Growers’ pinks offer great value

the right colour for roseFollowing on from my top ten pink champagnes selection last A. Rose croppedmonth, I realised I hadn’t really done anything about the large range of growers’ pink champagnes that are now available in the UK at various specialist retailers. So with the help of Berry Bros & Rudd, who have one of the very best selections of ‘artisan’ champagne in the country, I put together a small tasting of mostly growers’ rosés and called in Anthony Rose of The Independent to join me in trying them.

The line-up included six growers’ champagnes, and three from small négociants with only the Billecart-Salmon style from a well-known house. There were six pinks made by blending (adding a portion of red wine to white champagne) and three saignée rosés (where the colour is ‘bled’ off the skins), plus a fourth made from a combination of the two methods. We tasted them blind taking our time to assess each wine, looking at the blends first.

R&LLegrasRoseLabelOur favourite wine on the day was the R&L Legras Brut Rosé (93/100, 94/100). Complex, smoky, it has a lip-smacking refreshing, savoury quality that made it hard to resist drinking it in the tasting. It was closely followed by Philipponnat Brut Réserve Rosée, (92/100, 93/100). I moved the Philipponnat pink Philly&Chipsup a mark after consuming it with brilliant fish & chips (from Bowen’s, St Dogmaels, Pembrokeshire) a couple of day later, a great match thanks to the wine’s richness and vinosity, that’s boosted by having a large portion of reserve wine in the blend. I gave the Berry Bros UK Grand Cru Rosé made by Benoît Marguet my third highest mark. As the only wine in the tasting priced under £30 it certainly represents terrific value and Benoît is a fine producer whose champagnes generally are really worth seeking out.

The two wines from the Côte des Bar region, Champagne’s southernmost where Pinot Noir is the most widely planted grape photo 4fizzes2(both featuring in my top ten pinks last month), also showed well. Drappier’s pink, which has long been a favourite of mine, showed an ample, generous Pinot Noir driven richness while the biodynamic produced Fleury, is a winey, muscular style that calls for food.

BillecartFrontLabelBy chance the first wine in the line-up was Billecart’s Salmon’s a classically fresh, aperitif pink showing a lovely balance and a perfect benchmark style to assess the other wines against. The bottle of Pierre Peters Rosé d’Albane we had at the original tasting was faulty but a subsequent sample demonstrated that this fine Le Mesnil based producer also makes an attractive, delicate but intense pink fizz.

The scores:

  • R&L Legras Brut Rosé, 93/100 pts (AR); 94/100 (GF), £39.95 Berry Bros & Rudd www.bbr.com
  • Philipponnat Brut Reserve Rosée, 92/100 (AR); 93/100 (GF), Les Caves de Pyrene, rrp £44.99, half bottles Selfridges £26.
  • Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé, 91/100 (AR), 90/100 (GF), widely stocked in independents, rrp £60
  • Fleury Rosé de Saignée Brut (Biodynamic, Ecocert certified) 91/100 (AR); 90/100 (GF), Vintage Roots: http://www.vintageroots.co.uk/ £34.50 a bottle, £19.50 a half bottle
  • Drappier Val des Demoiselles Brut Rosé, 91/100 (AR); 92/100 (GF), Markinch Wine Gallery (Scotland), Ruby Red Wine Cellars.
  • Benoît Marguet Berry’s United Kingdom Cuvée Rosé Grand Cru Brut NV, 90+/100 (AR); 92/100 (GF), £29.95 Berry Bros & Rudd www.bbr.com
  • De Sousa Brut Rosé, 90/100 (AR); 88/100 (GF), £42 Berry Bros & Rudd www.bbr.com
  • Paul Bara Grand Rosé de Bouzy: 88/100 (AR); 87/100 (GF), £32.45 Berry Bros & Rudd www.bbr.com
  • Andre Jacquart Rosé de Saignée ‘Experience’ Premier Cru, 88/100 (AR); 88/100 (GF), www.topselection.co.uk
  • Pierre Peters Rosé d’Albane, Second sample 90/100 (GF), £36 Berry Bros & Rudd www.bbr.com

Anthony Rose’s tasting notes:

1. Fleury Rosé de Saignée. A lively pink light cherryish colour, quite vinous on the nose, and equally on the palate, lots of rich, almost sweet strawberryish fruit, nice lingering depth and winey texture with attractive depth and vinosity, very much a food wine with good personality, balance and tangy finish. Good for seafood.  91 / 100

2. Drappier Rosé. Pale bronzey pink, immediate, fresh, pleasant nose, some rich berry fruit on the palate, full-bodied, nicely vinous and very attractive, good concentration, almost juicy with redcurrant and cherry fruit tang to it, nice dry finish, good personality with a touch of tannin for food-friendly, savoury-winey character. Serious. 91 / 100

