Just as you were getting your head around the techno-mystery of ‘DP 1998 P2′, Dom Pérignon’s new code brand for what used to be its extra-aged ‘Oenothèque’, try LVMH’s new prestige cuvée. You may have to go under the radar to find it: there are only 100 bottles for the UK market. Perhaps these intriguing number-letter name tags are aimed at modern champagne technophiles, used to inputting passwords into a world of privacy and the feel of exclusivity.  Being ‘in the know’ is a big come-on for micro brand buyers and believe me, there are enough people like that who also love champagne. It promises you will be in a community, but a tiny one; read ‘secret club’. Cryptography, I see, is ‘secure communication in the presence of third parties’, meaning designed to keep the third parties out. So it’s just you and your ‘guests’. Clever stuff.

But for a house often associated with ‘mass appeal’ and whose total production of some 30m bottles annually does more than any other champagne to sate that demand, the surprise of MCIII is its distinctly ‘geek’ conceptualism. Decoding the name is simple, the MC (are they giggling over the Einsteinian E = mc² ?) is of course Moët et Chandon.  Then everything gets a bit more Bletchley Park. The III refers to the three types of ageing vessel (‘strata’ as Moët call them)  making the blend:

- stainless steel  37.5%, a blend of 50/50 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from 2003, kept since as reserve wines.

- large old oak vats 37.5%, the Grand Vintages blends (normally averaging 40% Chardonnay, 37 Pinot Noir and 23 Meunier) from 1998, 2000 and 2002, partly aged in oak, then kept as vins clairs reserves in stainless steel.

- normal bottles (25%) of vintage champagnes from 1993, 1998 and 1999 which have undergone their two fermentations, ageing and disgorgement.  The wines were then opened and blended ‘remise en cercle’ with the rest of the MCIII assemblage.

And the 001.14 means the first iteration of this cuvée, disgorged in 2014 and which we can therefore expect to see more combinations of in the future. Expect 002.15 etc, unless there’s already an 002.14 on the stocks.

So, all in all, all three grapes in action, six different vintages, but one of them reblended as finished champagne, the other a vin clair. And then, three different ageing vessels, the last one in glass being a quarter of the final blend, having undergone three fermentations, the first two to make three separate vintage champagnes and then blended with the whole final blend and given another ‘second fermentation’.

All clear?

It’s what goes to make each of the separate three parts that makes it tricksy. That’s a lot of winemaking, a lot of toys in the pram you have to hope will nurture and become a wonderful grown up wine. Although conceived as a plan in 2000, the project is largely that of Chef de Cave Benoît Gouez.  The wines were bottled in 2004 and this bottling was disgorged in May 2014, so there has been nearly ten years of lees ageing.

The wine actually tasted slightly other wordly after a detailed presentation of its components from Moët’s winemaker Elise Losfelt. As you might expect, there’s a sense that someone has rearranged the pieces in a chess game you thought you began a little time ago. Some of the usual expectations were not quite there.  The mid-gold colour was fair enough.  There is quite a lot of senior wine in here. But the nose was fine but more honeysuckle and citrus than the sharply pinching burnt match and buttersctoch you might expect from well-aged LVMH wines with their invariably reductive style. It seems fresher than you anticipate. Then there’s that mousse.  It’s there but silky and not as much as you thought was coming. Then you remember that 75% of this has been reserve vins clairs from six years and the rest a refermented finished champagne blend of three vintages. It has a gentle humming persistence, the sense of fullness and complexity you expect but all very gentle.  Genuinely interesting, if perhaps a touch lacking in energy. It had the texture of a genuinely old champagne but the freshness of something more recent. Dosage is 7g/L. RRP is £330.00.

I wondered if my reaction was coloured by all the detailed explanation, the expectation and what I would think if I was given this blind. Suppose it came in code?  What would I decipher then?

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There are times when Richard Geoffroy, the man who makes Dom Pérignon, comes on like a method actor playing the monkish Dom P himself. He speaks with an oracular ambiguity that might just be echoing forward from 1715, the year Dom Pérignon died. But blow me down, every time I think he teeters on parody, he says something that seems weird, but I end up thinking it makes sense. He once told me he thought a particular version of this LVMH-owned prestige cuvée showed a ‘weightless density…’  You must be joking I said to myself. Years later I came to understand how great champagne, when it really is great, is light on the palate, but hums with steady current. It tastes and feels like a magic trick. A bit like music. The sudden still baton of the conductor at the end of the music says this sound can switch off and be repeated. But can it ever sound quite the same again?  The performance is more than the score but comes with all its inspirational genes. Richard Geoffroy also once told me: ‘We make the vintage, and we make it in the envelope of Dom Pérignon. But the danger is repetition.’

Geoffroy was in London recently to launch Dom Pérignon 2006. But less became more when it turned into a mini-vertical of its momentous current five-vintage consecutive and unprecedented run: 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005 and the newbie 2006. The (probable) next will be 2009 and there will be a 2007 and 2008, so the run will then be eight continuous years. You could say hey, I thought vintage champagne was only made in truly great years, like declarations of Port. There are voices which argue for less vintage, to make it even rarer, but in truth it is only about 3% of all champagne made. But Port declarations (again vintage Port is only 2% of all Port) long ago ceased being about bingo in great summers and more about cash flow and potential sales. You could also argue Dom Pérignon will sell its 3-5m bottles made each time, no bother, whatever the year, although in the 90s, the 1991, 1994 and 1997 were missed. In the ‘noughties’ so far only 2001 was a non-starter. It is important to remember too, that with LVMH’s 1200ha of grapes owned and huge buy-in on top of that, that Dom Pérignon can usually cherry-pick the very best it wants to select in each harvest. And the clincher for these five-in-a-row vintages, is that all of them in their different ways, deserved very much to be made.

Geoffroy’s remarks in introduction usefully take us beyond the big paradox in the middle of most simple accounts of champagne. We hear houses make only a ‘house style’ by blending years.  So when they make a vintage presumably the house style takes a back seat. In the real world, nothing like that happens. Most good vintage champagnes show both the pedigree and winemaking of the house as well as the features of the year. Relax, you can do both. But Geoffroy’s latest thinking moves things on a little. More than ever before he insisted that he wants Dom Pérignon to show the clear character of individual years and not have it suppressed by house style. The phrase he used, over and over, was that the wine must ‘bear witness’ to the year. He even mused that this kind of transparency and authenticity was at the heart of real luxury. If it is only a passing moment, great vintage champagne will always seem an ‘extreme’ expression: a specific set of a growing season’s conditions.

Happily the wines obeyed their master.  Dom Pérignon 2002 showed only a slight reductive matchstick nose, a vivid, young nose, not acute, but with real substance. There was fern and butterscotch and lovely herbal notes. Everything seemed still latent, masses to come and develop.  Yet there was the ‘envelope’ of  ’DP’ fine texture and that silky mousse. It was the top wine most agreed but the rest of the field were not exactly stragglers. A big future ahead of it. The Dom Pérignon 2003 was darker than the 2002. There was an intriguing green note but not vegetal. It was clearly softer than 2002, but with a clear mineral streak as a saving grace.  It seemed more reserved and less advanced than many 2003s. I loved the Dom Pérignon 2004, a compact tasting vintage even if the yield was massive as the vines hit back against the frost of 2003 before the heat. It was the only one of this vertical that had average temperatures.  A very approachable and enjoyable year. The wine showed a quiet start followed by tight sharp matchstick aromas and substance but a compact body and elegant chewy phenolic end. Geoffroy recommends a little bitterness to straighten up good champagne on the finish. Beautifully balanced and a relative baby yet.

Dom Pérignon 2005 seemed drier and less resonant than the earlier wines and seemed less vibrant than when I tasted it in Champagne in April 2015.  The matchstick character seemed pretty emphatic and had emerged more. But there was great length and a plum filip at end. A good 2005, showing some delicacy and tissue twitch of texture on the finish which is neat.

And so to Dom Pérignon 2006. There is a very open fig and yellow plum nose; opulent. The smoky reduction hint is very subdued here yet, and it is all bright fruit, less physical and more tender than the 2005. A warm year but with a different pattern of heat, very late in development after August. I’ve learnt not to think that softly structured but delicately textured champagnes are not always in the long game. For now, just taking its first steps. But I’ll be interested to see how this 2006 develops, when we can go back to its future in 2025.

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Champagne Ruinart steps amongst its established fans and fans-to-be, with a particular spring in its step these days. Since Frédéric Panaïotis became Chef de Caves in 2007,  the oldest champagne house has more than doubled its production to ‘big boutique’ status to some 2m bottles per annum. But its achievement in eight years, apart from a gradual increase in finesse and intensity in its wines, has upped its particular reputation for doing three things rather well.  First, the prestige vintage Dom Ruinart Blancs de Blancs is now even more confirmed as one of the classic Chardonnay wines of Champagne. Secondly, the quality of its rosé champagnes, a second house specialism after its penchant for Blanc de Blancs styles, has continued to rise.

But finally, the quality and reception internationally for its Blanc de Blancs NV cuvée has improved, after this wine went through some stinky wobbles pre-Panaïotis, connected to many of its clear glass bottles suffering light-strike*. That is now solved, and this wine is in steep demand in the major countries, at fairly firm prices for a non-vintage Blanc de Blancs style.

