Our big champagne review

(by peter & susie)

It’s not all plain sailing for Champagne these days.

Times of economic discomfort don’t sit easily with champagne’s innate associations of luxury, hedonism and celebration. Sales of late have stalled as belts have been progressively tightened – even if, in some cases (ie increasingly profitable banks), this exercise has served appearances more than reality.

There is increasing competition from producers around the world, not least the UK, whose finest fizzes are starting to assert their credentials on the world stage. (You can read Susie’s recent tasting review of top UK fizz by clicking on the link.)

Occasional anti-French sentiment also hurts, as in the time of the Gulf War when patriotic Americans were proud to flush Dom Perignon down the lavatory. As President Sarkozy falters on the world stage, desperate to avoid humiliation in next year’s election, such situations may yet arise again.

And yet champagne is a remarkably resilient industry.

At their recent tasting in London – always a very grand affair in Whitehall, attended by anyone who’s anyone in the wine trade – they announced figures showing exports had surged unexpectedly last year (2010) by 19.5%, reaching 134.5 million bottles.

(Total sales in 2010 were up 9% on 2009, reaching 319.5 million bottles – of which some 58% is sold in France. Shipments to the UK, Champagne’s biggest export market, were 35.5 million bottles, a rise of 16% over 2009.)

Concerns were aired as to whether this reflected suppliers stocking up before the royal wedding or the Olympics, but these were cheerfully dismissed by the producers.

So the champenois have a reason to celebrate. Yet caution would be wise.

It’s been worth noting the extent to which champagne is now discounted in the UK. Slashed prices are a seemingly permanent fixture at Christmas, and now at other times of year, too (Valentine’s and Easter being cases in point).

There are brands appearing whose seeming sole role is to be discounted by the big retailers at key times (and it’s no wonder that ‘record-breaking’ sales are then reported on these lines). And the reductions are often very substantial.

Such discounting inevitably erodes the brand value of Champagne in the UK. Drinkers become accustomed to buying only on discount, and will then resist paying full price at other times, preferring to wait and stock up when the wine is ‘on special’. For all they protest, distributors are often complicit in this discounting, needing to shift stocks at the end of the year with headline-grabbing promotions.

It’s difficult to see how this will play out. Some champagne producers we’ve talked to recently are seeing their long-term future in the Far East and the US rather than the UK, where the downward pressure on prices is ferocious.

Such developments should worry both the wine trade and wine lovers in the UK. As for the best course of action – that’s more difficult to pin down. It’s hard to argue for champagne being dearer – it’s expensive enough as it is – but if discounting threatens to remove choice and quality from the market (France and Germany being two prime examples), then that is a serious concern.

So while we wrestle with this conundrum, here’s a selection of wines we think worthy of attention from the tasting in London on 15th March 2011.

In all, we tasted through over 100 champagnes, both non-vintage and a range of vintages, many in duplicate. Tasting notes are attributed either (S) or (P). Occasionally we disagreed – in these cases, both notes are shown in the interests of full disclosure…

On discussion after the tasting, we both agreed that we are starting to favour what might be termed ‘fizz with feeling’. In other words, those wines that have character and even risk being slightly weird and wonderful, rather than those wines which people deem as ‘subtle classics’ but which are, when all’s said and done, just a bit boring.

It’s easy to make champagne – which is generally made from high-yielding, early-harvested grapes – into a ‘restrained’ style. It’s much harder, and much more satisfying to taste and drink, when the wine has character and something of a jaunty lilt to its step.

(As an addendum, Susie will be reporting on the smaller, more eclectic growers’ champagnes after further tastings later in the spring.)


Summary of the tasting

Wine of the tasting: Bollinger 2002

Most pleasant surprise of the tasting: J Dumangin Fils 1996 – a lovely aged vintage on show

Most divisive wine of the tasting: J. Charpentier, Cuvée Pierre-Henri NV (‘cidery’, sniffed Susie. ‘Succulent’ cooed Peter…)

Best non-vintage wine: Jacquesson Cuvée 734 NV

Best overall producers: Besserat de Bellefon, Bollinger, Charles Heidsieck, Colin, Delamotte, Gosset, Jacquesson, Lanson, Pol Roger, Tarlant

Honourable mention: the LVMH stable, including the Moët NV, Ruinart NV and Veuve Clicquot NV – a solid showing in what have previously been frustratingly inconsistent wines.

