The fact that I’m not generally a huge fan of rosé champagne is borne out by the lack of pink fizz in my own cellar. Given a choice the same money will mostly buy you a far more interesting bottle of vintage champagne, in my view. I’m particularly attracted to the more winey, Burgundy style Pinot Noir driven pinks that age attractively and work surprisingly well with food, particularly things like duck or pigeon.
In this camp I’d include Veuve Clicquot vintage rosés, particularly the Cave Privée range, examples of which I will be tasting again in Reims in mid-March. Of the wines I’ve tasted recently out of the widely available non-vintages, Lanson showed well, with some creamy texture as well as bright fruit while Henriot’s very enjoyable rosé has a bit more mid-palate weight. Bruno Palliard’s Première Cuvée and Billecart’s regular non-vintage pink are classy, delicate styles but in this miserable weather I want something a little more spicy and savoury.
If I had any of Philipponnat’s Rosé Réserve I’d open that. Charles Heidsieck’s Brut Réserve rosé is another lovely wine and I may have a release with some extra bottle age that will only make it better, in my book.
As it is, this evening’s drinking will necessarily be dictated by what I’m about to find in the cellar. It’s likely to be a choice between any Charles Heidsieck I have, Clicquot vintages from the 90s, Bollinger non-vintage, Nicolas Feuillatte’s Palmes d’Or Rosé 2005 (although I’d prefer to keep that longer) and Michel Drappier’s Grand Sendrée rosé 2006, which was probably the best pink champagne I’ve drunk recently (I had some on 14 Feb 2016 giving it 95pts) and certainly the bottle I enjoyed most. I may also have a Jacquesson Terres Rouge saignée pink tucked away somewhere. But sadly none of Phillipe Brun’s appropriately named ‘Romance’ or ‘4 Nuits’ rosé de saignée to go with our chocolate pudding.
One of the main reasons that champagne houses covet working with the leading airlines is they like the exposure for their brands. They want to be seen as the preferred pour in the first or business class cabin. Partly because this is an affluent audience that’s difficult to reach, they will even agree relatively unprofitable deals to get the listing, though of course they are at pains to deny this.
But they know there is a large potential downside to this exposure. Will the cabin staff pour the champagne in front of the customer, thus showing them what the brand is and also what the reassuringly luxurious packaging looks like (this is a prestige cuvée market). And even if the staff are trained to do this, will the temptation be too strong to pour the glasses out of view, where any clumsy, unskilled pouring won’t be seen, bringing the champagne to the customer in a glass already filled?
This shouldn’t of course happen on terra firma in a good quality restaurant. Champagne served by the glass should be opened (ideally) but certainly poured, at the table, in front of the customer. There are very good reasons for doing this, both from the restaurant’s and brand owner’s points of view.
From the restaurant’s perspective, nothing is more likely to boost its sales of champagne that day than waiting staff opening a bottle of fizz and pouring it, in full view of other diners. It’s the best advertisement you can have for champagne by the glass. But customers paying a premium price for a glass of champagne, also deserve to see the bottle it comes from. The suspicion that any outlet might be serving something less prestigious than they are charging for, is not something a restaurant should arouse.
From the brand owner’s perspective, they want the restaurant’s clientele to see what they are drinking, partly in the hope that such customers will want to buy the same wine again whether in another restaurant or at home and will in future know what the label looks like.
When I met up for lunch last week with the team at Drinks International to celebrate publication of the fourth ‘Most Admired Champagne Brands’ supplements I have overseen and written, naturally we looked at the fizz list first. [You can read the magazine, our most successful and largest to date, via this link: https://goo.gl/U6jAnE .] When we spotted Piper Heidsieck Rare 2002 selling for just £15 a glass (£89 a bottle) at 28-50 in Fetter Lane (it’s the same price in its two sister restaurants in Maddox Street and Marylebone Lane) it was an easy decision. This must be the bargain fizz deal in the on-trade currently.
