I Form a New View of Champagne at the Fête de Champagne: Savory not Sweet

Tasting through the wines of thirty producers at the Fête de Champagne in New York, my notes often read “savory” or even “umami,” sometimes “austere” or “mineral,” but rarely mentioned sweetness or sugar. Of course, this could be because I focused on small grower-producers rather than large houses, because producers chose to bring a particular selection of Champagnes biased away from the more traditional style, or because the organizers took a specific view of what cuvées would be suitable to present in New York.

Several producers showed only Extra Brut or Zero Dosage (Brut Nature), where the trend was clearest.  It’s certainly true that dosage has been decreasing in Champagne over the past decade, although this is more to maintain continuity of style in the face of riper grapes resulting from global warming than to change the style, and there is also something of a trend to introduce zero dosage cuvées, but almost a quarter of the cuvées at the Fête de Champagne were Extra Brut, and as many again were Zero Dosage, which seems quite extreme against the general statistical trend. (Actually the classification as stated on the label probably underestimates the trend to Extra Brut, because many cuvées where dosage has been reduced below 4 g/l continue to be labeled as Brut although they could be Extra Brut.)

Although acidity has been decreasing with the warmer vintages, there was no shortage of it at the tasting (even though most producers are performing malolactic fermentation). Subjectively it does not seem that the crispness of Champagne is at all threatened at present, in fact producers have scope to display acidity by moving to Extra Brut or Zero Dosage, or to suppress it by moving into the realm of Brut with higher dosage. Objectively, it’s probably the fact that acidity is lower than it used to be that allows the Extra Brut and Zero Dosage styles to be produced; indeed, some producers use only their ripest grapes for Zero Dosage as otherwise the wines really can be too austere. I would say that in almost half of the Zero Dosage I tasted at the Fête, acidity was higher than I was really comfortable with on the palate, and some of the Extra Brut cuvées were a bit too austere for my palate, showing a touch too much bitterness on the finish: in these classes, there is no escaping from the need for absolutely top quality grapes.

But aside from the whole question of the acid to sweetness balance, savory impressions in Champagne are something relatively new to me (talking here about newly released Champagnes rather than the tertiary qualities that develop much later). The trend to Extra Brut and Zero Dosage is no doubt a prerequisite, since at Brut levels of dosage, any savory notes are likely to be hidden by the sweetness from the residual sugar. One of the most overtly savory Champagnes I have had was De Sousa’s Umami, so named because Erik de Sousa wanted to capture impressions of umami in a wine after he returned from a visit to Japan, but conditions have been right to produce this cuvée only once, he says (in 2009).

Jacquesson’s numbered releases (each representing a base year augmented by small amounts of other recent vintages) have low dosage to bring out the savory side, and it was fascinating to see that a late disgorgement of #735 (base year 2007) really enhanced the savory style. Perhaps the most savory Champagne of the day was Jacquesson’s vintage 2007 from Dizy.

Benoit Tarlant is one of my favorite small growers for his focus on Zero Dosage, and this time I found that his rosé took the edge of the austerity of the style to give a flavorful balance. And there on the Cuvée Louis 2000 Brut Nature is a lovely savory tang at the end: who says that Brut Nature can’t age (some critics argue that it can’t, because sugar is needed for the Maillard reaction with nitrogenous compounds that is the basis for the development of toast and brioche).

I was impressed with the wines of Chartogne-Taillet for their fresh precision and savory aftertaste. Maison Bérêche’s cuvées seemed a little on the acid side, more herbal than savory, but a million miles from that sensation of saccharine on the over dosed Champagnes of the past. Villmart’s cuvées seem to be moving in a savory direction as they age.