3. Pierre Peters Rosé. First sample at the tasting was faulty.

4. André Jacquart Rosé. Inelegant cherry / rosehip red colour, quite strong smoky oak and vanilla aromas, ripe sweet cherry fruit with lots of smoky oak behind it; some may like this style but it’s probably quite controversial because the oak’s in the foreground rather than the background, a rioja of champagne? 88 / 100

5. Billecart-Salmon Rosé. Pale bronze pink, lovely freshness and life, very bright, quite big bubbles, lovely intense and fruit nose, rich soft mousse of bubbles, initial strawberry sweetness balanced by a tangy redcurranty fresh acidity and elegant dry finish. Drink with food but a classic style, for drinking mainly as an aperitif. 91 /100

6. De Sousa Rosé. Aged in oak, 92% chardonnay and 8% pinot noir, rather deeply-hued for a rosé, quite cherryish in colour, rather dumb on the nose but a touch of spicy oak, idiosyncratic, nice sweet and sour cherry in the mouth, rustic and winey at the same time, almost more of a food wine than a champagne; not smooth but quite tangy and dry and has character, lots of it. Very much a seafood champagne. 90 / 100

7. Philipponnat Réserve Rosée. Pale bronze in colour, creamy-looking bead, lovely light savoury toast on the nose, very rich and complex, a suggestion of reserve wine maturity and richness, more complex than simply fruit, equally deliciously rich toasty fizz with powerfully textured creamy bead of bubbles; long and lingering flavours. 92 / 100

8. R&L Legras Rosé. Pale bronze pink, tiny bead of persistent bubbles, attractively fresh, smoky-creamy and fruit aromas and flavours, lovely strawberryish fruit quality, richly textured mousse, nice freshness and balance, with long, fine dry savoury lipsmacking finish that makes it hard not to swallow as you taste. It grows on you as you drink it. 93 /100

9. Paul Bara Rosé. A deep pink bronze, quite a lot of dark red berry on the nose, sweetish strawberry and cherry fruit with rather obvious sweetness that makes the wine a tad heavy in the mouth and lacking in finesse, and less refreshing that you might hope for, but pleasant enough as a drink with slight bitter-skin finish. 88 / 100

10. Berry Bros & Rudd Grand Cru Rosé. Benoit Marguet. 70% chardonnay and 30% pinot noir, lovely pale bronze colour with bubbles swirling in the glass, fine fresh and intense aromatics, lovely rich berry fruit, very fruity in fact on the palate, powerfully concentrated and full-bodied, lots of flavour intensity, rich and yet delicate at the same time, with finely textured mousse and excellent finish. 90+ /100

Dom Pérignon 2002 rosé launch

Chef de Cave Richard Geoffroy is pictured at the Dom Pérignon Rosé 2002 launch in London at Leighton House Museum

Richard Geoffroy, chef de cave at Dom Pérignon is not a believer in pink champagne that can’t be distinguished from its white counterpart with your eyes closed. “If it doesn’t taste different, what’s the point in making a rosé?” he said at the launch of 2000 pink DP a couple of years back. At that event, the first ever oenothéque DP Rosé from the stunning 1990 vintage was also released, somewhat overshadowing its decade younger sibling.

This time round in 2013 with the simultaneous release of the 1993 oenothéque DP rosé alongside the new ‘02, one could say roles are reversed. While 2002 is the most widely produced top class vintage since 1995, ’93 wasn’t much of a year for vintage champagne. But again it is the wine with that extra decade in bottle which stands out now and it is tempting to say: ‘What’s the point of drinking Dom Pérignon Rosé without at least two decades ageing?’ Let’s hope Geoffroy can persuade the accountants at LVMH to keep more DP stock back, so we can. We understand he would like to.

Jacquart’s Blanc de Blancs style impresses

Jacquart chief winemaker Floriane Eznack (centre) conducts the tasting while Rosemary George MW and I look on (picture by Lucy Shaw of Drinks Business)

The cooperatives in Champagne are a very good source of relatively inexpensive fizz, their vintage lines and prestige styles in particular. At Jacquart, where they have dramatically trimmed down the range of champagne they offer to just five cuvées, the vintage Blanc de Blancs has become one focus for attention. So it was great to have the opportunity recently to taste the last four Blanc de Blancs releases in the company of Jacquart’s relatively new winemaker Floriane Eznack who took over in January 2011.

We started with the current 2005 vintage, a luscious butter-rich blend of Chardonnay from four fine crus (two premiers and two grands) Vertus, Villers-Marmery, Chouilly and Avize. Eznack describes the Jacquart style of this cuvée as ‘greedy’ they are looking for unctuous richness rather than linear minerality. Attractive now, this is a wine that will happily age further, although it may not have the ageing potential of the ‘04 vintage which preceded it.

While the ’04 blend is different — mostly from Oger and Chouilly with a splash of Vertus and Cuis this time – it has textural richness in common with the ‘05, plus some smoky, nutty characteristics with a hint of honey on the finish.

