Bruce Cakebread was in London to show off his Chardonnays. Not exactly a piece of cake. This is premium Napa, with history and form, founded in 1973 in Oakville-Rutherford, a name which makes the winelover’s heart beat quicker. Except that’s principally an American heart which got giddy about Napa Cabernet in the late 80s. And the main action at Cakebread has always been its opulent Cabernet Sauvignons.

In the UK, loving Californian top wine, a world away from the sweet cheapo Zins and ‘red blends’ from Lodi which form an orderly queue on promo discounts in the supermarkets, has never been easy.  Even for the serious wine lover, three boulders block the nirvana road.  One, you have to spend £30-50 per bottle on good Californian Chardonnay online or in a shop; it costs the same as premier cru burgundy. Second, that’s if you can find a shop. We’re talking upmarket specialists and the London Bermuda triangle of Harrods, Selfridges, Fortnum where prices go north and meet in the middle, but no cheaper, at Hedonism. There’s a tendency to believe, or want to believe, that the bang you get for your buck therefore, is top notch wine by any standards. It does not help that if you look up a specialist commentator’s view on Cakebread, you get damning with faint praise, which might mean pricey disappointment if you then go and buy. “Overall, the wines are good and reliable, but for some reason they have never been in the top tier, although prices are far from cheap.” (Stephen Brook 1999)

But that was 15 years ago, an aeon for a driven proud owner such as Bruce Cakebread who is also one of wine’s great communicators about what he has done and where he still wants to go.  These wines have improved hugely and are nowhere near the oaky, oily, acid-added burning stereotypes of ambitious Napa Chardonnay of the past.  Phylloxera after the failure of the ARx1 rootstock was the kickstart, allowing replanting at the estate in the mid-nineties with wider spacing and sunlight more scattered through the canopy than before, rather than directly onto the fruit. The concentration of the Chardonnay vines in cooler Carneros where Cakebread hold 67ha, means longer ripening and less potassium take-up, keeping the natural acid structure brighter.  An extra press has been added at the winery so potential alcohol can be averaged down at harvest when sun spikes make sugars soar and acid plummets in the grapes. Picking is by night and manual.  Oak is Allier light toast. We don’t want ‘the wood to bury the fruit’ he says. And nowadays, only 15-20% of the fermentations go through malolactic, giving brighter more elegant structure.

It shows. A 2003 still showed a floral, peachy nose but little fat or butteriness, still fresh. The bigger 2005 showed exotic fruit and complex light oak, a really winning wine. But the 2006 marked a sea change to a more slimline style and purity of fruit. Decisively this was the year when sugar (Brix) levels at harvest began to drop below 24. Alcohol levels, now a mite over 14%, are no higher, lower if anything, than in the early noughties.  The more recent vintages all show greater freshness and purity of lemony yellow fruits, a nerviness absent from their older cousins. The 2012 Napa Valley Chardonnay showed a sappy intensity of yellow fruits, classy oak veneer, but quite integrated and elegant.

Forget the old models of wide-bottomed, portly rich and buttery Chardonnays from California’s recent past. Some may bemoan their passing and I’m sure you will still find them somewhere if you look.  But I for one, am more impressed by the decisive, subtle style showing in the wines shown by Cakebread now.

Cakebread wines are available via Corney and Barrow.

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Champagne Billecart-Salmon is a very important leading producer, and every champagne enthusiast needs to be familiar with its wine. Within the top echelon it might be termed a ’boutique house’, neither minuscule nor a gargantuan brand. There’s something about Billecart-Salmon which sets it apart as classy, elegant and understated, both the wine itself and the image the house cultivates. The family leadership must enjoy this tangible but insider status, reinforced by its quiet location tucked just off the streets of Mareuil-sur-Ay outside Epernay, and away from the urban HQs of most big houses. The great finesse and delicacy of the house style might be best contrasted, at the level of top houses, with the butch and full-bodied Pol Roger. But in their different ways, the vintage wines of both houses exhibit a stately longevity.

In 2000, leading champagne critic, Sweden’s Richard Juhlin, ran a landmark international blind tasting of the top wines in Stockholm.  The jury included the UK’s Serena Sutcliffe MW and Robert Joseph. The two top wines of three days and 150 wines, were the 1959 and 1961 vintages of Billecart-Salmon Cuvée Nicolas François. Nowadays, this house’s champagnes are the exclusive pour in eight of the 13 Michelin starred restaurants of Paris.

The general champagne drinker will rarely meet or not know of Billecart-Salmon, sold as it is, deliberately away from supermarkets and only in specialist outlets, good restaurants and hotels.  I sometimes think of it as the house that does not want to be too well-known and no doubt its fans bask in this sense of exclusivity too, and call it ‘Billy’.

The story starts in earnest in 1818, when Nicolas François Billecart, whose family had been vintners in Mareuil-sur-Ay since the 16th century, married Elizabeth Salmon whose Chouilly vineyards were brought into the business.

Although the available information is scant, the commercial success of Billecart was not apparently plain sailing. In 1830 things foundered when vast capital was lost in a failed American sales venture and fragility dogged the house into the later 19th century. There is no mention of the name in André Simon’s (1945) review of champagnes in the UK before 1900. Following this came the least auspicious period for champagne in general: first, the Great War when stocks were stolen by the Germans (as they were in 1940-45 by the Nazis), then US prohibition. The Billecart vineyards were sold off in 1926 followed by the economic crisis of the 1930s.

All the more remarkable that, phoenix-like from the ashes, Billecart now seems in rude health. Today some 2.2 million bottles are produced annually and 15 ha of vineyards owned, seven in Damery, four on the Côte des Blancs in Chouilly, Avize and Le Mesnil and four in Ay and Mareuil-sur-Ay. Additionally 50 ha are rented and 100ha of grapes bought in from long-term contracts where the good relationships with growers allow them to apply strict quality standards.  In all, 90% of the fruit comes from within  20km radius of Epernay. Expansion has been rapid since 2004 when a hefty 45% of the value went to vineyard investors Compagnie Financière Frey, but the family retain a remarkable controlling independence.  Its seniority in the ranks of champagne is recognised with the appointment of house Director Antoine Roland Billecart-Salmon to the role of Commandeur of the Ordre des Coteaux de Champagne in March 2015.

The Chef de Cave here is François Domi, since 1998 one of the longest serving in Champagne. Surprisingly he speaks no English, shy until into his stride over tasting and explaining what he does in French, but his strategic and winemaking expertise is renowned. Since 2001 he has run one of the most high-tech wineries in Champagne, with varied tank sizes to allow small-plot handling and all the usual modern toys of reductive winemaking. This means great care to protect of the must from oxidative influence at every stage. There is a deliberate policy of picking early to lock in the freshness and elegance of the house style. ‘Double jetting’, a recent and smart champagne technique, sprays a micro jet of wine into the neck to provoke foam and expel oxygen, both at bottling and disgorgement, proven to capture and keep freshness.