I draw a distinction between savory and minerality (even allowing for the fact that minerality means all things to all people, as I discussed in the previous blog: There Is No Such Thing as Minerality). For me, minerality is stony, smoky, flinty, the quintessential marker would be gunflint; whereas for savory, I’m looking for an impression of umami, maybe a touch of fenugrek (Scarborough Fair Wines in the Jura). I got impressions of minerality in the tight, precise style of Larmandier-Bernier and René Geoffroy, with more savory impressions in the wines of Pascal Doquet and Michel Gonet, as well as those already mentioned. What I like about this is the feeling that Champagne is no longer a wine sweetened to hide the problems of ripening grapes in a marginal climate, but is now offering interesting representations of terroir (and sometimes cépage)

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The Ultimate Artisan: A Visit to Champagne Agrapart

We arrived at Agrapart to find that Pascal wasn’t quite ready for us: he was in the middle of disgorgement. But this was not the usual machine with its wonderful automated array of equipment for dipping inverted bottles in ice, turning back up, removing crown caps, and inserting dosage before corking: this was Pascal. His son was dipping the inverted bottles into the freezing mixture and quickly turning them back up, Pascal snipped the cork off with a pair of pliers, stuck the end of the pliers into the neck to release the foam, then sniffed to check all was well, before the bottle was passed on for dosage and bottling.

agrapart4Pascal engaged in disgorgement

Agrapart is on the Avenue Jean Jaurès, which is Avize’s equivalent of Avenue de Champagne in Epernay–a long line of Champagne houses one after the other. It was founded by Pascal Agrapart’s grandfather and is still a family domain. Pascal’s father started to commercialize the Champagne in the sixties and seventies. Pascal built the domain up from 3 ha to 12 ha. “We wouldn’t grow beyond, say, 15 ha and be able to continue as we like to consider ourselves true artisans,” says Nathalie Agrapart. Vineyards include more than 70 individual parcels, mostly Grand Cru with some Premier Cru on the Côte de Blancs, and a little Pinot Noir on the Montagne de Reims. “We are specialists in Chardonnay, we just have some small plots with Pinot Noir,” says Nathalie.

agrapart5The courtyard at Agrapart

The artisan nature of the operation becomes clear going around the cellars, set around a charming courtyard off the street, and somewhat larger than they appear, as they go down for three levels. The top level is for vinification, the second level is full of pupîtres, and the third is for stockage. There are two old presses, where the juice runs out directly into an underground vat. (Not in use at the moment, the presses have bicycles stored in them.) Riddling is all manual, but “the problem with the pupîtres is that we don’t have enough space, it would easier with gyropalettes.” There’s no transvasage, remuage is done manually up to jeroboams.

There are 7 cuvées. Only two are based on assemblage from different parcels; the majority are single vineyard wines or represent specific terroirs. Only one is Brut, the rest are Extra Brut or Brut Nature. Pascal thinks a lot about his cuvées. “The idea in my head was…” he tends to explain with a gesture, as he introduces each cuvée. The range gives a terrific expression of different terroirs through the prism of Chardonnay. An extremely fine sense of texture runs through all cuvées. Flavors in the citrus spectrum are subtle, and deepen going from the vins d’assemblage to the single vineyard wines, but all cuvées have that impression of refinement and delicacy, giving a sense that a fine coiled spring is waiting to develop. The Extra Brut style allows purity of fruits to shine through.

There are four Blanc de Blancs representing specific terroirs. “We have vineyards very close to the Maison and make three completely different wines.” Mineral comes from very calcareous plots in Avize and Cramant. “In the same village you can find different terroirs, clay or calcareous, different depths of soil. My idea is to reflect those differences by selecting vineyards that show the mineral side.” Avizoise is a vintage that comes from the oldest vines (60 years) from soils with more clay in Avize. “Mineral has the verticality, Avizoise has more volume and breadth.” Exp. 12 is a Brut Nature from Avize. “This is nothing but Champagne. No dosage, no sugar at all. The liqueur comes from another vintage. So it’s all Champagne.”

Complantee is an unusual blend that in addition to the usual three varieties has Pinot Blanc, Arbane, and Petit Meslier. The name reflects the fact that the varieties are all intermingled in the vineyard. It comes from a tiny plot (less than a third of a hectare) which Pascal planted in 2003 because he thinks terroir is more important than cépage. For me, cépage does come through, however, because I get that faintly herbal, faintly spicy impression that comes from the old varieties.

It’s an experience to taste through the range at Agrapart as each cuvée has something different to say.

 

Artisan Champagne, Biodynamics, and Music at Éric Rodez

Arriving for a visit with Éric Rodez at what looks like a residence in a quiet back street of Ambonnay, there’s a crane hovering over the building, with everything under construction. Éric Rodez is constructing a new winery at the family house. He has separate cellars close by in the town, but they have run out of space.

