I admire, drink and promote many so-called ‘grower’ champagnes.  But there is often a slim grasp of the facts and concept out there.  Some say ‘grower’ is the bees knees of ‘terroir’ and authenticity and dismiss the famous ‘grandes marques’ houses.  Others reject ‘grower’ as rustic and overrated and follow only the big name houses.  It can be a dialogue of the deaf which divides champagne into a deadly dualism with one of these worlds often banished to the outer darkness.  It’s time there was less crass simplicity and more clarity.

1  Most ‘grower’ champagne is not made by the growers and not with their own grapes.

Some 58% (2013 figures), the majority of ‘grower’ champagne, is coop members’ identical blended ‘soup’ on which they put their own brand label.  The coop growers RCs (or Récoltant Coopérateurs’) have grown the grapes but the wine is made for them at the local coop and their grapes are pooled into a coop blend.  They are usually selling the same wines as their neighbours, but with different labels or branding.  This ‘coop clone’ champagne can be decent but is rarely high quality and often mediocre.  But if other wine regions sold the same wine like this, but with different producer labels, there would be an international outcry.  Champagne does it but few abroad seem to know or realise how the RC system works, even within the wine trade.  This is no shock revelation, yet an eerie silence reigns.

2 The term ‘grower’ romanticises small champagne producers

It presents them as artisanal horny-handed sons and daughters of toil, one American critic even calling it ‘farmer fizz.’ This is hopeless urban condescension in many cases. This imagery may please hipsters and help turn some grower champagnes into cult wines with inflated prices.  But champagne with straw in its mouth is no more near the mark than the sometimes overdone glitz and glamour imagery of the global brand champagne ‘houses’.  The best grower champagnes depend more on originality in vitculture, winemaking and technical expertise than the hands-on traditional graft of the artisan farmer.  Even growing top grapes these days is a matter of science and technique.  To stereotype and glorify peasant-farmer trappings leaves the field of sophisticated imagery to the big ‘houses’.

3  Only a fraction of so-called ‘grower champagne’ is high quality

In the same way, but a fraction of the wines of the big global brands is truly outstanding fine wine. Basic to being a candidate for ‘grower’ quality, but just the starting point, is that the domaine is totally self-sufficient: its own land, only its own grapes, and makes everything itself.  But of these RMs (Récoltants Manipulants’, (42% or 1,951 of growers in 2013), probably only roughly 150 are making truly high quality wine at present.  Often, to be noticed, domaine champagne needs to overachieve.

4 ‘Domaine’ or ‘Single Estate’ champagne is the best term for the true ‘grower’  champagnes.

Only RMs should qualify. ’Domaine’ is the term used for a proper wine estate universally by critics, producers and wine lovers worldwide and should be adopted in Champagne.  It expresses the integrity of using only one’s own grapes from one’s own land and making all the wine yourself under your own control.  Already many top champagne ‘growers’, use the name ‘domaine’.

5 We should stop using the term ‘house’ and ‘grower’ interchangably.

Critics, marketeers and sales people often conflate these terms and obscure a vital distinction.  No matter how much of champagne’s vines the houses own (only 10%) they are not self-sufficient and nearly all purchase grapes they have not grown themselves. This is the true definition of a house or ‘negociant’. (NM): a producer who can buy in the raw material to make the wine and usually does.

6  Grower champagnes do not automatically taste of ‘terroir’.

The concept of ‘terroir’ in wine is fragile and poorly established.  Wines do not have ‘terroir’ just because the grapes come from a limited and identifiable vineyard area.  Terroir is not conferred automatically by origin or intent before the wine is made; it must show tangibly in the taste of the wine.  The wines must have a taste unique, characteristic, specific to that vineyard or district.  But many commentators merely assert this in vague metaphors.

Certain villages or districts in Champagne do seem to have a taste profile but winemaking creates taste variables too.  Many domaines do not make only ‘local brews’, but blend as well from quite widespread origins and these cuvées are often excellent and can show other aspects of ‘terroir’.  Champagne has always shown great savoir-faire and excellence by blending across vintages, districts and varieties.  This does not invalidate high quality.  A champagne can still be poor quality, poorly made, even if its grapes come from a limited place.  Mediocre winemaking obscures terroir.  Great wine making is as much a condition of expressing terroir as the terroir itself.

7  Domaine or single estate (old term ‘grower’) champagne should not be virtuously counterposed to the big branded champagne houses’ wines.

Most of the houses, at least within their range, can make fabulous wines.  They have great experience and expertise, possess great cellars and reserve wines and can source wines for many stunning blends and possess the stocks for good aging.  The jibe that houses merely make ‘house styles’ ignores the fact most domaine (‘grower’) champagnes also show the signature of the producer clearly and consistently as at least one aspect of their identity.  Predictable, easy-drinking and crowd-pleaser champagne is as much made by many ‘growers’ as it is by many houses.

