Sunday, 11 December 2011

Sparkling debut in the Garden of England

Nick Hall

Since the marriage of Prince William & Kate and the pouring of English sparkling wine at the couple's wedding last April, the home-grown product has become very fashionable. So much so that the wine press has made big claims for England's finest, claiming that it can match and even surpass the real thing across the channel in Champagne. There are of course factors  in common between the Montagne de Reims and say the North Downs, chalky soils especially and the same noble grapes. But the Weald is colder and crucially wetter than the Mountain. Combine that with the youth of English vines and there can be an austerity, sometimes even a coarseness, to our British styles that gives the best of Champagne by comparison a superior dimension of creaminess and supple balance.

Or so I used to think until I tasted  a remarkable Kentish sparkling wine the other day that had all the dash and verve of Champagne, but with a floral bewitching flavour that was a scented apple orchard in the glass - completely original, sui generis,as deliciously English as Elgar and, mixing my metaphors, cucumber sandwiches. Herbert Hall in Marden is the creation of Nick Hall who names his vineyard of 15 acres after his grandfather, Herbert, a farm tenant. I naturally warmed to Nick when last summer I sat next to him at a seminar at Hush Heath, a neighbouring fine Marden estate.We had come to hear the celebrated Austrian glassmaker Georg Riedal wax lyrical about his fine stemware. A very smooth bit of marketing, but the gilt came off the gingerbread when Georg in his high collared Franz Josef  jacket said how much he disliked a particular glass because it did not highlight the fizz. No, it didn't: instead it allowed the excellent wine behind the bubbles to speak eloquently to the taster. I sighed, as did my neighbour, so I knew we would  get on and share the belief that fine winemaking is as much about 'feeling' as oenological numbers.

I wasn't then surprised to learn that Nick had read English at King's College, London and in a meandering career became a journalist, after trying other trades. Shades of my own rake's progress! He's married to a v successful solicitor with two kids, and in the early 'noughties he took the plunge and converted his farmland into a vineyard. Though a delightful lunch companion, Nick is no dilettante about wine. He took a thorough winemaking course at Plumpton and he seems to have done everything right  in his debut vintage, 2009, a lovely ripe year. His recipe is the classic mix of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Meunier; 90 per cent of the organically grown grapes are squeezed gently in a modern Wilmes  press, the remaining 10 per cent vinified in oak in order to aerate and strengthen the wine. Its originality lies in a subtle pinkish blush  that heralds a lovely fruitiness and silken texture - truly a friendly vin gris that will please punters and connoisseurs alike. It's already listed at the Gavroche and is the pouring sparkling wine at Wilton's in St James. I will certainly pop a bottle with friends in Yorkshire, who happen to be called Middleton, over the holiday.

Happy Christmas.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Champagne is too hot for Meunier? - a sceptical reply

My good friend Jean-Herve Chiquet of Jacquesson last month caused hearts to flutter at the CIVC, when in an interview on YouTube, he honestly expressed disappointment with the performance of Meunier compared with Pinot Noir in his vineyards in Dizy. His measured words, which were intended to apply strictly to his own locale, were blown up into a news-tease that generally asserted that Champagne is now too hot for Meunier - period. Worse, the cepage was dismissed as 'notorious' for its inability to age. Oh dear, categorical assertions about wine are usually misleading. So, as a antidote, I modestly suggest you read my piece 'A Fine Breed - the potential of Pinot Meunier' - published yesterday in The Drinks Business ( Issue 111) now transcripted in my blog post (October 19).

I don't doubt that Jean-Herve is right that Meunier doesn't work that well for him in Dizy - in such premier cru sites of this village, the best plots are reserved for Pinot Noir and some Chardonnay in the sunlit uplands, whereas Meunier is planted most often at the shady bottom of the slopes, where it acts as an assurance of decent yields because it is more resistant to spring frosts. And no one is denying that Meunier succumbed to terrible rot in the washout that crippled its vineyards in mid-august 2010. In 2011, too, there were problems for the variety, arising from a topsy turvy late summer of alternating heat and humidity, made worse by winds and storms. It is emphatically not just a question of heat.

Meunier actually thrives in hot, dry weather, particularly in the clay-rich soils of the reaches of the Marne Valley westwards from Damery towards Chateau Thierry. In the heatwave harvest of 2003, Meunier was the most successful of the three Champagne grape varieties; and it was highly successful in the super warm conditions of 2009, when there was not a drop of rain during the harvest.

