Alsace Diary part 2: Sweetness – the Big Mistake with Ambiguous Labels

I think Riesling is one of the most under rated white grape varieties. It is fantastically versatile with food, as any one who visits Alsace or Germany will discover. But I almost never order it in a restaurant, because I have no idea whether it will be dry (and no, after many surprising experiences, I don’t trust the sommelier to know whether it will taste sweet to me). And I absolutely never order any of the other grape varieties in Alsace, irrespective of whether they might match the food, because the probability is that they will have some residual sugar.

Sales of Alsace wine are in steady decline, and uncertainty as to whether any particular wine will be dry or sweet almost certainly play a large part. Until you get the categories of Vendange Tardive and Selection de Grains Nobles, used for very sweet dessert wines, no distinction is made on the label about the degree of sweetness. A handful of producers are committed to dry styles, but for most producers, a particular cuvée may be dry one year and off-dry the next year, depending on vintage conditions. That uncertainty is a complete killer in a restaurant. (And I’ll look at what varying sweetness does to the reputation of grand crus in part 4 of the Alsace Diary.)

Conscious of the issue, many producers in Alsace have been moving to indicate the sweetness of each wine on the back label, most using a scale from 1 to 5, some a scale from 1 to 10. Would this solve the consumers’ problem, I asked Celine Josmeyer (who is committed to a dry style) on a recent visit. “It would if all producers used it,” she says. But I wonder if it is that simple.

One problem is not everyone is using the same scale. When Olivier Humbrecht first introduced a five point scale, some years ago, he excluded the dessert wines on the grounds that everyone knows they are sweet. I think he was right about this: once you are into overtly sweet wines, the exact level of sweetness is rarely an issue in making a decision. It’s down at the bottom where you really want to know whether a wine is bone dry, off-dry, or slightly sweet. A standard five point scale here would be adequate; but if the five points extend all the way to full sweetness, it really doesn’t discriminate enough, and if some people have five point scales and others have ten point scales, it’s just confusing.

Another problem is that the scales are subjective.”They are absolutely not objective. Perception of sweetness depends on alcohol, sugar, and acidity,” says Etienne Sipp, who uses a ten point scale at Domaine Louis Sipp.  It’s the old question of whether a wine tastes dry when it has high enough acidity to disguise the sugar. Perception of sweetness doesn’t vary so much among people as perception of some other flavors, but at the level of balancing sweetness and acidity, not everyone is the same. Most producers tell me their dividing line between category 1 (dry) and category 2 (off-dry) is around 6 g/l residual sugar, but that’s precisely the point that is most subjective. Even worse, the number depends on who does the classification. Tasting at Kientzler, I queried the classification of a wine in category 1; if I had been doing the classification, I might have given it a different number, says Eric Kientzler. “The problem is that everyone has their own system, when I see what’s on the label, sometimes I’m astonished,” says Marc Hugel.

I just can’t bang on about this enough. There is an international standard for dry wine and it is less than 4 g/l sugar. Above that you may or may not be able to taste sweetness, but below it virtually no one tastes sweetness. So category 1 should be defined as unambiguously dry with less than 4 g/l; category 2 could be defined as ambiguously dry (meaning that opinions could differ) with more than 4 g/l sugar and very high acidity; and category 3 could be defined as showing at least some sweetness to most tasters. That would be useful; the present scale is simply too unpredictable.

But in any case, the whole thing is irrelevant, because the scale is put on the back label. Okay, in a wine shop you can turn the bottle over and have a look. But in a restaurant? I’m not going to ask the sommelier to bring out a series of wines from Alsace so I can check the back labels. The sweetness needs to be part of the official description. There should be a category of Alsace Sec which is defined as less than 4 g/l sugar: no give and take. There could be another category, or peferably categories, for wines that (might) taste dry but aren’t technically dry.