Just to be clear, on balance, the average quality of the big houses’ champagnes is at present higher than the majority of so-called ‘grower’ champagne.  A champagne does not score brownie points just because it is ‘grower’.  Nor does a wine from a big house.  It is the taste profile of the final wine in both cases that is the arbiter of quality.  And ‘growers’ benefit enormously from the international prestige of the Champagne appellation; they flourish under its umbrella just as the houses bask in the interest, ‘buzz’ and diversity of domaine champagne.

8  Critics and wine journalists should stop recommending domaine or single estate champagne for its ‘good value’ pricing.

We are often advised to buy domaine champagne because it is cheaper than the big brands. But very good champagne deserves a good price whether made by a house or domaine.  The top domaine champagnes in fact have prices higher than many of the houses’ wines, and why not?  The reason so much mainstream ‘supermarket’ wine is mediocre is because the public have been educated by many wine critics to race to the bottom on price.   If critics do not oppose buying the promo ‘deal’ instead of buying good champagne then all wine, all champagne, will be mainstream and mediocre.  Sometimes a great wine can be found at a modest price.  But this is not the same as recommending plonk just because it is cheap.

9  Domaine or single estate champagne can be and is becoming ineffably ‘cool’.

This is because it dares to be different, at least amongst its greatest exponents. It needs to tell a story which highlights and connects the consumer with the people who make it, because it cannot yet compete with the huge brand resonance of the big brand champagne houses.  It can show a range of flavours – including ‘terroir’ – hooray! –  and stylistic moves that are original, unusual, exciting and astonishing.  This diversity challenges the dogmatism that champagne should taste one way, the samey mainstream champagne style.   Domaine champagne is as great a glory to Champagne as the big houses, and the best show classicism as well as innovation.  But waving the heritage flag of tradition down generations, rather than claiming outstanding quality, proven in taste, is a mistake for domaine champagne.

It is a good thing domaine champagne can sometimes scare the horses.  This is what makes it cool. It changes the imaginative boundaries of champagne winemaking, creates a healthy ‘culture clash’, call it a shake-up if you will, within Champagne.  Domaine champagne should strive to change and develop its wine to ever higher quality and take its customers with it.  There is a sense that the big houses sometimes work hard to get better at making the same thing.  Domaine champagne is not frightened to develop its flavours and styles if it means more finesse, greater precision and balance, complexity with longevity: better and more interesting champagne.

Domaine champagne is about the science, art and soul of its makers.  It should refuse to be tied down by staid imagery of history, aspirational lifestyles , and ‘bling’.  In London right now, the best restaurant wine list of single estate top quality domaine champagnes in the whole country, and by some way, is at ‘Bubbledogs’ which serves more or less only one item with them: hot dogs.

10  Quality selection rules.  In the UK right now, domaine or single estate champagne needs to reconnect with marketing top quality and not finding ‘growers’ to import at all costs at modest prices.

Too many, not all, importers of these wines seem to have selected their portfolio with less regard for quality, perhaps without enough wine-tasting experience or expertise being applied. Exclusivities are sought for quick direct import when more careful selection of quality is crucial.  Proper selection demands repeated long-term visiting of producers, discussion with them, study of their viticulture and winemaking over an extended period, maybe several years, and exhaustive tasting in Champagne .

A number of web-based marketeers for ‘grower’ champagne adopt the easy lowest common-denominator ‘farmer fizz and ‘artisan’ imagery, and some say they sell only ‘grower’ but lob in some houses or coop wines too. The marketing by growers’ representatives in Champagne treats coop clones as generically equal to proper domaines and little quality sifting goes into the export effort.  A useful promotional body in the proper sense of single estates is www.vigneron-independant.com, although this is not just for indie champagne producers, but all France.

This quality problem does not of course apply to the 25 or so elite domaines already internationally established as the stars of single estate champagne.  But the real work of exploring and finding the next top single domaines has barely begun.  Probably, many of them have yet to be found. Which is exciting and very cool.

The established stars of domaine champagne:

I have included Jacquesson (NM) because they behave like a domaine in so many ways.  In my view, Jacquesson may well be the best quality producer currently, in all Champagne.

Agrapart
Paul Bara
Bérèche et Fils
Cedric Bouchard
Francis Boulard
Chartogne-Taillet
Dehours
Diebolt-Vallois
Doyard
Egly-Ouriet
Pierre Gimonnet
Jacquesson
Lancelot-Pienne
Larmandier-Bernier
Jacques Lassaigne
Serge Mathieu
Pierre Moncuit
Pierre Péters
Jerome Prevost
Eric Rodez
Jacques Selosse
de Sousa
Tarlant
Vilmart
Vouette et Sorbée (Bertrand Gautherot)
*Picture is the Terroir & Talents domaine group poster: 2013 tasting in Epernay
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A link up was announced today, a Huffington post exclusive, between Dom Perignon and Prosecco. There will be a short 6 month second fermentation and ageing in tomb-shaped magnums at a secret location in Sicily before each bottle is blessed by the Pope in Rome, personally signed in Paris by Francois Hollande and packed in Epernay at a plant owned by Johnny Hallyday. It will be called Shamecco.

