Champagne

Transfixed by beautiful bubbles

This section is for brief reviews of wines that I have recently enjoyed drinking. For quick reference I have given a * rating for each wine from one to five stars.

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As someone with a special interest in champagne and who thoroughly enjoys snorkeling, I’m always thrilled when I get a chance to swim through a plume of scuba diver’s bubbles as they swim below. As the fine bubbles of air burst against my hands and face, I imagine this is what it could be like swimming around in a vast glass of champagne. Completely whimsical, of course! Yet bubbles are one of the most essential joys of good champagne.

It is always magical to watch a tiny, consistent bead dash in a sparkling column up to the top of a glass and gently release fine aromas as it reaches the surface. The recent trend to bring back coupe style glasses is, as you can imagine, not one supported by me. I can certainly understand using a more traditionally-shaped white wine glass for very mature champagne when bubbles are still part of the fundamental experience, although it is the complex aged aromas and flavours that remain of prime importance.

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I have been buying and drinking Pol Roger champagnes for many years. Not only do I admire the quality and consistency of their wines butalso the precision and finesse of every single wine in their portfolio. If I had to choose one category over all the others, it would be the vintage Blanc de Blancs – but the whole range is impressive. Although the millennium vintage is certainly not classed as highly as years such as 1996, 2004 or 2008, it did deliver some fabulous champagnes. Not only was it a warm year but there was also widespread hailstorm damage across 114 communes. Pol Roger Blanc de Blancs Brut 2000 was sourced from 100 percent grand cru villages across the Cote des Blancs. The wine is aged on lees for at least eight years prior to disgorgement. Drinking this wine at 16 years old was a pure delight. The tiny bubbles sparkled in the pale golden liquid, so I was glad I had chosen a traditional flute to admire them. Hints of honey nougat and biscuity, brioche aromas gently emerged from the glass. The palate displayed generous pear and nectarine flavours, but these were all reined in by the wonderful finesse, precision and citrus intensity that are the hallmarks of the house of Pol Roger.****

The Smiling Angel of Champagne

This section is for brief reviews of wines that I have recently enjoyed drinking. For quick reference I have given a * rating for each wine from one to five stars.

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The Champagne house of Henri Abelé is not particularly well known on the international market as, up until now, only 30 per cent of production has been exported. Nonetheless, having been founded in 1757, it is one of the oldest houses and prides itself on its boutique status with annual production at less than 500,000 bottles. The house has a very close link with its local heritage, particularly with the renovations that were required for the restoration of Reims’ impressive cathedral following the destruction caused during the Second World War. This involvement included the repair of the ‘Smiling Angel’ statue found above the entrance to this inspiring structure. Not only are Henri Abelé’s top cuvees named ‘Sourire de Reims’, but the house is also in the exclusive position of using the ‘Smiling Angel’ emblem to adorn all its labels and packaging.

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The Champagne house underwent its own form of refurbishment when, in 1985, it was purchased by the Freixenet Group. It was a watershed for the producer. Financial investment went into new winemaking equipment and practices, including a greater focus by the new Chef de Caves on vineyard parcel selection from the house’s long-standing growers. Strong regional and historical associations have not blinkered the house to the need to move with the times.

In general, Champagne labeling is one of the most traditional in the world. Henri Abelé sought to have some fun with the production of their Limited Edition Brut 2007 of which only 5,000 bottles were released. Produced to celebrate its 250th anniversary the house also recognized the need to attract new, younger consumers. The all-encompassing wrapping of the bottle is done as a fun ‘take’ on the extremely traditional ‘Toile de Jouy’ – a white or cream cloth (‘toile’) from the Parisian suburb of Jouy, which features a single repeated pattern of one colour. Lively, eye-catching motifs feature romantic Parisian scenes of the Eiffel Tower, cafés, a Citroen DC and Ladurée macaroons along with references to the Champagne region including vineyards and Reims Cathedral. The wine within this novel bottle is made from 60 per cent Chardonnay and 40 per cent Pinot Noir. Only disgorged in 2015 this Champagne is currently drinking very well. A little hint of straw colour and a very fine, persistent bubble are delivered in the glass with a gently creamy nose of classic brioche aromas. 2007 is not considered an outstanding vintage in Champagne, however it did produce wines of finesse and elegance. Henri Abelé Limited Edition Brut 2007 is one Champagne that fits that description completely. ****