Vintages summary:

  • 2002 is showing every inch the classic, open, structured vintage it has been touted as. Quality seems uniformly decent, with a few notable exceptions. The best wines still need time to open up.
  • 2004 seems a bit leaner in style and quite young yet.
  • 2003 is to be treated with caution – the hot weather gave atypically ripe, loose-knit wines.
  • 1996, 1998 and 1999 are all drinking well, except for the finest wines – Salon 1999 being a case in point.

A few top tips:

  • Don’t be afraid to age your non-vintage wines for 6 months to a year before drinking them. They often benefit from being matured, developing creamy, toasty richness.
  • It’s often worth spending that little bit more on a vintage rather than a non-vintage. The differential return in taste terms is often more than the outlay.
  • Look out for growers’ wines, as well as zero dosage wines. This is where much of the excitement is currently to be found in Champagne.


Tasting notes

NB: tasting notes are in alphabetical order, by producer. Susie tasted the non-vintages first, Peter the vintages first – in both cases, our respective tasting notes are listed followed by our initial. The worst performers are named and shamed at the end…

Besserat de Bellefon, Cuvée des Moines Brut NV – really nice yeasty/savoury aromas. Crisp acid, elegant palate profile, 7/10 (S)

Besserat de Bellefon, Cuvée des Moines 2002 – elegant nutty brioche evolution. Elegant middle-of-the-road style, fresh undertow. Seems young. Not a hugely long-life style but still self-contained and notable. 7/10 (P) Very yeasty aromas, really lovely, dense and rich, bready. Attractive and succulent 8/10 (S)

Boizel Brut Millésime 2002 – very creamy, salty and nutty, evolved but attractive. Succulent, winning style. Lovely freshness, evolution and texture. Glazed and engaging. Highish dosage? Even so, it’s focused and savoury, with a very long finish. Very god. 7.5-8/10 (P) Nice creamy toffee style, rounded, rich and very enjoyable, 7.5-8/10 (S)

Bollinger Special Cuvée NV – smoky and appley and rich. Nice as ever, needs a bit of time, 7.5/10 (S) Appley nose. Classic, glazed apple palate – quite broad yet fresh, centred, elegant. Very well judged, 7/10 (P)

Bollinger La Grande Année 2002 – subtle appley flinty nose, saline notes. Forceful character, unmistakeable. Rich, succulent, masculine with lots of depth. Creamy apples. Lovely structural focus as well as an edge of richness. Hugely impressive. Big-boned but very beautiful. So young, mind. Give it at least another 2-3 years before cracking it open. 9/10 (P) A complete stand-out: it really is excellent, great acidity, spice, bruised apple. So delicious, generous but young, 9/10 (S)

Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve NV – good all-rounder, clean, balanced and a little creamy/bready. 6.5-7/10 (S)

Charles Heidsieck 2000 – super toasty, reductive, lemon candy and roasted nut nose. Similar in style to the Moet 2002 in that sense. Palate is decent, not super structured, in the same league as Moet 02, pleasant character, doesn’t hugely convince at the top level but it’s classy still. 7/10 (P) Lovely yeasty style, real classic with age and grace and depth, 8/10 (S)

Colin Blanc de Blancs NV – elegant glazed brioche and apple aromas. Lovely white fruit palate, persistent and succulent. Not to everyone’s taste – Susie included – but I loved its persistence and glazed character, 7.5/10 (P)

Colin, Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru 2004 – fresh elegant mineral nose, appley hints. Opens up nicely in the glass with brioche tones. Frothy, fine and focused, persistent and elegant. Needs time – young. Give it a couple of years at least before opening yet. 7-7.5/10 (P) Nice lightly oxidative style, more elegant than the NV. Very dry and rustic but good. 7/10 (S)

Dehours et Fils Extra Brut NV – quite deeply coloured. Nice dry tangy style – great for seafood, 7/10 (S)

Delamotte Brut NV – yeast, savoury aromas. Balanced and elegant, smooth, good acidity. Classic, 6.5-7/10 (S) Elegant brioche and apple aromas. Nice refined, elegantly lemony palate, persistent. Very good, 7-7.5/10 (P)

Delamotte Blanc de Blancs 1999 – restrained smoky herbal nose, almost woolly hints. Elegant creamy texture, fine fizz, lovely finesse, decent if not amazing complexity. Savoury finish. Very good. 7-7.5/10 (P) Elegant yeast/mineral/toasty blanc de blancs, very good, 7/10 (S)

