This busman’s holiday (on a bike…) all started on a tactically late lunch break last year to catch the end of the Tour De France climb up Alpe d’Huez.
French rider Thibaut Pinot had taken the stage win, and the crowds, which had swollen to just allow the bikes to pass, were full of a party atmosphere.
I looked at my colleague and fellow cyclist Freddy Bulmer, and said, ‘we’ve got to go.’ And that was that.
This year, the big climb was Mont Ventoux, so with the thought of a pretty long drive through some of the most famous wine-producing areas of the world, it was somewhat impossible for a couple of oenophiles not to stop off on the way down.
The break in the journey up came in Epernay, Champagne, and who better to visit than one of our oldest suppliers, Alfred Gratien?
After a quick cycle through the vineyards and a walk down the Avenue de Champagne, we had the opportunity to sample the forthcoming 2004 Vintage Brut with Gratien’s head winemaker Nicolas Jaeger. It really is something special!
Society members are regular visitors to the Gratien cellars, and Nicolas is extremely proud of the winery. He was especially keen to show us the innovative stacking system for the barrels: The Society’s Champagne is fermented in old Burgundian barrels to give the wine depth, and these can now be easily moved, drained and racked via a roller system, instead of backbreaking lifting.
Next up was Champagne Boizel, where we met with Florent Roques-Boizel. The cellars are cut out of the limestone, and there is plenty of evidence of riddling the bottles by hand still going on to this day. The soil above is very porous, and after a downpour of rain the puddles can get quite deep!
It was an absolute pleasure to taste back through some of the range currently in bottle. The Boizel non-vintage is a personal favourite of mine – a hidden gem in our List – and the back vintages are developing beautifully. The real treat was looking into the vintage room, where bottles date back to 1893, but unlike some other houses these bottles were stacked up against the walls, as if ready for drinking, as opposed to being hidden away as museum pieces.
Driving through the Rhône, and back up through Burgundy on the way home, is quite an experience in itself, with the steep valleys home to some of the world’s finest examples of syrah down through Rhône. Although we did not have time to stop off, the signs for Jaboulet and Chapoutier stood out from the hillside, enticing a future trip and earning a cross on the map for reference as we drove past.
Arriving in Bedoin, at the foot of Ventoux, the sun was out, the spectators had plenty of local wine inside of them, and two days of cycling had arrived. Along with a few thousand others, Freddy and I ground our way up the mountain on the first day. Even more were camped up in the prime spots for the following day, to watch the professionals pass through, and were in high spirits cheering each amateur as they passed by, pushing themselves to the limit.
We both made it, completely wind-battered and with jelly legs, but proud of the achievement. Nothing could have prepared us for it, but watching the tour riders shoot up a lightning speed the following day left us with a new found respect, both for them and the crowds which had amassed up the entire climb.
A trip to Burgundy’s Château de Beauregard was the icing on the cake. Welcomed by Bertrand, the export manager, as Frédéric Burrier was on his yearly trip walking through the Alps with friends, we were blown away by the location. A beautiful refreshing breeze cooled the sun-drenched vineyard positioned in the middle of Pouilly and Fuissé, and just out of eye shot of the Beaujolais vineyards.
A tour of the cellars, and tasting of the 2015 vintage (available en primeur now) and others confirmed that not only are Beauregard’s wines beautiful in bottle, this quality is also showing through into the future, both in barrel and in the pristine vineyards. The Saint-Véran La Roche 2015 is beautifully ripe and rich, but also balanced with grip and freshness. A real treat to look out for is the Grand Beauregard, which is an assemblage of the best barrels, parcels and crus, blended when Frédéric has tasted every one of them. Possibly the best wine I’ve ever tasted from the region.
All in all, it was a trip I’m sure neither of us will forget in a hurry, and we’d like to extend our thanks to all the producers who welcomed us, and were so generous with their time. There’s no better experience than visiting a producer or the sport you love, and to see the dedication to their passion.