Vinification here is very distinct for Champagne, with extended cold settling and low-temperature fermentation.  The first 100 litres is discarded at the press and no taille is used. After one settling at about 8C and racking, there is a second for 48 hours at about 3-5C. The point is to produce extremely clear, fine-textured must while avoiding filtration and centrifuging too.  Fermentation at 12 to 15 C for about three weeks, is very cold and slow for Champagne in general, to emphasise intense fruit aromas along with the fine texture.  Malolactic is stopped for the Brut Réserve NV but generally completed for the higher range wines.

While elegance is there in the Brut NV, there is sheer weight and fruitiness too, to the point of piercing, and there is more to the style of this than lean delicacy and finesse in the young wines. While there is silky texture and an assertive freshness, this is unquestionably a Pinot-dominant house with Meunier a big feature (about 40-45% in the Brut NV) and highly-prized.  Domi is at some pains to argue the cold fermentation tactic here is partly to capture the fruity essence of Meunier. The Brut Réserve NV, 60% of the total production, shows  weighty primary berry flavours and quite ample mild cream and light toasty generosity and is Meunier dominant – 45PM, 30PN and 30CH.  But its charm and guile is to deliver all of that with a firm, elegant texture.  Recently, as noted below, a new cuvée Sous Bois has been added to the range, given 4-6 months in oak after a four-week fermentation. Oak is used to a degree is all the higher range wines.

The range is extensive and moves through quite some gears of complexity after the Brut Reserve, Extra Brut NV, Brut Rosé NV (a pale and discreet favourite with many), the Blanc de Blancs NV, Demi-Sec and the newbie Sous Bois NV. These are followed by the vintage Extra-Brut, vintage Blanc de Blancs, the Cuvée Nicolas François vintage wines, (with the Grande Cuvée wines being these but longer on the second lees). There is a vintaged Cuvée Elizabeth Salmon Rosé and finally, the summit, the single vineyard Clos St Hilaire.

The range shows the clever eclectic and versatile character of the house: freshness and limiting of malolactic and all stainless steel for the NV wines, the use of wood, malolactic and much greater complexity and power in the vintage wines. Wood is now used in 7% of all the production, that is in the vintage wines but not the NVs, bar the new Sous Bois.  The house is in fact the fourth biggest user of barrels in Champagne, mainly 228L burgundy pièces.  I don’t mind the dual mood of the range here, although the image of the house is based on the greater familiarity most people will have with the NV wines, including the high Chardonnay Brut Rosé, a signature hit with fans of pale and racy, just gently-perfumed, rosé champagne.

Clos St Hilaire, behind the main complex, is a .98ha walled parcel sloping gently south south-west; a tapering western flank from the heights of the Philipponnat Clos des Goisses monopole to the east.  Planted in 1964 100% with Pinot Noir vines now over 50 years old and cultivated ‘near-biodynamically’, this plot used to make the red wine for the Brut Rosé. With the launch of Cuvée Clo St Hilaire in the 1995 vintage, this wine became the house flagship, albeit made in tiny volume.  Training to Cordon de Royat Simple (one cordon), to accommodate the reduced vigour of the old vines. Vigour and yield in this rich clay over chalk vineyard is rigidly controlled by this system, along with grassed alleys and ploughing to drive roots deeper, and a green harvest.  This is tender loving care for concentration before volume and yield is a miserly 35hls/ha.  The wine is completely barrel-fermented and aged with a long time on lees and very low to zero dosage. Quite possibly Champagne’s top Blanc de Noirs.

The Wines

The overall style is Pinot dominated but here they coax a texture and minerality from their fruit that is often  breathtaking.  The wines are often delightful on release but improve markedly with ageing, including the NV wines for one to three years well kept.
The Billecart-Salmon NV Brut Reserve Tasted often: 30PN 40PM 30CH, high Pinot Meunier, is very consistent in style,  pale old gold, brioche, lily and smoky apple nose; very taut but with very primary berry flavours to start, then cream, citrus and pear purée fruit, brilliantly supple texture with a slow mousse and notes of mild autolysis and reserve wines behind.  Impressive in a lean style, but recent examples seem to be getting more opulent, sweeter even, albeit with an impressive suspended and poised feel.  A recent example tasted in Mareuil-sur-Ay was 2011 base, 40% of reserves and 8g/L.
Extra Brut NV In fact zero dosage, usually. 40PM 30CH 20PN and this cuvée released first in 2006.  It is the Brut Reserve NV, with very low dosage and aged a year longer – about five years on lees.Tasted in Mareuil-sur-Ay 02/15 (base 09) this was ultra fresh and slimline with a fine texture but needing more time.  Extra Brut 2004: Tasted 11/09 Pale, incisive and persists. Lily-citrus but a ripe core and ends on a filip of candy.Bracing with a smile. Extra Brut 2006 : 70PN and 30PM.  Recently tasted in London (11/14) and understandably it showed deeper colour and more complex development than the Brut NV. Very chalky, ‘wet cavern’ and graphite aromas, austere and begging for food. Has lasted well.  Tastred again in Mareuil-sur-Ay 02/15 3g/L, disgorged 07/14.  Quite yellow and honeysuckle nose.  Enticing and rounding out.  Some 15% in oak.

The Brut Rosé NV is often a favourite amongst enthusiasts as one of the best rosé champagnes, more discreet in a different style than the more popular (and more expensive) Laurent Perrier Rosé.  Very dry impression.  Made by addition – about 7%.  Juhlin believes it’s even better with age.
Tasted 06/06 and often since. In 11/09 I noted:  Pale, but a crunchie-bar simplicity to its usual good bite.  Slightly syrupy?  Wonder what the dosage is.   In 02/15, at Mareuil-sur-Ay, this was 40CH, 30PN, 30PM with 7-8% of still red blended from vineyards in Mareuil. Pale copper salmon, very fruity for the paleness and expressive, sur lattes only one year.  9g/L.  Relatively simple but I sometimes wonder if the paleness secures its lean and discreet reputation when it is far fruitier in fact.
Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru NV Recently tasted 11/14 in London – pronounced mineral character, linear and very dry and then in Mareuil-sur-Ay: 02/15  A blend of Avize, Cramant, Le Mesnil and Chouilly. This in contrast to the one before: A round and creamy Blanc de Blancs; very persistent, very grand cru.  Blanc de Blancs ’98 Tasted 06/06 on my first visit to the house, Mareuil-sur-Ay.  Pale, greenish; citrus, honey and mineral. Elegant with compact mousse, not harsh.  Some early creamy autolytic notes.
Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru 2004: Tasted London 11/14 and Mareuil-sur-Ay 02/15, 25% in oak, bright but with chocolate and coffee cream notes from the oak. Lean and winey and compact, linear and very 2004. Good. No great hurry.  Francois Domi thinks the 06 better than the 04.
Sous Bois NV Tasted 02/15, Mareuil-sur-Ay. 33PM 33PN 33CH, base 08, one third reserves.  No malolactic, 5 years on lees 7g/L.  Light bâtonnage from time to time. Very expressive light spice and coconut but not overdone oak while evident.  Light weight in mouth and elegant.
Cuvée Nicolas Francois ’98 60PN, 40CH.  Tasted 06/06 Mareuil-sur-Ay: Mid-deep colour, lovely quince, apple and cream but not blowsy.  Quite powerful structure, drinking well but still a little austere.
Cuvée Nicolas François 99. Tasted 11/14 London, and 02/15 Mareuil-sur-Ay.  15% in oak. 5g/L. d/g 01/14, 13 years on lees. Very complete for a recent disgorgement. A real favourite! Lovely round blend of bergamot, lactic notes, coffee and dried peel. Figgy and savoury behind but still very fresh and much to come. Nutritious dough-like character and subtly herbal.  Fine wine.
Cuvée Nicolas François ’02 A sweet sugared cashew flash on the first nose, very ripe but refined. 4g/L d/g  12/12.  Everything tight and packed in, green lily and nuts. Mareuil Pinot Noir was tremendous in ’02
Cuvée Elizabeth Salmon Rosé ‘98 Tasted 09/06 London. Medium pale coppery colour; great finesse and delicate summer fruits with lingering forest aromas. Quite lovely. Early days
Cuvée Elizabeth Salmon Rosé ’00 Tasted 11/09 London.   Pale sunset-amber, slightly tarry burn.  Slightly diffuse and rather advanced for its age.  Will it go on?

