I love gadgets, but am sceptical of much wine paraphanelia such as the idea you need different glasses for nearly every wine. But I like the promise of making some red wines nicer, so was keen to see the iFavine machine for softening tannic wines. What with the new Coravin for taking glass samples of wines from good bottles without having to drink them all at once (I’m definitely a fan) and countless wine aeration devices on the market too, most notably the Vinturi, the wine gimmick freak has plenty of toys in the pram right now. But at £1300 a pop for the iFavine (at Harrod’s, London) it lightens your wallet more than the rest by some way.
As you see, it’s quite a package, not necessarily the most elegant and discreet little number. But it will sit nicely in the decanting station of restaurants and at home you may be glad it’s hard to miss if you want to show off to friends. It aims to soften the tannins and overall texture of red wines fast and make them more attractive to drink young. But it’s not just about taste. It potentially gives you and me and the busy sommelier in a restaurant, that priceless commodity we have little of – time. Instead of having to decant young big red wines hours ahead, it claims the same effect can be had in minutes. And if you want fine reds eating out without ordering the stratospheric older bottles you can save phoning for the list and ordering so they can decant before you arrive. All the faff can be forgotten; you arrive, order and the wine is ready in minutes. And you might save on the bill by drinking the 2012 instead of the 1995 at four times the price. In a few years, perhaps sommelier exams won’t want them to decant in front of the judges, but show which buttons to press for which wine on the smart phone app bluetoothed to the iFavine machine.
Entertaining at home, it promises to save you the stress of thinking you know how to decant and while its bubbling away your friends can admire it and talk about house prices and schools to their hearts’ contents while you plate up supper. Some may even think it will save you waiting for fine wine to mature in a cellar. Just buy it young and age it ten years on the time machine in a few minutes.
It works by bubbling near-pure oxygen through wine which has been opened and poured into a special decanter which is then mounted on the machine. The touch of a button will oxygenate the wine in minutes, calibrated to the traditional decanting and ‘breathing’ periods of 30 minutes to several hours. You can see more of it in action and its working on a video here. The technology of stripping air down to O² in a box is a huge hunk of what you’re paying for, but purish O² will work on the wine quicker than mere air, largely because nitrogen, the biggest part of air, won’t soften tannins in a month of Sundays. The science of oxidising tannins is well-established, developed in SW France years ago. The iFavine company is Bordeaux based.
So how did it perform at the trial I was invited to? Pretty well, I must say, and I was impressed. On the techy side I admired you can work it from a smart phone app and that it has an air-intake and treats to remove impurities, water vapour, nitrogen and carbon dioxide to make purish O² for the bubbles. So no expensive cartridges of gas to buy. They claim it will perform well for over 150,000 decants. So if you do fine wine at 10 bottles a day, you’ve got 40 years of fun. Unless you’re a real gadget freak and want the new model ASAP.
The demo wines were Chateau Malartic La Gravière 2009 claret and Penfolds St Henri 2012, both fine, very young still in development, the Australian majoring on Shiraz, the other on Cabernet and Merlot, famously tannic varieties and both in good ripe years with very dense tannins. The 2009 without aeration was slightly more savoury and advanced with drier tannins than the St Henri. With a short aeration both wines had noticably rounder tannins and less ‘grip’, less astringency but also showed brighter primary fruit aromas. Very pleasant indeed, if a little simple. A light aeration from traditional decanting is well-known for blowing away off-odours and opening up primary fruit. With more aeration, equivalent to 1.5, 2 and more hours, I felt neither wine got any more ‘drinkable’ but both seemed a little flatter as if the top notes had been lopped off.
So I think for very big young wines this machine will do the trick if you insist on drinking them so very young and want gentle, fruity sensations. But I would not give them extended bubble time. Perfect for people in a hurry who want to drink icon bruisers from the latest vintages but turn them into suave princes and princesses at an early age with the wave of a wand, or rather the touch of an app. I think you would need to try many different wines than two, whites as well, to get an idea of just how much the iFavine fits your palate.
But I’m left with two doubts. This would not be much use for older wines which have been cellared and thrown a deposit. They will still need classic decanting to separate the sediment. And second, one of the points, for some the main point of top wine, is that it develops fabulous flavours as it improves with age. They need time. The subtlety of great wine is not the same thing as making it nice to drink when still in baby-grows.
Last week, one of Champagne’s elite boutique producers, whose wines I admire very much, set the Champagne chatterati agog. Champagne Lenoble announced they will not put the date of disgorgement on their labels. Wait for a chorus of tut-tutting no doubt, from the blogging, Facebook and mini-army of Champagne followers. Calling for this crucial date to be on every bottle, has been a badge of the serious champagne lover and critical ultimatum from most wine commentators for a number of years. If you want to go to heaven, baby, let’s see your date.
Disgorgement, one of Champagne’s uglier words in both French and English, is the removal of the plug of yeast sediment from a bottle of champagne after it has done its second fermentation and ageing on yeast lees. Left in, the sediment would make champagne pour cloudy and brown. But even those two sentences will have lost 99.9% of people who love champagne and drink it quite often. They do not know about these things and do not care. Even a champagne connoisseur need not know these things. Most will make it their business to know because if you’re nuts about champagne, there’s an obsession with minutiae, as there is with any hobby. Petrolheads love to bore about when Ferrari switched to the Mk6 camshaft on the S9 model. Radio hams go swivel-eyed when they tell you about that chat in Morse with someone on a roof in Peru.
Champaganinis are no different. Champagne after all, is a story with more twists and turns in its making than other wines. But what a true connoisseur will have above all, is a regular and vast experience of tasting many different champagnes, of different ages and origin and producers and be able to judge their style and quality. That’s all that really matters.