All I can say is Allez Allez, Va Va Froome, and we’ll be back next year!
To the un-initiated Champagne is just another fizzy wine with little to distinguish it from all the rest. However, for such a fascinating and beguiling wine this is an incalculable under-estimation. Bond-esque product placement and over-zealous sportsmen spraying should be ignored! These do nothing to help the image of one of the world’s greatest fine wines.
The first thing to know about Champagne is that it must come from, surprise, surprise … Champagne! Centred around the towns of Reims and Epernay approximately 90 miles east of Paris, this is one of the most northerly appellations in France and the grapes grown here on chalky soils (principally chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier) are therefore high in acidity – essential for the making of sparkling wine.
The other important characteristic which defines Champagne is that traditionally it is a blended wine – not just blends of different grape varieties from different villages throughout the region, but often blends from several vintages too.
These non-vintage wines are amazing in their consistency to house styles, expunging any evidence of poorer vintages in the blend and making a reliable product year in, year out. Made only in top years, vintage and prestige cuvées can age beautifully, developing complexity and displaying the heights that sparkling wines, just like any other fine wine, can reach.
But the principal reason Champagne is such an icon in terms of sparkling wine really stems from its production method. The méthode traditionnelle, as it must be referred to when adopted elsewhere is used to make other sparkling wines (for cava and many English and new world sparklers for example) but was developed in Champagne and is where it is executed best.
The actual process is fairly complex with two fermentations taking place to produce the bubbles (importantly, the second one taking place in the bottle that the wine is sold in); lees ageing to develop interesting flavour characteristics; the addition of more wine and grape must at the end of the process to determine the final sweetness levels.
However, as always there is far more to it, and to make the process easier to understand and more digestible we have produced a helpful infographic to illustrate the individual steps the wine takes.
More than just laying out the production process our Champagne infographic features a handy flavour map that plots the style of the different Champagne houses so that you can see what other wines you might like based on those you have tried before. Whilst this isn’t an exact science and there will be a slight variation based on how much bottle age a particular wine has had, it has the blessing of our buyers Marcel Orford-Williams and Pierre Mansour and we feel it gives members a good basis for understanding the different flavour profiles available.
Members’ response to previous infographics has been very positive and we hope that you find this equally useful. There’s no better time to explore new wines or perhaps stock up on an old favourite than now, with our Festive Deals on Champagne offer slowly drawing to a close, there are fantastic deals to be had on some terrific Champagnes!
There’s more on the making of sparkling wine in our article by Master of Wine Caroline Gilby MW – A Sparkling Transformation
In water ones sees one’s own face; but in wine one holds the heart of another. – French Proverb
Far be it from me to hinder one’s hydration but the day for love approaches. Wine considerations feature highly on this day: my partner and I decided many moons ago not to venture out on Valentine’s to subject ourselves to the set menus but to instead stay home and try and create our own feast using the money saved to add to a food fund and also a wine reserve allowing us to choose and purchase four bottles of wine…
…half bottles that is.
I mentioned some time ago that these perfect proportions allow you to be more indulgent and match your wine to a particular course should you wish to, without feeling guilty or feeling you are hampering your health.
Commencing with something sparkling is a prerequisite for us. The Society’s Champagne Brut NV (£14.95 per half) will do nicely and would suit most canapés you could throw at it – even, I am told, hand-cooked crisps.
Our starter more often than not is seafood based and our halves selection offers everything from mussels-friendly The Society’s Muscadet Sèvre-et-Maine sur Lie (£4.50 per half) or Riesling, Trimbach 2012 (£6.25), which is glorious with dover sole. If fish is not your thing the affinity Pouilly-Fume, Domaine Seguin 2013 (£7.50) has with goat’s cheese sets off a tart or salad starter brilliantly; or maybe mushroom risotto with Soave, Pieropan 2013 (£6.50).