The wine came, not served in flutes, but in more generous, tulip shaped wine glasses — full marks to the restaurant here — but they were pre-poured away from the table and there was no sign of the elaborately decorated ‘Rare’ bottle (see photograph) that shouts ‘prestige cuvée’. A lost opportunity to impress us, or other diners, and possibly to make more sales.
The other great, more venerable still, aged champagne bargain, that’s been around for several years now, is Charles Heidsieck 1995 Blancs des Millénaires. You can still find bottles of at one or two select retail outlets for around £150 (£149.95 The Finest Bubble). It won’t be there much longer because the next, 2004 vintage, has just been launched.
We will be catching up on this and other new releases soon, plus some pink champagnes for Valentine’s Day.
Champagne shipments has risen very slightly compared to the 306.096 bottles reached in 2016, rising by 0.52% or around 1.6m bottles to 307.7m bottles in 2017. At the end of November 2017 shipments were in line to rise to around 311m bottles and even the Union des Maisons de Champagne (UMC) was predicting 310m bottles. But sales in December, usually the busiest month in the year, fell back generally by around 10%, on the same month in 2016.
The news follows a difficult harvest in 2017, when the general quality, particularly of the black grapes Pinot Noir and Meunier, was adversely affected by the warm, wet weather in August, immediately prior to picking, causing widespread problems with rot. While Chardonnay in general and Pinot Noir from the Côte des Bars, were the two success stories of the harvest, producing good quality fruit, Pinot Noir from the Montagne de Reims was more variable especially around villages like Aÿ and Mareuil-sur-Aÿ hit by frost in April and then rot at harvest time. Meunier was worse effected by the rot issues, with the problem tending to be worse the further west in the Marne Valley towards Paris you go.
Given the spring frosts in mid-April reduced the harvest potential by around 20-25% on average and the need for rigorous sorting at the harvest cut the yield further, it quite a surprise to discover the Champagne Comité estimates average yields across the whole appellation at 10,057 kg/ha which is just above the maximum limit they set on 21 July at 9,300kgs/ha.
Despite this, driven by the ambition of the leading player and largest purchaser of grapes to increase its market share, grape prices and prices of vins clairs have risen by about 5%, which will put increasing pressure on some producers that don’t have the strongest brands and have to buy in the majority of the grapes they need to make their wines. While the Comite reports grape rpces on average in the region of €6 – €6.10 per kilo, for grand cru fruit considerably more is being paid. It looks like being a tricky year for some large and medium sized players, balancing paying significantly more for their raw material while under pressure not to increase prices for consumers.
This will no doubt cheer Giles Coren whose column in The Times this weekend was entitled: “Champagne is only good for cleaning drains”. In this piece he says things like: “champagne is nasty, acrid and belch-making. It gives you a headache almost immediately and a desperate hangover later”. Reporting that prosecco sales outstripped champagne by ten to one in the UK this Christmas, he says this is not just because “prosecco is cheaper and nicer. Sales have slumped because champagne is overpriced and rank and the people have finally realised.”
This may of course all be a tongue in cheek way of trying to restock his own cellar, with the champagne indignant producers PRs, send him in an effort to get him to change his view. But The Times wine correspondent Jane MacQuitty has also been critical of the Champenois, or at least two of the three largest brands worldwide, in her New Year’s Eve column, where she attacked the quality of Veuve Clicquot and Nicolas Feuillatte’s champagne. So perhaps, given the paper’s pro-Brexit stance, this is just a Murdoch inspired attempt to discredit the French.
Nipping out for a last-minute bottle of fizz to celebrate the end of 2017 and welcome in the New Year? If it’s something vintage you are after that’s drinking superbly well now, then Waitrose Brut 2005, the wine I finished my recent WSET tasting with, is very hard to beat. Made from a blend of 50% Chardonnay, 41% Pinot Noir, 9% Pinot Meunier by the CRVC (the Reims co-op that also produces the excellent Castelnau champagne range) it’s sumptuously rich and ripe, showing distinctive toasty notes suggesting it’s close to its peak of maturity at 12 years. And it is an out and out bargain at just £19.99 currently.
