Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

Giant Champagne Tasting in London

April 2005

A massive champagne tasting was held in London in March, with over 70 houses each showing a trio of wines. All included a non-vintage Brut and one or two vintages. Time was short, crowds were thick, and I gave priority to houses (or cuvées) that I hadn’t tried before.

 

A 1998 Blanc de Noirs from the smallish house of Lenoble (about 500,000 bottle yearly in total) was impressive. The nose was vinous, suggesting russet apple, freshly-baked bread, greengage, and lime peel, and the honeyed flavour was grapy and intense. There was an exquisite lusciousness on the finish that was reminiscent of a top Mosel. The non-vintage Brut was very good too, being flowery, crisp, and dynamic.

 

Tarlant makes only 100,000 or so bottles a year and M. Tarlant himself deliberately goes in for an austere style. “I know it’s a bit forbidding but I want to do it that way,” he told me in a very decided fashion.

His Tarlant Brut Zero (with no residual sugar) was not forbidding at all, though not for the faint-hearted. Steely, vital, and tasting of grapefruit, whitecurrant, and elderflower, it is eminently drinkable today (trout or sole) but will be better still in about two years. The N.V. was good, if a little loose-structured. I very much liked the 1996 Brut, which had a nuanced aroma of greengage, smoke, and whitecurrant, with a hint of marzipan on the finish. One could taste chalk and stones.

 

Champagne Brice had a gently russety 1996 Grand Cru made from 80% Pinot Noir and 20% Chardonnay which, with its richly fruity tones of apricot, butter, and honey, made me think fleetingly of a Chassagne-Montrachet. It was, though, a true champagne to its very core, with a microscopic mousse and excellent malic acidity. This gave a rousing finale to a wine that ought to improve steadily for 2-3 years.

 

A typical cellar in Champagne, for the ageing of the world’s most scintillating wine.

The tiny house of Arlaux makes only 60,000 bottles a year, all of them Premier Cru. A fugitive hint of fig could be detected on the palate of the 1995 Brut, which had a rich aftertaste and plenty of lift. As an aide memoire I scrawled after my tasting note the word “Lovely!”.

 

Of larger houses, I particularly liked the Charles Heidsieck range, notably their 1990 Blanc des Millénaires, which had an unusually lustrous green-gold colour and a splendid bouquet of lemon, wild flowers, and honey. The finish was full of nuances and very long; this beauty of a champagne ought to go on improving for at least 7-8 years. The ’89 was gorgeous, too, with lots of refinement on both nose and palate. A treat to drink over the coming two years.

 

Duval Leroy showed their Authentic Petit Meslier 1998 from the very rare grape of that name (making this a collector’s item for true oenophiles). In character, it reminded me of a top Pinot Blanc from very old vines, being vinous, delicately musky, and very persistent. The 1996 Fleur de Champagne had a lot of character too, smelling and tasting of russet apple and rhubarb, with a very incisive aftertaste.

 

For many, Krug is the noblest champagne of all – rich, complex, and long and thrilling on the palate. Sadly, most of the glorious Vintages go down throats more distinguished by wealth than finesse (or so I like to think, rarely having the chance to drink it). All the same, the Grand Cuvée (once described to me by Rémi Krug as a “multi-vintage rather than non-vintage champagne”) is always inspiring, with copybook Krug character: noble, complex, and highly aromatic on the nose, with a distinct whiff of white truffle, marine fossil, and russet apple, with wonderful balance on the smooth, satisfyingly full flavour.

Rémi once told me that he sees Krug as a wine that happens to be a champagne rather than a champagne that happens to be a wine.

 

Joseph Perrier makes deliciously succulent, quite full-bodied champagnes with orangey flavours. In fact, I found orange blossom on the nose of the superb Cuvée Royale 1996, to which crisp malic acidity gave “cut” and incisiveness. I would never say “Not tonight” to their Cuvée Josephine 1995, a fine and focused wine with elegance and buoyancy. The aftertaste was extremely sustained.

 

For me, the Henriot style has much in common with Perrier’s, with wines that are round and lush yet with plenty of definition and vitality. The nose of the Souverain Blanc made me think of physalis and greengage and the flavour was vinous and grapy. Particularly delectable was their 1989 Cuvée des Enchanteleurs, the mineral scent of which conjured up apple, rhubarb, and greengage. The utterly delicious flavour was marrowy and rich without any loss of lift. The long, nuanced russet apple aftertaste was a delight.

 

A “Belle époque” poster for Pol Roger, whose 1995 Cuvée Winston Churchill is “a wine of truly noble bearing”.

 

A wine of truly noble bearing was Pol Roger’s 1995 Cuvée Winston Churchill, with its big assertive aroma of whitecurrant, newly baked bread, and apricot. As weighty as Bâtard-Montrachet, it had a rich, homogeneous aftertaste with a subtle flick of Brazil nut at the very end. This wine will unfold steadily over the coming 5-10 years. Another entrancing champagne was Philipponnat’s 1991 single-vineyard Clos des Goisses. Rivalling a Leflaive Puligny “Pucelles” in terms of finesse, this was discreetly marrowy on the nose (honey, physalis, greengage) and wonderfully fresh and sustained on the aftertaste.

 

Other champagnes I liked a great deal included Ruinart’s 1998 “R” (white peach, nectarine, and orange blossom); 1995 Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs from Taittinger; 98 Deutz Brut; the subtle and elegant 1996 Brut from Laurent-Perrier; and the elegant, flowery 1998 Brut from Bernard Remy.

 

 

© Frank Ward 2005

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