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.

Wine of the Week 73 – a glass of winter sunshine

As I keep saying in these pages, I love finding new wines. Wines made in countries, regions or from grape varieties that are new to me continue to excite me. After 30 years in the wine business I can still find new things that I have never tried or even heard of before, which I think is wonderful.

With winter settling in I seem to be drinking a bit more red, although not exclusively, and I recently found a really terrific wine and so made it my Wine of the Week.

Wine map of France - Provence is on the eastern Mediterranean coast.

Wine map of France – Provence is on the eastern Mediterranean coast.

Côtes de Provence showing the location of Clos Cibonne - map courtesy of De Maison Selections.

Côtes de Provence showing the location of Clos Cibonne – map courtesy of De Maison Selections.

Tibouren2014 Clos Cibonne Tibouren Cuvée Speciale
Clos Cibonne, Domaine André Roux
Cru Classé Côtes de Provence, AC Côtes de Provence
France

If I am honest Provence somewhat passes me by most of the time. Obviously I know about the famous rosés, loved some Bandol reds and rosés, have tasted the odd Cassis (the white wine, not the liqueur) and remember being very impressed by some fine Priorat-like reds from the Les Baux-de-Provence appellation too, but my experience of this region is very limited indeed. In fact I have never been there and must put that right as soon as I can.

le_pradet_winery

The Clos Cibonne is an old estate that the Roux family bought from Royalist Navy Captain – the French Navy base of Toulon is nearby – Jean Baptiste de Cibon in 1797. In 1930 André Roux completely modernised the winery and had the label designed too. Such was the estate’s renown, that Clos Cibonne was created a Cru Classé with the classification of the vineyards of Provence in 1955. The classification of Provence was similar to that of Bordeaux in 1855 in that it ranked estates and was not concerned with the vineyard or soil like the Grand Crus of Alsace, Burgundy or Champagne.

The harvest at Clos Cibonne, everything is done by hand - courtesy of De Maison Selections.

The harvest at Clos Cibonne, everything is done by hand – courtesy of De Maison Selections.

Clos Cibonne had fallen on hard times again by the late 1990s when André Roux’s granddaughter Bridget and her husband Claude Deforge took over the running of the estate. They nurtured the vineyard back to life and renovated the cellars, but kept the traditional winemaking ways and the old wood foudres.

The 100 year old foudres at Clos Cibonne -

The 100 year old foudres at Clos Cibonne –

Today the Roux-Delorge family farm 15 hectares just 800 metres from the Mediterranean. The vineyards are surrounded by the Maure mountains that make the estate a sort of amphitheatre facing due south. This gives perfect sun exposure and allows them to achieve remarkable ripeness and to minimise vintage variation. The sea breezes also temper the effects of the sun and allow them to have excellent freshness and acidity in their wines that makes them very drinkable indeed. While not certified organic, they do practice sustainable viticulture or lutte raisonnée.

The family remain committed to the local Tibouren grape that is widely used in Provence for the rosés, but not so widely for the reds – in fact only 15% of production in the region is red, so Clos Cibonne are unusual in focussing on making red wine – although they do craft a rosé from their oldest vines. This Cuvée Speciale red  is 90% Tibouren together with 10% Grenache which lends some richness and fat. The wine is traditionally aged under fleurette (a thin veil of yeast, but that just gives complexity, it is not Sherry-like) in 100-year-old, 500 litre foudres.

The nose offers gorgeous wild herb aromas – garage – together with ripe fruit, earthy, savoury notes and a light touch of the sea. The palate is quite fleshy with excellent concentration of fruit and medium body, some nice refreshing, cleansing acidity and an inky feel which sounds odd, but is actually delicious. Those wild Mediterranean herbs return on the palate too. The wine is deliciously smooth, with light supple tannins and lovely balance between savoury characters, ripe fruit and freshness. The finish is very, very long with fruit and savoury, earthy flavours lasting the whole time. I was thrilled by this wine, it is so obviously a genuine wine that speaks of a place and has a style all its own, although if you enjoy Rhône wines, Burgundy or good Beaujolais you will enjoy it – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK from Red Squirrel wine for around £20 per bottle. 
Available in the US through De Maison Selections, Crush Wines and Spirits – for other stockist information click here.