Grande Cuvee ’90 11/07 (At L’Assiette Champenoise, Reims) A longer-aged version of the Cuvée Nicolas Francois. d/g ’98.  Pinot Noir and Chardonnay; disgorged ’98.  Copper-rose streak.  Biscuity, smoky, redcurrants.  Quite complex.  Fresher than Krug often is on the nose.  Richness balanced by lovely acidity; hint of sherry barrel, toffee and pastry.  Exquisite.
Clos St Hilaire ’99 Tasted 02/15 at Mareuil-sur-Ay. 100PN. Zero dosage.  Francois Domi described this as ‘presque rosé de noirs..’  Deep gold, an obvious great ripeness of fruit, the potential alcohol at harvest was 11.8.  Still very fresh but so long and complex, a purity of baked apples and spice.  Round and complete but relatively light and certainly not galumphing. A dramatic, joyous wine.  Champagne at full gallop and pulling its weight.

Champagne Billecart-Salmon
40 rue Carnot
51160 Mareuil-sur-Ay
www.champagne-billecart.fr
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Wine and words are tough bedfellows. Barbara Hepworth, asked what a sculpture meant, said ‘If I could put it into words I would have written a book.’ There’s always a deep imprecision about analysing wine but words (unless you are a chemist) is all we’ve got.  So no surprise that the more poetic and bathetic attempts to convey the experience and quality of wine in a tasting note, are often the target for a good satirical lashing from the cynical. Doing wine exams in the old days, a friend read some tasting notes and said: It’s all Martian to me. The wine in the photo must be for her.

You may have noticed that the term ‘mineral’ or ‘minerality’, usually applied to certain white wines, is coming in for its fair share of beatings just now.  When I wrote this piece over three years ago, the current crescendo was a low hum.

This is a plea really.  Literalism, thinking that what we identify in wine’s smells and flavours really has to be there, is nuts. Forget it.  When we say mineral, it does not mean we can objectively identify the taste of certain minerals in the wine.  That means all the techy argument about whether vine root tips really do suck up (sorry, osmotise) minerals and whether they have a taste even if they do, is by the by.  It also means that the deep belief of most French winey people that good wines really do taste of real minerals and this is what ‘terroir’ is, is also toast. Although I am a deep believer in ‘terroir’, I think it’s about something else, but that’s for another day.

But the short of it is that ‘mineral’ is a figure of speech in wine tasting.  It’s the metaphor, stupid.  It means we imagine this is what a lot of minerals would taste like if they had a taste.  It tends to be the opposite of fruity.  It tends to fit white wines with high acid, with all the usual northern hemisphere suspects.  It is stoniness, but with a crystalline, electrifying sensation.  It is always a positive remark.  It shows one way the wine sparks the imagination, like great art in all its forms.

The first rule of learning wine-tasting is that it can involve description, but that is not really the important bit.  We’ve all read the fruit-salad school, long lists of often obscure fruits and flowers that show just what a nature kid this taster is and how pathetic we poor townies are with just spuds in our market basket. In fact, a good tasting note conveys what seems rapier-like accuracy about the overall structure and impression of the wine.  So the important skill we all need to learn is how to identify and then sum up the resultant conjuncture of each component of the wine: texture (acidity, weight, tannin and mousse if they are there) fruit and the mix of specific imagined flavours. We need to learn how these all interact in this specific wine. And then the temporal sequence or development of the wine through the experience: the attack, mid-palate and finish.  Someone else’s great note, when you taste the wine and then read the note, is akin to the deep identification we feel when a remark in a novel sparks a feeling we never dreamed anyone else could understand.

Remember there are a large number of ‘convention’ words, mostly depending on extended metaphors, in wine tasting. ‘Minerality’ and ‘mineral’ is only one and not alone. Others are: racy, nervy, four-square, backbone, fat, skeletal, fleshy, sappy, oily, breed and finesse. And there are many, many more.

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In the world of good wine, more or less anything over £30 a bottle, this week has seen a minor mushroom cloud over London.

Robert Parker (photo Sam Chin) has handed the Bordeaux ‘en primeur’ baton to Neil Martin, the UK-grown and based claret specialist who has been employed by Parker’s The Wine Advocate several years already. This means that each Bordeaux new vintage will get the thumbs up, or cocked at various angles through 180 degrees, from a new palate.  Critics will gossip about the impact of this anointing – ‘Arise Sir Neal!’ – and what Martin will now be paid.

Parker has been a massive influence on fine wine since he had the guts and gumption to call 1982 bordeaux a great vintage while others said it was not. It was. I admire his success and while he loves the heaving breasts of ‘big red wines’, with the Rhône his first love,  I do not go along with many’s view that his palate could only discern fruit bombs.  Longevity, finesse and complexity are well-honed pillars of his judgemental repertoire as well.  He is a great and hard-working taster who became the decider of the prices of top bordeaux worldwide for the last 30 years.  The ticking time-bomb that went off over London this week, chosen no doubt as London is the digital capital of fine wine trading, was inevitable. Parker is 67.

Many importers and merchants making fine wine ‘en primeur’ offers are in thrall to Parker.  Not least because he cornered the market with the ’100-point scale’.  Merchants, chateaux owners and wine writers have waited with anxious tongues out every year and licked their columns into shape spattered liberally with the Parker points awarded.  If Parker scored scored a wine low, it was toast.  If you did not say what Parker gave each wine in your piece, you were not even a slice of bread. Many critics then used the ’100-point’ or its near equivalent, the 20-point, scale, to make their own scores, making the scale seem the DNA of wine appreciation and wine competition awards. And for those wines that got the max 100 or 20 points, see here, traders rubbed their hands, fought over allocations and put up the price.