I have the same problem with the trocken classification in Germany, which is meant to avoid these problems, because trocken has been misdefined as either less than 4 g/l sugar or less than 9 g/l if acidity is high enough. That latter class puts us back into the ambiguously dry category, which is why I almost never order trocken Riesling in a restaurant, although I love the wines when they are really bone dry.

And as for Brut Champagne, it is completely ridiculous to have one description for anything up to 12 g/l dosage. Now that many Brut Champagnes are in fact below 6 g/l dosage, they could be labeled as Extra Brut (but often aren’t because producers fear this will put off consumers). Sugar isn’t so critical when you are drinking the wine as an aperitif, but Champagne will never make inroads as a food companion unless and until the categories for sweetness are better defined.

But here’s another idea. Instead of messing around with subjective scales, why not just put the level of residual sugar (or for Champagne the dosage) on the label. That would be technically simple and much more informative. I know, I know, the objection will be that this may confuse the consumer, but that’s a really weary excuse these days used to hide anything from high alcohol to residual sugar, and I’m not so sure consumers are as easily confused as producers like to pretend.

The crucial thing is that the label has to give completely predictability: can I taste sugar or not? In regions where sugar levels vary, there is one way, and only one way to do this: to have a category defined strictly as less than 4 g/l sugar. That’s the standard everywhere that wine is only dry (white Burgundy must be less than 4 g/l, for example), so why is it so difficult to get people to see this in other regions?

Champagne diary part 4: Champagnes with Attitude – Visits to Jacquesson, Larmandier-Bernier, De Sousa, Selosse, and Salon

Driven by the need to ensure consistency of winemaking in a marginal climate, the common model in Champagne is overwhelming: blend between varieties, blend between terroirs, blend across vintages. While consistency is certainly a remarkable achievement, especially given the scale of production at larger houses, is it unreasonable to look for something more, for an expression of individuality, for a range of variation? In visits to Champagne, I found a handful of producers who reject the model of blend, baby, blend.

“We have done things differently,” says Jean-Hervé Chiquet at Champagne Jacquesson. “Why does our main wine have a stupid number instead of a proper name like everyone else? The concept of nonvintage, of being completely consistent, began to frustrate my brother and me. In 1998 we were still making a classic blend, we were working on the 1997, and it was very good but it was too Chardonnay-dominated and would be impossible to reproduce in another year. So we made another blend. But afterwards we realized that we’d made a wine that wasn’t as good. So we decided we should make the best wine and we identified it by the number of the cuvée.”

The current release is cuvée 737, and has a base year of 2009. Reflecting the richness of the base year, it has more of a direct fruit impression than 736, which with base year 2008 has a more citric impression, or than 738 (about to be released, based on 2010) which is more aromatic than the others. The reserve wines that supplement the base vintage are also handled differently. “There was an accident in 2007, and the result was that we had too much of the cuvée. We kept it separately as a reserve. It did so much better than the usual reserve that we continued to do this.” So basically each numbered release consists of an assemblage from a base year supplemented by the assemblages from the previous two years. There’s more sense of variation between releases, without going to the extremes of completely reflecting the vintage; the advantage is a sense of discovery with each release, the disadvantage is a certain lack of predictability.

“We want to have Champagne that really tastes of where it comes from, that’s why we make single vineyard Champagnes,” says Sophie Larmandier at Champagne Larmandier-Bernier. Producing wine only from their own vineyards on the Côte de Blancs, Pierre and Sophie Larmandier try to represent their vineyards by biodynamic viticulture (“yeast is part of the terroir,” says Sophie), vinifying the wine in wood, and keeping it in the wood on the full lees until bottling. Wood of various sizes is used, with the more powerful wines, like Cramant, going into barriques, and the more delicate, like Vertus, into foudres. Blending is relatively limited, as all the vineyards are on the Côte de Blancs, and almost all the vines are Chardonnay: the nonvintage cuvées Latitude and Longitude showcase the minerality of Côte de Blancs, Terre de Vertus is a zero dosage premier cru that exhibits a saline delicacy, and the Vieilles Vignes vintage from Cramant stands out as the richest wine in the lineup. The distinctive character here has an authenticity far from the massaged quality of most Champagne.

