Since winning the Champagne scholarship as part of my Diploma studies, I am in a state of pleasantly suspended animation, awaiting the visit to Champagne in late March. If Champagne bottles were animate beings, I suppose this is like the state of being of a bottle which has been on the lees for the requisite length of time and is now, patiently or impatiently, awaiting its time to be disgorged …
What this phase has done is to make me much more attentive to the bottles of Champagne I can taste or, even better drink. Whereas I used to regard them as a brilliant warm up act which doesn’t get the attention it deserves, I now give them pride of place and real consideration.
At a recent Metzendorf tasting (February 2013), I was fortunate to try the recent releases of Bollinger and, now part of the same group, Ayala. The crowd around this table was pretty constant and the mood was definitely upbeat. The grand setting of the Floral Hall in the Royal Opera House set the stage.
Champagne Ayala seeks to be a contemporary expression of Champagne, easy to engage with, sleek and polished. No oak is used in the fermentation phase and this is part of the brand’s distinction from the more aristocratic, opulent Bollinger.
Brut Majeur NV – 40% each Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, 20% Meunier, this wine spends two and a half years on the lees in the bottle in which the second fermentation takes place. However, despite this fairly lengthy time, it is not the bakery aromas of brioche and fresh bread which are most evident but elegant, characterful fruit, with floral overtones. At this elevated level of production, even the wine at the base of the pyramid has a significant quantity of Premier Cru and Grand Cru fruit in it, and this really shows. The touch of residual sugar brings out that fruitiness – green to riper apple, raspberry – and carries the whole wine with it.
Brut Nature NV – an entirely different experience here. The lack of any added sugar at the final phase, post second fermentation, makes for an exhilarating experience. The attack of all those northerly acidity is to the fore, the fruit sits behind that refreshing thrill. Beautiful austerity. Because of the lack of sugar and the accent that places on the fruit, the second fermentation notes are much more evident – yeast, fresh bread, toast, something herbal along the lines of sage.
Blanc de Blanc 2005 – if the Brut Majeur is easy to appreciate, those who trade up to this 100% Chardonnay wine are in for a journey of discovery. Gone are the simple, very attractive fruit notes; they have been replaced by the powerful subtleties of this wine made from 100% Grand Cru fruit – from the villages of Le Mesnil, Avize and Chouilly – with a full seven years on the lees in the bottle. This means that the yeast has done its work to the full, consuming remaining sugar in the wine, dying and creatively decomposing. Champagne shares something profound with the humble process of composting in your garden. The breaking down process produces something unbelievably wholesome and nourishing from what we would otherwise regard as waste. Pronounced yeast, brioche, herbal and savoury notes, a much broader palate and great length. We are a million miles from a simple glass of bubbles.
Perle d’Ayala 2002 – from a truly great year, this shows yet greater fruit concentration. In fact, making a neat connection with the basic Champagne above, here the fruit strides triumphantly over the autolytic notes, powerful though those would have been had it not been for the fruit. This gives length and great potential for ageing. Ripe melon, apple, raspberry and more; brilliant balance, real wow factor.
Champagne Bollinger was also showing four wines, the current Special Cuvée, Rosé and La Grande Année 2004 and La Grande Année Rosé 2004. Stylistically the difference here is that Bollinger is aiming for a richer, more opulent approach. There is an even more severe selection of top grapes, 85% Grand Cru for the Special Cuvée NV which is 60% Pinot Noir, 25% Chardonnay and 15% Meunier, with 20% of the must being fermented in oak. Having been blended (three words which cover a hugely complex matter which relies on remarkable human skill and the most sensitive of palates) the wine is kept for three years in the bottle before it is disgorged and rested in preparation to be sold. Even after the quality of the Ayala, this baseline offering impresses with is luxury credentials – the top quality fruit plus fermenting and ageing in oak give that extra level of roundedness and another dimension of complexity. I then proceeded to the La Grande Année 2004, 66% Pinot Noir, 34% Chardonnay (of which 88% is Grand Cru and the rest Premier Cru) which spends 6-8 years on the lees depending on the vintage in question, this one being a good rather than great year for relatively early drinking rather than long ageing. It has a rather subtle approach followed by superb fruit with excellent structure in the mouth. Very good indeed if not absolutely outstanding, a ‘drinking year’ as the pleasant euphemism goes.
The rosés also shone. Having said that, despite the premium price, I think it is difficult for these to have the same impact as the white wines as they have to show some primary red fruit. If they don’t then the colour would just be window dressing and wouldn’t be connected with the flavour in the glass. But one of the secrets of Champagne is the subtlety of the blend, the seamless knitting together of elements from fruit, oak and from reserve wines in non–vintage wines, where older vintages can be used as a way of rounding out and giving depth to young wines. The aim is always for the sum to be greater than the parts and for the blending to be a hidden art. So for a wine to show clear red fruit character is somewhat against that ideal. Nonetheless, the Rosé NV is a mighty impressive wine made from 64% Pinot Noir (some of which is presumably still red wine for the colour) and 36% Chardonnay, all of which is fermented in oak barrels. The fruit is 90% Grand Cru and the rest is Premier Cru. The tone set here is of refined red berried fruit with the luxurious surround of oak.
As there is no RD (recently disgorged) being released at the moment, the final wine is La Grande Année Rosé 2004. Here the blend is as with the NV rosé with the still red wine being stated as 5%. The period on the lees in the bottle was March 2005 to September 2012, so seven years and six months to be precise. Again the vintage is rosé is something of an acquired taste though at £80-£100 a bottle you may not feel the need to acquire it. Very subtle, refined red berry fruit translated into a different register by that long stay in bottle on the lees, superb lifted bouquet, silky texture, super fine bubbles.
Champagne of this quality is a reminder of why these wines are among the very best, most complex, wines in the world. The variables at every point are so many that cumulatively they produce a myriad of drinking experiences. I can’t wait for the exploration to continue.
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