The fact that I’m not generally a huge fan of rosé champagne is borne out by the lack of pink fizz in my own cellar. Given a choice the same money will mostly buy you a far more interesting bottle of vintage champagne, in my view. I’m particularly attracted to the more winey, Burgundy style Pinot Noir driven pinks that age attractively and work surprisingly well with food, particularly things like duck or pigeon.
The frost that did major damage to vineyards across Burgundy at the end of April also had a major impact on Champagne’s most southerly vineyard area, the Côte des Bars, located to the south-east of Troyes. The temperatures didn’t drop that low, only 2 or 3 degrees of frost at most, but crucially they hit a saturated vineyard where there was even a light covering of snow (see photograph).
Following on from my top ten pink champagnes selection last month, I realised I hadn’t really done anything about the large range of growers’ pink champagnes that are now available in the UK at various specialist retailers. So with the help of Berry Bros & Rudd, who have one of the very best selections of ‘artisan’ champagne in the country, I put together a small tasting of mostly growers’ rosés and called in Anthony Rose of The Independent to join me in trying them.
The line-up included six growers’ champagnes, and three from small négociants with only the Billecart-Salmon style from a well-known house. There were six pinks made by blending (adding a portion of red wine to white champagne) and three saignée rosés (where the colour is ‘bled’ off the skins), plus a fourth made from a combination of the two methods. We tasted them blind taking our time to assess each wine, looking at the blends first.
Our favourite wine on the day was the R&L Legras Brut Rosé (93/100, 94/100). Complex, smoky, it has a lip-smacking refreshing, savoury quality that made it hard to resist drinking it in the tasting. It was closely followed by Philipponnat Brut Réserve Rosée, (92/100, 93/100). I moved the Philipponnat pink up a mark after consuming it with brilliant fish & chips (from Bowen’s, St Dogmaels, Pembrokeshire) a couple of day later, a great match thanks to the wine’s richness and vinosity, that’s boosted by having a large portion of reserve wine in the blend. I gave the Berry Bros UK Grand Cru Rosé made by Benoît Marguet my third highest mark. As the only wine in the tasting priced under £30 it certainly represents terrific value and Benoît is a fine producer whose champagnes generally are really worth seeking out.
The two wines from the Côte des Bar region, Champagne’s southernmost where Pinot Noir is the most widely planted grape (both featuring in my top ten pinks last month), also showed well. Drappier’s pink, which has long been a favourite of mine, showed an ample, generous Pinot Noir driven richness while the biodynamic produced Fleury, is a winey, muscular style that calls for food.
By chance the first wine in the line-up was Billecart’s Salmon’s a classically fresh, aperitif pink showing a lovely balance and a perfect benchmark style to assess the other wines against. The bottle of Pierre Peters Rosé d’Albane we had at the original tasting was faulty but a subsequent sample demonstrated that this fine Le Mesnil based producer also makes an attractive, delicate but intense pink fizz.
Pierre Peters Rosé d’Albane, Second sample 90/100 (GF), £36 Berry Bros & Rudd www.bbr.com
Anthony Rose’s tasting notes:
1. Fleury Rosé de Saignée. A lively pink light cherryish colour, quite vinous on the nose, and equally on the palate, lots of rich, almost sweet strawberryish fruit, nice lingering depth and winey texture with attractive depth and vinosity, very much a food wine with good personality, balance and tangy finish. Good for seafood. 91 / 100
2. Drappier Rosé. Pale bronzey pink, immediate, fresh, pleasant nose, some rich berry fruit on the palate, full-bodied, nicely vinous and very attractive, good concentration, almost juicy with redcurrant and cherry fruit tang to it, nice dry finish, good personality with a touch of tannin for food-friendly, savoury-winey character. Serious. 91 / 100
