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.
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.
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.
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 uses ‘Tête 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
Posted in Wine Books
1 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.
2 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.
3 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.
5 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.
6 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?
7 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.
Posted in Champagne
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.
70 Charlotte St
London W1T 4QG
+44 (0)20 7637 7770
The Institute of Masters of Wine, the club for the biggest brains in wine whose members pass the very tough exam, had a brainstorm last week. After champagne tastings of classic ‘Big Champagne’ houses Taittinger, Krug and Salon in the last three years, for the first time ever they focused on ‘grower’ champagne. Essi Avellan MW (who wrote her dissertation on single vineyard champagnes) was in the chair. Trinity House was the venue in the City of London, a great symbol for shining the light of guidance, as it is the home of the Lighthouse Authority. It describes itself as an ‘elegant City of London Venue…an oasis of calm serenity with the ambience of a grand private residence.’ I was reminded of another Oasis:
Some day you will find me
Caught beneath the landslide
In a champagne supernova in the sky
And the four stars of grower champagne who came to show their wines and share ideas were Champagne Pierre Péters (Rodolphe Péters), Champagne Tarlant (Mélanie Tarlant), Champagne Serge Mathieu (Isabelle Mathieu-Jacob and Michel Jacob) and Champagne Pierre Paillard (Antoine Paillard). The four producers are based in this order in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger (Côte des Blancs), Oeuilly (Marne), Avirey-Lingey (Côte des Bar) and Bouzy (Montagne de Reims), covering all the key districts bar the northern side of the Montagne. Their wines are all on the UK market.
Essi Avellan made no bones of opening with the declaration that ‘grower champagne may be the most notable phenomenon in the Champagne world’. It seems the new buzz attracts many with its small family basis and growers’ reform of their vineyard work to produce more frank and intense translations into champagnes that taste of their locality. Many are organic or work to reduce chemical pesticides and herbicides. All of them encourage high vine age to give more finesse although lower yields, the opposite of which is usually the driver of Big Champagne, that is, the leading houses. Most top growers also practice massal selection aiming to imprint the performance of the best vines in their vineyards on the wines. A few are biodynamic.
No surprise the hipster wine world often adopts them as the harbinger of cult authenticity in contrast to the big houses. That depends of course on how good their champagnes actually are and I’ve often said the danger is to see all the virtue in a pure approach rather than the end result in the bottle.
And the leading small growers are not new – it has taken decades to turn small beginnings into prestigious international reputations, outside the traditional French market for this type of champagne, even if still in the niche of champagne enthusiasts. All of these four producers are established for decades, marked by the moment when their family of initially grape-growers, stopped selling all their grapes to the négoce and began to make their own wines and sell them. They also have amassed estates now much larger than the grower average. Dates and size are as follows: Péters: 1919 and 20ha. Tarlant: 1928, 15ha. Serge Mathieu: 1970, 11ha. Pierre Paillard: 1946, 11ha.
The order in which they each presented their wines went by seniority and size of estate. A pecking order? And to see Mélanie Tarlant and Isabelle Mathieu-Jacob on the platform reminded us too of Champagne’s proud history of women in leading roles.
All the producers’ wines showed wonderfully the separate character of their Champagne sub-regions. The suave, salty and mineral cut of the Côte des Blancs and Le Mesnil-sur-Oger in particular shone from the Péters wines. The Tarlant wines showed the broader character of the west-of-Epernay section of the Marne and the Mathieu wines oozed that powerful, pressing richness from the southern Côte des Bars. Perhaps the super fresh and finessed wines of Pierre Paillard defied slightly the stereotypical ripeness and power of Bouzy, but I did not mind that one little bit. I visited this estate in 2013 for the first time, but the wines at this tasting reminded me of what exciting high quality they are.
There is therefore a case here for the often-heard claim that single estate champagnes reflect (ie taste of) the narrower location their vines draw on compared to Big Champagne. Perhaps the claim rings truer for this particular tasting because Essi Avellan had chosen six of the 13 wines on show as single-vineyard champagnes. These included a lovely Les Barres Brut Nature 2009 from Champagne Chartogne-Taillet as a ‘palate-calibrator’ (Avellan’s term) before the main action. It showed fine apple peel, cold lily and herbs and a salty minerality which made it an original expression of vines in very sandy soils on their own roots in Merfy, of the Massif de St Thierry. All told, the wines in this tasting showed a high level of ‘location’, when by far the majority of domaine (‘grower’) champagnes are a blend of several several villages, not just one.