I’d also be very happy to be drinking the Nicolas Feuillatte Blanc de Blancs 2008 vintage tonight. A cuvée that’s a grand tour of some of the best Chardonnay sites all over the Champagne region, including around a third from the villages to the south-west of the Côte des Blancs known as the Vallée du petit Morin and for me, a significant splash of Montgueux Chardonnay. This unique, isolated cru on a hill due west of the city of Troyes, I suspect accounts for the much of this wine’s textural creaminess. Fruit from here also features prominently in Feuillatte’s prestige Cuvée Palmes d’Or, which is a class act.
I also re-tasted yesterday Chanoine’s lovely 2009 vintage, which is a 50/50 Chardonnay/Pinot Noir blend from this top-quality harvest, that regrettably many leading producers failed to vintage – mainly because it followed the financial crash and some producers were worried about having large stocks of unsold vintage champagne in their cellars. As a result, Chanoine Frères, itself one of the oldest houses founded back in 1730, was able to buy some high-quality juice from some notable houses who had decided not to commercialise this vintage.
With attractive spicy notes evident that suggest some oak fermentation is present, this is a real delight to drink now, showing both richness and elegance and it will set you back only £24 at Tesco even when it is not on price promotion. Vintage champagne from one of the better-known names will typically cost at least double that, but not, I suspect, give twice the pleasure.
Next week I’m doing another Champagne tasting at the London HQ of the Wine & Spirt Education Trust (WSET). This time, with purchases for Christmas and the New Year partly in mind, I’m concentrating on pointing people in the direction of some great champagnes from slightly less known producers, which match or better some of the wines made by the big names. And partly as a result of being less well known, your money goes a lot further in terms of getting more exciting wine.
There are eight different producers involved, four growers and four co-operatives. We start with a fine pair of contrasting growers’ champagnes. Laherte Frères, who are located in the Premier Cru village of Chavot, make some lovely wines, many based on Pinot Meunier as Brut Ultradition, our first wine in the line-up is. Stylistically there’s quite a contrast with the Pierre Gimonnet Blanc de Blancs Premier Cru. Gimonnet, one of the first growers I ever met in Champagne over two decades ago, has a fantastic holding of top Côte des Blancs vineyards including Cuis, known for its steely longevity, where this family operation is based.
For the second pair we move more into Pinot Noir territory and these are sourced from two adjacent, Montagne de Reims grand cru villages, Bouzy and Ambonnay. Pierre Paillard only has vineyards in Bouzy, but as with most small producers, these are broken up into lots of tiny parcels spread all over the whole Bouzy cru which is roughly 365 hectares in size. This particular wine is a 60/40 Pinot/Chardonnay blend from 22 such plots Paillard owns.
Then we move to the Grand Cru of Ambonnay where Benoît Marguet is based – he’s just next door to Krug, who he sell grapes to incidentally
— for the super rosé he makes for Berry’s which is sold under their award-winning Berry’s Own Label range. It’s made from a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, using the saignée method where colour is literally bled off the skins of the black Pinot grapes.
In Champagne, as in other parts of France say like Chablis, the co-operatives make some of the best wines in the region. While some are sold under their own brands, as three of the wines in my tasting are, they are also the most important suppliers of Own Label champagne to the UK’s major supermarkets and occasionally gems crop up, particularly among the vintage wines.
In this tasting we are including four vintage champagnes, from a quartet of Champagne’s top co-ops, two from the fine 2008 harvest which even nearly a decade on, still shows a trademark vibrant acidity. One a Chardonnay/Pinot Noir blend, the other pure Chardonnay. Then we pair the top quality 2012 vintage (Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs), which may in time be judged as at least the equal of 2002, with a lovely mature 2005 which is at its peak. Hopefully a great note to finish on.
