Monday, 10 November 2014

Champagne 2014 - a mercurial year

" A Waltz in Three Tempi" is how Dominique Moncomble, the head of viticulture at the Comité de Champagne, describes the mercurial growing season of this maverick year in Champagne. The dance got off at a brisk Allegro - a warm spring and a superb flowering in early June of beautifully formed baby grapes raised spirits, with the added prospect of a decent sized crop for once. The mood music changed sharply in the last fortnight of July/the first two weeks in August as Nature brought the wettest coldest period, at this stage, for 20 years: Producers returning from their holidays thought they might be facing another lean, mean 2001. Then, Presto, the sun came out on September 1st and ushered in a warm, at times hot, 15-day+ Indian summer which saved the day, certainly from disaster.

Huge relief in the Champagne community greeted this change of fortune, leading the authorities to claim that at harvest time the vineyards were in textbook condition. Well up to a point, messieurs. With the see-saw, topsy turvy sequence of the 014 growing season, the big picture is, no surprise, more mixed and variable.August is almost as important as September in shaping Champagne with any claim to greatness. And those August downpours damaged the thinner-skinned varieties, causing the skins of Meunier (and to a lesser extent, Pinot Noir) to split - allowing the Drosophilia Asian fruit fly to infect the juice and turn it to vinegar. Not universally, to be fair:The Meuniers of the northern Montagne - Villedemange, Ecueil  - fared reasonably well but the farther west you go along the Marne Valley  the sorrier the picture looks.The picture for Pinot Noir and especially Chardonnay is a lot brighter - with the vital caveat of  getting the picking dates right,  a more important decision this year than in any I can remember since 2008. Why? Owing to the August cold, the level of malic acid was still shiveringly high in the first days of September. The vignerons were advised to wait. Even so, the official starting date was announced for September 8, which most savants think was too early..   Those producers who had the cool nerve to wait till the 12th,and even better the 15th, for the still
brilliant autumn sun will be rewarded.  It should be a vintage year for some of the best Chardonnay growers of the Côte des Blancs. And there are some brilliant Pinot Noirs on the Northern Montagne especially Verzenay and Verzy, in large part due to less August rain there than in other districts. It is  at last an excellent year for Aubois Pinot, especially the Barsuraubois, touching the border with Burgundy.

It would be foolish to rush to judgement before tasting the vins clairs next February. At least, the Champenois have reason to be cheerful and use their talent for selection of a crop that is fairly abundant but not too excessive. As Régis Camus, the magician of C et P Heidsieck said the other day,
" before the harvest notre morale etait dans nos chausettes. Now we can sleep at night!"

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

A little chemistry lesson for a story teller at harvest time

Pressing the grapes skilfully at harvest time is the single most important stage in champagne-making. Get that right and everything else should flow smoothly afterwards. "Flow" is the operative word, for a careful monitoring of the juice, as it moves along the pipe from press to vat, gives the winemaker a precise pointer to the juice's purity, structure & quality - or otherwise, not least when these positives  fade towards the end of the final pressings.

 We are into a very technical area. Happily, a clear explanation of the science comes from Philippe Thieffry, senior winemaker of Veuve Clicquot, formerly at Henriot, where he created the magnificent  prestige Cuvée Les Enchanteleurs. Philippe stresses that "on the subject  of the measures like connectivity, carried out on the "must", what this is about is in fact CONDUCTIVITY. This measure appreciates the richness in minerals of the juices, of which potassium is the most important. The more ions (atoms with an net electric charge) there are, the more conductivity will be raised and the more the juice will be the conductor." It's also worth noting that conductivity and of course pH are at their highest on the juice at the end of the pressing (tailles). That end-juice is clearly less stable and will be used, one hopes sparingly, in  budget non-vintage champagnes for quick consumption.

" Conductivity is also employed  to appreciate the stability of  wines vis à vis tartaric precipitations - by calculating the temperature of saturation  of the wine through a differential measure of conductivity before and after saturation of the wine with tartaric acid," Philippe concludes.

That's quite enough science for one session. If you prefer a more artisanal approach, you will be reassured by the advice of one outstanding chef de caves, who as always thinks outside the box. "  Don't get preoccupied with the science. Traditionally, the most careful champagne-makers taste the   juices constantly throughout  the pressings to gauge their purity and balanced richness appropriate to  a classic Cuvée ( first two 'serres') ". The palate of an experienced press manager may be the surest  test of all.

I am very grateful also to Manu Fourny, Guillaume Roffian, Laurent Champs and Arnaud  Margaine for their approaches to pressing. And not least to my friend and colleague Anne Krebiehl MW for   urging me to ask them the right questions!  

PS. This post is offered as a rider to my "Pressing Matter revisited" feature  published in the October issue of the Drinks Business. I hope  the issues are now clear to the reader.