Connoisseurship may seem old hat and the best I’ve met modestly play down their expertise and say there’s so much more to learn. But they understand that with champagne as much as any wine, you do not taste the label, only what is in the bottle. If you believe a champagne’s taste can be inferred from a list of facts on a back label you simply do not understand how even from a Big House, with what seem like standardised production methods, bottles can differ and styles evolve. This means a disgorgement date or a tasting note all come with the first caveat of wine: only the taste matters. You can more or less forget the rest. And the second caveat is: learn to taste, learn to make good tasting notes, keep records, and discuss champagnes you taste with others. OK, sorry, five caveats.
So I’m intrigued by occasional calls from holy-holy champagnistas, often who say grower’ champagne is the only sort worth drinking, who seem to think the disgorgement date on the bottle is a red line, and if it is refused then a cynical big business fraud is being perpetrated on the consumer. It quickly becomes a David and Goliath issue for some, big secretive business huffily resisting transparency demands. The hipster rumour mill cranks out that Big House so-and-so say their Brut NV has a ‘minimum three years on the lees’, but everyone knows (OK, a few of us) that it’s really only two. And QED, if the house won’t tell us the date, then they must be wearing emperor’s clothes. Smoke and mirrors and champagne suddenly share a conspiratorial bed. Cue posturing. Pierre-Antoine Rovani, who for ten years was Robert Parker’s champagne critic, in the end announced his refusal to review any champagnes which did not show a disgorgement date.
But more and more champagne houses are stepping out of the shadows and put the information on bottles or via QR and other codes (see Krug) which let you look it up on their website. The early pioneers were Champagne Bruno Paillard in 1983, then Champagne Philipponnat (1996). Nowadays it is de rigeur for cool single estate (‘grower’) producers to put the date on the bottle. And more of the bigger champagne houses now follow suit, notably Moët et Chandon who now put it on their latest Grande Vintage bottles, but not on their NV wines. But the bulk of Big Champagne still hold back on this apparently easy and transparent fact.
So why might the disgorgement date be important for us to know? The first and most obvious answer, the no-brainer, is because unlike most premium wine, 96% of champagne is non-vintage. No single year stares back at you from the front label. So a disgorgement date is the next best, since 2-3 months after the day of disgorgement, and the dosage and cork going in seconds later, the champagne is put on the market. Disgorgement day more or less tells you how long it is since the wine was done and dusted. And you can infer a bit more perhaps, though it gets a little fuzzy. For most NV, go back three years from disgorgement to the bottling and then the year of most of the wine, average, say, some 75% of what is in the bottle, will come from the year before that. The rest of the wine will be reserve wines blended from other years. If it says disgorgement is October 2015, then you might assume 2011 is the majority year of the wine.
But so what? You also need to know the grape blend, what kind of vintage conditions there were in 2011 and where the grapes came from. Knowing how the wine was made and what was in the dosage are big factors too. And even this NV ready-reckoner is going to be very rough and ready. It only works for ‘average’ champagne. Do the stats: very few bottles of champagne will actually be ‘average’ in this numbers game – there are too many variables. The wine only has to spend four or five years, not three, on its second lees before disgorgement, and all your reasoning and sums are blown out of the water. Reliable sums on this can only be done if you know two dates: either the date of bottling and the date of disgorgement or one of those facts and a clear statement of how long the wine was on lees in bottle. Easy, yes? Even more facts need to be on the back label and a growing number of single estates in fact do give this information, but still a tiny number of producers in toto. I’m wholly a supporter, but I’m already thinking what a campaign to explain all this needs to look like and what ideas it would try to elucidate.
The further out from disgorgement day you are, the more the information might be useful. If the NV bottle in my hand says disgorgement was, say, ten years ago, and you don’t know where the wine has been since, then you will probably put the bottle back on the shop shelf and slip away. A risky buy. Unless it was Krug Grande Cuvée (you’ve checked on the website of course on your phone as you stand there) or Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle, who incidentally, don’t put the disgorgement date on the bottle. But finding 10 year old NV champagne on sale is not very likely for most consumers, even enthusiasts, for all that. But even short-dated NV champagne, from the Big Houses, can be made and disgorged in three different batches a year, with different reserves, tweaked grape blends and dosages. A disgorgement date won’t tell you that much. The jigsaw puzzle has a lot of pieces and the picture on the box is blurred.
There’s a second, less obvious set of arguments which claim the disgorgement date is vital to know, not just because it might tell you how old the wine is. They depend on theoretical positions about two technical things – so stay awake at the back. First, ideas about the effect of disgorgement on the wine. Second, the relation between how long a wine is cellared on its second lees before disgorgement and how long it is kept before drinking after that. Everyone agrees that at the moment of disgorgement oxygen is taken up suddenly and dissolved in the wine. The old thinking is that a vast amount of oxygen gets in to the champagne and is a huge oxidative shock. The conventional wisdom of established commentators, but shared by many champagne producers, says that because of this big O² gulp, and particularly if the champagne has been aged on lees a long time before disgorgement, it will age more quickly after disgorgement and the oxidative effect of this operation. So a wine kept say 7-10 years on lees will go down hill faster after disgorgement and therefore needs to be drunk sooner, than one kept say four years before disgorgement. With this theory you can see why it might be important to know the disgorgement date.