I have never had any time for the 100-point scale and think its slavish use by most wine writers is a shame.  I wrote about it here.  I agree with Hugh Johnson who openly calls it silly and needing to go.  The Parker scale absurdly begins at 50. Anything under 90 is seen as so-so, where, in the normal world, scoring 70-90 for your essay or degree class, indeed any % score, is seen as top class.  As a result, there is vast bunching of marks around 90 points or 16 on a 20-point wine scale.  Swathes of wine articles score 20-40 wines with very similar scores with perhaps the odd stand-out high scorer. We are none the wiser and does it mean the rest are not worth buying?  Madness.

I can only think a scale that gives 50% just because a wine is a wine, is designed not to hurt the feelings and favours of producers and merchants.  After all, it is their goodwill and willingness to be scored that provides critics with their constant stream of free samples and trade tastings. I am not against giving wines marks as an unreliable but useful shorthand for a view about the quality of one bottle, one day.  I sometimes use a 20-point scale but I use the whole scale, in a similar way to The World of Fine Wine.

Parker has planned his abdication of the Bordeaux throne for some time. He may look like the dad of a hipster London lumbersexual (see here) and I’ve always found him curiously humourless, but I’m probably wrong.  I’ve been in the same room but never met him; my shelves contain his well-thumbed tomes. It seems the PRs ruffled feathers this week by not inviting some wine critics, see here, to the court of King Robert’s declaration.  But it is part of a clear process to manage the Parker brand in a post-Parker world.  Not long ago, a chunk of the The Wine Advocate business was sold to an Asian consortium for $15m. There was an acrimonious parting of the ways with Antonio Galloni, an apparently ambitious suitor for the Parker mantle and The Wine Advocate and its web version eRobertParker. A proper management team was set up under Lisa Perotti-Brown MW.

There is no doubt Neil Martin is an accomplished and prolific taster and a largely self-taught and engaging UK home grown claret expert.  It’s refreshing he does not come out of the classic fine wine critics’ mould and I have fond memories of his hilarious Wine-Journal.com, his blog before elevation to His Bobness, which came replete with rock music tips as well as his shrewd take on all things Gironde.  I love his book on Pomerol. I’m sure I will prefer him to the coterie of largely US-based names who have long-envied Parker’s position: Tanzer, Galloni, Suckling and The Wine Spectator.

But this end of era moment is not about a mere promotion and the founder’s semi- retirement. Fine wine since the 80s is no longer fed by a few books from gurus. Traditional fine wine fans are getting older. Are cohorts of younger tyros with 5-figure annual wine budgets stepping into their shoes?  It’s not clear.  Sales of wine books are in free fall, their prices too. Bordeaux is sitting on three mediocre vintages in a row with vast stocks unsold. The small number of paywall wine critic sites vying to give 100-point scores faster than each other for each new release are facing crossroads.

Instead of building their own fan base for their tasting note database, they also need to convince new people about fine wine who in the past already were.  It demands a bigger educational role, more stories about fine wine and not just scores of tasting notes. It may mean running fine wine public tastings of their picks to firm up a new fan base, such as Bettane and Dessauve from France have already run in London and which The Wine Advocate tried this weekend in London.  In the latter case, although there was plenty of middle rank fine wine on show, it was overcrowded and the tasting booklet inept.  There is clearly a lot to learn.

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La Côte des Bar, the Bar-sur-Seine and Bar-sur-Aube combined, sometimes called the ‘Aube’, has renewed importance in Champagne. No serious champagne lover can ignore it with the excuse it’s a bit far from Reims and Epernay. It is. But nowadays half of all Champagne’s Pinot Noir is grown here. But the Côte des Bar is more than Pinot central for the big houses when they come buying grapes. For a start, one of Champagne’s most innovative glories, Champagne Drappier, is here.  So too, the important coop network Union Auboise, which helps fill the bottles of Champagne Jacquart and as well, its flagship brand Champagne Devaux.  But more eyecatching recently, are a series of single estate small domaine champagnes which have become better known although established, or are rising stars. Champagne Nathalie Falmet is one of the latter. She grew up here, went away to study and now she’s back.  Although her first wines appeared only in 2009, she won rapid exports, including to the USA, and is winning a place in the domaine champagne niche. Her estate is a member of the Origines Champagnes group of RMs formed in 2013 who collaborate and first showed their wines together in April 2014 at the Chateau de Pierry.

Mme Falmet has form.  After a Paris XI degree in chemistry she qualified as an oenologue (wine scientist) in 1993 and still runs her Bar-sur-Aube consulting laboratory she founded in 1994 before she took over the family estate. Drappier is a client. The estate is tiny (3.2ha, making some 30,000 bottles per annum), mostly in the far flung eastern Côte des Bar hamlet of Rouvres-les-Vignes, with .4ha of it a little distance away the other side of Bar-sur-Aube in Arsonval. Charles de Gaulle is buried just down the road in Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises. The prized vineyard of the estate is a single parcel of senior Pinot Noir and Meunier vines on sharply south-facing Le Val Cornet outside the village, which makes a cuvée of the same name. In all, 2.1ha are planted to Pinot Noir, .5ha is Chardonnay and .6ha Meunier. The viticulture is lutte raisonée, as near to organic as possible, on clay and Kimmeridgian limestone soils.  Along with cultivation to encourage soil life, drainage and control weeds, pruning is quite severe to limit yield, especially on lieu-dit Le Val Cornet where it is less than 6,000kg/ha, half Champagne’s norm.

A 2009-built unprepossessing shed houses the winery where a Pera pneumatic press keeps stainless steel tanks company, which in turn look down on a burgeoning stock of oak barriques and an arriviste of an earthenware amphora bought last summer in Florence, Tuscany. The vin clair from this tasted lemony, saline-mineral but pretty. Malolactic proceeds on all the wines. But the style combines ripeness with a very fresh intensity and great length. Production is very thought out.  A perpetual solera-type reserve begun in 2009 provides the reserve wines, giving a growing complexity of options to a small producer who does not have the volume to store a high proportion of reserves each harvest.  The solera is replenished with about 20% of the assembled Brut NV (currently about 80PN 20CH) each year after 20% has been decanted for reserve wines. The Brut NV is thus based on a single year plus 20% solera reserves, but the Brut Nature NV and other wines are all from one year. The blends spend about two years or slightly more on lees before disgorgement. The single harvest wines cannot have vintage dated labels as they see less than the mandatory three years on lees for vintage champagne. About 20% of production is in oak.  The modest level of reserves or none, along with the relatively short time on lees, create a crystalline Pinot fruit style along with subtle oak that seems to add clarity to the texture rather than suppress fruit. Flavours are focused and intense, stemming from the low yields.

Not many champagne producers prune their vines and look down a microscope the same day to analyse a tank of wine. Nathalie Falmet’s enigmatic grin suggests she loves the feel of farming as much as the dispassionate empiricism of wine science. They say people make wines like themselves and it’s not hard to find journalistic comment about Mme Falmet’s ‘elegant’ and ‘feminine’ wines. Believe me, when I met her I saw resolve, ambition and a burning curiosity, which says far more. Expect this estate to impress in the future at the cutting edge of champagne styles.