For the mains, French trimmed lamb chops and the Bordeaux-esque spice of South Africa’s Rustenberg John X Merriman, Stellenbosch 2009 (£7.25), or maybe pan-fried duck breast with the full-flavoured Pinot Gris Tradition, Hugel 2012 (£6.95). A rich roasted vegetable ratatouille and Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Domaine du Vieux Lazaret 2011 (£9.50) also have a mutual attraction in my experience.
For dessert, whether it is cheese or something sweet, Samos Anthemis 2007 (£6.95) lends itself to both and permits a pleasurable ending to the evening.
Whether or not you celebrate Valentine’s day I hope this supplies food for thought.
Remember the bottle is not half empty, but half full!
Earlier this month I was privileged to attend a special Pol Roger event held in Epernay. The tasting showcased the new release ‘Sir Winston Churchill’ (Pol’s prestige cuvée, launched in 1975), from the excellent 2002 vintage, which will be available to Society members in August.
Pol Roger’s top wines age superbly, and to illustrate the point in some style, our generous hosts opened a few old – some may even say ancient – bottles for our group to taste. Our hosts, Christian Pol-Roger and Hubert de Billy, had carefully chosen vintages from years that represented some truly era-defining moments in the history of Champagne (and the world):
1921 Pol Roger
The 1920s were tough times for the Champagne trade: the Russian revolution caused the closure of the lucrative Russian market and the declaration of prohibition in the US closed off this important market for the Champenois (though unofficial records show that 40 million bottles made it to the US during this time nonetheless!). The area under vine was just a third (10,000 hectares) of what it is today.
The exquisite 1921, disgorged in the 1950s and undisturbed since then, was a bright pale lemon gold. Nutty, fresh, with an exotic fruit quality, light mousse, wonderful texture, and just off dry.
1914 Pol Roger
In 1914 second generation Maurice Pol Roger was mayor of Epernay and acted admirably when, on the 4th September, the Germans invaded Epernay, which culminated in the Battle of the Marne and resulted in an Allied victory eight days later (just in time for harvest…).
Although the mousse had all but disappeared, the flavours and structure of the wine literally took my breath away. Salty, sherry-like flavours combined with honey and burnt sugar, flowing beautifully thanks to its fine line of acidity and unctuous, intense palate. Off dry.
1892 Pol Roger
The 1880s and 1890s were boom time for Champagne: it had made its mark and was embedding itself into popular culture. It was the vintages of the 1890s (as well as the 1904 and 1911) that Sir Winston Churchill started buying Pol Roger ‘in quantities’!
1892 was a remarkable vintage in Champagne: spring frosts reduced yield by 25%, concentrating flavours. Our bottle was still very well preserved. Distinctly sweet (consistent with the fashion for higher dosage n the 19th century), delicate and fine. In many ways it reminded me of a fine Loire dessert wine. Liquid gold.
Society Buyer for Champagne
Recently my colleague Shaun Kiernan, The Society’s fine wine manager, extolled the virtues of laying wine down and the pleasure gained from drinking wine at its delicious peak (a sentiment echoed by our buyers in the below video).
This is something I endeavour to practice at every opportunity, the only failing being my patience, or lack of it.
Many of the wines I have in my Members’ Reserves, though entering their drinking window, I feel are still perhaps a little too young.
Though wines traditionally laid down tend to be fine wines, and thus carry an associated price tag, I have found that the quality and depth of The Society’s listings, and the flexibility with regard to putting self-made mixed cases into Reserves, allows one to reap the benefits of sampling aged wine via a more modest outlay and timeframe.
My criteria for my modest BCP (Braganza Cellar Plan, modelled on our own Vintage Cellar Plan – as yet there is no copyright for the former) has been wines that have enough structure and body under £10. In the past I have laid down 3 each of Valpolicella Superiore Ripasso Torre del Falasco 2008 (the gold medal-winning 2012 vintage is now available for £9.50), Weinert Carrascal 2007 from Argentina (look out for the 2009 vintage coming soon) and Spain’s Blau, Montsant 2011 (the 2012 is currently on sale for £8.95). These should come to fruition in 2015/16 and I tend to push the drink date envelope so will look to withdraw them as a Christmas present to myself next year.
