A Craving for Crémant – Exciting French Sparkling Wines

The beautiful landscape in Savoie.

I really like sparkling wine and so I jumped at the chance to attend the 26th National Crémant Competition in France. This was held in Savoie in the French Alps, a region that I had never visited before, and hosted by the (French) National Federation of Crémant Growers and Producers.

Crémant (pronounced cray-mon) is a term that defines certain sparkling wines made outside France’s Champagne region, but uses the same method, the traditional method, to make them fizzy. I think Crémant is a lovely word that describes sparkling wines perfectly as it sounds so deliciously creamy and frothy.

I loved the landscape of Savoie.

This organisation oversees the production of all the different Crémant sparkling wines that are produced in France; Crémant d’Alsace, Crémant de Bordeaux, Crémant de Bourgogne, Crémant de Die, Crémant de Jura, Crémant de Limoux, Crémant de Loire and the new appellation contrôlée of Crémant de Savoie, that was only created in 2015. Luxembourg also has the right to use the term Crémant for its sparkling wines and examples of Crémant de Luxembourg were included in the competition.

Crémant must be made using the traditional method, so the second fermentation – that makes it fizzy – takes place inside the bottle that you buy. The wine then has to be aged on the lees – the yeast cells left over from the second fermentation – for at least 9 months and this allows some of the biscuity, brioche aromas and flavours to develop, making the wine more complex. Also the grapes for Crémant must be picked by hand and they are normally picked about 2 weeks before the grapes for still wine as you need high acidity for sparkling wine.

Some of these areas have pretty big production and so are widely seen, while others are only produced in tiny amounts and so very rarely encountered. Overall around 80 million bottles of French Crémant are produced a year, with roughly 70% of that being drunk in France itself, which makes sense as we do not often see it over here in the UK.

The big production is in Alsace, 35 million 75cl bottles in 2016, Bourgogne with 18 million and the Loire with 15 million. Bordeaux produces around 8 million bottles of Crémant, Limoux around 5 million, Savoie 380,000 and Die (in the Rhône) just 216,000 bottles in 2016.

Grape Varieties

Champagne of course is made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes, but a wider palate of grape varieties is used for the Crémant wines.

The dramatic vineyards of Savoie.

Crémant de Bourgogne wines have to include at least 30% of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and are usually made from those grapes, but Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Gamay, Aligoté, Melon Blanc and Sacy are also permitted. Rather confusingly the area of production for Crémant de Bourgogne includes Beaujolais, which nowadays is normally regarded as a separate region.

Crémant d’Alsace is usually made from Pinot Blanc and the rosé versions from Pinot Noir, but Riesling, Pinot Gris, Auxerrois and Chardonnay are also permitted. In fact Chardonnay is only grown in Alsace for use in Crémant.

Crémant de Loire, as you might expect, is chiefly made from Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc, but Chardonnay and Pinot Noir can be used as can Grolleau Noir, Grolleau Gris, Pineau d’Aunis and the very rare Orbois (also called Arbois).

Crémant de Bordeaux is made primarily from Sémillon with Sauvignon Blanc and the rosé examples include Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

Crémant de Limoux, in the Languedoc, is made from Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc, while the local Mauzac and Pinot Noir are also allowed.

Crémant de Jura is usually made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Trousseau, while Poulsard makes an appearance in the rosés.

Crémant de Savoie mainly uses the traditional Savoie varieties of Jaquère and Altesse, but Chasselas, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Gamay can also be used.

Crémant de Die is pretty much only made from the underrated Clairette grape, while Aligoté and Muscat can also be used.

Crémant de Luxembourg can be made from Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Auxerrois, Rivaner (Müller-Thurgau) and Elbling.

In total some 707 wines were entered into the National Crémant Competition, including 80 entries from Luxembourg, and 222 medals were awarded, 129 gold, 74 silver and 19 bronze.

Wine map of France – this shows all the regions mentioned, except Luxembourg – click for a larger view.

Prix de la Presse

It was the job of people like me to blind taste the top rated wines in the competition again and to choose the very best to award the Prix de la Presse for each Crémant region. The winners were:

Brut Cattin
Domaine Joseph Cattin
Crémant d’Alsace

A blend of Pinot Blanc and Auxerrois and aged for 15 months on the lees.

Cattin was established in 1720 and 11th generations of the Cattin family have run the estate.

They are based in the village of Vœgtlinshoffen, near Colmar and farm 60 hectares in the area.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK. Another excellent Crémant d’Alsace is the one made by Bruno Sorg – click here.

Cuvée Prestige Brut
Maison Remy Breque
Crémant de Bordeaux

100% Sémillon aged minimum of 9 months in the underground cellars of Maison Remy Breque.

The company is based a little north west of Libourne and the cellars were where the stone was quarried for building the city of Bordeaux.

The company was created by Remy Breque in 1927 and is now run by his grandson and great grandsons.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK. Another great value Crémant de Bordeaux is the one made by Calvet – click here.