Dosage will be zero and disgorgement only ‘a la volly’ as Toni Glera said, the CEO of the joint venture. A biodynamic cuvée is planned, once parcels of land planted from the Les Crayeres lawns in Reims and a disused car park in the Sézanne have come on stream.

There are to be new steel-lined barriques for the ageing of the vins clairs, with kiln-dried maple wood from a small forest discovered next to the main runway at Charles de Gaulle airport. The barriques will be flown to cellars in the Cartizze village of the Veneto which have a constant temperature of 25C and a testing humidity of only 10%. A new cultured yeast has been selected from the bedrooms of 5000 teenagers pledged to be in loving relationships, who were secretly commissioned from lycées in Venice, Reims and Les Riceys. A rosé version is expected next year, blended by the addition of bull’s blood from Charolais cattle, buried for five years in unicorn horns at the bottom of the Laguna Veneta.

Shamecco is expected to sell for €7 a bottle on release. New Dom Perignon chef de cave Ricardo Geofferrari said the wine had massive density, matched only by its apparent weightlessness ‘It will be good with chocolate’ he said.

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If you read wine columns, a diminishing habit amongst wine drinkers I’m told, you may have noticed that wine writers almost never criticise a wine.

It’s been in the back of my mind for years but recently I read a lot of restaurant, film, concert and book reviews and it hit me between the eyes.

There’s a time-honoured tradition amongst UK critics in general, of telling the truth or at least speaking your mind.  It’s become part of the entertainment as well as the cultural information on what to see, read or eat. You don’t have to believe every visceral and damning comment from Giles Coren on food or from Fay Maschler or AA Gill.  Or even Derek Malcolm and Mark Kermode on film.  I’m reminded AA Gill does polemic and brimstone about print as well as shrimp.  Only recently he trashed Morrissey’s autobiography as: ‘A sea of Stygian self-justification and stilted self-conscious prose..’ You can file this stuff away and go and try for yourself.  But it is hugely entertaining and can provoke discussion about just what is quality, what are the criteria for judging food out, a good read or a film?  Canons are a good thing – they keep us all alive to just what is entailed in deciding what is good and what is bad.  But most wine writers avoid it like the plague.

I know it’s not because wine writers are just so nice to everything and everybody.  In private, believe you me, they pan a poor wine like the best of us.  And not just wine. Only yesterday, a very good UK wine writer, a brilliant specialist on the scientific aspects of wine and pioneer blogger about wine (OK it is Jamie Goode) said ‘BA sucks’ on Twitter when he had to pay through the nose to change a flight.   But wine writers don’t dish the dirt on wine or do it rarely, in print.  I can only think it is because they are in awe of wine distributors and the PRs they rely on to keep sending them the samples and on the jollies to wine regions.

Many critics use a scoring system for wines and this works to soften their blows. The 100 point scale weirdly only begins at 50.  But aficionados know that less than 90 on this scale is merely OK, and less than 80 rubbish.  But 70+ is a first for a university degree, so forgive the poor consumer for not realising an 84 for a wine from a critic is a definite thumbs down. The scale allows critics to give what seem quite high marks and avoid having to write the weasel words or even, say exactly what they think.  As revered Hugh Johnson said recently about the 100-point scale:  “…the whole thing was idiotic from the start – it’s time we shelved it.”

You could argue that of the 1000s of wines out there, many are made by small families doing their honest best and the last thing we want to do is smash their chances of selling their wine for a small income or even break even.  Especially when we know how rapacious the supermarkets can be when bargaining with suppliers over price.  But I don’t see many people buying things on such a charitable basis.  Least of all wine critics.  They generally tote mass brands to drive, makes calls, go jogging and be online.  And they comb reviews and blogs like the rest of us to find the weaknesses or poor experiences with products.  And you can argue that a small family wine producer making so-so wines, will never get better unless criticism is made.  If you don’t criticise wines when they deserve it but simply stay silent, the wines will probably stay bad.

Perhaps, most wine critics would agree, 90% of all the wine on sale out there is plonk. I do not mean 90% of all the different wines, but 90% of the volume.  A limited number of branded wines make up the ocean of what is sold (and they sell 80% of all the bottles bought in the UK) by supermarkets.  Most of them sell for or under around the average £5.20 spent on a bottle of wine in the UK.  And in a bottle of wine for that much, once you have paid transport, duty, the profit margin and tax, the wine in the bottle is 83p. And it is plonk.  But hardly anyone says so.  Why?  And one can go further – there are plenty of mediocre bottles, that should know better given the competition from 1000s of wonderful good quality wines, which sell for much more than £5.20 but give the drinker a shabby deal.