The Rodez family has been making wine in Ambonnay since 1757, and after a stint in Burgundy followed by experience as an oenologist at a large Champagne house, Éric came back to run the family domain. “My first vintage was an exceptionally bad year, 1984, and this created a tsunami in me. I felt no emotion in my new wine,” he recollects. Éric bubbles over with comparisons between wine and music, all the while drawing parallels between the emotions they create. “When you go to a concert, every concert is a new emotion, it’s not just a repeat. For me this is the logic for terroir wine. Every year I am writing a melody with a new interpretation.”

Éric is committed to biodynamic viticulture, but that is not enough. “Now I am using aromatherapy. Organic viticulture uses copper for mildew and sulfur for oïdium, but copper is toxic for the soil and sulfur is toxic for the wine. Using oils reduces the need for copper.” Out in the vineyards, he explains the morcelated character of his holdings, which consist of 35 separate parcels. “These 13 rows of Pinot Noir come from my father, these 39 rows of Chardonnay come from my mother.” He points to his vines where the berries are small and the bunches are small, then we cross the street to a neighbor’s vines, conventionally farmed, and Eric points to the difference: the berries and bunches are much larger. “It’s not bad,” he says, “but it’s nice industrial champagne, it dilutes the terroir.” He’s fervent about the advantages of biodynamics.

ericrodezgrapestwo

Eric Rodez’s biodynamic grapes (left) are much smaller than those of neighboring plots (right).

Winemaking is traditional in some respects and unconventional or modern in others. “Traditionally Champagne is 80% the new year and 20% reserves, but I use 70% reserve wines and only 30% of current vintage.” Pressing uses old manual presses constructed in 1936. “I don’t want to use a modern press. It’s very important to press slowly.” But there are a couple of gyropalettes, so Eric is not stuck thoughtlessly in tradition. The cellar contains stainless steel vats and barriques; 20% of the wine is fermented in old oak, and most élevage is in oak.

ericrodez1Behind the house, a new winery is being constructed.

Dosage is always low here. “All my wines are Extra Brut, but I put Brut on the label because I never know for the next vintage.” The style really showcases cépage, and you see the differences between the character of each cépage in a way that is unusually clear for Champagne. The Blanc de Blancs says, “I am Chardonnay,” and the Blanc de Noirs says, “I am Pinot Noir.” Coming from the Ambonnay grand cru, the blends have only Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. “I’m not interested in Pinot Meunier because it doesn’t age well,” Éric explains. All the wines have a great sense of balance and integration between density and vivacity.

“Cuvée des Crayères blends the structure of Pinot Noir with the sensuality of Chardonnay,” says Éric, and it shows that characteristic balance of the house. The Blanc de Blancs comes from Ambonnay and has a typically elegant uplift. The Blanc de Noirs has that characteristic sense of Pinot Noir’s density. “For the Blanc de Noirs I did not do MLF in order to have more sensuality.” The Zero Dosage is perfectly balanced, with no sense of anything missing, as sometimes happens in the category. It comes from a plot in the middle of the slope which gives good ripeness. The Cuvée des Grands Vintages is “a blend of the best vintages, it is very complex. “Les Beurys is “one plot, one vintage, one cépage,” from a plot of Pinot Noir with east exposure and 35 cms of soil. “It’s almost an anti-Champagne because there’s no assemblage.” The vintage Blanc de Blancs, Empreinte De Terroir Chardonnay, “is my view of the terroir of Ambonnay.” Long and deep, unmistakably Chardonnay, this says it all.

Flavorful would be a good one word summary of the style. You can only get a result like this if you hold back on the sulfur, says my companion, the Anima Figure, and indeed it’s very low. These are very distinctive wines, with everything focused on bringing out terroir and cépage.

 

 

 

A Visit to Michel Drappier is Full of Surprises

Given that the basic concept of Champagne is to maintain consistency of the product by evening out vintage variation by blending, one tends to think of Champagne as a bit static in its approach. A visit to Michel Drappier gave me a different perspective, when I visited last week as part of research to update my Guide to Wines and Top Vineyards of Champagne.

