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.

Krug to give disgorgement date on future releases

Krug Grande Cuvée will in future bear an ID code on the label which gives the quarter when each bottle is disgorged and will also enable purchasers to lookup information on the Krug website about the harvest conditions prevailing in the year on which the wine is based. Julie Cavil from the winemaking team also confirms that Krug has been setting aside some extra volumes of Grande Cuvée from each blend since that bottled in June 2009, giving the opportunity for the company to sell a second release of the wine after longer lees ageing in the future (Grande Cuvée is already aged for seven years before release).

In London with Cavil for the launch of Krug Vintage 2000 and Clos du Mesnil 2000, Olivier Krug confirmed that revealing further details about the Krug Grande Cuvée blend, a radical departure from previous practice at the house, was aimed at giving Krug lovers more information about the wines they may have in their own cellars, though both he and chef de Cave Eric Lebel attach little importance to disgorgement dates and he doesn’t think Krug drinkers do either.

“We know however, that Krug lovers are interested in how Grande Cuvée ages and this information will enable those with several different blends in their cellars in five years’ time to see which is the oldest. It’s not so much about revealing the harvest base of each wine, we won’t actually give that. It’s more about conveying the challenge we face every year in making the Grande Cuvée blend from what nature has given us,” says Olivier Krug.

To emphasise the point that he doesn’t see the particular harvest base as important Olivier Krug says that Cavil, Lebel and he recently assessed blind six past consecutive blends of Grande Cuvée that had already been released to see which they thought the best. “We all three picked the blend based on the 2001 harvest as our favourite, despite this being the poorest harvest by some way of the six we tried.” He said that the 2001 based blend was in the middle of the six so we can assume the range ran from 1998 to 2003, a pretty interesting and diverse collection of harvests (see harvest reports on Trade Matters page) The ID codes will be on all bottles leaving the house since the start of July 2011.

Read the full story in Decanter

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.