In the summer this would be a great barbecue wine, even lightly chilled, but in winter it is perfect with game, roasts, pies and casseroles. It would be even be a great choice with Christmas dinner.

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.

Burgundy – it just seems complicated

Santenay

Santenay Clos des Cornières

Recently I was invited over to Burgundy as the guest of a campaign called Discover the Origin whose job is to promote traditional European products that have a clearly defined place of origin – Burgundy is a classic example. It was a wonderful trip and gave me a realinsight into this incredible wine region.

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Beaune, Burgundy’s main town, is a delightful place to explore.

All those medieval building still need looking after, so the old skills still exist here

All those medieval building still need looking after, so the old skills still exist here.

Many of my students find the sheer variety of Burgundy wines intimidating and the array of labels bewildering, which is presumably why some of the easier to understand examples are the best sellers.

I agree that at first glance Burgundy can look complicated, but actually it isn’t hard once you strip it down to basics and learn to trust Burgundy rather than fight it.

Of course that does depend on how much you really want to get to grips with the place and its wines. Becoming a world authority on Burgundy will be fiendishly difficult, but the good thing is that no one really needs to understand everything about it. Most of us just need enough information to enable us to enjoy the stuff without worrying too much about the potential pitfalls.

Here is my best advice to those of you who would like to get to grips with Burgundy, but find the complications off-putting – oh and if you do know about Burgundy, look away now, this is for the many interested, but nervous wannabe-Burgundy drinkers I meet.

Please remember to click on all the links.

The basic thing to get to grips with, perhaps more than any other wine region, is the geography. The wines are not big, rich and fruity, but dry and savoury because they come from somewhere cold with short summers. The fundamental dimensions and weight of most of the wines are similar as you would expect given that almost all the white wines are made from Chardonnay and the reds from Pinot Noir – both these grapes originate here. The winemaking is pretty similar too and the grapes are grown over a relatively small area, so the climate does not change much and variations are subtle. Every time I taste a lot of Burgundy I find myself writing many of the same words. I know the wines are different, but those differences are so subtle that they are very hard to sum up in a simple way.

Tradition

Frédéric Drouhin, urbane and charming director of Maison Joseph Drouhin which was started by his grandfather.

Frédéric Drouhin, urbane and charming director of Maison Joseph Drouhin which was started by his grandfather. The visit here was delightful and the wines had all the elegance you would expect.

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En garde – the delightful Alain Hasard with his pigeage plunger. Note the small scale of the vats at his wonderful little domaine Les Champs de l’Abbaye. All his viticulture is organic and indeed biodynamic inspired – I liked him and his wines.

Jean-François Chapelle of Domaine Chapelle in Santenay

Jean-François Chapelle of Domaine Chapelle in Santenay – his wines are superb too.

Marion Javiller of Domaine Patrick Javiller. They made 2 of my favourite wines from the trip and rather wonderfully I could afford them too -

Marion Javiller of Domaine Patrick Javiller. They made 2 of my favourite wines from the trip and rather wonderfully I could (almost) afford them too – 2010 Bourgogne Blanc Cuveé Oligocène and their wonderfully silky 2010 Savigny-les-Beaune 1er Cru Les Serpentières.

The tool rack at Domaine Joseph Voillot. I loved their Volnay wines, especially the sumptuous, yet mineral 2010 Volnay 1er Cru Les Caillerets.

The tool rack at Domaine Joseph Voillot, note the Tastevin. I loved their Volnay wines, especially the sumptuous, yet mineral 2010 Volnay 1er Cru Les Caillerets.

Patrice Olliver of Domaine Fougeray de Beauclair in Marsannay. Amongst many other lovely wines he makes an intriguing and rather good white from 100% Pinot Beurot which is the local name for Pinot Blanc.

Patrice Olliver of Domaine Fougeray de Beauclair in Marsannay. Amongst many other lovely wines he makes an intriguing and rather good white Marsannay from 100% Pinot Beurot which is the local name for Pinot Blanc.