Recently, these big claims have been questioned. Key producers in Champagne are now saying that long lees-aged champagnes might have long and evolving lives after disgorgement too. There are big variables and unproven assumptions behind the traditional thinking, after all. A recent view is that, depending on how well controlled disgorgement is, the O² uptake is not as big as thought. The expulsion of the yeast plug fills the neck with CO² and if dosage and corking is quick, uptake may only average 2-4mg/L of O². Recent technology called ‘jetting’ in Champagne sprays a tiny jet of wine on the the surface in the bottle neck, provoking a little bubbling and expelling O² from the head space just before the cork goes in. Add in big variables such as the level of SO² added at that point, to scavenge O² after, and the ‘magnum effect’ of slower development in bigger bottles and the jigsaw again gets harder. There’s more. I believe many forget the vital importance of the vins clairs quality in the first place. A wine from great terroir or blended from several, will age and become more complex than lesser raw material. We know the world’s ‘grands crus’, not just champagnes, age and improve much longer than lesser, cheaper wines. And it’s clear this has a lot to do with where the grapes are grown, not just with how the wine is made. The best champagnes’ legendary ability to age well is probably about terroir as least as much as time on lees and disgorgement. And finally, we all know that how a wine has been cellared after sale, where it has been, is critical for how it tastes.
I’m all in favour of knowing disgorgement dates. I certainly can’t take seriously Big Houses who say they omit them because the punter might be confused, think they were vintage dates on NV wine or sell-by dates – I’ve heard all those excuses from the horse’s mouth. If they think something might confuse I wonder why they refuse to explain. It’s not so hard.
But suddenly, the disgorgement date may tell us much less than some have thought. There are no pat certainties. It’s a page in the book, not the whole work. It’s the car registration not the service log. It’s certainly not the golden key to the secrets a bottle of champagne may hold. Just take a look at the wealth of information on the Lenoble back label above – far more than 99% of champagne makers presently tell us. It’s not spoon-feeding, even if you can read the French. There are terms there many champagne lovers might need to do a bit of homework on. But for all the mild surprise at Lenoble’s little provocation in keeping one fact back, let me say what my overwhelming feeling is on appraising that label: I want to open the bottle and taste the champagne.
I’m relieved I have made this choice of a single wine without the careful sifting wine critics go through to sound authoritative when they pronounce on the good and great bottles of a year. This one has been sitting on top spot for me since April. And like all great wines, it had as much to do with the people and occasion as the wine itself. OK, that’s how it seemed. Perhaps the wine was the real deal in the end. Anyway, at least you are spared me nit-picking about a ten-long bunch of champagnes which made the cut.
‘Deal’ is a case in point. I hate wine discounting, but finding a great wine at the low-end of its price range is a hoot. There we were, champagne nut friends together in a restaurant in Reims, when this little slumbering baby opened its eyes and smiled up at us from the list. Champagne Dom Pérignon Oenotheque 1962, offered at just over €600 the bottle. If we had been in London, Fera at Claridges, it’s listed at £3700.00. Here we had the whole bottle for the price of a single glass. No brainer.
Anyway, enough faff. Here’s the tasting note I made, partly at the table and expanded slightly later:
Medium deep winking gold but not browning. Nose was a shock – honeyed and with a whiff of lemony sea breeze but absolutely no oxidation aromas. A very gentle mousse by this stage but not dull; the light prickle fluid and creamy with honeysuckle and light pastry notes, gentle smoke and white coffee. Utterly delicious at 53 years old and long, not over long, without forcing or just lingering. Left open for 15 minutes it developed some faintly sherried whisky-oak notes, no doubt the beginnings of oxidation now exposed to air for the first time in over half a century. Blind I would have put the vintage much more recent – somewhere like 1979 or 1988. Striking, elegant, good looking rather than profound depth, but such a pleasure and really quite understated.
I did check what others have said. Stevenson has judged it ‘one of the most seductive Dom Pérignons.’ Broadbent gave the 1962 vintage in Champagne 4 stars and said, ‘consistently good, dry, fruity, interesting wines…One of those northern European vintages when a fine, hot, ripening September made up for a mild, sunless summer. The wines were not unlike the 52s, firm, a trifle austere but long-lasting.’ He gave this wine 5 stars in 1981: ‘Consistently noted as very dry, though refined and with great length. Unquestionably a fine wine.’ He signed off this note in a compendium book of his notebooks in 2007 with: ‘Probably still holding well.’
In some years a single very special champagne lodges in the memory, stimulates the mind and quickens the heart. And in the end reminds us champagne lovers of what we already know – champagne can be as great as any fine wine. In 2015, the best tasting for me was a vertical of Champagne Charles Heidsieck organised by a small group of wine professionals I’m lucky to belong to, who meet to taste champagne blind. This event was not blind and certainly opened all our eyes as you will see. The wines were generously supplied by two of the group (you know who you are!) and Tori Eeles from the Heidsieck UK agency. Something of a Charles Heidsieck year, even though if forced to state a big house preference I would not always pick this one. But in the London CIVC tasting in March this year, their 2005 was for me, the outstanding recent vintage wine and in Champagne Week in Reims in April, a ‘sideshow’ tasting repeated the 2005 and I thought the same again. Thank you once more, to everybody. My notes are below.
It’s not difficult to sort out the Charles Heidsieck style – Pinot Noir and Meunier and Montagne de Reims biased, structured, full-bodied but capable of tremendous complexity and intensity. Classic, rich and leesy, always a long time on its second lees and always, it seems, on a quest for the holy grail of haunting complexity while keeping up a shimmering fresh edge. Only some 65ha of vines are owned but the house’s blending and ageing capacity is legendary. Some 60 crus are blended to make the Brut Reserve and it has the highest fractions, some 40%, of reserve wines of any leading house and the average age of the reserves is 8-10 years. My notes are as was, on the night, with only typos spruced.
Brut Reserve NV 60% 2007, 40% reserves. Going back to late 90s. D/g (disgorged) 2014. Lovely nose complex right away. Chocolate and herbs, aldehyde note and density but lightness. Touch bitter chalky finish. 6 years on lees – for NV!! Excellent.
Reserve Charlie NV Released for the Millennium. NV. 89 base. Deep yellow, slight mushrooms and then sweet sponge aromas and very pointed butterscotch and great texture. Some slight oxidation. Lily and herbs. Very complex. D/g 1999 and 15 years bottle age. Shows a Tokay botrytic note. Made in stainless steel!
