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 – another stunning English Sparkler

I seem to have tasted a lot of good English sparkling wines lately – read about them here and here – well the other day I tasted yet another one that excited me enormously. So much so in fact that I made it my Wine of the Week.

house-and-vineyard

Hambledon Vineyard on a south facing slope overlooked by Mill Down House. This was the birthplace of modern English wine in 1952 – photo courtesy of the estate.

hambledon-ccHambledon Classic Cuvée Brut
Hambledon Vineyard
Hambledon
Hampshire
England

The Hambledon Vineyard is historically very important to the English wine industry, because it was the first one to make a reputation for itself and can claim to be where the English wine revival started – bizarre as it sounds, Hambledon can also claim to be where cricket as we know it today began. The estate was originally planted in 1952 and although the wines did create a stir and even won some awards, the vineyard remained tiny, between 1 and 4 acres at various times, and so was essentially a hobby rather than a business, as is borne out by this amazing bit of film – click here to watch it. In fact by the 1990s the few grapes they grew there were being sold to other vineyards.

The estate was bought by Ian Kellet in 1999 and he decided to restore Hambledon and to make wine again. First he studied oenology at Plumpton College and then researched what would suit his land. As it is a south facing chalky slope, sparkling wine seemed a great idea and so in 2005 he planted a 10 acre test plot of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Having proved that the grapes were successful there, he planted more and created the winery. Today they farm 50 acres and make the wine in a state of the art, gravity fed winery – this is much gentler on the grapes than pumping. Since 2011 they have also employed Hervé Jestin as Chef de Caves, a position he had previously held at Champagne Duval-Leroy.

Looking down the slope - photo courtesy of the estate.

Looking down the slope – photo courtesy of the estate.

This is the standard wine of the estate and is a blend of 60% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Noir and 20% Pinot Meunier. 90% comes from the excellent, ripe 2013 vintage, while 10% is reserve wines from previous vintages, some of which were barrel-aged to add extra riches and complexity. In addition 6% of the wine was barrel fermented and barrel aged and after the second fermentation in bottle, the wine was aged for 22 months on the lees.

The nose offers enticing freshly baked bread notes as well as plums, rich apple and a little note of smoky spice too. The palate is beautifully creamy, with a rich mousse, ripe peach and apple fruit and a lovely pure core of acidity and freshness. This sense of purity gives the wine wonderful verve and energy and balances the richness of the vintage. By any definition this is a fine sparkling wine that shows how seriously good English fizz can be – 93/100 points.

Available in the UK from Hambledon Vineyard at £28.50 per bottle, Waitrose at £30 per bottle, Marks & Spencer at £29.00 per bottle  for other stockists click here and here.

If you have never tasted a great English wine, or not understood all the fuss being made about English sparkling wine, then give this ago, it really is quite superb.

 

German Delights – some amazing German wines from my travels

The beautiful Neckar Valley.

The beautiful Neckar Valley.

German wines just do not get the respect they deserve. Germany is an exciting, stimulating wine producing country, yet so many people – in the UK anyway – have a very limited view of what German wines are all about. The folk memory of cheap German wines of the 19760s and ’70s lingers on in the UK to everyone’s detriment. You can still buy those sweetish wines like Liebfraumilch, but you have to look for them. Leave them to your memories though and try some of the more interesting and exciting German wines that are now being made.

A few months ago I had an amazing trip to Germany, to some of the lesser known regions – lesser known from a UK perspective anyway – Württemberg, Franken and Baden. I loved it so much and was so impressed that I recently put on a tasting of some fantastic German wines that I discovered on that trip and at some subsequent tastings.

VDP_logoMany of these producers are member of The Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter (the Association of German Prädikat Wine Estates, abbreviated VDP). This a voluntary grouping of some quality conscious producers nationwide who have grouped together to apply higher winemaking standards than the national regulations require.