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A Noble Pleasure

This section is for brief reviews of wines that I have recently enjoyed drinking. For quick reference I have given a * rating for each wine from one to five stars.

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The Champagne house of Lanson is probably most well known amongst general consumers, especially in the British market, for its non-vintage Black Label. Amongst wine students this ‘grande marque’ is more frequently associated with the fact that malolactic fermentation is avoided. This is a process that principally changes the acid profile of the still base wine post-primary fermentation prior to blending but before the second fermentation in bottle, which results in the sparkle. Such an approach is counter to the vast number of Champagne houses that ensure their wines undergo malolactic fermentation. The majority employ this process to soften, and thus counter, the high level of natural malic acidity present in grapes that have been grown in such a marginal (cool) climate as Champagne. Blanc de Blancs styles are invariably high in freshness as they are made from 100% Chardonnay. Some Champagne houses consider the malolactic fermentation for such styles imperative, but not at Lanson. For those of us who still really love freshness, lift and elegance in well-aged, vintage Champagne, Lanson’s approach is applauded. Recently, I thoroughly enjoyed Lanson’s Noble Cuvée Blanc de Blancs 2000 with its very pale colour, delicate citrus aromas with hints of brioche complexity and a crystalline freshness on the palate. I was reminded that at 15 years old and with at least eight years resting on its lees prior to disgorgement, this wine had all the hallmarks of a high quality Champagne that would last for decades and still remain quintessentially fresh and elegant – intrinsic characteristics I believe every classic Champagne should exhibit. ****(*)

‘The whole is more than the sum of its parts’

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Aristotle was born too early to enjoy the modern day sparkling wines of Champagne. Nonetheless his, sometimes misquoted, adage is particularly relevant to the Champagne region where blending of different wines is skillfully carried out to create a harmonious ‘whole’.

The talent and skill required to achieve such wines is certainly not something that anyone can turn their hand to. Stanislas Thiénot of Champagne Thiénot recently demonstrated this during a workshop hosted by Singapore’s branch of Berry Brothers & Rudd. It was a fun exercise and proved to me that I should stick to my existing ‘day job’. The ability to take different parcels of still, predominantly young wines, blend them together, put them through a second fermentation to create the sparkle and then allow those wines to age over several years before they are deemed suitable for enjoyment takes significant expertise. Such proficiency is not gained overnight.

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Champagne Thiénot was established by Stanislas’s father, Alain Thiénot, in 1985. Through his role as a successful Champagne broker, Thiénot senior built up extensive relationships with growers along with important knowledge of the region’s vineyards. Thiénot has gone on to acquire other brands (including Canard-Duchêne) take over 50% of Joseph Perrier, as well as building an impressive new winery just outside Reims. With a formidable portfolio of other wine interests, Alain Thiénot now leaves the champagne element to Stanislas.

For the workshop Stanislas presented ten wines, six of which were ‘vins clairs’ i.e. still wines which, in this instance, came from separate parcels of vineyards and would eventually become part of a larger blend. Champagne Thiénot source 50% of their grapes from Grand Cru vineyards and the rest from Premier Cru vineyards so there is little doubt about the pedigree of the base product. Nonetheless it is a very difficult task to taste these highly acidic wines and imagine how they will eventually harmonize with other elements to finally create extremely palatable champagnes.