An ‘old’ Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve NV D/g in 70s. Oxidised but very complex and orange peel and dusty rose. Weetabix. Just so complex. Heidsieck DNA.
Charles Heidsieck 1996 Straw. Very emulsion of cream and choc and malt. But beautifully precise balance still. A topper. The best 96 for a long time. Stunning bottle.
Charles Heidsieck 1990 Still good colour. Dark smoky-mould nose but lively and complex. Rich and ripe and just missing a tad of finesse now. But serious tactility on the end and does not fade away. Certainly not fat. A very good old wine. D/g 97
Charles Heidsieck 1985 What a good surprise! This was the champagne I served on Millennium night 31.12.99, having bought the last case of a split lot at Christie’s. Deep straw. Very reductive matchstick nose. And then palate opens up with a fantail of complexity. Choc and emulsion texture. In suspended animation since the millennium it seems. So close, I discovered on getting home, to the note I made then. OK, slightly different words, same meaning I would argue!
Charles Heidsieck ‘Charlie’ 1981 A special blend of Charlie. Like late release Charlie for Millennium. Bottled ’82 and disgorged 1999. Lovely cream and sweet vanilla and lemon custard before the complexity. And the high note lemon tart is just so well balanced. Remarkable wine. Champagne Charlie was the former de luxe cuvée of the house, released only in 1979, 1981, 1982, 1983 and 1985.
Charles Heidsieck 1979 Medium deep straw. And then citric lively freshness on start. Very loaded front end of fresh lively lemonyness and then mushrooms but it all develops from there.
Charles Heidsieck ‘Charlie’ 1973 Charlie with a higher dosage. ‘Extra dry’ would have been sweet. Green gold. So very lively and iodic. The delicate balance stands out. Lightly bouncing but so elegant. Elegance and complexity are possible. Not quite the penetration of some other 70s vintages in Champagne but very good.
Charles Heidsieck 1966 So fresh. Lemony. Then tarragon, marmite and lemon juice. Still holding so well.
Gentle slow melting snowflake mousse. Still really confident, not fading, great presence on the palate. A towering wine.
Honest, I don’t really mean ‘Best’. How could I be so cocksure that I am the objective oracle on wine and food online? So, rest assured, this is a disgustingly personal selection by Tim Hall and means nothing. I admit the best wine and food sites out there may be those we don’t yet know. OK, perhaps you do. All the more reason why we should tell each other what we like and what we do not like quite so much.
Not many people read wine books any more, even if they once did. But the best wine reference books are or will be already online. If you are at all serious about wine you will already have two or three subs to sites; the best will increasingly be behind paywalls – and quite right if experts and journo-writers are to earn a living. But even so, it will only be a living for a minuscule number. So, more and more, wine geeks rely on trawling the web, probably for far longer than they spend drinking wine, which will help them to live longer. Wine, and I’m not knocking it, has become for its most passionate, a super-hobby. A wine freak is now more or less the radio ham in the shed or the twitcher in a hide wearing green and whispering. Then there are people who drink it and sound off about it but are not that deeply involved. And then there are the 98% of the drinking population who just want the lowest-priced happy juice they can find, educated by many wine journalists and the supermarkets to look out for the next bargain buy. It’s all about price, stupid.
So, please tell me where this selection is misguided. Please share where wine nirvana is on the web.
WINE ‘MAGAZINE’ SITES
www.jancisrobinson.com Simply compulsory for anyone who professes to love wine. A bargain at £69 a year, same price since dot. Simply the best wine site there is; end of… And you get the newest edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine. The wino’s dictionary, nay Britannica. Do it, sign up.
www.eRobertParker.com If you have wine site OCD, you might get the Jancis and the Parker. But for my money the Jancis is better – to navigate, for the sense they know who is reading them and care a bit BUT….the best reason to have Parker is to be able to read their most talented wine writer, Neal Martin in the embedded Neal Martin Wine Journal. OK if you want good jokes it is not so entertaining as the original Wine Journal he wrote from the UK. But it makes his gentle barbs of rare humour more like the pleasure of a great novel a year from your fave writer, than if they did a book a day.
http://www.vinography.com/ Alder Yarrow
FUNNY HA HA WINE SITES
http://www.sedimentblog.blogspot.co.uk/ The Sediment wine blog is written by Paul Keers (PK) and Charles Jennings (CJ). Nick Lezard (New Statesman and Guardian) said: “The finest wine blog available to humanity”.
http://hosemasterofwine.blogspot.co.uk/ Ron Washam’s hilarious scalpel taken to (particularly, but not exclusively) the US wine scene.
WINE BLOG SITES
www.vinolent.com Joss Fowler
www.winewomansong.co.uk Juel Mahoney
www.socialvignerons.com Julien Miquel is the godson of a French friend of mine – disclosure! But this site is a good resource for discovery and international attitudes in wine.
www.punchdrink.com The drink bit of American Punch (UK Punch closed in 2002) and although rather ‘yank’ (no bad thing) it is the repository of some key critical wine(and many other drinks) pieces, including from Maria Baiocchi and the provocative Jon Bonné.
SPECIALIST WINE REGION BLOGS OR SITES
www.scalawine.com – the blog. OK, I write the stuff here, but I recommend it to you anyway. I think it’s high time many UK wine writers and keenies got over their barely concealed resentment for Champagne’s success and began to treat its good bottles for the fine wine it is. Sorry (to a UK audience) but all the union jack waving does not hide that most English Sparkling Wine for now, for the most part, cannot hold a candle to good champagne. A recent Noble Rot motley-palated blind selection making English top v champagne is important but nowhere near decisive. That’s not to say the best English is not good, far from it. But patriotism and optimism alone will not ensure its future. Anyway, I just love champagne. And there’s plenty for Champagne and champagne to work on to keep its socks up too, if not actually knit some from scratch like England!
www.champagneguide.net Peter Liem’s site is the best specialist champagne site, full stop. A subscription is de rigueur for anyone with a serious interest in champagne. I just wish he would update the site more often.
http://www.tastelanguedoc.blogspot.co.uk/ Rosemary George MW
www.newbordeaux.com Jane Anson
http://www.gerrydawesspain.com/ Information packed; just looks awful.
