At this time of year my thoughts turn to festive fare, especially wine and the stuff that I like to drink at Christmas above all else, because it goes with everything and nothing, is Champagne.
Well as it happens I visited one of the greatest Champagne houses of all the other week and thought that I would share some thoughts about them with you.
The Champagne house is Gosset, which is famous for producing a relatively small amount of Champagne, but of impeccably high quality. They were founded in the beautiful Village of Aÿ in 1584 and claim to be the oldest wine house in the Champagne region. Ruinart actually started making Champagne before they did, but Gosset are older.
I have loved what Gosset do for decades, so was delighted to visit and see it all for myself. I have to say that I was not disappointed by anything. The house remained pretty small and still owned by the Gosset family right up until 1993 when they sold it to the Renaud-Cointreau family who own the enormously respected Frapin Cognac house – of which more another day. The new owners were only too aware of what they were buying so wanted to expand production but also retain the ethos, quality and style that had made Gosset’s wines so sought after.
To ensure the expansion worked well they needed more cellar space and so, in 2009, bought a winery and cellars in Epernay, while retaining the original – actually nineteenth century – cellars in nearby Aÿ. This purchase has more than doubled their cellar capacity, which is very important when you consider that every bottle that you sell needs to be replaced by five other bottles. This is because of the long time the wine has to be aged in the bottle. So you can see that expansion is an expensive and space consuming business.
Of course all great wine, whatever style it ends up, is born in the vineyard. Gosset only own a tiny amount of vineyards, but – as is normal in the region – they have long term relationships with many growers whose vineyards they favour. Many of these relationships go back many generations and allow the Gosset winemaking and viticultural teams to control what goes on in the vineyards.
Something that I admire about Gosset is their creative inconsistency. Most Champagne houses construct a range and stick to that vintage after vintage. Gosset seem quite happy to create an astonishing wine, like their Blanc de Noirs made from Pinot Noir, and then only release it once. It means their range is more like the playlist of a great band than a static list. The absolute classics are there but there might well be some real surprises from time to time too.
Their range is varied, but something, some character, some feel seems to hold them together. This essence, or Gosset-ness, is a sense of purity with minerality and salinity. The Chef de Cave and winemaker, Odilon de Varine, is a charming, amusing and modest man who seems to have Champagne running through his veins, indeed he worked at Deutz for many years and his father was Veuve Cliquot’s vineyard manager. Odilon’s words seemed to echo his Champagnes perfectly as he told me that he likes to capture the minerality in his wines and kept talking about the salinity that is there in all his cuvées. They do no malolactic fermentation (or malolactic conversion as I see we are now supposed to call it) and keep to a low dosage of 8 grams per litre for their Brut wines. All this helps to preserve that bracing, pure acidity, minerality and salinity in the wines. Don’t misunderstand me though, these are not austere wines. That bracing quality is balanced with a generosity in mouthfeel, fruit and structure.
I have loved all the Gosset Champagnes that I have tasted, but here is a selection that particularly excited me on my recent trip:
This is the signature non-vintage cuvée from Gosset, but that is the only standard thing about it. It is a very carefully built blend, Odilon kept saying how he ‘built’ a blend, that has great depth, enticing richness, but also that purity that keeps it light as air. This by the way is all at the same time, so there is real tension here. The blend is 45% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot Meunier (sometimes just called Meunier) and 10% Pinot Noir.
The colour is a lovely pale gold that shows its 36 months ageing on the lees. The nose is lifted with some honey, green apple, lemon peel and jasmine, while the palate is by turns delicately creamy, bracingly crisp and subtly autolytic with subtle pastry, nut and biscuit flavours from the lees ageing. All the while there is a tinge of fruit compote including apple, peach, plum and even some cherry. All that tension really informs the palate, with all the flavours and sensations contradicting each other, but coming together to make a whole wine.
This might be their basic cuvée, but it’s a great wine and a wonderful Christmas treat that makes a sumptuous aperitif or will go with many dishes including a classic Christmas dinner – 93/100 points.
An impeccable all round Champagne – a stylish aperitif that can partner anything, even Chinese and Thai food.
Pure Chardonnay from some great vineyard sites, including the Crus of Avize, Chouilly, Cramant, Villers-Marmery and Trépail. A lower dosage of just 6 grams per litre helps keep the purity of the style. For Odilon a Blanc de Blancs is the quintessence of Champagne minerality and should deliver a chalky, mineral and playful wine.
