Champagne is the quintessential wine of love, celebration and hedonism. It matches (and fuels) the soaring spirits associated with romantic encounters, business or sporting success and more. In these circumstances, the wine writer can be forgiven for a small indulgence and simply praising a few outstanding bottles.
Not that Champagne is uniformly good or enjoyable, far from it. In fact, it is one of the easiest wines to get wrong, sometimes even at quite a price. Given the extreme northern location of the area and the lure of the name, there are too many overly acidic or just characterless wines to disappoint the unwary buyer. In this, it shares something with everyday claret, which equally can leave the consumer wondering what all the fuss is about. But find a good bottle or producer and a whole world of flavour and experience is opened. So here goes with some personal favourites from the recent annual trade tasting.
The rich relative of an old friend
There is a huge number of British wine drinkers who have virtually been brought up on the Champagne of Alfred Gratien which for years has supplied the Wine Society with its own line of Champagne. As such it is as British as Wimbledon, the Grand National or afternoon tea. The entry level wine is twice as interesting as many big brand names and certainly vastly better than the ‘bargains’ which are the main offerings of the supermarkets. But of course Gratien also make better lines and vintage wines that are not nearly so well known. Alfred Gratien, Millésime 1999 was a revelation: made from 63% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Meunier and 17% Pinot Noir, the nose was quite reserved but the palate was rich and lovely, an explosion of refined, mature fruit, superb structure and refreshing acidity to follow, a perfectly balanced wine, enjoyable and complex.
And now for something completely different
Over lunch, there were a number of wines to try and I chanced on the pale apricot coloured Pehu-Simmonet. An experienced Champagne hand I lunched with took one look at the glass and said: Blanc de Noir, ie ‘white’ wine made from the red grape varieties, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, a minuscule amount of colour have been allowed to leach into the wine. Here it is on the right of the two glasses, next toa normal glass of the lovely fizz. Later at the producer’s table, I learnt that Pehu-Simmonet Grand Cru Blanc de Noirs is 100% Pinot Noir, producing a very fine and structured wine with a sophisticated palate. There is red fruit in there but not in a simple sort of way; rather, the fruit has been metamorphosed through fermentation and interaction with the yeast cells in the bottles. Very good with food (including cold rare beef), beautiful. And as you can see it comes in an eye-catching bottle, the Blanc de Noir is on the right of the three bottles.
The best Champagne is expensive. Sadly, my budget is not going to run to too many of these bottles and certainly not just to compare them. The trade tasting is, therefore, an unparalleled opportunity to try many wines which would otherwise be out of reach. As time was short, I concentrated on the wines of the individual producers present. There is nothing quite like meeting the people who make the wine or work for the domaine. With heroic self-restraint, I barely touched a bottle on the vintage table which lined up examples from twelve vintages from 2009 back to 1996 – a must in another year. From the producers’ tables, a few favourites included Gossett Grand Millésime 2000 which was superb, rich and integrated while their Grand Rosé had very fine strawberry and raspberry fruit, quite structured, very good. Having been to André Jacquart last autumn, this was a chance to try their Grand Cru Le Mesnil 2004 Blanc de Blanc, quite rich, some noticeable wood, an acidic streak and very persistent; a very good if quite demanding glass. Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame 1998 was sheer indulgence, very toasty and mushroomy, good length, the ‘sweetness’ of old wine; it cried out for a grand lobster dish to accompany it …
And finally Tarlant
While producers are supposed only to show three wines each, presumably to keep things manageable, some helpfully bring a few more. Tarlant had five, one of which was the 100% Pinot Meunier I commented on in the preceding post. The range is impressive as is the history – the family holding goes back to the last decade of the seventeenth century.
Brut Nature Zéro, based on the 2006 vintage, has no sugar added to the final product and so tests the winemaker’s art to the limit. This wine, based on a third each of the typical Champagne varieties is predictably refreshing but with some roundedness, very good if with a slightly unsubtle finish.
Reserve Brut, based on the 2005 vintage, with 6g/l residual sugar, very attractive, this low level of residual sugar certainly sorts out the finish.
Tradition, based on the 2005, the grape mix here being 55% Pinot Noir, 37% Pinot Meunier, 8% Chardonnay. Rounded, filled out structure, attractive. They describe it as a perfect food champagne and I wouldn’t disagree.
Tarlant 1998, the vintage wine drops the Pinot Meunier and switches the balance to Chardonnay (65%) and Pinot Noir (35%). A very fine mousse, obvious notes of development in the mushroom and truffle department, luscious mouthfeel, taut, very good.
Cuvée Louis is a suitably grand wine with which to finish. It draws on wines from 1998, 1997 and 1996, made from grapes with a 50/50 split between the two ‘noble’ varieties. It was bottled for its second fermentation in 1999 and disgorged in 2009, so it has had a full decade on the lees. Very sweet, rich and mushroomy on the nose, a rich and exotic palate of fruit from apple to peach, fine finish, outstanding.