The Wines

Brut NV Tasted Rouvres-les-Vignes 02/15.  50PN 30CH+ 20% reserves.  Base 2011. 7g/L Almost exotic fruit but very taut on the palate, well-textured mousse and surprisingly long.
Brut Nature NV 100PN, single year. Base 2011.  The first time I tasted this (Pierry 04/14) there was an odd fruit pastel note but since then it was delicious at Rouvres-les-Vignes 02/15 and since. It has about 6 months extra ageing on lees – 30 months. A pink tinge, almost rosé perhaps for some, but a great and linear impression of iced raspberry. Fresh, assertive and mouth-watering. Very good.
Le Val Cornet Single parcel of that name. Roughly 80PN 20PM depending on the year, 50% inox, 50% wood.  Always vintage but not on label.  In 04/14, Pierry, this was 2009, d/g 2012 and 5g/L. Nutty and gentle texture. In Rouvres-les-Vignes 02/15 this was 2011, goldy and complex, with density and length and a wood-complexed fruit and minerality that is very effective. Again, very long.
Parcelle ZH302 A new cuvée, single parcel from within the Val Cornet lieu-dit,  just launched in 2015. Named after the cadastral reference block.  Base 2010.  100%PM.  0g/L.  Part barrel-fermented and aged. Extremely concentrated, nutty, vanilla and very evident oak but with sublime light texture and lingering complexity.
Rosé de Saignée Tentation Rosée 50/50 PN/PM 7g/L  Base 2010. A 48 hour maceration.  A Bitter almond note and dry.  Great finesse and gentle texture for a saignée.  Beautiful cool fruit aromas; wild strawberries and spicy. Nathalie suggested ‘peony’ . Bursting with fruit, yet a delightful bitter cherry hint. Slimline and linear in proportion.
Champagne Nathalie Falmet
Chemin de Courcelles
10200 Rouvres-les-Vignes
www.champagne-falmet.com


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Champagne visitors might overlook this important house founded in 1825, for no other reason than its relative isolation from the rest, situated in Châlons-en-Champagne, some way beyond Reims to the south-east. Until 1998 named Châlons-sur-Marne, this large town, a quarter the size of Reims, was in fact the capital, and still is the administrative capital of Champagne-Ardenne and I wonder if the Prefet feels a little out of it.   It used to be home to some significant champagne houses, in particular Champagne Jacquesson, but the town has no immediate vineyards and now hosts only one important name, Champagne Joseph Perrier, one of the traditional grandes marques and a supplier to Queen Victoria and Edward VII.  The house is now within the Groupe Alain Thiénot but led capably by Jean-Claude Fourmon great grandson of the 1880s owner Paul Pithiot.

When I visited, one surprise was the imposing frontage with a forecourt, brass plate and gates out of kilter with the nondescript dull street, reminiscent of a faded glory perhaps. Surprise number two was the long galleries of imposing cellars dug horizontally into the chalk hillside behind the main building. They were not underground but their depth into the rock made conditions ideal. And there’s a novel mirror system to reflect light into the galleries from above.  The Chef de Cave here is Claude Dervin, increasingly aided by his son Jerôme.

The house owns but 21ha of vineyards, 25% of its needs, making somewhat over one million bottles per annum. Most of their holdings and supply contracts are in Cumieres, Damery, Hautvillers and Verneuil, quite some diametric step in the Marne Valley west of Epernay.  Grapes are bought in too from the Côte des Blancs and Montagne de Reims.  But I wonder if the intriguing secret weapon here is the very special Chardonnay they use from the vineyard enclave some 35 kilometres away in Vitry-le-Francois – lean, high acid and healthy grapes from an exposed location in Bassuet. Claude Dervin explained that the young vines in particular here produce a piercingly mineral but also melony and assertive Chardonnay that gives the ripe richness of their cuvées an often ratcheted bright purchase and elegance in the mouth.  The lack of any oak used here also keeps the style fresh given the overall full ripeness of the fruit used from the Marne.

The style is successful if not quite the current champagne fashion amongst afficionados for lean and mineral very dry styles. Although there’s a fine balance and the interesting melony component often from Vitry fruit, the impression is always slightly opulent, ripe and rich and a touch old school. They taste reassuring and a little luxurious though and are none the worse for that.  I recommend them.

The Wines

Cuvée Royale Brut NV The house main production and entry level wine. The last example I tasted was in Châlons, 04/14, base 2010 with 25% 09 and 08.  At least 3 years on lees. Always about one third of the three main varieties.  There was a very fresh attack and then exotic pineapple and melon notes, ripe and rich but zipped up and neat too.  6g/L
Blanc de Blancs Brut NV Tasted 04/14 in Châlons.  Chardonnay from Cote des Blancs, Vitry and Cumières. Fresh flowers and hazlenutes, a round and ripe version but beautifully balanced and all creamy nougat too. Good. Elegant softly-breaking texture.
Blanc de Blancs Brut 02 Tasted 02/12 at a Jancis Robinson.com event  Lovely focus and intensity, real identity, cream and light crunch.  Touch of aldehyde whisky barrel on palate, complexity developing from great vintage. The star for me of a big range of the champagnes on that occasion, which included some top names.
Esprit de Victoria 2006 Blanc de Blancs Tasted in Châlons o4/14  A slight note of reduction; would have been better left for some minutes or decanted. But a pleasing saline and mineral bite as well as a long roundness I was told was from the Cumières fruit.
Cuvée Josephine ’95 12/12  New Year’s Eve.  Plenty of lively texture still but some burnt treacly sugar, oxidised notes and a bit dusty overall.  Quite big boned still and classy texture.  A case of age before beauty perhaps. Quite long. This has waited just a bit too long or could have been stored better.  I need a wider experience with this Cuvée, usually 60CH and 40PN, which is reported in some vintages by others as excellent.
Champagne Joseph Perrier
69 Ave de Paris,
Chalons-en-Champagne
www.josephperrier.com
0033 3 26 68 29 51
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My piece below was written responding to a series of questions posed by a member of Jancis Robinson’s ‘Purple Pagers’, asking about lower levels of dosage in champagne.

He said he was ‘on the fence’ and not sure what opinion to have. The Discussion Forum on that site is behind the paywall, so for those of you that do not have a sub, I thought I’d share.  I’d be interested in your ideas too. Incidentally, if you are not a subscriber to Jancisrobinson.com I certainly think you should be if you count yourself a serious wine lover. It is simply the best wine site out there.

This is what I said:

Nature or Nurture?

First, a few remarks on your opening ideas before the questions proper. I’m not sure an issue is to be for or against zero or low dosage champagne, or sit on the fence. For me it is a question of how good is each champagne you taste, whatever its style. Quality is the issue.

As with all champagne, the point is not how good the style is per se, but: how good is this particular version of that style?

