Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

Champagne Interlude

July 2005

 

Nobody looks the other way when a bottle of Champagne is being opened. The pop of the cork draws all eyes; the quick rise of creamy spume retains them. Nobody yawns at such a moment. No other sparkling wine strikes such a perfect balance between freshness, depth of flavour, and finesse.

 

The Champagne region, some 145 km northeast of Paris, is the coolest and most northerly wine region of France. If it were farther north its wines would be too acidic (and in some vintages they are); a bit farther south and they would be too hefty.

 

The Champagne region – like many others today – is in ferment. Old ideas are being questioned. Of course, certain old-established houses achieved a kind of perfection years ago and simply continue doing what they’ve always done. And there are plodders who make a good living from run-of-the-mill wines. There are also formerly dull producers who, making use of oenology (wine-making science) have suddenly seen the light and transformed the quality of their Champagnes. An almost entirely new group are small growers who, after generations of selling their grapes to giant groups, now make their own, highly individual Champagnes in small, or very small, volumes.

 

One of the latter is Egly-Ouriet, based in the sleepy village of Ambonnay. Their best cuvees have been receiving dizzyingly high marks in reputable journals for quite some time and I became annoyed at myself for never having had so much as a sniff at a single bottle of theirs. When recently in the offing, therefore, I made a beeline for their winery.

 

Francis Egly-Ouriet is not an easy man to track down. Unlike the heads of larger Champagne houses, he is never in the office but always in the vineyards or down in the cellars. It was pure luck that I ran into him at the vinery, as that particular day was dedicated to the vines. In he rode without warning, not inside a sleek limousine but on the back of a tractor. A personable young man, alert and fit-looking, he wore working clothes stained with the noble earth of his own vineyards.

Francis Egly-Quriet, the young head of the eponymous Champagne House. "Not an easy man to track down"

He reminded me of my fellow art students from many years ago: intoxicated with ideas, his head full of plans for his future creations, the vintages to come. “We don’t filter anymore, to conserve more flavour, we use no insecticides, our yeasts are indigenous, and we pick our grapes when they’re as ripe as they can possibly be. Shall we go down to the cellar?”

 

He has 11 hectares of vines, nine of them planted with the two red varieties, Pinot Noir (77.8%) and Pinot Meunier (22.2%). The remaining two hectares are given over to Chardonnay. Almost the entire acreage is classed as Grand Cru. Egly-Ouriet Champagnes are drier than most. While many houses, even some of the best, give their wines a dosage of 8-15 grammes of sugar per liter, those of Egly-Ouriet contain between zero and 4-6 grammes.

 

 

Cask samples

 

2004 CHARDONNAY ***

A pale green-gold, this has a very pure, flowery aroma of pear, greengage, and apple. One is struck by the excellent acidity on the palate, where the same fruits dominate. Very closed but full of vitality.

 

2004 BLANC DE NOIRS *** (made entirely from Grand Cru Pinot Noir)

Faintly pink (a little colour has escaped from the newly pressed black grapes), this has a full, grapy nose that suggests pink grapefruit, white peach, and honey. The oak is just noticeable on the palate, where a peachy element is supplemented by a touch of raw raspberry. The highly incisive aftertaste is flecked with chalkiness from the soil. This steely-structured Champagne should improve for a good 10-12 years.

 

And now a rare still red wine from Champagne (and already a legend in wine-tasting circles) :

 

2004 COTEAUX CHAMPENOIS AMBONNAY ROUGE ***(*)

This has the intense, darkish blue-purple colour of a classic Côte de Beaune Burgundy. The nose, at once delicate and forceful, suggests raspberry, iodine, and wild strawberry. On the palate the wine is extremely pure, with pronounced Pinot Noir character, with good tannins and acidity. It has a finesse that makes me think of a Chambolle-Musigny. No block-buster, it none the less has great tensile strength and ought to develop well for at least two decades.