Now some 25% of Ruinart production, this wine has become ‘bigger as well as better’. Panaïotis was in London recently to make a slightly different point about size, showing this wine first in a standard bottle, then magnum and jeroboam (a ‘double magnum’ 4-bottle, 3 litre size). Bigger bottles of champagne can raise a cultural snigger in ‘snobby’ wine circles as wallet bait in nightclubs and at plutocratic celebrations for show-offs. And then there’s that apparently meaningless premium you pay, more than a teense more than pro rata, for a bigger bottle.  But the three bottles we tasted on this occasion each made a simple point.  As the formats got bigger, the wines got better.

The standard single bottle was a blend of 2012, 11 and 10 with 27% from the two reserve wines. The main grape sources are the Montagne de Reims, premiers crus from the Côtes des Blancs, Sézannais and the Vitrayat, SE of Reims and half way to the Côte des Bar. Dosage is 8-9g/L.  It is all stainless steel, has full malolactic and was disgorged in 06/2015, a short aging for freshness. It showed charming broad fruit, little of the tough-edged minerality of pure Côtes des Blancs champagnes and a lime and lemon pith delicate touch on the end. An incredibly refreshing wine, but not particularly complex.  £53.20 Hedonism Wines, £58.00 Oddbins, £64.00 Majestic.

The magnum, next, was a blend of 2011 with 2010 and 2011 reserves. It had broader fruit than the standard bottle and yet more precision in the texture. Some biscuit and matchstick reduction was just beginning to form, that smoky complexity particularly associated with winemaking in stainless steel and a rigorous avoidance of oxygen contact after fermentation has begun for the vins clairs.  This had been given an extra 8 months on lees, some three years in toto.  It was a much more complex wine because of its longer aging, which is normal for magnums compared to the smaller bottle.  The end was chalky and fine textured, the mousse silkier. The received wisdom (but the sceptic in me is not completely sold on this) is that magnums have the same headspace for oxygen ingress at disgorgement as bottles, which is certainly true, but the next step I’m not so sure about. The idea is that the oxygen to wine ratio in a magnum is much smaller so the wine ages more slowly. Perhaps. But this wine was much more complex than the single bottle.  It was a good ”proof” that all else being equal, magnums are worth a premium over bottles. A good demonstration that the quality goes up in bigger formats.  And in theory they should develop longer.  £100 Majestic. £135.00 Harvey Nichols.

Finally, the jeroboam. It had a deeper colour as shown in the photo and much more time on lees. It had not been transvasaged.  Most very big bottles do not undergo the second fermentation in the final big bottle but they are filled from smaller bottles under pressure.  Since 1997 it has been illegal in Champagne to do this with ‘jeros’.  This had been disgorged in 07/13 but was based on 2008 so just over 4 years on lees. A big factor here was the influence of that great 2008 harvest – over 70% of what is in the bottle. The wine was so young, so forcing but just beginning to develop a deep complexity of smoke, hazlenuts and a beguiling gentle texture.  £450.00 The Champagne company.  £575 Majestic Wine.

True comparisons between smaller and bigger champagne formats would be based on bottlings of exactly the same cuvée, made simultaneously. In practice, with NV wines, the bigger formats are from earlier years and are aged longer before release. Vintage champagnes in bigger bottles are also often released later than the smaller bottles. Ergo, in theory, more complex, better wines. These were. And we pay accordingly. But to be truly sure we are getting all the bang for the extra buck, can we have more detail on the back labels please, about the blend, when the wine was made, cellared and disgorged?

*See here, for an earlier piece from me on this issue at Ruinart.

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If you know Champagne Cattier’s Armand de Brignac champagnes, called ‘Ace of Spades’, you will know they don’t come cheap.  Recently given an exclusive UK retail allocation, Harrod’s of London will sell you a bottle of the Blanc de Noirs NV for £695, the basic gold bottle NV for £295 (a snip!) and the Rosé NV for £475.

Those who cannot afford these champagnes may pontificate in disgust about uber-rich trash who blow cash on bling. Having good taste always makes you feel better about modest means. Those who love Jay Z and Beyoncé (recent reports say he now owns the Ace of Spades distribution company outright) will applaud their right to flaunt what their talent and hard work has won. There’s an edge of outrage against white condescension to the story that Jay Z dropped Cristal and adopted Armand de Brignac when Roederer aimed a narky remark at rappers. Ace of Spades fans will not give a damn about the price. To a good chunk of the champagne market, it’s not about what’s inside the bottle but what the label outside the bottle tells your friends about you.

The new Blanc de Noirs NV Armand de Brignac was launched in London at Harrod’s tasting room a few weeks ago by Jean-Jacques Cattier and his son Alexandre.  This is the latest edition in a range that already has an NV blend (the ‘Gold’ bottle) of the three main Champagne varieties, a Blanc de Blancs and a Rosé.  I was asked along to this rather strange affair to find no spitoons and when I asked for one was told as the wine was so expensive I should swallow it all. Then when I asked why such an expensive wine was not made only from ‘grand cru’ grapes and as a strict vintage year top selection, I was told that NV champagnes which blend premier and grand cru vineyards and several years’ grapes (this new Ace of Spades is a blend of three different years) are better and more subtle  than vintage versions.

Umm.. excuse me, that is the exact opposite of what the rest of Champagne will tell you. Just to be clear, drop the Cattier mantra, the best champagnes tend to be vintage, the best grapes in good years from top vineyards, believe you me. That might just be why they tend to get higher marks than entry level NV, have higher prices and develop better in bottle over time. But not according to Cattier.

But what was the wine like? It’s actually not bad. The blend is 60% 2008, 20% 2007 and 20% 2006. It has a floral and pretty nose, it’s tastes quite sweet, there’s some chalky phenolic texture that gives it presence and the mousse is silky.  It does have distinctive Montagne character with a subtle saline streak and that chalkiness. And the smoky autolytic notes are not overwheming or crude.  It’s fresh (this one disgorged in May 2015) and pillowy-light in weight. But it’s not especially intense or long on flavour.  Good standard NV blanc de noirs champagne from a good house – normal price and value about £38 a bottle. I can think of many other Blanc de Noirs I would rather drink and save £650. I would not knock it but I would not buy it unless I was uber-rich and there was nothing else to drink in the shop.  It had gone on shelf in the Harrod’s wine department that morning and they sold 13 bottles by lunchtime I was told, at £695 a bottle.  I asked about the sweetness and was told the dosage is about 8g/L and decided on to please the sweeter tooths of the main USA market.  Only 3000 bottles of this cuvée have been made, but the overall Ace of Spades range is some 100k bottles. A very fat cash cow.

A slew of wine journalists also tasted this new Ace of Spades. It’s hard to find many of their scores or judgements.  As so often, some wine journalists stay silent when they have reservations about a wine rather than being open about it in print. The bravest verdict I’ve seen came from Victoria Moore in The Telegraph: ‘There are far, far better wines to be had.’

I think that about the whole range; and I do have some form with Ace of Spades. Back in 2008 Cattier sent me a sample bottle of the first ‘gold’ cuvée launched, which came in a lovely lacquered wooden box my son has kept pens and pencils in since.  I put it into a blind line up of champagnes tasted by a group of wine professionals with excellent tasting skills. The Ace of Spades came 5th equal of 8 champagnes and was beaten by Costco own-label Brut NV which was 4th.  Two Selosse wines took the top places and Ulysse Collin Extra Brut came 3rd. The famous champagne sold for £5 by Woolworths in the UK (before they went down the pan) came two places below the Ace of Spades in 7th place.

Down the years since, the international reception of Armand de Brignac by wine professionals and journalists has been muted.  Cattier like to quote Jancis Robinson because she has given two cuvées a 17 and 17.5 out of 20, which are goodish marks but by no means way out in front of her judgments on good champagnes costing a fraction of these.  Interestingly if you have a subscription to eRobertParker you will not find a single score for this champagne brand. Silence. The exception to the ‘good but not great’ track record is Fine Champagne Magazine’s decision to put Ace of Spades as the Best Champagne in the World Top 100 several years ago.  I’ve never understood that. If you do, then you may be ready to hand over your card, pay £695 and get a bottle of this new one.

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Note: What follows is my interview with Benoît Gouez, Chef de Caves, Moët et Chandon, on September 11th this year. In a sense, he has the most powerful wine job in Champagne.

I was exclusively invited to the reception lab at Moët with the harvest 2015 in full swing, the only journalist this year to visit Moët’s ‘mission control’.  Imagine a vast room of lab benches and analytical hardware, sample bottles, pipettes, logbooks and laptops, humming with the quiet work of a small army of interns, oenology student ‘stagiaires’ in high viz jackets and white coats, given a dream placement for their future student CVs.  The article is a verbatim recording of the tour with Benoît speaking.  All I have removed are my interruptions to ask questions.

A little context. Moët is the biggest vineyard owner in Champagne.  Even so, the 30million-odd  bottles it makes in its Champagne wineries, along with those of Champagne Ruinart too, separate but in the LVMH group, requires a gargantuan supply of bought-in grapes on top.  At harvest time, thousands of hectolitres of pressed juice are arriving at Moët  in a constant stream of tankers, making parking tricky in the streets around. When a truck arrives, samples of its load are rushed into this laboratory for the quality analysis explained by Benoît here.  The lab’ has just 15 minutes to makes the tests and decide on exactly which cuve (and there are over 300) it will be fermented in and how it will be done.