There is a recent trend but it almost certainly will stabilise at the level of being a style a good number of producers have in their range; meanwhile their other cuvées will be dosaged. It is becoming more mainstream, not specifically hipster. Louis Roederer for instance have just produced one, their first new cuvée since 1974. And remember the first zero brut of the modern era is not that modern: Laurent Perrier’s Ultra Brut launched in 1981. In fact their 1889 ‘Grand Vin Sans Sucre’ was all the rage in London society and through the 1890s there was a huge London fashion for dry champagne.

Most producers aim to make a balanced wine rather than a zero dosage wine at all costs. All the single estate producers you mention (Pierre Larmandier, Francis Boulard, Laherte, Chartogne-Taillet) make a range of wines with various dosage levels, not just a zero cuvée.

The cliché that sugar hides terroir and therefore zero dosage reveals it, is suspect in logic. Sugar certainly can soften very underripe fruit and candy-up the dregs of the press full of harsh phenolics, if you want to make champagne from cheap materials. But dosage is also there because that is what the mass of mainstream champagne drinkers want and love – a slightly honeyed easy to drink pleaser.

Yes, dosage levels have reduced with the riper fruit of climate change, which I discuss more below. The best non or low dosage wines are selected from riper fruit with more intensity, often therefore old vines. They tend to need high %s of reserve wines, often complexed from wood or a perpetual ‘solera’ type reserve. Malolactic may also be used to add body and butteriness so some blend fractions may be chosen for high malic acid initially. The best Brut Nature (0-3g/L), Extra Brut (0-6) or even low dosed Brut (0-12) often do not seem to have low dosage but their full and subtle flavours from a lot of wine making do stand out.

The easy marketing talk and hyperbole from some commentators that zero and low dosage wines are ‘pure’ and reveal the ‘terroir’ is questionable. If the terroir is only truly revealed by low dosage or zero, how is that to be tested as a hypothesis? Since logically you can only know terroir through the taste of a wine, you cannot claim the genuine terroir shows in one type of wine only since you make it impossible to know what the terroir (taste) is like except through that style of wine. You cannot set up a disproof trial. Wine does not evince terroir just by being dry. Which more than begs the question. It is empty reasoning. In wine, there is many a move twixt vine and lip. My experience tells me I can taste the character of certain districts in Champagne with wines having various levels of dosage.

Forgive me if I feel a lot of the hype about low dosage being the magic dipstick into the profundity of terroir is baloney. Equally suspect in my view is Tom Stevenson’s claim that zero or low dosage champagnes do not age, ie improve with age. Dosage may have some influence, but the quality of the original fruit, the time on second lees, how good and well kept the reserve wines are, the use of SO2 at disgorgement, how the wine is cellared since disgorgement (ie by the consumer), is always decisive IMHO.

On questions:

1 The sweetness levels of finished wine should be the same as the specific dosage. But notice the level is always expressed in a range unless a producer says definitiely ’0′. As you know, few producers say what the exact dosage is on the bottle. In theory the wines are bone dry before dosage.

2 The sugar added in solution at tirage is in theory fermented out to dryness in the bottle. It has to be precisely calibrated or too much alcohol is made and, more dangerously, too much CO2, leading to exploding bottles. After the 2nd fermentation is over (40-60 days) and yeast death, the wine on lees should be dry.

3 Dosage levels on average are being reduced because the grapes are riper when harvested, in overall flavour but also with lower acidity. Less sweetness is needed at dosage therefore to balance the rasping acid presence. The big houses champagnes for instance tend to have the same balance they always have in their style. It is just that less sugar is needed to achieve it. There is an impression things are getting drier but it’s not a simple curve. When there’s more flavour from ripeness, the sugar tends to stick out less, even though it may be at levels which are reducing very slowly.

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Burgundy’s modern classification began in the anti-fraud protectionist movement of the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) system of the 1920s and 30s. Bordeaux’s five tier system for the top left bank properties had been codified in 1855 of course, but the rest of Bordeaux followed only later in a regional and disjointed way. Burgundy, whose wines date back 1500 years, had already a ‘custom and practice’ hierarchy of vineyard reputations, with often a well-discussed pecking order, long before the work of the INAO codified the region in 1936, alongside Bordeaux, the Rhône and Champagne.

In Burgundy, the church developed the vineyards for centuries. It was the relative quality of wines from plots of land that drove the pecking order and the fragmentation of vineyard ownership after the French Revolution sealed that tradition.  In Bordeaux, the Médoc was barely developed for wine until the Dutch engineers drained it in the mid 17th century. There was no plot by plot ‘terroir’. The new mercantalist class grew by building estates and their power increased after the Revolution of 1789.  So in Bordeaux, chateaux were classified, not plots of land.

Charles Curtis MW is a former head of Christie’s wine departments in both New York and Asia, now running WineAlpha.com, a global fine wine consultancy.  His ‘The Original Grands Crus of Burgundy’, is a vinous labour of love, and gold dust for Burgundy lovers. It is painstaking historical scholarship and will help the shrewd buyer of burgundy today. It is required reading if you are a serious burgundy enthusiast and should take its place too in the canon of the literature of wine classification. Curtis has translated for the first time, sections of the key French works of reliable analysis, description and classification which came before the INAO and which, it is clear, the INAO largely rubber stamped.

The sources are: Claude Arnoux (1728), Courtépée and Béguillet (1774-1781), André Jullien, already translated, (1815), Dr Denis Morelot (1831) and the most influential, Dr Jules Lavalle (1855).  All of their works foreshadowed the modern tripartite division of grands and premiers crus and communal lieu-dits, although the older nomenclature usesTête de Cuvée’ for Grand Cru and then Première Cuvée, Deuxième Cuvée etc, for divisions below. This was a world where viti and viniculture were very different, where Burgundy’s planted area was over three times what it is now, but the yield vastly less and where Gamay was hugely more planted in with Pinot Noir.

The biggest modern fall from reputational grace is the huge 50ha Clos de Vougeot, but it is easy to see why. It was a monopole until 1889 with all this means for selection and blending but now has 80+ owners. It is not uniformly grand cru potential but has kept its official status.

This book also reminds us why Nuits has no modern day grands crus, when the above authorities all graded Les Saint-Georges just so.  In fact the owners did not apply for ‘grand cru’ in 1935 as they thought they would be taxed more.  In the opposite direction, the old authorities have been ignored by modern expansion which has inflated Corton to over 160ha in the 20th century, from some 20-30-odd before.  There are always exceptions in Burgundy.  Volnay of course was never given any grands crus, perhaps unfairly and controversially, with some of the above writers reticent on its claims, others more forthcoming.  Curtis has a little more genuine enthusiasm about Volnay but would clip its wings too: “Wine lovers might be well-served by elevating Champans and Caillerets, while being a little more selective with the premiers crus vineyards in other instances.” But in general, while recommending the odd modern producer, Curtis is modest with his own opinion, preferring showing to telling.

This wonderful cameo book is a reminder of what being a wine lover means: you need to travel, you need to see the vines.  You need to taste, perhaps the least neglected part!  But you also need to study, research and think.  In some cases, translate.  Curtis has done all that and it will make you want to do more.

