Le Snob Champagne

My book on Champagne, published by Hardie Grant in the UK and Australia, came out last month (October). A 144 page hardback pocket book, it is part of series all involving luxury goods with previously published titles including perfume, cigars and whisky. Attractively packaged it would make an excellent gift for family and friends whether they are wine savvy or relative beginners wanting to know more about the world’s favourite sparkling wine. Email me direct to order personally signed copies: giles@champagneguru.co.uk

It is divided into seven chapters with the first covering the production regions, styles of champagne, how it is made and tasting techniques. The four central chapters are on the major international brands, smaller boutique houses, the main co-operatives and some of the best growers in Champagne. There also tips on serving, etiquette, storage, where to buy and where to drink champagne.

It is available priced at £8.99, plus packaging and postage.

2011 harvest second earliest on record

Although it has been widely reported as the ‘earliest’ harvest since 1822 when grape picking began on August 20, in reality it looks like that honour is still retained by 2003 when after the heat wave summer – we certainly didn’t have that this year — growers in the Côte des Bar village of Bligny began cutting grapes on August 18. It wasn’t a tiny, very ripe harvest either. In 2003 over 12 degrees potential alcohol was common place where as in 2011 some pickers were sent home after they had started when it was realised grapes were not as mature as expected.

For the 2011 harvest the earliest official date for picking was on August 20 for black grapes (both Pinots) in Neuville-sur-Seine and Buxeuil in the southernmost Côte des Bar region, but also for Pinot Meunier in Damery and Cumières, two premier cru villages on the north side of the Marne Valley.

There are even a few people who suggest the very early dates fixed by the CIVC were set too early in some instances and that this decision was partly influenced by the worry that as stocks in the old and new resérve individuelle could in theory build up to as high as 10,000kgs/ha, too much of this material would be based on the relatively ripe recent vintages and lack freshness.

This was certainly an unusual year with a number of firsts. Although the season started exceptionally early with flowering three weeks ahead of usual in the last week of May, after cool weather through June and July, ripeness levels were not near the heights of 2003, when spring frosts had also massively reduced the size of the crop further concentrating the juice.

In mid-August just before harvesting was due to start the speed of ripening did not take place at the expected pace and in a number of instances picking was actually halted. As Moët & Chandon chef de cave Benoît Gouez reports: “We stopped the harvest for a few days in the Côte des Blancs and sent 650 pickers home, something that has never happened in Champagne before in my experience.”

Unusually too Pinot Meunier was picked first by many producers, partly because of fears that if there was further rain this variety, already in a fragile state, would be ruined by botrytis. In general changeable weather conditions just before and during the harvest, plus varying ripeness levels even within the same vineyard made it a difficult harvest to manage. However most producers we spoke to are pleased with the quality they have finished with and nearly all see it as significantly superior to 2010. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are generally the best varieties with some making the comparison with the classic balance of the 1995 vintage.

For a detailed 2011 harvest report with comments from over 20 winemakers and CEOs from across the region see Trade Corner where you will also find past reports for the previous decade.

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.

Jacquesson Lieux-dits Tasting

Jean-Hervé Chiquet and his brother Laurent have entirely changed how things are run at Champagne Jacquesson since they took over from their father over a decade ago. And with the release after nine years of ageing of three, single-vineyard, mono-cepage champagnes from the top-quality 2002 harvest, the quiet revolution at Jacquesson they set in train back then has neared completion. At last after years talking about vintage wines that they don’t make any more, the two brothers can discuss the four single-vineyard wines that have replaced all their vintage offering.

“It has taken since 1998,” says Jean-Hervé, “or another ten years before that, if you count the time arguing about what we wanted to do with our father.  The story won’t really be complete until we have re-released late disgorged versions of these three 2002 cuvées in another eight or nine years’ time,” he says, only half-jokingly. And while on the subject of late-disgorgement, he also announces new plans for a second release of their series 700 non-vintage wines. In late 2012 or early 2013 they will be re-releasing the non-vintage Cuvée 733 based on the 2005 harvest with four years extra ageing. “We plan to do this from now on [with the non-vintage Cuvée 700 series] and have held back 15,000 bottles plus 1,000 magnums for this purpose,” he says.