Some readers might raise their eyebrows at the industrial scale of what is happening here.  But it might be worth remembering that most of this is done too by the most diligent of small domaine champagne producers with their own juice before it is champagne. What is different is the sheer contrast of scale and some of the high tech kit employed.  But it also gave me some inkling of how it is, with such a quality regime as this, that most champagne critics will agree the quality of Moët ‘s wines, especially its Brut Impérial NV, has hugely improved in the last 10 years.  A lot of that effort is down to Benoît Gouez.

My thanks to Moët et Chandon and Benoît for taking time in the busiest week of the year. The picture shows an intern checking potential alcohol with a refractometer.  And the pic at the end is Mr Gouez at work, who for wine journalists, is usually seen in the world’s capital cities in a suit and tie. Here’s what he told me:

…..So here we are in ‘maturity control’.  In our vineyards we schedule our picking two days in advance, no more than that, and every day we discuss the evolution of the analyses to adjust our picking order and pick every single plot at its optimum.  After picking, pressing and about 12 hours of “débourbage”,  drivers go into the press houses, load the juice from the press to the tanker and take sample bottles labelled with bar codes and complete identification of the juice they are carrying.  On arrival here the bottles come in and we do not empty the trucks into fermentation tanks until every single sample has been tasted and analysed and allocated to a tank. We check everything into the system and it is properly recorded.

We do not fill our tanks just based on variety and the village but also based on the level of maturity, plus whether there is rot or not, and a few other parameters.  For instance this Meunier is from Chezy and is taille.  This sample is quite brown already, oxidised, when this one is not. The samples are not all the same. This one is cuvee where the SO2 sulfiting has not been done properly.  This one the sulfiting has been done properly and this one may have some gluconic acid (a by-product of rot).  So even if they are both Meunier from the same origin and press house we do not necessarily mix them in the same tank because in this instance, one of them has already lost some of its potential.

We buy grapes that are pressed in local presses; we don’t want grapes to travel. They are pressed locally and we transport juice.  All these will be fermented here in the Epernay winery or in our new plant in Montaigu on the Cotes des Blancs.  So we have two sites  – in this site we vinify about two thirds of the volume and in Montaigu about one third. And after that some wines come back here for bottling.  So what’s important for us is not to mix juices that may be just Chardonnay from Cramant but the different juices may be in different states of quality and need to be separated.  So we make a separation based on quality analyses and we will end up with various vins clairs from each village we buy from.

Most importantly when I taste here in this lab, it is to identify if there are some off flavours, mainly due to rot.  So far this year it is clean, we do not have off flavours, it is fine.  Then we do alcohol potential and over there SO2, gluconic acid that is due to botrytis, glycerol, plus nitrogen, ammonia, total nitrogen automatically and we have two Hitachi analysers – €50,000 each by the way! –  that can analyse 600 parameters per hour, totally automated, very efficient, and the results go directly into the computer.  And over there we do total acidity and pH, plus turbidity.  Based on all the analyses they will decide a quality rating A, B, C, D, or E and gradations.

We do 9 parameters of analysis in total: Tasting, turbidity, alcohol potential, total acidity, pH, gluconic acid, glycerol, SO2, nitrogen, and based on those parameters we will have 5 levels of quality per variety and village and once we say that juice is a certain quality it goes over there and they decide where each juice will be fermented in the winery.   At the present moment we are allocating 12 different qualities to tanks.

This year in Epernay we will vinify about 2000 ha in total, about half our own and half from contracted grapes, and another 1000ha in Montaigu.  We will have about 500-600 samples per day to taste and analyse. It is all day long. We have to make our decisions in 15 minutes to get all the analyses done before we decide where the trucks will decant the juice, into which tanks so there has to be fast rotation of the tankers’ arrival, analysis and decision and movement of what they bring into our tanks for vinification.  The trucks need to turn round fast.

So far, it is full-on, in the middle of harvesting. I have 50,000 hectolitres already in tanks and on my computer here I can see the evolution of the quality parameters over the last week in the form of aggregated and continuous analyses of all the juices that were arriving.   As you can see, the harvest features are quite stable, day after day, this means that we have started at the right dates and that we pick the different villages and plots in the right order.  We are picking at 10.2 alcohol potential and for total acidity we started quite low at 5.5 but it has gone up and today we pick at 7.0, which makes a nice balance.  This is because we have started in the Aube and Sezanne where the musts had lower acidity and today we are looking more at the Chardonnay from the Cotes des Blancs and the Pinot Noir grands crus.  And the other parameter which is important for us is glycerol as an index of ripeness and I see the level is increasing which is a sign that we have mature grapes but we can tell too if we have under ripeness or over the optimum.

Another important indicator is gluconic acid which a marker for botrytis (rot) and the evolution over the week is a very low average of 40 this year. In general it is very clean.  And I am also studying the evolution of the levels of total sulphur on the juices arriving – it remains at a high level which means there is not so much combination or consumption of the sulphur additions from the press.  If we go below 20 on this measure there is a risk of oxidation which we want to avoid but, on the whole, we can see we are receiving correctly-sulfited juice.

Nitrogen is another important parameter which is on average, nice.  The global picture shows us Chardonnays from the Cotes des Blancs were at 10.5 potential with a total nitrogen of 70: quite low and here the PN from the grands crus which is also in at about 10.5. Nitrogen is very important to be sure the fermentation will end and go fast and not too many reductive off flavours.  One of the issues this year is that as we have low nitrogen so maybe we should keep some turbidity in the juices so we also keep some fine burbs in the juice which are a source of nitrogen.  So to raise the nitrogen in juices we have lowered the dose of enzymes and shorten the time of debourbage to limit clarification and keep a higher level of turbidity.

The reason nitrogen might be a concern as slightly too low this year, is because of the relative drought in the Spring. There was a very low mineralisation due to the dryness in the vineyard, especially in the Chardonnay, that is low rainfall  does not break down the organic matter in the soil enough (mineralisation) to give the roots and then grapes the best levels of nitrogen nutrition.  This nitrogen is important for future yeast multiplication so we need to ensure sometimes that nitrogen is boosted to adequate levels.

In fact the effect of the heat in the summer has been more on the total acidity and especially on the malic acid –quite low levels of malic acid which has been burnt off in the increased vine respiration due to the heat.  Meunier maturity is about 9,8 potential which is fine for us; we like Meunier at about 9.5 -10.0.  Meunier is not super interesting when it is too fat.  We like our Meunier to be a little crisp, not flat and heavy.  The one thing we look at in Meunier is gluconic as Meunier is more prone to rot than the other varieties and here you can see that the GA was going up and yesterday down but too early to see all the results today.  We pay attention to that and in the vineyards this morning and yesterday we saw some Meunier that was overripe to taste and if you break open the bunches you can see some rot inside. So we are trying to compensate for that by asking them to pick cool and early, not to wait for higher sugar.

The value of seeing the moving picture of the harvest each day in the evolving aggregate figures, is that we can react and send back instructions to the press houses and growers to pick earlier or use more judicious sulfiting. In the first days of the harvest we had only 40% of what was coming in at level A, the best quality, and the main reason for that was low sulphur dioxide and since we have changed our doses quality is improving.  This overall quality regime and its reactive function in the process means that we cannot just monitor quality through the harvest but actually raise the quality of the juices we are receiving. This is the regime and mindset of fine craftsmanship that I have worked on technically and in the management of our team and our growers for ten years. The winemaking team meets every night and morning and we make simulations of the quality levels we can aim for or need to adjust and we make these changes to get the best quality we can through the harvest.

By the appellation law, once the grapes we have bought are on the press it is our property.  We cannot refuse the juices we have contracted, but if there is something we really do not like, I get on my phone and send a picture of the sample and its identity label – the smartphone is now very useful and vital! – I send that to the press house and say this is not acceptable and then ask them to pull up their socks.  We discuss and really, the material they then begin to send is usually better.

Finally we can look at the average levels of all these parameters over the last 10 years, so we can see exactly where we sit with this vintage in 2015.  For instance I am looking at nitrogen now and we are low, very, very low. In terms of turbidity we are not that low and for SO2, not that low.  Alcohol potential is about the same level as 2012.  Total acidity is rather lower. But pH is high but we have known it higher, but it is better than TA.  We are pretty good on pH, better than TA.  It is a more interesting and useful parameter – we have been getting about pH3.09.  Nothing like as high as 2003.  This vintage is not 2003.  So far we have not found a prior vintage to directly compare with it –it is dry like 76 but at a different time of the year. It is not 47, 59 or 76 or 2003.

It is something new.  And we will wait to see the result!

Later, from London, I asked Benoit if the substantial rain in the second week of harvest had harmed the quality assessment. His reply:

Luckily the rain hasn’t affected the quality. Gluconic acid has remained very low, even with Meunier. The average alcohol potential per day has just been reduced by 0°2. The final average alcohol potential is 10°2 for a TA of 6.8 H2SO4/vol.