Balard Rosé Brut
Cave Saint Pey de Castets
Crémant de Bordeaux

60% Merlot and 40% Cabernet Franc.

This cooperative is a little south west of Castillon-la-Bataille.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK.

Pinot Noir Brut 
Bailly Lapierre
Crémant de Bourgogne

This cooperative is based in Saint-Bris-le-Vineux near Auxerre in the north of Burgundy. It has 10 acres of amazing cellars cut in to the rock , where they age the Crémants.

This is 100% Pinot Noir, so is a Blanc de Noirs, or white wine made from black grapes. It is aged for 18 months on the lees.

Available in the UK from Tannico.co.uk. – click here.
Another very fine Crémant de Bourgogne is the one made by Albert Bichot – click here.

Carod Blanc Brut
Cave Carod
Crémant de Die

Principally Clairette with some Aligoté and Musact, this is aged on the lees for 12 months.

Cave Carod were a family company making sweetish sparkling Clairette de Die and are managed by the 4th generation of the Carod family tone involved, although it has been owned by Les Grands Chais de France since 2008.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK, however I would recommend the lovely example made by Domaine Achard-Vincent – click here.

Marcel Cabelier Vintage Brut
La Maison du Vigneron
Crémant de Jura

The Maison du Vigneron is the largest negotiant and producer in Jura and is now part of Les Grands Chais de France. I have tried their wines quite often and they can be very good. This is a blend of Pinot Noir and Poulsard grapes.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK, however I would recommend the lovely example made by Domaine de Montbourgeau – click here and the one by Domaine Jean-Louis Tissotclick here.
I would also recommend the great value Crémant de Jura sold by Aldi, it is good quality and astonishing value – click here.

Rosé Brut
Caveau des Byards
Crémant de Jura

A blend of Pinot Noir and Trousseau.

This is the smallest cooperative in Jura and is run more like an estate. They farm using sustainable agriculture and 50% of their production is their range of four highly respected Crémants.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK.

Jura wines are quite fascinating and well worth getting to know. The definitive book on the wines of the Jura is ‘Jaura Wine’ by Wink Lorch and yours truly drew the maps for the book – it can be purchased here and here.

Première Bulle Brut
Sieur d’Arques
Crémant de Limoux

A blend of Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Mauzac aged 18 months on the lees.

Sieur d’Arque’s Limoux vineyards, April 2016.

Sieur d’argues is a cooperative producer that makes a wide range of wines, some of them very fine indeed, but who really specialise in sparkling. This is because the first intentionally sparkling wine in the world is believed to have been made by the Benedictine monks of the St Hilaire Abbey, a village close to Limoux in 1531. What is more it was by the traditional method and so that method predates Champagne itself.  Blanquette de Limoux is the traditional local sparkling wine made from the local Mauzac / Blanquette grape, while the more modern Crémant de Limoux has to be blend of  Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc with just a little Mauzac.

Available in the UK from Tesco Wine by the case – click here. Sieur d’Arques also make this excellent Crémant de Limoux – click here.
I would also highly recommend the superb Crémant de Limoux made by Domaine J. Laurensclick here.

Domaine de la Gachère Brut
Alain & Giles Lemoine
Crémant de Loire

100% Chardonnay with 12 months ageing on the lees.

Domaine de la Gachère is some 20 km south of Saumur and is run by twin brothers Alain and Gilles Lemoine. They are very impressive winemakers.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK, however it is fairly easy to buy Crémant de Loire in the UK. Try Prince Alexandre Cremant de Loire from Waitrose or Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Crémant de Loire.
I would also highly recommend the Crémant de Loire made by Domaine de Saint-Just, it is not available in the UK, but it remains one of the finest non Champagne sparkling wine that I have ever drunk.

Domaine Cep d’Or Brut
Domaine Cep d’Or
Crémant de Luxembourg

70% Pinot Noir blended with 30% Auxerrois.

This estate in the beautiful Luxembourg Moselle vineyards is farmed by the Vesque family who have been vigneron in the Grand Duchy since 1762. They grow Auxerrois, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer and make their Crémants out of Pinot Blanc, Auxerrois and Riesling as well as Pinot Noir.

Map of Luxembourg’s vineyards – click for a larger view

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK and it is very hard to find Crémant de Luxembourg wines over here, however Tanners stock a fine one called Lmeaax – click here.

Crémant de Savoie Extra Brut
André et Michel Quenard
Crémant de Savoie

100% Jacquère from a wonderful, steep and stony 22 hectare estate whose wines I loved. It is run by Michel’s sons Guillaume and Romain and is among the best known and respected producers in the region. Certainly I liked everything that I tasted, they have a wonderful Alpine purity to them that find appealing and exciting.