3. Pierre Peters Rosé. First sample at the tasting was faulty.
4. André Jacquart Rosé. Inelegant cherry / rosehip red colour, quite strong smoky oak and vanilla aromas, ripe sweet cherry fruit with lots of smoky oak behind it; some may like this style but it’s probably quite controversial because the oak’s in the foreground rather than the background, a rioja of champagne? 88 / 100
5. Billecart-Salmon Rosé. Pale bronze pink, lovely freshness and life, very bright, quite big bubbles, lovely intense and fruit nose, rich soft mousse of bubbles, initial strawberry sweetness balanced by a tangy redcurranty fresh acidity and elegant dry finish. Drink with food but a classic style, for drinking mainly as an aperitif. 91 /100
6. De Sousa Rosé. Aged in oak, 92% chardonnay and 8% pinot noir, rather deeply-hued for a rosé, quite cherryish in colour, rather dumb on the nose but a touch of spicy oak, idiosyncratic, nice sweet and sour cherry in the mouth, rustic and winey at the same time, almost more of a food wine than a champagne; not smooth but quite tangy and dry and has character, lots of it. Very much a seafood champagne. 90 / 100
7. Philipponnat Réserve Rosée. Pale bronze in colour, creamy-looking bead, lovely light savoury toast on the nose, very rich and complex, a suggestion of reserve wine maturity and richness, more complex than simply fruit, equally deliciously rich toasty fizz with powerfully textured creamy bead of bubbles; long and lingering flavours. 92 / 100
8. R&L Legras Rosé. Pale bronze pink, tiny bead of persistent bubbles, attractively fresh, smoky-creamy and fruit aromas and flavours, lovely strawberryish fruit quality, richly textured mousse, nice freshness and balance, with long, fine dry savoury lipsmacking finish that makes it hard not to swallow as you taste. It grows on you as you drink it. 93 /100
9. Paul Bara Rosé. A deep pink bronze, quite a lot of dark red berry on the nose, sweetish strawberry and cherry fruit with rather obvious sweetness that makes the wine a tad heavy in the mouth and lacking in finesse, and less refreshing that you might hope for, but pleasant enough as a drink with slight bitter-skin finish. 88 / 100
10. Berry Bros & Rudd Grand Cru Rosé. Benoit Marguet. 70% chardonnay and 30% pinot noir, lovely pale bronze colour with bubbles swirling in the glass, fine fresh and intense aromatics, lovely rich berry fruit, very fruity in fact on the palate, powerfully concentrated and full-bodied, lots of flavour intensity, rich and yet delicate at the same time, with finely textured mousse and excellent finish. 90+ /100
I used to be unenthusiastic about rosé champagne. I have an issue with the fact that it is generally priced at a similar level to vintage champagne, but rarely offers anything like the same emjoyable drinking experience. However I have to admit there are now many more attractive pink champagnes on the market and for Valentine’s Day lots of people will be drawn into buying pink fizz. So what are the best options, outside the supermarket norm but not in the stratospheric price territory (over £200) occupied by the big brands’ rosés, the likes of Cristal, Dom Pérignon, Krug, Comtes de Champagne, Clicquot’s La Grande Dame and Laurent-Perrier’s Cuvée Alexandra?
I am particularly attracted to the more winey, Burgundy style Pinot Noir driven pinks that age really well and work surprisingly well with food, particularly game. In this camp I’d include Veuve Clicquot Cave Privée Rosé, ideally the 1989 vintage which is still available, if in fairly limited distribution. Ten years younger, but both delicious in their different ways are Charles Heidsieck’s 1999 Rosé and Bollinger La Grande Année 1999 Rosé, Closer in style to the Clicquot with powerful rich Pinot Noir from Les Riceys playing a significant role in the blend comes Nicolas Feuillatte’s Palmes d’Or Rosé. I have the 1999, 2004 and 2005 vintages and will probably open the ‘99 myself on the 14th.