The Original Grands Crus of Burgundy – Charles Curtis MW.  Pub: Wine Alpha, 1914. $19.99

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Champagne quality has never been so high or so excitingly varied in taste.

I welcome the trend for new blends, variation of dosages, different oak treatments, the use of old vine and lower yield Meunier, more fractional use of malolactic and single cru, single vineyard wines.  If Champagne producers, houses and domaines alike, do not aim to engage new intelligent professionals in the world’s top cities with new angles on champagne, they will falter.  Telling the export market about timeless heritage handed down five generations is boring.  It is about creativity, finesse and white hot know-how.   Excitement.  Champagne needs to have more confidence to say why its wines are potentially fine and more complex than all other fizz.  It needs to communicate more in ways which do not insult peoples’ intelligence.  Glamour, dreams and aspiration may be fine for many, but in other segments,  it needs to communicate more about the wine.

Champagne was originally in barrels. There is no tablet of stone brought down from the mountain by champagne critics like Tom Stevenson, which says champagne must never taste oaky or clearly taste of barrel techniques.  It doesn’t have to be in wood.  But get over it if it is.

The worst place to buy champagne in the UK is supermarkets. 53% of all the off-trade champagne sold in the UK is supermarket own label  (Buyer’s Own Brand or BOBs) or exclusive labels, the vast majority of which are dull and deceptively poor value.  And the supermarkets will not stock single estate champagnes because they do not want it to compete with their own BOBs. The best single estate champagne costs as much as the big brands anyway, but the supermarkets do not want to ruffle Big Champagne’s feathers by explaining to punters champagne can be great without having to have a global brand name.

There is an oxidation problem in some champagnes. Be careful out there.  Too many champagnes right now are tasting of tired toffee. Perhaps one in 20?  Not because they have low dosage, but because in the economic slowdown, well…things went slower.  I suspect in some cases too many reserve wines were stored too long before being used in blends.  Too much champagne has languished in the supply chain.  We need to know when it was put on lees, what is in it and when it was disgorged.  Most champagne producers still won’t tell us this on the label.  And most retailers won’t tell how long it has sat warm in their store either.

Most restaurants do not sell champagne very well. Even many sommeliers think champagne sells itself.  Most restaurants or hotels do not sell that much.  But a bar in London’s The Shard sold 19,000 bottles last year.  They have a plan, clearly.  Who else does?  Are these new fizz Enomatics any good?

The best place to buy champagne in the UK is a small number of independent shops and distributers . You will not be offered many discounts but the range is generally good and wide and the advice informed.   Big Champagne is everywhere.  But the best ranges of domain or single estate or boutique produced champagne are at The Wine Society, Berry Bros & Rudd, Vine Trail (Bristol), D Byrne (Clitheroe, with over 150 champagnes in stock) and The Sampler (two shops in London). Please tell me which I’ve missed

8 Do not be misled by hipster ravings claiming the only champagne to buy is ‘grower’ Single estate or domaine champagne is a wonderful thing when it is good but much is not.  The same with Big Champagne.  Go easy on the enthusiastic lifestyle generalisations.  I’m always intrigued by the brickbats thrown at Big Champagne, often from the keyboard of a Macbook Air, by someone in Nike who drives an Audi and shops in Waitrose.

9  I do think it is a cheek for companies to use the ‘Champagne’ word in their registered business name and then sell or promote other non-champagne wines too. If I dropped into my IKEA Store and spotted them selling some DHS furniture as well, I’d be surprised.  If I called myself Bordeaux Barbie, I think it would be best to stick to, err, Bordeaux, when sounding off.  And I’m sure IKEA top brass and the CIVB in Bordeaux would consider dropping someone a line about it in either case.

10  Wine critics need to educate more that Prosecco is not champagne method and all of it is 99.99% poor quality compared to champagne. That’s all.

11  If you love champagne, then you do need to show an interest in and learn about vintage champagne. No one would claim to love Port and ignore most vintage Port, even though it is only 2% of all the Port made.  It’s about the same for champagne.  But vintage champagne is not just dated from one harvest; it is the best and most carefully selected blend.  Champagne vintages need  far more discussion by wine writers but they tend to ignore the style or only write about the de luxe cuvées.

12  Visit champagne. As a wine tourist it is getting better, although I do find Epernay desperately dull when not inside the doors of its important addresses.  I can count on one hand the number of wine critics that go and consistently visit and explore in Champagne. Nevertheless, hotels and restaurants and B&Bs are better and better and the welcome at smaller producers often delightful and educational. I advise giving a wide birth to the scripted, tired, slick and touristy visits’ departments of some of the big houses.  You need a car, some French and phone ahead.  Just Google the domaines you want to see.  And best not at weekends, the French are shut.   I often ponder how long it will take the French to realise that busy people who spend a lot of money on champagne tend to work Monday to Friday in London, New York or Rome. They want to visit Champagne at weekends.  Please make it possible.

13  The ‘sur lattes’ issue. Twenty years ago, the fact Champagne allowed its producers to sell wines to other producers (who had not made them)  who then sold them with their own (de facto false) label on , used to be condemned.  And the Champenois made lots of noises to suggest it would be stopped.  But it still goes on. Then in December, I was surprised to see Jancis Robinson include an Artéis & Co 2002 bottling in her Christmas recommendations in the Financial Times and her website (sold by Roberson, in London).  It sounds like a ‘sur lattes’ wine. I’m sure it’s great.  This is not like a supermarket BOB made under contract by a coop.  It was completely made by one producer but is now sold by another as if they had made it themselves, but you will not be able to find out who made it first. The final supplier will have carried out the disgorgement and dosage.  In the slightly murky general world of wine, wines are constantly being bought up and then bottled by a new final supplier.  You will usually not know whose tanks and who’s winemaking did the job in the first place.  So, is that now OK for some champagne?  I’m sure there are hundreds of Artéis type champagnes out there, where there’s not even small print to tell us the provenance.  Is ‘sur lattes’ irrelevant?  Is it OK to shout about how vital ‘provenance’ is to the consumer but ignore it when it suits?  Postcards please…

14  Resist the rush of many to bracket all sparkling wine into some vast fun category called ‘Bubbly…’ You can see why some are keen.  Some people are very happy to be bundled up in the same bed as champagne.  Makes us all look good.  Except champagne that is.  And you can get your advertorial about some miserable Prosecco published in a Bubbly Mag with a nice posh champagne piece on the next page.  Winner.

15  Stop Discounting Champagne Supermarkets cynically use champagne as loss leader discounts in holiday periods to entice people in for the fizz deal who then go on to shop their trolley full of other stuff.  They educate consumers to think champagne should really be £12, not £30+  And that’s why sensible shoppers are buying less of the discounted champagne plonk and Own Label and reaching for Prosecco like it saves lives.  Wine critics fall over to shout the latest champagne discounts from the rooftops.  They should be saying they are a false economy.  This is what Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger was on about when he came to London earlier in the year and said: ‘Most champagne in the UK is badly sold.’  Hardly a wine journo reported it.

