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.
How far has single estate (‘grower’) champagne come? The top independent estates became so 20-40 years ago. But only recently has it begun to seem grown up and step out in long pants with both serious connoisseurs and the more ephemeral wine fashion fringe. The latter, perhaps simplistically, see it as an artisan and green working challenge to the big champagne brands’ mass-made mainstream styles.
To me, ‘grower’ champagne is the most exciting thing going on in Champagne, although in these hard times more growers feel the pinch and sell more grapes to the big houses because it is harder to sell their own bottles. The cash-strapped French, traditionally the buyers of most small producer champagne, are buying fewer bottles and fewer Dutch, Belgians and Germans and Swiss are coming in their cars to fill their boots.
But for those domaines that manage to export to Europe and beyond, single estate champagne is cool right now, particularly to urban professionals who would not be seen dead serving Prosecco to their friends, even if they opened a sneaky bottle or two in the garden this summer. But outside the coterie of sommeliers and these champagne enthusiasts however, hardly anyone has heard of ‘grower’ champagne. It’s all very well to say ‘grower’ is hip, but ‘hip’ is a pretty closed world to most.
What Is it?
Defining ‘grower’ champagne is as embarrassing to its fans as a dog lover being asked to explain what a labrador looks like. But it may do the little community of champagne aficionados good to take their noses out of the micro niche they are in and smell the coffee now and again. Most talk of ‘grower’ champagne is preaching to the more than converted – me included – and there is work to do, especially in the UK, being a market so dominated by the traditional global champagne brands, if single estate champagne is to gather strength.
OK: heads up. ’Grower’ (please say ‘domaine or ‘single estate’) champagne is made completely only in the producer’s winery (and definitely should not made for them by a coop) and from the grapes grown by the producer on the producer’s own land in Champagne. Look for the little letters RM on the label, meaning récoltant-manipulant. It’s normal for wine lovers to think of the best wines as coming from single estates with their own vineayrds. But the single most vital fact about the vast majoity of champagne is that it is not like that. For the most part, Big Champagne, the global brands, has nothing like enough of their own vineyards to supply the millions of bottles they make.
What Does It Want To Be?
I’ve said before I do not like the term ‘grower champagne’ because it is redolent of mud-caked boots, ruddy faces and general rusticity. It sounds like something you get at the garden centre with grow-your-own tomato bags. It’s just all wrong for the image of champagne. We may worry about macho cars, girls in diamonds and the general tastelessness of much bling champagne promotion but I think you should worry more when Terry Theise, the USA champagne doyen (and Riesling freak) and biggest promoter of the ‘grower’ category in the USA, calls it ‘farmer fizz’.
The issue of image and recognition is tough however for domaine champagne. In the end, whether you sell psychological counselling, poetry or booze, you have to create a brand. And then you need to identify your market and get in amongst it with a vengeance. You have to create desire and that is marketing which needs to be clever on a budget if it is going to beat bling. I’m not sure either that the answer is to project domaine champagne as a parallel but undecadent form of luxury with words like ‘artisan’, ‘hand-crafted’ and ‘authentic’ just because its owners are usually the producers and it’s small scale. For me, it’s the brilliant, sometimes technical artistry and creativity of great single estate champagne that needs stressing. It dares to be different.
Low and behold, it comes in various styles and often with more individuality than the big global brands of the big houses. Differences between the styles of the leading houses are important; your Bollinger, Moët, Pol Roger and Taittinger are not the same and not an industrial common pot. But there is, at the basic level of the main Brut NVs of a good number of big houses, a style of mainstream champagne. It doesn’t scare the horses because it has to appeal to a broad spectrum of not too fussy opinion. It may have a lively freshness but it is all smoothed out by a honey and cream roundness and some solid weight, and shows a reasonable lick of biscuity flavour and baking bread, perhaps apple pie. I’m reminded of Hugh Johnson’s essay on champagne where he says ‘the better the champagne….the more it recalls the patsisserie’. The baked pastry fruit pie, buttery and juicy, ever so slightly slightly sweet and with a biscuit pastry crust halo, is the model of mainstream champagne. And dare I suggest, slightly boring?