De Sousa is another biodynamic producer making wines of character. The interesting thing here is the way the style develops, from fruity for the Brut, mineral for the Blanc de Blancs, powerful for Caudalies nonvintage cuvée, and then quite savory at the top end for Umami and vintage Caudalies. Umami is a vintage made only once so far. “We work quite a bit with the East,” says Erik de Sousa, “and on a visit to Japan a chef made a tasting for us based on umami. I wondered how to transmit the concept of umami in wine. We select cuvees from the still wines that have the quality of umami. It only happens in a rounder and riper vintage, just once since we had the idea, when 2009 presented itself.” These are very distinctive and flavorful wines.

Champagne Jacques Selosse has a reputation for being something completely different, and indeed his wines are somewhat controversial, adored in some quarters, but criticized by others for being made in an overly oxidative style or for showing too much oak influence. Anselme Selosse rejects the idea of consistency every year. “I prefer that each wine should be different. I do not want the wine to be the same every year,” he says. “There is a false idea that the vintage ends when the vigneron decides to harvest, but conditions after are different too – which is why malo is left to happen or not happen,” he explains. Bottlings from individual lieu-dits started in 2003 (they carry the notation lieu-dit on the label). Today there are six lieu-dit cuvées, three Blanc de Blancs and three Blanc de Noirs. As nonvintage wines, each represents an assemblage of recent vintages, the idea being to display terroir rather than vintage. In fact, with time this may develop into something of a solera system, reflecting Anselme’s fascination with Sherry. For me it seems that the oak is not so much directly obvious as indirectly, by its effect in increasing richness. Certainly these are powerful wines, suited for a meal more than an aperitif. The style shows a wide breadth of flavor and a strong body, sometimes with a trademark touch of minerality or salinity on the finish. They tend to be seem mature, reflecting the generally oxidative style of winemaking. These are wines that make a statement.

Champagne Salon scarcely needs any introduction, but here is the ultimate rejection of blending across vintages: only vintage wine is made, and only in those vintages deemed good enough. These are not always what you expect. “Sometimes there is a vintage that is astonishing that you don’t find elsewhere, and the reverse,” says Audrey Campos at Salon. I haven’t done a systematic check, but my impression is that Salon does not make a release in the warmer years, which may often be those that are regarded as more successful at other houses. The style of Salon is to maintain high acidity (malolactic fermentation is always blocked) and aim for wines which may be austere when young, but which will age for decades.

There’s a common feature to all of these very different houses: dosage is always minimal. There’s virtually nothing that rises out of Extra Brut, and the dosage is more likely to be absolutely minimal. This is what lets the character shine through. I suppose it would not be possible on the conventional model, because the dosage has a damping down effect that is part of the means for achieving consistency. In fact, taking that thought further, I’m inclined to wonder whether you can really see the difference between, say, Blanc de Blancs and Blanc de Noirs so effectively at Brut as at Extra Brut. Anyway, anyone who wants to see expression of place or variety in Champagne should try these wines: it’s night and day compared with the blandness of most blends.

Red Burgundy 2009: Reports of Impending Death Are Much Exaggerated

A tasting of a dozen premier and grand cru red Burgundies from 2009 suggested that the impending death of this vintage has been much exaggerated. When it was released, it was acclaimed (in Burgundy anyway) as a great vintage, close to the greatest in living memory…When 2010 came along, the reassessment was that 2010 had the stuffing to last, and that 2009, while attractively ripe and fleshy in the short term, wouldn’t be for the long haul, so better load up on 2010s…

The 2009s at this tasting more or less divided into those that are attractive now, and which for the most part would fit the general description of this as a (relatively) short lived vintage, although there was nothing that needs to be consumed in the next (say) five years. The other half are not yet ready, have pretty good acidity and tight structure, and won’t be ready for another five years; after which they should hold for a decade. That is not particularly short lived in my view. (And if you remember the Burgundy vintages that are presented as vins de garde, good for decades, well, just try a 1996: most will never come round.) All the wines have (relatively) high alcohol for Burgundy, but none was out of balance, and none show anything like the cooked fruits of 2003. In fact, my overall impression was that this is a more mainstream vintage than it’s now usually represented to be. In the context of that overall impression, there were lots of surprises with interesting reversals of expected character, and many individual wines show changes in producer styles from the past.