There are 4 quality levels in the VDP classification, in descending order:

VDP Grosse Lage is roughly the equivalent of Grand Cru and come from sites carefully selected and classified by the VDP. Yields must be very low, harvesting must be by hand and the grapes must be at least ripe enough ripe enough to qualify for Spätlese level. A dry wine from a Grosse Lage site must be labelled as Grosses Gewächs and bottled in a special bottled marked with GG. Dry examples must be labelled as Qualitätswein Trocken. Off dry versions can be labelled as halbtrocken or feinherb, but these terms do not have to be on the label. The label must bear the name of the village and the vineyard site, like the Würzburger Stein Silvaner Trocken below.

VDP Erste Lage means first class vineyards and are supposed to have a distinctive character, much like Premier Cru vineyards in France. Yields have to be low and the grapes must be harvested by hand and must be at least ripe enough to qualify for Spätlese level. Dry examples must be labelled as Qualitätswein Trocken. Off dry versions can be labelled as halbtrocken or feinherb, but these terms do not have to be on the label. The label must bear the name of the village and the vineyard site, like the Würzburger Stein Silvaner Trocken below. Sweet versions are labelled with one of the traditional Prädikats (Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Eiswein or Trockenbeerenauslese), provided they qualify for that specific Prädikat.

VDP Ortswein is like a village wine – like AC St Emilion or Meursault – dry examples must be labelled as Qualitätswein Trocken,  trocken means dry. Ortswein does not have to appear on the label. Sweeter versions can be made with the specific Prädikat appearing on the label, if they qualify

VDP Gutswein is like a regional wine – like AC Bordeaux or Bourgogne – they can have the specific Prädikat on the label, if they qualify and Gutswein does not have to appear on the label.

The Wines and the Regions

Germany map QS 2016 blog, watermarked & annotated

Württemberg is a wonderful wine region, ridiculously beautiful and full of stunning traditional towns and vineyard sites that take your breathe away. Many of these are either on slopes by the rivers, especially the Neckar, or on a scattering of south facing hillsides to the north and east of Stuttgart. Because of the excellent exposure it is the premier red wine region in Germany growing Lemberger, or Blaufränkisch, TrollingerSpätburgunder, Dornfelder and Portugieser among others.

Heilbronn_Innenstadt_u_Wartberg_20050918

Heilbronn with the vine covered slopes all round.

2014-riesling-theresa-trocken-heilbronn-an-vdportswein-weingut-kistenmacher-hengerer-a3c2015 Flein Weisser Riesling Theresa Trocken
Weingut Weingut Kistenmacher & Hengerer
Deutscher Qualitätswein Trocken / VDP Ortswein
Heilbronn
Württemberg – number 1 on the map

Like many of the producers I showed, the Hengerer family have been growing grapes and making wine since the fifteenth century. The estate, weingut in German, is run by a very talented winemaker called Hans Hengerer and he is really good. They are based in Heilbronn Again like many of these producers he has a small estate, just 12 hectares, but he makes terrific wines form it, using old vines and wild yeast fermentations.

This is very unlike my normal view of German Riesling, it is properly dry and the wild yeast and malolactic fermentation and lees ageing give it a fat, textured style that is backed up by, rather than dominated by, Riesling’s hallmark acidity. Lovely length and finesse, this is a beautiful wine – 93/100 points.

2014-gelber-muskateller-trocken-weingut-kistenmacher-hengerer-59d2015 Heilbronn am Neckar Gelber Muskateller Trocken
Weingut Weingut Kistenmacher & Hengerer
Deutscher Qualitätswein Trocken / VDP Ortswein
Heilbronn
Württemberg – number 1 on the map

This wine really made me sit up and take notice. Hans Hengerer has done something amazing here, he has made a dry Muscat that I really love. I think what sets it apart if that it is made from the Yellow Muscat rather than the more famous White Muscat, or Muscat Ottonel, and it has loads of character.

The aromas are simply stunning, lifted and peachy with some wonderful peach blossom and roses fragrance too. The palate carries on the delights with a touch of rich, peachy acidity, loads of ripe fruit and some lightly creamy texture from the lees ageing. A very unusual style for me and I totally fell for its charms and think it would make a superb aperitif or partner to fine Asian cuisine – 92/100 points.