16  Increase champagne’s ageing time. The champagne industry is very clever in the way it produces a complete range of quality for every point in the market, from the basic mediocre offers made with ‘taille’ juice and given minimal ageing on lees, to some of the world’s finest wines at the top and all points in between.  But the reputation of champagne rests on saying it comfortably makes the highest quality of all fizz.  Yet, at the bottom end, too much champagne is still sold on the name.  Tightening pressing rules would improve must quality and finesse but only if the current volume of the Cuvée is retained and the Taille reduced. Cheap industrial champagne would be hit hard, squeezed as it is now by the fact discounters are its market on the one hand and the high price of grapes is making the pips squeak so to speak, on the other.  But longer lees ageing would also do champagne a favour.  At present it cannot be sold until 15 months after bottling, but that can mean only 12 months on lees for the really mean champagnes.  Raise it to 20 months for starters.

17  Make it compulsory to put the date cellared and disgorgement date on bottles of champagne and explain it.  Dosage would be good too. This is such an old potato now I hardly dare dig it up.  Please do not argue the consumer will not understand it.  If not, explain it, actually explain something about champagne to the customer for once instead of showing them a picture of a model in a bra and pants.  I’m sure they do understand that but why not be really daring and do something different?

18  The coolest champagnes right now, are being made by top single estates (‘growers’ in old money) on the Côtes des Blancs. But you don’t want to drink champagne just because someone said they were cool do you?  So I won’t tell you who they are.  You do the work: read, look, go there.

19 Wake up to the Côtes des Bar.  The Aube is pretty cool right now too and you don’t really rate as a champagne fan until you have visited there a bit.  It’s vitally important for all Champagne – nowadays over 50% of all the Pinot Noir in Champagne is grown in the Aube.  Did you know that Taittinger has a contiguous (that means one big plot) swathe of vineyard there over 30ha? It also has several of the most current ‘cult’ growers, oops (!), single estates.  And the largest commune under vine in Champagne (les Riceys), Champagne Drappier (yay!!) and Devaux (very good).  Easy.  Just get in your car and go.  Do not try this by train.

20  No sooner do people stop using the ‘grower’ word , than they start calling single estates or domaine champagne ‘artisan’. Please think. The producers of single estate champagne do not stumble around with mud-caked boots wearing tabards chewing straw.  Very few of them actually spend much time with a hoe or pruning 10 hours a day on a windswept hill.  They mostly employ people to do that.  Their time is spent discussing clones with technical suppliers, analysing soil or discussing oenological parameters of must with their local laboratory.  They worry about yeast character and the technicalities of blending and dosage trials.  Then they have to be salemen and women and talk to all those boring people called customers.  They spend hours on their PC or Mac, they have to discuss the finer points of electrical repairs and water drainage in their winery with local engineers. to make sure the press and all points south are hunky dory for the harvest.   They are not ‘hands-on’; that’s an insult to a modern creative winemaker.  They use technology at every step.  It’s called a computer, a tractor, a big wagon for touring their estate often with parcels many kilometres apart.  It’s called weather forecasts and disease pressure reports from Comité Champagne. They have to negotiate with the appellation authorities, see lawyers, discuss their picking team with the local job agency. And they jump on an aeroplane to go and discuss with connoisseurs in the USA and have business meetings with their importers.   And it’s back to meet the website designer, label printer and think about a trade show to select a new pump or software for the grape press.  Oh and if you want to buy a tiny bit of land, get ready to talk detailed figures with accountants and Credit Agricole; and more lawyers.  And there’s not much point selling to the world unless you have taken time to learn at least good English. Get real. With 10 hectares of vineyard, a small domaine champagne producer, in a good year, turns over €1 million plus.  This is not an ‘artisan’. It’s about white-hot creativity, tech, science and art and energy and management. It is not a peasant toiling at a bench.  Tell it to the birds.

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I’ve been meaning to write this piece for so long.  But busy, busy got in the way.  That and the mistake of thinking I had to write a restaurant review.  Wrong, because I am not a restaurant reviewer.  But my two visits to this crowded, cramped place in Noho – north of Oxford Street (London!) or Fitzrovia as it’s more sedately known, showed me the one and only thing that needs to be shouted out.  This is simply the best place to Drink Champagne in the UK. And the reason is, it has the best, most original and fine champagne list in the UK.  And that’s more or less all there is to drink on the list.  OK, the odd beer, Cava and bottle of English fizz, but we don’t need to mention them again, do we?  It’s the brain child of married duo Sandia Chang and James Knappett, ex Per Se and The Ledbury.

And perhaps another reason is that the design, décor and ambiance here is not faux fine or grand like so many bars in top hotels or brilliant classic restaurants.  Perhaps many will find it altogether too bizarre, especially when you know you can’t book for the main front of house restaurant and if you don’t get there early, expect a queue that sometimes goes out the door and down the street. OK, they now take reservations for small parties for lunch Tuesday – Friday.  See the website here:  Bubbledogs.

And bizarre plus is when you know all you can eat here is hot dogs.  Alright, they call them ‘gourmet hot dogs’  You get the picture.  Don’t plan on starting your health regime before you come here.  Honestly, leave it until after.  But they are delicious, as delicious as most hot dogs are only half delicious. These are super delicious. Toppings to knock you out. And don’t forget to order Tots, lots, too.  Oh, and the sweet potato fries.

But the main thing is champagne.  But not Big Champagne, not the big house global brands, which must irk them somewhat.  What you have is a stellar round up of the top ‘grower’ champagnes. Please call them ‘single estate’ or ‘domaine’ champagnes, which is what they are. I think ‘grower’ sounds too like compost for your tomatoes in the garden centre. But twinning them with hot dogs makes for a cool vibe, as even the Good Food Guide 2015 says these days.  But what names – Selosse, Agrapart, Lassaigne, Larmandier-Bernier, Pierre Péters, Eric Rodez, Chartogne-Taillet….and many more. They’re all here.  And for what they are, the price mark-ups are reasonable.

But that’s not all.  There’s a new development this year which has already won a Michelin star, and that is what the entry in the Good Food Guide is for too, rather than the hot dog main salon.  It’s called The Kitchen Table and it’s through a curtain and into a grander room in the back. It’s a 12-14 course small plates £88 per head operation where you sit cheek by jowl with the cooking action right in front of you and the odds being announced for each dish by the chef James Knappett.  It’s great food as the Michelin inspectors have discovered.  When I went there with a bunch of fellow paid up champagne nuts (we took in some mighty fine champagnes and paid an OK corkage as well as buying off the list), the food and experience was magnificent.  Before we left we even popped back into the main room and had some dogs.

But you probably didn’t want to hear about tasteless greed.  Quite simply, the most original and exciting London eaterie for years, and to drink, the world’s most classic and alluring wine: champagne.

Bubbledogs
70 Charlotte St
London W1T 4QG
+44 (0)20 7637 7770
http://www.bubbledogs.co.uk/
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