The Champenois are relieved to hear that champagne shipments rose very slightly in 2011, despite a fall in the important French domestic market that accounts for around 60% of all sales. Or as Michel Letter head of G.H. Mumm and Perrier-Jouët put it: “2011 was the third best year ever after 1999 and 2007 with total shipments reaching 323m bottles, up 1.09% on 2010, not bad considering the worldwide economic situation”.
Among the top ten export destinations only Britain, down 2.7% to 34.4m bottles and Spain (-0.3%) had a drop in shipments while Belgium and Germany both saw 8.5% growth. Although consumption in France was down nearly 2%, overall exports were up just over 5% to slightly above 141m bottles with the strongest performances coming outside Europe, notably in Australia, up nearly a third, and the USA ahead by 14.4% to 19.4m bottles.
The best performers in the emerging markets were Russia, China and Hong Kong with respective increases of 24.5, 19.4 and 15.1%, although the rate of growth slowed in the second half of 2011 and these three markets between them still only account for 4.1m bottles.
Pol Roger President, Patrice Noyelle, was in ebullient mood when I met him earlier in the year and tasted the new Pol Roger 2002 vintage, which he sees as marking a new direction for Pol in terms style, with increased subtlety and finesse. He was buoyed up by the excellent year the company had in 2011, much of which he puts down to being the provider of Champagne to the royal wedding. It was at his insistence that the order was changed from bottles to magnums.
The 2002 vintage has a lower dosage than ever before at 8gms/l – they made a blend with just 6gms/l that was seriously considered as an option for release – and the wine is certainly a contrast to the rich, fairly forward style of the 2000 vintage that preceded it. Gentle, and beautifully balanced, as the best 2002s mostly seem to be, it takes time to evolve in the glass and clearly has a long future ahead of it for those “with the patience to wait”, as Noyelle puts it. The UK allocation was sold within a few days, according to UK MD Nick James who is hoping he may get more stock. Magnums are particularly sought after.
Off to Champagne this morning for a five day visit seeing some old friends as well as new producers. Temperatures are not expected to go above -3°C or -4°C in the daytime while I am there and I was wondering if it would get cold enough to damage the vines. But even though it has dipped to as low as -14°C at night, Richard Geoffroy of Dom Pérignon fame tells me frost has to get down to well under -20°C and stay there for a few days before vines are likely to suffer damage. While I am seeing some big houses, co-ops and small producers, partly to gauge how the Champenois view the current economic climate, I also have a meeting with SGV president Pascal Férat at which I hope to get the latest news on reform of the appellation. Further reports will follow – watch this space.
Moët and Chandon has confirmed that is will be putting the date of disgorgement on the back label its Grand Vintage 2004, both the white and rosé styles, due to be released in September this year. By the time the white wine is first launched it will have already had around 12 months post-disgorgement ageing on the cork as well as nearly seven on its lees, in keeping with the new policy of chef de cave Benoît Gouez to give these wines more time in the cellar post-disgorgement to build complexity.
The 2002 Grand Vintage was initially released in October 2010 and it was first disgorged in November 2009, so Gouez has actually slightly lengthened the post disgorgement ageing on the white style partly, “to help it recover from the oxidation trauma of the disgorgement process”. Moët Grand Vintage usually gets disgorged in three tranches spread over 18 months or so, depending on levels of demand, so by the time of the third release it has had nearly eight years on its lees. The 2004 rosé vintage style, where Gouez is trying to preserve freshness more, was disgorged in February 2012.
Speaking at a tasting of older Moët releases at the Champagne Summit on February 28, Stanislas Rocoffort de Vinnière, Moët & Chandon brand ambassador, said: “Wine connoisseurs like to know when champagne was disgorged, as well as things like the blend and dosage”. He wouldn’t be drawn on whether such information might also appear of Moët Brut Impérial NV in the future. However, following Krug’s decision to give the disgorgement dates on all future release of its wines via its website (see News story below), this development has fuelled speculation that other brands within the LVMH camp, Ruinart and Veuve Clicquot, might follow suit.
It isn’t the first time Moët has put a disgorgement date on one of its wines, the second release in 2002 of its ‘trilogie des grands crus’, three single vineyard, single varietal wines made in the nineties (96 and 97 harvests) also bore such a date, but that range was scrapped after just two releases. Moët & Chandon Grand Vintage collection re-releases of older vintages have both a disgorgement date and details of the exact blend on the back label.
Although we are currently seeing heavily discounted champagne prices in UK supermarkets in the run-up to Christmas it seems clear that the major brands will all try to raise their selling prices early next year following widespread rises in the cost of grapes from the 2011 harvest. On average grape prices have risen by at least 3% across the board but there are reports of larger increases for grand cru grapes.
“We are hoping the increase won’t be higher than 2 to 3%, but this will depend on the Crus involved, says Bruno Paillard, chairman of BCC, Champagne’s second largest group and owner of Lanson. “Some places in the Aube this year should see their price 5€ per kilo, while some grands crus grapes will cost more than 6€ per kilo.”
Alexandre Penet-Chardonnet, a small producer with vineyards in the Montagne de Reims grands crus of Verzy and Verzenay says the price is “around 5.85€ for grand cru Noir”. At Champagne Mailly, the grand cru co-operative, MD Preau puts the increase in prices for grand cru material at “around 5%”. While a press operator dealing with a number of the major houses based in the grand vallée de la Marne says: “It will be 5.85- 5.9€ per kilo for basic grapes at my press house which is a 4.5% increase on 2010 prices and he is seeing prices as high as 6.40€ per kilo for certified grand cru Pinot Noir”.
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.
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 & 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.