We all love it when the wine bore gets what for. I’m up to my helpless neck in wine, besotted, especially champagne as you might notice. A proper bore talks about their obsession to people who do not share it, so I try not to, honest. The people who love being in a huddle going on about F1 tyre changes or football with their friends only become bores when they do it in front of those who don’t really give a toss. But wine talk gets some people’s goats more, because wine makes people feel their social class and status is being judged. Wine talk is power. No doubt it should not be. But history has made people feel that way. That’s why so many wine presenters or writers come over all good cause and tell us their mission is to ‘demystify wine one glass at a time’. Personally, it’s the mystery that sucks me in, ‘on my knees looking for the answer’ like the Killers.
It’s the fact that wine is a social marker to many, right or wrong, that makes so many uneasy about it. How easy or even humbly authoritative you are talking about it, earns you cultural worth in many others’ eyes. And if they are your own eyes you are a snob.
And that’s why comedians love to give wine and its hobby world the full satirical treatment. I’m sure it often deserves it. I’m particularly prone to mutter cynical smart remarks myself when I hear people go on endlessly about wine paraphernalia and peripherals like choosing corkscrews, quite when and what to decant, wine fridges or the more abstruse and exotic matching of weird things like Saumur Brut with pork scratchings. That last example actually happened to me last week and I should be careful because it was quite a good match. But what I mean is that my own bugbear tends to rattle the bars when people seem more interested in the manners and folderols of wine than its taste.
The comedian and TV quizzer David Mitchell wrote a good piece here last week taking the mick out of wine which will no doubt comfort many Guardian readers who feel between the rock of horror at the high price of good wine in these squeezed times and the hard place of liking to drink it. As in liking to drink it a lot. The way to square the circle of course is to suggest wine is just pleasant happy juice. You don’t need to spend more than a tenner. It’s not noticeably different to the bottle costing £150 unless you are a wine snob. And the best wine to have in your comedy gun sights if you want to have a dig is of course champagne. The wine where image, price and reality seem often in cloud cuckoo land.
David Mitchell can no doubt afford champagne. He’s a media success, white, male, private school and Cambridge and married to millionairess poker player Victoria Coren, white female, private school and Oxford. That Footlights tradition of intelligent down-to-earth public school common sense, lambasting pomposity and pretension, has been strong since David Frost and Beyond the Fringe. Funny coincidence that Mitchell had a programme called The Bubble. If you are proper elite, it makes sense to satirise those who may think they are elite by being poncey about champagne. And it is quite funny. With the added protection for the satirist that if you object to what a wag says, you can be told to lighten up.
Mitchell gently takes apart some hapless wine professional’s comment that champagnes with more developed flavours are better in normal wine glasses than flutes. Not a new idea if you are into wine. And an idea that I don’t always agree with. It depends what kind of developed flavours. Sometimes champagnes with shier and subtle flavours go better in bigger glasses, the very opposite idea. If you want champagnes to lose some fizz quicker to go with food, bigger glasses are good too. Really old stinky champagnes shake themselves together and slough off pooey notes by decanting them or using bigger glasses. It all depends.
There’s nothing ooh la la about all that. It’s just the nuts and bolts of wine service, at home or out. But this is not a discussion about which golf club is good for a shot, or wearing long studs for wet turf at football or which gears to select in your poky motor for that bend near the woods on the way home. Or even where best in the house to settle down and read a book when you want to. Why? Because it’s about wine stupid. And wine is good for a kicking.
And note there’s plenty of previous to do with special glasses for champagne. We’ve heard the Marie Antoinette myth about the coupe glass and her breast and the Kate Moss coupe for Breast Cancer Awareness – probably a special glass for champagne David Mitchell would not dare put down. And there are many different ranges of top crystal champagne glasses to choose from and even pay £100 each for from Riedel and Spiegelau, or even $400k for a pair in crystal and diamonds made by John Calleija in 2008.
Mitchell knows full well that vast numbers of people don’t give a toss and would probably struggle to find granny’s old cut glass flutes in the attic if a bottle of champagne was produced. He’s right too, that the power of champagne for the mass of people has got nothing to do with what it tastes like but its symbolic ability to get the party started in a trice.
His smile piece, and you do, is not really about champagne or special glasses. It’s saying wine is a beverage, get over it. The rest is snobbery. And the problem for wine and the wine trade is that a vast number of wine professionals think that too.
In Reims last week, I was served a very oxidised champagne which had also lost most of its original fizz or mousse. So, if you have come to look at this blog piece because you’re a fan of Prosecco, do not read on.