Friday, 6 June 2014

Plenitudes -the cyclical expression of Dom Perignon

Richard Geoffroy is never at a loss for poetic words to mark the life of his baby from childhood through adolescence onto early manhood and, finally, the prime of life. We are of course talking about Dom Perignon, which Richard believes matures in cycles or as he now calls them, Plenitudes. Dom Perignon reaches its first peak of maturity (P1) after at least seven years on lees, the exact amount of time determined by the characteristics of that year's vintage. P2 emerges after a minimum of 12 years' maturation and P3 usually requires no less than 20 years.

Vincent Chaperon, born in 1976 into an old Libournais wine family,  is Richard's right-hand man and oenologist. A precise, cerebral fellow, Vincent was in London recently to update us on the team's thoughts about the essence of Dom Perignon, which like all true creations is rarely fixed, more often subtly evolving. Extended lees ageing though has always been fundamental to DP's singular style, as it magnifies every character, enriching and protecting it from oxydising. There is plenty of good science to support this claim, as of all the great prestige cuvees DP is the ultimate expression of reductive non-oxidative winemaking, its fruit and vinosity surging, steady and stable, on its way to a grand distinguished life in bottle:  As any greybeard will tell you, it is a mug's name to be too categoric about DP when young. " Plenitude," says Vincent," is a more important pointer to the evolving character of DP than age per se, which the Oenotheque concept (of a library wine) rather conveyed."

Cutting to the chase, we tasted first the current 2004 Dom Perignon, at this fairly early P1 stage (9 years +) .Moderately dosed at 7 g/l. its easy elegance and harmony was on full show from sight to swallow - a shimmering Welsh gold hue; driving, dynamic citrus-led character evident with a  fine paperclip of minerals  - Chardonnay for the moment seemingly in the driving seat. It's the sort of problem-free vintage that is likely to taste good always. The crop was large but the wine a success because the fruit was in excellent health and free of disease. 17.5+ just now.

Onto the 1998 Dom Perignon P2.  The '98 was a challenging harvest, particularly with the see-saw swings of an intensely hot August followed by two weeks of rain in early September: These swings requited rigorous selection of grapes and - absolutely key - a later picking date at  DP: from 21 Sept to take advantage of the returning good weather. Still, it would be idle to deny that '98 is a controversial vintage: several big guns - Bollinger (save the VV Francaises), Jacquesson, Salon and Louis Roederer generally skipped the vintage, fear of certain instabilities and some not- so-noble rot their main reasons for not declaring. But the small band of bravehearts have, for me, made exhilarating champagnes, balancing on the high wire of opulent richness and athletic acidity - Krug, Pol Roger straight vintage, La Grande Dame and of course Dom Perignon itself are favourites. Personally, I have always preferred the DP'98 to the '96 (even as Oenotheque) though the '95 may be better than both.

 The P2 1998 has a lowered dosage of 6 g/l ( the earlier cuvee had 8 or 9 g/l) and an admirable post-disgorgement ageing from April 2012. Definitely the right sort of fine tuning, delivering a colour of fine luminous gold, a steady stream of tiny bubbles and characteristics fully worthy of a second plenitude: the aromas are more intense, honeysuckle melding with yellow peach, and a poised richness and energy on the palate that is truly exciting, What I really love is that one comes face to face with the wine's complex character. The lees ageing helps of course but doesn't mask the majesty of this very fine champagne. 18.5

I would drink it now and over the next three years. To be frank, I'm not sure that the last maturing stage  of Plenitude, P3,  20 years +, really convinces me as a principle across the board. Haven't the lees really done their work after 12, maybe 15 years at the most ? Of course, as an old dog, I may well be in my dotage by the time the P3 stage finally arrives! Live for the moment and enjoy the DP 1998 P2 in the lotus days of summer and autumn till 2016/17. Salut!

Michael Edwards June 2014

Thursday, 9 January 2014

First new year taste of Burgundy 2012

Well, we're off on our January odyssey of the 2012 en primeur burgundies. Last night at the Savile club that doyen of great tasters, David Peppercorn, apparently gave a very positive thumbs up to the vintage. In the presence of so many authoritative tasters, the only area I feel I can add anything from  long experience is Chablis, so close to my beloved Champagne with which it has more in common than it does really with the Côte d'Or.