The 2002 vintage that followed — showing aromas of fresh butter and warm brioche for Eznack – has matured further and has more developed honey notes, luscious richness and an impressive palate texture which carries a long finish. Chouilly this time is the dominant component (66%) with 20% Vertus fruit and the remainder coming from Sezanne. The final 1999 vintage (Chouilly, Vertus, Trepail and Cuis) has developed into a big, opulent silky textured style you’d be pleased to find still in your cellar. Originally launched around 2003/4 it went through a rather closed phase, says Eznack, but it has opened up again impressively, as the tasting demonstrated.

Over lunch which like the tasting took place at the newly opened Japanese restaurant Chrysan (sadly it closed in March) we tasted the straight ’05, ’04 and ’02 vintages. Made in a roughly 55/45 Pinot Noir/ Chardonnay blend they all showed well, especially the ’02 in magnum, the format giving extra freshness to set against the wine’s substantial richness. The creamy textured, 1999 rosé vintage that followed was not however overshadowed. Ten years ago this would have barely set you back £20 in a retail outlet like Majestic and that would have been a good investment. I recently opened a 1998 Jacquart Rosé which I had cellared for five or six years that was similarly complex and quite delicious.

Jacquart Blanc de Blancs 2005 (the 2006 has also been released now), is available on-line only from Tesco and I have recommended it here several times (see retail offers page) especially when promoted at £30 a bottle.

Veuve Clicquot tasting of 1839 fizz found in Baltic wreck

Champagne experts from around the world gathered last Friday (25 May) for a historical tasting of old vintages at Veuve Clicquot’s Hôtel du Marc headquarters in Reims, the highlight of which was to be a bottle of Veuve Clicquot thought to date from 1839, found on a shipwreck at the bottom of the Baltic in 2010. At the tasting there were eight wines to try starting with the yet unreleased 2008 Yellow Label white and rosé bases, continuing with La Grande Dame Rosé 1988 (magnum); La Grande Dame 1962; Yellow Label 1953 in magnum; Vintage Rosé 1947; Vintage 1904 and finally the wine from the Baltic, Clicquot’s archivists believe dates from 1839.

This bottle of Veuve Clicquot champagne had been lying at the bottom of the Baltic Sea in a ship that sunk near the Åland Islands in the first half of the 19th century, over 170 years ago and came from a batch of 145 successfully salvaged champagne bottles, all of which were tasted by expert tasters including wine writer Richard Juhlin, with some 79 being assessed as ‘drinkable’ and re-corked.

Out of the 145 bottles of champagne bought up from the seabed, four are from Heidsieck & Co, 46 are from Veuve Clicquot while the remaining 95 are bottles of Champagne Juglar, a house the name of which disappeared from labels in 1829 when it merged with Champagne Jacquesson. A total of 162 bottles were salvaged in July 2010 of which one was opened and tasted by the divers who found the wreck, four are beer bottles, two were impossible to identify, two were broken, three bottles leaked and five further bottles were left in Åland’s museum.

The remaining 145, the oldest intact champagne bottles ever found under the sea still with their corks in place, were identified and dated thanks to the marks on their corks found during reconditioning, during which process the 79 of them judged as drinkable were given new corks. That the old corks survived intact, until they came into contact with oxygen when bought to the surface, is thought to be partly thanks to the pressure at the depth of 48 metres being very similar to that inside a champagne bottle at around 5 bars.

It’s also partly down to the Baltic Sea’s particular characteristics, namely that it is less salty, relatively calm with dark, cool waters and a constant temperature of around 4-5degC.

The Åland government in whose territorial waters between Finland and Sweden the wreck was discovered plans to auction 11 of the ‘drinkable’ bottles of champagne – one from Heidsieck & Co, four from Veuve Clicquot and six from Juglar — on 8 June 2012 hoping to beat the record set by one of the two bottles they auctioned last year for €30,000. Funds raised by the sale, which will also include 17 prestigious lots donated by Veuve Clicquot –magnums of 1989 Cave Privée Rosé, 1980 Cave Privée and 1990 Cave Privée being the pick of these – will be used for a charitable marine preservation fund set up by the Aland Government.

Speaking at the Clicquot tasting last Friday, Juhlin said the Clicquot wines were generally in better condition than the others, partly because their corks appeared to be higher quality.  He has written a tasting note for the 11 different champagnes being auctioned on 8th June giving the wines marks out of 100 with each scoring between 93, the highest mark for one of the four Clicquot bottles, and 80 the lowest for the single bottle of Heidsieck & Co.