But what stood out as well as origins, was the sheer creativity and finesse being achieved by these domaines in their viticulture and winemaking, which should not be forgotten. The number of Blanc de Blanc and Blanc de Noirs styles showed deliberate varietal character even if it was not simple primary varietal flavours. The number of zero and modest dosage wines had a clear palate effect of dryness, obviously, but also avoidance of the slightly honeyed roundness of Big Champagne’s more simple cuvées. Again, a winemaking decision. Similarly, there were clear effects from blocking or doing the malolactic. Péters’ Reserve Oubliée NV was an outstanding wine with warm smokiness, a spicy bite to it and a green lily note, very complex. And it helps to know it has vast winemaking work involved in it: its beginning in a perpetual (solera) reserve begun in 1988 and then this cuvée’s separation from it for an extra year’s ageing in oak on fine lees, and bottled on cork, not a capsule. Equally, the skilled use of barrel fermentation and blocked malo policy at Tarlant really shows in the wines, as does the completely stainless steel operation at Pierre Paillard.
There was some discussion of how ‘grower’ champagne is to improve its profile and stand out more. It has achieved often cult status in niche markets but is virtually unknown to most champagne drinkers. It has caught on to a degree in some countries more than the UK where 53% of all off-trade champagne sold is still supermarket own-label or supermarket exclusive lesser quality brands. Perhaps less than .5% (half on one per cent volume) of champagne imported into the UK is single estate.
Drop ‘grower’; call it ‘Single Estate or Domaine Champagne
It would help too if there were fewer generalisations about it. It needs pointing out that the proper single estates are less than half of what Champagne’s Syndicat des Vignerons calls ‘growers’. In 2013 there were 1,951 RM (récoltant-manipulents)? and 2,678 RC (récoltant-coopérateurs). It’s the RCs that are not true single estates; they make and sell a generally identical soup made for them by the local coop that blends members’ grapes. Only the RMs are authentic domaines and of the 1951, probably fewer than 200 of them are making truly good champagne. There is clear water between the top 25-50 and the rest, even within this 200.
There’s nothing wrong with a niche of course. But surely it would help if wine critics and fans could write more about the leading single estates and domaines of ‘grower’ champagne from a point of view that sees it less as a cult ‘green and organic’ alternative to more mass-produced Big Champagne but more as simply fascinating and very good champagne. Even the term ‘grower’, in the English context, does not convey the vital distinction between them and the big houses. The houses operate in general like volume producers the world over, making multi-district blends from largely bought-in grapes. It’s quite amazing how so many of their wines manage to be so good. The growers however have a big asset going for them in their structure of production. They make champagne only from their own grapes from their own land. And this independence and control needs trumpeting more. It is the accepted model among wine enthusiasts for the basic sine qua non of quality: the model of the domaine or single estate.
So I look forward to single estate champagne being judged on its merits alongside all champagne, not as merely an intriguing ‘category’. No doubt the Institute of Masters of Wine is planning, for its next champagne tasting, to have leading single estates presented alongside the big houses. ‘Champagne together’, as Champagne’s leaders are always reminding us.
London newcomer to UK champagne sales The Finest Bubble, put on a remarkable tasting to clients, press and trade, which to the lucky fifty people there, laid down a marker to some of champagne’s naysayers. The fact is, I hear two different stories about champagne constantly. And the more I learn about champagne, the more I distrust both. Story 1: ‘Single estate’ or ‘domaine champagne’ (please avoid the misnomer ‘grower’ champagne), the stuff made by the RMs (récoltant-manipulents) is uniformly the real thing, the genuine authentic high quality bees knees. You need drink no other. Story 2: The big houses (what I call Big Champagne), the global brands, are where it’s at. You need not look at the wines of the single estates; who’s even heard of most of these upstart ‘grower’ families and their wine?
I wish it was so simple. There is a simple answer however to the dilemma as far as I am concerned. Study the wines. You need to drink the better wines of both to understand why champagne is simply the best drink, not all of it, but the better examples.