I’m still searching for a site that truly catches my eye and mind on this one. Suggestions?
http://www.wineanorak.com/winescience The wine science segment of Jamie Goode’s main site. Gold dust.
www.eatlikeagirl.com Niamh Shields
http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/ Yes James Martin, Saturday Kitchen, and its myopic supermarket wine tips can grate, but this site is about so much more if you need a quick recipe and can’t be bothered to look in your cook books.
www.lizzieeatslondon.blogspot.co.uk (Hollow Legs) Liz Mabbott deftly shares her cooking and eating out in London (with a south-east capital bias) and beyond. A useful Facebook page too https://www.facebook.com/hollow.legs.food/. A longevity award from me – she began in 2008 and has a big following.
http://www.samphireandsalsify.com/ Consistently sensible praiser and critic of London (with some trips out) restaurants. There are ‘foodier’ sites but this blog’s instincts are in the right direction.
http://www.theveryhungrylondoner.com/ This lady’s take on London restaurants was interesting until she decided to go round the world in February 2015. But useful to dip into before the curtain fell (forever?)
www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/series/how-to-cook-the-perfect You do not need to be a slave to each recipe here, but it’s great for research, and shows the pervasive reach of the brilliant Cook editor Mina Holland, whose overall Guardian-based output is sorted here:
www.theworlds50best.com A top restaurant listing that is importantly global. Just to keep you up to speed on what is hot and top (according to some) and when you are about to fly and need that number to make a reservation.
http://www.andyhayler.com/ High end restaurant reviews with global reach but also reviews your London and UK locals. Going since 1994. No fireworks, workaday prose but sound and analytical judgements, especially on value for money.
http://www.nicklander.com/ The site design needs updating, but a useful compendium but which does not keep up with the pace of important openings – but that is what his FT column does better. Puts restaurant food in a business context. He did after all, once run a restaurant.
www.theburntcreamblog.wordpress.com Emma Bentley (see the now not updated original site www.burnt-cream.overblog.com which will get more and out of date).
Wine wonk and pundit, the genial and brilliant Simon Woods has a re-write out of his little book which first time round won the Prix du Champagne Lanson Award for the Best Wine Book of the Year. It’s title reprises the line which, on any enthusiast’s fun meter is a dead cert to plunge the needle to zero and despair: the cry of the philistine and afraid across the board. Leave me alone, sod off anyone who wants to tell me what to drink or thinks I need to know something about it. It’s wine, just a drink for fun, get over it.
There are millions of ostriches with their wine heads in the sand of course, looking for the buried treasure. They want fun juice not flummery, and they want it cheap; in the UK just a third of wine drinkers might ever pay more than £10 a bottle and the average is £5.40, overwhelmingly from supermarket dull ranges. Like cars, opera and architecture, wine is knocked back largely by the ingenuous. The glass of red after work, something over a tenner if people come to eat, is like the car from A to B and don’t talk about cam shafts, like the pop aria you stick on in the car from A to B and the buildings you walk through with never a backward thought. We all do it. We think people who get all expert and hobby about something are a little crazed. And as wine was a nob’s drink, it attracts its fair share of snobs who think they have been through the finishing school of life if they can mention the Rutherford Bench loudly at parties.
Rather than go all out for evangalism – you know, those clunky dead prose wine primers with a mission to ‘simplify wine one glass at a time’ – Woods’ wonderful little book is aimed more realistically at wine drinkers who ask ‘What’s Next?’ Quite rightly, the book is about quality for those who are at least curious. ‘Some wines are thoroughly splendid, some are decidedly not. The aim of this book is to guide you away from the latter and towards the former.’ No surprise then, that Woods is honest from the outset – this means spending a bit more.
The best thing about the book is you can hear the voice of an engaging enthusiast in the prose; someone who’s not been everywhere and is desperate to let you know. But someone who has been to lots of places and done a lot and so is keen to take you along for more. Each page has a smile in it somewhere, each chapter a chuckle. And it’s not scared of the obvious – find yourself a good wine shop that doesn’t just want your wallet and which attracts nice people like you that want to know more. And look online. And go and visit wine producers when you get the chance. Does all this seem obvious? Then why do I hear people complain so often when all they do is make a blind choice from the wall of bottles in Tescobury’s and when they get home feel let down? It might mean getting some good wine glasses, actually looking at books, keeping good wine so it gets even better with a bit of time. It might mean, heaven forbid, having fun tastings with friends instead of just drinking it. It’s not rocket science and the basic advice is all here in a style that will not make you snore by page 10.
My only carp, if not the elephant in the room, is that there is not more stuff here on how to taste, although Woods admits there is a difference between tasting and drinking even if both can be fun. It’s true there are some in wine who imply that if I just drink what they say then the scales will fall from my palate and all will be well. But it probably will not. Yomping through wine means you need more than a map, you need, at some point, to get your brain and palate fit and in gear. And that’s the bit wine books always struggle with. It’s the kind of thing that might go on if your local wine shop has experts in it that can teach tasting well, but they are few and far between. This book is a start for the really curious beginner. Buy it. But the next step is how to taste – or tell the splendid from the decidedly not.