Each of the 11 wines featuring in the auction still had some fizziness left and Juhlin notes each ‘popped’ when they were originally opened and re-corked back in November 2010. At the tasting last Friday the bottle of Veuve Clicquot ‘1939’ again made a gentle popping noise when opened by Clicquot’s Chef de Cave Dominique Demarville, revealing it still had a certain amount of fizz left in the bottle. Anyone expecting it to rival the previous delights of the Clicquot wines from 1988 to 1904 would however probably have been disappointed.

Woody and recognisably sweet but not overly so — during this period in the early nineteenth century champagne had very high dosage levels varying between around 50 to close on 300gms/l, the lower end being five times the average for Brut styles of champagne sold today – the wine had an almost overpoweringly pungent agricultural aroma, a little like an over-ripe soft cheese and this strong smell dominated the taste too.

But then few people who like modern champagne would have enjoyed the heavily doctored,  sweetened wines produced in Champagne in the early nineteenth century in perfect condition. Tastes have changed.  We should be thankful that this historical tasting gave a rare opportunity to try such a wine, a wine that has survived nearly two centuries in the bottle it was made in.

Terres et Vins tasting encourages more groups to show wines together

The fourth annual tasting of the Terres et Vins group representing 19 like-minded growers takes place this Monday 16 April in AŸ.  And this year in addition to the second annual tasting of the 14-strong Les Artisans du Champagne group to be held in Reims the following day (17 April) as it was in 2011, two other groups of small producers are staging their inaugural events on the 15th and 16th.

Terre Et Vins April 2011

The first new group called TraitD, involves just six producers including the small, highly rated house of Jacquesson, run by Jean-Hervé and Laurent Chiquet. The Chiquet brothers are joined by Anselme and Corinne Selosse, Pierre and Sophie Larmandier (Larmandier-Bernier), Agnes and Jerome Prevost, Francis and Annick Egly (Egly-Ouriet), plus Eric and Isabelle Coulon (Roger Coulon). Their tasting takes place on the morning of the 16th in Avize.

The fourth tasting is of the new Terroirs & Talents of Champagne group and takes place on Sunday 15 April at Le Théatre Restaurant in Epernay.

The full list of growers involved in the Terres et Vins group is as follows: Pascal Agrapart, Françoise Bedel, Raphaël Bérèche, Francis Boulard, Alexandre Chartogne, Vincent Couche, Pascal Doquet, Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy, Etienne Goutorbe, Olivier Horiot, Cyril Jeaunaux, Benoit Lahaye, Aurélien Laherte, David Leclapart, Dominique Moreau, Franck Pascal, Olivier Paulet, Fabrice Pouillon and Benoit Tarlant. Dominique Moreau is the only newcomer to the group, although others have inquired, says Benoit Tarlant. Tarlant explains they don’t want to get too big so that staging events remains manageable.

Taittinger Comtes de Champagne vertical tasting (1990-2002) at Vintners’ Hall

It is difficult to hone in straight on the right wavelength of a prestige cuvée like Taittinger’s Comtes de Champagne, especially when you haven’t tasted it for a while. So introducing it at this ‘Master Class’ for a large gathering of MWs at Vintners’ Hall with two warm up bottles – Taittinger’s Brut Réserve NV and the appropriately named Prélude Grands Crus – made very good sense.

Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger, President of Taittinger with Chef de Caves Loic Dupont

The currently available Brut Réserve is based on the 2007 harvest, so while many houses play lip service to ageing their non-vintage cuvées for at least three years before release, here was real evidence on one that does. A blend of 40% Chardonnay, 35% Pinot Noir and 25% Pinot Meunier, it typically has between 25 and 30% reserve wine in the blend from the two previous harvests (2006 and 2005 in this case) winemaker Loic Dupont, a rare visitor to these shores, tells us. As Pierre-Emmanuel who interjects throughout proceedings notes: “Loic has been with Taittinger for 26 years, but he never travels, we like to keep our cellar master in the cellar.”

“It is made up of 45 different crus,” says Loic, “including the grand crus of Avize and Verzenay, it is definitely not an afterthought in the range,” he affirms. Around half of it comes from Taittinger’s own 288 hectare estate of vineyards. Bright, fresh with hints of lemon citrus and some decent palate weight, this has a larger proportion of Chardonnay in it that most other international brands. Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger, who is in a very buoyant mood, says: “The success of Taittinger in the UK was made even more difficult to achieve as it’s a market that likes Pinot Noir and Meunier dominated blends.”

We move on to Prélude, where the Chardonnay element jumps to 50% and now purely sourced from Grands Crus in the Côte des Blancs including Avize, Mesnil sur Oger and Cramant. This wine is entirely from the very decent 2004 harvest with no reserve wine and thus could in fact be vintaged.  It isn’t because as Damien Le Sueur, Taittinger’s deputy general manager, says: “It would be confusing for our customers. It also gives us the freedom to blend in difficult years [although it hasn’t been a ‘multi-harvest’ blend so far since the first 1996-based version was launched in 2000].”