Franken is another scattered wine region that consists of steep hillsides bordering the Main River. The summers are short and autumns are pretty cool, so early ripening grapes are the most suitable, which is why Riesling is not widely grown, instead the signature grape is Silvaner. Many wines are bottled in the traditional flask shaped Bocksbeutel, which has been used in the region ever since glass bottles became normal in the 17th century onwards.

The Marienberg Castle above Würzburg.

The Marienberg Castle above Würzburg.

The gorgeous chocolate-box town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, 30 km south east of Würzburg.

The gorgeous chocolate-box town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, 30 km south east of Würzburg.

31042014 Würzburger Stein Silvaner Trocken
Weingut Bürgerspital
Qualitätswein
VDP Erste Lage
Würzburg
Franken – number 2 on the map

The Weingut Bürgerspital was originally created in 1321 to fund an old people’s nursing home, Bürgerspital, at the gates of the beautiful town of Würzburg, which has an amazing castle nestled amongst the vine covered slopes above it.

In the past I never thought much of Silvaner, especially from Alsace, but having now tasted quite a few examples from Franken, I am much more excited by the grape than I ever thought possible. This example comes from one of the most famous vineyards in the region, Stein, which is a steeply sloped site with poor, stony soils. The wine it makes is taut, bone dry and mineral in a very Chablis-like way. The wine aged for several months on the lees in big old wooden barrels and the extra complexity shows. I loved this wine, it was a splendid aperitif and the left overs were fabulous with fish and chips the next day – 93/100 points.

Wittman's south west facing slopes capture the afternoon sun photo courtesy of the winer.

Wittman’s south west facing slopes capture the afternoon sun – photo courtesy of the winery.

Wittman's magnificent cellar - photo courtesy of the winery.

Wittman’s magnificent cellar – photo courtesy of the winery.

63742014 Grauer Burgunder Trocken
Weingut Wittman
VDP Gutsein / Qualitätswein
Westhofen
Rheinhessen – number 3 on the map

This wine isn’t really from an unusual place, but I enjoyed its style very much, so I stuck it in the tasting. Grauer Burgunder is another grape variety more commonly associated with Alsace, as it is Pinot Gris. The Germans can also call it Rülander, although if that is on the label it is often a tad sweet, and Pinot Grigio has become widely seen on the cheaper, lighter versions.

Weingut Wittman is another venerable estate, having been making wine in the beautiful old market town of Westhofen in southern Rheinhessen since 1663. Today Philipp Wittman organically and biodynamically farms 28 hectares – 69 acres – of fertile soil and grows mainly Riesling, but good as his Rieslings are, this wine really drew me.  He carries out slow fermentations and uses wild yeast, so his wines have a lot of texture and that and the aromatics is where this wine really wins.

The nose was leesy and creamy with some smoke and rich orchard fruit too, especially spiced pear. The palate was textured, creamy again, but there was good acid balance for a Pinot Gris. It was quite rich and powerful and definitely made a statement, I loved it – 90/100 points.

Sachsen is a wine region around near Meißen and just to the north west of Dresden. We are quite a long way north here and so most of the vineyards are planted on very steep slopes along the Elbe River in order to get enough sunshine to ripen the grapes – the Czech border is not far away either, so it is easy to forget that this is wine country.

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Schloss Proschwitz, the castle is also a hotel and restaurant – photo courtesy of the winery.

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Schloss Proschwitz vineyards on the bank of the Elbe River – photo courtesy of the winery.

48482008 Scheurebe Kabinett Trocken
Schloss Proschwitz
Prädikatswein / VDP Ortswein
Sachsen – number 4 on the map

I love this wine and if you are interested you can click here to read a piece I wrote in 2009 about how I became aware of it. Scheurebe is a terrific grape that was created by Dr. Georg Scheu in 1916. He thought he was crossing Riesling with Silvaner, to produce a superior Silvaner, but it now seems that he made a mistake and actually crossed Riesling with an unknown wild vine that has been lost to science. Until 1945 the grape was known by the serial number that Scheu had given it, Sämling 88, or Seedling 88, and it is still called Sämling or Sämling 88 in Austria. In 1945 it was named Scheurebe in Scheu’s honour.