Buy from: www.simonwoods.com £7.99
Just as you were getting your head around the techno-mystery of ‘DP 1998 P2′, Dom Pérignon’s new code brand for what used to be its extra-aged ‘Oenothèque’, try LVMH’s new prestige cuvée. You may have to go under the radar to find it: there are only 100 bottles for the UK market. Perhaps these intriguing number-letter name tags are aimed at modern champagne technophiles, used to inputting passwords into a world of privacy and the feel of exclusivity. Being ‘in the know’ is a big come-on for micro brand buyers and believe me, there are enough people like that who also love champagne. It promises you will be in a community, but a tiny one; read ‘secret club’. Cryptography, I see, is ‘secure communication in the presence of third parties’, meaning designed to keep the third parties out. So it’s just you and your ‘guests’. Clever stuff.
But for a house often associated with ‘mass appeal’ and whose total production of some 30m bottles annually does more than any other champagne to sate that demand, the surprise of MCIII is its distinctly ‘geek’ conceptualism. Decoding the name is simple, the MC (are they giggling over the Einsteinian E = mc² ?) is of course Moët et Chandon. Then everything gets a bit more Bletchley Park. The III refers to the three types of ageing vessel (‘strata’ as Moët call them) making the blend:
- stainless steel 37.5%, a blend of 50/50 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from 2003, kept since as reserve wines.
- large old oak vats 37.5%, the Grand Vintages blends (normally averaging 40% Chardonnay, 37 Pinot Noir and 23 Meunier) from 1998, 2000 and 2002, partly aged in oak, then kept as vins clairs reserves in stainless steel.
- normal bottles (25%) of vintage champagnes from 1993, 1998 and 1999 which have undergone their two fermentations, ageing and disgorgement. The wines were then opened and blended ‘remise en cercle’ with the rest of the MCIII assemblage.
And the 001.14 means the first iteration of this cuvée, disgorged in 2014 and which we can therefore expect to see more combinations of in the future. Expect 002.15 etc, unless there’s already an 002.14 on the stocks.
So, all in all, all three grapes in action, six different vintages, but one of them reblended as finished champagne, the other a vin clair. And then, three different ageing vessels, the last one in glass being a quarter of the final blend, having undergone three fermentations, the first two to make three separate vintage champagnes and then blended with the whole final blend and given another ‘second fermentation’.
It’s what goes to make each of the separate three parts that makes it tricksy. That’s a lot of winemaking, a lot of toys in the pram you have to hope will nurture and become a wonderful grown up wine. Although conceived as a plan in 2000, the project is largely that of Chef de Cave Benoît Gouez. The wines were bottled in 2004 and this bottling was disgorged in May 2014, so there has been nearly ten years of lees ageing.
The wine actually tasted slightly other wordly after a detailed presentation of its components from Moët’s winemaker Elise Losfelt. As you might expect, there’s a sense that someone has rearranged the pieces in a chess game you thought you began a little time ago. Some of the usual expectations were not quite there. The mid-gold colour was fair enough. There is quite a lot of senior wine in here. But the nose was fine but more honeysuckle and citrus than the sharply pinching burnt match and buttersctoch you might expect from well-aged LVMH wines with their invariably reductive style. It seems fresher than you anticipate. Then there’s that mousse. It’s there but silky and not as much as you thought was coming. Then you remember that 75% of this has been reserve vins clairs from six years and the rest a refermented finished champagne blend of three vintages. It has a gentle humming persistence, the sense of fullness and complexity you expect but all very gentle. Genuinely interesting, if perhaps a touch lacking in energy. It had the texture of a genuinely old champagne but the freshness of something more recent. Dosage is 7g/L. RRP is £330.00.
I wondered if my reaction was coloured by all the detailed explanation, the expectation and what I would think if I was given this blind. Suppose it came in code? What would I decipher then?
There are times when Richard Geoffroy, the man who makes Dom Pérignon, comes on like a method actor playing the monkish Dom P himself. He speaks with an oracular ambiguity that might just be echoing forward from 1715, the year Dom Pérignon died. But blow me down, every time I think he teeters on parody, he says something that seems weird, but I end up thinking it makes sense. He once told me he thought a particular version of this LVMH-owned prestige cuvée showed a ‘weightless density…’ You must be joking I said to myself. Years later I came to understand how great champagne, when it really is great, is light on the palate, but hums with steady current. It tastes and feels like a magic trick. A bit like music. The sudden still baton of the conductor at the end of the music says this sound can switch off and be repeated. But can it ever sound quite the same again? The performance is more than the score but comes with all its inspirational genes. Richard Geoffroy also once told me: ‘We make the vintage, and we make it in the envelope of Dom Pérignon. But the danger is repetition.’
Geoffroy was in London recently to launch Dom Pérignon 2006. But less became more when it turned into a mini-vertical of its momentous current five-vintage consecutive and unprecedented run: 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005 and the newbie 2006. The (probable) next will be 2009 and there will be a 2007 and 2008, so the run will then be eight continuous years. You could say hey, I thought vintage champagne was only made in truly great years, like declarations of Port. There are voices which argue for less vintage, to make it even rarer, but in truth it is only about 3% of all champagne made. But Port declarations (again vintage Port is only 2% of all Port) long ago ceased being about bingo in great summers and more about cash flow and potential sales. You could also argue Dom Pérignon will sell its 3-5m bottles made each time, no bother, whatever the year, although in the 90s, the 1991, 1994 and 1997 were missed. In the ‘noughties’ so far only 2001 was a non-starter. It is important to remember too, that with LVMH’s 1200ha of grapes owned and huge buy-in on top of that, that Dom Pérignon can usually cherry-pick the very best it wants to select in each harvest. And the clincher for these five-in-a-row vintages, is that all of them in their different ways, deserved very much to be made.
