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”

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”

Two bottle price the norm for customers says Majestic buyer

I bumped into Justin Apthorp, champagne buyer at Majestic, at the London Wine Fair at Olympia last week, feeling slightly guilty about my recent post on their pricing policy for champagne — High pricing flatters discounts offered at Majestic. He didn’t approve. Before I had even asked him a question he said he’d read the post and wanted to point out that Majestic customers very rarely purchased single bottles of champagne, so in effect the [much more competitive] two bottle price was the norm.

He didn’t want to talk on the record generally about champagne pricing in the UK (which is a shame because I know his comments would make interesting and uncomfortable reading for champagne suppliers and supermarket retailers alike) but did make the quick aside that it seemed to be more than a coincidence that all the major champagne houses have been putting their prices up together, and at a time when sales are falling.

Majestic’s policy of, let us say, emphasising the discounts it offers, has of course been influenced by the supermarkets’ ‘false’ half price deals on champagnes that are not remotely worth the claimed full retail price. And to its credit Majestic certainly hasn’t aped that policy. In fact the company has some very decent current offers, particularly under its ‘buy two save 33% deals’, with  big name brands featured like Bollinger (£33.31 for Special Cuvée); Pol Roger Réserve (also £33.31); Perrier-Jouët Blason Rosé (£29.98) and Piper Heidsieck £23.32.

And if any of its customers do want to buy a single bottle of champagne in their minimum purchase of six bottles there are also good single bottle price deals on Taittinger Brut – down from £42 to £25–   plus three wines from Ruinart, including the sought after Blanc de Blancs and Rosé styles both priced at £41.66 when they are more regularly featured at well over £50.

Fizz price war takes off

As we near the end of November, so the promotional activity at the supermarkets hots up with lots of copycat deals as the grocers try to match anything their competitors put out. Heidsieck Monopole Blue Top, a basic level non-vintage brut, is being pushed by Sainsbury’s, Tesco and ASDA who all have it priced around the £15 mark. Sainsbury’s have gone one step further cutting the single bottle price to £12.49 a bottle, as a reader near Oxford spotted. Perhaps to better the Co-op’s deal on Piper Heidsieck, they have also extended their offer on this brand, and cut the price further to £18 a bottle.

In the latest competitive move ASDA has upped the anti by bettering Morrisons offers on Lanson Black Label and Rosé (by 99p) and cutting the price of its own label exclusive Pierre Darcys Brut NV to just £10 a bottle. Aldi has reduced the price of its Veuve Monsigny exclusive label to £9.99 into the New Year.

Further discounts are likely to emerge shortly with another 25% off the whole range due to start imminently. See latest offers

Frost hits low lying vineyards planted with Chardonnay

Philippe Brun and neighbour inspect the frost damage to vines in Mareuil-sur-Ay

Frost on the night of April 16/17 have severely damaged part of the Champagne vineyard, destroying embryonic buds on the vines showing their first leaves as many, particularly Chardonnay, already are.

Driving around vineyards this morning (18 April) in Grande Vallée de la Marne including Aÿ, Mareuil-sur-Aÿ and Avenay, I saw widespread damage, in the relatively forward Chardonnay in the low lying flat areas of vineyard close to the Marne River, but also in some Pinot Noir parcels.

Talking to other vineyard workers inspecting their own vines we heard about one producer who had lost around one hectare of vineyard in Le Mesnil sur Oger on the same night of 16 April but this information is as yet unconfirmed.

With temperatures dropping to as low as -4degC and -5degC on the night of the 16th, the damage was confined to vineyards on the valley floor and to those vines already in bud or where second and third leaves had developed.

Frost damaged vine in Mareuil-sur-Ay

Looking at the vineyards some 36 hours later in certain places all the buds were frozen, however it won’t be possible to assess the extent of the damage fully for a couple more days by which time the effected parts go black and buds drop off.

It is mainly Chardonnay which is affected and the problem here is exacerbated as Chardonnay grows quickly once the first buds break. In the low lying vineyards of Mareuil-sur-Ay where Pinot Meunier is still planted, as it used to be more widely in the past, there is no problem as the vines are not yet in bud. There was also a less severe frost on the night of Friday 13 April reported as destroying around 5% of Chardonnay is some parts of Villers-Marmery. (More news to follow soon)

Further comments 25 April 2012:

Olivier Bonville of Franck Bonville, a grower based in Avize says: “Frost affected about 30% of our vineyard. After the warm temperatures in March the vines were already showing two leaves and we were also hit by frost in the previous week on the night of 12/13 April when temperatures fell to -2 to -3degC.”

For Arnaud Margaine, a grower with vineyards in Villers-Marmery on the east facing slopes on the Montagne de Reims, the frosts of April 13 caused less than 5% damage but the night of 16/17th was colder and “we saw 15-20% of the vines damaged. But it is still too early to see the impact on the next harvest as some new buds may grow”.

Benoît Gouez winemaker at Moët & Chandon just back from the USA this week reports that “Globally between 7 and 8% of [the potential crop] our vineyards have been destroyed,” with the worst damage in the grands crus of Avize and Aÿ – 18 and 17% respectively but Cramant “12% destroyed and Bouzy 9%” also hit. The vines in the Côte des Bar to the south-east of Troyes where Pinot Noir is planted mainly were hardest struck and Gouez says Moët has lost nearly one fifth of its crop there.

Grower producer Cyril Jeaunaux based in the village of Talus-Saint Prix to the south-west of the Côte des Blancs says they suffered 40% frost damage in his vineyards with the worst affected areas on low lying land in the west part of the village. “Chardonnay isn’t more affected than Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier even though it was much more developed. We are often hit here because of early bud break and higher humidity than some areas which is caused by proximity to the Petit Morin river”, says Jeaunaux. “This year in Villenard, which is next to Talus, the damage is less serious with only 10-15% of the vines are affected.”

Regis Camus the winemaker at P&C Heidsieck says: “Pinot Meunier wasn’t touched by the recent frosts it was Pinot Noir that was worse affected with around 10% damage in the Marne Valley and as much as 20% in the Côte des Bar. Chardonnay near the valley floor it the Côte des Blancs was also damaged but it is still hard to say how badly as it has rained steadily since and there are no new green shoots appearing. It is likely there will be secondary buds growing on the damaged vines but these will either bear less or no fruit,” say Camus, “so in either case yields will be down. The frost has also stressed the vines making them more susceptible to disease like rot or mildew.”

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.