Wines that are ready to drink include Lafon’s Volnay Santenots (not as silky as usual, but a making a very fine impression appropriate for Volnay), Chevillon’s Nuits St. Georges Vaucrains (showing a touch more development than most wines), Chateau de la Tour’s Clos Vougeot (unusually delicate and one of the wines that does need to be consumed soon), and Pousse d’Or’s Clos de la Bousse d’Or (unusually earthy and less refined than in the old days). Ponsot’s Clos de la Roche was a shocker: so light and elegant, almost delicate, that many tasters thought it must be a top Volnay. Another shocker, in the opposite direction, was Faiveley’s Clos des Cortons, living up to the ripe reputation of the vintage to the point of becoming almost rustic. This is a big change in style from a decade ago. Dujac’s Bonnes Mares is a puzzler, earthier than usual, but not really developed enough to tell.

Geantet-Pansiot’s Charmes Chambertin looks to be one of the most reserved wines of the vintage, with a tight acidic structure and a touch of the hardness of Gevrey. Another wine in a backward style is Vogüe’s Musigny, tight and textured, but not yet releasing much flavor, but here the potential for aging is evident. Freddie Mugnier’s Chambolle Musigny Les Fuées is also somewhat backward, more structured and less elegant than usual, but showing more aromatic complexity than most 2009s at this time.

One of my favorites had completely unexpected origins. Generally restrained, but with a taut yet powerful underlying structure, d’Angerville’s Volnay Caillerets seemed more like a Grand Cru from the Côte de Nuits: terrific wine, but powerful rather than delicate. Another major change in style from the past. The Caillerets split my affection with Drouhin’s Clos de Beze, still clearly very youthful, just beginning to develop aromatic complexity, but oh so obviously a grand cru in its potential.

This is a more interesting vintage than it might appear superficially, with something for evertyone: some ripe, round wines require to be enjoyed now, but there are enough that are nowhere near ready yet and will last at least a decade or more. Mustn’t grumble.

Champagne Diary part 3: Nostalgia versus Technology in Champagne. Riddling versus Gyropalettes

The romantic aura associated with Champagne is inextricably mixed up with the old artisanal methods. Everyone knows the story about Madame Clicquot’s disgust with the sediment in the bottle, and her experiments with cutting holes in the kitchen table which led to the introduction of the pupître, and riddling the bottles, which in effect means using thousands of hand movements over several weeks to move them from a more or less horizontal position to a more or less vertical position so the sediment collects in the neck. (Before the invention of the pupître, riddling was done by placing the bottle in a pile of sand.) Almost all tours of caves in Champagne take you past rows of pupîtres, but the fact is that the vast majority of Champagne today is riddled not by hand but by gyropalettes, which accomplish the process in a few days instead of a few weeks. The vast majority: but usually not the top prestige cuvees, which continue to be riddled by hand in the old artisanal way. Is this an attempt to preserve superior quality or is it a nostalgia that in fact gets in the way of quality?

RemuageRiddling at the start of the twentieth century

“It’s absolutely clear gyropalettes give better results than riddling by hand. I did not want to believe it, but the inventor of the machine visited and gave me a machine for a year to test. After 6 months I looked and I could not see a difference between gyropalettes and hand riddling. So I took sample bottles to a lab to measure turbidity, and the machine was doing a better job. I decided I must not be nostalgic, I should take the best of modern technology,” says Bruno Paillard, whose modern facility on the outskirts of Reims is full of gyropalettes. “Gyropalettes have the advantage of being able to go from absolutely horizontal to absolutely vertical. You can write the program you want, programs vary from 90 movements to 120 movements, depending on the wine.” he says. Quality depends on how you use the machine: you can rush the process through in as little as four days, or spend a week to get perfect results.