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As we sat to begin a remarkable champagne lunch at London’s 2*Michelin Le Gavroche last week, a goody bag for each guest was already on the table. Inside was a jar of honey from Champagne Lenoble’s ‘Le Vallon’ vineyard in Chouilly. At least something with tea and toast if I feel peckish later I thought. And then I realised how apposite the gift was. This kind of sweetener (!), the door of friendship ‘a jar’ (oh no!), is all part of event PR. Of course, the wines on show are the eventual pudding proof, not the honey. But event design is messaging. And the honey was a clear statement by Champagne Lenoble.

Honey is mythically the gift of gods; to Egyptians, bees sprung from the tears of Ra wept onto desert sand. Greeks anointed babies’ lips with honey believing it imparted eloquence. Bees presage truth, diligence and rebirth. Bees suggest bucolic abundance and I’m reminded of the poet Yeats escaping to Innisfree, where he could be ‘all alone in the bee-loud glade’. Ironically, the grapevine is hermaphrodite and self-pollinated; they do not need bees. But nearly all wild plantlife does and 30% of crops would disappear without them. Yet pesticides and loss of habitat are reducing bee populations. But I believe Lenoble is saying something more, about champagne. Right now, the highest quality champagnes are being made by changing vineyard practices. And this is where Lenoble keep their bees, in the vineyard.

Lenoble is down with the bees because Champagne’s old ways of industrial farming, using herbicide and pesticide, keep roots shallow and ripening uneven. It can make short and poor-textured wines. Ploughing and green grass in the rows forces roots to go deeper, and stay in touch with the chalk water table supply to keep ripening even. And the intensity and fine texture of such champagnes made this way, owes much to these new methods. Great champagne is strictly with the bees.  For some time, Lenoble’s champagnes have been made this way and it shows in the vibrant flavours and elegance of texture. It has published a clear Charter of Quality work in its vineyards and in 2012 was given certification HVE (Haute Valeur Environnementale), one of the early pioneers. To all intents and purposes Lenoble is organic and also practices many of the disciplines of biodynamism.

The lovely sheeny texture of these Blanc de Blancs wines showed brilliantly with Le Gavroche’s food. The Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Chouilly NV with its butter and spice nose, smoky-menthol palate and pillowy weight created a wonderful ‘third taste’ paired with a lemony Sea Bass ceviche and tropical fruits.  The Grand Cru Chouilly 2008, a reined-in powerhouse of a baby wine in a great year, with great persistence, was a good foil for the powerful marine and beach-griddle flavours of Roast Turbot with a meat jus and tomato reduction. And the Gentilhomme 2009 with 100% oak élévage showed excellent tense balance with this dish too. Norfolk Black Chicken in a buttery light gravy reduction with 5 Spice was a warming Autumn dish with very savoury pressing flavours. The intensity and dark complexity of older vintage champagne matches such a dish seemingly effortlessly.  But the best way to do this is to have champagne perfectly cellared and showing no toffee-oxidative development and no overblown struck match or crude biscuity autolytic notes. Like a rabbit out of a hat, Lenoble produced their Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Chouilly Collection Rare 1979. It took on the rich white meat and sauce and simply amplified the note of pressing meatiness.  Perfect.

Three observations. To be sat as a dozen guests together in the centre of the busy main room of Le Gavroche made the occasion what it properly was – a great social lunch depending on lovely food and champagne in synergy. Champagne can suit many moods, but if it is great, if the company is more than a few and the food aims as high as the wine, there will always be a buzz. Second, none of these champagnes with food was dosed at more than 5g/L and three of them only at 3g/L, technically Brut Nature, very dry. This was the first building block in the winning synthesis of flavour these champagnes made possible.  By ‘synthesis’ I mean the new flavour made by the union of the different wine with each dish. It’s high time sommeliers and champagne lovers stopped paying lip service to champagne with food while invariably serving higher-dosaged champagnes only as aperitifs.  It’s completely possible and very ‘cool’ to serve champagnes with each course. And on the whole, the drier champagnes work best.

Thirdly and finally, Anne and Antoine Malassagne, Lenoble’s owners, made very convivial and informative hosts in London, along with Christian Holthausen now working with them on ‘Exterior Relations’ but in practice, a genius for the interiority of warm relationships.

Champagne Lenoble
35 rue Paul Douce
51480 Damery
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Champagne specialist Tim Hall, Director, Scala School of Wine, UK Champagne Ambassador 2013-14, files this report of an exclusive interview on 10 September with Louis Roederer’s celebrated winemaker about, inter alia, the small but pretty perfectly-formed 2015 vintage. He took this picture of Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon opening a bottle of Cristal 2007 for them to share after the interview.

This article first appeared in www.Jancisrobinson.com, on 22nd September 2015.

Champagne Louis Roederer needs little introduction to wine lovers, or so I thought. But I find few realise how different Roederer is from other leading champagne houses, even though they know its range is topped by the coveted Cristal. Roederer owns 240 ha of vineyards, some 70% of its needs, and its estate includes a proud raft of mid-slope land set in the top grands crusvillages. Most houses, in contrast, with little land of their own, grow few grapes and have to buy them in from growers.

Where Roederer treads an even more distinctive path is in the viticulture on its estate which rejects the use of both herbicide and pesticide. The vineyard is 98% ploughed, and 26 ha of that by horses. A full 75 ha is now managed biodynamically, making Roederer the most significant exponent of ‘biodynamie‘ in all Champagne. Finally, all the wines in its range are made as single vintages bar one: the Brut Premier NV. This relatively radical approach has been introduced and is driven by Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon who joined Roederer in 1989, spent 10 years with Michel Pansu, his predecessor and was appointed chef de caves in 1999. He is very much supported by the Rouzaud family who own Louis Roederer as well as a expanding portfolio of noted international wine estates, including Ch Pichon Lalande in Pauillac and Ramos Pinto ports.

How do you assess vintage 2015?

I think it is quite a unique vintage because of the dryness we had and the very sunny weather; it’s almost an organic vintage. We had very little downy mildew and almost no oidium, some on Chardonnay, but with sulphur we did very well. Ripeness was good and I’m very happy. I think this was a rare ‘chalky’ year. It worked very well because there was a big store of water in the chalk. I’m very happy because we have been converting all our vineyards to being ploughed since 1996 and almost all of them, 98%, are now cultivated in this way. Fifteen years ago it was not quite obvious what the effect or value of this was. It was a bit strange. Some people thought it was just about stopping chemicals. But this year we could see that the vineyards worked by ploughing were much less stressed [by the drought] in June and July than they had been when they were not ploughed in the past. Because the main roots go deeper when you remove the superficial surface roots and the surface water in winter percolates when you break the soil and adds to the store in the chalk. So the chalk kept slowly giving water, the vines were not stressed, and we had perfect, even ripeness of the bunches.

The chalk also had a good store of water, a hydraulic reservoir from the winter and spring rains?

Exactly, it did. The chalk kept giving water which meant things went well, we protected the roots from the dryness and it did not stress and we have perfect phenolic ripeness today, which you don’t always have on vineyards that are not ploughed, except on very special terroirs. The chalk reservoir was full from winter and spring rain but at the same time we had a superficial dryness so it was not a deep drought. This is a year that responds to the growers who promote deep roots. I think it’s unique, this combination of a very dry year and good water table levels, but we have to wait because when I say the phenolics are good they were not that good 10 days ago. The sugar was already there but not the phenolics. And all Champagne was very smart. The decisions on the dates about picking were good but the phenolic ripening had slowed. We always have that when we have a dry year: we have a disconnect between sugar or technical ripeness and the phenolic ripeness of the skins. The ripening of the skins slows in the hot weather so you have to push the sugar high to get the phenolic ripeness. You have to wait.

I noticed some uneven ripening on bunches of Pinot Noir and Meunier.

Exactly, that’s what I call non-phenolic ripeness. You can see some Pinot Noir is still rose-skinned and you should not be happy with that. But on the whole the vast majority of the harvest has now caught up, with the skins ripe. So it’s a year of phenolic ripeness, it’s a year of no dilution, with small berries. The CIVC has officially said, statistically, this is the driest and the warmest year ever – lowest rainfall from budburst to picking and the highest average daytime temperatures. We did not have the very marked heat of 2003 but April was warm, May not that warm but July and August pretty warm and dry. In places a little grilling of bunches on the sunny side was more from the effects of heat on sulphur-sprayed grapes. There were some oidium issues so a lot of sulphur spraying has been done and if you spray a little but late in the day, say mid-morning or when the peak of temperature is there, you get burning of some berries; the warmth on the sulphur reacts and you can get burn on the bunches. More people become organic maybe, but organics fights against oidium with sulphur, so when they move to organic this is a bit of a problem.

But having said that, with all my figures in, we started harvesting slowly with Meunier on Friday [4 September] but we do not have much of that. We started the first Pinot on Sunday but really got going on Monday in A? and Cumières, with an average alcohol level at the A? press house of 11.1 but overall now the average is 11.7. That is high; we have pushed hard as I said. There was no botrytis. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are really fine, but the Meunier is not always at its best in a dry year. The bunches of the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are smaller because of the dryness. The yield will be down (but not the Meunier which is as big as usual, with packed bunches). There is a little ‘hen and chickens’ (millerandange) on some Chardonnay and Pinot Noir but that leaves some room for the berries to grow, but there was not so much room and aeration with Meunier and so there have been some problems with mould.