Vineyards and a lovely mountain stream right by Domaine André et Michel Quenard.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK and it is very hard to find Crémant de Savoie wines over here, however Yapp Brothers stock a fine one from Domaine de L’Idylle, also see here, whose wines I liked very much – click here. It is also available at the excellent Streatham Wine House.

All in all it was a terrific trip that enabled me to see a new place and to taste a huge raft of sparkling wines,many of which were completely new to me. So, the next time you want some good fizz, it doesn’t have to be Champagne, Cava or Prosecco, there are plenty of alternatives.

Happy Christmas and a great 2016 to all plus a review of my year

Wow another Christmas is upon us and I have barely achieved a fraction of the things that I wanted to this year.

However, it was a great year for me for learning about amazing wines and visiting beautiful wine regions, so I can’t really complain. Here a few of my highlights of the year, I hope you enjoy them.

Naples fishing harbour with Capri in the background.

Naples fishing harbour with Capri in the background.

Back in March I visited Campania for the first time, seeing Naples and Pompeii as well as the wine regions of Taurasi, Greco di Tufo, Sannio and many more. It was a great experience full of wonderful wines and interesting stories. You can read all about it by clicking here.

Dobrovo perched on top of a terraced vineyard slope in Brda, Slovenia.

One of my favourite photographs of Slovenian vineyards.

Italy was very much the theme of the year for me as I visited four times in all. The first one was actually an amazing trip to study the wines produced in the north east edge of Italy and over the frontier in neighbouring Slovenia – the tour was called Wine Without Borders. That whole part of the world is very beautiful and produces some stunning wines too and you can read all about it by clicking here.

Typical transport in the countryside.

Typical transport in the Romanian countryside.

One of my most exciting trips of 2015 was to Romania. I had never been to the country at all before and had no idea what to expect from the wines. It turned out to be a beautiful country full of lovely people and some astonishing wines. I did not taste a single terrible wines and was very excited about the quality of most of them. You can read all about it by clicking here.

I toured the vineyards of Chablis by 2CV!

I toured the vineyards of Chablis by 2CV!

In June I was thrilled to go on my first dedicated trip to Chablis and I learned ever such a lot about what makes these wines quite so important. Ever since I have enjoyed talking about Chablis to all my students, but have yet to write about the visit – watch this space.

The beautiful vineyards of Lavaux.

The beautiful vineyards of Lavaux on Lake Geneva’s north shore.

In the same month I was honoured to be invited to be a judge at the Mondial du Chasselas wine competition in Switzerland. Chasselas is a real speciality grape in Switzerland, but comes close to being unloved almost anywhere else. Well I think the breadth of wines that I tasted and the sheer quality of most them proves the Swiss are right to love the grape and I loved the trip, as well as the big trip I made to Switzerland’s wine regions in late 2014. You can read all about my Swiss adventures by clicking here.

The beautiful Neckar Valley is like a mini-Mosel.

The beautiful Neckar Valley is like a mini-Mosel.

New discoveries and experiences continued with a terrific trip to Germany in September. Excitingly I visited Württemberg and the Neckar Valley as well as the amazing Stuttgart Wine Festival. This part of Germany is slightly off the beaten track wine-wise, certainly when compared to the Mosel or Rheingau, but it is well worth seeing as the landscape is very beautiful and some of the wines are stunning. Weingut Wöhrwag‘s 2013 Pinot Noir Untertürkheimer Herzogenberg Großes Gewächs was certainly the best Pinot I tasted in 2015 and one of the very best red wines that I drank all year. I aim to write all about it soon.

Piazza Duomo, Trento

Piazza Duomo in Trento, the beautiful capital of Trentino.

My Italian adventures continued in October with an enjoyable trip to Trentino in the north of the country. It is a fascinating and beautiful region that has only been part of Italy since 199, so is steeped in history. The wines were pretty good too, but then so was the beer – you can real all about it by clicking here.

Verona's amazing Roman Arena.

Verona’s amazing Roman Arena.

One added bonus of this trip was that I managed to stay an extra night in Verona and so saw that wonderful little city and was able to experience the delights of Lugana, a white wine from the southern shore of Lake Garda – it might well be my favourite Italian white right now and this delicious example is my Christmas white wine.

As well as overseas visits I have tasted some amazing wines over here too. I was particularly thrilled to meet the charming David Mazza who farms a tiny estate in Western Australia, but makes an amazing range of wines from Spanish and Portuguese grape varieties – you can read about him by clicking here.

The new discoveries kept coming too, new grapes like Tibouren from Provence and Cserszegi Fűszeres from Hungary, exciting old vine blends from Chile, a light red or a deep rosé from Tuscany, made from Tempranillo at that! Try as I might I simply could not leave Spain alone, I kept finding amazing Spanish wines that moved and excited me and that offered great value for money too – have a look here, here, here and here.

Along the way too I tasted a superb Albariño from California and another from New Zealand – Albariño is on the march it seems and you can read about them by clicking here.