A step up in terms of concentration of flavours, palate texture and length of finish, this neatly prepares us for the main event, tasting seven different vintages of Comtes de Champagne. We start with the as yet unreleased 2002, disgorged three months ago (September 2011). The 2002 harvest was particularly good for Chardonnay with the highest potential alcohol at picking — except for the 1990 (10.7%) we will end with — of 10.5%. Like the other seven Comtes it comes from just five Côte des Blancs grands crus sites: Avize, Chouilly, Cramant, Oger and Mesnil-sur-Oger.

As Pierre-Emmanuel notes: “It is always just these five grand crus, aged for a minimum of seven years before release – we are still on the 2000 which is 11 years old – because Blanc de Blancs ages for a very long time. We only usually make between 150,000 and 300,000 bottles of Comtes, 1995 when it was 500,000, is only exception to that. Since the 1988 vintage – which sadly we didn’t taste and I can’t help thinking would have been far superior to the disappointing 1990 – a small proportion of the blend – just 5% — has been aged but not fermented in new French oak barriques. The idea is to add another strand of complexity not mask the purity of fruit which is the most important characteristic of the wine for Pierre-Emmanuel. He quotes his uncle Claude describing the style as ‘pure Chablis with two fermentations’ which is particularly true in its youth.

As we taste back through 2002 — a baby that’s still linear and closed, though impressively structured to age – the 2000 Luic succinctly describes as: “very straight and precise, stone fruit rather than citrus”, we don’t start to see much impression of maturity until the 1998. The 1999 really impresses with a hint of toastiness, what Pierre-Emmanuel describes as “the purity of a rapier” but still quite youthful. The 1998 has opened up that bit more and shows a silkier palate though the edge is still there. We don’t see the wine in all its glory however until the 1996 which has a gorgeous buttery richness with developed mocha notes and lush palate texture. Here the nose and palate are finally completely in harmony, a balance maintained by a wrap of fine acidity.

The more subtle and delicate 1995 finds the ’96 a hard act to follow but is barely less impressive. It just can’t match the explosive richness of the 1996. Comtes de Champagne as Pierre-Emmanuel says needs 15 years to show its true colours. It would be interesting to see how it evolves after still further ageing but the 1990 had partly oxidised. I think the ’88, a more classic vintage, would be a better bet and look forward to having the chance to try this theory out.

Moët releases 1911 vintage in 11 six bottle cases

Moët & Chandon has released 11 six bottle cases of the vintage champagne it produced from 1911 vintage. There’s just one case in the UK at Harrods and it could be yours for £65,000, that’s a mere £10,833.33 a bottle.  The first case, sold in Hong Kong in September fetched U$100,000 and another case is due to be auctioned for charity in New York at Christie’s sale of Fine & Rare Wines on November 19, 2011. I had the chance to taste this 100 year old vintage with Moët & Chandon Chef de Cave Benoît Gouez last week.

To get warmed up for the 1911 vintage we first taste the current release of Moët Grand Vintage 2002, followed by the 1992 and 1990 vintages. This selection is not random, as with the past few vintage launches from Moët (see below), they like to show a few wines from their extensive library selection that the winemaking team headed up by Gouez view as similar in style. The launches of 2003, 2002 and 2000 vintages have given me the opportunity to taste some fantastic old wines. This time round we are doing it the other way and trying to find some younger wines that might develop like the 1911 vintage has.

While the blend for Moët vintage has never been rigid, today Gouez has great flexibility in choosing the blend of varieties that he sees as offering the most interesting most and characterful expression of the vintage. The 2002 blend is 51% Chardonnay, 26% Pinot Noir and 23% Pinot Meunier; the 1992 is 45% each of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with 10% Meunier while the 1990 is made up from 50% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay and 10% Pinot Meunier which Gouez describes as the classic Moët recipe of the 50’s.

What they have in common is a certain richness and ripeness of fruit and while ’92 would not be seen by many as in the same class as the very highly rated ’02 and 1990 vintages it is at a very attractive stage in its development showing a toasty character with a distinctive pronounced mocha note and lovely palate richness.  But these three wines were very much the warm up to the main event, the 1911.

The blend for the 1911 is unknown, says Gouez but likely to be mostly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and there’s no Pinot Meunier in it, but perhaps, he suggests, it includes some Pinot Blanc. There’s little information about it in the archives merely that it was a very small harvest at a very good level, a year to remember. It was all fermented in small oak casks as was customary at that time. The 1,500 bottles of 1911 that were left in Moet’s cellars were in one pile, completely untouched and Gouez said when he sorted through them he found many that were broken or had little or no wine left in them. “To get 150 good bottles I had to use 1,000. Some were empty and most were oxidized while quite a few had a too powerful mushroom taste. There are 500 left undisgorged that I might get a further 50 from.”

