Message in a bottle

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: .] 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 rise fractionally only

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.

2017 Champagne harvest gets into full flow

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.

The last pressing of Mesnil grapes at Krug

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.”

First parcel of Pinot Noir picked by Louis Roederer at Les Chalmonts in Cumières on 3 September

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.

Piper’s ‘new wine’ another Essentiel step to restore image

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.

Purchased by the French luxury goods group Entreprise Patrimoniale d’Investissements (EPI) from Rémy-Cointreau in June 2011, along with sister brand Charles Heidsieck, fundamental changes were made to the way the business is run. Firstly, EPI owner Christopher Descours installed Continue reading “Piper’s ‘new wine’ another Essentiel step to restore image”

My WSET tasting looks at styles of Champagne

Earlier this week I ran a Champagne masterclass tasting at the Wine & Spirit Education Trust and promised the participants, many of them WSET diploma students, to publish some of the detailed information about the wines, plus up-to-date statistics on the grape varieties planted in different areas of the appellation.

The idea of the tasting was to explore some of the varied styles of non-vintage champagne, taking wines from eight Continue reading “My WSET tasting looks at styles of Champagne”

Laurent-Perrier changes blend and name of its non-vintage

Laurent-Perrier has changed the style and blend of its core mainstream non-vintage champagne renaming it La Cuvée. The new wine, which will initially be based on the high quality 2012 harvest, will have more Chardonnay in it, and according to UK managing direct David Hesketh MW has a different flavour profile. Tasted side by side with the old Brut NV “there’s a clear difference between the two” he says.

New style Laurent-Perrier label from the 2007 Brut vintage

Already the major house with the largest proportion of Chardonnay in its Brut non-vintage style, in the new release Continue reading “Laurent-Perrier changes blend and name of its non-vintage”

UK champagne shipments fall 14% in value in 2016

Champagne shipments to the UK in 2016 were down 8.68% in volume, falling from 34.2m to 31.2m bottles and 14.03% in value, dropping from €512.2m to €440.4m, the detailed figures just released by the Comité Champagne reveal. This was the largest percentage drop in value among all the top ten export markets, only five of which showed any volume growth in 2016, with shipments to the USA rising the most, up 6.33%, although the value of the 21.8m bottles shipped to the USA only rose by 4.9%.

The fairly dramatic fall in the value of UK shipments, Continue reading “UK champagne shipments fall 14% in value in 2016”