Maybe wine columns are on the wane because they are so bland. The odd reservation here and there but in the end they are all about recommendations and price.  The best you get often is slight condescension – phrases such as : ‘Not thrilling..’ or ‘perfectly serviceable…’. The message is, it’all good for its price, so just buy on price.  But this mistakes consumer journalism’s real mission.  Wine so happens to be a product where there is a big price and quality gap.  And even a big gap between prices for the same quality.  All wine critics agree on that.  Just go on Wine-Searcher to see the yawning chasm or tiny hole the same wine can make in your wallet.  That’s one of the reasons the punter is anxious about buying wine.

It might be a start if wine critics said more often: Here’s a gem, buy it.  And it’s much better than that one over there that isn’t good enough, for a similar price.

Why don’t they ever mention ‘that one over there’?

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I for one do not sneer at the champagne brands’ amusing marketing efforts; those little gestures of promotion dreamt up hot-desking by interns in agencies and sent upstairs for big cheeses’ approval. I often smile too at the way Nike-wearing, Apple-toting, BMW-driving and Emirates-flying puritans then decry the branding of big champagne. I just wish small wine producers were more creative about the ways they try to get our attention, not just for champagne.

I’m not saying that great brand must be made in gargantuan volumes. On the whole, the bigger the production of a wine brand, the lower its quality tends to be. But niche and small brand marketing remain a mystery to most champagne producers and they should not.

Domaine (grower) champagne (and I am a big fan when it is good) needs to up its promotion game and stop wallowing in samey rhetoric about how many generations its family have been working the soil, how ‘artisan’ and ‘peasant farmer’ they are. Terry Theise’s title of ‘farmer fizz’ to dub ‘grower’ single estate champagne is misplaced, backward and romantic. It should be ‘good fizz’, judged on quality, not on the toiling credentials of the guys who make it.

Phew, sorry about the huffing and puffing. But this puffed wheat little branding gesture from Moet this week did amuse me. A glass of Brut Imperial in a bar comes with a mini-box of truffle-flavoured popcorn. A great match, a giggle, and memorable.

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I think today I may have tasted my best wine of 2014.  Not bad for January 13th, but by the law of averages this augers well; surely something will be even better to come over the next 353 days. But the bar is now set high.

Weingut Schäfer-Fröhlich is in the Nahe, a rising star since 1995 when Tim Fröhlich’s potential football career ended with injury.  It has been wine’s gain and the estate is now one of the best in Germany and definitely in the Nahe elite. Quite amazing; to have arrived in the company of Dönnhof in so short a time.

The Schäfer-Fröhlich Felseneck Riesling Eiswein 2010, just 6% abv if you happen to be cutting down in the New Year, and coming only in half bottles, so even more abstemious, has density but a filigree texture from wonderfully natural acidity that holds the wine through its great length.  There’s a saline minerality cosseted in bitter honey.  It’s very young, hard not to drink now but surely promises wonders in maturity too. Very good indeed. I’m afraid I could only dream of the foie-gras it made me crave, surely a destiny the angels have marked down for it if you are lucky.  Perhaps another time.

The joy does not come without a ticket – probably well in excess of £100 per half bottle.  UK stockist: The Winebarn, Dummer, Hants RG25 2AE This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . www.thewinebarn.co.uk

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Apparently in the ‘squeezed middle’, Boden wearing Volkswagen Passat people are not afraid to do ‘thrift’ now, even though they would never call it poverty.  But surely, they would never be seen dead (or in pink track suits and new trainers) in Lidl. Think again, or choke on your next Waitrose bill.  The day may be coming when the mortgageazzi of England worry how far it is to a Lidl like they do about good schools. Especially as it’s eco-cool to take your own bag shopping now.  You won’t be spotted by neighbours when you drag the Lidl swag from the car.  And what a relief Lidl don’t do home delivery.

Cleverly Lidl have made a big push to attract the belt-tightening ABC1s and now crow of a great Christmas with 25% of their customers reading books and going on short city breaks sur le continont.  That is when they are not the ‘middle class…being the…Lidl class’, as Claire Bowman put it, writing in the Times.

And shock horror, this is not being achieved by downmarket ploys of free coffee and newspapers but by reversing the age-old supermarket tactic of doing price offers on posh goods like wine so as to suck in footfall – I do love my footfall being sucked – who get the BOGOF on Chablis and fill their trolleys with a big shop on top. It works, but far too simple for Lidl.  They seem to have done it with upmarket goods that nevertheless seem bargains. ‘Which?’ thought their mince pies better than Fortnum & Mason’s for Christmas. Goodness you think, Lidl will be selling foie gras next.  And then there’s those lobsters for £4.99.  OK, small, frozen, cooked, not that great, but they make a good mousse starter. It’s the lobster word, stupid.