Just the other day I presented my favourite sparkling wine of the year and I would urge you to try it if you can. It’s rather modestly called Apogee Deluxe Brut and is handmade by the great Andrew Pirie from fruit grown on a  2 hectare vineyard in northern Tasmania. I have long admired what Andrew does and if there is a better Australian fizz than this – indeed any non-Champagne fizz, although it had stiff opposition from Gramona’s amazing 2006 111 Lustros Gran Reserva Brut Nature Cava – then I have yet to try it. It is certainly a rich style of sparkling wine, but it never gets too serious, the fruit, freshness and frivolity dominate the palate and made me just want to drink more.

Vineyards in Stellenbosch.

Vineyards in Stellenbosch.

I nearly forgot, all right I did forget and had to come back and add this, the most exciting wine that I drank all year. There was lots of competition from the delicious 2011 Chêne Bleu Aliot, the sublime 1978 Ridge Monte Bello Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet Sauvignon from California and the downright amazing 2001 Château La Tour Blanche Sauternes, but my stand out wine was from my own collection and it was a beautifully mature Merlot-Cabernet blend from Stellenbosch.

Stellenbosch 19891989 Rozendal
Rozendal Farm
Stellenbosch
South Africa
I was very nervous about opening this. For South Africa it is very old, Nelson Mandela was still in prison when this was made and I know nothing about it. The estate seems to have disappeared. Frankly the wine seemed older and looked older than it was – even the label seems ancient. the nose was classic mature wine, smoky, cedar, earthy and overwhelmingly savoury with some balsamic notes and a touch of dried fruit too. The palate was extraordinary, still all there with that hallmark savoury fragility of very mature wine. Good acidity kept it fresh and provided the secret of its longevity. the tannins were almost totally faded, but for me the big revelation was a solid core of ripe sweet fruit that made it a joy to drink despite its venerable age.

Tasting this was a great moment and one worth recording as mature wine from anywhere other than the classic regions – I include California here – is pretty rare, especially of this quality. If anyone knows anything about Rozendal please let me know, I tried to contact them, but to no avail.

All in all 2015 went too fast, but it was good fun – despite me turning 50 in January – so let’s hope for even more excitement in 2016.

Have a great Christmas and a wonderful New Year and thank you so much for reading my wine page.

 

Champagne Taittinger – variety & style

The beautiful vineyards of Champagne.

The beautiful vineyards of Champagne.

A lot of time we talk about Champagne as though it is all the same. The truth is though that the only thing most Champagnes have in common is the fact that they are fizzy.

Each house has a different approach which makes for a wide array of Champagne styles. Some are rich, Pinot Noir dominated and barrel fermented, whereas others are citric and light as air – with lots of variety in between.

No, in reality Champagne is as varied as any other wine, but because the fundamental nature of the different wines is similar the differences are often nuanced. However, because the palate of grapes is very small – really just 3, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, although there are some old plantings of other grapes still in production – the variety is quite astonishing. Much like music, which is all written with 7 notes, Champagne is all created with a tiny repertoire of raw material, which just makes the differences all the more remarkable.

Not many of us get to taste a huge variety of Champagnes – sadly. So I cherish the moments that I can and recently I have been doing some tastings of the Taittinger range and I thought it might interest some of you to know about their different cuvées.

When people say they have had a bottle of Taittinger – or indeed Moët et Chandon, Laurent-Perrier or Bollinger et al – they usually mean that they drank the standard offering – the standard bearer of the house. This is normally the Non Vintage Brut, but almost all houses produce a much wider range than that, making rosés, vintages, a cuvée de prestige and even sweeter or drier Champagnes and these are all often worthy of much more attention as they can provide fabulous wine drinking experiences and give a fuller picture of this amazing wine region.

So, it is always a pleasure to lead tasters through the complete Taittinger range as the wines are all so different and take them by surprise. I really like them too, which is always good.

The harvest in full swing at Taittinger - photo by kind permission Champagne Taittinger & Hatch Mansfield.

The harvest in full swing at Taittinger – photo by kind permission Champagne Taittinger & Hatch Mansfield.

I like the whole feel and ethos of Taittinger, the name is quite hard for a Brit to say, but luckily there are 3 acceptable versions – as far as I can see:

Thai-Ton-Jay would appear to be the proper French pronunciation of Taittinger, but to achieve that I have to concentrate hard and get my tongue in the right place first!

Luckily it seems that we Anglo-Saxons are perfectly ok saying Tatt-inger – phew!

However as the family originally hailed from Austria, way back in history, then a Germanic Thai-ting-er could also be considered quite proper.

Take your pick, but whichever you choose to say, do try the whole range.

Taittinger is a rare beast for a Champagne house, in being owned and managed by the family whose name is on the label. This is no mean feat in the modern world when Champagne is often seen as a luxury rand product rather than a wine as such, as far as I am aware  Bollinger is the only other world famous Champagne house to remain a family company. It must focus the mind somewhat having your name on every bottle and being ultimately responsible for the quality and style of wine that your family produces and under the management of Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger I think the wines have evolved and the quality has really shone.