The current Society List has some potential BCP wines, namely, Côtes-du-Rhône, Château Courac 2010 (£7.95) and Domaine Gonon, Mâcon La Roche Vineuse 2012 (£9.50). Both have drink dates of up to 2017, ensuring a very pleasant Christmas in three years’ time.
While I appreciate these wines may never display the complexities and tertiary flavours that can come with laying down of fine wines, I am confident that even with this short period of maturation these wines are a testament to the quality of The Society’s range, and how even someone as eager as me can enjoy a certain maturity to their wine without paying a king’s ransom.
Non-vintage Champagne is also something I enjoy ageing. Whilst we advise drinking such wines within 2 years of purchase to ensure freshness, those who like a little more nuttiness and complexity may be interested to know that The Society’s Champagne takes on a lovely rounded quality after a couple of years.
I’d love to hear your own experiences of cellaring more modest bottles. For a little more information about laying down wine, please refer to our Storing Wine page and/or the video below.
The Cellar Showroom
This one reminded me of years ago, when I worked at The Fulham Road Wine Centre in London (long since gone, sadly) and loyal customers brought in some old half bottles of Champagne they knew had been badly stored; because, they said, if they were still good we would appreciate them and if not we would understand why!
So it was with this magnum of Mercier, donated to a large family gathering for similar reasons, probably early on a raffle prize, and very likely passed through several hands. The label looked pretty old-fashioned (perhaps someone out there knows its era?) and, given its uncertain provenance, hopes were not high.
In the event the wine was still very much alive, mature, yes, probably better younger, yet remarkable for hanging on in there.
We always recommend you don’t hang on to non-vintage Champagne for too long (it’s released to be enjoyed) but this venerable old lady proved you need not panic!
Jo Locke MW
This was a fine opportunity to taste the Gratien range in wonderful surroundings off the Champs Elysées, at Restaurant Laurent.
The weather was glorious: perfect blue sky and a warm 27º or so. Somewhat bored gendarmes were everywhere, expecting maybe a Syrian attack on the US consulate or disgruntled vignerons on the presidential palace.The occasion was a press lunch for the Paris wine hacks and I was there representing maybe the old enemy. Lunch was served on a terrace with the roof of the Grand Palais close by.
Champagne is often dismissed as mere bubbly, something to refresh and seduce, yet it was Alain Seydoux – now long retired as head of Alfred Gratien – who always impressed upon me that Champagne was a wine which just happened to have bubbles.
And of course, Alfred Gratien is a quite distinctive Champagne, and very much a wine in all its weight, complexity and length of flavour.
Proceedings got under way with two versions of the same wine, the Non-Vintage Brut. Version A had been bottled without dosage but, for my taste, version B (the normal Brut) seemed better balanced and on a hot day was absolutely delicious.
We were then treated with the following parings:
Pig’s trotter with slices of steamed potato. Quite appetising and worked really well with the 2007 Blanc de Blancs, a grand cru chardonnay of great distinction and finesse.
Next was a take on bouillabaisse but served in a jelly. The best wine was the 1996 Vintage which was completely outstanding. A great vintage which had been somewhat dormant but which is now completely brilliant.
The same vintage was also served with sweetbreads but a better match was with Rosé Champagne, where the added body provided a better foil for the richness of this dish.
Two cheeses were served: Comté and Camembert and the wine chosen was the still youthful and full-flavoured 1990 Vintage. Champagne and cheese? Who would have thought it? The Camembert didn’t really work but the Comté was a triumph.
A rather lovely peach tart was then served with 2006 Cuvée Paradis. This is a gorgeous Champagne: rich and succulent, it coped well with the tart. This newly released, lovely and creamy wine will be available over Christmas, and is highly recommended.
Society Buyer for Champagne
A big spring clean, as it turns out, to get this venerable company fit for 2014, when it will celebrate its 150th year in business.