After my piece went to press, I received a great email from Raphael Bereche, an outstanding young grower  and a very assured handler of Meunier. His honest account of the challenges in 2011, bears close reading. " "we have two vineyards of Meunier in very dfferent places. Ormes is in the most northern part of Champagne Here the soils are sandstone and hard limestone. In 2011, the Meunier was terrific, achieving good maturity in excess of 10 degrees. But in Mareuil le Port and Festigny, cool quite heavy soils and considerable humidity combined to make rot a constant danger, so it wasn't possible to achieve more than 9.5 degrees. Meunier needs a long slow maturing cycle - and that wasn't realistic in 2011, one of the earliest harvests on record."

It's all a matter of site and local conditions. I also heard that in the Meunier vineyards closest to Paris around Charly sur Marne, some beautiful wines were made this year in what are some of the least rated vineyards in Champagne. There's life in the old 'workhorse' grape yet !

Raphael Bereche

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

A FINE BREED - Pinot Meunier's potential

Here's the transcript of my article published today in the Champagne Focus section of The Drinks Business (Issue 111 - October 2011). I wrote it in answer to some critics' recent loose claims that ' Champagne is too hot for Meunier!

Francois Hure - maker of long-lived Meunier
For many years, Pinot Meunier was projected as the Cinderella of Champagne, its soft, youthful charms acting as a walk-on part supporting the grander stars of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in a non-vintage blend. The reality is more complicated, sometimes contradictory, certainly more interesting.  Meunier has always been an integral part of the culture of Champagne, a dominating presence of the landscape as you take the best introduction to the region by riding the train from Paris Gare de l’Est along the picturesque reaches of the Marne. From Chateau Thierry to Epernay, the vineyards on all sides are largely planted to Meunier, the white flour-like dustings on its leaves a reminder of its name-  Meunier means miller in French.  The figures are convincing proof of the economic importance of the cépage : Meunier accounts for 61.29% of all productive vines in the Marne Valley,  33.21% of those on the Montagne de Reims, and nearly a third of total plantings across Champagne Viticole. Some walk-on part!

The many faces of Meunier………………….

Pinot Meunier is said to be a mutation of Pinot Noir. Yet in Champagne some of its best expressions can be surprisingly close to Chardonnay in terms of its optimal taste profile with a surprising fragrance and delicacy in tune with a durable richness and substance. These complete qualities obviously rely on such factors as favourable site and a good dry vintage; old, low-yielding vines are also a most precious asset.  The grape itself is better understood if we continue to call it plain Meunier, without the Pinot prefix.  For as Jérôme Dehours, a fine grower at Cerseuil on the left bank of the Marne explains “the morphology of Meunier grapes is different from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The grapes are smaller and the pulps more compressed. It is maybe this that makes them more sensitive in a humid climate that encourages botrytis.” More positively, Dehours stresses that Meunier is an endemic variety in the valley because it’s the result of an adaptation to the harsh climate, notably by a later bud-break that makes it more resistant to spring frost; the white covering of the leaves also forms a protective duvet for the plants. Dehours’ left –bank vineyards at Cerseuil yield a certain style of Meunier on cool clay-rich soils. “ Here we look for maturity but also, above all, freshness. It’s therefore in some less sunny sites that we naturally find our path.” His wines are a very distinctive take on his precise terroirs.

For the greatest houses in Champagne, their search for the best Meunier works on a broader canvas. They are looking for a variety of styles, choosing some crus that bring a note of soft easy drinking to the blend, while also selecting more solid ones that would be ideal as reserve wines in future blends. Francois Domi, the focused chef de caves at Billecart-Salmon, is a great fan of the grape for its finesse that matches his exquisite house style. “The Meunier is the expressive cépage par excellence, above all from the Marne Valley- very aromatic, elegant - and blossoms two or three years after the prise de mousse.” Yet Domi is acutely conscious of the differences between sites. “Damery, facing due south is more structured, with dominant red fruits, whereas Leuvrigny is south, south east and more elegant, thanks to its lighter soil.”  On a personal note, I can vouch for Damery’s ability to age, having luckily tasted a superb 1985 Meunier at De Telmont last spring with Louisa Hargrave, the Long Island vigneronne and writer.
Jean- Baptiste Lecaillon (left)

Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon is the wine supremo of Louis Roederer and the family’s other gems like Chateau Pichon Lalande (Comtesse) in Pauillac. He approaches the search for the best Meunier very objectively, for though the house owns 214 ha. of finest mainly grand cru Pinot and Chardonnay in the best sites, it owns no Meunier vines in Champagne. Jean-Baptiste in his grape contracts favours the sunnier right bank Meunier west of Damery into its heartlands ,around Chatillons sur Marne, which are more famous in the region than the outside world for the pure Meuniers of octogenarian grower, the late René Collard, whose barrel-fermented champagnes still tasted good at 30 years +: His 1975 in 2007 was a marvel of fresh, honeyed richness. Lécaillon is looking for that flowering fruit which will marry elegantly and flatter his great but sterner crus of the Montagne and the Cote for his flagship Brut Premier. No Meunier is used in Roederer vintages – basically this seems a decision as much about house style as it is about quality.