GyroPalette1Riddling at the start of the twenty-first century

But most of the top cuvées state proudly that they riddle by hand. It’s part of that aura of being artisanal, rare—and expensive. I suppose you have to do something different to justify the price of a top cuvée. If you work out how much of the cost of a bottle goes into promotion as opposed to winemaking, it gives you pause for thought, and I suppose it’s better for some to go to riddlers, but the question remains: what does this do for quality? This is not one of those cases where machines are a cost-effective, but lower quality substitute for traditional practices, such as harvesting, where machine harvesters (in spite of improvements) still don’t produce such good results as manual picking. In riddling the machine is reliably better. So are the producers letting nostalgia get in the way of quality?

Champagne Diary part 2: Will the Real Rosé Come Out Please. Visits to Bruno Paillard, Jacquesson, and Laurent-Perrier

I am going to start with a confession. I do not usually like rosé Champagne. It tends for me to have a softer, slightly muddier flavor profile that loses the essential liveliness I look for in Champagne. Sometimes there are faint red berry sensations that seem disconnected from the rest of the flavor profile, at extremes giving a slightly synthetic impression. It can be difficult to resolve what seems to be an intrinsic conflict between being rosé and being Champagne.

Naively you might think that a rosé champagne should come from Pinot Noir and so should be a sort of über Blanc de Noirs. But not a bit of it: rosé can come from any of the grape varieties. Elsewhere in France, a still rosé wine can be made only by allowing skin contact between juice and the skins of black grapes. My problem with rosé Champagne may relate to the fact that it is an artificial construction, the only wine in Europe that is allowed to be made by blending red wine and white wine. So it can in fact be Chardonnay, with a little red wine (usually from Pinot Noir) added to give color. But for me, a rosé should have some Pinot Noir character.

But why should it make a difference whether a rosé is made by allowing 100% of the juice to have a small amount of skin contact with the skins or by adding a small amount of red wine that has had much more extensive skin contact? Perhaps the character of what is extracted from the skins is different. Actually, the general view is that it’s not so easy to tell the difference between a rosé Champagne made by assemblage (blending) and one made by saignée (allowing limited skin contact for all the juice). I was given pause for thought about this, however, when during one day in my week in Champagne I tasted three rosés made by saignée. I spent the morning and lunch with Bruno Paillard, and then—running late as always—the afternoon at Jacquesson and the early evening at Laurent-Perrier.

The standard bearer for the saignée style is Laurent Perrier. “The rosé was launched in 1968 at a time when rosé was considered a froufrou,” says Ann-Laure Domenichini at Laurent-Perrier. It comes exclusively from Pinot Noir, mostly from Grand Cru, and maceration lasts up to 72 hours. It gives a sense of structure you don’t get with a rosé d’assemblage. You get a certain sense of the earthy quality of Pinot Noir here, almost a faint tannic character to the structure, perhaps more a sense of texture. I would say this has more structure than the Grand Siècle prestige cuvée but less evident refinement. I suppose it all depends what you want from your Champagne, but this is undoubtedly a rosé with character.

At Bruno Paillard, the exact details of production aren’t revealed, but Bruno says that the Pinot comes from a mix of short and long maceration. “At first I tried to make rosé only by short maceration, but I think that makes sense only for vintage.” About 15% Chardonnay is included also to help with freshness. I suspect this means that the nonvintage rosé is a blend between Pinot Noir exposed to short saignée (a genuine rosé), some Blanc de Noirs pressed straight off the Pinot Noir and also white wine from Chardonnay, and a little red also directly added (made by long maceration). All of Bruno Paillard’s wines are precise and pure, and the rosé is no exception. A vinous nose leads into a light palate with the citrus edge just taken off. It doesn’t exactly have red fruits on the palate, but makes a softer impression than the Brut. It’s just a little more textured than you usually find with rosé.