It’s from a very sheltered plot, facing due south, and there’s less chalk in the soil and much more clay. A perfect Pinot Noir site, like in Burgundy”.

 

 

Bottle samples

 

BRUT TRADITION GRAND CRU **(*) (non-vintage, from 70% Pinot Noir and 30% Chardonnay)

A bright yellow-gold (none of the green tinge usual in Chardonnay) with a full, assertive smell of apple mousse. The flavour is long, forceful, and very appley and the sustained aftertaste full of extract. The low dosage (4 g./lit.) gives a classically mineral dryness of the finish. Needs several years in bottle.

 

BRUT TERROIR DE VRIGNY *** (100% Pinot Meunier)

Bright yellow-gold with microscopic bubbles. The nose is very focused and conjures up rhubarb and greengage. The flavour has tremendous vitality, and the taste of rhubarb, gooseberry, and crab apple has a nuance of elderflower too. The finish is long, stern, and structured, ending on a note of russet apple. Still in bud : three or so years in bottle will transform this into something magical.

 

BLANC DE NOIRS GRAND CRU *** (from individual plot “Les Crayères” in Ambonnay)

The colour is a rich yellow-gold with an apricot tinge, the bubbles as small as can be. The rich, weighty aroma of orange and apricot has an airy, buoyant quality despite its great volume. A faint waxiness makes me think of marron glacé.

 

The flavour is full and luscious, very round, with plenty of effervescence but no sharpness or gassiness. The fat, long flavour – apricot and candied orange peel – is as voluminous as a very ripe Meursault. There is a distinct fleshiness, as of rolling muscles, on the finish

 

Champagne vines growing on the often blindingly white soil of this famous region. The high chalk content of the terroir helps to accentuate the grapes' innate freshness and finesse.

Disgorged only a few months ago, after nearly four and a half years in bottle, this singular Champagne is still relatively unformed and needs at least two more years to reveal its full complexity. It will then improve for several more. Salon are based in le Mesnil sur Oger, a village famous for its outstanding Chardonnay sites. The house was founded in 1911 by an eccentric millionaire, Eugène Aimé Salon, who decreed that the Champagnes bearing his name would be bottled only in the very greatest vintages and be made entirely from Chardonnay grapes grown in Le Mesnil. The wines, which are noted for their longevity, are looked upon as some of the very greatest Champagnes of all.

 

Salon are now owned by Laurent-Perrier, who have chosen to pair it with another of their subsidiaries, Delamotte, who make very good Champagnes in a more frivolous spirit. This is quite a clever approach: in the past, the grapes formerly rejected by Salon (though still of excellent quality) were sold to other houses. Now they are transferred to Delamotte, who put them to very good use indeed. I was given three Delamotte Champagnes to taste but only one Salon.

 

DELAMOTTE BRUT * (50% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot Noir, 20% Pinot Meunier)

The full, vital, Chardonnay-dominated nose suggests freshly-baked bread, mirabelle, honey, and butterscotch. On the palate, yellow apple takes over, and the fresh, elegant finish quickly expands into an extravert fruitiness. Drink over the next two years.

 

DELAMOTTE BLANC DE BLANCS BRUT *(*)

Nuanced yellow-gold colour and a vital, scintillating aroma, full of charm, of yellow plum, honey, and ripe wheat. The flavour is lushly fruity, with a recap of yellow plum and the addition of physalis. One notes good acidity on the medium-long aftertaste. At best around 2006-09.

 

1997 DELAMOTTE BLANC DE BLANCS **

The colour is a vivid green-gold and there is a nobility to the aroma of yellow rose, peach baked in syrup, and muscat grapes. There’s also a distinct chalkiness (maybe from some Le Mesnil not used by Salon?).

The excellent, lively flavour is very young at nearly eight years and good acidity gives precision to the appley aftertaste. Tasty now, but better still around 2007-12.