The one house that champions  Meunier is of course Krug – the most prestigious name of all. Speaking just after the recent harvest, Olivier Krug reports that “2011 has been particularly atypical - a very early flowering, the context of potential dryness, then quite a surprising summer with waves of heat, rains and quite strong storms.” This scenario has allowed the Krug team to play their strongest card- la culture parcellaire pre-harvest samples of the grapes and individual follow-ups assumes greater importance, year on year.”The Krug family have always loved Meunier for the original aromas- the whiff of the baker’s shop - that it brings to the house style. But as with all Krug wines, the grape makes a perfect alliance with its terroir. “The terroir of Sainte Gemme is a cru that the house likes a lot”, Olivier confesses, “it is not the best known (deep in the Marne Valley) but it is a corner stone of the house in the sense that it has been with us for dozens of years and finds its way into the majority of our cuvées.”

Facing due south on rich clay, Sainte Gemme is particularly interesting in very warm years, which are a little dry. So much for the latest claim that Champagne is too hot for Meunier! “Its vins clairs (still wines) often spring a surprise,” Olivier explains, “as well as a lot of fruit and beautiful balance, they have real depth. It is this matière that allows them to be aged as reserve wine. This reserve stock is something that Eric Lebel, our chef de cave looks for most often. I imagine that it was this sort of wine that my father and previous generations sought in order to bring to certain legendary vintages a part of their exceptional ‘twist’.”  One might add that Krug 1981, one of the greatest Champagnes of the 20th century had as much as 19% fine Meunier in the blend, and the supremely elegant 1962 almost as much.

And so to a very different terrain, Premier Cru Ludes on the western side of the Grande Montagne de Reims, where the predominant limestone yields an initially more reserved style of Meunier, but one that can age gracefully. Here François Huré is the winemaker at a medium-sized family domaine. He is fortunate to be able to take a wider world view, having worked with Pinots at de Montille in Pommard and Coldstream Hills in Victoria, Australia. “ For most growers, Pinot Meunier gives fruitiness and softness. But if the vineyard is well managed and the crop not too high, it can be a very complex variety,” says François. “It’s even more so in Ludes, where I have some Meunier from the ‘60s and ’70s (massale selection). I usually use them in the vintage blend because they have enough body to keep for five to 10 years. They need time to open up and show some nice flavours. It’s the limestone for sure that gives this type of Meunier. If you compares with Villedommange, where I have some vineyards, too; there there’s more sand which opens the wine and makes it easy to drink. Villedommange usually ripens before Ludes.”

Amanda Regan & Christophe Constant tasting Chez Hure

The moral of the tale is that Meunier is much more than a workhorse grape. Made with feeling and care, it is both an essential part of the best non-vintage blends and it can blossom in its own right as a genuinely fine wine. Its very vulnerabilities are a challenge that the most adaptable winemakers relish, even in the topsy turvy conditions of Climate Change. Fortune favours the brave.

A Meunier grower’s view

Jérôme Prévost makes probably the most exotic Meunier in  Champagne - on the sandstone soils of Gueux to the west of Reims. He has been quoted as saying that Meunier has interesting things to say, but you have to know how to make it speak. How so? “The particularity of Meunier is that it’s a ‘sprinter’. Its vegetative cycle is shorter than for Pinot and Chardonnay, so everything one can do to lengthen time on the vine is beneficial. It is through an absence of vigour that the vigneron can achieve full maturity. The right rootstock and clone are essential (on sand, 3309 is the most compatible). At heart, Meunier has interesting things to say. I appreciate the symphonies of Mozart ( a blend is like the full orchestra), but I also have precious moments with a simple sonata for claviercord. That is Meunier.

The best response to atypical years is old vines with deep roots - they seem less sensitive to climatic conditions; they are more in a relationship with the earth than the sky.”


