Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Herbert Hall, a Kentish tenant farmer who prospered and came to love Champagne

In 1894, Herbert Hall became a tenant farmer on the old Kentish hop route in the Wealden village of Marden. The soils here were clay with a seam of gravel- fine for hops, no doubt.  Herbert was a great character and something of a homespun entrepreneur: he quickly diversified from hops and apples into raising chickens- so successfully, that he became the principal supplier of chicken to the P & O shipping line and their cruise ships. Increasingly prosperous, he developed it seems a taste for Champagne, a discovery made by his great grandson Nicholas Hall only after 2007 when he converted the farm into a vineyard. In digging to make a small swimming pool, Nick unearthed hundreds of shattered  remnants of Champagne bottles enjoyed by his great grandpa.

Herbert Hall has been my favourite English sparkling producer ever since. What attracted me to the wines first off (2010) was  their texture- generous, rounded, durable yet fine-grained. In a word, the building blocks of BALANCE. All this stems from the original piece of land that Herbert farmed, its virtues by good fortune having  in recent years proved also to be an adaptable fine home for growing classic wine grapes:  The sunny,southerly aspect of these now 10 acres under vine; the individuality of clay soils with the gravel seam that aids good drainage - so important in maritime, precariously rainy England. Our island has made great advances in viticulture and wine-making in the last five years. There are now a good dozen estates that have mastered the shiver factor of the high, sometimes excessive acidity of old. Still, no one does it better than at Herbert Hall in wines, which pre-eminently have the silky feel of fine Champagne - though of course the taste and style are very different. HH is so English, a celebration of fresh, fragrant fruit from your favourite  Kentish orchard. The other key to excellence is of course the hand of man.

Nicholas Hall is an enlightened sort of intuitive winemaker who decided to become an English vigneron from the broader perspective of a wine lover in another profession wanting to create fine wine that, before all else, would be a real pleasure to drink.  Some of the world's most interesting winemakers have had the same priority: Paul Draper, educated as a philosopher, at Ridge Montebello, or the late Max Lake, a former hand surgeon at Lake's Folly, come to mind from the 80s/90s. Like them, Nick has a flair and  instinct for the essentials, yet with that  same creative -yes, romantic - attitude which extends beyond the numbers of acidity and pH to why we drink fine wine in the first place.Though his background is liberal arts, having read English at King's London before working as a journalist, he approached his new livelihood with serious intent. Peter Morgan, his tutor at Plumpton College, recognised Nick as a natural in fine winemaking - practical, flexible, keenly observant, open to new ideas. He has  embraced organic farming successfully and is an avid student of weather patterns. The High Weald around nearby Goudhurst, for instance is subject to winds and storms. And as Nick says, " only the other day I learnt that the Kent Ambulance Service has chosen Marden as its most secure and stable base because of our special microclimate, which is protected from the storms and squalls that afflict more exposed neighbouring villages."

Now, to the nitty gritty and my purpose in coming down to taste Nick's newly minted cuvees from 2013 - a promising vintage, fleet of foot, especially Chardonnay, as in Champagne as it happens.

Tasting 21 July 11.15 am

 Herbert Hall  Brut  45% Chardonnay, the rest made up of Pinot Noir and Meunier. Dosage 8 g/l
A lovely shimmering Welsh gold with green lights. Oh yes, those very Kentish scents of
 walking through an orchard, springtime apple blossom ceding to orchard fruits like quince and pear, romantic and sensuous. Unalloyed fruit expression in the mouth, rounded, ripe,  kindly-  yet so fresh with drive and elegant acidity. A fine definition on the end palate. Hall's achievement realised through judicious softening of  part 'malo' and 10% aerating fermentation in oak. A deft exceptional result. 18

Herbert Hall Brut Zero Dosage - a tiny amount made of the same 2013 wine, without sugar. Like Nick and Kirsty, I approached this wine with caution. Delightful surprise, the fruit was ripe enough not to need dosage.  The finished wine is more incisive and speaking personally is made for a seafood lunch, especially oysters and clams. 17

Herbert Hall Brut (2012) - a revealing comparison with the 2013 and a very challenging one in the earlier very difficult vintage. Yet Herbert Hall managed to make a fair- sized crop and a decent wine, unlike other leaders. It is more lactic in style than the exhilarating freshly energetic 2013. Full and soft for those who like an almost gout anglais style - the wine comes through tho' ,the flag still fluttering. 16

Herbert Hall Brut Rose (2013) -  Lovely colour, discreet salmon, shades of Dom Ruinart Pink, for which there can be no higher praise.  Savoury mineral Chardonnay in the driving seat, then the coup de grace, just 5 % Pinot Noir red wine is added at bottling. Dosage 7 g/l. The medley of flavours is fascinating, the hazelnut tones of dominant Chardonnay with an overlay of wild woodland red fruits. Original and very successful. A gastronomic wine for tuna, salmon and milk- fed veal. The star. 18+


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.