 

1995 SALON

The vivid yellow-gold colour is the most intense so far. The complex, powerful aroma has great nobility and is vinous and grapy, conjuring up baked apple, apricot, and raisin. It is very full and round, voluminous – and slightly oxidative.

The flavour is very full and suggests baked apple with a sprinkling of caramelised brown sugar. It has a powerful structure, like that of a Grand Cru white Burgundy, and one has the impression of a very mineral, structured Champagne destined to live many years. However, the oxidative impression remains (the aftertaste is a little brackish). This is either due to the temporary conversion of elements in the wine into acetaldehyde or this is a rogue bottle (one tasted some two years earlier had been impeccable).

 

Salon always have a stock of at least four vintages, totalling 40,000-60,000 bottles at any one time. 1995 is the current vintage; this will be followed in time by ’96, ’97, ’99, ’02, and ’04. Unlike Delamotte, Salon suppress the malolactic fermentation, which means that the powerful malic acid remains in the wine – one of the many reasons for Salon’s near-legendary longevity.

 

Which is better for Champagne – malic acid or lactic acid? Impossible to say. Malic acid is infinitely more powerful than lactic acid; and acidity per se is the best preservative for white wines. Yet some Champagnes with lactic acid last just as well as others with malic acid. The crucial factor, surely, is the overall balance – or lack of it – of the Champagne in question.

 

 

One house that never impedes the malolactic fermentation is Pol Roger in Epernay, and they are celebrated for the longevity of their best vintage Champagnes (1911 tasted by me some years ago was still eminently drinkable). Another particularity is that they neither store nor vinify their Champagnes in wood. Stainless steel is their medium of choice. One change they have made, though, is to replace their old stainless winery with a completely new, thermo-regulated one. This allows them to vinify more slowly and at a lower temperature, says their M.D. Patrice Noyelle.

 

POL ROGER BRUT *** (one third each Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier)

Bottles of champagne ageing in a dark cellar. They spend many months in an upright position, to allow the yeasts and other sediments to slide downwards, to rest against the cork. (All solid matter is later removed when the dosage- a syrup which "rounds out" the wine – is added, prior to the insertion of the final cork).

A pale, straw colour, this has a fresh, fruity, very stylish nose of fresh bread, baked apple, peach with stone, and fresh fig. The flavour is crisp and appley, with a distinct chalkiness on the finish. A well-balanced, supremely elegant non-vintage Champagne to enjoy over the coming three years. Very individual.

 

1996 VINTAGE BRUT

The mousse is very creamy and this smells creamy too. The nose suggests greengage, fresh fig, and russet apple. This is a precise, incisive nose of great purity. There’s plenty of vigour on the palate, with masses of appley fruit, and great lift and vitality. Chalk shows on the finish here too. An excellent wine, beautifully balanced, which drinks well now but will be still better in three years and nothing short of sublime around 2010-16.

1996 BLANC DE CHARDONNAY ***(*)

The mousse, before it subsides, is as thick as whipped cream, the bubbles microscopic. The nuanced green-gold colour has the subtle modulations found only in great Chardonnays (a Puligny “Pucelles” from Leflaive, for example). The precisely defined aroma is very mineral, and calls to mind pistachio, acacia honey, and lime peel. It is at once dynamic and very refined.

The glorious flavour is reminiscent of greengage, cooking apple, and citrus fruit. Long and very subtle, fully as mineral as the aroma, it has a persistent savour of white peach, honey, and whitecurrant. This is very long indeed – and one of Pol Roger’s greatest Blanc de Chardonnays ever. Superb now, it will be better still in two years, best of all around 2008-14.

 

1996 ROSE (containing 12-13% still red wine) ***

A pale salmon pink, this has a spicy (sandalwood) aroma of strawberry, rowan, and apricot. Initially very closed up, almost sullen, it quickly expands to show considerable body. Indeed, it gains in volume every few seconds, and its vinous, concentrated aftertaste has ample minerality. Young at nearly nine years (most other Rosés will have been drunk up by now) this will improve for several more. Try with canapés, or else with daurade, red mullet, or quail.