A rosé with real attitude comes from Jacquesson (well, actually, I would be inclined to say that all the wines at Jacquesson have attitude). I tasted the 2008 Terres Rouge, which comes from Dizy. It has a strikingly dark color, close to a light red wine. It is 100% Pinot Noir made by skin contact using two macerations: one for 20-30 hours, the other more briefly using free-run from pressing. The palate shows a rare case where red fruits are evident but completely integrated, with an aromatic, almost perfumed, quality of Pinot Noir. Softer on the palate than the other wines from Jacquesson, this is a rosé of unusual character.

Perhaps the question is whether a rosé Champagne should be more like a rosé or more like a Champagne? At Billecart-Salmon, which I visited last year, and which is the standard bearer for rosé d’assemblage, they are in no doubt. “If you served the rosé in black glasses, it would be important not to be able to tell, it should have the aroma and taste of Champagne not red wine,” says cellarmaster François Domi. Billecart-Salmon’s nonvintage and vintage rosés alike have the trademark elegance of the house, and are a major exception to my usual complaint about sparkling rosé. “In the rosé we balance the power of Pinot Noir with the Chardonnay. We look for elegance and delicacy, it should be discrete and not too heavy,” says François. “It’s a secret,” he says when asked what’s special about Billecart’s rosés, but later he relents and explains that it’s the quality and character of the red wine. “There shouldn’t be too much tannin, enough to stabilize the color but not more. If the red isn’t good, you cannot make rosé.”

Whether made by assemblage or saignée, the key to my mind is that any red fruit elements have to be extremely discrete and integrated into the flavor spectrum. Perhaps this is more easily accomplished when the wine comes exclusively from Pinot Noir, which should be true when it is made by saignée. But I haven’t done the acid test yet of seeing whether differences between the two production methods are evident in blind tasting.

Champagne Diary part 1: Brut versus Zero Dosage. Visits to Laurent-Perrier, Ayala, and Philipponnat

“A zero dosage Champagne is like a woman without makeup,” they are fond of saying at Champagne houses that have chosen not to produce this style. “You need a little sugar to bring out full flavor variety.” You could not say that the trend to zero dosage is sweeping through Champagne, as nonvintage Brut remains the vast majority of production at all houses, but there is definitely a trend to reduce dosage in Brut and (sometimes) to go to the extreme of using no dosage. The big question is what does this do to the style: is zero dosage simply the same wine but without the touch of sweetness, or is it something different?

Zero dosage (or Brut Nature) or Extra Brut or Brut is not entirely reliable as a description any more. A general reduction in dosage in Champagne means that some houses are now making a Brut with dosage below 6 g, so it could in fact be labeled Extra Brut (the regulation is simply that Brut must be less than12 g, and extra Brut must be less than 6 g), but they usually stick to the Brut description out of concern that people might think there had been a change in style. “We don’t use Extra Brut,” says Bruno Paillard, “because the category has been ruined by poor wines coming from producers who want to say ‘my wines are purer than pure’.” Zero dosage is a direct statement, however, but the style isn’t as different from the Brut (or Extra Brut) as the name might indicate, because the usual practice is to give the zero dosage longer (as much as an extra year) on the lees: the extra time brings a richness that compensates for the lower dosage. Or put the other way round, a zero dosage champagne does not allow sugar to influence the taste: it’s a wine in which the quality of the fruits is directly exposed.