The trio of white 2002 Lieux-dits champagnes: Avize, Champ Caïn, a 1.3 hectare plot planted with Chardonnay in 1962; Dizy Corne Bautray, 1 hectare of Chardonnay planted in 1960 and the smallest – Aÿ, Vauzelle Terme — just 0.3hectares of Pinot Noir planted in 1980, join the saignée rosé Dizy Terres Rouges (1.35ha of Pinot Noir planted in 1993), the 2002, 2003 and 2004 vintages of which are already sold out while the 2007 is yet to be released.

The three 2002 single vineyard wines while certainly not fully mature – the fact that they are going to be re-released at the end of this decade gives you an idea of their potential longevity – have opened up considerably since I last tasted them at the winery in Dizy in January 2008 when they were still austere with piercing acidity.

The Chardonnay from Dizy is now very expressive, showing ripe stone fruit with a terrific palate texture, weight and concentration plus considerable length. Avize Chardonnay is perhaps more classic, fine textured, great grip and mouth feel, long, pure and mineral with steely acidity still there in the background. The Aÿ Pinot Noir is rounder, more ample with generous fruit and a silky palate texture set against a marked chalky minerality.

At the tasting in Jason Atherton’s Pollen Street Social, there was also the chance to assess side by side the last three Jacquesson non-vintage blends: Cuvée 733 based on the 2005 harvest, Cuvée 734 based on 2006 and Cuvée 735, which is made from the 2007 base and just released. This was given more relevance with the news from Jean-Hervé that significant stocks of each of these three wines have been put away for a second release after extra ageing. For anyone who has had the chance to taste these wines after additional time in bottle this clearly makes good sense, as Jean-Hervé says they are in many ways closer to vintage champagne in style than most non-vintage cuvées, partly because of the Jacquesson philosophy since the 2000 harvest of trying to make the best possible blend each year rather than look for conformity of style.

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How the Jacquesson range has evolved

Under the Chiquet brothers’ stewardship the entire Jacquesson range has evolved starting with the non-vintage wine, previously called Brut Perfection, which changed in one revolutionary step into Cuvée 728 from the 2000 harvest-based wine launched in early 2004. The single vineyard wines have evolved more slowly. They made a vintaged Blanc de Blancs from their three plots in Avize in 1990, 1993, 1996, 1997, while in 2000 they vinified all three plots separately, which was where the idea for the parcelaire approach came from. When they found Champ Caïn to be the best (the other two are La Fosse and Nemery ) they decided just to continue with that, using the remaining grand cru juice for the important 700 series non-vintage cuvée.

“Dizy all-Chardonnay was produced experimentally in 1995 – a great Chardonnay year,” says Jean-Hervé, “and next year (1996) which was good for Pinot Noir, we made a single bottling of Aÿ Pinot Noir.” Having been dissatisfied with the blended rosé they used to make, “we always liked the white wines better in our own tastings”, they decided to make a saignée only when they were happy with the quality and because they want to sell this while primary fruit is to the fore they release it earlier than the other three single vineyard wines.

Slightly confusingly there are still some volumes of dégorgement tardif versions of previous vintages of Grand Vin Signature (including 1988, ‘89 and ’90) and Avize Grand Cru (1989, ’90 and 2000) plus straight vintages 2000 and 2002, the latter only released in early 2011 (link to Imbibe May/June 2011 pdf) in the market, but these wines are no longer made. There are now five wines in the entire Jacquesson range, the 700-series non-vintage cuvée, itself first released based on the 2000 harvest, and when the quality is high enough, the quartet of single vineyard cuvées.

Jacquesson champagnes are available from UK agents Berry Brothers & Rudd and other specialist wine merchants.