Yesterday morning at the Domaine Chanson tasting, with a clear view over the Tate to Westminster Cathedral from Mentzendorff's offices,  I sensed I was in the presence of something special, reminding me of when I first tasted, forty years ago, a great Chablis Blanchots  with Michel Laroche over dinner in Auxerre- the beginning of a friendship still warm today. The Chablis 2012s have a concentration and latent power I haven't seen for years. But they are generally not going to reveal themselves for quite a while: these are classic sleepers with beautiful ripe acidity and mineral depths to come. The Domaine Chanson Montmains,usually so forward and  friendly, is tightly packed and steely; the Fourchaumes does reveal a glimpse of that flowery charm but with heft behind; as usual the Montée de Tonnerre - "grand cru" quality at a premier cru price  - is a captivating lemon-gold, elegantly gras but with all that austere craggy sense of place that will make a great bottle. Little point in pontificating about Les Clos and even Les Preuses so young, I just wish I will be still be around to enjoy them at their zenith, come 2024 and beyond!

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Ay " en Argonne" - current Giraud Champagnes

Tasted London, September 2013

Quite a memorable experience, what a card player might call a Royal Flush.

Esprit de Giraud Blanc de Blancs - a rare type of all Chardonnay champagne, the grapes coming exclusively from the Montagne de Reims, including 10% Ay Blanc. Maintains an admirably crispness and aromas of spring flowers but has an added rich smokiness that is very Montagne. As such, it might go with a wider palate of food flavours than the lighter style of the Cote des Blancs. Stainless steel fermented. Terrific quality for an entry level champagne. *** (*)

Hommage à Francois Hemart, Ay Grand Cru NV - pure Ay 70 /30 Chard. NV. Six months in oak barrels gives patina to the wine. Three years sur lie. Roundness, freshness and the key iodic saltiness of a great site. Long. ****  fine quality /price ratio.

Code Noir Blanc de Noirs Ay Grand Cru NV - richness, intensity, exotic touch of pineapple, reined by noble minerality - you feel the dentelles of chalk in its texture. Opens many opportunities to gastronomy - lobster, seafood, scallops maybe with black bean sauce. ****

Code Noir Rose Ay Grand Cru Ay Grand Cru NV- a truly orginal expression of Pinot Noir Rose striking sensation of wild ham, with strawberries left under the sun, & a note of white pepper. A sensuous delight. For risotto with porcini. **** (*)

Fut de Chene, Multi Vintage, Ay Grand Cru NV - this former top-o-the-range cuvee is now a muti-vintage, rather than from a single year. Created in response to consumer demand, this champagne is all about balance and impressively shows the blender's skills: it has an extra freshness and more keenly defined minerality as a counterpoint to the inherent richness of old; if anything, the wood is even better integrated. **** (*)

Henri Giraud Cuvee Argonne, Grand Cru Ay 2002 - replaces the Fut de Chene vintage, now named after the forest of Argonne. Outstanding wine from a great vintage, all burnised gold, tiny bubbles and every component - fruit, chalky salinity, rich vinosity, perfect oak integration -in superb balance.Grand Vin ***** Tasted Ay, February 2013.


Monday, 30 September 2013

Giraud Master of Argonne Oak in London

Until recently, trying to identify the origins of oak in French fine winemaking was a fool's errand since tracing the wood to an exact forest and type had become impossible.The supplying coopers  tended to give vague answers about the provenance of their wood to houses and growers, who had to resort to averaging everything out by using up to five different coopers to arrive at a style of wine that they thought best suited their wine. It was all a bit hit and miss, anything but precise and clear.That began to change in the early 1990s, when Claude Giraud from one of the oldest wine growing families in Ay began the most intellectually rigorous study of Champagne's local forest, the Argonne, south east of Chalons which for three centuries had provided the most suitable, least invasive type of oak to support the delicate flavours of Champagne. Claude was at Lord's Cricket ground last week at Coe Vintners Tasting to reveal the fruits of his research into oak, expressed in a range of champagnes that come  predominantly from Ay, the silkiest of Grand Cru Pinots; and certainly all his wines are born on the Montagne - unique for a producer who straddles the world of merchant and grower with effortless ease.

Claude Giraud of Hemart-Giraud

Claude began the seminar with some essential background. He told us that with the dramatic expansion of the Champagne market post World War 2, by the 1950s the Champenois were faced with the  Industrial/Agricultural option. As they had become rich,with the thought of becoming richer still, it is no surprise they chose the industrial path based on volume and ambitious distribution. The oak forest of the Argonne was abandoned and stainless steel fermenters were installed to bring a simpler type of Champagne, which was easier to make for mass markets with fewer challenges and risks. Yet from the late '80s, a stalwart band of smaller producers ( led by the pioneering example of Bruno Paillard in 1981) returned to the precepts of their fathers, seeking to  express the true nature of chalky Champagne - fresh, pure, mentholated, mineral and dry, set for a long distinguished life. At first, several growers were wary of returning to oak for fear of distorting the purity of their wines.