 

1995 CUVEE SIR WINSTON CHURCHILL ****(*)

A rich and intense green-gold colour – without the bubbles it would look like a Bâtard-Montrachet – this has an expansive, noble aroma of whitecurrant, pistachio, honey, and chalk. One feels Grand Cru power and authority on the palate, with a whole series of distinct flavours presenting themselves in succession: mirabelle, honey, gooseberry, whitecurrant. Very long indeed even now, it will grow longer still as it ages and expands. Full maturity should arrive in about three years; well-cellared bottles should be majestic around 2020 and beyond. A great Champagne.

 

 

The house of Deutz, based in Aÿ, is owned by Roederer, who also control the Rhône negociants Delas Frères. Both of these subsidiaries have turned their formerly dull produce into wines of superlative quality. The cultured M. Bro de Comeres, who received me, first poured out the wines to be sampled and then showed me around the magnificent 18th-century château and its wonderful gardens. The 20-minute gap that this entailed meant that I was not merely culturally enriched but also that the mostly young Champagnes had time to settle down and reveal their core aromas and flavours. The same intelligent approach was evident in the order in which the wines were shown. Conventionally, non-vintage Champagnes are always presented before vintage examples. But in this case order was determined by degrees of delicacy and body. Each sample prepared the ground for the next.

 

1998 BLANC DE BLANCS **

The fine nose, slightly waxy, is of apple blossom, russet apple, and bay leaf. The flavour, only medium full, does not lack substance, and exhibits waxiness and spice. It tastes mostly like baked apple with a subtle hint of almond. The longish flavour is vinous and gently spicy, with a reprise of baked apple. To be enjoyed over the coming two years.

 

1998 AMOUR DE DEUTZ *** (Blanc de Blancs)

Pale but glittering, this has a full, grapy nose of real depth and complexity: baked apple, marzipan, bay leaf. The flavour is rich and weighty, with excellent balance (roughly the volume of a Grand Cru Chablis). This is a wine with serious depth and a whole succession of nuances. Noble terroir shows on the long finish – I think of friable rock among other things – and the wine expands to resemble, fleetingly, a great white Hermitage. A splendid Champagne to enjoy with food (I think of pike-perch in creamy sauce) around 2007.

 

BRUT “CLASSIC” (non-vintage) ***

A pale white gold colour with a green tinge, this has a delectable aroma – wholly different in style from the preceding – of gooseberry and honey. Beautifully poised, very round, it is the kind of smell that tempts one to complete abandon.

 

The flavour is very graceful, with a rare smoothness and harmony. Yellow plum and gooseberry spring to mind. The aftertaste is long and sweeping. An indispensable aid in seduction – mental or physical – over the coming two years or so.

 

1998 DEUTZ BRUT ***

The intense green-gold colour and micro bubbles promise excellence, and this is fulfilled by a distinguished aroma of russet apple, pear, and yellow plums in syrup. A nuance of fresh fig shows too. The flavour is of extreme elegance, with ample fruit and pronounced minerality. Not wholly mature, it needs a year or so to round out completely and should then evolve brilliantly for 3-4 more.

 

The label of Cuvée William Deutz, a champagne which is "full and concentrated, and subtle and refined".

1996 CUVEE WILLIAM DEUTZ ***(*)

This has the vivid, nuanced appearance of a great Meursault – save for the shoals of microscopic bubbles. The nose, which suggests yellow plum, marigold, sweet almonds, and chalk, is at once full and concentrated, and subtle and refined. The flavour is in perfect harmony with the nose (I am reminded of cooked yellow plums complete with their skins) and is full, vinous, and slightly waxy. The aftertaste has great sweep and is distinctly chalky. A great Champagne, at the best around 2008-16.

 

 

© Frank Ward 2005

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