This is about a champagne that was going off, in fact was ‘gone off’ considerably. I hope we all agree, that although a degree of oxidation can sometimes be part of the great style of some champagnes, generally those where barrels have been used at some stage, the degree of oxidation should not obscure the delicacy and finesse that is champagne and Champagne’s hallmark. I firmly believe the subtle and fresh aromas and flavours of champagne are as much part of its complexity as the myriad effects of oak barrels used in various ways. I love many champagnes clearly marked by oak effects. But barrels should reveal Champagne’s terroir, not obscure it.
But that is another discussion. In this case the over-oxidation was the result of the opened bottle of champagne having been kept too long. The pain for me was not just an ‘off’ glass of champagne. It was also because I was at Au Bon Manger, one of Reims’s current new wave hangouts where Aline and Eric serve glorious cheese, charcuterie and a small selection of fascinating domaine or single estate champagne. I had been before. Do go, it’s tiny, branché, simple and passionate. The quality of the small menu and for sourcing fresh and unprocessed food is exemplary. I highly recommend it.
But in this case they made a mistake. I was alone and on for a quick plate of salad and meat in between champagne meetings in Reims. Nothing wrong with the food. I wanted a glass of champagne and the only way to get that there by the glass is to order the €8.50 good value mystery glass called ‘Bulle’ on the list.
It arrived and looked deep yellow gold, smelt a bit like vin jaune and was only faintly fizzy or pétillant. Since it was served in a normal wine glass (which can suit some champagnes), I even asked if it was champagne. Perhaps this was some tiny biodynamic producer in the Jura making mousseux ancestral. No, I was told, slightly patronisingly, definitely champagne. But it gave off that sharp continuous whiff of caramel and muffled old rags that spell oxidation and the mousse was near zero.
The bottle was brought to the table. It was Dis,’Vin Secret’ (see pic below) from Francoise Bedel ,who actually is completely biodynamic and Biodyvin certified. I have tasted her wines several times but could not remember this cuvée well and asked on Twitter while I ate, if anyone had a recent tasting note. Several people came back (thank you!) saying it it was normally fresh, piercingly so, but with a complex undertow from some wood influence. But if anything the wood made the wine, as it so often can, seem purer and more delicately textured. Several people said much the same thing.
There is a really informative back label. It’s mostly 2005 based. 80% Meunier, 15 Chardonnay, 5 Pinot Noir. Seven years on lees. Disgorged September 2013. The website says it has 9.75g/L dosage, but it tasted much drier. There was complexity and ripeness in the background, no question. But it was shot to bits. When I got back to London, I checked my old tasting notes of this cuvée. One, of the 2003 base version in April 2011 said it was ‘candied and quite advanced but pure and well-balanced’. Another from the end of 2011 said it was ‘very fresh, impressive, creamy and savoury’.
It’s clear what happened. The bottle level showed several glasses of this wine had been poured before me. It had been kept too long and oxidised; it should have been poured away. Even champagne with its CO2, after a few days under a tight champagne stopper, will go off. The best stopper I’ve found for champagne (cue the joke ‘You mean you don’t finish the bottle?’) is the screw-on closer from Metrokane. In the meantime, it would be wonderful to hope the new ‘Flute’ machine from Enomatic may be just the job for places like Au Bon Manger.
Jean-Pierre Vazart, on a balmy day in June this year, reminds me of that Kipling line learnt in school: ‘If you can keep your head when all around are losing theirs…’ I don’t dare tell him as he fields phone calls driving us up to Montaigu, the most prized vineyard of Chouilly, for a tour of his parcelles. One call is about some mysteriously damaged vines on someone else’s land the night before. Another is from the Chouilly town hall where he is a ‘conseilleur municipal‘ (local councillor). When we arrive back at his house and base a couple are waiting to buy some wine. Yet he pauses in his talk about champagne matters with me and can return to the point without missing a beat. Smiling and open, he has the concentration that can pick up where he left off. He does more. There’s a sideline in hiring out vineyard machinery and the responsibility for pressing the harvest from the Champagne ruling body (the CIVC) experimental vineyard Plumecoq, which so happens to be in Chouilly. A busy man who makes very good champagne.
The basic facts: This single estate of 11ha (making some 80, 000 bottles per annum) run by Jean-Pierre Vazart, makes only monocru wines. The entire estate is in Grand Cru Chouilly, one of only 17 ‘grand cru’ top communes in Champagne, the most northerly wine commune of the Côte des Blancs, just two minutes south of Epernay. Chouilly is big, at 525.5ha of vines, the biggest grand cru. It is the third biggest wine village in all Champagne after Les Riceys and Vertus. While the giant factory winery HQ of the Nicolas Feuillate coop is in Chouilly, pressing 7% of all Champagne’s grapes, there are several high quality independent growers (RMs) making their own wines. You notice a lot are called Legras: there is R&L Legras, Legras & Haas, Pierre Legras. And Michel Genet. But there is also Champagne Vazart-Coquart, a domaine champagne making waves nowadays among champagne aficionados.