All of this is beautifully illustrated with Lid’s wine innovation.  They have pulled in a panel of Masters of Wine to rate their new Wine Cellar range.  Even after Christmas, when I went to my nearest Lidl – OK, Finsbury Park is not too far from Crouch End, I mean Highgate borders – most of the latest additions to this range were in stock.  I served them blind to my wine geek (will discuss wine as much as clothes) and wine loving, (not too fussed if it tastes nice) friends.  They were impressed.

Next day my Harley Street dentist neighbour texted me to say how great it was to taste good wine that does not cost the earth.  She would say that – the average price of the eight wines was £10.60 a bottle, double the average paid for wine in the UK. But she was right.  The wines do taste good; everyone thought so.   Here are our favourites, with Italy doing well:

Brunello di Montalcino DOCG 14% 2008 £19.99 14%abv Medici Riccardi. Our most liked, though we considered it could be Burgundy before we saw the label.  It is 100% Sangiovese Grosso in fact with fruit and yet great cut from its fresh but talcum smooth tannin.  Worth the money.

Vernaccia di San Gimignano 2012 DOCG 2012 £6.99 13%abv Podere Macinatico The 2011 won a bronze medal in the International Wine Challenge.  This lovely Italian white had a quiet, airy intensity and a lingering almond finish.  Good.

Barbera d’Asti Superiore 2010 DOCG  2010 £9.99, 13.5%abv, Cascina Posine A lovely warm, smouldery note and gentle aromas of violets.  Neat, fresh structure and cut; well done.  Often one of Italy’s better mid-market red sources.





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1 Don’t Be Lazy About Wine Don’t be impressed by ‘experts’ who say they have a mission to demystify wine. If you want more out of wine than a pick-me-up after work, happy juice for the middle classes, then make some effort.  Music, art, science, poetry, astronomy, photography and angling are complex pursuits; wine is too.

Don’t fall for the dumb-downers who say knowing about wine and caring about quality makes you a snob. How much time and effort does an avid reader, amateur musician, car freak or angler put into what turns them on?  Be ready to devote at least as much time to the subject of wine as they do to their bag.  Of course there are endless levels of commitment in between.  But don’t fall for the idea that pursuits with effort are no fun.

2  Drink less, drink better. Stop buying plonk (ie most wine under £8.00 before a discount) and cut your consumption in two if not more.   If you don’t want to spend more than £30 a week on wine at home, buy one or two bottles for £30 / £15 each.  Your liver will benefit and you give yourself a chance to learn and drink something good at least 50 times a year.

3  Join the Wine Society. This only applies to UK readers.  If you do not already belong you are missing out on the best wine seller in the UK.  www.winesociety.com

4  Wine Writer’s Opinions. Don’t let wine sites or articles talk down to you, as though you need a guru to tell you what to buy or what’s in, what’s out. Take control and learn to judge quality so you can make up your own mind.  The best wine writers don’t shout the odds or tell you what to drink, they lay out their opinions and ask you to consider them. And the best have dumped the silly 100 point scale that falsely starts at 50.

5  Read More If you are a wine freak already, you have never been better served for wine books and digital downloads.  Wine Grapes (Robinson, Harding, Vouillamoz), Penguin, Allen Lane, for starters – e-book version too.  The World Atlas of Wine 7th Edition (Johnson, Robinson), Mitchell Beazley, also e-book, is a new wine nut survival tool – love those maps!! Two recent books on Bordeaux are really tasty:  Bordeaux Legends – The 1855 First Growth Wines (Jane Anson) and Neal Martin’s self-published Pomerol (https://www.pomerolbook.com/order.php).  Peter Liem and Jesus Barquin’s Sherry, Manzanilla and Montilla is terrific (http://www.sherryguide.net/).  Just out The Christie’s World Encyclopaedia of Champagne Sparkling Wine (Tom Stevenson, Essi Avellan) is required reading for fizz freaks too.

Similarly, You cannot be a serious joyful wine hobbyist unless you go through the pay wall of at least one expert wine site online.   Start with a sub to www.JancisRobinson.com, easily the best wine site for those who love wine and want to learn more.

Most wine blogs, (and there are too many) could be better written, even when the author clearly knows a lot.  Many wine columns are readable because foremost, the writer is a professional journalist.  By all means read blogs, but sift to find the best and move on if they falter or peter out or start shouting at you.

6 The Prosecco Procession. By all means drink Prosecco if you are desperate and broke, but accept it is mostly sweet fizzy pop with ethanol.  It may have gained some cachet in a recession but this does not stop it being poor quality wine on the whole. If you love it anyway, fine!

7  Bordeaux Stop making the excuse that Bordeaux is a busted flush as Asian plutocrats price it out of your league.  That is no reason to turn your back on a region still making the most complex long-lived red wine.  Or think you don’t need to learn about Bordeaux wine any more.  About 30 chateaux may now be well out of the league of the average wine punter.  That still leaves 100s of estates making good to great wine at more reasonable prices.  The same, to a lesser degree, goes for Burgundy, the Rhone and Champagne.