A critical fault line between domaine and big brand champagne is viticulture, how the grapes are grown. This is not so much an issue of industrial farming versus organics or even biodynamics, although some leading domaines work in some of these ways. But most non-producer growers try to get maximum yield for top dollar when they sell the grapes to the big houses and gargantuan coops. The best RM domaines are trying to do two things differently. One is to devigorate their vines and increase vine age so as to up the concentration and vibrancy of the juice and wine. Almost always this means they produce fewer grapes than potentially they could, but they are better, not so much ‘fruitier’, since primary flavours are anathema to champagne’s complexity, but more racy, vibrant and quietly intense, like the best champagnes. Second, domaine champagnes are in the business of discovering and blending the grapes of micro terroirs or small parcels of vineyards they own so as to make the best blends they can. Some of course make cuvées from single villages (crus) or even single vineyards but many make far-flung blends with interesting combinations of terroir.
How Many Is That?
I sometimes ask myself just how many of the huge number of domaine champagnes (RMs or Récoltants-Manipulants) are really good and deserve export and expert attention outside France? For the wine trade it really matters. Maybe there are undiscovered marvels for importers and merchants to ferret out. There are 1,951 RMs in Champagne in 2014. The number is falling a little year on year, just five less than a year ago. I recently named my top 25 small producers here and you could no doubt argue about some but there is wide consensus amongst the world champagnerati on most of them. All 25 are comfortably included by Peter Liem, whose Champagneguide.net is still the best site worldwide for champagne connoisseurs and worth its paywall. Liem currently has 112 RM producers profiled on his site.
There are many other RMs that are very good and are rated by leading specialist critics. Perhaps 200 top whack. About 230 RMs are imported into the USA, some 150 into the UK but often in tiny and stop-start quantities. Japan, Italy and Germany take some significant names too. Very few have a real foothold of regular growing sales and many do not have much champagne to sell to export markets anyway. Last year, a leading grower, feted worldwide by conoisseurs, told me his total export to the UK in 2013 was under 1000 bottles. These sobering figures suggest that for the UK, RM champagne is about .3 of 1% of all UK champagne. It was quite a shock this year to hear the world’s loudest voice shouting the odds for domaine champagne, but in very different tone for once. The USA ‘farmer fizz’ champion importer Terry Theise who has often implied that all grower champagne is preferable to and better than what he regards as the industrial swill of the big brands, says this in his 2014 grower champagne catalogue:
I doubt very much there are more than around fifty
growers whom one could credibly call superb. There are
probably another hundred or so who are, let’s say, very
good. But beyond those, I think there’s some middling
RM Champagnes imported by merchants who wanted to
get in on the action, but all the best growers were spoken
A very different tone from Theise’s cascading, polemical ultra enthusiasm for all things ‘grower’ not so long ago.
In the enclaved world of cool wine hipsters in the world’s major capitals, incessent chatter about the vitality and importance of single estate champagne can exaggerate its foothold. The exciting near certainty that there are stars as yet undiscovered is akin to searching for life in the galaxy, a pioneering impetus, with no guarantee. But the real excitement is in the fact there is now not one monolithic model of how champagne should taste and diversity and interest have never been greater. No professed champagne enthusiast can claim to be one now without knowing the wines of the leading single champagne estates. It’s taken a long time, but domaine champagne is out of shorts.
We all love it when the wine bore gets what for. I’m up to my helpless neck in wine, besotted, especially champagne as you might notice. A proper bore talks about their obsession to people who do not share it, so I try not to, honest. The people who love being in a huddle going on about F1 tyre changes or football with their friends only become bores when they do it in front of those who don’t really give a toss. But wine talk gets some people’s goats more, because wine makes people feel their social class and status is being judged. Wine talk is power. No doubt it should not be. But history has made people feel that way. That’s why so many wine presenters or writers come over all good cause and tell us their mission is to ‘demystify wine one glass at a time’. Personally, it’s the mystery that sucks me in, ‘on my knees looking for the answer’ like the Killers.
It’s the fact that wine is a social marker to many, right or wrong, that makes so many uneasy about it. How easy or even humbly authoritative you are talking about it, earns you cultural worth in many others’ eyes. And if they are your own eyes you are a snob.