Located on the Côte de Bar, well south of the main area of Champagne, and in fact closer to Chablis than to Reims, Drappier seems to occupy the center of Urville with a large group of buildings off the main road. Driving from Troyes to Urville along the Route Touristique de Champagne gives a rather different experience from, say, driving along the Côte de Blancs south of Epernay. The Côte de Blancs gives the impression of a monoculture of vines on gentle slopes: the Route Touristique along the Côte de Bar passes through more fields of sunflowers than vineyards, giving somewhat the impression of an alluvial valley. The vineyards in fact are along slopes a mile or so off the main road.

ChampagneRoute2The Route Touristique on the Côte de Bar passes by sunflower fields and granaries rather than vineyards

The visited to Drappier started with a trip out to his top vineyard, Grande Sendrée, in a fleet of old Citroens, led by the bright yellow Torpedo from the 1920s, followed by a 1930s model, and ending with the famous DS (which for me always brings Maigret to mind). The name of Grande Sendrée reflects its origins. A big fire in 1836 burned the whole village and the forest around. The ash was a good fertilizer so the area was planted with vines. Before phylloxera the village reached 370 ha, but now has only 170 ha. “This is an improbable place to make wine but it’s become iconic,” says Michel.

GrandeSendee1Michel Drappier’s fleet of old Citroens provide unique transport to the vineyard

“Grande Sendrée is a terroir not a clos. The name comes from cinders, it should be Cendrée. But whoever made the mistake made our fortune, because it’s a monopole.” The particular feature of the soil is that the limestone was broken up so it has more clay and humus. “It’s Grand Cru Chablis soil with Pinot Noir from Burgundy to make Champagne,” Michel says. Grande Sendrée was one of the early single vineyard cuvées. “In 1974 we decided to make a separate vinification and wanted to have a separate cuvée, but it was an awful vintage so we did not declare it. The first release was 1975,” Michel explains. It’s usually produced every 2-3 years.

From the 5 ha of Grande Sendrée you can see back to Urville and some of Drappier’s other vineyards beyond the village. Michel points to a plot of Pinot Noir that is used to make a red Coteaux de Champenoise. Adjacent to it are plots of some old varieties, no longer much grown in Champagne: Arbane, Petit Meslier and Pinot Blanc. These are the basis for the unusual cuvée, Quattuor.

“Quattuor was almost a joke. I wanted to make a new Blanc de Blancs with no Chardonnay. I planned to have one third each of Arbane,  Petit Meslier, and Pinot Blanc, which I planted in 2000. The first crop was 2004, and the first release in 2007. The blend was too vegetal–it was like Sauvignon Blanc–and at the last minute we decided to add Chardonnay. So now it has one quarter of each. Pinot Blanc gives fat and texture, Chardonnay gives balance and makes it all come together. Some years Arbane dominates, some years Petit Meslier.”

“We blend and press Arbane and Petit Meslier together, the others are made separately. The total surface of Arbane in Champagne is 1.6 ha, and we have 0.6 ha, so we are the largest producer of Arbane in Champagne. I found out why my father and his generation spent 30 years pulling it out, you work for nothing. But it’s elegant. We don’t produce Quattuor every year because I want to have one quarter of each cépage.”

“My father is very experimental and is always trying things,” says Charlene Drappier, as she takes us round the cellars, which date back to 1155 and were built by St. Bernard (who left Burgundy to found the abbey of Clairvaux). St. Bernard is supposed to have brought Morillon (a possible ancestor of Pinot Noir) from Burgundy. “So we have 800 years of Pinot Noir in the house,” Charlene says. “The cellars are made of Kimmeridgian limestone, so the vines grow on Kimmeridgian limestone and the bottles mature in it.” One experiment manifested itself in a wooden “egg,” in which the wine is supposed to mature with a natural movement of fluid that in effect keeps it in contact with the lees without any battonage.