The wine was given a dosage of 7gm/l and all the bottles disgorged in January 2011. On pouring the first thing to note is the colour, an attractive pale gold, not a brown sherry-like liquid you might expect after 100 years ageing. The nose is a mix of crystallized fruit with a distinctive panettone bread character. It is not very fizzy with about 1bar of pressure (as opposed to champagne usual 6) but you can see a distinct fine bead of very small bubbles and it certainly isn’t without life and energy. The palate is rich with a savoury umami note, there is a mild attractive mushroom taste and the richness just holds there hardly fading at all in a very long finish.

Wines tasted against the last three Grand Vintage releases at their launch

2002: 1992, 1982, 1975, 1964

2003: 1995, 1990, 1976, 1959

2000: 1988, 1982, 1962, 1952 Dry and Le Mesnil 1900, also tasted 1996, 1961 and 1921 on a separate occasion as we were in Epernay.

Veuve Clicquot Cave Privée tasting, February 2010

Originally published in Decanter.com, 11th Feb 2010

This year is the 200th anniversary of vintage Champagne and Madame Clicquot was the first person to produce ‘vintage’ Champagne, using a blend of grapes all from that year’s harvest, back in 1810, according to the Veuve Clicquot archives. To celebrate this landmark Veuve Clicquot new cellar master Dominique Demarville, he succeeded Jacques Peters on his retirement last March (2009), came to London last week to conduct a tutored tasting of the five older vintages – 1990, 1989, 1980, 1978 and 1975 — that Clicquot has just re-released under the name Cave Privée.

Clicquot has only recently sold out of the two previous older vintages it marketed under the ‘Rare’ banner – the white 1988 and the rosé ’85 (both very fine vintages) — but now it is both extending the range of older wines and releasing some of them in different formats, a mix of bottles, magnums and there are even Jeroboams of the 1990.

The rich, full-bodied Clicquot vintage style (white and especially rosé) is very much Pinot Noir based with grapes sourced from grands crus like Verzenay, Aÿ, and Ambonnay. In addition as Demarville confirms, Bouzy’s south-facing slopes, where Clicquot owns 30 hectares and buys in fruit from another 20, is particularly significant for the rosé.

Tasting notes on the nine wines

1990 in bottle, magnum and jeroboam, all disgorged in October 2008

Blend: 56% Pinot Noir, 33% Chardonnay, 11% Pinot Meunier; dosage 4g/l in the bottle and magnum, 3g/l in the jeroboam

A light gold colour (very little difference between the three formats), possibly slightly paler than you might expect from such a ripe vintage famous because all three grape varieties came in the press houses in near perfect condition and while potential average alcohol levels at 11.1deg were the highest since 1962, there was also good balancing acidity at 8gms/l.

As you would expect, the bottle was considerably more developed than the magnum or jeroboam, rich, with ripe quince-like fruit, some toasty notes, a savoury, yeasty mid-palate, plus an exotic ginger spice element. The magnum was considerably fresher but seemed less complex (Demarville noted the magnum we had was a little disappointing if not actually faulty) and needed more time. The jeroboam was glorious, at once spicy and ripe of the nose, noticeably fresh for a 20-year-old wine with lovely palate intensity but well short of its peak in terms of complexity. Demarville suggested it could easily be cellared another ten to 15 years.

1980 in bottle, the original disgorgement in May 1986 and magnum, disgorged in October 2008

Blend: 53% Pinot Noir, 37% Chardonnay, 10% Pinot Meunier; dosage 9g/l in the bottle, 5g/l in the magnum

Rich gold in colour, the bottle of 1980 with a full 24 years of post-disgorgement ageing was the star of the show, reaching a glorious peak of complexity, slightly honeyed with very ripe fruity notes, a vanillan crème caramel mouth feel, a very long finish with some coffee/mocha notes but still enlivened buy a streak of fresh acidity.

In magnum, the late-disgorged 1980 vintage is amazingly young and fresh. More restrained and elegant there is nevertheless an underlying richness and intensity with notes of candied fruit and a hint of chocolate on the finish. As Demarville says, it needs more time and he thinks it will get better and better over the next five years.

1989 Rosé in bottle and magnum, both disgorged in October 2008

Blend: 67% Pinot Noir, 33% Chardonnay, 12.8% Bouzy Rouge, dosage 4g/l in both formats

Pale copper in colour, the ’89 rosé in not quite so obviously Burgundian Pinot Noir in style as the previous ’85 release or the two older rosés (’78 and ’75) we also tasted which still have more colour and were made with a higher Bouzy Rouge component. A ripe year (the same potential alcohol as ’76 and only lower than 1990 and 2002 in the past three decades) with lower acidity (7.1g/l on average) ’89 was a vintage which many houses predicted wouldn’t last that long, but this rosé remains remarkably fresh. There are roasted coffee, mocha notes, strawberry fruit on the initial palate then a meaty, savoury mid-palate.

