Charles Philipponnat was in town the other day and I could not resist the opportunity to try some of his Champagnes.
The Philipponnat family have been growing grapes and making wines in Champagne since 1522. They were originally based in in Aÿ, but Auguste and Pierre Philipponnat moved to nearby Mareuil-sur-Aÿ in 1910, where the Philipponnat Champagne house is still based in the beautiful Château de Mareuil.
Philipponnat has long been a favourite producer of mine, indeed I used to sell their Champagnes when I was a wine merchant, but most of the time I seldom get the chance to try them.
I was delighted therefore that Charles presented a range of six of his cuvées – the bulk of his range. This gave me true insight into the Philipponnat style and demonstrated what elegant and un-showy wines they are.
Philipponnat is a medium sized house that produces some 600,000 bottles a year – this sounds a lot to you and me, but is many, many, many times smaller than the big names.
They own some superb vineyards, mainly in Mareuil and largely planted to Pinot Noir – these provide between a third and a half of the grapes that they need.
There is most certainly a house style and Charles can tell you all about it here:
The ways that they reach this style are fascinating and it was hearing all this that made it such an especially rewarding tasting:
They only use the Cuvée, or first pressing of the grapes, to retain purity. Thus they only use 52% (by weight) of the grapes that they press.
They ensure that no premature oxidation takes place, they want the wine in the bottle to be fresh and pure with minerality and not an old fashioned oxidised style.
Philipponnat let the wine speak for itself as much as possible, they never add acidity – even in a hot year like 2003.
They manage the acidity very carefully and ensure that only partial malolactic fermentation takes place, this keeps the wines fresh and gives them the ability to age and develop complexity in bottle.
The dosage in the standard non-vintage cuvée has been considerably reduced over the last ten years or so, from 12 grams per litre of sugar to a mere 8 grams. This lets the wine speak for itself more as there is less sugar between your palate and the wine. They have been able to do this by making technically better and cleaner base wines than in the past.
What is more the dosage liqueur is always fresh, made as needed from new wine. That means that its flavour is as neutral as possible. Its only job is to balance the acidity, not to mask anything in the Champagne.
They also disgorge the Champagnes as they need them and only keep between 3 and 6 months worth of disgorged stock, this too retains freshness in the wines.
Charles is very sure that they are merely following what they have always done, just that they are now better at it: ‘What we are doing now we were doing 20 years ago. We are just more precise at what we do today,’ he said.
Charles is always careful to stress how wine-like his Champagnes are. To help achieve this vinosity they have used barrels more and more, since 2000, for fermentation, ageing and holding their reserve stocks. They ferment around 50% of their wines in barrel, age them in barrel over the winter, until April, and then store the reserve wines in those same casks once they have been cleaned.
All their reserve wines for the non-vintage blends are now stored in oak barrels and are aged in a solera system to keep them fresh.
Interestingly they have put the disgorging date on all their bottles for many years, so the customer knows whether the wine has been aged since leaving the winery.
All of this care and attention to detail certainly produces wines that have a very elegant and restrained character together with intensity and concentration – in short, balanced.
Royale Réserve Brut Non-Vintage
Around 50% Pinot Noir from Philipponnat’s vineyards in Mareuil together with 35% Chardonnay & 15% Pinot Meunier.
Based on the superb 2005 vintage with 28% of reserve wines.
5% is barrel fermented for complexity.
Dosage is just 8 grams per litre.
Aged 3 years on the lees.
Disgorged in March 2009.
My note: A very attractive wine, very soft in the mouth with honeyed notes, crisp acidity and good balance with a good, persistent and soft mousse.
This gives a lovely mouthfull of Champagne, easy to drink, but elegant and fine and is delicious from the first sip. 88 points.
Royale Réserve Brut Non Dosée Non-Vintage (with no dosage)
This is the same Cuvée as above, but with no dosage at all, so the wine is bone dry.
Disgorged October 2008.
My note: A very different style, the lack of dosage seems to make the wine more aromatic, floral and intense. The palate is very mineral and chalky – quite wine-like, with almost austere acidity and yet the fruit has a creamy texture. The mousse seems almost hard and firm.
A really unusual Champagne and one that needs food. To my mind it is best drunk as a wine and, like a great wine, just gets better and better the more you get to know it! 91 points
Grand Blanc Brut 1999
Only 1er Cru and Grand Cru Chardonnay grapes from the Côte des Blancs villages of Cramant, Mesnil-sur-Oger & Vertus with around 15% from Philipponnat’s Clos des Goisses vineyard in Mareuil and another 15% from 1er Cru grapes from the Montagne de Reims.
Dosage is just 5 grams per litre, this actually puts it in the Extra Brut level of between 0-6 grams, but is labeled as Brut.
Disgorged September 2007.
My note: A wonderfully expressive nose of ozone, pine nuts, fresh baking and soft citrus notes.
The palate is clean and fresh, belying its years, with honey, lemon-peel, minerality and developed yeasty characters.
The finish is soft and delicately creamy with toasty notes and a long, elegantly austere finish. 91 points.
Réserve Millésimée 2000
70% Pinot Noir from Mareuil-sur-Aÿ and Mailly, blended with 30% Chardonnay from the Côte des Blancs.
Dosage is just 4.25 grams per litre.
Disgorged in October 2007.
My note: Again this Cuvée had an incredibley expressive nose; iodine/seaweed with nuts and lemon rind.
The acidity was very fresh and lively in the mouth with rich citrus flavours balanced by the honeyed/developed yeasty characters of long ageing on the lees.
For me this was the least successful, I liked it, but it was perhaps a little hollow in the mouth and it had such strong competition. 87 points.
Cuvée 1522 Extra Brut Grand Cru 2000
A Cuvée created to honour the earliest records of the Philipponnat family working as wine growers in Aÿ, this is 60% Pinot Noir from Aÿ together with 40% Chardonnay from Oger in the Côte des Blancs.
Dosage is just 4 grams per litre.
Disgorged in February 2006.
My note: Intensely honeyed and fragrant nose with minerality, orange blossom and rich marzipan notes.
The palate was soft and creamy with an underlying spicy minerality. This is a very concentrated and flavoursome Champagne, that is also very fresh in the mouth with cooked lemon characters, a salty/savoury twang and a long, complex finish.
This Champagne was superb, in my notes at the tasting I likened the previous wine to the fine fragility of a violin soloist, whereas this is has the rich complexity of a Jazz Quintet in full syncopated form. 95 points.
Clos des Goisses 1999 (single vineyard Champagne)
The pinnacle of their range, this is a single vineyard wine from the 5.5 hectare Clos des Goisses in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, which Pierre Philipponnat purchased in 1935.
The vineyard is very steep and faces due South giving excellent exposure, allowing for very ripe grapes to be produced. So favourable are the conditions that they can make a vintage wine from this vineyard in every harvest.
70% Pinot Noir together with 30% Chardonnay.
30% is barrel fermented for complexity.
Dosage is just 4.5 grams per litre.
Disgorged in October 2007.
My note: Sadly our sample of this great wine was out of condition, so you will have to wait to read a write up of it from me.
In conclusion, this was a wonderful tasting with fascinating Champagnes and some that were really great.
It was presented with charm and honesty by a man who really knew his stuff and has a quiet passion about the Champagnes that bear his name.
Philipponnat Champagnes are available from Les Caves De Pyrene.