You said on Twitter that this was a ‘continental’ vintage.

Yes, the climate of Champagne is oceanic with a continental influence. I always say Champagne has three secrets. First it is made in low northern temperature. Second is the chalk but third is the modelling of the weather by the ocean and the continent. In the summer you have some heat from the continent but you also have some storms and rain coming through in the winter and in some summers which irrigates the soil, keeps moisture and mineralisation in the soil and is held in the chalk. This keeps the vines growing, slowly, but they keep growing, they do not shut down in the heat of summer – which explains why we have such a good acidity. The tartaric and especially malic acidity does not collapse because respiration does not get that desperate. That is my way to classify the vintage with this oceanic – continental continuum. We have a distinctly ‘continental’ 2015 because of the long dry period. So every year we have a dry summer in Champagne we make beautiful Pinot Noir. I’m sure we will this year. And we will also make great Chardonnay but more powerful, richer Chardonnay than in an ‘oceanic’ year when we get more elegance. So it will be a Pinot Noir and Chardonnay year.

A good way to see this issue is in the Cristal estate which is planted 60% Pinot, 40% Chardonnay and my blend is not always made with all the parcelles. I can see the parcelles work in different ways in a cooler ‘oceanic’ year than in a ‘continental’ year, so my blend will become this year perhaps more Pinot Noir, perhaps 60-65% Pinot. Pinot will be the driving force of the vintage of the Cristal, more than average, while in an ‘oceanic’ year it will shift to Chardonnay to stress the elegance of the year and the Pinot will be a little less ripe, slightly vegetal. As I do not do malolactic fermentation, there is no correction of acidity and so my only chance is to work in the vineyards to get the Pinot as ripe as I can in those cases. That’s why I am so happy in this year 2015 because my job has been done properly and it will be easy to make the wine.

So Meunier is left somewhere in the middle on this continuum model. For a house like Louis Roederer which has a lot of grand cru vineyard on chalky soils, I see Meunier a bit like Merlot in the Médoc where you need Merlot to bring some light and a smile to the Cabernet Sauvignon, which can be a little bit too austere. It brings a little bit of sunshine into a monotone blend. And I think it is the same with Meunier between Pinot and Chardonnay: Meunier brings a smile, especially if it comes from the Marne Valley. If it comes from the Petite Montagne it brings crispiness like a preserved fruit – something sappy, spicy without much weight but with good fruit.

I’ve heard some people say they are worried the acidity may be relatively low in 2015. Are you concerned?

No, I’m not concerned at all. I think this is a completely wrong vision of champagne, which is quite recent and comes from some oenologists. We have measured the acidity but it does not mean we have a measure of freshness. Acidity is not freshness. We do look for freshness in a wine, of course, but an acidic wine is acidic. I really strongly believe that the source of freshness in champagne is in the dry extract. If you have only acidity and no dry extract you go quickly to oxidation.

Acidity is a wrong vision of champagne. If you look at the history and I draw my conclusion from this history, look at 1928, 1947, 1955, 1959 and 1976. All those were low-acid years but they aged beautifully with a lot of freshness. The key is dry extract measured as phenolic ripeness, total phenolics; it’s all about phenolics. I don’t say you have to have full phenolic ripeness, but you have to reach a point where you can judge visually first, second by tasting the pips and skins and aromatics. When the pips start to be brown and start to be crispy but not bitter, without vegetal flavours, then you are there! Of course you look at the numbers you get from monitoring trials but you have to check and taste everything. In some years in Champagne, phenolic ripeness can come before the sugar is ready!

So do we need better words to use in tasting champagne? You can’t make a note that says ‘great dry extract’.

It is texture. Obviously you are looking for finesse and creaminess in the tactile mousse but the dry extract transposes in a finished champagne, in the drink itself, into the sensation of a persistent density and concentration, a sense of weight without being heavy or dull. Lively and fresh at the same time and very precise and focused. When I do my blending sessions I concentrate only on texture to begin with and then I search to stretch the sensation of texture as long as I can across the palate. It can be boring as well if it is just round and very concentrated, so I have to stretch it in my blend, to make it persistent and to increase in intensity in the mouth. The texture has to magnify, to increase. This is what I am looking for, not just flavours or power but density and a lightness. It’s an oxymoron, but the holy grail is this idea of ‘weightless density’. And this comes back to those who may complain, perhaps in this vintage, about ‘low acidity’. I say, well, you might spend your time doing malolactic fermentation, but you are decreasing acidity that way. We have a perfect opportunity to reduce or stop malolactic in this vintage.

To come back to acidity worries, I look for three things. Malic acid is the most important; I know very precisely where I have to be with the malic acid so as not to be on the green side. The second is pH and the third, very important, is nitrogen in the must. I look at it because it is my way to ensure that the yeast does a proper development. You have 40-70 million of these little organisms per millilitre and to do their job they do not have their complete food, nutrition. This can undo your quality. You need a low level of nitrogen at the beginning to encourage yeasts, with a little stress, to get them to strive and suffer to get them fit like an athlete at the beginning, and with a low temperature too. And then near the end of the race they need some fuel on board to give them the stamina to finish the fermentation.

One last question. Do vintages matter much in Champagne, because most of it does not have a vintage, it is blended, and it is years before we can drink the wines, even more so for those that are vintage champagnes?

I think this is one of the things we need to work on to improve understanding of champagne. My job, nine months out of 12, is to make vintage wines. In the vineyard, I fight against the climate or with the climate, to make the year’s best grapes I can. At the first fermentation we separate everything to make sure the identity of every terroir is preserved. So I spend my time doing ‘vintage’ single-vineyard wines. Without this devotion to terroir it’s impossible to understand how to blend those wines into the Brut Premier. Our Brut Premier NV is the only non-vintage (or ‘multi-vintage’) that we make. All our range apart from that is completely vintage wine. But it is the most complex of all our wines to make. I like very much the image of the painter’s palette; you are presented with some basic colours but you have to mix colours from them in ways that might be slightly different each year according to the vintage, in order to make something completely different.

One final note from Tim: Since I got back from Champagne, the skies opened in the second week of harvest, ending the dry period which had held since May, bar some showers just prior to harvest. Most growers were already well into their picking and it seems that most of the rains, even where substantial, drained quickly on the parched ground and periods of sun followed. And the rain was moderate, if persistent, for a day, rather than torrential. There was no hail. Last Wednesday Lecaillon sent this email about how this affected Louis Roederer: ‘The rain is not a problem as we have done 80% of harvest and the last 20% are usually a little bit behind in ripeness, therefore more “geared” to face the rainfalls. As far as Roederer is concerned, we finished Aÿ last Monday, today Côte des Blancs and Verzenay tomorrow… ‘

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There’s more excitement and discovery in domaine or single estate champagne (called ‘grower’ by many) than any other world wine region these days. One proof is how you can come across the very good with no warning. Ear to the ground as I am, this is not such a common event. Usually the champagne geek grapevine waves a tendril, a rumour, someone’s sudden enthusiasm, and you go and check it out.

This time was different. On 31st March 2015, I went to a London ‘Business France’ tasting of unimported champagne hopefuls. It was pretty uninspiring. A good number were small ‘RC’ ‘coopérateurs’ selling wines made for them by their local coop, blending all the members’ grapes into identical soups the coop members then sell under their different names. Champagne Dupont, Champagne Blum; it doesn’t matter. They are both the same. Not my idea of high quality or authenticity, even though producers like this are the majority of ‘grower’ champagne. The wines are often correct but dull. But in a corner in London on my lucky day, I came across the (just three) wines of Champagne la Villesenière. They were the best in the room, by a country ten kilometres. They were RM, not RC designated; that is, a proper independent producer making the wine themselves with the grapes only of their own land. Three weeks later I went to see them in Champagne at their small estate in Boursault (1er cru) in the Marne Valley, west of Epernay. My feelings were confirmed.  Something very special is going on here and yet is so new. These cuvées are their first with the Villesenière label. Here’s what I learnt.

Champagne la Villesenière is in fact the prestige range of a longer established label Champagne Claude Michez, made by the same family. The Villesenière wines are quite separate in that they are wholly barrel-fermented before ageing in bottle and have distinct labels.  The Claude Michez wines are made in stainless steel. The estate became independent (RM), making its own wines from its own grapes, in 1973. After wine studies, Laurence Michez worked with her parents from 1998 and in 2002, Cyrille Chenevotot, her husband, joined her after qualifying from the Lycée Vitcole in Avize. Together, they run this novel dual state of affairs, having taken over from the previous generation. Cyrille takes more of a back seat with visitors but watching his work during the harvest 2015, it’s clear he thinks deeply about the vineyard and winery process.

They are members of the Le Cercle des Createurs de Champagnes Confidentiels, a new group founded in 2015 and which participates in the Champagne Week trade tastings in Champagne each April.