Everyone knows that Champagne is fundamentally dry and that Brut means a dry Champagne, but what many people do not seem to know is that Brut Champagne is a relatively new concept. It first appeared in the late nineteenth century and was aimed at the British market which had always favoured a drier Champagne style. It caught on slowly and the idea of producing more pure styles of Champagne that were more like wines than the sweeter cuvées of the past – many nineteenth century Champagnes had sugar levels akin to dessert wines – was one of the ideas that caught Pierre-Charles Taittinger’s imagination in 1931 when he bought and completely overhauled the venerable Champagne house of Jacques Fourneaux which had been founded in 1734.

So, right from the beginning the idea was to make elegant and pure Champagnes that were dry and in order to do that the Taittingers decided to concentrate on using Chardonnay, as they felt that gave them the lightness, but complexity that they wanted.

They don’t stand still though, in recent years they have made their wines drier still – their Brut wines are now just 9 grams per litre of residual sugar, which I think really shows their purity and finesse – and introduced 2 new exciting cuvées to the range. What’s more I am convinced that the quality has got even better in recent years, with more depth, complexity and elegance, so let’s take a look:

Map of Champagne – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

Map of Champagne – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

ImageHandler.ashxTaittinger Brut Réserve Non-Vintage
40% Chardonnay dominates the wine together with 35% Pinot Noir, 25% Pinot Meunier blended from vineyards across the region and then aged 3 years on the lees.
I really enjoy this wine because it light, fresh and vibrant, but has depth of flavour too. There is a creaminess running all the way through it, as well as citrus, green apple and a touch of peach. There is crisp, but not startling acidity and the mousse is soft and creamy without being frothy. There is also a touch of caramel and digestive biscuit to the palate that gives a nice smack of complexity, but the finish is dry and clean.
It is a wine that you can focus attention on and savour its subtle charms, or just enjoy it and let those charms wash over you.  90/100 points.

Widely available in the UK @ £38.99 per bottle.
ImageHandler.ashx-2Taittinger Prestige Rosé Brut Non-Vintage
35% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot Meunier with 15% of the Pinot Noir being red to give the colour – the Pinot comes from Ambonnay, Bouzy & Les Riceys. The finished wine is aged 3 years on the lees.
This is a real charmer of a wine, the colour is a deep wild salmon meets strawberry and the richness of red fruit makes the wine seem much less dry and acidic than it actually is. So if you like a softer style of Champagne then this could be for you, certainly the palate gives lots of red fruit, raspberry and even blood orange. If you age it for a few years the fruit mellows somewhat to a more rose petal quality making the wine quite different, but just as lovely. 90/100 points.

Widely available in the UK @ £47.00 per bottle.

The wonderfully named Champagne village of Dizy, Bouzy is not far away either!

The wonderfully named Champagne village of Dizy, Bouzy is not far away either!

ImageHandler.ashx-3Taittinger Nocturne Sec Non-Vintage
40% Chardonnay together with 35% Pinot Noir, 25% Pinot Meunier, aged 4 years on the lees. Much of the fruit comes from Taittinger’s own estates including some from their Château de la Marquetterie.
The idea here is to make a soft Champagne that is drinkable after dinner and long into the night – or indeed any other time, I find it’s good at breakfast! People often assume that this will be sweet, but it isn’t at all. There is 17.5 grams per litre of residual sugar, but remember how high the acidity is in Champagne, well here the acidity and the sugar balance each other perfectly, so the wine finishes clean and balanced. It is soft, not sweet at all, the palate is creamy and there is a gentle nectarine quality to it and and an eating apple crunch. This might be perfect if acidity is not your thing, or if you want a Champagne that can withstand traces of something sweet on your palate. 90/100 points.

Widely available in the UK @ £47.00 per bottle.

What makes the differences?
Firstly the climate of the Champagne region is not very generous, look where it is on the map, the conditions are very like England actually, but with more extreme winters from the Continental climate, so not every year produces a great harvest – this was especially true in the past before modern viticulture and winemaking gave greater control. As a consequence the tradition developed of holding back stocks of the good years to blend with the more ordinary ones and to create a house style rather than the normal way of making a wine every year. That is why most Champagnes are sold without a year on their label and this method has done wonders for the region and allowed them to create more complex and fascinating wines than would otherwise be the case – in my opinion.

Champagne is about as far north as France can comfortably make wine, so growing grapes there is quite marginal and it isn’t easy to always coax good ripeness out of them, but every now and again – 2, 3 or 4 times a decade and seemingly becoming more frequent – they have a great year and declare a Vintage and sell some of that year as Vintage Champagne which is all the product of that single harvest. As you might imagine these Champagnes are richer and more concentrated and the winemakers let the style of the year shine, rather than their house style.

