Alsace Diary part 3: A Visit to Trimbach and Vertical Tasting of Frédéric Emile and Clos St. Hune Riesling

From my hotel just above Ribeauvillé, I could look down at vineyards all the way to the town, including the sweep across two adjacent grand crus, Geisberg and Osterberg. One of the greatest Rieslings of Alsace, Trimbach’s Frédéric Emile, comes from plots in 6 ha spread out across both grand crus (which is one reason why it has the lowly Alsace appellation). An even greater Riesling, perhaps the greatest in all Alsace, is Trimbach’s Clos St. Hune, which comes from 1.67 ha in the Rosacker grand cru, although because Trimbach does not (or did not, of which more later) believe in the grand cru system, it is also labeled only as Alsace. While I have tasted both cuvées on many occasions, I’ve never before had a systematic vertical to compare them directly, which is how we spent a morning with Pierre Trimbach.

TrimbachTW2

Vineyards rise up immediately behind Maison Trimbach in Ribeauvillé

Although Trimbach is one of the ten largest producers in Alsace, it is still very much a family owned firm. Pierre Trimbach is very hands-on: “I can still drive a fork lift, when needed,” he says. The firm is well known for taking a strong position on the meaning of Alsace: wines are dry; and they have rejected the grand cru system. Other producers sometimes refer to “the Trimbach style” as a shorthand for complete commitment to dryness. On my previous visit, Hubert Trimbach told me. “All wines are fermented close to dryness, they should be suitable to accompany food.”

Trimbach’s heart is in Riesling, which accounts for more than half of all production, and this goes hand in hand with the commitment to dry style. The hierarchy can be quite deceptive. The basic Riesling is a third to half of production, the Riesling Reserve comes almost entirely from Trimbach’s own vineyards, and the Selection de Vieilles Vignes is a selection within the Reserve category, made for the first time in 2009. Tasting the 2011s, as you go up the line you get more refinement, but less overt fruits, more reserve and minerality, and more time is needed to open. Going to Frédéric Emile and Clos St. Hune, flavor is less apparent on release, it needs time to come out. So in a horizontal tasting of a young vintage, you don’t see the increase in quality in an overt expression of fruits, you have to look beyond that to get an impression of future potential. And we may be talking about many years here.

The vines for Frédéric Emile and Clos St. Hune have similar age, and yields are similar, so differences really should be due directly to terroir. Our comparison between them covered many vintages back to 2001, and the balance shifted with time. The restrained style really pays off here in the rich vintages, such as 2009, when they don’t suffer from over-ripeness. Clos St. Hune is really not very expressive yet, but evidently has greater density than Frédéric Emile. Neither is at all ready, but if you want to experience Trimbach at Grand Cru level without waiting, there is a new choice available. This is a fascinating contrast with Frédéric Emile, where Pierre says that “Osterberg is always more upright, Geisberg is always richer.”

Trimbach recently purchased the vineyards of the nuns of the Couvent de Ribeauvillé, which included 2.6 ha in Geisberg. The nuns made it a condition that the grand cru should be stated on the label, so Trimbach will shortly release its first wine labeled under a grand cru, the Geisberg 2009. This is much more approachable, with overt stone fruits cutting the usual Trimbach austerity, and will be delightful to drink while waiting for Frédéric Emile and Clos St. Hune to come around. Trimbach already owned some other plots so now has become the biggest owner in Geisberg, and in my opinion, their cuvée will become the definitive expression of Geisberg.