With 200 tanks of different parcels in the winery to choose from Stanislas had picked two samples each of the three designated grape varieties that make up the bulk of champagne blends, all coming from the 2014 vintage. The first two samples were 100% Pinot Meunier – the black grape that gives upfront fruit in its youth so is used by the majority of Champagne houses in their Non Vintage blends. These examples merely hinted at any fruit notes as they had very tight, razor-sharp acidity, which resembled pink-grapefruit sharpness.

There were two samples of 100% Pinot Noir – one from the Premier Cru village of Cumières and the other from a vineyard the family has owned since 1976 located in the Grand Cru village of Ay. The Cumières example had a gentle red berry aroma but the palate was piercingly acidic. Pinot Noir is included in blends to give breadth, depth and richness to the final champagne. The Ay example hinted, but only shyly, at the powerful structure it will add to the ultimate blend.

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Two Chardonnay samples were presented as the final ‘vins clairs’, the second of which came from the Grand Cru vineyard of Avize. Its heritage was evident from the delicate nougat aromas and the palate, although still essentially tight with ripe grapefruit characters, showed enormous freshness and length. Finesse and elegance are the characters expected of the Chardonnay element in a final blend.

The 2014 vintage was a short harvest as sugars levels increased quickly after a dismal, wet mid summer during July and August followed by ‘Indian Summer’ conditions in September. Freshness and fruit quality are the aim for the final wines so oak is never used at Thiénot and in 2014 it was also decided that malolactic fermentation would be avoided to maintain that freshness. It was this freshness that was evident in the remaining four wines tasted.

The final bubble-less ‘vin clair’ tasted was the non-vintage blend based on the 2013 vintage although 30% also came from a mixture of 2012 and 2010. Using 40% Chardonnay, 35% Pinot Noir and the remaining 25% Pinot Meunier I could begin to anticipate how the wine would taste once it gains its sparkle. Attractively creamy on the nose, the palate was very fresh and tight although there were delicious white stone fruit flavours evident.

The first finished champagne tasted, and the current release, was the Thiénot Non Vintage, of which 55% came from 2010 and the remaining 45% jointly from 2008 and 2009. Drawing on 50% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot Noir and a mere 5% Pinot Meunier, the wine showed abundant autolytic characters of brioche and freshly based biscuits. These characters were particularly marked because they came after tasting so many ‘vins clairs’ which had not spent four years on their lees, as this example had.

IMG_7097Single vintage, carefully aged Blanc de Blancs has long been a favourite style of champagne for me so I was enthusiastic to taste Thiénot’s Cuvée Stanislas 2005. Even more so as this wine, and the one to follow are only produced in very limited quantities. Generally the year 2005 was considered better for Chardonnay than Pinot Noir. Very pale golden in colour with a nose that was gently nutty and autolytic, the texture of the bubbles was rounded hinting at a touch of maturity but showing the overall classic elegance associated with this style.

Garance is the name of Stanislas’ sister who also has a wine named after her. Cuvée Garance is a Blanc de Noirs made from 100% Pinot Noir. We were lucky enough to taste the 2007 during the workshop. Although not considered a good year across the Champagne region, as with all generalizations there are exceptions and this final wine of the line-up was one of those. The Cuvée Garance 2007 was a beautiful wine. Pale gold in colour, the nose displayed lovely hints of mushrooms and nougat. With a rounded creaminess the aromas seemed complete. These characters followed through to the palate, which again had a plump quality to the seamless gentle bubbles that harmonized so well with the lovely complex layers of flavours.

With small quantities remaining of each of the single varietal ‘vins clairs’ Stanislas encouraged us to do some of our own blending in whatever proportions we wanted. Although a fun exercise, it really did emphasize that such tasks should be left to the experts. The ‘whole’ really did exhibit qualities and characteristics that were not present as ‘parts’.