Claude had other ideas. Because of  his heritage, he knew that the poor soil of the Argonne was the perfect place for the subtlest oak to enrich his grands vins d'Ay - if only he could identify and authenticate the forest of this ideal wood. Thanks to Claude's 20-year friendship with Camille Gauthier, a 'meraindier' (tree cutter), the last link in the puzzle has been solved. So Maison Giraud now choose all their own oak from trees that are 150 year old, 100 per cent  Argonne authenticated, the only houses in Champagne that can make this claim. Claude signs off in his laconic humorous style: ' Since 1990, there's been no racking. If you touch the wine, you lose its sense. We're not bio or extremist, we just use sustainable methods to make the best wine. Steel tanks are inert, the cask is alive, giving texture, tension , durabilty.' Another way of saying great Champagne. The sweetest irony is the two entry- level cuvees made in stainless steel, Esprit de Giraud, white and pink, are still of the highest quality at their price point.

That's a long enough post for one day...for a full report on the current Giraud range,  the next postfollows in a few days.

Friday, 6 September 2013

A fresh look to Bordeaux at the Westbury

Last night was one of the most enjoyable evenings I've had in a while, taking my mind off a sore knee inflicted by my falling on the stairs in the middle of the night after a blameless alcohol-free supper. Louise Hill organized a wine dinner for 12 in a delightful svelte room off Alyn Williams' splendid restaurant at the Westbury. So good to see professional wine friends, Hugh Johnson, Charles Metcalfe, Neal Martin, Patrick Schmitt and Tom, the Cambridge wine blogger. Louise the one delightful female company and her husband, Neil the wine tipster, always good value.We had come to hear three growers from Fronsac, Graves and Margaux give eloquent proof of Innovation & Change in Bordeaux. We kicked off with an impressive aperitif, Chateau Couhans, Pessac- Leognan blanc 201, presented by Romain Baillou. Although it was pure Sauvignon, it wasn't the grape's usual descriptors that struck some of us, but as Hugh said, a genuine sense especially of the clay and limestone terroir from which it sprang, in the best part of Pessac-Leognan for whites between Chx Carbonnieux and Bouscaut. The dramatic improvement in this wine apparently owes a lot to an infra -red technology that analyses the soil, applies ripeness tests and determines homogeneous areas. Geeky, I know, but it works.

Then, a relaxing interlude, as chef Alyn Williams, ex chief sidesman to Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley, told us about the elegant dinner to come. The lightest veloute of butternut squash/ new forest mushrooms in that morning, with aged parmesan; braised beef  cheek/ gentle garlic scapes/beets/ mild home-made horseradish sauce; vanilla creme brulee, the classic sans extraneous flavourings. Mouthwatering, eh, and later passing the plate test with flying colours, happy to play second fiddle to the wines, just enhancing them.

Guillaume Halley, the young scion of Chateau de la Dauphine in Fronsac took the stage and spoke of two big changes at his beautiful property. His sizeable hectares are all being converted to organic viticulture; and he has changed wine consultants from Denis Dubourdieu to Michel Rolland. To be honest I winced slightly, as I'm a great admirer of Denis and a more reserved one of Michel. But my scepticism was confounded when I gazed at and tasted the baby 2012 Dauphine, largely Merlot -lovely deep colour and enticing, not too extracted ripe fruit - the Rolland influence. The 2009 looked a little in on itself, with a less youthful hue than the excellent 2001, a classic and his father's first vintage after he bought the property in 2000.

Chateau de la Dauphine & pond

And so to Chateau Marquis de Terme, Margaux classified growth, a nostalgic memory of more than 40 years ago when I was a squirt stagier in the Medoc. Lunching frugally but decently at the cobwebby restaurant L'Etoile - 8 Francs all in, vin ordinaire inclus -  I used to dream of being rich enough to drink the Marquis regularly. It always had fabulous terroir in the centre of the Margaux-Cantenac sector, but it's rarely been that fashionable. Now it has a fine protector in Ludovic David, general manager and winemaker. The 2011 is a quiet little beauty from as yet an unsung vintage. Structure, elegance, admirable Margolais expression of Cabernet Sauvignon. Ludovic's innovations include a 10 % use of the now famous 'egg' vat made of concrete, less oxidative than full oak, in order to preserve the fruit, as it ages. The curvaceous shape of the egg allows for a better interchange of wine and lees. Another tool from the box of tricks is a whizz which measures the polyphenols that will contribute much to the complexity of the wines - that's as far as one old  taster understands it. Ask Neal Martin or Chris Kissack! The 2005 Marquis is a great sleeper that needs more time. I can see why Tom loved the 1990, but we had perhaps a different bottle at our end of the table - in our glasses, the wine seemed a bit torn and drying out.

Altogether a lovely evening, though, restoring one's faith in the greatest wine region on earth.