Schloss Proschwitz is in the old DDR, eastern Germany, and is owned by Georg Prinz zur Lippe, whose family had their lands confiscated by the occupying Soviet forces in 1945. After Reunification Georg was able to slowly buy back his family’s wine estates and is today a beacon for wine quality in this sadly overlooked wine region. 

The nose was fragrant, with citrus and peach blossom, with some ripe nectarine and some honeyed, waxy development notes. The palate was slightly rounded and textured – malolactic and lees perhaps – with some lovely orchard fruit, dashes of honey and white pepper. As well as that softness, there is an underlying core of acidity and minerality keeping the whole thing refreshing and fine – 92/100 points.

Sonnenhof in the late afternoon.

Sonnenhof in the late afternoon.

Looking south from the Sonnenhof at dusk.

Looking south from the Sonnenhof at dusk.

11142012 Lemberger Hades
Weingut Sonnenhof
Qualitätswein
Vaihingen an der Enz
Württemberg – number 5 on the map

I saw so many stunning vineyards in Württemberg that it was easy to become quite blasé about the beauty all around me, but sitting tasting wines in the vineyards at Weingut Sonnenhof was quite an experience and explained why the site is called Sonnenhof, or sun yard – even halo in some translations. It is a wondrously sunny spot on a south facing ridge halfway between Stuttgart and Heilbronn and completely lived up to its name. Interestingly the whites from the estate were really pretty rich because of all the sun and heat and it was the reds that really appealed to me here, although their barrique aged Chardonnay was pretty good.

Lemberger, or Blaufränkisch which means Blue Wine of Franconia, is the central European black grape par excellence and it’s found all over Germany, Austria, Hungary, where it is called Kékfrankos, and Slovenia, where it is often called Modra Frankinja, as well as Slovakia – it is also an important grape in upstate New York, where it is also known as Lemberger. There is actually a small town called Lemberg – Lemberg pri Šmarju – in Slovenia’s Lower Styria region and some sources say it was from there that the grape was exported to Germany in the nineteenth century and hence the reason for the Lemberg name there and in the USA – although of course the area was part of Austria at that time.

This wine is called Hades because it comes from the warmest, sunniest blocks on the estate. It is a careful selection of the best fruit and is aged for 20 months in oak barrels. The colour is amazing, dense and opaque with a deep black cherry colour. Black cherry, blackberry, plums, spice and a little tobacco and mocha dominate the nose, while the palate is rounded, smooth and seductive. There are mouth filling, concentrated dark fruit characters, together with some of the acidity of dark cherries and stewed plums, while the oak gives the complexity of  cigars, mocha, fine milk chocolate and graphite. There is some nice freshness and appealing fine grain tannins on the long finish. I was very impressed by this wine and enjoyed it immensely – 92/100 points.

Baden is a very hard wine region to pin down, because it is so spread out, but the next two wines come from the Tauberfranken, which is in the north east of the region where Baden and Württemberg meet.

Dc959

The Reicholzheimer First vineyard at Weingut Schlör, from below – photo courtesy of the winery.

schloer-schwarzriesling_5374ad9a1742c2014 Schwarzriesling
Weingut Schlör
Qualitätswein / VDP Ortswein
Tauberfranken
Wertheim-Reicholzheim
Baden – number 6 on the map

The Schlör family have been making wine for well over 300 years, but Weingut Schlör was created in 1984 by a charming couple called Konrad and Monika Schlör, and as far as I can see they do everything. This wine is made from Schwarzriesling, which is the local name for Pinot Meunier, which is a common grape in these parts, although few that I tried had the depth of the examples made by Schlör.

The grapes were handpicked and carefully selected, cold fermented and then matured in French oak casks for 8 months. The wine is a lovely Pinot colour, with a fragrance and perfume that is very enticing, there is a leafy, lightly spicy quality and savoury scented red fruit. The palate is medium bodied and has that spicy, earthy quality and lovely ripe red fruit, smooth tannins and that spice character. I loved this wine and would serve it lightly chilled I think – 92/100 points.