The magnum is even less evolved with notably more freshness and attack, more obvious red berry fruit notes and a touch of spiciness. As Demarville says it still has great further ageing potential, more than a further decade.

1978 Rosé in bottle disgorged in October 2008

Blend: 63% Pinot Noir, 33% Chardonnay, 4% Pinot Meunier, 15% Bouzy Rouge, dosage 4g/l

Light red in colour, like a mature lighter Burgundy with some perfumed sweet cherry notes. Delicious, supple with developed mouth feel, forest floor aromas and a hint of leather, crying out for food, perhaps a chicken dish with truffles, or some feathered game.

1975 Rosé in magnum disgorged in October 2008

Blend: 64% Pinot Noir, 31% Chardonnay, 5% Pinot Meunier, 19% Bouzy Rouge, dosage 4g/l

Less perfumed than the ’78, it shows red berry fruits, a hint of toast and surprisingly crisp acidity with some chewy tannins in the mouth. Meaty and yeasty with a distinct savoury, almost saline finish. Very Burgundian, one taster suggested Côte de Beaune as against the Côte de Nuits style of the ’78. Demarville believes it has the potential to age for at least another ten years.

Ruinart celebrates 50 years of Dom Ruinart, 16 October 2009

Originally published on Decanter.com 23 October, 2009

Ruinart Champagne held a vertical tasting of its prestige cuvée Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs at restaurant Apicius in Paris last week to celebrate its 50th anniversary. Starting with the 1959, there have been 21 different vintages of this cuvée released although it proved impossible to source bottles of them all. They only have stocks of 10 vintages going back to 1981 plus the 1969 left in Ruinart’s own historic cellars in Reims — the plan was to taste these 11 plus the seven venerable vintages which Ruinart’s current Chef de Cave Frédéric Panaiotis managed to purchase from specialist retailers and collectors.

Sadly they couldn’t find any 1959, 1966 or 1976, three top class vintages in Champagne, the ’59 and ’76 being two of the warmest summers on record. Panaiotis did however source some 1961, 1964, 1971, 1973, 1975, 1978 and 1979. Unfortunately quite a few of these hadn’t been well cellared and the ‘69 from Ruinart’s own cellar demonstrated the importance of storage conditions and was the star among the older wines.  The 80s produced the highlights of the tasting.

The key thing to know about Dom Ruinart’s Blanc de Blancs style is that the fruit isn’t all sourced from the grands crus of the Côte des Blancs. It is all grands crus but there is an important element in the blend – 50% of the cuvée in the case of the 1990 though this is the highest proportion — from three Montagne de Reims grands crus Sillery, Verzenay and Puisieulx. This tends to give the wines more weight and a certain white Burgundian quality as they age.

Highlights of the tasting

1998: the current release (to be followed by 2002) almost colourless in the glass, it’s lemon-scented with floral notes and a hint of honey. Still very fresh, lively and youthful there is a biscuity note building but it needs more time.

1996: similarly pale to the ’98 this is still notably linear with a lovely purity of fruit and lively acidity but barely developed as yet

1993: more colour and the first in the line-up showing real signs of development and maturity with bready, yeasty notes and an attractive richness. It’s still a surprise as to why Ruinart made this in preference to the superior ‘95 vintage.

1990: for many of the tasters this was the star of the show though I thought it lacked richness in the mid-palate, a surprise given it was picked at 10.8deg. The magnum we had with lunch was superior, still very fresh with a long future ahead of it but showing more ripe buttery notes and a lovely overall balance.

1988: A glorious, light golden colour and the highest proportion of Montagne de Reims Chardonnay (44%) outside the 1990 this has developed into a lovely, lusciously rich, silky textured wine with a developed toastiness, pronounced mocha notes and a long complex finish. Mature white Burgundy with bubbles.

1986: One of the biggest surprises in the line-up, this has gone a rich golden colour and there is a honeyed sweetness on the palate redolent more of a Semillon based pudding wine. Panaiotis says he doesn’t know what to do with the 300 bottles he left in the cellar but liked the suggestion of matching it with foie gras.

1985: Richly coloured like the ’86 this has three-quarters Côte des Blancs fruit in the blend and it’s a class act. Ripe notes of quince, a hint of blackcurrant and while it’s ripe, even opulent there’s a refreshing streak of acidity keeping the whole wine in balance and harmony.

1982: this seems to have more in common with the ’88, its paler in colour, very toasty on the nose and there are secondary notes of coffee, chocolate and ceps. At or near its peak, it would be lovely with roast turbot.

1981: a tiny yield of just 4,360kgs/ha (compare that with over 14,000kgs/ha in 2008 & 2009) this harvest produced some great wines (like ’81 Krug) and this is surprising fresh initially, leading to a concentrated buttery rich mid-palate and a savoury finish. A delight and unlike any of the other wines tasted.

