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 different sources, a mix of large houses, co-operatives and small-scale artisan producers, spread across the appellation.

The first pair of wines were from two of the large négociants who dominate the Champagne business, Moët & Chandon Brut Impérial & Laurent-Perrier La Cuvée Brut. Picked partly as while they are both three-way varietal blends, they represent opposite ends of the non-vintage spectrum in terms of flavour profile. The Moët is more than two thirds black fruit (Meunier and Pinot Noir), while the relaunched Laurent-Perrier Brut named La Cuvée is a blend that’s even more Chardonnay dominant than its predecessor (for more details about Laurent-Perrier’s changes to its Brut NV see this link: http://wp.me/p4t654-1D1 ).

The Moët is also a great introduction to Champagne in that, as head winemaker Benoît Gouez emphasises at his tastings, it’s a blend that closely resembles the proportion of the three main grape varieties actually planted across the appellation.

The total area of vineyard planted in Champagne — these are 2016 figures — is 34,328 hectares and out of this, 33,805 hectares are in active production. The largest proportion is planted with Pinot Noir (13,142ha out of 34,328 or 38.3% of the vineyard surface), Meunier comes next with 10,689 hectares (31.1%) and Chardonnay third with 10,385ha (30.3%). Other varieties like Arbanne, Petit Meslier, Pinot Blanc or Blanc Vrai as it sometimes called and Pinot Gris (often known as Fromenteau in

The eight champagnes

Champagne) make up the remaining 112 hectares or just 0.33% of the planted vineyard.

The second pair of wines in the tasting were both Blanc de Noirs styles, one from a small family business based in the Côte des Bars region, the second made by one of Champagne’s top co-operatives, which draws most of its fruit from its 200 grower members based in the Montagne de Reims region.

It’s a myth that most of the Pinot Noir produced in Champagne is grown in vineyards in the Montagne de Reims, more than double the number of hectares of this variety is to be found in Champagne’s most southerly region, the Côte des Bars. Here there are 6,692ha of Pinot Noir and it accounts for 82.48% of all plantings, whereas there are only 3,227ha of Pinot Noir in the Montagne de Reims which is 38.2% of that area (the rest is pretty evenly split between Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier).

The first of these two wines is pure Pinot Noir – Blanc de Noirs can be made from a blend of Pinot Noir and Meunier or 100% of either variety — and comes from the small family business of Gremillet which is based in the village of Balnot-sur-Laignes that’s very close to Les Riceys, famous for its Pinot. Les Riceys’ other two claims to fame are that it is the single largest cru in the entire Champagne appellation with 842 hectares under vine in 2016 (Vertus is the next largest with 543 hectares) and it is the only town in France where three different AOC wines can be produced; Champagne, Rosé des Riceys and Côteaux Champenois (white or red).

Les Riceys is located towards the very south-west corner of Champagne, which is physically closer to Chablis than to Reims or Epernay — it’s under 60kms from Les Riceys almost directly west to the town of Chablis itself and from Les Riceys north to Epernay is over 160kms. The Kimmeridgian clay soils found here have more in common with Chablis too than with the chalky soils of vineyards immediately north and south of Epernay.

In contrast Palmer’s Blanc de Noirs is a 50/50 Noir/Meunier blend with longer lees ageing of around four years – it’s based on the 2011 harvest – and is drawn from Palmer’s historical terroirs including the grand crus of Mailly and Verzenay for Pinot Noir with Meunier from vineyards like Rilly-la-Montagne and Ludes, but also Les Riceys and some villages of the Vallée de la Marne.
Details of the other four wines in the tasting will follow shortly. In the meantime here is a list of the eight wines and stockists.

Retail stockists:
Moët & Chandon Brut Impérial: widely available, £35 a bottle or buy three save 25% at Waitrose until 13 June.
Laurent-Perrier La Cuvée Brut NV: £41.99 a bottle, £27.99 Mix Six price Majestic
Gremillet Blanc de Noirs Brut NV: £32.88 a bottle www.christopherpiperwines.co.uk
Palmer Blanc de Noirs Brut NV:  £237.75 per six bottle case (6 x 75cl, equiv to £39.63 a bottle), www.thefinewinecompany.co.uk Ruinart Blancs de Blancs Brut NV: widely available, www.bbr.com £57 a bottle
Berry Bros. & Rudd Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru by Le Mesnil: www.bbr.com £33.99 a bottle,
Philipponnat Royal Réserve Rosée Brut NV, £44.99 down to £39.99 www.simplywinesdirect.uk ; half bottles £29.99 Selfridges.
Drappier Brut Rosé de Saignée NV: https://www.winedirect.co.uk/champagne-drappier-rose-brut-nv £37.95 a bottle.