And that’s why comedians love to give wine and its hobby world the full satirical treatment. I’m sure it often deserves it. I’m particularly prone to mutter cynical smart remarks myself when I hear people go on endlessly about wine paraphernalia and peripherals like choosing corkscrews, quite when and what to decant, wine fridges or the more abstruse and exotic matching of weird things like Saumur Brut with pork scratchings. That last example actually happened to me last week and I should be careful because it was quite a good match. But what I mean is that my own bugbear tends to rattle the bars when people seem more interested in the manners and folderols of wine than its taste.
The comedian and TV quizzer David Mitchell wrote a good piece here last week taking the mick out of wine which will no doubt comfort many Guardian readers who feel between the rock of horror at the high price of good wine in these squeezed times and the hard place of liking to drink it. As in liking to drink it a lot. The way to square the circle of course is to suggest wine is just pleasant happy juice. You don’t need to spend more than a tenner. It’s not noticeably different to the bottle costing £150 unless you are a wine snob. And the best wine to have in your comedy gun sights if you want to have a dig is of course champagne. The wine where image, price and reality seem often in cloud cuckoo land.
David Mitchell can no doubt afford champagne. He’s a media success, white, male, private school and Cambridge and married to millionairess poker player Victoria Coren, white female, private school and Oxford. That Footlights tradition of intelligent down-to-earth public school common sense, lambasting pomposity and pretension, has been strong since David Frost and Beyond the Fringe. Funny coincidence that Mitchell had a programme called The Bubble. If you are proper elite, it makes sense to satirise those who may think they are elite by being poncey about champagne. And it is quite funny. With the added protection for the satirist that if you object to what a wag says, you can be told to lighten up.
Mitchell gently takes apart some hapless wine professional’s comment that champagnes with more developed flavours are better in normal wine glasses than flutes. Not a new idea if you are into wine. And an idea that I don’t always agree with. It depends what kind of developed flavours. Sometimes champagnes with shier and subtle flavours go better in bigger glasses, the very opposite idea. If you want champagnes to lose some fizz quicker to go with food, bigger glasses are good too. Really old stinky champagnes shake themselves together and slough off pooey notes by decanting them or using bigger glasses. It all depends.
There’s nothing ooh la la about all that. It’s just the nuts and bolts of wine service, at home or out. But this is not a discussion about which golf club is good for a shot, or wearing long studs for wet turf at football or which gears to select in your poky motor for that bend near the woods on the way home. Or even where best in the house to settle down and read a book when you want to. Why? Because it’s about wine stupid. And wine is good for a kicking.
And note there’s plenty of previous to do with special glasses for champagne. We’ve heard the Marie Antoinette myth about the coupe glass and her breast and the Kate Moss coupe for Breast Cancer Awareness – probably a special glass for champagne David Mitchell would not dare put down. And there are many different ranges of top crystal champagne glasses to choose from and even pay £100 each for from Riedel and Spiegelau, or even $400k for a pair in crystal and diamonds made by John Calleija in 2008.
Mitchell knows full well that vast numbers of people don’t give a toss and would probably struggle to find granny’s old cut glass flutes in the attic if a bottle of champagne was produced. He’s right too, that the power of champagne for the mass of people has got nothing to do with what it tastes like but its symbolic ability to get the party started in a trice.
His smile piece, and you do, is not really about champagne or special glasses. It’s saying wine is a beverage, get over it. The rest is snobbery. And the problem for wine and the wine trade is that a vast number of wine professionals think that too.
In Reims last week, I was served a very oxidised champagne which had also lost most of its original fizz or mousse. So, if you have come to look at this blog piece because you’re a fan of Prosecco, do not read on.
This is about a champagne that was going off, in fact was ‘gone off’ considerably. I hope we all agree, that although a degree of oxidation can sometimes be part of the great style of some champagnes, generally those where barrels have been used at some stage, the degree of oxidation should not obscure the delicacy and finesse that is champagne and Champagne’s hallmark. I firmly believe the subtle and fresh aromas and flavours of champagne are as much part of its complexity as the myriad effects of oak barrels used in various ways. I love many champagnes clearly marked by oak effects. But barrels should reveal Champagne’s terroir, not obscure it.