Friday, 23 September 2011

Blue skies return (27 August) - en plein vendange at Franck Bonville

early morning in AY - 27 august

My first day of the '011 harvest in Champagne (26/08) had been a wash-out - a  damp memory quickly erased by that fabulous re-union with Jacquesson's three lieux-dits in 2002: this glorious year must be one of the greats since 1945, creating ideal conditions for the sort  of ne plus ultra champagne which says - don't push me, ease yourself into my heart and I will show you everything in my own good time. The next morning, saturday, I rose in high spirits to greet the sun in an early stroll through Ay, then  later a taxi to Avize for a harvest lunch with Olivier Bonville, who, thanks to the energy and flair of his father Gilles before him, has nearly 20 - yes, twenty  -hectares of exclusively grand cru sites in Avize and Oger. Unlike some fine smaller producers who suspended picking over the weekend, to gain (successfully) an extra degree of maturity the following week, Olivier continued to harvest right through. "Acidity is beginning to drop, and I want to keep as much freshness as I can in these see-saw conditions of driving heat, humidity and squally showers."  His is a subtle, pure and mineral style that gives free expression to his supremely privileged sites - they have little or no need of wood to show their class and elan. And the advantages of their size and extent, plus the saving on costs of  not having to buy expensive barrels, result in great complexities at keen prices for champagnes of this rare quality.

Olivier, le patron leads by example
The chardonnay grapes looked in fine nick, as they came in, with little sign of rot despite the buffeting of the weather in previous days. I am tho' very happy to say that the sun really put his hat on sunday and shone for a week to make potentially great chardonnays that may yet be as good as 1995. As a little foretaster of this, Olivier, gentleman that he is, opened bottles of his great 100- year -old -vine BellesVoyes, Oger, 2007 as a rather special aperitif for his key working colleagues, the guys at the press, the fork lift driver, and one pretty vendangeuse, who seemed to have come from Paris's Sciences Po specially  to taste this nectar. Clever girl.

man with a thirst

Postscript for champagne geeks: PIED DE CUVE. this micro-technique or  literally the foot of the vat is used at Bonville and many other enlightened growers. First mini-vinfications of grapes from all parts of the vineyard are asssembled every three days during the harvest. Then 10 % of the accumulating mix is added to each major cuvee to encourage the malolactic fermentation that civilizes the wine and makes it more complex. 

harbinger of the 'malo'

Friday, 9 September 2011

Grands Vins at Jacquesson - Protestant and Catholic!

les grandes foudres de fermentation
Upstairs from the cellars in the comfortably dry study we had a remarkable tasting of the innovative Jacquesson 730 series in which the aim is to express the best of the most recent vintage rather than replicate the non-vintage style of the grandes maisons, where consistency is supposedly paramount. These were followed by a tasting of Jacquesson's four lieux-dit single-vineyard champagnes in the great 2002 vintage.

Tasted 11.15 am 26 August 2011

Cuvee 734 (2006 base) - Pale elegant limpid straw with ripe golden lights. Lovely supple richness reflecting the warm summer; lifted by fine acidity, mais pas trop. Now that I'm drawing my bus pass, my tolerance of malic acid is low, so I love this wine - as I'm sure will many consumers **** 17.5

Cuvee 735 ( 2007 base) - youthful, resonating yellow-gold, a little more reductive and less expressive than the 734,  but with more structure. Linear and energetic, no surprise it's very much a sommelier's wine - the young guys were very enthusiastic. '07 a better year for Chardonnay than for Pinot Noir. A wine for crustaceans, moules, oysters and roast halibut, beurre blanc *** (*) 17

NB plans are afoot to bottle late-disgorged wines in this series after eight years sur lie

Corne Bautray 2002  -  Pure Chardonnay, from a high site in Dizy, lying over hard burrstone pebbles rather than the Belimnite chalk found on the Cote des Blancs. Evolving, elegant yellow gold. No dosage. Real core and structure, with a rather splendid austerity acting as as a white puritan collar worn over a durably built body.  Or as Thierry Desseuve hilariously labelled it - HSP: Haute Societe Protestante! a wine of great rectitude and gravitas. **** 18

Champ Cain, Grand Cru Avize 2002  - from the classic chalky lieu-dit of Avize's Les Fosses
 a great Chardonnay so very different from Corne Bautray - this has all the lace-like delicacy of a priestly surplice. Lovely Welsh gold hue, tint of green; finest bubbles; a superb minerality and freshness. A true beauty that has lost the puppy fat of youth, it shows a captivating medley of white flowers allied to terrific poise, richness, length and complexity in perfect measure . For cardinals and popes in their private moments. *****19

Vauzelle Terme, Grand Cru Ay 2002 Lovely limpid positive yellow of great Pinot Noir vinified as Champagne. Suffused with the gorgeous scents and flavours of peches des vignes. a perfect balancing acidity, gentle and integrated. fine to drink now but will last for many years. Pity there's so little of it. **** 18.5