Geoffroy’s remarks in introduction usefully take us beyond the big paradox in the middle of most simple accounts of champagne. We hear houses make only a ‘house style’ by blending years. So when they make a vintage presumably the house style takes a back seat. In the real world, nothing like that happens. Most good vintage champagnes show both the pedigree and winemaking of the house as well as the features of the year. Relax, you can do both. But Geoffroy’s latest thinking moves things on a little. More than ever before he insisted that he wants Dom Pérignon to show the clear character of individual years and not have it suppressed by house style. The phrase he used, over and over, was that the wine must ‘bear witness’ to the year. He even mused that this kind of transparency and authenticity was at the heart of real luxury. If it is only a passing moment, great vintage champagne will always seem an ‘extreme’ expression: a specific set of a growing season’s conditions.
Happily the wines obeyed their master. Dom Pérignon 2002 showed only a slight reductive matchstick nose, a vivid, young nose, not acute, but with real substance. There was fern and butterscotch and lovely herbal notes. Everything seemed still latent, masses to come and develop. Yet there was the ‘envelope’ of ’DP’ fine texture and that silky mousse. It was the top wine most agreed but the rest of the field were not exactly stragglers. A big future ahead of it. The Dom Pérignon 2003 was darker than the 2002. There was an intriguing green note but not vegetal. It was clearly softer than 2002, but with a clear mineral streak as a saving grace. It seemed more reserved and less advanced than many 2003s. I loved the Dom Pérignon 2004, a compact tasting vintage even if the yield was massive as the vines hit back against the frost of 2003 before the heat. It was the only one of this vertical that had average temperatures. A very approachable and enjoyable year. The wine showed a quiet start followed by tight sharp matchstick aromas and substance but a compact body and elegant chewy phenolic end. Geoffroy recommends a little bitterness to straighten up good champagne on the finish. Beautifully balanced and a relative baby yet.
Dom Pérignon 2005 seemed drier and less resonant than the earlier wines and seemed less vibrant than when I tasted it in Champagne in April 2015. The matchstick character seemed pretty emphatic and had emerged more. But there was great length and a plum filip at end. A good 2005, showing some delicacy and tissue twitch of texture on the finish which is neat.
And so to Dom Pérignon 2006. There is a very open fig and yellow plum nose; opulent. The smoky reduction hint is very subdued here yet, and it is all bright fruit, less physical and more tender than the 2005. A warm year but with a different pattern of heat, very late in development after August. I’ve learnt not to think that softly structured but delicately textured champagnes are not always in the long game. For now, just taking its first steps. But I’ll be interested to see how this 2006 develops, when we can go back to its future in 2025.
Champagne Ruinart steps amongst its established fans and fans-to-be, with a particular spring in its step these days. Since Frédéric Panaïotis became Chef de Caves in 2007, the oldest champagne house has more than doubled its production to ‘big boutique’ status to some 2m bottles per annum. But its achievement in eight years, apart from a gradual increase in finesse and intensity in its wines, has upped its particular reputation for doing three things rather well. First, the prestige vintage Dom Ruinart Blancs de Blancs is now even more confirmed as one of the classic Chardonnay wines of Champagne. Secondly, the quality of its rosé champagnes, a second house specialism after its penchant for Blanc de Blancs styles, has continued to rise.
But finally, the quality and reception internationally for its Blanc de Blancs NV cuvée has improved, after this wine went through some stinky wobbles pre-Panaïotis, connected to many of its clear glass bottles suffering light-strike*. That is now solved, and this wine is in steep demand in the major countries, at fairly firm prices for a non-vintage Blanc de Blancs style.
Now some 25% of Ruinart production, this wine has become ‘bigger as well as better’. Panaïotis was in London recently to make a slightly different point about size, showing this wine first in a standard bottle, then magnum and jeroboam (a ‘double magnum’ 4-bottle, 3 litre size). Bigger bottles of champagne can raise a cultural snigger in ‘snobby’ wine circles as wallet bait in nightclubs and at plutocratic celebrations for show-offs. And then there’s that apparently meaningless premium you pay, more than a teense more than pro rata, for a bigger bottle. But the three bottles we tasted on this occasion each made a simple point. As the formats got bigger, the wines got better.
The standard single bottle was a blend of 2012, 11 and 10 with 27% from the two reserve wines. The main grape sources are the Montagne de Reims, premiers crus from the Côtes des Blancs, Sézannais and the Vitrayat, SE of Reims and half way to the Côte des Bar. Dosage is 8-9g/L. It is all stainless steel, has full malolactic and was disgorged in 06/2015, a short aging for freshness. It showed charming broad fruit, little of the tough-edged minerality of pure Côtes des Blancs champagnes and a lime and lemon pith delicate touch on the end. An incredibly refreshing wine, but not particularly complex. £53.20 Hedonism Wines, £58.00 Oddbins, £64.00 Majestic.
The magnum, next, was a blend of 2011 with 2010 and 2011 reserves. It had broader fruit than the standard bottle and yet more precision in the texture. Some biscuit and matchstick reduction was just beginning to form, that smoky complexity particularly associated with winemaking in stainless steel and a rigorous avoidance of oxygen contact after fermentation has begun for the vins clairs. This had been given an extra 8 months on lees, some three years in toto. It was a much more complex wine because of its longer aging, which is normal for magnums compared to the smaller bottle. The end was chalky and fine textured, the mousse silkier. The received wisdom (but the sceptic in me is not completely sold on this) is that magnums have the same headspace for oxygen ingress at disgorgement as bottles, which is certainly true, but the next step I’m not so sure about. The idea is that the oxygen to wine ratio in a magnum is much smaller so the wine ages more slowly. Perhaps. But this wine was much more complex than the single bottle. It was a good ”proof” that all else being equal, magnums are worth a premium over bottles. A good demonstration that the quality goes up in bigger formats. And in theory they should develop longer. £100 Majestic. £135.00 Harvey Nichols.