But that is another discussion. In this case the over-oxidation was the result of the opened bottle of champagne having been kept too long. The pain for me was not just an ‘off’ glass of champagne. It was also because I was at Au Bon Manger, one of Reims’s current new wave hangouts where Aline and Eric serve glorious cheese, charcuterie and a small selection of fascinating domaine or single estate champagne. I had been before. Do go, it’s tiny, branché, simple and passionate. The quality of the small menu and for sourcing fresh and unprocessed food is exemplary. I highly recommend it.
But in this case they made a mistake. I was alone and on for a quick plate of salad and meat in between champagne meetings in Reims. Nothing wrong with the food. I wanted a glass of champagne and the only way to get that there by the glass is to order the €8.50 good value mystery glass called ‘Bulle’ on the list.
It arrived and looked deep yellow gold, smelt a bit like vin jaune and was only faintly fizzy or pétillant. Since it was served in a normal wine glass (which can suit some champagnes), I even asked if it was champagne. Perhaps this was some tiny biodynamic producer in the Jura making mousseux ancestral. No, I was told, slightly patronisingly, definitely champagne. But it gave off that sharp continuous whiff of caramel and muffled old rags that spell oxidation and the mousse was near zero.
The bottle was brought to the table. It was Dis,’Vin Secret’ (see pic below) from Francoise Bedel ,who actually is completely biodynamic and Biodyvin certified. I have tasted her wines several times but could not remember this cuvée well and asked on Twitter while I ate, if anyone had a recent tasting note. Several people came back (thank you!) saying it it was normally fresh, piercingly so, but with a complex undertow from some wood influence. But if anything the wood made the wine, as it so often can, seem purer and more delicately textured. Several people said much the same thing.
There is a really informative back label. It’s mostly 2005 based. 80% Meunier, 15 Chardonnay, 5 Pinot Noir. Seven years on lees. Disgorged September 2013. The website says it has 9.75g/L dosage, but it tasted much drier. There was complexity and ripeness in the background, no question. But it was shot to bits. When I got back to London, I checked my old tasting notes of this cuvée. One, of the 2003 base version in April 2011 said it was ‘candied and quite advanced but pure and well-balanced’. Another from the end of 2011 said it was ‘very fresh, impressive, creamy and savoury’.
It’s clear what happened. The bottle level showed several glasses of this wine had been poured before me. It had been kept too long and oxidised; it should have been poured away. Even champagne with its CO2, after a few days under a tight champagne stopper, will go off. The best stopper I’ve found for champagne (cue the joke ‘You mean you don’t finish the bottle?’) is the screw-on closer from Metrokane. In the meantime, it would be wonderful to hope the new ‘Flute’ machine from Enomatic may be just the job for places like Au Bon Manger.
Jean-Pierre Vazart, on a balmy day in June this year, reminds me of that Kipling line learnt in school: ‘If you can keep your head when all around are losing theirs…’ I don’t dare tell him as he fields phone calls driving us up to Montaigu, the most prized vineyard of Chouilly, for a tour of his parcelles. One call is about some mysteriously damaged vines on someone else’s land the night before. Another is from the Chouilly town hall where he is a ‘conseilleur municipal‘ (local councillor). When we arrive back at his house and base a couple are waiting to buy some wine. Yet he pauses in his talk about champagne matters with me and can return to the point without missing a beat. Smiling and open, he has the concentration that can pick up where he left off. He does more. There’s a sideline in hiring out vineyard machinery and the responsibility for pressing the harvest from the Champagne ruling body (the CIVC) experimental vineyard Plumecoq, which so happens to be in Chouilly. A busy man who makes very good champagne.
