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.

Should you Decant Champagne?

“It all depends on what you want from your Champagne,” said the Anima Figure, my dinner companion, as we watched the Vintage 2004 being decanted at a tasting of Billecart-Salmon Champagne, held at The Modern in New York to celebrate François Roland Billecart’s first visit to the United States in 25 years. It was a lovely golden color, with a mousse on the surface of the decanter that dissipated fairly quickly. I know that some producers have recently been talking about decanting Champagne, but I confess that I have not myself seen Champagne decanted previously, so I was more than curious about the rationale on this particular occasion.

François Billecart had recommended that this vintage should be decanted around 45 minutes before serving, because it is still quite tight. As poured from the decanter, it was full of flavor, round and nutty with notes of brioche, and a deep texture. What about the bubbles? Well it was definitely a sparkling wine, but the fizz was not very aggressive. As served, it was a perfect match for the lobster in smoked vegetable broth.

The 2004 was the initial year of the new “Vintage” range. It’s two thirds Pinot Noir from Mareuil, with 20% vinified in barrique. When I first tasted it, at Billecart Salmon last summer, winemaker François Domi said, “This has brought ampleur. We changed the philosophy a bit. ” My recollection from that tasting was that the wine was rounded, but not oaky, with the effect of wood showing more in the creamier textured impression on the palate. The richness belies its Extra Brut status.

Based on my memory, this Champagne seemed pretty flavorful on opening, so I prevailed on the sommelier to pour me a fresh sample the next time a bottle was opened for decanting. The comparison was like night and day. Against the food, the bubbles seemed quite aggressive, hiding the flavors that were such a good match in the decanted sample. But at this point, more than hour after the initial decantation, the decanted sample was beginning to become a bit flat.

Later I had the opportunity to ask François Roland Billecart directly about the recommendation to decant. We agreed that you lose freshness but gain flavor by decanting, and the question is the best compromise. “It depends on the occasion,” François says. “If it’s for an aperitif, you should open the bottle and serve, but if it’s with dinner, decant before.” I continued to compare the two samples as they sat in the glass—they were served incidentally in wine glasses as opposed to flutes, another statement of purpose—and I felt that the ideal compromise between sparkle and flavor was reached somewhere between 30-45 minutes after opening.

Older wines at the tasting were also served in wine glasses. My favorite was the 1997 Blanc de Blancs, showing a lovely balance between developing fruits and nuts and truffles. With great depth on the finish, it outshone the Nicolas François Billecart 1997. The Elisabeth Salmon Rosé 1990 was most impressive, actually seeming less developed than the 1997 vintage Champagnes. Here is the full delicacy of rosé for which Billecart-Salmon is famous, with the subtle development of age.

I’m not sure I would go to the full extreme of decanting, but there is certainly a case to be made for opening a young vintage half an hour or so in advance to allow flavors to emerge that you would scarcely suspect if you guzzled it all immediately on opening.