This event allowed us to see that, although often made in tiny quantities, the prestige champagnes of leading houses can demonstrate exquisite quality, a model of care, lavished know-how and great vineyards. I’m lucky to see a fair whack of de luxe cuvée champagne. But not often from different houses all at once. The tasting was brilliantly hosted at LVMH’s London HQ, as the houses shown were in their remit: Krug, Dom Perignon, Ruinart and Veuve Clicquot. There was a pre-tasting of three 2004s, a 2003, a Krug Grande Cuvée (which is NV) and then a horizontal flight of 1998 for the main tasting. What a difference six or so years can make, as we were to find out.
De luxe cuvées are nearly always vintage champagnes, although Laurent Perrier’s ‘Fin de Siècle’ and Krug Grande Cuvée are important exceptions. Most houses take enormous care to select the best fruit for vintage versions, because they are seen as finer expressions of a single year. There is simply more customer expectation of vintage and it has to perform, and importantly, be capable of ageing and improving much longer than basic non-vintage. Although supposedly always made only in very good years, it takes a great deal of selection in such a northern climate to produce a balanced and concentrated wine for long keeping from one year alone. You need the best fruit you can lay your hands on even in a great year. There is even more expectation of a prestige or de luxe cuvée: it is seen as the best product of the house, with prices to match.
Dom Ruinart 2004 was a delight, with its 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. The Veuve Clicquot Grande Dame 2004 was the same well-integrated, quietly collected and pointed 2004 style, but here with 60% of Pinot Noir and still very youthful, if not slightly closed. The faintest note of brioche but elegant and not crudely smoky in youth. It’s lighter than anticipated with more high tension finesse perhaps than Grande Dames of old. I like it a lot. Dom Perignon 2004, which I have tasted a number of times since launch and just last week, seems to have picked up a trot in no time and while not at all mature yet, is showing just a hint of sweet hazelnut and bonfire smoke drift. It’s creamy and herbal. But its silk mousse is the tell tale signature. It’s moderate, understated scale was very 2004 too.
Then there were two Krugs. The Krug Grande Cuvée was coded 413073 on the back label which means you go to the website and find out it was disgorged in Oct-Dec 2013. and was from 142 wines from 11 vintages 1990-2006. A bit of a faff to do but welcome information. I just wonder why it can’t be put on the back label for an easier life. Anyway, it was gorgeous, with tell-tale volume, flesh and chewy density, wired with lively texture and a delicate whisky-whiff aldehyde note I love in good champagne. The second was Krug 2003, which was mid-gold, giving a lifted earthy note, lemon-0il and wood smoke, a touch of sweet antiseptic and vellum, but a substantial warm wine rom the sun of 2003′s harvest.
The 1998s, given a breazy but exceptionally informed commentary from Richard Bampfield MW, were obviously notably more mature. But their message was a still youthful structure and an excellent, wired texture to keep the wines alive on the palate. They share good acid and body balance with 2004 but always seem a bit bigger with higher alcohol. A bit more flesh and muscle than 2004.
Dom Ruinart 1998 served in 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.
The Dom Perignon 1998 (60CH 40PN) was teamed with its later disgorged Dom Pérignon 1998 Plénitude (‘P2′) version just launched and was a textbook demonstration of long-lees ageing versus long bottle age effects. These were the highlights of the tasting. The basic (!) DP 98 would have been disgorged around 2006, so has spent 7-8 years on lees in bottle and then 8 years bottle age since disgorgement. The P2, in contrast has had 14 years on lees and only one year since disgorgement. These two children were born the same year. But how different they were given their chalk and cheese experiences. The regular DP was noticeably darker yellow and with it came oxidative, mature coffee and nuts character. Complex and with DP’s trademark elegance but very much more developed than P2. I said at its launch in the UK that P2 98 was the best champagne I had tasted in 2014 and this bottle confirms that again to me with no reservation. It shows real freshness and an aethaerial lemon-oil, vanilla and almond note and none of the heavier oxidative notes of the standard DP 98. There is huge, tiptoe finesse and soft texture to the mousse.