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Konrad Schlör working in his beloved vines at Weingut Schlör – photo courtesy of the winery.

dt_xl_Schwarzrielsing_R_Schloer_1000x1000_8838282014 Schwarzriesling R
Weingut Schlör
VDP Erste Lage Reicholzheimer First
Reicholzheimer
Tauberfranken
Baden – number 6 on the map

This is a single vineyard wine from Reicholzheimer, Reicholzheimer First which is very near Wertheim on an S shaped bend in the Tauber River. The steep vineyard faces south west, so gets perfect exposure. The site is an Erste Lange, Weingut Schlör is the only VDP member in the Tauber Valley and this is the only rated vineyard. Interestingly the First vineyard appears on maps from 1476 onwards – it was then spelt Fyerst – and was next to the Bronnbach Monastery, which was founded by Cistercians monks from Burgundy, who by creating monasteries across Europe, did much to spread skilful viticulture too.

The fruit was handpicked and only the wild yeast was used for the fermentation, which gives a longer, slower fermentation. After a cold fermentation, the wine was aged in French oak barrels for 18 months.

This wine is more complex and concentrated, with a richly smoky nose. On the palate the tannins are velvety and the spicy, smoky oak and rich dark red fruit are really well integrated. I think this wine needs time to show its best, but it was tremendous right now too – 93/100 points.

The Untertürkheimer Herzogenberg vineyard at Weingut Wöhrwag.

The Untertürkheimer Herzogenberg vineyard at Weingut Wöhrwag.

The charming Hans-Peter Wöhrwag.

The charming Hans-Peter Wöhrwag.

woehrwag-untertuerkheimer-herzogenberg-lemberger-gutsabfuellung-flasche_55e6ab64848a42013 Pinot Noir GG Untertürkheimer Herzogenberg
Weingut Wöhrwag
Stuttgart-Untertürkheimer
Württemberg – number 7 on the map

Weingut Wöhrwag was one of my favourite visits on my trip, they were lovely people and all the wines were magnificent – I loved his Rieslings. The winery and the Untertürkheimer Herzogenberg vineyard are in a suburb of Stuttgart just to the the north east of the city – there is an U Bahn station just a short stroll away from the vines. The vineyard itself is a magnificent site, a steep hill whose south and south west facing slopes overlook the Neckar River.

I had never heard of Wöhrwag before, which is hardly surprising as they have a strong local following. 50% of their production is sold at the winery and the rest within 60 kilometres – mainly in Stuttgart. Hans-Peter Wöhrwag and his wife Christin farm the 20 hectares of the Untertürkheimer Herzogenberg – it is a monopoly – vineyard using sustainable viticulture. They do not irrigate as they want the vines to dig deep into the ground for water and complexity. For Hans-Peter everything is decided in the vineyard as the quality of the wine is all about the quality of the grapes.

This wine has a lovely colour, rich medium ruby cherry sort of hue.
The nose offers great aromas of smoke and red fruit, earthy mushrooms and fragrant wild raspberry.
The palate has a beautiful texture, silky smooth – just some fine tannins – with sweet red fruit, raspberry, rich, concentrated fruit and great finesse. Superb balance, great concentration, silky mouthfeel and mouth filling flavour, I found this superb wine to be lingering and seductive and I wish I had more – 94/100 points.
More of the beautiful Neckar Valley.

More of the beautiful Neckar Valley.

So you see, Germany has a lot more to offer than many people think. Great wines, wonderful variety and stunning scenery – I feel another trip coming on.

Really though, if you have never tried a fine, dry German wine, there has never been a better time to give it a go as a German wine revolution is in full swing and the wines have never looked better. You probably won’t find these exact wines – unless you go to Germany – but a little time spent on Google will find you wine merchants with good German lists, or you could always start at The Wine Barn, which is a German specialist merchant and wine club.

More information is available from Wines of Germany (UK) and Wines of Germany (USA).

 

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.