Camille Vazart grew grapes in the late 19C and the family is still based in the same house on the main street in Chouilly. Jean-Pierre is the grandson of Camille and took over from his father Jacques in 2005 after a 16 year ‘apprenticeship’. His father had struck out on his own as an independent domaine (‘grower champagne’) in 1954. Clearly and confidently at the helm now, Jean-Pierre talks tellingly of the difficulties of growing into the patron’s shoes. He tells me how for so long he was eaten with self-doubt. Would he ever be able to take over and not mess up? And when it happened came the flood of realisation that this was something he really could do.
Being the Côte des Blancs, only Chardonnay is grown here, but Jean-Pierre has one tiny plot of Pinot Noir to make a Coteaux Champenois. In fact, there are only 4.5ha of Pinot Noir, and 1.9ha of Pinot Meunier in all Chouilly. The estate has parcelles of vines in most great sections of the Chouilly vineyard, including on the prized Montaigu. The viticulture here is gradually reducing synthetic chemical use to an absolute minimum and in 2012 the estate was the third wine domaine to be awarded the highest level of ‘HVE’ certification (Haute Valeur Environmentale), a stringent set of sustainable targets which must always be met. Other Champagne pioneers of this project are Champagne Bollinger, Eric Rodez and Lenoble. When I first met Jean-Pierre in 2012 he said: ‘In my head, I’m organic; it’s not quite so easy all the time.’ Like all good quality single domaines, high value is placed on restricting vigour in the vines and deeper roots, through growing grass in the alleys, and on reducing yield rather than going for maximum volume. The result is greater mineral intensity in the wines.
The multiple vineyard sites, from a far flung grand cru, with many variations of soil and exposure, produce different wines (vins clairs) for the domaine. Vinification is based on small tanks to capture this variation. No barrels are used, only stainless steel, a stylistic decision to preserve the mineral delicacy and buttery, floral fruit which is the signature of Chouilly. In this way, the wines here hum with terroir character. Not because they come from one place, which they do, but because they taste of that place. Complexity and authenticity are built in with malolactic generally completed and by a perpetual ‘solera’ begun in 1982 for reserve wines and using only the cuvée juice. It is replenished with up to 50% of its volume used in the blends each year, with new harvest wine. The solera wine is also used to prepare dosages.
The estate is a proud member of the ‘Club Trésors du Champagne’ (‘Special Club) since 1996 and since a rule of this group is to make your best cuvée in the club livery special bottle, it is important you taste the special club offerings regularly from Vazart-Coquart if you are a fan. Champagne Vazart-Coquart is also a member of the superlative quality promotional grouping: Les Mains du Terroir which has held Epernay tastings in April for the last three years. You see why the phone rings.
The domaine makes eight cuvées, nearly all 100% Chardonnay Blanc de Blancs, bar the rosé and ‘Cuvée Camille’. The house Brut Réserve NV (Brut Sans Année or ‘BSA’) is 60% of production, dosed at about 8-9g/L and with about 25% of ‘solera’ reserves and some 32 months on the second lees. The Demi-Sec Réserve NV is the same as the BSA with extra dosage up to 35g/L, for desserts. The Cuvée Camille NV (named after the original founder) is unusual for Chouilly in that it reflects its former field blend when much more Pinot Noir than now was planted. It is based on the Brut Réserve blended with 35% Pinot Noir. The Extra-Brut Réserve NV is a Blanc de Blancs with just 3.5g/L dosage and is the Réserve blend with an extra year of age sur lattes. There is too a Brut Rosé NV made by blending some 15-20% of Pinot Noir wine into the blend. The vintage wines here are called Grand Bouquet, a strict special selection of the best parcels and 100% Blanc de Blancs and with 5-6 years ageing on lees and some 5/6g/L dosage. The Special Club, always vintage and a premium selection of fruit, is given 6-7 years cellaring and aged on cork rather than cap. The real curiosity is the Special ‘Foie Gras’ Sec Blanc de Blancs NV with some 30g/L made to match foie gras, claimed as the only cuvée in Champagne specifically made for this rich and complex dish.
Brut Réserve NV
(Brut Sans Année or ‘BSA’) Tasted 2012, 65% 09 + solera. Young, incisive, lemony, aromas of wind on sheets, good light texture, compact rather than luxurious. Welcomingly dry. A lot of lifted finesse. Impressive. In 2013, tasted (2010) 10g/L, similar style, slightly fuller. Many times since.
Demi-Sec Réserve NV Grand Cru Chouilly
Cuvée Camille NV Grand Cru Chouilly
Pale gold; lean, chalky, wet-earth nose. Citrus-orange, sherbet -jasmine and honey pastille on palate. The fine texture stands out, great finesse, reined in autolytic note and jasmine smoke impression. Lovely.