Dosnon & Lepage, Récolte Noire NV – very dry and yeasty. Palate is really interesting, quite creamy and a little oxidative, bruised apple, 7.5/10 (S) Smoky herby notes, apple rind, hint vanilla pod. OK soft fizz, refined texture, nice persistence…better palate than nose. Grows on you…glazed and elegant, very good, 7/10 (P)

Duval-Leroy Brut Rosé NV – showing well, red fruit, broad, a bit savoury. Nice foodie rosé, 7/10 (S)

Giraud, François Hémart Aÿ Grand Cru NV – lovely oxidative spiced apple aromas, almost a Bollinger look-alike. Broad and appealing, 7.5-8/10 (S) Glazed nose, almost like oaked Sauvignon Blanc…floral and white fruits, wax and apricot, very expressive. Lovely elegant glazed evolved palate, succulent and with a fine fizz. Very appealing. 7-7.5/10 (P)

Gosset Brut Excellence NV – really good savoury, yeasty aromas. Palate not quite as good but punchy and young. Yeasty style with high acid, 6.5/10 (S) Broad, quite appealing, lacks greatness 6/10 (P)

Gosset Grand Millésime 2000 – roasted apple and waxy nose. Toffee and coffee hints. Elegant texture in a showy style. Lacks a bit of core focus on the palate. Impressive but not the best on scrutiny. Lacks refinement. Though some will like its naturally exuberant style. 6.5/10 (P)

J Dumangin FIls 1996 – soft toffee apple and roasted nut, evolved and creamy. Tangy, grippy, vibrant. Lovely! Evolved and full-on, typical 1996, but showy and impressive. Torrefaction here, in a pleasant way. 7.5/10 (P) Good in an elegant way, v appley and moreish. 8/10 (S)

Henriot Brut Souverain NV – very young, yeasty, fresh lemon nose. Savoury. Stylish and a little bready. Good  youthful house style, 7/10 (S)

J. Charpentier, Cuvée Pierre-Henri NV – a rare 100% Pinot Meunier champagne, this has expressive aromas of waxy, cheesy evolution. It’s funky! But fun. Broad, engaging, succulent and lovely. Not the tightest or most complex, but a really engaging character and a savoury finish. Not for everyone – Susie thought it cidery and OTT – but I liked it. 7/10 (P)

Jacquart Blanc de Blancs 2004 – interesting savoury nose, hints of nuts and lemon. Tangy palate, with seemingly quite a high dosage, giving a rich succulence. Firm, young, promising. Needs time. Fine, laser-like focus. 7/10 (P) Nice punchy yeasty aromas, yes this works well in a yeasty, savoury way. 7.5/10 (S)

Jacquesson Cuvée 734 NV – lovely complex mineral nose. Bready aromas. A bit spicy and fresh fresh. I’d like it a bit more grippy but it’s a lovely fizz. Needs time, 8/10 (S) Elegant ripe apple with some Autolytic/creamy notes. Good elegant rounded palate, long, refined, not super complex but very satisfying. Needs age. 7-7.5/10 (P)

Jacquesson Millésime 2002 – elegant appley wax with a hint of nuts. Elegant texture, subtle style, savoury, nice harmony, not the most powerful but very elegant persistence. Needs time; not a superstar but very elegant indeed. 7-7.5/10 (P)

Lanson Extra Age Brut NV – nice and creamy/yeasty, a bit peachy. Quite broad and spicy, good all-rounder, not especially complex but fine, 6-7/10 (S) Glazed citrus nose. Pleasant, savoury style in a minor key. Fine, but not super impressive, 6.5/10 (P)

Lanson Gold Label 1999 – elegant glazed nuts and roasted apple, classic. Floral notes emerge. Very fine, balanced, fresh and focused on the finish. Lots of age left in it. Fresh, tight, harmonious, classic feel. Not a showy wine but it will get a lot better. 7.5/10 (P) A little less concentration than most but OK, 7/10 (S)

Le Mesnil Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru NV – really punchy yeasty savoury bruised red apple style. Seems to be showing age – I like it. 7.5/10 (S) Lovely scented appley floral chalky mineral nose. Lovely fresh persistent rounded palate, very deftly done. Not OTT; very open, lovely style, if not the most complex or inherently ageworthy, 7-7.5/10 (P)

Louis Roederer Brut Premier NV – light brioche aromas, clean and a little biscuit. Harmonious – OK length. Elegant but a little young, 6.5/10 (S) Pleasant glazed apples. Good core of appley acidity; mineral with glazed herbs. Elegant, good concentration, persistent. Again, would benefit from age, but it’s classy. Almost showing better than their 2004 vintage at the moment (though both would benefit from age). 7/10