More delicate in style, but slightly more expensive is the creamy textured Billecart-Salmon’s Cuvée Elisabeth Salmon 2002. Great value but certainly not inferior comes the delicately fruity, but distinctly classy Joseph Perrier 2004 Rosé. Bruno Paillard Premier Cru Rosé is another winner resonating breeding and, as the best pinks are, very moreish. And Gosset Grande Rosé, which I tried again only this afternoon, is a very desirable, seductive pink that rapidly disappears.
That only leaves two remaining slots to fill and for these I am going to go to the Côte des Bar region to the south-east of Troyes where Michel Drappier makes a charming Burgundy-like pink and bio-dynamic producer Fleury produces something substantial and savoury, that would easily and enjoyably be consumed with an Asian duck dish. Finally I am going to cheat and add an 11th pink that is widely distributed in the supermarkets, that from Veuve Clicquot. This is probably the pink fizz I have tried most often in the past 18 months and has been consistently among the most enjoyable.
It may not be true of all wine, but in the case of champagne, the size of the bottle has a perceptible effect on the taste. While the vast majority of champagne is sold in 75cl bottles, if you put the same wine in a magnum it matures more slowly, just as it develops rather faster in a half bottle (37.5cl). While champagne is also sold in larger sizes from Jeroboam (3 litres) up to Melchizedek (30 litres) the wine in these formats is usually made in smaller bottles and decanted into them in a process known as transvasage, losing freshness and fizz in the process*.
Experience suggests the magnum is also the ideal size for producing champagne with the wines in this format invariably having the edge over their identical counterparts in bottle, though ideally they should be aged longer. In a recent taste test we tried Sainsbury’s Blanc de Noirs in bottle and magnum side by side to see if we could see much discernible difference and the wine in magnum was generally preferred. It was not noticeably fresher (as is often the case) it simply had more depth of flavour and a richer more satisfying mid palate, suggesting it may have been aged longer. A hint more colour and a cork which appeared to indicate it was disgorged some time earlier than the comparable bottle backed up that idea.
Although annoyingly the magnum is no longer on a 25% off promotion (and the bottle size is, see latest offers) as it was when recommended here earlier in the month, at around £40 it still represents good value and if you are entertaining guests this evening you also have the added theatre a magnum brings to any occasion. *There are some exceptions to this like Michel Drappier who disgorges in every bottle size from halves up to the Melchizedek and makes excellent wines.
After a disastrous growing season with frost, poor flowering, hail and disease all hitting yields, good, dry and warm weather in the run-up to picking has produced a small but potentially great harvest. “The quality is outstanding,” says Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon chef de cave at Louis Roederer. “It is a great vintage. Probably better than 1996 and close to 1990 on average. But in some special location it could well better than that, closer to a 1947? Full ripeness of Pinot Noir which is typical of a continental summer and a perfect final ripeness of Chardonnay and Meunier. Acidity is balanced and pH quite low for such a level of sugar.”
“All will be clearer in a few weeks when the still wines are tasted, but already, what we are seeing now is somewhere between 2002 and 1959, two of Champagne’s greatest vintages, if ever there were any,” says Charles Philipponnat of the eponymous house. “For us [it is], somewhere between 1959, 1990 and 2002. Yields were only 6 to 7000 kilos/hectare, but quality was very satisfactory, especially the Pinot Noir, whose exceptional sugar content — 11.5° to more than 12° — was higher than in 1976, 2000 or 2003, and was combined with an excellent acidity, that was even better than in 1996.”
“Everything is here, quality-wise, to craft some top vintage champagne. Considering just numbers, 2012 looks like a cross between 2002, 1990 and 1952 all excellent years,” says Frédéric Panaiotis, chef de cave at Ruinart. “All grapes came in super- healthy, we’ve recorded extremely high levels of glycerol and gluconic acid.”
“The overall quality of the grapes was very high,” says Hervé Deschamps, chef de cave at Perrier-Jouët. It was “a very good healthy harvest with no botrytis and a very good ripeness for all grapes varieties.” “Considering the health of the grapes, the level of maturity and the balance with acidity I am very confident in the vintage potential of this harvest,” says Benoît Gouez, chef de cave at Moët & Chandon.