Extra-Brut Réserve NV Grand Cru Chouilly
First tasted 2013 and impressed with the linear style, purity and reverberation and length. Tasted often since: In 04/2014 it had savoury interest and bite. Aromas and affinity (!) with oyster shells, rock and flint. A light and lyrical chalkiness. A similar note 06.2014. Based on 09. This is, from experience, a wonderful match with seafood of all kinds. 3g/L
Brut Rosé NV
A hedonistic fruity style, not complex; sometimes exactly what rosé champagne can do so well. A frank basket of fruit, not especially complex.
Grand Bouquet Grand Cru Chouilly
In 2012, the 2006: Incisive and very mineral for a ripe vintage; lemony and fresh. Very good. 6g/L . In 04.2013, the 2004: A touch bruised apple and a hint of early oxidation. Charm but not as lithe and compact as many 2004s. In 02.2014: The 2007: Lovely linear and mineral character with savoury and grapefruit pith cut. Charm and not wet-chalky as Cramant and Avize can be. Again in Champagne 04.2014: Lovely and rather obvious fruit but poise and bite too. Peach and agrume together. In 04.2014: The 1989 – A touch oxidised with a nutty maturity but attractive honeysuckle and dried flowers notes. Great finesse. In 04.2014, The 2008: disgorged 04/14, just launched: 9g/L A sense of power pent up, real presence and a good lily / citrus note. Brimming with 2008 imminence, all wound up for now. Impressive. In 06.2014 too, the 2008 again: More compact and integrated than anticipated; Real cream, savoury and chocolate. Powerful but a fine texture and finesse. In 06.2014 too: The 1979 at the domaine: Maderised and high-toned. Disgorged 1999. Some nuts and spice on the palate with a long figs and marmalade end. This has not lasted well, but is a welcome historical peep at 35 years ago. A 1985 tasted in 2014 with zero dosage – not a regular cuvée, was medium oxidised but with an attractive smonky and nutty aspect and res fruit paloate. An enjoyable curiosity.
The ‘Special Club’ Grand Cru Chouilly
In 2012, the 2005: Very opulent, a whiff of aldehydic whisky too. Complex and individual. In 2013: the 2006 semed round and slightly lacking in tension. A vintage with full expression. In 04.2014: The 2006 – Complex but open and great length. 6g/L In 04.2014: The 2007: A lovely Chouilly lightness and finesse offset with mango and peach. All freshness and a baby yet but lots to come.
Special ‘Foie Gras’ Sec Blanc de Blancs Sec NV Grand Cru Chouilly Tasted 02.2014: 30g/L A gentle mousse; the sugar softens it. Light honey flavours but the structure is attractive. A clean and linear aspect for all the sweetness and much drier an impression than most wines aimed at foie gras. Leaves an enticing mineral edge to balance the palate with foie gras. Excellent.
Champagne Vazart-Coquart et fils
6 rue des Partelaines
0033 3 26 55 40 04
This week, Champagne’s population suddenly rose by 100,000. Before you think nearly toute Champagne spent last New Year in bed with each other, these are the harvest picker temps. And they have to be fed, put up and paid. There would be no champagne without them.
This region still picks by hand because no machine can yet do the job as gently as a pair of hands, two eyes and a sharp pair of secateurs. And gentle is the word. Bruised fruit can colour the wine, oxidise it and leach coarse skin compounds into it – all a no-no to good champagne. Whole bunch picking is linked to the quality of pressed juice too. The bunch stems in the press act as a juice-run network, cushioning the density of the pressed mass of grapes as the grapes split under pressure, providing a quicker conduit for juice to run out. The result is much less pick up of astringent microscopic grape fragments and phenolic tannins from skins. The keys to delicacy and finesse in champagne begin here, at the picking and at the press.
That’s why, uniquely, the ‘champagne method’ sets the yield maximum twice. First in kilos per hectare (kg/ha) at the picking, and second at the press where only a maximum of 102L of juice can be extracted from each 160kg of grapes. The best juice is called the cuvée, slightly confusingly to us, as the same word is used for each different champagne or ‘cuvée’ made in a producer’s range.
Champagne’s harvest conditions and how good the wine of a vintage might be when it is made, has never quite caught the imagination of champagne fans in the same way as other regions. And that’s because Champagne’s grapes in 2014 will not see the light of day for us in a glass of champagne until 2018 or in some cases, into the 2020s. Champagne’s superior complexity relies on long ageing in bottle on yeast lees, so a good one will not be on sale for at least 3-4 years. And more complexity and harmony is often added by blending wines from different vintages.
So what’s the point you may ask, in taking an interest in the harvest and early signs for each vintage in Champagne? Well, vintage champagnes may only be 5 in every 100 bottles made, but they give a fascinating snapshot of what that year’s quality was like and are often made from a selection of the best grapes. And the best producers also tell us the composition of the NV wines. Most of the wine in an NV is from a single year, on average up to 80%. It is very exciting, no matter how anorakish it may seem, to look at the difference between, say majority 2007 and majority 2008 NV champagnes.