There are still some places left and the cost is just £45 a ticket/person. The tasting is on Tuesday 5 December and starts at 6:30pm, finishing between 8 and 8.30pm. Here’s a link to the WSET website you can use to sign up: http://bit.ly/2m1Q9hi
The eight champagnes in the tasting are: Laherte Frères Brut Ultradition NV (Chavot) Stockist: The Wine Society, £25. Gimonnet Blanc de Blancs Premier Cru (Cuis) Brut NV, Oddbins £32 (75cl), £70 a magnum; The Wine Society £25, also available in Growers’ wine case (1×6 75cl) code: LC17407 at £149, down from £177, a saving of £28, equivalent to £24.83 a bottle. Pierre Paillard Grand Cru (Bouzy) ‘Les Parcelles’ Extra Brut NV, The Wine Society £27 a bottle, £162 a six-bottle case (also available in Growers’ wine case code: LC17407 see above). Berry Bros. & Rudd Rosé by Marguet, Grand Cru (Ambonnay), BBR.com £36 a bottle, £194.40 a six-bottle case, a saving of £21.60). Devaux Brut Vintage 2008, Hedonism Wines £56.80 a bottle. Nicolas Feuillatte Blanc de Blancs Vintage 2008, Waitrose £28.99 a bottle. De St Gall Grand Cru (Avize) Brut Vintage 2012*, M&S £35 a bottle (*may still be the previous very good 2009 vintage). Waitrose Brut Vintage 2005, Waitrose £24.99 a bottle.
The Champagne harvest has begun in earnest with the official dates for many of the major Côte des Blancs crus opening last Friday (1 September) and in the Montagne de Reims, crus like Aÿ, Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, Bouzy and Verzenay starting today for black grapes. The first official day for picking was on 26 August for the cru of Montgueux, the isolated vineyard set on a hill due west of Troyes in the Côte des Bar that produces some of Champagne’s richest Chardonnay. As is fairly normal, other villages in this, the most southerly part of Champagne, were also among the earliest villages to start picking with Buxeuil, Bar-sur-Seine and Balnot-sur-Laignes all beginning on 28 August.
Through the process of derogation, producers are allowed to apply to start picking earlier than the scheduled date for their particular cru – the Comité Champagne draws up official start dates for all three main varieties of grape in all 320 crus in the appellation – if they feel they need to because on their particular site, ripeness levels are more forward.
This happened at Krug in its tiny walled vineyard right in the centre of the village of Le Mesnil, a Côte des Blancs cru officially schedule to open last Friday (1 September). As Olivier Krug announced on twitter, they began in Clos du Mesnil on 25 August and had finished the 1.87 hectare plot by 30 August, two days before the official start date. And when the final Clos du Mesnil grapes reached the press centre Olivier Krug said: “Beautiful last grapes from Krug’s Mesnil vineyard. The choice to start one week ahead of official dates was probably very wise.” As Jancis Robinson reports from her quick tour of major houses at the end of August: “he’s [Olivier Krug that is] hoping it will be the first ever vintage ending in a 7 in his career.”
At Louis Roederer, where picking started on their estate last Friday (1 September) head winemaker Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon reports Chardonnay from Vertus at 11.4% natural alcohol with good acidity”. Yesterday (3 September) they started picking Pinot Noir for rosé in Les Chalmonts in Cumières. But Lécaillon also reports the Chardonnay in Avize, Chouilly and Mesnil still needs a couple of days longer “before they become really tasty”. This 2017 harvest is the first where 100% of the Roederer vineyards have been farmed organically, he confirms.
It’s very hard for a champagne brand to get rid of a negative image. Years of ownership by the Rémy-Cointreau drinks group (they also used to have Krug in their grasp), which better understands the spirits market, did a good deal of harm to Piper-Heidsieck’s reputation, something which in Champagne essentially rests on the quality of your mainstream non-vintage cuvée, likely to account for more than 80% of your sales.