J-H Chiquet, most eloquent of wine communicators

Friday, 26 August 2011

Simple good food, et pas cher

Arriving at Gare du Nord, breakfastless and very hungry, I strode down the Rue Lafayette (9eme) in search of the Bistrot Casimir off  a church square but missed it, passing into the Place Monthelon. Under a hot humid sky, I was delighted to see a little bistro, BEBE, the doors open to the air and tables on the pavement. What followed was one of the best-value quick lunches in ever-dearer Paris, The pas de choix (aparrt from dessert\) two-course lunch( 14 euros) was everything it should have been. Excellent crusty bread, a plate of marinated mushrooms, then penne with both smoked and fresh salmon, lubricated with a fine fresh glass of 010 Julienas, Domaine des Bruyeres. with excellent espresso- the bill tout inclus 19.80 euro.....Or, push the boat out from the changing blackboard - tartare of loup de mer, foie de veau, filet of bar (cold-water bass) or a fine entrecote with frites & bearnaise. Good Loires & Rhones, gently priced.

Could you ask for more as a consolation for pitiful £/$ exchange rates!

BEBE 8 rue Pierre Senard 75009 Paris Tel 01 48 78 70 31

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Early Morning in Reims

North Tower of Basilica St Remi
Last monday I arrived in Reims, having enjoyed the luxury of being driven from Paris Gare du Nord to the city along 90 miles of the Marne, the valley dappled in sunlight and freshened by a light wind that should please Champagne's growers, who are tense and preoccupied with the start of the harvest next week. It is quite understandable that they are anxious, as  a glorious spring and perfect June has been followed by a cold wet July and a changeable early August. So, after a good night's sleep, I rose early on tuesday morning to calm my mind by visiting one of my favourite churches, the Basilica St Remi, which has at least as strong a link to the heart of Champenois culture as Reim's great Cathedral of Notre Dame.

The one thousand-year-old Basilica takes its name from St Remi, one of the seminal figures of the early medieval French church who became Bishop of Reims at the age of 22. Later, in 493 AD he famously baptised the pagan Clovis, King of the Franks, after the monarch had been nagged into taking the plunge by his Christian wife. Remi lived on well into his 'nineties, the memory of him still jogged today  every time you look upwards to the crown of 96 candles in the Choir.

side chapel
The Benedictines started to build their great church around 1000AD and though there was a delay due to lack of funds, the Basilica was completed and consecrated by Pope St Leon IX in 1043. Despite the ravages and depredations of nine centuries - most of the monks' treasures were lost during the Great War of 1914 -1918 - it remains a peach of the Romanesque style, the walls of the Great Nave, its side chapels and the North Tower still intact. Above all, it is wonderfully atmospheric instilling a sense of calm perspective, as one steps out into the real world of Climate Change, economic turmoil and rioting on the streets of my beloved England.

Tomb of St Remi

Nave & North rose window

Thursday, 4 August 2011

...And those bedrooms!

Terrace de la Maison
The spirit of LES AVISES is like that of a country house of a friend with very good taste - informal, convivial, free of pretentiousness. But the bedrooms and suites are something else. Tho'  sharing the elegance of downstairs, they are unashamedly opulent and luxurious, exceptional places to rest your head for those rare moments to share with a loved one.

Enlisting the skills of interior designer Bruno Boriani, Corinne Selosse has brilliantly succeeded in creating a series of ten rooms that span the light and shade of  differing styles  to satisfy most tastes. Some have lush fabrics, traditional furnishing lifted by bright mediterranean colours; others are audaciously contemporary, uncluttered, even minimalist, but always warm and supremely comfortable, often with lovely views of the Cote. The attention to detail is impressive from luxurious towelling and bathrobes, to powerful showers and hand-adjustable short-wave/FM radios that bring you Mahler or Miles Davis, say, in perfect sound. The rooms' names charmingly say 'good health' in every language of Champagne lovers around the world ....salaud, prosit, skol, salute, kampai, tchin. 
La Cote from a bedroom

From 230 euros for two.

Hotel-Restaurant LES AVISES, 59 rue du Cramant 51190 Avize
telephone +33 (0)3 26 57 70 06

Saturday, 30 July 2011

This is to introduce my new Champagne blog. I've spent much of my professional life tasting and writing about the wines and restaurants of the Marne & Aube. Regularly researched sur place, updated every fortnight, the  maisons and vignerons of Champagne - those worth writing about - are coolly  assessed without fear and favour, but usually with affection and sympathy. New places to eat from temples of gastronomy to bistrots and brasseries with a good rapport of quality:price are often featured. FROM AUGUST 1ST.