There are 4ha of vines, over 3ha of them on the north-facing south bank of the Marne around Boursault, a strikingly peaceful village in full view of the Chateau de Boursault, once the seat Madame Clicquot Ponsardin. The vines are Pinot Noir and Meunier, but 1ha here is Chardonnay. Then there is .45ha in 1er cru Cuis (Chardonnay) on the Côtes des Blancs and about .45ha in nearby Mardeuil, unusually for the Marne, all Chardonnay. In fact half their total planting is to Chardonnay. Viticulture is near organic and the estate is about to be fully certificated in the HVE (Haute Valeur Environnementale) scheme, of which Champagne Bollinger was one of the first adherents. Overall production of the Michez and Villesenière wines is about 30k bottles per annum, but the oak-aged range is a tiny fraction, less than 2k bottles. They are made in burgundy size fûts (228L), 2-3 years old, although the odd one new, and from local Argonne and Ardenne oak, medium toast, and the wines spend 5-8 months in them after the first fermentation and malolactic before bottling. The wines spend three years and over on the second lees in bottle. Here are the champagnes:

Cuvée ‘Les Cuteries’ is a .35ha single vineyard, mid-slope parcel, Blanc de Blancs from Boursault, so 100% Chardonnay, and dosed at 3.5-4g/L, thus Extra Brut in style. On lees 43 months, currently from the 2010 vintage and disgorged in October 2014, although the wines are not vintage-dated even if they qualify. Laurence says: ‘We do not claim the year of vintage because it seems too young to do so. Therefore it is simply mentioned on the back label of the bottle’

Cuvée ‘Harmony‘: a blend of 50% Chardonnay, 38% Pinot Noir and 12% Meunier and is a ‘monocru’ (single village) wine all from Boursault premier cru, dosed at 7g/L and currently wholly from the 2011 vintage.

Cuvée Rosé de Saignée: This is a blend of 80% Pinot Noir, 20% Chardonnay from 2011, made by maceration, not the traditional Champagne rosé way of adding red still wine to the blend. In this case, unusually, the grapes are foot-trodden to gently crush them and then macerated 15 hours at 18C, before going into barrel. Dosage is 7g/L.

The wines have won some significant accolades in a short time and there is import involvement already from the UK, Japan and Denmark. The wines have been praised by Jancis Robinson (see below) and the well-known sommelier Andreas Larsson. Recently the Revue de Vin de France said of the rosé: ‘One of the best French rosé wines. A marvel and gave it position 51 of its top 100 of all French wines.


Cuvée ‘Les Cuteries’ (Tasted various times, London and Boursault from 03/2015)  A striking brightness and structure but so fresh and really a complex marriage of the oxidative influence and the fruit and ageing. Outstanding for its reserved balance but vivid rhythm, so alive. Some lovely bitter-lemon notes, kiss of oak and magnifies on the palate gently. Vibrant and long.

Jancis Robinson’s note 06/2015, London: Smart flask-shaped bottles. Real complexity on the nose with delicacy too. No oak in evidence.Lacy and dry but not at all austere. Great purity on the finish. This is real wine! Drink 2015-2019

Cuvée ‘Harmony’ (Tasted various times, London and Boursault from 03/2015)  More noticeable oak than the Cuteries, possibly because it has had a shorter time on lees. There is real texture but not grating; an impression of substance and a very specific assertive personality. Crunchy bar and butter, really intriguing. So characterful.

Jancis Robinson’s note 06/2015, London: Presumably not vintage-dated because it has not had the required 36 months’ ageing on lees.Bigger and bolder than the Cuvée les Cuteries on the nose.  No obvious oak but this wine demands attention. Dry finish and lots to chew on. Serious stuff. Drink 2016-2020

Cuvée Rosé de Saignée (Tasted various times, London and Boursault from 03/2015)  The first foot-pressed rosé champagne for me I think! Complex wild strawberries and cherries, a Kirsch note and finishes dry. This is very expressive but much more than simple primary fruit.  Very well done texture, not too grippy but just a presence of silk tannin on the end. A bit of a statement in the rosé champagne stakes, not at all clumsy or over-extracted like so many trendy saignée champagnes.

These wines are represented exclusively in the UK by Scalawine

Champagne la Villesenière
3 rue du Chêne
51480 Boursault

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This high quality producer from Le Mesnil-sur-Oger  on the Côtes des Blancs, is available and becoming better known in the UK, and is already established on other export markets.

For the chapagnerati and the curious, a warning that the more you get into champagne domaines, the more names seem the same. You need to know that this domaine  is not the other A (for Alain) Robert, also of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger on the Côtes des Blancs, a different single estate known for the long ageing of its wines before release. Nor is this A Robert the A Robert (currently run by an Arnaud Robert) from Fossoy in the Marne Valley. Goodness me, Champagne can be as confusing as Burgundy.

Champagne André Robert was briefly profiled in Richard Juhlin’s ’4000 Champagnes’ in 2004, although a downbeat sketch indeed. Since then the winemaking has certainly improved and the estate has expanded to nearly 14ha in size. Juhlin’s criticism that the only cuvée made here that is 100% Le Mesnil Grand Cru is the vintage wine, is true if a little unfair, since it is typical for the holdings (and therefore the wines) of a domaine in Champagne to be spread over several villages even if their base winery is of course in a single village. It is in fact typical for domaines to make several wines that are blends of several crus and only one, their top cuvée, to be made from one village as a true ‘cru champagne’ and for that label to show the magic words ‘Grand Cru Le Mesnil’ (if it is from that village, as in the case of André Robert).  Logically and fairly, blends of more than one grand or premier cru may not add the name of the single village  The claim that single estate champagnes often represent the ‘pure’ terroir of a single village is sometimes misplaced. These estates are often quite far flung and largely blend diverse terroirs, even if on a lesser scale than the big houses.But that discussion is best elsewhere than in this profile.

Champagne André Robert, with 13.81ha of vineyards in 53 parcels, is one of the larger single estates based in Le Mesnil. And in fact just over half of its vineyards, 6.5ha, are in Le Mesnil itself, a high proportion in this prestigious grand cru, divided amongst 30 parcels, including a parcel in the revered vineyard of Chétillon. Some 10% of the harvest is sold to the négoce. The other vineyard holdings are Grand Cru Oger (some 7 parcels totaling 1ha), Premier Cru Vertus (2 parcels amounting to .31ha), Étréchy (2 parcels of 1.2ha), a tiny cru south-west of Vertus, Premier Cru Cuis (8 parcels of 1.4ha) and in the Vitrayat (2 parcels of 3.4ha) at Val de Viere et Lisse en Champagne.  Finally, at a producer where almost only Chardonnay is grown, in Chatillon Sur Marne there are 2 parcels of around 1ha, of Pinot Noir and Meunier.  So in toto, about half the holding is in Grand Cru, with the prized crown jewels of nearly all of that concentrated in Grand Cru Le Mesnil.

The Roberts were vine growers in the 19th century but the present independent estate emerged in the 1960s, led by the founder André and later by the present owner, Bertrand Robert with his wife Colette. In 2013 he was joined by his daughter Claire Robert who brought a background in marketing from Paris and had studied in the USA. Finally, the transition to the younger generation has been bolstered recently by the decision of Claire’s husband Jean-Baptiste to join the estate on the viticulture and winemaking side. The domaine is a founder member of the promotional grouping Génération Champagne formed in 2014 and who show their wines to the trade each April in Champagne. Visitors will find themselves at a handsome house, cellar and tasting facility in the heart of the village.

The estate ploughs its vineyards, aiming for deeper roots, reduced vigour for fruit intensity, efficient drainage of surface water and better microbial life in an aerated soil. The Roberts have joined the HVE programme (Haute Valeur Environnementale), already pioneered in Champagne by domaines Eric Rodez, Michel Loriot and Vazart-Coquart, along with houses Bollinger and Lenoble. Certification is for vineyard work that reduces the impact on the natural terroir and phases out synthetic chemical treatments. ‘Organic light’ to some, the programme is real progress in Champagne where rain and humidity create a paradise for rot and mildew and not so long ago they were putting Paris refuse on their vineyards.

The winery facility just outside Le Mesnil, boasts two pneumatic presses and the expected array of modern stainless steel tanks. Less expected is a well-tended suite of 225L barriques in a temperature controlled barrel-hall. The top cuvées are barrel-fermented with lees stirring, and no fining or filtration and bottled after seven months. The entry level cuvées are made entirely in stainless steel and variously include Pinot Noir and Meunier.  These are fresh and all dosed at 8-9g/L. The Esprit NV blends Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Meunier.  Cuvée Pauline NV is about 20-30% Chardonnay, 70-80% Meunier and Cuvée Volupté NV is a crowd-pleasing (and nostalgic style from the early 20th century) higher dosed Sec-style in a similar blend of Meunier and Chardonnay with some 24g/L added sweetness. I would open this with foie gras and Thai food. The Rosé NV completes the initial series, a fresh red-berry and dryish blend of Chardonnay and Meunier. There is one vintage cuvée using black and white grapes, a barrel-fermented 55% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot Noir called, slightly cheesily, Cuvée Séduction, with an uninspiring label and quite marked by newer oak flavours but with attractive texture and fresh cut.

The range then takes on a serious step up in quality and finesse with three wines, both Côte des Blancs 100% Chardonnay and needless to say, the proportion of the cuvées made from Le Mesnil fruit is high or total. At 50% of the estate’s production, the Brut Réserve NV is 80% Le Mesnil, the rest from Oger.  It is fermented in stainless steel with 18% made in barriques, has malolactic blocked and is a blend of two years, with three years ageing on lees in bottle. Dosage is 8-9g/L . To me, an impressive wine. The best wine made here, both an Extra Brut at about 4-5g/L and a normally-dosed 8-9g/L style, is the Vintage Cuvée. There is complete barrel fermentation, no filtration, blocked malo and long lees ageing. And of course, it is 100% Grand Cru Le Mesnil and a very true and pure version, in high tension between the natural sappy and mineral austerity of this terroir and the complexity from the winemaking.