“It looks like 1996, but less homogeneous,” says Michel Drappier of the eponymous house in the Côte des Bar. “It was a year of ‘extremes’, minus 20°c in February, a very warm and dry end of winter, the rainiest spring for years, the most devastating hail storm of the past 200 years, a heat wave in August with plus 38°c ‘cooking’ some berries and this resulted in the smallest crop for Drappier since 1957, with a yield of only 4,300Kg/ha.”
Yields were considerably down elsewhere as well. “With most of our old vineyards being traditionally ploughed, little usage of chemicals and some of our vineyards farmed organically and bio-dynamically, we have been very exposed to the bad weather conditions in 2012,” says Lécaillon, “especially in the early ripening grands crus. Our final yield in our vineyard was 7,500 kg/ha. Well below the appellation.” At Philipponnat yields “were only 6 to 7,000 kgs/ha” while at Moët in the Appellation’s largest estate “The average yield is 8.5 tons/ha,” says Gouez. Of those we have spoken to so far since the harvest ended only Perrier-Jouet has reached the maximum yield set by the CIVC. “In our vineyards we have by average 11,000kg/ha and near 200kg/ha for the Réserve individuelle,” says Deschamps.
A powerful hailstorm hit the southern Côte des Bar region of Champagne last week (7 June) destroying this year’s grape crop and causing such severe damage to the vines it is estimated that a third of next year’s harvest will also be lost. The hail was concentrated in a band just to the south of Bar-sur-Aube and particularly hit the villages of Urville and neighbouring crus Bergères, Meurville, Baroville and Fontaine, an area comprising some 719 hectares of vineyard. The vast majority of these vineyards are planted with Pinot Noir (586 hectares) but there were also eight hectares of rare varieties like Arbanne and Petit Meslier affected.
In Urville, some 100 hectares of vineyard out of the 189 in the village were completely destroyed and will produce no grapes this year while there was around 50% damage in a further 50 hectares. “One hundred hectares have been devastated just in Urville alone,” says Michel Drappier of the eponymous house, the largest in the region which is based in the village.
“The damage is estimated at 130% because at least 30% of the 2013 crop will also be affected,” says Drappier. “The rest of the coteaux has also suffered. According to the Services Techniques of the CIVC, who have visited our vineyards this morning (13th June), it is the third largest hail damage in the history of the Champagne region,” he says.
It all happened in the space of around 15 minutes and the villages of Meurville and Baroville had damage on a similar scale to Urville. The livelihoods of many growers are threatened, though fortunately most will have sufficient stock in their réserve individuelles to enable them to still produce around three quarters of the volume of champagne they made last year. However, using up all their reserve stock, as many will have to do, will leave them without any cover in the event of problems next year (in 2013). According to the CIVC the réserve individuelle across the appellation currently stands at an average of 8,185 kg/ha per producer.
“The Réserve Individuelle should cover, on average, the needs of the growers; the question is what about 2013? From today we have no more security stock in our cellars and each cloud passing by will be scrutinized closely. Here [at Drappier] we have sufficient stock and making a quality wine in 2012 will be no problem. But we will have to be careful with our sales and hold back some volume, especially for our Quattuor Blanc de Quatre Blancs which uses old varieties as we didn’t produce any in 2011 and won’t now be able to in either 2012 or 2013,” says Drappier.
The CIVC Services Techniques later reported that the area of vineyard in each village ‘affected’ by the hailstorm as follows: Fontaine 100%; Baroville 97%; Bergères 100%; Meurville 74%; Urville 97%. They added all the vineyards in the villages of Bertignolles, Bragelogne-Beauvoir and Arconville were also hit by the same hailstorm, while those in Noé les Mallets, Saint Usage (98%) and Bligny (69%) were damaged to a lesser extent.