So what has the 2013-14 year been like? Rain, in a word. Record rain from September 2013 to February. But that is not so bad and replenishes the chalk water table. It got warmer; April was 24% sunnier than average. The crucial flowering in June was good, near perfect and much of the summer warm. Veraison was even and successful in July. Then the rain came back in August, the rainiest in 20 years says Pierre Larmandier-Bernier. But since then the roller-coaster year has picked up and there has been a good deal of ripening warmth to see the vintage home. Too soon to call, but the quality of fruit will be pretty good, much more uniform across the region than in recent years. There will be vintage champagnes made. The ripest villages were allowed to pick, if they chose, from the 8th September in parts of the Aube and Cumières in the Marne, with most beginning this week. The harvest will go on into late September and early October.
Is there a trend in the nature of Champagne vintages? It seems so. The grapes are riper, quicker to ripen and on average harvest begins two weeks earlier now than 20 years ago. Potential alcohol in the region at harvest has risen .8% in the same period. And most experts agree it’s all down to climate change, and pollution, maybe. Increased CO2 in the air means more CO2 for photosynthesis. It’s hard to find reliable figures on rainfall trends and what they might mean. But acidity in the grapes has been falling as sugar levels have risen, prompting bigger fractions of winemaking without malolactic to retain freshness and less chaptalisation and lower dosages. And there’s plenty of wine in stock as yields have risen over 20 years and now with a fully-planted appellation and the benefit of the economic slowdown. For exports at least, the slowdown is ending. There’s plenty of champagne to go around. I see a leading bar in London sold 18,000 bottles of champagne last year. Moët sell 87000 bottles of champagne globally every 24 hours.
A reservation about some current champagnes I taste is the increasing number that suffer from oxidation. By this I mean a toffee and overly butterscotch, a burnt treacly note at worst, that gets a thumbs down from me; and normally I welcome the increasing diversity of champagne styles, including those made partly oxidatively in oak. But the oxidation I am finding more of recently is not from oak which used well increases intensity, freshnesss and complexity. The source I suspect is from tired wine which was just not good enough to be kept so long and used as reserve wines in NV blends. Of course, some of this over-the-hill wine may have been stored in oak but just as often I’m told the reserves have been in tank. But I’m wondering if the slowdown in champagne throughput during the economic crisis has led to a small fraction of producers keeping and using reserve wines which should have been used earlier. I’m interested in others’ views.
But when you pop the cork this week, raise a glass to the pickers and the press teams and I hope they have one too.
Dom Pérignon’s latest release is called ‘DP 98 P2′ and makes it sound like a space ship. And I was reminded in May, when Dom Pérignon launched the ‘Plénitude 2′ version of their 1998 wine, of the Star Trek credits showing a bottle of DP 2265 christening the hull of the USS Enterprise.
Dom Pérignon is still the best known and most popular de luxe champagne, those top bottles in short supply that form every producer’s pricey top-end of range. It’s also the oldest de luxe cuvée, launched in 1936 with the 1921. At a current reported (but never confirmed) around 5m bottles of each vintage made, DP is not quite a micro supply and remains indulgently affordable, around the same price point as a Premiership football match outing or a night at the opera for those who do these things.
I can quite happily report that this wine was the best champagne I have tasted so far in 2014 and I’ve tasted oodles. But what exactly is it? With its discrete lilac-taupe label, it’s obviously not the straight DP, which comes in the jungle green dress you may know so well, but both are unmistakably Dom P.
Top champagne bottlings have been into micro variants for quite some time. The aim, when it’s not a single vineyard bottling, is generally to keep a small fraction of production on the second lees for even longer than usual. The result, having been kept in ideal Champagne cellar conditions, can showcase the extra-complex flavours of long lees-ageing. The best known of these ‘late-release’ styles is probably ‘Bollinger RD’, the RD standing for ‘récemment dégorgé’, which began back in 1961 with the release of a 1951. RD is extra-age Bollinger vintage released in batches several times a year. It is not really that different a practice to many other houses who disgorge their vintage de luxe cuvées (as they do their straight vintage cuvées) in batches. You might object that it means there is rarely just one version of the wine, that each is different because it has had different amounts of cellaring time before disgorgement. But there is no God’s rule that a vintage champagne stock can only be disgorged in toto simultaneously. It adds to the fun, for the lucky few at least, to be able to explore differences between champagnes with different times on lees. And it allows the houses who do it to introduce another category within the de luxe category, and charge a premium for it.