Finally, the jeroboam. It had a deeper colour as shown in the photo and much more time on lees. It had not been transvasaged. Most very big bottles do not undergo the second fermentation in the final big bottle but they are filled from smaller bottles under pressure. Since 1997 it has been illegal in Champagne to do this with ‘jeros’. This had been disgorged in 07/13 but was based on 2008 so just over 4 years on lees. A big factor here was the influence of that great 2008 harvest – over 70% of what is in the bottle. The wine was so young, so forcing but just beginning to develop a deep complexity of smoke, hazlenuts and a beguiling gentle texture. £450.00 The Champagne company. £575 Majestic Wine.
True comparisons between smaller and bigger champagne formats would be based on bottlings of exactly the same cuvée, made simultaneously. In practice, with NV wines, the bigger formats are from earlier years and are aged longer before release. Vintage champagnes in bigger bottles are also often released later than the smaller bottles. Ergo, in theory, more complex, better wines. These were. And we pay accordingly. But to be truly sure we are getting all the bang for the extra buck, can we have more detail on the back labels please, about the blend, when the wine was made, cellared and disgorged?
*See here, for an earlier piece from me on this issue at Ruinart.
If you know Champagne Cattier’s Armand de Brignac champagnes, called ‘Ace of Spades’, you will know they don’t come cheap. Recently given an exclusive UK retail allocation, Harrod’s of London will sell you a bottle of the Blanc de Noirs NV for £695, the basic gold bottle NV for £295 (a snip!) and the Rosé NV for £475.
Those who cannot afford these champagnes may pontificate in disgust about uber-rich trash who blow cash on bling. Having good taste always makes you feel better about modest means. Those who love Jay Z and Beyoncé (recent reports say he now owns the Ace of Spades distribution company outright) will applaud their right to flaunt what their talent and hard work has won. There’s an edge of outrage against white condescension to the story that Jay Z dropped Cristal and adopted Armand de Brignac when Roederer aimed a narky remark at rappers. Ace of Spades fans will not give a damn about the price. To a good chunk of the champagne market, it’s not about what’s inside the bottle but what the label outside the bottle tells your friends about you.
The new Blanc de Noirs NV Armand de Brignac was launched in London at Harrod’s tasting room a few weeks ago by Jean-Jacques Cattier and his son Alexandre. This is the latest edition in a range that already has an NV blend (the ‘Gold’ bottle) of the three main Champagne varieties, a Blanc de Blancs and a Rosé. I was asked along to this rather strange affair to find no spitoons and when I asked for one was told as the wine was so expensive I should swallow it all. Then when I asked why such an expensive wine was not made only from ‘grand cru’ grapes and as a strict vintage year top selection, I was told that NV champagnes which blend premier and grand cru vineyards and several years’ grapes (this new Ace of Spades is a blend of three different years) are better and more subtle than vintage versions.
Umm.. excuse me, that is the exact opposite of what the rest of Champagne will tell you. Just to be clear, drop the Cattier mantra, the best champagnes tend to be vintage, the best grapes in good years from top vineyards, believe you me. That might just be why they tend to get higher marks than entry level NV, have higher prices and develop better in bottle over time. But not according to Cattier.
But what was the wine like? It’s actually not bad. The blend is 60% 2008, 20% 2007 and 20% 2006. It has a floral and pretty nose, it’s tastes quite sweet, there’s some chalky phenolic texture that gives it presence and the mousse is silky. It does have distinctive Montagne character with a subtle saline streak and that chalkiness. And the smoky autolytic notes are not overwheming or crude. It’s fresh (this one disgorged in May 2015) and pillowy-light in weight. But it’s not especially intense or long on flavour. Good standard NV blanc de noirs champagne from a good house – normal price and value about £38 a bottle. I can think of many other Blanc de Noirs I would rather drink and save £650. I would not knock it but I would not buy it unless I was uber-rich and there was nothing else to drink in the shop. It had gone on shelf in the Harrod’s wine department that morning and they sold 13 bottles by lunchtime I was told, at £695 a bottle. I asked about the sweetness and was told the dosage is about 8g/L and decided on to please the sweeter tooths of the main USA market. Only 3000 bottles of this cuvée have been made, but the overall Ace of Spades range is some 100k bottles. A very fat cash cow.
A slew of wine journalists also tasted this new Ace of Spades. It’s hard to find many of their scores or judgements. As so often, some wine journalists stay silent when they have reservations about a wine rather than being open about it in print. The bravest verdict I’ve seen came from Victoria Moore in The Telegraph: ‘There are far, far better wines to be had.’
I think that about the whole range; and I do have some form with Ace of Spades. Back in 2008 Cattier sent me a sample bottle of the first ‘gold’ cuvée launched, which came in a lovely lacquered wooden box my son has kept pens and pencils in since. I put it into a blind line up of champagnes tasted by a group of wine professionals with excellent tasting skills. The Ace of Spades came 5th equal of 8 champagnes and was beaten by Costco own-label Brut NV which was 4th. Two Selosse wines took the top places and Ulysse Collin Extra Brut came 3rd. The famous champagne sold for £5 by Woolworths in the UK (before they went down the pan) came two places below the Ace of Spades in 7th place.
Down the years since, the international reception of Armand de Brignac by wine professionals and journalists has been muted. Cattier like to quote Jancis Robinson because she has given two cuvées a 17 and 17.5 out of 20, which are goodish marks but by no means way out in front of her judgments on good champagnes costing a fraction of these. Interestingly if you have a subscription to eRobertParker you will not find a single score for this champagne brand. Silence. The exception to the ‘good but not great’ track record is Fine Champagne Magazine’s decision to put Ace of Spades as the Best Champagne in the World Top 100 several years ago. I’ve never understood that. If you do, then you may be ready to hand over your card, pay £695 and get a bottle of this new one.