Going back through the vertical, the first vintage of Frédéric Emile that seems ready to drink is 2005, but the Clos St. Hune remains pretty restrained and still needs more time. The first vintage of Clos St. Hune that I’d be inclined to drink now would be 2001, which has a perfect balance between minerality and fat. The Frédéric Emile is all minerality and salinity, moving in a distinctly savory direction. In every pairwise comparison back to then, Clos St. Hune shows more density but Fréderic Emile shows more obvious fruit flavors. It takes at least a decade for the fruit flavors in Clos St. Hune to become more obvious. (Of course, it does depend on teh vintage, which can make a big difference: Trimbach are releasing the 2009 Frédéric Emile and Clos St. Hune before the 2008, because the 2008 vintage simply needs more time.) As a working plan, drink Geisberg from five years after the vintage, drink Frédéric Emile from eight years, and drink Clos St Hune from twelve years!

Trimbach’s position on dryness isn’t quite as adamant as it might seem when you move out of Riesling. “Dry doesn’t mean anything, well maybe for Riesling, but for Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer it’s balance,” says Pierre. The style for Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer isn’t totally dry but is as close to it as you can get while maintaining balance. “8-10g sugar isn’t a problem if it’s Pinot Gris not Riesling.” Tasting the Pinot Gris Réserve Personelle and the Gewürztraminer Seigneurs de Ribeaupierre (the equivalent for these varieties to Frédéric Emile in Riesling), there’s only a suspicion of sweetness on the palate, although technical levels are around 8 g and 15 g, so you can see varietal typicity.

The range of Trimbach’s Rieslings is impressive, starting from insight into typicity at the appellation level, then increase in character with greater selection and older vines, and finally the quality and steely longevity of a range of grand crus, not to mention the occasional Vendange Tardive, last made for Frédéric Emile in 2001, and of which I have a bottle as a souvenir of the visit to try on a future occasion.

A Vertical of Chave Hermitage: from Modernity to Tradition with Surprises Along the Way (Eucalyptus!)

Having been drinking Chave Hermitage for more than twenty years, and having made a pilgrimage to the source, where there was an extensive tasting of barrel samples, I thought I had a pretty good bead on Chave Hermitage both old and young, but I was surprised by the wines between the current era and the very oldest at a vertical extending back to 1978.

The first flight showed striking variations of style, reflecting extreme vintage variation. The 2005 was decidedly a modern wine, all youthful power of spice and black fruits waiting to subside, but the potential for future development along classic lines was revealed by a faintly animal note to the nose. The 2004 started with vegetal notes, clearing in the glass to a more traditional fruit spectrum, but somehow never quite coming to life. Not much in the way of great wine came out of the south of France in 2002, the year of the floods, but the 2002 showed nice restraint, more red fruits than black, in a style admittedly much lighter than usual.

The next flight was frankly a puzzle, as all the wines were characterized by eucalyptus and menthol, in varying strengths from a medicinal wintergreen on 2001, although lightening in the glass, to faint notes in the background of the lighter 2000, to a more subtle impression of high toned aromatics on 1999. All developed faint notes of tobacco on the finish.

This theme continued with variations through the third flight, with 1998 faintly perfumed, floral, and phenolic, and mentholated notes rising a bit obviously above the somewhat monotonic fruits; it was more subtle the last time I had it, a few years back, so age has restricted rather than broadened it. 1997 was a classic nose with leather and perfume, and that slight touch of menthol, but at this point the most subtle wine of the nineties; and 1992 was frankly overwhelmed by eucalyptus.

Going back further, we returned to familiar ground. The 1990 was the knockout of the tasting, perfect balance, fragrant with mature fruits well past primary, but less animal than it has been previously, and not yet tertiary. The 1988 would have showed a somewhat similar style but was slightly corked. The 1978 was a much older version of the 1990, fragrant like old Bordeaux, quite delicate.

The old vintage of Chave with which I’m most familiar is 1985, as I’ve been finishing off a case, and taking that as my benchmark, the 1990 seems like a decade younger version, and the 1978 like a decade older. But I can see a clear lineage here, from the modern 2005 to the traditional 1978, with 1990 and 1985 fitting in along the way and showing appropriate development. I’m frankly puzzled by the wines between 2004 and 1992, where the varying strength of eucalyptus seems to cloud assessment.

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.