It also, at connoisseur level, drives top champagne right onto the lawn of fine wine. All that fun and frivolity in champagne’s image gets some serious bottom from the realisation that Champagne also does complexity, stemming from its long time in bottle before it’s sold. In fact, its real significance in the face of the ‘it’s all bubbly’ and Prosecco-led sparkler boom, is that champagne is the most complex and demanding of all fizz. By a country mile. Late released champagne is making a statement which pours its echoes into the glass of every good champagne served, be it non-vintage or vintage: No other fizz in the world is capable of improving with age into the realms of ultra complexity.
However, the Moët release of Dom Perignon 1998 Plénitude 2, is a new departure in several ways and in general for extra age de luxe champagne. Firstly, the name Plénitude, obviously new, replaces the category ‘Dom Pérignon Oenothèque’, the previous term for the fraction held back for late release (a normal release would be after about 7 -8 years for Dom Pérignon). The fraction was a tiny few per cent when the project started but may rise towards 10% of production in future. This specific cellar however will keep its name, as a ‘wine library’, an ‘oenothèque’, the cellar where back vintage reserve stock is kept at all fine wine domains. The ‘Plénitude’ wines, as we now should call them, are aged under cork not a crown cap, as Moët believe present caps can deteriorate after 7-8 years.
In itself, the extra-age Dom Pérignon project is not new. The first Oenothèque release was in 2000 with the 1959. And since then, these vintages have been late-released: 1962, 1964, 1966, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1973, 1975, 1976, 1978, 1980, 1982, 1983, 1985, 1988, 1990, 1992, 1993, 1995, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2005. (up to 09/2014).
But the launch of this Plénitude (P2) with an explicit new title and label for the 1998 is a new departure for Dom Pérignon which sets it apart from the generalised ‘recently disgorged’ basis of all other houses’ special ‘collection’ or ‘ultra-cuvée’ wines. And here’s why. Of course, all wines, including Dom Pérignon, are ‘recently disgorged’ at some point in their drinking lives. The view has always been that the wine has been kept fresh on its second lees in the bottle. As soon as the disgorgement has been done and the dosage married for a suitable few months before final release, it is ready to drink. Moreover, so the conventional wisdom has been from the champenois and critics alike, the shock of oxygen ingress at disgorgement means the wine begins to go downhill after its relatively short drinking window on release. And another fizzy shibboleth was added to this dystopic view of champagne ageing: that the longer the wine had spent on its second lees before disgorgement, the quicker would be its decline after. Too soon, the toffee-like muddy flavours of oxidation would creep in to the champagne. Only a minority of eccentric, perhaps British, champagne freaks liked old champagne that way and used weasel words of glee such as ‘..gloriously evolved and nutty..’ when the wine all along was oxidised to kingdom come.
The Dom Pérignon Plénitude project (the word means ‘completeness’ or ‘brimming with expression’) goes directly counter to that. Instead of disgorging most of a vintage batch of RD-type wine after suitable extra age on lees, and then disgorging the rest at intervals and implying it should be drink tout suite, Plénitude is based on the claim that there are three (possibly four in the future?) distinctive plateau-like periods of extended ageing on lees. Plénitude 1 is the first release of the wine at about 7-8 years on lees. Plénitude 2 refers to ageing on lees of some 12-15 years before disgorgement and release to the market and Plénitude 3 is 20-30 years on lees. But the decisive new aspect is this: ’Plénitude’ refers to more than simple the period on lees or the moment of disgorgement. It also refers to the ability of the wine to hold and express the full complexity of its ageing phase for an appreciable period after disgorgement. In fact, Chef de Cave Richard Geoffroy claims that, for Dom Pérignon at least, the longer the lees ageing, the more stable the wine after disgorgement. And this runs quite counter to the gospel according to certain champagne critics in the past.
The Plénitude series wines will be released unevenly, not in vintage order, easy to understand given the uneven development of different vintages of any wine. And they will have much more time than most champagnes resting in cellar after disgorgement and dosage – in the case of the P2 ’98, two years rest.
There’s no question, as I indicated earlier, that this P2 ’98 is a fabulous fine wine. It was disgorged in April 2012 (and the date is on the back label) and given a dosage of 6.5g/L. It showed mid-gold with fabulous bright highlights, a gentle nose of nougat and vanilla and a herbal, smoky and greengage quality developing into crême brulée and warm butter. Above all, it was very fresh, intense and lively but with a subdued creamy mousse, an altogether elegant and racy texture which carried into the long finish with mouthfeel all delicacy and finesse.
What are we to make of Dom Pérignon’s claims for post-disgorgement stability and ageing? It needs emphasising that top wines that can age are top because they come from great vineyards and Möet has a vast estate to select from for Dom P. And ditto, they are wines from good to great vintages. And Möet’s winemaking rules of stainless steel, a rigid reductive method and no Pinot Meunier in DP (it’s 50/50 Pinot Noir and Chardonnay), all no doubt help. Just because DP can age long, it would be mad to claim therefore that so can all champagne.