When size does matter

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Recently hosting some special house guests I had the perfect occasion to bring out a magnum (1.5L) of champagne that I had been cosseting in my fridge – a Pol Roger 2000.  With six people we could enjoy two glasses each.  It was the ideal aperitif.  Buying a magnum of champagne is not necessarily cheaper than purchasing two bottles of 0.75L. Two normal sized bottles are easier to store in the fridge than one large one and can still fit in the fridge door once opened.  So why choose a magnum?  This is where size really does matter.  Apart from the ‘Wow Factor’ of serving from a magnum, it has long been accepted that a magnum is the ideal volume for ageing champagne.  The ratio of liquid to surface area allows for a slower, more even ageing process.  This is why half and quarter sized bottles often mature so quickly.  One of the key factors that champagne lovers look for in their wines is freshness, so magnums are keenly sought, especially amongst serious collectors at wine auctions.

This wonderful ability to age slowly was demonstrated at a tasting hosted during Vinexpo by the house of Lanson featuring 3 champagnes from the Lanson Vintage Collection.  Only selected vintages since 1976 have been chosen as part of the collection and these are offered for exclusive customers and special tastings.  With more than 250 years of heritage, the house of Lanson (along with Krug, Gosset and some Louis Roederer cuvees) has distinguished itself from many other champagnes by avoiding the practice of malolactic fermentation (a conversion of hard malic acid into softer lactic acid) for its wines, thus retaining inherent freshness, which is so important in the bottle ageing process.  Tasting our way through three examples from the Lanson Vintage Collection displayed how well the ageing process occurs when malolactic fermentation has been sidestepped.

As with other Champagne (and Port) houses, a vintage is only declared when the year produces excellent fruit.  Lanson’s vintage wines are usually a blend of 50% each of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  The Pinot Noir is sourced from the Grand Cru vineyards of the Montagne de Reims, in particular the villages of Verzenay and Bouzy, which together produce full bodied yet fresh, elegant styles.  The Chardonnay is generally only Grand Cru level also with most fruit being grown in the area known as the Cote des Blancs which contributes finesse and delicacy to blends, specially from the villages of Cramant and Le Mesnil-sur-Oger.  The overall style is about freshness and elegance.

2002 was considered a ‘nearly perfect’ vintage in Champagne.  It was a year which experienced an average 2 degree celsius more and 20% less rainfall than usual. As joint winemaker, Herve Dantan, noted 2000 was really the first vintage affected by global warming.  Extremely pale in colour, the nose was gently toasty with some yeasty, almost smokey notes along with floral, citrus and candied fruit characters.  Although the palate was very rich and concentrated it was balanced by a great freshness, zesty liveliness and an overall elegance.  Just beautiful now but still with a long life ahead of it.

A trio of exceptional vintages in 1988, 1989 and 1990 produced some outstanding wines.  We tasted the 1988 which was a classic vintage in Champagne with a very cold winter with abundant frost. July was particularly cool which meant that excellent acidity developed as August was warm and cloudy whilst there was some rain in September.  A lot of selection was necessary in the vineyards as some botrytis was present.  The wine had a tinge of copper gold on the colour with a very, very fine bead (bubble).  Initially the nose was reminiscent of creme brulee with hints of fresh ginger evident but opened up to more toffee-apple aromas.  The palate was rich and creamy with a wonderful purity of fruit and amazing freshness to lift the richness.

The north European heatwave of 1976 is far from evident in the magnum of Lanson 1976 which was tasted.  The age was demonstrated by the ‘old gold’ colour. A tiny bead persisted, relishing its escape after so many decades in the bottle.  The nose was layered and complex with honey, dried fruit, orange peel and creme brulee characters.  Concentrated dried fruit and ripe apricot flavours on the rich palate were balanced by a zesty citrus core ensuring that the wine was still lively.  Lanson’s philosophy of avoiding malolactic fermentation was beautifully demonstrated when we tasted this 38 year old champagne.  The wine showed all the mature features of a fine champagne along with the important characteristic of freshness everyone loves.

 

 

 

 

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