The Krug 1998 (unusually high Chardonnay 47%, 37PN and 16PM) was yellow straw and will be loved by Krug fans for its toffee-caramel, licorice and tobacco notes. For me its saving grace was a ginger and soy umami character with a wired liveliness still that keeps the wine balanced. Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame Rosé 1998 showed just how brilliant this house’s rosés can be, reminding us of the pioneering work they have done historically with this style. It was pale amber, exuding lobster and faint honey, light texture, dry and refined with soft sous bois notes, making it light years more complex than the majority of rosé champagne.
Some mighty fine bubbles. Congratulations to The Finest Bubble. And to Big Champagne.
I’ve always loved Champagne Ruinart, both its very serious Dom Ruinart versions and its gluggable Rosé NV. But the wine most people say they love a lot from the range is Ruinart Blanc de Blancs NV, in its very distinctive squat bottle. It certainly has lemony race and a whiff of peppery smoke you often find with Blanc de Blancs 100% Chardonnay wines from the Côtes des Blancs but in this version it is tempered with the forcing cream, round weight and hazelnut persistence of Chardonnay grown on the Montagne de Reims and in the south in Sézanne. It has been such a success it is now over one in five bottles of all Ruinart. Currently (UK) it’s £45 in Majestic if you buy at least two, £60 in Selfridges and £57 at Berry’s.
And it’s so attractive in its clear glass bottle, a tempting lemon-gold winking beacon on a white tablecloth. But like people in glass houses, wine in clear glass can spell trouble. The spectrum of visible light from daylight and, to a lesser extent, artificial light can create awful ‘off aromas’ in white and rosé wines if bottled in clear glass. The fault is called ‘lightstruck’ wines in the lingo. Green and brown glass, however, block most of, but not completely, the wavelengths that can damage wine.
Several weeks ago I managed to have a conversation in London with Frédéric Panaïotis, the Ruinart Chef de Cave. We tasted the Blanc de Blancs; it was beautifully fresh. Then I asked what I’d been too scared to say some years ago. Did this wine once have a problem with bad aromas of drains and overboiled cabbage? Fred did not blink and said ‘Oh yes, a big problem. When I arrived at Ruinart in May 2007 in Reims, it was an obvious issue and I saw stocks of the disgorged wine were being left in the sun, certainly daylight, until being stored for a period before shipping. Some of the storage areas also had the wrong kind of artificial lighting. We stopped it and the problem was solved.’
I’ve checked my tasting notes of this wine and I see for several years from 2004 to 2008 that I often found obnoxious smells on this wine. But I see as well, when I asked fellow tasters or read the recommendations of wine critics in the press, the Big Stink was never mentioned. It might as well have not existed. Mystifying? Not every bottle was faulty, but I do wonder if wine writers sometimes ignore or tune out from faults in wine so as not to appear churlish in print or offend brand owners who send them free samples or invitations to tastings and trips. As I’ve said before – when do you ever read a truly critical note about a wine in the press? In contrast, take a good look at the way expert critics write up restaurants, the theatre and books.
The science is fairly clear: the wavelengths of visible light dangerous to wine in clear glass are 70-440 nM, a part of the spectrum in both daylight of course and the kind of fluorescent lighting in shops. The wake-up fact is this: damage from exposure can begin and increase within 3-4 hours. Not all bottles on a shelf in a shop would be affected or affected to the same degree because exposure is less when bottles are stacked behind each other on shelves or are bought quickly. Light struck aromas (LSAs) resulting from methyl and dimethyl sulphide, ethanethiol and methanethiol are listed as: Rotten eggs, drains, burnt match, onion, garlic, cooked cabbage, burnt rubber, cooked/tinned sweetcorn and tinned tomato. Some research on these aromas in bottled beer refers to a chemical 3-Methyl-1-butanethiol which is one of the volatile components of the anal sac secretion from the spotted skunk. So now you know.
But more to the point, Champagne Ruinart Blanc de Blancs is a glorious wine long past its problems. I highly recommend this wine. But caveat emptor. Do not buy any wine in clear glass if it is out on open display, or in other words, make sure you ask for one in a box (as this wine is sold now) or straight out of the box.
* I acknowledge and am grateful for sight of Jo Ahearne MW’s research on lightstruck wines in general. Her MW dissertation is not directly quoted. All opinions are my own.