The basic facts: This single estate of 11ha (making some 80, 000 bottles per annum) run by Jean-Pierre Vazart, makes only monocru wines. The entire estate is in Grand Cru Chouilly, one of only 17 ‘grand cru’ top communes in Champagne, the most northerly wine commune of the Côte des Blancs, just two minutes south of Epernay. Chouilly is big, at 525.5ha of vines, the biggest grand cru. It is the third biggest wine village in all Champagne after Les Riceys and Vertus. While the giant factory winery HQ of the Nicolas Feuillate coop is in Chouilly, pressing 7% of all Champagne’s grapes, there are several high quality independent growers (RMs) making their own wines. You notice a lot are called Legras: there is R&L Legras, Legras & Haas, Pierre Legras. And Michel Genet. But there is also Champagne Vazart-Coquart, a domaine champagne making waves nowadays among champagne aficionados.
Camille Vazart grew grapes in the late 19C and the family is still based in the same house on the main street in Chouilly. Jean-Pierre is the grandson of Camille and took over from his father Jacques in 2005 after a 16 year ‘apprenticeship’. His father had struck out on his own as an independent domaine (‘grower champagne’) in 1954. Clearly and confidently at the helm now, Jean-Pierre talks tellingly of the difficulties of growing into the patron’s shoes. He tells me how for so long he was eaten with self-doubt. Would he ever be able to take over and not mess up? And when it happened came the flood of realisation that this was something he really could do.
Being the Côte des Blancs, only Chardonnay is grown here, but Jean-Pierre has one tiny plot of Pinot Noir to make a Coteaux Champenois. In fact, there are only 4.5ha of Pinot Noir, and 1.9ha of Pinot Meunier in all Chouilly. The estate has parcelles of vines in most great sections of the Chouilly vineyard, including on the prized Montaigu. The viticulture here is gradually reducing synthetic chemical use to an absolute minimum and in 2012 the estate was the third wine domaine to be awarded the highest level of ‘HVE’ certification (Haute Valeur Environmentale), a stringent set of sustainable targets which must always be met. Other Champagne pioneers of this project are Champagne Bollinger, Eric Rodez and Lenoble. When I first met Jean-Pierre in 2012 he said: ‘In my head, I’m organic; it’s not quite so easy all the time.’ Like all good quality single domaines, high value is placed on restricting vigour in the vines and deeper roots, through growing grass in the alleys, and on reducing yield rather than going for maximum volume. The result is greater mineral intensity in the wines.
The multiple vineyard sites, from a far flung grand cru, with many variations of soil and exposure, produce different wines (vins clairs) for the domaine. Vinification is based on small tanks to capture this variation. No barrels are used, only stainless steel, a stylistic decision to preserve the mineral delicacy and buttery, floral fruit which is the signature of Chouilly. In this way, the wines here hum with terroir character. Not because they come from one place, which they do, but because they taste of that place. Complexity and authenticity are built in with malolactic generally completed and by a perpetual ‘solera’ begun in 1982 for reserve wines and using only the cuvée juice. It is replenished with up to 50% of its volume used in the blends each year, with new harvest wine. The solera wine is also used to prepare dosages.
The estate is a proud member of the ‘Club Trésors du Champagne’ (‘Special Club) since 1996 and since a rule of this group is to make your best cuvée in the club livery special bottle, it is important you taste the special club offerings regularly from Vazart-Coquart if you are a fan. Champagne Vazart-Coquart is also a member of the superlative quality promotional grouping: Les Mains du Terroir which has held Epernay tastings in April for the last three years. You see why the phone rings.
The domaine makes eight cuvées, nearly all 100% Chardonnay Blanc de Blancs, bar the rosé and ‘Cuvée Camille’. The house Brut Réserve NV (Brut Sans Année or ‘BSA’) is 60% of production, dosed at about 8-9g/L and with about 25% of ‘solera’ reserves and some 32 months on the second lees. The Demi-Sec Réserve NV is the same as the BSA with extra dosage up to 35g/L, for desserts. The Cuvée Camille NV (named after the original founder) is unusual for Chouilly in that it reflects its former field blend when much more Pinot Noir than now was planted. It is based on the Brut Réserve blended with 35% Pinot Noir. The Extra-Brut Réserve NV is a Blanc de Blancs with just 3.5g/L dosage and is the Réserve blend with an extra year of age sur lattes. There is too a Brut Rosé NV made by blending some 15-20% of Pinot Noir wine into the blend. The vintage wines here are called Grand Bouquet, a strict special selection of the best parcels and 100% Blanc de Blancs and with 5-6 years ageing on lees and some 5/6g/L dosage. The Special Club, always vintage and a premium selection of fruit, is given 6-7 years cellaring and aged on cork rather than cap. The real curiosity is the Special ‘Foie Gras’ Sec Blanc de Blancs NV with some 30g/L made to match foie gras, claimed as the only cuvée in Champagne specifically made for this rich and complex dish.