Not that many people worldwide may have the deep pockets and patience needed to chart the three Ps for vintages of DP. You will need to follow a Plénitude vintage wine for some 30 years and buy all three versions to join the DP time trial lab club. And how do we know these wines will be kept by everyone in pristine cold, dark cellars once released? The 3-stage theory of plateau-like character is plausible and has been considered by Möet’s winemakers for some time. I first heard the idea back in late 2003 at a tasting of the Oenothèque vintages 1973, 1980, 1988 and 1990 in London. But there is only scant and fanciful description from Dom Pérignon’s people so far, of the flavours of each Plénitude stage. Stage one has been dubbed ‘harmony’. Stage 2 is about ‘energy and intensity’ and Stage 3 is ‘calm and complex’. You can understand some reluctance to claim too much since it won’t be Dom Pérignon cellaring these wines once sold and most people who buy this wine will probably have no intention of waiting too long to pop the cork.
But in the meantime, I’ll say it again: this was the best wine I’ve tasted so far in 2014. And I think it would be wasted on a space ship.
Dom Pérignon 1998 Plénitude 2. RRP £260.00
Champagne is another country. They do things differently there.
Yield, for wine, is how much you make from a unit of land. Among many wine lovers there is a perhaps naive view: high yield bad, low yield good. The idea is that the less fruit you take per acre or hectare, the more concentrated or intense its flavour and this is a universally good thing for wine. But the waters, if not the wine, muddy once you investigate.
Most really good harvest vintage years in places like Bordeaux and Burgundy, tend to have pretty high yields. Not all that much of a surprise perhaps; good weather often means a lot of ripe fruit. And then remember that ‘planting density’, the number of vines per hectare or acre, is going to make a big difference to yield. If you have 10,000 vines per hectare, the yield is going to be much higher than if you have 5,000. And the age of the vines can be crucial too. Older vines make much less juice in the berries, even if it is more concentrated. Finally, sadly in many cases, factor in the yo-yo nightmares of growing anything: disease, frost, hail, drought, even forest fires in some countries.
Champagne, or at least the crushed juice it is made from, needs higher yields ideally than grapes for other still wines. The low vigour thin soils (meaning with low fertility) have set a tradition for high density planting, at about 8,000 vines per hectare, which is going to up the volume ante. The champenois have argued juice for champagne needs to be more flavour neutral than wines made for fruity emphasis. The vital complexity of champagne comes from the cellar ageing of very mineral, blended wines, not tutti frutti. But even so, when you learn the (EU set) total maximum annual legal yield in grapes set for Champagne is 15,500kg/ha and work out what that would mean for a still red or white wine – over 100hls/ha – then it seems very high. Very high say compared to Bordeaux, where we’re told the yield is half that.
Key Point Number 1.
First, there is an annual decision by Comité Champagne (new name for the CIVC ruling body) to set the base yield harvest maximum for that specific year. This is the maximum amount of grapes that can be picked and turned into champagne immediately, or at least the process right up to to bottling before aging. This is always below the absolute maximum of 15,500kg/ha set by the EU and is based on the state of the market. The annual base maximum is set as late as possible, usually in July before the harvest.
This maximum used to be a bun fight between the opposing interests of the growers who own most of the vineyard, and the houses, who have to buy the most expensive grapes in the world. In any year, obviously, the growers want to be able to harvest and sell as many grapes as possible; the houses want to buy just what they need and no more. Since the global financial crisis, much of the political wrangle has been sucked out of this annual ritual by setting up, from 2010 onwards, a more objective statistical operation of Comité Champagne called the ‘observatoire économique’. The yield figure is arrived at by cross-analysis of sales over 12 months, the total stock of reserve wines and bottles aging in the cellars, and finally, predicted sales.
Why such a need in Champagne for an ‘economic’ or market maximum yield? The region is not unique in this; both Port and the Sherry producers do the same. Champagne is aged 2-4 years in the producers’ cellars on average before it can be sold. What is harvested and bottled in year x, will not be offered for sale, mostly, until sometime in x+3. But supplying demand in x+3 means calibrating what you make now with what you think that future demand will be, factoring in any unsold stocks from not getting it quite right in the previous two years. That’s why the grapes you pick now need to be based on a fair idea of what you might sell three years ahead. Champagne is mostly a ‘price elastic’ good; demand takes a hit in hard times. Aligning production with demand means trying to second guess the economic cycle.
Comité Champagne have just revealed the yield for harvest 2014, set on July 16th: 10,500kg/ha, quite a cautious small rise given the average set from 2001-10 was 12,285kg/ha, with the maximum in 2013 being 10,000kg/ha, and this reflects the slow pace of the current global economic recovery, particularly continued stagnation in Champagne’s domestic market, France.