After visiting the vineyards and cellars, we tasted through the range. Quattuor makes a sophisticated impression with faint herbal overtones. Michel says this release is dominated by Petit Meslier. Later in the week, at Champagne Duval-Leroy, we taste an unusual 100% Petit Meslier, which shows a distinctive herbal spectrum; you can see why it adds complexity in a blend. Drappier’s Millésime Exception from 2012 is quite different. “For Millésime Exception the idea is the vintage not the terroir. It has to reflect the weather of one season. It is chosen from lots in the cellars, not by picking–the other cuvées are chosen in the vineyard—but for Millésime we choose those wines that are an especially good reflection of the vintage.”

Grande Sendrée 2008 is not so much overtly rich as simply full of flavor. The Grande Sendrée rosé is unusual for its perfectly integrated red fruits. For me, obvious red fruits give a rosé a disjointed impression, but this is a rare case in which they really integrate to make a characterful wine. And then there is the Charles de Gaulle cuvée, faintly toasty, showing the typical body of Pinot Noir, which certainly dominates, with an impression more towards stone fruits than citrus. “The Charles de Gaulle cuvée is named for the general because he was a customer in the sixties, but not a big one. We would have preferred to have had Winston Churchill. That is probably why Pol Roger is a major house and Drappier is a small one,” Michel says wryly. Dosage is modest on all the cuvées. “My father used to have 13 g dosage, when I began it was 12 g, then it came down to 11 g, and from the nineties to 2005 it was 9 g. Now it’s always under 7g,” Michael says.

We wound up with a wine that had been matured under the sea. This was Grande Sendrée 2005, placed under the sea at St. Malo for a year, and then retrieved to be sold as part of a charity event. It was very smooth and supple, with only the first touches of development. “I have done experiments to see what affects aging,” Michel explains. “I tried putting Champagne at altitude in the mountains, but altitude is not the answer, it ages very quickly in the mountains, so I thought I would try the opposite, under the sea. The idea was to see the effect of pressure. The temperature is 9-10C, the pressure is 2.5-3 bars, and of course there’s no light. So you lose less pressure. There’s a slight difference, for me it seems a little better after a year under the sea.”

Drappier5 Jeroboams are riddled by hand

Michel is on a constant quest to understand and control every aspect of his wine. The liqueur d’expedition is produced in house and matured for 15-20 years in oak vats and glass demi-johns, there is no transvasage and sizes up to 30 liters are matured in the bottle, and a new shape of bottle is about to be introduced with a narrower neck to reduce oxidative exposure. It’s all go.

The Triple F of Franciacorta

The act of genius in producing Champagne from a region that is (or at least used to be) absolutely marginal for wine production is hard to match: which is why there are so few successful competitors. Because of climate or choice of grape varieties, other European sparkling wines rarely achieve comparable interest or complexity. New World sparkling wines are usually adjuncts to still wine production. Yet with Champagne unable to meet world demand, we could used some alternatives.

So I was happy to spend a few days in Franciacorta last week, doing research for the second edition of Wine Myths and Reality. Producers of Franciacorta like to stress its independence by talking about Franciacorta, Franciacorta, Franciacorta, referring to the name of the area, the name of the wine, and the production method, but the fact is that Champagne has been the model right from the start. A common impetus in the 1960s was that industrialists who wanted to make sparkling wine along the lines of Champagne created what are now the three major producers–Berlucchi, Bellavista, and Ca’ del Bosco between them account for about half of all Franciacorta production. Grapes are essentially Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (there’s a little Pinot Blanc but it’s pretty much fallen out of flavor), and if there are any differences in the production method from Champagne, I have yet to identify them.

Franciacorta is reputed to make wines that are more mineral, more linear, than Champagne. I am a bit puzzled why this should be, as it lies on a line of latitude well south of Champagne. Production is confined to a small region in Lombardy, protected by Lake Iseo and mountains to the north, and an “orphan” mountain to the south. The climate is temperate–it’s the farthest north you can grow olive trees, they are fond of pointing out. Anyway, my tastings suggest that the reputation is only partly correct. Harvest here is the earliest in Italy, starting in the second week of August, not because it’s the warmest place, but because producers need to pick early to keep alcohol levels low; it’s surprising that they can get sufficient ripeness by harvest time.