8 Australia For slightly different reasons, if you have veered away from Australia because of its BBQ and ‘sunshine in a bottle’ image, or even its appalling oily cheaply-oaked Chardonnays of the past, then come back.  Australian wine quality has now pulled significantly ahead of the rest of the New World, except for California and the US west coast.

9  Eating Out. Have the courage to tell some restaurants their wine mark ups are rapacious, including the mark-ups in trendy ‘natural’ wine bars.  Wines by the glass are great, but usually marked up far more than the whole bottle.  Do cook more for friends at home and avoid paying to have your wallet filched so often by wine lists when you eat out.

10 Natural Wine Natural wine is a big misnomer. Wine is not a natural product, ever.  It does not make itself.  Growing grapes and making wine is a major human intervention in nature.  Wine making must make sure things reproduce well and save many things from decay using techniques which are far from natural.  Many so-called natural wines in fact contain appreciable levels of SO2; I’m glad they do.  Nevertheless, many so-called ‘natural’ wines can be delicious, although rarely profound and fine.  Remember what Bobby Dylan said: I am against nature. I don’t dig nature at all. I think nature is very unnatural. I think the truly natural things are dreams, which nature can’t touch with decay.

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The latest edition of ‘La Revue du Vin de France’, has published its ranking of what it calls the ’50 best champagne houses’ – although the website (click the link) will only show you the top 10.  You’ll need to buy the magazine itself to see the whole list.  Oh hell, I’ll publish the top 20 below anyway and recant if I get a shirty letter about copyright from them.

The weird thing about it all however, is that it has deliberately excluded any ranking within it of domaine or single estate champagne (often called ‘grower’ champagne).

This is quite deliberate, not some inexplicable oversight or traditional bias by the champagne establishment against domaine champagne.  The ‘RVF’ is quite clued up on single estate champagne developments, no question.

So why the apparent silliness? After all, they have included seven coops or coop groupings in the list – in rank order Mailly Grand Cru (21st), Palmer & Co (27), Veuve A Devaux (32), Pannier (36), Nicolas Feuillatte (38), Jacquart (45) and Beaumont des Crayères (47). These coops can all make good wine.  But no single domaine champagnes, not one.

Their spurious, if that’s not too unkind a word, rationale, is that all producers had to make 300k bottles or more of champagne a year.  Sorry, that doesn’t wash.  By the same token, in any ranking of international Bordeaux blends, the top five Médoc (including Haut-Brion) first growths would be excluded.  Lafite is the only one whose grand vin gets anywhere near 300k bottles sometimes.

So what is going on here?  This is not the place to quibble about the actual ranking of those they do include.  I’m in favour of rankings.  It stimulates debate about excellence in any field of creative human activity.  The discussion about canons, the classic and the newcomers and their relative position is at least, a vital part of wine.

But to exclude domaine champagne  here, no doubt the subject of a future splash in ‘RVF’, is to fall into the big trap in the Champagne world, in discussion amongst producers, critics and some consumers.  And that is to see Champagne and champagne as a binary world – the growers versus the houses and big coops.  The false dichotomy is particularly prevalent in the USA and perhaps Japan, where ‘small is good’, hipster and ‘terroir’ accolades are heaped generically on ‘grower’ champagne (what Terry Theise in the US calls ‘farmer fizz’) and the big houses’ wines are often dubbed big volume, heavily marketed industrial swill – but if you happen to be pouring me a glass of it, thanks very much.

This false fork in the road ends up a double blind alley.  Champagne should stand or fall by the quality of what it tastes like, not who made it and how.  The small and big houses are continually a source of great champagne, but not all of it, and we can discuss the rank.  But some of them make champagne often inferior to the best growers too.

Equally, those that talk about growers’ champagne being ‘terroir wine’ in any generic sense are making a fatal error.  I’m sure, I’m convinced, that quite a number of great champagne small domaines are as yet undiscovered.  But at present, the majority of so-called ‘grower’ champagnes are coop imposters, selling the same wines in their villages as their neighbours but with different labels – the so-called RCs or ‘récoltants-coopérateurs’.  The proper domaines or single estates (RMs) may number 1,956 producers (last count in 2013), but only the top few, say 200 tops, are making really interesting champagne with the quality to compete on the international market.

The elite of these single estates can pass muster against many of the producers in the ‘RVF’ ranking.  But for some reason, they are not given the chance.  Why?  Could it be that the RVF are preferring to keep their welcome warm at the really big négociant houses rather than risk putting noses out of joint by listing the odd grower ahead of certain houses?

Just to be cheeky, here’s the top 20 ranking from the RVF.  But in bold, and not based on my definitive ranking view, but a putative, provocative suggestion, I’ve spiced things up and thrown the odd domaine into the pot too – in fact 18 of them!

Have mercy on my soul.

