you can see why it might be important to know the disgorgement date.
Recently, these big claims have been questioned. Key producers in Champagne are now saying that long lees-aged champagnes might have long and evolving lives after disgorgement too. There are big variables and unproven assumptions behind the traditional thinking, after all. A recent view is that, depending on how well controlled disgorgement is, the O² uptake is not as big as thought. The expulsion of the yeast plug fills the neck with CO² and if dosage and corking is quick, uptake may only average 2-4mg/L of O². Recent technology called ‘jetting’ in Champagne sprays a tiny jet of wine on the the surface in the bottle neck, provoking a little bubbling and expelling O² from the head space just before the cork goes in. Add in big variables such as the level of SO² added at that point, to scavenge O² after, and the ‘magnum effect’ of slower development in bigger bottles and the jigsaw again gets harder. There’s more. I believe many forget the vital importance of the vins clairs quality in the first place. A wine from great terroir or blended from several, will age and become more complex than lesser raw material. We know the world’s ‘grands crus’, not just champagnes, age and improve much longer than lesser, cheaper wines. And it’s clear this has a lot to do with where the grapes are grown, not just with how the wine is made. The best champagnes’ legendary ability to age well is probably about terroir as least as much as time on lees and disgorgement. And finally, we all know that how a wine has been cellared after sale, where it has been, is critical for how it tastes.
I’m all in favour of knowing disgorgement dates. I certainly can’t take seriously Big Houses who say they omit them because the punter might be confused, think they were vintage dates on NV wine or sell-by dates – I’ve heard all those excuses from the horse’s mouth. If they think something might confuse I wonder why they refuse to explain. It’s not so hard.
But suddenly, the disgorgement date may tell us much less than some have thought. There are no pat certainties. It’s a page in the book, not the whole work. It’s the car registration not the service log. It’s certainly not the golden key to the secrets a bottle of champagne may hold. Just take a look at the wealth of information on the Lenoble back label above – far more than 99% of champagne makers presently tell us. It’s not spoon-feeding, even if you can read the French. There are terms there many champagne lovers might need to do a bit of homework on. But for all the mild surprise at Lenoble’s little provocation in keeping one fact back, let me say what my overwhelming feeling is on appraising that label: I want to open the bottle and taste the champagne.
I’m relieved I have made this choice of a single wine without the careful sifting wine critics go through to sound authoritative when they pronounce on the good and great bottles of a year. This one has been sitting on top spot for me since April. And like all great wines, it had as much to do with the people and occasion as the wine itself. OK, that’s how it seemed. Perhaps the wine was the real deal in the end. Anyway, at least you are spared me nit-picking about a ten-long bunch of champagnes which made the cut.
‘Deal’ is a case in point. I hate wine discounting, but finding a great wine at the low-end of its price range is a hoot. There we were, champagne nut friends together in a restaurant in Reims, when this little slumbering baby opened its eyes and smiled up at us from the list. Champagne Dom Pérignon Oenotheque 1962, offered at just over €600 the bottle. If we had been in London, Fera at Claridges, it’s listed at £3700.00. Here we had the whole bottle for the price of a single glass. No brainer.
Anyway, enough faff. Here’s the tasting note I made, partly at the table and expanded slightly later:
Medium deep winking gold but not browning. Nose was a shock – honeyed and with a whiff of lemony sea breeze but absolutely no oxidation aromas. A very gentle mousse by this stage but not dull; the light prickle fluid and creamy with honeysuckle and light pastry notes, gentle smoke and white coffee. Utterly delicious at 53 years old and long, not over long, without forcing or just lingering. Left open for 15 minutes it developed some faintly sherried whisky-oak notes, no doubt the beginnings of oxidation now exposed to air for the first time in over half a century. Blind I would have put the vintage much more recent – somewhere like 1979 or 1988. Striking, elegant, good looking rather than profound depth, but such a pleasure and really quite understated.
I did check what others have said. Stevenson has judged it ‘one of the most seductive Dom Pérignons.’ Broadbent gave the 1962 vintage in Champagne 4 stars and said, ‘consistently good, dry, fruity, interesting wines…One of those northern European vintages when a fine, hot, ripening September made up for a mild, sunless summer. The wines were not unlike the 52s, firm, a trifle austere but long-lasting.’ He gave this wine 5 stars in 1981: ‘Consistently noted as very dry, though refined and with great length. Unquestionably a fine wine.’ He signed off this note in a compendium book of his notebooks in 2007 with: ‘Probably still holding well.’