Other differences can come from the choice of grapes, with 3 to choose from, on the whole anyway, it might seem pretty limited, but a pure Chardonnay – a Blanc de Blancs – Champagne will be very different from a pure Pinot Noir or Pinot Meaner – a Blanc de Noir – Champagne which will tend to be darker in colour and richer on the palate with more red fruit notes.

The use of oak can make a big difference, barrel fermented Champagnes are very different from the fresher, lighter styles, try KrugBollinger or Alfred Gratien if you have never tasted one made that way.

Different Cuvées can be very different from each other too. Really cuvée means blend and different blends of grapes will indeed give very different Champagnes, but the word is also used to designate one wine from another, so just as a producer’s non vintage will taste different from their vintage Champagne, then their other cuvées will be different again. Most famously of course the majority of houses create a top end Cuvée de Prestige made from the finest fruit and usually from a single harvest – although Laurent-Perrier’s Cuvée Grand Siècle is a non vintage cuvee de prestige. These wines are normally from the finest grapes – often from Grand Cru vineyards – or from the best vineyards avaialabe to the house. They are normally made from the first pressings only, which are the most gentle and thought to produce the purest Champagnes. Then to top it off they are bottled and riddled by hand and to prove it – as well as look enticing – these wines are usually bottled in a replica old style bottle that does not fit the machines.

Sweetness of course can make a big difference in how a Champagne tastes and just before the bottles are sealed with a cork a little cane sugar is added – dosage- to each bottle to determine how dry the wine is. Brut is the normal which can vary between 5 and 12 grams per litre – although Taittinger are now 9. This is done mainly to balance the high acidity in the wines rather than to make them sweet and Brut Champagnes seem totally dry, although Exra Brut is drier and Non Dosage has no sugar added at all.

Ageing can also make a big difference to the style and taste of a Champagne. In Champagne this means ageing in the bottle on the lees, which are the dead year cells left over from fermentation. The legal minimum for non vintage is 15 months – 36 for vintage – and the longer you age it the more flavour, complexity and richness you get. Ageing on the lees develops that yeast autolysis character that gives, yeast, bread, brioche and, flaky pastry and digestive biscuit characters.

So as you can see there are many more variables than most occasional drinkers of Champagne realise – back to Taittinger’s wines:

ImageHandler.ashx-4Taittinger Brut Vintage 2005
50% Chardonnay and 50% Pinot Noir from mainly Grand Cru villages in the Côte des Blancs for the Chardonnay and the Montagne de Reims for the Pinot and then aged 5 years on the lees.
If you are ever feeling jaded and tired of life then this wine has a wonderfully restorative quality. The sensations here are of concentrated fruit as the vintage is only made in occasional exceptional years, however not only is the fruit more powerful, but the acidity is fresher and the weight is greater too, so this is a very intense wine. Red fruit notes and ripe peach vie with each other on your senses, while the savoury, nutty, brioche lees characters add more depth and the rich seam of acidity keeps it all fresh and elegant too – a glorious Champagne with a firm and steady mousse and a wonderful feeling of tension running through it giving it poise and elegance.  92/100 points.

Widely available in the UK @ £53.00 per bottle.

Taittinger's beautiful Château de la Maruetterie near Pierry.

Taittinger’s beautiful Château de la Maruetterie near Pierry – photo by kind permission Champagne Taittinger & Hatch Mansfield.

ImageHandler.ashx-5Taittinger Folies de la Marquetterie Brut Non-Vintage
A single vineyard Champagne – a very rare beast indeed – from the vineyards around Taittinger’s own Château de la Marquetterie in Pierry near Epernay, which quite apart from being a beautiful place has a south and southwest exposure and so creates beautifully ripe fruit.
The blend is 55% Pinot Noir to 45% Chardonnay a small portion of the latter is fermented in oak vats which lends a subtle toasty spice to the finish as well as weight to the palate. It is aged for 5 years on the lees.
This is an exciting Champagne with more richness and savoury qualities than the others. Again it is concentrated, but has bigger bolder characters and in some ways feels like a mature vintage Champagne. Personally I do not regard this as a Champagne to drink while standing and nibbling twiglets, for me this needs a meal  – although feel free to serve it to me with nibbles – and would be perfect with a lovely piece of good quality fish. 92/100 points.

Widely available in the UK @ £55.00 per bottle.

ImageHandler.ashx-6Taittinger Prélude Grands Cru  Brut Non-Vintage
What to do? You want vintage Champagne with all that richness and savoury brioche character, but cannot be doing with ageing some and anyway you want a slightly softer fruit character to give a touch of the frivolous, yet still keep it elegant and refined. You probably guessed it, you drink this.
50% Chardonnay grapes from the Côte des Blancs – including Avize and Le Mesnil sur Oger – blended with  50% Pinot Noir from the Montagne de Reims – including Mailly & Ambonnay. The finished wine is aged 5 years on the lees.
Another glorious cuvée that manages to be intense and soft all at the same time. This makes it very appealing with rich fruit and similarly rich leesy characters and complexity. The mousse is markedly softer than on the vintage, yet firmer and more precise than on the Brut Réserve Non-Vintage. 92/100 points.