1969: very pale the lightest in colour since the ’81 (a good sign after several sherry-like oxidised wines) this was amazingly fresh still and a good advertisement for Champagne’s longevity. There was a rich toasty element but more noticeable was an attractive biscuity palate texture and a savoury almost saline finish. Classy

1961: Not a great example of this fine year but while slightly oxidised it didn’t completely hide an underlying lively fruity freshness. Would love to try a well cellared example, Moët 1961 is one of the finest champagnes I have ever tasted.

Matching Champagne and spicy food at the Cinnamon Club

Originally published in Imbibe Magazine Jan/Feb 2009

Spicy food with Champagne, it’s not an obvious choice. I once persuaded a CIVC henchman I was lunching with to try Champagne and oysters spiced up with a dash of Tabasco sauce and he quite clearly thought I was mad. But finding suitable styles of Champagne and other sparklers to match spicy food was exactly the challenge given to a number of on trade suppliers. It wasn’t just any old spicy food either, but a menu with a real kick put together by Vivek Singh at the Cinnamon Club.

To help us decide what might work first of all we tasted all the wines that had been entered for the challenge, looking at the different styles and levels of sweetness, ranging in the case of the Champagnes from a bone dry Extra Brut (just 3gms sugar per litre compared to the Brut norm of around 11 or 12gms) to a Pol Roger Rich (a demi sec), which someone had thoughtfully put in. It appeared that those who merely entered the standard NV Brut style of the house they represented hadn’t fully thought things through, or perhaps they didn’t understand that we really did mean full on spicy.

But while it would have been better to have had some more obvious food friendly styles whether vintages, sec and demi-secs or perhaps cuvées that had seen some oak, among the two-dozen of so samples on the table, we certainly had enough options to get an idea of what did or didn’t work. We kicked off with three fishy appetisers, stir fried crab; garlic crusted king prawn and tandoori swordfish, matching them against several NV Brut styles initially as we kept back more concentrated, pink and sweeter options for some more challenging dishes later in the menu.

Each of these three dishes had accompanying sauces of varying density and strength, but the crab, which was spiced with garam seeds and the garlicky prawn dishes were easier to tame than the smoky tandoori swordfish.

Chef Singh said there were two ways of approaching the matching exercise: either putting together complementary flavours or else something that was a big enough contrast to cut through the spicy richness of the food. Of the non-vintage Champagne blends those with greatest intensity and the one all Chardonnay cuvée, fared best against the fish and seafood. The extra depth, maturity and a certain gingerbread-like spice of the Deutz Brut Classic and the lifted citrus notes of the Henriot Brut Souverain getting the best response from the panel of tasters while bright and fresh Piper Heidsieck, one of the best appetisers styles of Champagne on the market, was deemed an acceptable match.

For the next course of three different meat starters: tandoori chicken, char grilled partridge and spiced pigeon cake we tried a selection of the pink fizzes ranging from Lanson’s NV Noble Cuvée to sparklers from Tasmania, Argentina, Spain, Italy and the Loire; two Pinot Noir dominant blends of Champagne from small producers in the grand cru village of Bouzy in the Montagne de Reims and Pol Roger NV Rich for good measure.

Of the pink fizzes, the extra concentration of Lanson’s Noble Cuvée Rosé stood out as matching the intensity of spice in the first two dishes, although the lentils served with the chicken were hard for anything to cope with. Pinot Noir’s affinity with spice was also demonstrated by the 2000 vintage of Georges Vesselle’s Brut Zero while the other most successful match was Pol Roger Rich, which at least one panellist thought would have been the best option if you had drunk just one Champagne through the meal.

In the spiced pigeon cake the higher chilli quotient was just too much for the dry styles of fizz and even the Pol Roger was a fairly poor foil. As we went on to an even more intensely flavoured main course of smoked rack of lamb – marinated in mace, cardamom, cream cheese and yoghurt and served with two sauces: mint, cashew nut and chilli plus onion and saffron – nothing worked until we turned to the sparkling reds, where the lack of harsh tannin, sweet fruit, a minty element and the inherent spiciness of the Shiraz grape coped manfully. Both the longer aged style of the Black Queen Sparkling Shiraz 1999, and the spicy Majella Sparkling Shiraz 2004 (Coonawarra) worked well, the only issue was the high alcohol level at lunchtime.

General guidelines

With something lightly spicy and garlicky, especially if it involves fish or seafood, try an all Chardonnay style of fizz with a bit of zip.

More intense flavours need a wine with more depth and concentration like an aged vintage Champagne or a more oxidative style that is perhaps encouraged by oak fermentation, styles like Bollinger, Gosset and the Georges Vesselle vintage we tried spring to mind.

Off dry Champagnes, which may be classified as anything from ‘Extra Dry’ through ‘Sec’ to ‘Doux’, the sweetest, often work better with spicy food than they do with puddings.