Wines Tasted

At Generation Champagne (Royal Champagne 04/14, then at visit 06/14)
Cuvée Pauline NV (The great grandmother of Bertrand)  80PM 20CH Blend 2010 + 09 (that fraction CH only).  Bright and fresh, delicious and round.  Well done given PM susceptible to rot. Quite yeasty and with baking notes. Attractive but in the end a touch run of the mill.
Brut Réserve NV 2009 +08. First note: Very intense and light; skeletal but shows body and interest and length. Agrume profile, toughish and chalky.    2nd:  (This is 50% of production) Lovely light colour and texture.  Putty and a touch of baking aromas.  80% Le Mesnil. Elegant, quince (coing). Most in inox, 10% wood and malo blocked.  8-9g/L  3 yrs lees. In 02/15 this was 2010 with 30% 09/08. with increased 18% barriques and was richer and longer than the previous cuvée.
Millesime 2006 1st note: Shows some oak and butter-lemon softening. Not over- long.
2nd: Le Mesnil GC.  100% barrique. Power and touch of oxidative style but very persistent, elegant and open.  Lemon-butter. In 02/15 this was round but intense; Le Mesnil high wire but with a smile.
Millesime 2005 Le Mesnil GC. More tightly structured than the 2006.  Same chalky profile but structured (charpenté).  Wood is more evident – vanillin and spicy.
Millesime 2004 Le Mesnil GC 1st note: Round but pointed and compact; great balance of fruit and minerality.  Persistent acidity. Herbal and lily notes and savoury creaminess.
2nd: Shows compact build of 04s but with hardly noticeable maturity; some light floral butter and breezy linen.
Extra Brut 2007 (4/5g/L)  Very chalky and agrume and quince.  Needs seafood.  Excellent. In 02/15 this was very fresh and lean, very neat and long, now with some 5-6 years lees ageing.
Séduction 2007 55CH 45PN (CH fm Mesnil, PN Montigny (Marne) Very marked by oak.  Darker and rounder; seems oak more pronounced. Velvetine and oxidative aromas but pretty impressive.  Power and interest.  7mnths in 225L wood, some batonnage.  No malo.
Millesime 1999 Le Mesnil GC Keeps big structure of Le Mesnil but also velvet and meaty aromas and great density and length.  Dusty dried flowers and apple peel.
Millesime 1996 Le Mesnil GC Tasted 02/15. 17 years on lees. Smoky and matchstick-reductive, mineral and mushrooms, toasty and savoury. Oxidation creeping in and very advanced for fans of this style.  For me, an outlier I admire but cannot love as a style.
London 10/14 (group tasting)
Brut Réserve Blanc de Blancs NV Palish; lemon and herbal nose.  Long and electric but on palate broadens and very creamy and expansive. Cashew-ice, slight confection.  Very mouth-filling and delicious. 16.5/20
Tasting notes published by Jancis Robinson 06/15, from London trade tasting:
André Robert, Le Mesnil Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru 2006 100% Chardonnay. 100% Le Mesnil. 100% vinified barriques, with occasional stirring. Malo blocked. Seven years on the lees. Dosage 7-8 g/l. Pale copper. Firm and definite light oakiness. Quite a rich start with a dry end. Long and round. Great persistence and length. Really very smart indeed.  Drink 2013-2020  Score:  17.5
André Robert, Réserve Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru NV 100% Chardonnay. Base is 70% 2010 with the rest from 2008 and 2009. This is 80% Le Mesnil, the rest Oger. 18% vinified in oak. Malo blocked. 3 years on lees. Dosage 8-9 g/l. Intriguingly noble on the nose. Just slightly looser textured than some. Quite intense flavours though. A spread of tension on the finish.  Drink 2016-2019   Score: 16.5
This domaine is represented in the UK by Scalawine, London
Champagne André Robert
15 rue de l’Orme, 51190 Le Mesnil-sur-Oger
0033 3 26 57 59 41
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Ruinart is the oldest champagne house, founded 1729, a tenet of champagne lore.  In 1728 Louis XV let champagne be transported in bottle as well as barrel and this meant sparkling champagne could be sold to the elite classes of Paris and beyond France by a growing class of merchant houses in Reims and Epernay. Ruinart were in early on the ground floor. At this point, only 15 years after Dom Perignon’s death, the majority of champagne was still; red, white, ‘vin gris‘ and a slightly deeper pink ‘oeil de perdrix’. The fashion for white fizz amongst the wealthy of capital cities was still a tiny amount of Champagne’s wine. And the bubbles came from an unfinished or subdued single fermentation, not the controlled stages of a second. The demand for proper champagne was a slowly building trade. But the pull of high fashion wanting white fizz in European high society and the fact Champagne’s still reds were losing out to redder and riper burgundy, had already thrown the champagne switch towards specialisation in white fizz from largely black grapes. It was this style which would eventually triumph in the 19th century.

Nicolas Ruinart from Epernay, sold cloth, but also built up champagne sales and then specialised in it.  His uncle knew Dom Perignon. His (tenth!) son Claude built up the business and Claude’s son Irénée after him, sold champagne to some very grand customers, including Napoleon and became mayor of Épernay. In 1769 the firm moved to Reims where it is today in buildings renewed after destruction in World War I. In 1950 the company was bought by the Mouton Rothschild family of Bordeaux and then by Moët et Chandon in 1963 and it remains in the LVMH group. I remember when I first went there in 1998, they were proud to call themselves a ’boutique’ meaning a ‘small but perfectly formed’ champagne house and I’ve always had a soft spot for them and an admiration for their wines. Since then production has expanded significantly and is now well over 2m bottles annually, making them perhaps, a ‘big boutique’. Being on the Butte-St Niçaise on the east of Reims, Ruinart also sport fabulous and spectacular Romanic chalk cellars which are a French national monument. Everyone should visit to see these as well as taste the wines.  Their tours and tastings for tourists are not the cheapest but they are well-organised, and they hire their dining spaces for corporate and private occasions too.

While the house owns but 17 hectares of its own vineyards, it benefits enormously from Moët et Chandon’s vast tentacles for grape sourcing and winemaking facilities.  Its house style is based on the high proportion of elegant and penetrating Chardonnay in its blends and its people often describe the house proudly as a ‘Chardonnay’ affair. But the emphasis for the ‘entry level’ wines here and the sourcing of fruit for them is not so much the rapier and austere fruit of the Côte des Blancs, but the slightly softer and broader Montagne de Reims, the Sézannais and Massif de Thierry. The Chardonnay component of the non-vintage (NV) Ruinart wines often seems both powerful and generous, butressed by the malolactic being done and moderate, not skimpy, dosages, generally at about 9g/L. It’s a very winning style, clean but aromatically intense as well as fleshy and full. These wines are made completely in stainless steel, part and parcel of the super-fresh profile and the retention of primary grape flavours.

There is a trio of NV wines. The ‘R de Ruinart’ is approximately 40CH and 50-60PN with nowadays up to 10% Meunier, an innovation of chef de cave Frédéric Panaïotis who arrived from Champagne Veuve Clicquot in May 2007. He values the fruit and note of development and early depth that Meunier can give to this style of wine.

The Blanc de Blancs NV, in the distinctive clear glass squat bottle has become a great success for the house, largely down to the improved handing and winemaking regime of Panaïotis. Between 2005 and 2009 this cuvée often suffered from ‘light-strike’ and therefore putrid green odours. As a new chef de cave from mid-2007 Panaïotis stopped pallets of this wine being in sunshine for periods or normal electric light and the problem was solved. From 2009/10 this cuvée has been both correct and much fresher. It is now retailed in individual boxes too. It is a very moreish appealing wine, although not profound, not at all austere for a Blanc de Blancs.  The house has promoted it well and it reached 22% of production in 2014. It has also become quite expensive on the major markets, perhaps not surprising given its following; recently (2015) a London restaurant wanted £27 by the glass – I still ordered one!

I am not the greatest fan of the Rosé NV, a fairly simple wine from about 45 CH and 35PN with 18-20% added red wine, but I have to admit it is easy to like/  It seems dryish at 9g/L  and there is often an attractive bitter and chewy note giving it some character.  There are many rosé champagnes more anodyne than this! Pure pleasure!

The top of the range vintage wines are a major step up in finesse and quality, the crown jewels of this house and often exceptional fine wines. Almost certainly this is due to about 70% sourcing of the Chardonnay in particular of Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs from grand cru sites on the Côtes des Blancs.  The other 30% roughly is from the northern Montagne, especially the lower slopes with deeper soils before the chalk in Sillery and Puisieulx., but there are fractions from the higher grands crus of the Montagne too. The dosages are also much lower, generally at 5-7g/L.  The blend makes for a wine of great complexity in the top years it is made, high-pitched but powerful and only mellowing to a nutty Chardonnay maturity at some 15 years or more of age.  It is a senior member of the top Blanc de Blancs club.