Moët et Chandon Brut Impérial NV – broad, bready aromas, actually this is really nice, a wee bit obvious but a good classic, 7/10 (S) Appley and slightly sulphurous nose, not the most attractive. But on the palate it’s juicy with a nice harmony, easy in its skin, even if not super exciting or complex. Pleasantly rounded and persistent, vinous, with a champenois integration. Good. 6-6.5/10 (P)

Moët et Chandon Grand Vintage 2002 – nutty, candied lemon rind nose, reductive almost. Extrovert. A bit obvious but it’s quite engaging. On the palate it’s nutty, savoury, interesting and fresh. Not the most complex but a lovely style. 7-7.5/10 (P) A bit too nutty/toffee and obvious – very champagne but a bit big and oily, 6/10 (S)

Philipponat Brut Royale Réserve NV – lemon colour and good nutty aromas. Palate is clean, well balanced, rounded, broad, appley. A little spice. Very harmonious and slightly short but otherwise very good, 7/10 (S)

Pierre Gimmonet, Cuis 1er Cru NV – good elegant and slightly spicy/exotic dry style. Very good, 7/10 (S)

Pol Roger Brut Réserve NV – light yeast and lemon aromas. Clean, fresh and with good underlying crisp apple and blanched nut/yeast notes. Young but stylish and with enough autolysis to be interesting. 7-7.5/10 (S) Elegant nutty, lemony nose. Elegant, self-assured fizz, lovely rounded citrus and apple palate, very long and refined. 7-7.5/10 (P)

Pol Roger 2000 – restrained herbal, apple notes. Elegant frothy style – complex and persistent. Very impressive. Compared to the Gosset of the same vintage, it’s less showy but has so much more persistence, focus and elegant concentration. Lovely complexity. Young, needs at least 2 years to start drinking, although it’s approachable now. 8/10 but will get better (P) Showing clean and rich and toasty/biscuit: very stylish fizz  8/10 (S)

Pommery Brut 2002 – this house’s non-vintage was really not on song, but this toffee, creamy number, while somewhat confected, is very moreish. Nicely rounded and harmonious. Not the finest or most complex but very accessible. 7/10 (P) Immediate creamy aromas, rounded and smoky, red apples. Shows that 2002 is a good vintage, full open and rich in this case. 7/10 (S)

Rapeneau, Selection NV Brut – very cloassic, firm, toasty – big style and quite impressive, 6.5-7/10 (S)

Roger Pouillon NV Cuvée de Réserve Brut – simple yeasty aromas, quite a cidery/appley grower style. OK and with quite rustic character, seems low dosage. As a grower fizz, I like it, 6.5-7/10 (S)

Tarlant Brut Nature Zero NV – nice classic yeast/savoury aromas. Very bready. Lovely exotic bruised red apple palate. Juicy lemon acidity – just a really lovely character and wine. Very good, if not quite focused and complex enough to be great. 7.5/10 (S) Elegant evolution: acacia honey, beeswax, brioche and roasted lemon. Savoury palate, quite austere, needs time. Lots of concentration and lemony power. Taut. Thrilling, even if a bit teeth-jangling because of the lack of dosage. 7-7.5/10 (P)

Tarlant 1998 – subtle honey and brioche, pleasant. Fine, elegant complex and layered. Lovely evolution and finesse. Undertow very focused and fine. Lovely stuff. Super refined. 8.5/10 (P) Rustic, juicy, long, 7.5/10 (S)

Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label NV – light yeasty/brioche aromas. Smells and tastes quite young. Palate is harmonious red apple, spice, brioche. Rich acidity, needs to be aged a little. Lemon rind too. 6.5/10 (S) Citrus and apple with woolly/lactic hints. Fine fizz, nice rounded citric core, quite elegant and self-contained. Good concentration. Grows on you…an improvement from this stable. 6/10 (P)


Duds: Pommery Brut Royal NV, Pierre Darcy NV Brut, Jean Milan Millenaire Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs, Henri Abelé Brut NV, Chanoine Freres NV Brut Grande Reserve, Michel Furdyna La Reserve NV, Guy Cadel Carte Blanche NV, Comte Audoin de Dampierre Cuvée des Ambassadeurs 1er Cru NV, François Dilligent 1996, Joseph Perrier Blanc de Blancs 2002