Widely available in the UK @ £49.00 per bottle.

Comte de Champagne Blanc de Blancs ageing on the lees.

Comte de Champagne Blanc de Blancs ageing on the lees in the Saint Nicaise chalk cellars below the site of the Reims palace of Thibauld 1V King of Navarre and Comte de Champagne – photo by kind permission Champagne Taittinger & Hatch Mansfield.

ImageHandler.ashx-7Taittinger Comtes De Champagne Blanc De Blancs Brut 2005
One of the greats of Champagne this cuvée de prestige is 100% Chardonnay from the Grand Cru villages of Avize, Le Mesnil sur Oger, Oger and Chouilly in the Côte des Blancs. 5% is aged in new oak barrels for 4 months to add complexity and richness and the finished wine is aged for at least 7 years on the lees before release.

James Bond fans will know this was the favoured Champagne of Ian Fleming’s spy in the early books and I for one can see why – JFK seemed to enjoy it too. This is the most delicate. mineral and fine Chamapagne that I have ever tasted. It oozes finesse and breeding and subtlety, but has many more obvious charms too. I often think this is the most ‘wine-like’ Champagne that I know, it sort of seems like the finest Chablis you can imagine, but with a delicate and taut mousse. 94/100 points.

Widely available in the UK @ £147.00 per bottle.

jfk-menu

JFK was served the 1953 Taittinger Comte de Champagne at Hollywood’s La Scala restaurant in December 1962.

So you see there is enormous variety just from one Champagne house, which is good isn’t it. Something to suit every mood, food or occasion and so much more to enjoy.

Further stockist information for the UK is available from Hatch Mansfield.
Taittinger is represented in the US by Kobrand.

In the spirit of openness, I do sometimes do some presenting work for Taittinger, but this is my genuine and unsolicited opinion. I happen to like their Champagnes very much indeed.

A Champagne House to Thrill & Excite

I cannot help myself, I really do like Champagne. There is nothing more enjoyable than good sparkling wine in my opinion and there is no potentially finer sparkling wine than Champagne. What is more there is so much variety in Champagne, some houses produce a rich style, some a soft one, others a mellow one – surely there is something for everyone.

Rather excitingly I have recently stumbled across a small Champagne house that I am convinced deserves far greater fame.

Champagne Legras & Haas is a Champagne domaine founded as recently as 1991, but if the name rings any bells then you might well be thinking of Champagne R & L Legras which is a famous old Champagne house in the village of Chouilly in the Côte des Blancs. I have never tried their wines, but they have a very high reputation. Before he created his own estate in 1991, together with his wife Brigitte – whose maiden name was Haas, François Legras was the winemaker here as his forebears had been since the sixteenth century.

François Legras
Amongst other things it was his desire to be a true vigneron, a grower with a domaine that made him strike out on his own and today the house has 31 hectares mainly in the Grand Cru village of Chouilly, although the conditions of the region mean that they do still buy grapes in from trusted local growers – mainly for their standard Tradition Non Vintage (N.V.) Brut. Their Pinot Noir is grown mainly in the slightly warmer Aube area to the south.

Today the house is run by François’s sons Rémi and Olivier Legras and I think the wines they produce are remarkably fine.

Map of Champagne – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

Map of Champagne – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

Terroir
As they are based in Chouilly in the Côte des Blancs, with its chalky fossil rich soils, they concentrate on Blanc de Blancs style wines – that is Champagnes made solely from white grapes which by and large means Chardonnay in Champagne. Contrary to popular belief Pinot Blanc – Pinot Vrai locally – can be used in the region too, but it is very rare.

Much of the soil in Chouilly is Kimmeridgian clay as in Chablis and this together with the cold climate and short growing season really does dominate the style of wines.

The wines

bouteille_brut_blanc_de_blanc_0Legras & Haas Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Brut N.V.

The nose was lovely, fresh is the main word I would use, but there were little touches of apricot, lemon zest, pastry crumbs and stone – this really did entice and hint rather than deliver fully formed characters. It is a tease of a wine, smelling this is like watching a burlesque act.

The palate was clean and crisp with high acidity and lots of flavour of citrus fruit, green apples and minerality as well as some biscuit-like characters. The mousses was persistent and fine – and I am not one to comment on the fizz normally as it depends on too many other factors.

At only 7 grams dosage this is a very dry Brut Champagne which allows the purity and minerality to dominate. All in all this wine really excited me – 91/100 points.

FT-SW-0012-NVpLegras & Haas Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Extra Brut N.V.