Brut Réserve NV
(Brut Sans Année or ‘BSA’) Tasted 2012, 65% 09 + solera. Young, incisive, lemony, aromas of wind on sheets, good light texture, compact rather than luxurious. Welcomingly dry. A lot of lifted finesse. Impressive. In 2013, tasted (2010) 10g/L, similar style, slightly fuller. Many times since.
Demi-Sec Réserve NV Grand Cru Chouilly
Cuvée Camille NV Grand Cru Chouilly
Pale gold; lean, chalky, wet-earth nose. Citrus-orange, sherbet -jasmine and honey pastille on palate. The fine texture stands out, great finesse, reined in autolytic note and jasmine smoke impression. Lovely.
Extra-Brut Réserve NV Grand Cru Chouilly
First tasted 2013 and impressed with the linear style, purity and reverberation and length. Tasted often since: In 04/2014 it had savoury interest and bite. Aromas and affinity (!) with oyster shells, rock and flint. A light and lyrical chalkiness. A similar note 06.2014. Based on 09. This is, from experience, a wonderful match with seafood of all kinds. 3g/L
Brut Rosé NV
A hedonistic fruity style, not complex; sometimes exactly what rosé champagne can do so well. A frank basket of fruit, not especially complex.
Grand Bouquet Grand Cru Chouilly
In 2012, the 2006: Incisive and very mineral for a ripe vintage; lemony and fresh. Very good. 6g/L . In 04.2013, the 2004: A touch bruised apple and a hint of early oxidation. Charm but not as lithe and compact as many 2004s. In 02.2014: The 2007: Lovely linear and mineral character with savoury and grapefruit pith cut. Charm and not wet-chalky as Cramant and Avize can be. Again in Champagne 04.2014: Lovely and rather obvious fruit but poise and bite too. Peach and agrume together. In 04.2014: The 1989 – A touch oxidised with a nutty maturity but attractive honeysuckle and dried flowers notes. Great finesse. In 04.2014, The 2008: disgorged 04/14, just launched: 9g/L A sense of power pent up, real presence and a good lily / citrus note. Brimming with 2008 imminence, all wound up for now. Impressive. In 06.2014 too, the 2008 again: More compact and integrated than anticipated; Real cream, savoury and chocolate. Powerful but a fine texture and finesse. In 06.2014 too: The 1979 at the domaine: Maderised and high-toned. Disgorged 1999. Some nuts and spice on the palate with a long figs and marmalade end. This has not lasted well, but is a welcome historical peep at 35 years ago. A 1985 tasted in 2014 with zero dosage – not a regular cuvée, was medium oxidised but with an attractive smonky and nutty aspect and res fruit paloate. An enjoyable curiosity.
The ‘Special Club’ Grand Cru Chouilly
In 2012, the 2005: Very opulent, a whiff of aldehydic whisky too. Complex and individual. In 2013: the 2006 semed round and slightly lacking in tension. A vintage with full expression. In 04.2014: The 2006 – Complex but open and great length. 6g/L In 04.2014: The 2007: A lovely Chouilly lightness and finesse offset with mango and peach. All freshness and a baby yet but lots to come.
Special ‘Foie Gras’ Sec Blanc de Blancs Sec NV Grand Cru Chouilly Tasted 02.2014: 30g/L A gentle mousse; the sugar softens it. Light honey flavours but the structure is attractive. A clean and linear aspect for all the sweetness and much drier an impression than most wines aimed at foie gras. Leaves an enticing mineral edge to balance the palate with foie gras. Excellent.
Champagne Vazart-Coquart et fils
6 rue des Partelaines
0033 3 26 55 40 04