“The trend for zero dosage is nothing new to us,” says Ann-Laure Domenichini at Laurent-Perrier. “Veuve Laurent Perrier created the first non dosage champagne – Grand Vin Sans Sucre – around 1881, at the request of British customers. It was withdrawn around the first world war as it wasn’t to the taste of the French. Bernard de Nonancourt reintroduced it in 1988 when nouvelle cuisine started the trend for sauces without cream. He called it the naked Champagne.” Today the Ultra Brut comes from an equal blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay chosen for high ripeness and low acidity; in fact, it’s not made in years that aren’t ripe enough (such as 1996). Indeed, I am not sure I would peg this as zero dosage in a blind tasting, because the fruits are so ripe. “This is not the nonvintage with no dosage, but is its own wine,” Ann-Laure emphasizes. The style shows great purity of fruits, poised between Blanc de Blancs and Blanc de Noirs in style, with more precision than the Brut. The Brut is quite deceptive because dosage feels extremely moderate although in fact it is quite high at 11 g now that it has 50% Chardonnay (it used to be 12 g when Chardonnay was 45%). These are two different wines, both in the light, elegant Laurent-Perrier style, but personally I’m inclined to regard the Ultra Brut as a step up from the Brut in refinement.

Ayala is another house that has a history of lower dosage Champagnes. In 1865 it was only 21 g, about a third of the standard for the time. Old posters for Ayala from the early twentieth century emphasize its dry character. Since Bollinger bought Ayala in 2005, the brand has been repositioned – or perhaps you might say has returned to its roots of the early twentieth century – by focusing on a Chardonnay-driven, crisp, pure style. The flagship Brut Majeur (a blend of 40% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot Noir, 20% Pinot Meunier), which accounts for about 80% of production, has a crisp, elegant style, emphasized by low dosage (7 g). The Brut Nature is exactly the same blend but has zero dosage; the only difference with Brut Majeur is that the lack of dosage is compensated by an additional year on the lees before disgorgement. So when I tasted the two side by side at Ayala, the current Brut Nature had a base wine from 2009, whereas the Brut Majeur had a base wine from 2010. The house style is recognizable in both wines, fresh and elegant, with a similar balance and without an enormous difference in perceptible sweetness; the difference for me is more that I find the Brut Nature to show more precision and purity of fruits. Another bottle of Brut Nature, disgorged somewhat earlier with base wine 2008, provided a fascinating contrast: extra time in the bottle has brought some development to a broader, less overtly mineral character: so zero dosage can evolve. Another demonstration of this capacity was the prestige Perle d’Ayala Brut Nature from 2002, which added savory brioche to the usual salinity, but, it has to be admitted, was not as complex as the Perle d’Ayala Brut of 2005.

Direct pairwise comparisons of Brut with Zero Dosage show that much more than sweetness is involved. The closest exact parallel was at Philipponnat, where the Royale Réserve Brut and Non Dosé both had base vintage 2010, and are exactly the same blend. The only difference was that Brut has 8 g/l dosage and was disgorged a bit earlier (December 2013) compared with the Non Dosé, which was disgorged later (April 2014). The non dosé has a more citric impression to nose than the Brut. It’s certainly drier, but more to the point, shows more minerality with suggestions of salinity at the end. But the Brut feels more like a full year older, with more sense of flavors broadening out with development. This seems to support the idea that zero dosage Champagnes mature more slowly (some people argue that they don’t mature at all), because the normal development of Champagne depends on the reaction of sugar with nitrogenous components in the wine. A fair summary is that the non dosage is less generous, less broad, but more precise. The main point is that the difference is not just a matter of the sweetness level, but the whole flavor spectrum is shifted from stone to citrus.

Everywhere I was able to perform a direct comparison of Zero Dosage with Brut, I preferred the former, not because it was drier, but because the fruits were more precise and more elegant, but I would be more inclined to have zero dosage with a meal and Brut as an aperitif. It is a fascinating comparison because so much more than mere sweetness is involved: it offers a whole new insight into Champagne.

