Fizz with feeling
For too long, the big champagne makers have been telling us that we should prize ‘elegance’ or ‘subtlety’ or ‘classic restraint’ in their bubbly.
This is often just an excuse for producing oceans of bland wine from over-cropped vines, made with a marketeer’s design, not a wine lover’s satisfaction, in mind.
Life is too short. We demand soul in our sparkling wine. We want it to talk to us, to cajole and seduce us, and not just with a snazzy image but with excitement in the glass: wines with personality and charm and wit.
It was in this spirit that I attended the recent festival of fizz that is the annual CIVC champagne tasting at Banqueting House in Whitehall, tasting through both non-vintage (NV) and vintage wines, the latter principally from 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2008, though other years were present (back to 1996, in fact).
The past few years haven’t been the easiest for the champagne makers.
Through hard economic times, demand for their gloriously glamorous product has, understandably, ebbed and flowed – with 2012 a particularly low point. Some 14 million fewer bottles of champagne were sold in 2012 than in 2011. In fact, since 2005 the only year to have seen lower global sales figures was 2009, when the economic crisis was at its worst.
Added to this, growing conditions in the vineyards were extremely challenging and the 2012 harvest was one of the smallest of the past twenty years.
The upside for producers and houses is that average bottle prices are up, so sales in terms of value are pretty stable. Perhaps a smaller, quality harvest is therefore no bad thing if the trend is for people buying less but buying more expensive.
Recent reports also suggest that UK wine drinkers (Champagne’s largest market outside France) will be knocking back 10% more sparkling wine by 2016, taking total annual consumption to around 126 million bottles.
It’s true that in the UK we’re currently rather fond of prosecco, cava and our own, home-grown sparklers. But even though our voracious appetite for champagne has cooled slightly, one can’t help thinking the champenois are bound to benefit from this increase along with everyone else.
So, if our love of champagne is here to stay and we’re looking to spend our money wisely on fizz that is worth drinking, what should we be buying?
SUSIE’S TOP VINTAGE CHAMPAGNE RECOMMENDATIONS
- Rankings below are listed in descending order of personal preference.
- Only wines which scored 8/10 or above are included.
Henriot, Millésimé 2003 – One of only three 2003s in the vintage section, this was a stand-out wine. Inviting, toasty aromas lead to layers of honey, mealy minerality and truffles in the mouth. Deliciously dry, long and complex. 9/10
Louis Roederer, Brut Rosé 2008 – The only rosé in the vintage section and a terrific one at that. Although still young, this pale salmon-coloured rosé is fragrant with brioche and soft red fruit aromas. It is beautifully balanced – rarely the case with rosé fizz – and its tangy acidity is matched by a rounded, savoury minerality. 8.75/10
Alfred Gratien, Millésimé 2000 – Immediate impression is rounded and peachy with biscuit notes. There is a honeyed minerality here along with hints of roasted nuts and citric acidity. Rustic too, with a gently oxidative bruised apple character on the finish. 8.5/10
Bollinger, La Grande Année, 2004 – The 2002 from Bollinger is a hard act to follow (as we discovered just the other weekend while toasting a certain birthday…) but the 2004 has a character all its own. Classic Bolly scents of spice-baked apple give way to a palate that is both unusual and compelling, with an elusive taste that made me think of whisky barrels. It’s full-flavoured and perhaps not Bollinger’s most elegant Grande Année, but still a delicious glass of Champagne. 8.5/10
J. Dumangin Fils, Vinotèque Premier Cru Brut 1996 – Golden colour. Savoury, yeasty and bready as well as rounded and rich. In the mouth it is crisp and racy, spine-tingling and citric, dry and long. Lovely developed wine. 8.5/10