Louis Roederer
Pol Roger
Bollinger
Gosset
Dom Perignon
Jacquesson
Krug
Salon (they made an exception to the 300k volume rule here – its about 60k bottles annual)
Vilmart
Selosse
Egly-Ouriet
Deutz
Billecart-Salmon
Charles Heidsieck
Larmandier-Bernier
Agrapart
Perrier-Jouët
Tarlant
Philipponnat
Chartogne-Taillet
Dehours
A.R. Lenoble
Veuve Clicquot
Diebolt-Vallois
Doyard
Taittinger
Bérèche & Fils
Éric Rodez
Pierre Péters
André Jacquart
Henri Giraud
Janisson-Baradon
Pierre Paillard
De Souza & Fils
Joseph Perrier
Laurent-Perrier
Vazart-Coquart
Ruinart
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I’ve heard a bellyful recently about ‘real’ champagne and how evil are the big ‘brands’. Usually written by people who move effortlessly in their own shiny world of Apple, Nike and Virgin.

And I’m wondering if restaurants and hotels in the UK need to do a serious rethink about the way they sell champagne. Are they too complacent, thinking it will sell itself?

Too many do not think through how to present champagne as both chic and complex. They neglect champagne and relegate it to the shaky ground of ‘celebration’. And too many commentators adopt a lazy rhetoric, missing the brilliant and complex wines of many houses and suggesting crassly that all domaine champagne (grower) exudes artisan ‘terroir’ or that it is just a ‘good value’ price choice.

Of course there are brilliant single estate/ domaine/ grower wines but many are mediocre. Just as many wines from houses can be mediocre while many are top quality. But the daft polarisation of Champagne with capitalist ogres spending marketing budgets on one side and hipster, heroic horny-handed sons and daughters of toil on the other, is mindless. Champagne should be judged by the quality of its taste, not by who makes it or the size of the winery. I love many domaine champagnes and many from houses. But it is silly to draw the line between them. The line to follow is one of quality, of complexity and elegance, delicacy, fragrance and length.

Selling champagne should not be about making people want all of it and more of it.  But about wanting more of some of it because it is so good.

And that is what will make it chic in the end.

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Gilles Dumangin, head of this small champagne house, can sound convincingly English or French in either language. That’s quite a feat. But this accomplished champagne producer admits he had little idea how to make champagne when in 2001 he returned to France after quite some time in England, where he left a job as export director to a software company. But he jumped at the chance. At arm’s length he had been developing exports to the UK and fondly remembered helping in the vineyard and winery as a boy.

Since then, after an apprenticeship working alongside his father Jacky, who eventually retired in 2008, Gilles has put these wines on the map in various countries. Not least the UK, where they graced Sir Paul McCartney’s 2011 wedding to Nancy Shevell, have been listed by Gordon Ramsey’s eponymous (Michelin 3*) restaurant in London and declared ‘one of my favourite non-vintage champagnes’ by Jancis Robinson.

But there is deep thinking behind the winemaking here and a strategic evolution. Champagne clichés about a monolithic house style are rarely completely true even at the big houses. Things evolve. Terroir and winemaking are constantly in tension in Champagne, not least at Dumangin where there’s a restless striving after a style still emerging from its chrysalis. But the wines here are lovely.

Home in Champagne for this producer is the premier cru village of Chigny-les-Roses, sitting in a trio of premiers crus between Rilly-la-Montagne and Ludes on the northern scarp of the Montagne de Reims, 60% of which is planted to Pinot Meunier along with 24% Pinot Noir and 16% Chardonnay. The major presence of Meunier here is a surprise to many who  think the Montagne is all about Pinot Noir.  But these three premiers crus have more clay and sand in parts over the chalk which suits Meunier.  It is also conveniently late budding which helps against local frost dangers.

Gilles came back to France because his younger brother, whom the family assumed would take the reins, decided not to.  Rather than make champagne and then distribute the returns to dormant family stakeholders, Gilles decided on a small-scale négociant (NM) operation. The result is an ingenious supply network, mainly from some 24 parcels around Chigny. About half the grapes come from about 6ha of family vineyards and the rest are purchased, including a little from Sézanne and the Aube. A ‘house’ it may be, with a modest 100k bottles annual production, but things are hands on here and it’s run as a family domaine.

Gilles Dumangin leaves you in no doubt that his preference is very fresh, racy champagnes which also express their singing fruit flavours. There’s a lusciousness to the wines but a depth and complexity and an incisive cut too.  This might be a tall order to achieve in a district with such a high proportion of relatively quick maturing and fruity Pinot Meunier. At Dumangin however, it is done with a coherent wine making strategy but which is still a work in progress.  The quest for purity is embedded in practical steps, not rhetoric.