A paler creamier magnolia colour with a more austere character of crisp lemon, green apple and taut white peach notes together with a dash of oyster shell and a niggle of toast. The palate offers lots of nectarine and apricot fruit balanced by a nervy, chalky minerality and some salinity as well as a light touch of shortbread and even some lemon drizzle cake and a smoky, mineral feel to the long finish.
A very elegant, refined and beguiling Bland de Blancs – 94/100 points.
Light and elegant, this is perfect with seafood like oysters, prawns and scallops as well as delicate fish like sea bass.
Odilon likes to make his rosés by blending, because he reckons that you cannot build the blend and the complexity the same way if the colour comes from skin contact. Therefore this is made from 50% Chardonnay and 50% Pinot Noir, but of that Pinot component, 8% was still red wine from the best named wine village in the world, Bouzy in the Montagne de Reims.
A lovely coral or salmon colour, the nose is fresh and vibrant with lively, lifted strawberry notes, some red cherry and the merest hint of biscuit. The palate has beautiful strawberry fruit, fresh and dried too, there is some creaminess, some cinnamon and some ripe stone fruit like peaches and nectarines. The acidity is bright and the wine is held together by that hall-mark minerality and salinity.
A beautifully hedonistic wine that is also very elegant – 93/100 points.
Rosé Champagne is brilliant as an aperitif and with lighter and spicy dishes as well as smoked salmon and other seafood.
Youthful by Gosset standards as the previous vintage release was 2006 but this is non the worse for being relatively fresh. The fruit is all from the exceptional 2012 harvest and the wine is a blend of 67% Chardonnay and 33% Pinot Noir. The Chardonnay comes from the Crus (villages) of Avize, Cramant, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, Trépail and Ambonnay, while the Pinot Noir comes from Verzy, Mailly, Ambonnay and Aÿ, Gosset’s traditional home. The wine is aged for 5 years on the lees and the dosage is 8 grams per litre.
From a generous vintage and with long ageing, this wine has more richness and more concentration. This shows in the nose as apples and pears and peach with wafts of spice, curds, acacia, honey and brioche. The palate is luxurious with peach and lemon coulis, taste au citron, pastry, gingerbread, some creaminess, that brisk acidity and a nibbling salinity that balances all the richness – 94/100 points.
A richer style like this partners all sorts of dishes really well, white meat as well as fish and is lovely with cheese.
You can still find the richer 2006 around – click here -. It has more Pinot Noir and even longer lees ageing and is a very different style, but magnificent and beautifully balanced.
Celebris is the Gosset Cuvée de Prestige, created in 1993 to show the purity of their style. They don’t make much and they don’t make it often but it is always one of the greatest Champagne Cuvées. The blend is 57% Chardonnay from the Côte des Blancs Crus of Vertus, Avize, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, Verzy and Trépail in the Montagne des Reims. 43% is Pinot Noirs from the Montagne des Reims Crus of Aÿ, Bouzy and Ambonnay and from Cumières, Avenay in the Vallée de la Marne. The wine has a dosage of just 3 grams per litre and is aged on the lees for 10 years before release.
Incredibly concentrated aromas of toasted almonds, pithy lemon, green apple, yeasty, flaky pastry notes and even a touch of spice. The palate delivers preserved lemon, freshly baked bread, almonds, coconut – almost Peshwari naan flavours – jasmine, green tea, pithy lemon, grapefruit, softer peach and pure, taut minerality a touch of salinity and toasted Panettone. This is a beguiling wine with so much going on, so many exciting contradictions. It is so complex, so finely drawn but yes so delicious to drink too – 96/100 points.
Perfect with slightly richer food from grilled Dover Sole to fish pie to lighter meat dishes – great with a cheeseboard too.
If you are looking for something extra special to help Christmas go with a bang then you need not look any further than Gosset. Their wines are always impressive, alway fascinating, complex and detailed, but are always full of joy and give high amounts of pleasure too. Actually they are downright delicious and everyone should try these superb Champagnes at least once if they can.
By the way, please don’t just regard Champagne as something to drink for a celebration. Champagne is a very versatile wine style. It makes the perfect aperitif, or drink at any time, and goes with all sorts of foods