But this maximum of 10,500kg/ha or base yield can be increased by producers up to a limit called the ‘rendement butoir’ (top limit). The difference between the base limit and the top limit is made up by grapes whose product goes into the ‘reserve’ held against each grower’s name if they sell their grapes to the big houses or coops or held by the grower themselves if they make their own champagne. This ‘reserve’, with ever-changing rules, has existed for a long time in Champagne. It is a buffer against shortage or surplus of wine to give steady supply in a northern region beset by bad weather and big swings in annual harvests. And all of this Reserve will eventually add to stocks of the reserve wines (wines from vintages older than the last harvest) which are used to give the vital complexity to champagne blends.
The Deal in 2014
In a nutshell (wake up at the back!), here’s the Comité Champagne deal for 2014:
- Base yield: 10,500kg/ha for beginning making champagne now
- 400kg/ha of this is from existing Reserve stocks or 500kg/ha if 2014 sales go over 307m bottles. So in effect, you can pick only 10,100kg/ha to begin making champagne now.
- A maximum (‘butoir’) over the top limit picked of 3,100kg/ha extra – ie a top limit of 13,200kg/ha (10,100 picked plus an extra 3,100) which has to go into the Reserve compulsorily if it is picked. But the amount put into Reserve cannot allow the Reserve to go over its maximum of 8,000kg/ha.
So, if my crop is 12,000kg/ha, 400kg/ha of this is already accounted for and will be made into champagne from my Reserve of stocked vins clairs – the wines that have completed their first fermentation. Which leaves 11,600kg/ha. But that is still 1100kg/ha over the base yield so it has to, compulsorily, go into my Reserve. My Reserve presently has 5,000kg/ha left in it after the 400kg/ha mentioned above has been used. So I can stock away 5,000 plus 1100 kg/ha to bring my Reserve to 6,100kg/ha, still well within the 8,000kg/ha limit. There, easy!
In practice, the grapes in Reserve have of course been made into liquid still wine – the ‘vins clairs’ and this is how they are stored until used in future blends when permission is given by Comité Champagne, the constant overlord and record keeper.
So yield is a tricky thing in champagne. It’s a bit technical and the mind can wander. But we’re not finished yet. You might wonder why Champagne measures yield so far in kg/ha, effectively bunch weight, not the wine made. And that is because Champagne is uniquely the only wine region in the world (although copied now by Franciacorta in Italy) that controls yield twice; first via the weight of fruit and secondly by the amount of juice and its type that can be separated from the fruit at the press.
Key point number 2.
Yield is only partly set by picking; yield in Champagne is also set a second time, at the press.
Champagne must aim for great delicacy of texture in the mouth. There is already high acidity and the bubbling mousse, two big facets of mouthfeel. The ideal of a creamily delicate mousse is partly met later by the long aging on the second lees at an ideal 10-14C, which is directly related to tiny fine bubbles. But retaining fresh acid and extracting as little as possible of microscopic solids from the grape pulp and skins is fundamental. The grapes for champagne are less ripe so far north than other southerly regions, and have a tendency to give astringent compounds from pressed skin and pulp if not pressed very gently indeed.
So the amount of juice that can be pressed from the solid grapes is the second crucial control over yield. The ratio rules are pretty simple – 102L of juice from 160kg of grapes, maximum. A basic press load might often be 4,000kg of grapes and 2,550L can be extracted, the best juice from the first 2-3 press cycles being called the ‘cuvée’, or 2,050L. In practice, all the juice has to be pressed but is separated into two quality fractions, this first, the ‘cuvée’ and the second, the ‘taille’. The second inferior fraction makes up parts of the blend of lesser, lower quality champagnes which have less freshness, age quicker because they have more oxidisable grape compounds in them and have a coarser texture. If the producer does not want to use all or some the ‘taille’ it can be sold off.
The ratio of 102L from 160kg is a yield of roughly 63.75% of bunch weight into separated juice. Champagne made from this year’s (2014) effective maximum yield of 10,100kg/ha (remember 400kg is already counted from the reserve) would therefore go on to make finished champagne at roughly 67hls/ha – the final volume in litres will always be a little more than the notional 63.75%, because chaptalisation will make a little more volume, more volume is made from the addition of the yeast/sugar to provoke the second fermentation in bottle and the final wine will be lighter once heavier sweet juice is converted into lighter alcohol and so makes more litres than the figure in original kilos.
Over the last 15 or so years, Champagne’s real yield, outlined in the process above, has averaged 65-75hls/ha, which for such a densely planted vineyard does not seem so bad in the face of occasional charges that yields are too high for the highest quality.
In fact about the same as Bordeaux.
Posted in Champagne
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.
Bérèche et Fils
Vouette et Sorbée (Bertrand Gautherot)
*Picture is the Terroir & Talents domaine group poster: 2013 tasting in Epernay
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.