Charles Heidsieck, Brut Millésimé 2000 – Deep lemon. Very developed with forest floor and mushroom aromas that carry through to a dry and intense palate. Good tangy acidity. A developed wine that is currently drinking well in a full-flavoured way. 8.25/10
Janisson et Fils, Grand Cru 2006 – Loads of bready flavour and character in the glass with this one. It’s edgy; mineral and savoury but also herbal and yeasty – not refined or elegant but full of exciting flavours. 8.25/10
Ayala, Blanc de Blancs Brut 2005 – Very elegant and refreshing with a backbone of steely minerality, along with autolytic flavours and a gentle note of spice. 8/10
Delamotte Blanc de Blancs, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger 2002 – Savoury, elegant and mineral with gentle bready notes. Lovely harmony and balance. Smooth, graceful and seamless. 8/10
Lanson, Gold Label 2002 – Very developed, really honeyed and truffley on the nose. It’s packed full of flavour: almost too much but it just stays the right side of characterful and mature. 8/10
Pol Roger Brut Vintage 2002 – Attractive golden colour gives way to a nutty, bready, praline-coated wine. Elegant and harmonious, very complete. 8/10
Philipponnat, Cuvée 1522, 2003 – Golden in colour yet surprisingly restrained on the nose. This gradually opens up in the glass to give gently oxidative, red apple flavours with a lovely streak of minerality throughout. 8/10
Pierre Gimonnet & Fils, Fleuron 2006 – Flavours of dried apricots, cream and spice. There are bready notes too and lovely harmony to this wine. 8/10
Pommery, Grand Cru 2002 – Forward, bready aromas and savoury in style. It’s a little loose on the palate and fully developed but its mushroomy, bruised red apple character makes for interesting drinking. 8/10
Note: I didn’t taste the non-vintage wines from Charles Heidsieck, Louis Roederer, Moët & Chandon, Philipponnat, Pol Roger, Pommery, Tattinger, Thiénot, Tsarine and Veuve-Clicquot
- Rankings below are listed in descending order of personal preference.
- Only wines which scored 7/10 or above are included.
André Jacquart Le Mesnil, Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru NV – Gently creamy with mealy minerality and bold, apple and honey flavours – stylish and characterful. 8.25/10
Bollinger Special Cuvée – Full of the spiced, bruised apple flavours and mouth-filling satisfaction so typical of Special Cuvée. 8/10
Alfred Gratien, Brut NV – A deep lemon hue leads to a rich, broad feel on the palate which is perfectly balanced by the wine’s refreshing acidity. 7.5/10
Besserat de Bellefon, Cuvée des Moines Blanc de Blancs – Intensely yeasty and savoury. Lots of juicy, citric flavour and structure. 7.5/10
Drappier, Quatttuor – Broad and rounded with flavours and spiced baked apple, underpinned by bready minerality. A broader style that is highly appealing. 7.5/10
Henriot Brut Souverain – A very stylish NV with intensely bready, savoury flavours and a dry, yeasty finish. 7.5/10
Delamotte Brut, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger NV – Dry and bready, this is stylish stuff with fresh acidity and subtle minerality. 7/10
De Saint Gall, Blanc de Blancs – Clean, brisk, fresh and lemony with some yeasty notes. 7/10
Gratiot-Pillière, Brut Tradition NV – Nutty, savoury aromas. Pleasing in a bready, rounded way. 7/10
Jacquart, NV Brut Mosaïque – Good autolytic development in this NV fizz which is drinking very well at the moment. 7/10
Janisson et Fils, Grand Cru Blanc de Noirs – Rich and toasty, this pinot-based wine is broad, satisfying and a good example of its type. 7/10
Lanson, Black Label – Rounded but fresh, Lanson Black Label is currently on form and ideal if you’re after a glass of classic NV champagne. 7/10
My final highlight
Jacquesson, Cuvée 736 Extra Brut – Based on the 2008 vintage, this is a blend of 55% Chardonnay with 19% Pinot Noir and 18% Pinot Meunier, and a dosage of 1.5g/l – though this is the first time it has been labelled ‘Extra Brut’. The nose is incredibly inviting in its tantalising, cinnamon toast way. Multi-layered and packed with delicious flavours of orchard fruits, this gloriously long and flavoursome champagne was my joint top wine of the day. It’s on my shopping list. 9/10