Alsace Diary part 1: Valentin Zusslin – Master of Subtlety from Riesling to Pinot Noir

Spending this week in Alsace, I am finalizing the producers to be included in my book, The Wines of Modem France: a Guide to 500 Leading Producers. While a producer should be judged on the range as a whole, I’m inclined to look at Riesling as the defining variety: top Rieslings should show minerality, piercing purity, freshness, and increasing breadth of flavor with age. I look for Pinot Gris to balance expression of stone fruits with more savory notes including a characteristic note of mushrooms (yes, I know that’s considered pejorative in some quarters, but it’s part of the character when subtle). Gewurztraminer is not my favorite variety, I find it simply too perfumed, but when the perfume is delicately balanced with lychees I can appreciate its qualities. I usually find Muscat a bit too obvious, and have lower expectations of Pinot Blanc (and Auxerrois), Chasselas, and Sylvaner, but I’m on the lookout for unusually fine examples that I could recommend. I hesitate to include Pinot Noir as a criterion in a region whose reputation is established for white wine, but full marks go to producers who have taken advantage of global warming to make fine Pinot Noir in Alsace.

Long vertical tastings of Pinot Noir and Riesling with Jean-Paul Zusslin at Domaine Valentin Zusslin fly into the top ten list for both varieties. We tasted Pinot Noir from the lieu-dit Bollenberg (near Rouffach, which is one of the candidates for promotion to premier cru, and where the clay-calcareous soils are suitable for red varieties). I hadn’t encountered these Pinots previously, but they seem to me to capture the essence of Alsace in the context of red wine. They are destemmed, vinified in wooden cuves with pigeage to begin with, switching to pump-over half way through fermentation, and matured much along the lines of top flight Burgundy, in barriques with 50% new oak. Color is deep, fruits are round, the palate is exceptionally smooth, silky tannins support the fruits, the overall impression is quite soft, and some wood spices show when the wines are young. I was puzzling over how I would relate them to Burgundy, and I think the main difference is in the aromatic spectrum: if it isn’t too fanciful, they have a more aromatic impression that seems to relate to the general character of Alsace in growing aromatic white varieties. A barrel sample of 2013 shows as very ripe, 2012 is a touch livelier in its acidity, 2011 conveys a sense of a more earthy structure, 2010 has closed up a bit and is more upright (the counterpart of the often crisp character of the white wines in this vintage), 2009 (my favorite) shows the first signs of evolution with an elegant nutty palate that is reminiscent of the Côte de Beaune, and the 2008 has lightened up and is moving in a savory direction. These are serious wines by any measure, and anyone who is serious about Pinot Noir should try them.

Our Riesling tasting started by comparing three Grand Crus from 2012, which seemed to increase in their savory impression as we went through the line. Bollenberg is precise without being tight, a very pure expression of Riesling. Clos Liebenberg brings more intensity and adds herbal elements to complement the citrus and stone fruits of the palate. Pfingstberg isn’t exactly drier than the other two but is more savory, showing herbal notes including tarragon before the citric purity of Riesling returns. Then we went back in time with Pfingstberg. In the 2010 vintage the savory notes of 2012 are joined by the first notes of petrol. (The first bottle we tried was very slightly corked, and the petrol was quite evident, perhaps because the fruits were a fraction suppressed. A second bottle brought the fruits out more clearly, and the petrol was less evident.) There’s a tense, savory edge to the palate, with an impression of salinity at the end. Back to 2008 where petrol is just beginning to replace savory elements as the first impression, and the palate follows with a classic blend of citrus and stone fruits. The defining word about age came from the 2001, a lovely golden color with some honey, tertiary aromas, and touch of petrol. The flavor spectrum here is moving in the direction of late harvest, but the wine is bone dry: that’s a wonderful combination that I’ve only really experienced in Alsace. Then with 2000 we had a Vendange Tardive, as that was the only Riesling made from Pfingstberg in this vintage. This is a very subtle wine for late harvest, with the sweetness of the apricot fruits cut by tertiary aromas and herbal impressions. In fact, if you want one word to sum up the style of this house, it would be subtlety.