It is less well known that Ruinart are great exponents of rosé champagne and the house proudly claims shipping records from 1764 show it was the first to make significant pink champagne. The Dom Ruinart Rosé is unusual in that its proportions of grapes are similar to the Blanc de Blancs, in fact up to 80% of this magnificent vintage rosé can be Chardonnay with the Pinot Noir added as about 20% of still wine. It tends to make a very mioneral and penetrating rosé that can age very well, high-pitched yet aetherially red-fruited in youth.

Wines Tasted

Tasted 09/03
Dom Ruinart ’93 Tremendous finesse and some early Chardonnay development with notes of lilies and hazenuts.  Way to go.
R de Ruinart ’96 (PN52, CH49) Firm and fairly closed up still; tightly wound.  Showing some nutty development but very early days.
Dom Ruinart Rosé ’90 (87CH 13PN blended) Copper-pink and mature;  a lovelycomplex wine giving flavours of wild strawberries, mint, quince and waffle.  Finesse and length. Tasted also in 04 and 05 – similar, very slow further development, showing smoky tobacco and mushroom flavours of developed Pinot from Burgundy.  A very impressive mature rosé. Tasting 01/04
R de Ruinart ’96 9g/L   DG 10/03.  This obviously disgorged much later than the example above.  More autolysis on the nose that the version from four months earlier.  Crisp acidity and tight.

Ruinart Blanc de Blancs NV 12/06  Very pale.  Creamy and elegant. Slight reduction and leafy.  Rather severe on palate but some finesse.  Will develop well – good concentration.  But a bit reduced and ‘yeasty’ Ruinart Blanc de Blancs NV Some ripeness and balance but continues to show ‘dishcloth / vegetal’ nose – not as pronounced as some.  Note of toast.  09/07
Ruinart Blanc de Blancs NV 10/09  Straw; full mousse, biggish bubbles.  Citrus cream nose, oaty gentle autolysis, perfectly clean – no reductive notes at all.  Dairy and coffee finish, round and comforting, almost easy finish with fillip of celeriac.  Serious but not top flight. 15  Served from new bottle – Eurostar Champagne Bar.
Brut NV 11.09  Dry and elegant; bitter grassy note.
Rose NV 11.09  Pinky copper, very dry impression, not complex, but a real cut.  13 In 01.2012 No PM but well-made easy crowd-pleaser.  In 02.2013 Pale copper, leaner and more delicate than of late, not so easy-fruity. Bitter citrus end -very elegant.
Blanc de Blancs NV 11/09  Good condition, not smelly and reduced as often in past to ’04.  Touch smoky and grassy.  Quite long.    Interesting this note sees the stink so way back.  In 01.2012 was very good, very on form, cream and herbs and long.
Dom Ruinart ’98 11/09  Complex, biscuit and lovely poise; still very young and minerally.  VG.
Brut NV In 01/2012 Cream and white chocolate crunch, great texture and finesse.  Very good.  High Chardonnay shows.
Blanc de Blancs NV 11/12  At Dishoom. London – rather a lot of it at a great party!  Clean as a whistle with a creamy grass note and biscuit edge.  Not especially powerful and a little aggressive but in the scheme of things the new era for this once stricken cuvée – no stink at all now.  In 02/2013 From magnum: Clean and very citrus cream.  Quite an easy mid-palate, round and appealing.  In 09/2013: Lovely light finesse and smoulder/ smoke too.  Tight and tense.  No problems with aromas, VG. 9g/L
R de Ruinart Brut NV 02/2013 and 09/013  40CH 57PN 3PM  First time – Reserved and tight and zippy.  A very Pinot crunch.  Lacks depth? Very clean and whistle-like. And later in the year:  Lily and floral and bready and herbal nose. Real power and length and interest. Very expressive and very good.  A really chalky impression, real biscuit complexity and great texture. 9g/L
These tasted 10/14 London:
Blanc de Blancs NV Melon and butter rather than lemony, a great fresh balance and easy pleasure.  1er crus preferred in this blend as the wines round out quickly to suit the style. 9g/L
Dom Ruinart Blanc 2004. Just 2% of production. Lovely fresh start and then some immediate toasty. Hazlenuts and butter. Full and impressive. Has real thrum and sense this will keep going some time. The 31% Montagne Chardonnsay gives this a slightly muscular and striding element, sinewy, even if the finesse and salinity and drive of thew Cote des Blancs dominates.

These tasted London 10/14
Rosé NV 45CH 35PN  20% red wine added. 2011 base. Reserves 08/09. Amber rose. Delicate white wine nose. Warm, slightly bitter red berries and red currant notes.  Slightly phenolic but very moreish.  Quite a hard texture, a slightly brutal note but it works, vinous, rawish at time but hedonistic and gulping.
Dom Ruinart Rosé 2002 Light to medium copper. Smoke and smoulder and biscuit; complex and spicy fruit. Delicate mousse but touch of caressing grip on the end. Very good.
Dom Ruinart Rosé 1996 9g/L d/g 04/08. Lighter yellow-orange. Huge dried peel impression and a very sophisticated rosé. Panaiotis thinks this certainly had high potential alcohol when harvested but was not totally physiologically ripe. All orange pastille and light lemon pastry.  Fresh, high acid lemon drop end.
Dom Ruinart Rosé 1990 (magnum) Orange, deep pastille note. A touch of reduction but the evolution is still suspended and slow. Deep complex orange cream, dusty rose and spice notes. Feathery texture and very long and complex.  83CH. 17% red wine added.

Tasted, London, 11/14

Dom Ruinart  Blanc 2004. The Blanc de Blancs delicate style just nuanced now with smoke, a whiff of coffee roast, nougat and hazlenuts.  Its texture unfurled very gently and it’s always a rounder, less mineral expression of all-Chardonnay than those made only from the Côte des Blancs.  Some 25-50% of the Chardonnay comes from the Montagne, but all this cuvée’s wines are from grand crus. This showed the fine poise, often angular balance and compactness of 2004 very well.
Dom Ruinart 1998 (magnum) had an aromatic catch of coffee and smoulder but was still incisive with a fresh cut. Like the 2004, a touch weightier than all-Côte des Blancs sourced Blanc de Blancs but with a very complex bouquet of citrus pith, lily and pencil wood.  And behind a gentle tug of tertiary sherried notes.
Tasted 04/15 London

The Rosé Brut NV Has always had a glorious hit of fresh crushed berries with, on this occasion, a cherry high note. Perhaps it’s a little lighter-coloured than in the noughties but no less impressive as the entry-level pink of the house. It was 2011 base, 24-28 months on lees and dosed 8/9g/L. 45CH 35PN, premiers crus, and 20% added red PN  An easy-drinking intro to the range.
The Dom Ruinart Rosé 2002 Vast silky finesse like all the Dom Ruinart Rosés which followed, because they are all the Dom Ruinart Chardonnay blend with red wine from Sillery and Verzenay added. If you like, you are drinking Blanc de Blancs rosé. And the Chardonnay is all from grands crus. This was hardly changed from six months ago, light copper and burnished, smoke and smoulder, mocha and chocolate with a peppery race on the nose. 80CH, 20 added red wine. This was disgorged 09/12 and dosed at 5.5g/L. Showing some development but years ahead of it. Still in school.
Dom Ruinart Rosé 1998 This was 85CH, 15 red wine, disgorged 11/11 and dosed 5g/L. It was less smoky and peppery than the 2002, slightly smaller scale, calmer and less forcing than the 2002 too, but with some very subtle umami and chilli spice notes. A fascinating wine, still good for 10-15 years.
Dom Ruinart Rosé 1996 came from that high acid, high sugar ripe vintage called legendary but sometimes prone to oxidation now.  Not this one. It showed the usual suspects of high tension balance between big fruit and steely acidity, but a lovely citrus lemon and orange oil aspect too. 83CH 17 red wine, disgorged 04/08, dosage 10g/L
The Dom Ruinart Rosé 1990. I had tasted this before in 2003, 2004 and 2005 and recently in October 2014 in magnum.  This single bottle had not developed hugely since those early years but was of course, much faster developed than the magnum.  There is some orange. coppery depth, toffee and nuts oxidation and a fascinating stony minerality now but all with a fungal botrytic note in this bottle that reminded me of great Tokaji and is absolutely wonderful! It was dosed at 10.5g/L. Very long and complex. If you are a fan of old champagne, here’s a very good vintage just entering the mid-slopes of its climb to real old greatness.  (only on the secondary market now).
Dom Ruinart Rosé 1988 A vintage I often love.  80CH 20 red wine. Disgorged 03/01. Dosed 8g/L.  My favourite from the line up and I think we were a little lucky with the bottle which although older, was less developed and showed a fresher minerality than the 1990. Showed a very concentrated mid-palate but humming with vibrant current, citrus but peachy too. A paeon to what great champagne can do over 25 years old.

Tasted blind  05/15.
The Dom Ruinart Rosé 1990. Pale deep orange. An oxidative note but from development, not woody particularly.  Mocha and chocolate. A deep core of fruit and mushroomy botrytic note, like Tokaji. Savoury and a marmalade filip on the end.  This is quite old, but brilliant and humming.  Thought 1982 or 1988 and Dom Ruinart or Veuve?
Champagne Ruinart
4 rue des Crayères -BP 85-
51053 Reims Cedex
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