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 the proportion moves from 50 to 55% with Pinot Noir remaining at 35% while the amount of Meunier falls to 10%. It will also get at least an extra year on its lees with the minimum ageing increased from three to four years. In line with long term trends in Champagne the dosage level also falls from 10 to 9gm/l while the proportion of reserve wine increases with up to 30% in the new blend. The wine has the new round label also sported by the just released 2007 Brut vintage (see picture).

Laurent-Perrier chef de cave Michel Fauconnier with Alexandra Pereyre de Nonancourt

Hesketh says the Chardonnay dominant style of the non-vintage has evolved since he started at the company when it accounted for 45% of the blend, still high compared with other large houses few of whom are above 40% (Taittinger Brut Réserve NV is at this level). “Michel Fauconnier our winemaker saw the opportunity of improving the blend as a result of the purchase of Champagne Malakoff and its vineyards back in 2004, which has given him access to more high-quality Chardonnay. The number of crus used in the assemblage nearly doubles to around 100.

The new Laurent-Perrier La Cuvée is gradually going into wider distribution currently and is already stocked by Majestic who have it priced at £41.99 a bottle but with a Mix Six price of £27.99 currently. Interestingly the last blend of Laurent-Perrier Brut is based on the 2010 harvest as they didn’t make any Brut non-vintage based on 2011. Those attending my tutored tasting at the WSET this coming Tuesday (6 June) will be able to taste that 2010 blend.

Whose champagne is Majestic enough?

Which champagne should you be opening to toast The Queen’s 91st birthday? It seems only certain, particular fizzes get past the palace gates. In order to supply HM The Queen, you have to be a Royal Warrant Holder and currently there are nine houses that have that privilege. But there may be different corks popping at Highgrove and Clarence House, as out of the nine, only one — Laurent-Perrier — is officially ‘by appointment to HRH The Prince of Wales’.

What they are drinking over at Kensington Palace is Continue reading “Whose champagne is Majestic enough?”

Stock up on vintage 2008 while deals last

Tesco’s deal offering 25% off on all its wines and champagnes – on purchases of six bottles or more – comes to an end this coming Monday (31 October) but is only running in tandem with one other discount on Taittinger Brut Réserve (down to £20.25 if you buy at least six bottles). As November nears the discounts are likely to sharpen on the main brands sold through all the grocers, but now may be the time to stock up on a few bottles of vintage Champagne.

There are2016-04-12 12.23.18 some very fine vintage champagnes around, with 2008 an impressive wine in the Continue reading “Stock up on vintage 2008 while deals last”

Fifteen prestige cuvées from 2002

The prospect of tasting 15 prestige cuvée champagnes in one sitting later this week is a mouth-watering one.  Especially as they are all from the celebrated 2002 vintage, which will probably, with a little competition from 2008 & ’09, go down as the finest vintage of the past decade. But it’s interesting to speculate — before I have seen the actual list — who will be included in the line-up?

I imagine Dom Pérignon, Cristal and Krug will be there, the last named only released to a rapturous welcome early this year, while Cristal will potentially boast considerable bottle age, given it was first made available over seven years ago. I guess Dom Ruinart, fabulously rich and powerful in 2002 and Clicquot’s La Grande Dame will complete the Moët-Hennessy quartet in the line-up.

Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill and Salon are two further acclaimed ‘02 releases, and I’m pretty sure Taittinger’s Comte de Champagne will feature (see my piece on the recent Finest Bubble vertical tasting of Comte 1996-2006 which included the 2002). To these eight we can probably add Continue reading “Fifteen prestige cuvées from 2002”

Waitrose sells single bottles of champagne online

Waitrose is tapping into the online market for fizz with a new service that started on Thursday (21 April) that allows customers to buy single bottles of champagne with free delivery. It’s offering an impressive range of 47 different lines — 42 champagnes and five English sparklers — through this new service with prices starting at £26.99 a bottle for Duval-Leroy’s Fleur de Champagne, while the most expensive bottle currently is a Salmanazar (equivalent to 12 standard bottles) of Bollinger Special Cuvée Brut NV at £675.