A Champagne tenet is gentle pressing.  To keep finesse and fragrance in a white wine from black grapes which can age, you need to strictly limit colour and oxidizable compounds pulled out of the grapes at pressing.  At Dumangin two Coquard PAM presses, one for 4000kilos and a baby brother for 2000kilos are highly prized because they do this job so well, even though this press model is discontinued.  The enclosed load of grapes is pressed by horizontal plates but the pressed cake is rotated 90° by the slatted base tray in each cycle so, as Gilles explains: ‘the process…presses all the grapes evenly…The fact the (tray) is turning completely creates a perfect retrousse’ – the release of pressure and break up of the ‘cake’ prior to pressing again.

There are no additives here except modest use of SO2, at any stage. This for example includes no pectolytic enzymes for breaking up grape pulp solids in cold settling before the first fermentation.  Gilles believes enzymes take some flavours away which he’d rather keep, so does one more time-consuming racking to complete the débourbage. No enzymes means a slightly slower hand remuage or riddling to coax the gummy deposits into the bottle necks after ageing, but in any case he says he hasn’t the space at present for gyropalettes.  Rather than stainless steel he prefers compact enamelled steel tanks,  for parcel by parcel fermentation. With a slow racking from them he says, nothing sticks, they keep the Dumangin flavours better, even if they are harder to clean between fermentations.  And the desire for flavour, freshness and race is consistent to the end, with a recent decision to use Mytik Diamant corks (now over 15% of champagne closures) which elminate almost all risk of cork taint.

There are two further strategic policies for style and quality at Dumangin. Purity and freshness is complemented by complexity with a strikingly high proportion of reserve wines, between 45-70% on the non-vintage cuvées, including even the entry level ’17 Brut’.  The Grande Reserve NV has the highest levels, but the Le Rosé NV (now so popular it is 50% of the  whole production), seems all the more subtle for the contribution from reserves. These high fractions temper any tendency for the frank fruit here to seem exotic.

Secondly, a recent new move, from the 2012 harvest, malolactic has been blocked to keep the wines showing a fresh attack, especially as warmer harvests seem to be increasing. Gilles would much rather retain natural acid by this than resort to acidification. The impact on style and taste will be gradual given the high level of reserves which of course have been put through malolactic before the change.  The only wine released showing this shift so far is the base 2009 Grande Reserve.

So there is excitement and promise here and intriguing and impressive champagne. Altogether, the thought-out and painstaking direction Champagne Dumangin is now moving in has a clear goal and model  - to make bracing champagnes with fresh and piercing fruit but with the added subtlety of older reserves to underpin this primary appeal. The finished picture is emerging; but it is wonderful to taste these wines and begin to understand what they will become.

The Wines

Cuve 17 Brut NV About a one third blend of the varieties.  Tasted London 03/13  Very fresh, real bite but bursting with fruit.  Certainly modern and zippy.
Grande Réserve 1er cru NV 50PM 25PN 25CH   Base 09. 49% of reserve wines. Three years on lees. Disgorged 05/13.  Tasted Chigny 10/13.  Impressive depth and length.  Assertive fruit but a deal of underlying interest, vinosity and complexity from the older wines.  Very attractive.  About 50% without malolactic.
Blanc de Blancs 1er cru 2006. All the fruit from a single vineyard called Dessous Le Mont in Chigny and dosed at 5g/L/  Tasted Chigny 10/13.  Impressive, with honeysuckle and singing fruit notes but a creamy rich undertow too.  Very keen finesse. Well made.
Vintage 2003. Tasted Chigny 10/13.  Disgorged 2012, dosed at 4g/L.  Quite mature but a tension that will see it through some time yet.  Some early smoky biscuit flavours but a good structure and texture too.  By no means a soft caricature of this warm year.
Rosé Saignée 2008. Tasted Chigny 10/13.  50PM 25PN 25PN   Lovely raspberry cream but a balancing slightly bitter cut to it which makes it seem sophisticated and grown up.  A convincing modern take on rosé.
Le Rosé NV 1er cru 2008. Tasted London 03/13 and Chigny 10/13. Blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, about equal. Bursting with fruit but quite a dry and linear impression from the high Chardonnay.  Sappy and very moreish,  Very fruity but not cloying by any means.
Vinotheque 1er cru Brut 1996. Tasted London 03/13  Pretty advanced and slightly toffeed but a deal of nutty interest and an attractive soft mousse.
Vinotheque 1er cru Brut 1994. Tasted Chigny 10/13  Again a toffeed oxidative note setting in.  This and the previous wine date of course from a period prior to the changes brought in by Gilles Dumangain since.
Trio des Ancêtres - Three cuvées sold together, from the 2000 harvest.  These are each made from a single variety: Firmin from Chardonnay, Hippolyte from Pinot Noir and Achille from Pinot Meunier.  The only wines made with oak, one year of ageing in used burgundy barriques.  Presently based on 2000 and disgorged in 2010 and all therefore with a long time on lees.  0g/L.  All three showed power and structure and really deep complexity, the oak still evident but a successful style given the overall complexity and freshness from zero dosage, the Pinot Noir especially.
Champagne J Dumangin Fils
F51500 Chigny Les Roses
3 rue de Rilly
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