Remember that Burgundy is a deeply traditional wine region where most of the producers are really just small family owned farms. This is not a place of big brands and industrial sized wineries and this traditional outlook shows in the wines, probably more than any other place in the world today. These wines are made by people who passionately believe this is the best place on earth to make wines and that the wines of their region are the best in the world.

As a consequence the idea of a wine being bright, bold and very fruity is almost an impossible concept for a traditional Burgundian to understand. Therefore expect elegance not weight, delicacy not power and the wines to be fundamentally savoury rather than sweetly fruity. As a consequence Burgundy wines really are best suited to being drunk with food. Most Burgundians would never think to drink a glass of wine on its own, that is what a Kir or Kir Royale is for. Wine, Burgundy wine anyway, accompanies food.

Vineyards

Santenay again

Santenay again

Marsannay

Marsannay

Something else that is a little different here. Very few vineyards in Burgundy have just one owner. Usually a single vineyard site is owned by several different growers and producers all making their own version of the wine. That is why a wine that appears to come from a specific vineyard often has many different labels. That is why wines that perhaps ought to be the same can sometimes taste more varied. If there is a single owner of a specific vineyard it will usually say ‘monopole‘ on the label to show it is that grower’s monopoly.

Geography
To enjoy and appreciate Burgundy you need to either be vaguely aware of the geography or at least choose to accept it or find it interesting rather than intimidating. All the important information on the labels is geographical, it’s all just place names, the region, district names, village names or vineyard names. Personally I find it useful to embrace the unknown on a wine label – if you have never heard of the place or grape on a label, try it. What is the worst that can happen?

Understanding the Labels

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A good quality Bourgogne from a famous producer – this one informs us that it made from Chardonnay, most Burgundy labels do not mention grape variety.

The more basic wines from Burgundy are labelled as Bourgogne, which is French for Burgundy and is the catch all appellation for the whole region. Bourgogne is an appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC or AC), which is a system of guaranteeing provenance to the consumer. Similar controls are found throughout the EU – and beyond – to regulate traditional products like ham, cheese and spirits, but wine is the most famous.

Some seemingly humble Bourgogne wines are very good and will give you an idea of the fundamental style of the region. These wines tend to be the more affordable ones – but that is not always the case and knowing the exceptions is where your hard won experience will eventually count.

Districts

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The district names of Burgundy appear on many labels as a more specific place of origin than Bourgogne. These show that the wines comes from a distinct part of the region, rather than  the region as a whole. Chablis and Mâcon are districts, as are Bourgogne followed by the name of an area, such as Bourgogne Côte ChalonnaiseBourgogne Côtes-du-CouchoisBourgogne Côtes d’Auxerre or Bourgogne Hautes-Côtes-de-Beaune. No one knows them all, well I don’t anyway, but once you understand the principle this sort of labelling is quite straightforward.

After a while you will start to notice the subtle differences in how these various wines taste. For instance the wines of Mâcon are clearly softer, fruitier and taste as though they come from somewhere warmer than the cold northerly slopes of Chablis. While Chablis wines are more mineral, taut and crisp than a Mâcon – the cool climate shows in the wine.

Villages

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This white wine comes from the village of Puligny-Montrachet

Quality in Burgundy is supposed to be all about the vineyard site – remember those subtle variations – so in the quest for quality it is always good to know where your grapes were grown. Therefore the benchmark for Burgundy is the wines that have the name of a village on their label. The grapes that the wine is made from were grown in vineyards that surround that particular village, so we know where the wine originates. Meursault, Beaune, Nuits-St-Georges, Puligny-Montrachet, Mercurey and Givry are examples of these village wines.

Premier Cru & Grand Cru
You have to remember that grapes have been grown and wine has been made in Burgundy for hundreds and hundreds of years. Over that time certain places have come to be regarded as having the inherent ability to produce better wine than others. This accounts for why some villages are so famous.