There are no2015-05-15-20.22.23-e1461404396843 Own Label champagnes or Waitrose exclusive labels and most of the wines are from the major houses. Among the initial Continue reading “Waitrose sells single bottles of champagne online”

Magnums and Own Label the best buys at Waitrose

With Waitrose 25% off all six bottle purchases of wines and champagne running for a further four days, it’s a good time to take a quick look at the champagnes they showed at last month’s tasting to pick out the best deals. As I have mentioned in the latest retail offers page, these are mainly on the wines that don’t usually get discounted by this much and are regularly well priced, namely the Own Label champagnes.

2015-05-07 Roed & Bolly magsOf these the stand out wine on tasting last month was the 2015-05-07 13.32.11Waitrose Blanc de Blancs Brut NV which is supplied by Maison Burtin — part of the BCC group, the largest in Champagne after LVMH, that also owns Lanson and Philipponnat among other brands. This was showing very attractively with some peppery, spicy notes and a distinctive biscuity textural complexity in the mid-palate which many big name brands would be happy to boast of. Buy six bottles and the price comes down from an affordable £24.99 to a bargain £18.74.

The other wine I’d stock up is the Le Mesnil Blanc de Blancs 2007 vintage, down from £33.99 a bottle to £25.49. I thought it was the non-vintage blend of this wine, still very good indeed which I tasted last week at a brilliant Berry Bros & Rudd ‘Artisans Champagne’ tasting (of which more shortly). But in fact Waitrose no longer sell the non-vintage cuvée this is an all Grand Cru vintage cuvée and an even better buy. One reader has already pointed this out to me, buying some last week when sadly the discount was a little smaller, but hopefully he will still be happy with the quality in the bottle. (I’m opening a bottle of the Le Mesnil 2004 in a minute to remind myself how delicious this wine gets with more age).

I also notice that on the groceries website (waitrose.com) Heidsieck Heritage which is made by P&C Heidsieck and was very decent the last time I tasted it (it wasn’t shown at the May tasting), is just £17.99 so this would come down under the 25% off deal to just £12.49 which makes it a pretty good buy for a party.

In praise of magnums

Waitrose champagne buyer Ken McKay told me that under their recent full review of sparkling wine and champagne they have delisted some champagnes in order to increase the range of sparkling wines, but at the same time, because magnums have been selling well, they have increased the range of larger formats they are offering from the start of June and they had five different champagnes in magnum at the tasting. They were Lanson Black Label (£67.99), Laurent-Perrier (£77.99), Pol Roger £77.99), Louis Roederer Brut Premier (£84.99) and Bollinger Special Cuvée (£89.99).

These all showed well, except for the Pol Roger which was curious subdued – in my experience magnums of champagne nearly always taste better than bottles of the same wine, sometime significantly so. Speaking to James Simpson MD of Pol Roger at the London Wine Fair this may be explained by the relatively recent disgorgement of this wine and I note that is doesn’t appear on the Waitrose list yet, so perhaps they have decided to hold it back a couple of months, by which time it should have recovered from the shock of disgorgement.

Helpfully Lanson actually put the date of disgorgement on the magnum — in this case June 2014 – so you can make a judgement about when to drink it. Given the already fresh, crisp Lanson style, I’d keep it until Christmas, by when it will have mellowed further. Of the other three, Laurent-Perrier, a good all round aperitif style that’s light and refreshing, will be on offer from 24 June, so I’d wait until then if you want to buy some. The Bollinger Special Cuvée, which usually really shines in magnum, is not quite mature enough but already good. The star of the quintet is the Louis Roederer Brut Premier, very good in bottle the last few times I have tasted it this year, in magnum it is even better, deliciously lively, spicy, complex, with a long long finish. This too will be at a great price from 24 June if you can bear to wait that long to try it. Sadly magnums are not included in the present 25% off deal.

There are two ways you can shop this offer at Waitrose online by going to www.waitrosecellar.com to buy by the six bottle case or through the grocery channel at www.waitrose.com  There are 61 champagne options in waitrosecellar.com and 41 through the grocery channel, but more magnums on the former site.