In every wine house there is always a room set aside for old labels. As a record of a great wine house’s activities over the years, there is nothing quite like it short of the bottles themselves. There is nothing simple about labels as it is much more than just the name of the wine and the producer. There are legal requirements and these will change according to where the wine is being sold, so one wine may need half a dozen labels or more, and most houses will keep records of every one.
The label room at Alfred Gratien did need, in all honesty, a little bit of sorting out and at last, as part of the extensive transformation at the Château Gratien site above the Loire in Saumur, that has come.
The result is that they have found The Wine Society’s very first label dating back to the 1906 vintage:
I was chez Alfred Gratien last week, introducing new head of buying Tim Sykes to the Gratien team and immersing him, not too literally, into Gratien culture.
Sitting next to me was Olivier Dupré, sales director for the whole Gratien group taking in both Champagne and the Loire. Olivier himself hails from Saumur but comes over to Epernay every couple of months so ? like when two Wine Society buyers turn up.We were tasting the range and in particular the next blend of The Society’s Champagne, Brut. This will come on stream sometime in September or October and the first batch will need to be disgorged very soon. Though brut means dry, a little sugar is added at disgorgement to help soften the acidity. This is called the liqueur de dosage and it is made either from grape concentrate or cane sugar. The tasting confirmed what we had decided on my last visit: that the amount of dosage is on the decrease ? a reflection of the quality of the wines and riper fruit.
The new blend will be based on the excellent 2008 vintage, paler than the previous 2007 base, maybe a little finer too, and with a great sense of precision. There are subtle changes in the make-up of the blend with for once more pinot noir than meunier. The exact proportions are the following: 41% chardonnay, 31% pinot noir and 27% meunier.
One of the keys to Alfred Gratien’s success is the relationships it enjoys with its growers. Gratien wines are vinified in barrel, not only grape by grape but even grower by grower; the blend is not finalised till the spring after the vintage. Every year the growers are invited to taste “their” wine and such is the growing reputation chez Gratien that growers are queuing up to be suppliers; and they include a growing number from the Montagne de Reims, home of the best pinot noir. So in this new blend of The Society’s Champagne Brut will be wines from famous grand cru villages on the Montagne, such as Bouzy and Ambonnay and Verzy.
A new vintage Champagne will also be launched, maybe early next year, and this will be vintage 2000 (64% chardonnay, 25% pinot and 11% meunier). This promises to be a real beauty: rich and complex with great finesse with a wonderful sense of minerality, and close in stature to the exceptional 2002 vintage.
Alfred Gratien Champagne ages exceptionally. The way they are made and the quality of the raw material used means that they are built to last. The visit ended with a lovely bottle of 1969: the same vintage that was used in The Society’s Centenary Cuvée which some of us were lucky enough to drink in 1974!
The event is an opportunity to taste very widely and gives a snapshot of who is doing what in Champagne.
Nearly 70 Houses were present and each showed three wines: non vintage, vintage plus one other.
This is not a blind tasting so there is the potential to be thoroughly biased. Having said that, with so many wines to taste and given the constraints of time, many wines fall by the wayside. One also assumes that all the wines on show come from running stock. But disgorgement dates are bound to vary and these can radically influence how a wine tastes. Very recently disgorged wines often taste out of kilter. The storing of Champagne leaves no room for error and anything badly stored can easily taste oxidized.
And to conclude? Well not really much different from last year: a few outstanding wines with everything that one might wish for in a bottle of Champagne. The majority are decent enough and in the right context, perfectly acceptable, and then there are the howlers, to be avoided. As last year I?ve given comments for each House and I?ve included last year?s verdict as well.
Champagne is an extraordinary product with over 300m bottles produced every year and all under just the one appellation. It comes in umpteen styles. Some are best for parties; others need a more gastronomic approach. I?ve given an indication where appropriate. My notes are a quick appraisal of how the wines tasted on the day, they are not intended as full-blown tasting notes but I show them here for your interest.