Some specific vineyard sites within the villages can also be thought of as producing better wines than others, or at least to be capable of producing better wines. To celebrate and affirm the potential quality of these vineyard sites many have been awarded Premier Cru /1er Cru status and if the fruit all comes from a single 1er Cru vineyard the name of that site will appear on the label together with the village name.

1er

This white also comes from Puligny-Montrachet, but more specifically the 1er Cru site called Les Folatières.

The very pinnacle of Burgundy production though is the Grand Cru vineyard sites. These are places that are thought to be capable of producing the very finest and most concentrated Burgundy wines of all – there are not many of them and they do not produce much wine at all, so are often eye-wateringly expensive.

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The Montrachet vineyard is shared between the villages of Puligny and Chassagne and has been added to the name of both villages.

So many UK wine drinkers brought up on wines labelled by grape variety seem to want to rant, rail and kick against the traditional French way of doing things. It makes life much easier to just accept it, pay attention to the information on the label that is useful to you and ignore the rest. I always warn my students to never go looking for consistency or logic in French wine regulations as they often mean subtly different things from region to region even when they use the same words.

On my trip I visited a wide range of producers, from big names with grand cellars and lots of employees to tiny, hands on vigneron who scratch a living from a tiny patch of vines. All were passionate about Burgundy though. They all loved their land and thought the site mattered. None of them in their hearts believed they were producing Pinot Noir or Chardonnay wines. They were merely using those grapes to express the character of the land they farmed – they were bottling Meursault, Volnay, Savigny-les-Beaune, Mercurey or Montagny. Their wines were capturing and celebrating the subtle differences and variations that make each of these wines unique.

It is precisely these differences that make Burgundy so interesting and worthwhile to the wine enthusiast and over time the very real, but subtle variations between wines from the Côte de Nuits, Côte de Beaune and the Côte Chalonnaise become apparent.

The beautiful cellars of Domaine Heresztyn in Gevrey-Chambertin

The beautiful cellars of Domaine Heresztyn who make lovely wines in Gevrey-Chambertin.

What makes the differences is best shown by using the Côte d’Or as my illustration. This part of Burgundy is the most celebrated and contains most of the really famous wine villages of the region. Of the truly renowned Burgundy areas and villages, only Pouilly-Fuissé and Chablis are not found in the Côte d’Or.

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

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

At first glance the Côte d’Or, made up of the Côte de Beaune and the Côte de Nuits, would appear to be so small that the wines it makes must surely all be pretty similar – after all it is sometimes less than half a kilometre wide. However, this is the place that really demonstrates the French concept of ‘terroir‘. The soils and conditions really matter here and make for the differences between the wines, although nuances might be a better word than differences as they are slight. The limestone ridge or escarpment that is the Côte d’Or consists of layers of different limestones, some more porous than others, as well as marls made up of clay, sand and gravel.

That makes sit sound as though it is all uniform, but it really isn’t. The limestones have weathered and decomposed at different speeds and are pierced by small rivers and dry valleys making for great variation as to which limestones dominate different parts. The topsoil also varies, as some are flinty and some a more chalky scree and the collapsing of the limestone ridge leaves different types and depths of topsoil.

Another variable is aspect, there are fissures, gaps, ravines and valleys in the limestone which change the direction a little, so some vineyards face more directly south than others – these will generally produce bigger wines as the grapes get more sun and so have more sugar which produces more alcohol and extract in the finished wine.

Luckily for us we don’t have to learn what the soil composition is of each and every village, let alone vineyard site, which is good because there is a great deal of overlap and variation making it very difficult to generalise to any useful degree. No, we only have to try the wines and see which ones we particularly enjoy.

So the next time you fancy some good charcuterie, try a red Burgundy with it, or it would be perfect with Boeuf Bourguignon or Coq au Vin too, those wonderful classic dishes of the region. White Burgundy really comes into its own with soft, squidgy cheeses or a simply cooked piece of fish.

If you really want to open your eyes to Burgundy though I would really recommend visiting the place for yourself, there is so much to see and enjoy.

Reluctantly leaving Beaune behind.

Reluctantly leaving Beaune behind.