Good as that was though it was this wine that really caught my imagination. Extra Brut has a dosage of less than 5 grams per litre, so the wine is allowed to dominate the style. There is no softness here, no fat, just precision and austerity. This means that the Champagne has to be perfect first time – like a water colour.

They got it right, the wine has concentration, but is about minerality and tension. If you like Chablis you will enjoy this. It has that same nervy character and stony depth to it. The bubbles really are tiny and persistent and add some structure to the wine. Four years ageing on the lees has also added little flourishes of flakey pastry, but for me this is all about the minerality, finesse and elegant austerity – 93/100 points.

Do try these Champagnes if you can, they really are superb. I would enjoy the Brut on its own, but I think they would be particularly good with food – some fruits de mer perhaps, especially the Extra Brut.

Legras & Haas Champagnes are available in the UK from the Alaistair Nugent, Handford Wines and Private Cellar.

Legras & Haas Champagnes are available in the US from United Estates Imports and Exclusive Wine Imports

Dom Pérignon 2003

The Release of a Challenging Vintage

I love Champagne and wish I was wealthy enough to drink more of the stuff. I am especially appreciative of very fine Champagne, but sadly do not get the chance to enjoy much of it. Happily, every so often I get invited into the glamorous world of Champagne.

The Launch of 2003 Dom Pérignon this week was just such an occasion. I have tasted some Dom Pérignon over the years, enough to know that it does deserve a very high reputation, but not enough to truly understand the cuvée or know what to expect. In all honesty my initial thoughts were something along the lines of bemoaning the fact that I was invited to the launch of the 2003 – of all vintages.

Ungrateful? Possibly, but you must remember 2003? It was very, very hot. So hot that in Champagne they were forced to harvest in August for the first time since 1822. I relish acidity, poise, minerality and freshness in Champagne, so have found the few 2003 vintages that I have tried to be not quite for me – this extends to other regions of France too, by the way.

Well I shouldn’t have been so graceless – if only in private – as it turned out the whole event was fascinating. I loved tasting the wine and experiencing the showmanship that surrounded it.

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My Favourite Wines, Top Discoveries and Experiences of 2011

I feel like a respite from all the self indulgence that the Christmas holidays force upon me and feel my thoughts turning back to wine. As the New Year is coming up fast I thought that I would attempt to tell you about my wine highlights for the year.

Most of my top wines have been written up here on my Wine Page, but some have slipped through the net and are new today. Please always remember that this is an entirely personal list, but I hope you enjoy it and that it gives some food for thought.

Sparkling Wines

I was really spoiled for fizz this year, 2 Champagne tastings stand out in particular:

Champagne:

Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label Brut Non Vintage based on the 1953 vintage
This whole tasting was extraordinary and provided a wonderful insight into a type of Champagne that it is all too easy to take for granted – read about it here.

1995 Perrier Jouët Belle Époque
In February I was lucky enough to taste four different vintages of Belle Epoque out of jeroboams, the 1995 was the standout wine for me, but they were all superb – read about it here.

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Champagne deconstructed by Veuve Clicquot

A Thrilling Champagne Tasting

Recently I received an invitation from Veuve Clicquot Champagne to ‘a unique wine experience with Yellow Label N.V.’.

I have to admit my reaction was mixed. At first glance this didn’t really excite me, but it was somewhat mysterious –  I kept wondering how unique an experience can you get from non vintage Champagne? Being somewhat cynical I presumed they were indulging in some marketing hyperbole.

Luckily curiosity got the better of me and I popped along – I am so glad I did as this was a unique and truly memorable tasting.

Which is remarkable when you consider that there were only six wines to taste and they were all Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label Brut Non Vintage – except they weren’t, not really.

All six were served from magnum and had been disgorged on the same day in February 2010. In addition, in order to really allow the differences to show they had received a low dosage of 4 grams per litre – Yellow Label is normally 9 g/L or so. This lack of sugar could officially make these Champagnes Extra Brut.

What made the tasting so wonderful was that they essentially deconstructed non vintage Champagne. We are always told that the non vintage concept is a way of averaging out the vintages. In order to make great wine in this ungenerous, northerly climate, they keep back wine from the ripe years to blend with the leaner ones. So, the theory goes it is the blend that matters, each marque producing a house style that is reproduced year in year out.

Not on the showing of this tasting they don’t. Actually each release of a non vintage Champagne  is based in large part on wines  from a single year and they use the reserve wines in a relatively limited way. I tried six different examples of Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label Brut Non Vintage, the wine based on the 2007 vintage, not be released until 2012 and the current offering based on the 2006 vintage.

This was followed by some older wines; the blend based on the 2004 vintage and the one based on the 2001 vintage, before moving onto a pair that were genuinely mature; the Yellow Label Brut Non Vintage based on the 1990 vintage and for a finale the oldest Non Vintage wine they possess, the cuvée based on the 1953 vintage.

Dominique Demarville

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