Because it’s warmer than Champagne, vintage wines are made every year, and there’s a greater proportion of vintage relative to nonvintage. I see a significant difference in style here, in a sense the reverse of what you find with Champagne. It seems to me that nonvintage Franciacorta is softer, and the classic minerality really shows clearly only in the vintage. In nonvintage wines, I was impressed with Ca’ del Bosco’s Cuvée Prestige, which at a million bottles per year is their major production, showing a great sense of smoothness and density. Berlucchi is by far the largest producer, and their 61 Brut Rosé cuvée has terrific freshness for rosé.

The warmer climate means that acidity tends to be lower, so dosage is usually moderate. “In Franciacorta the dosage is not usually indispensable, whereas in Champagne it is necessary,” says winemaker Stefano Capelli at Ca’ del Bosco. There’s a tendency to use dosage at Extra Brut level, especially in vintage wines (although the label most often says Brut), and perhaps that’s partly why that pleasing minerality tends to show in the vintage cuvées. A perfect illustration of why zero dosage is successful in Franciacorta comes from Bellavista’s Pas Opere cuvée, where the ripeness of the fruits gives an impression more like Extra Brut, mineral but dense rather than aggressive.FranciacortaTopoThe other major factor affecting style is location. The northern part of the area is mountainous, with limestone terroirs; opening out from Lake Iseo, the valley in the central part forms an amphitheater with sandier soils. Pinot Noir tends to be concentrated in the cooler areas to the north. Most producers have vineyards all over, and blend to achieve their desired style, but a visit to Majolini in the northeast, where the wines come from local vineyards, shows the difference. A strong sense of minerality runs through all the wines.” My wines need time both before disgorgement and for aging afterwards,” Simone Maiolini explains. Franciacorta9SKY copyVineyards in the north of Franciacorta can be on mountain slopes.

Franciacorta’s descriptions of style mostly follow Champagne, but there is one unique style, Satèn, which is a Blanc de Blancs with lower pressure (4.5 bars instead of the usual 6 bars), designed to bring out creaminess. (Some Champagne producers do this with their Blanc de Blancs also). I have to say that this seems to me to be the antithesis of the reputation for linearity: most Satèn wines show a distinctive style with a broad palate.

Franciacorta14SKYVineyards in the central amphitheater are flatter, with views of the mountains in the distance.

Most producers have a nonvintage cuvée that is their largest production, with several vintage cuvées made in relatively small amounts. Producers often refer to Crus when discussing the origins of their top wines, but there are no single vineyard labels as such, and there is agreement that Franciacorta is a young region that needs to establish its identity more firmly before any hierarchy is established. “We need time and experience to define Crus,” says Stefano Capelli. Riserva wines must have five years before disgorgement, and there are some top cuvées that spend longer, but there’s no real equivalent to the late disgorgement cuvées of Champagne.

Franciacorta is a really interesting alternative to Champagne, and although it’s very much a work in progress, here are four wines that illustrate its range.

Ca’ Del Bosco, Cuvée Prestige

This is impressive for a general nonvintage cuvée, giving the impression of a serious wine, with real depth and weight to the palate. There are citrus impressions to the nose but the palate is all stone fruits, with lots of grip and a good sense of underlying structure. Dosage is not at all evident.

Guido Berlucchi, Brut 61 Rosé

This is 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay. It comes from direct pressing with maceration of the Pinot Noir for a few hours at 4 degrees before fermentation. Showing freshness just short of citrus, in fact it seems fresher and less creamy than the regular Brut 61 cuvée.

Bellavista, Pas Opere 2008

Violets and nuts with chocolate impression on nose. You really see the purity of the fruits on the palate. It’s quite dry but I’m not sure I would pick it out as zero dosage, although it’s clearly into extra brut. Quite a tight mineral impression with faintly lemony notes at the end.

Majolini, Satèn 2010

More mineral impression to nose than you usually find with Satèn. The palate has the smoothness of Satèn, with hints of creaminess mixed with minerality. It’s a very nice balance with the dosage of 7.5 g only just showing, and an unusual sense of fruit purity.

Clos des Goisses Triumphs in the Best and Worst of Vintages in Champagne

Vintage Champagne is a rarity. Most houses produce a vintage only in the best years, typically around three times a decade; lesser vintages are never seen, but just blended into the nonvintage. I’m not sure if Clos des Goisses is unique, but it’s certainly an exception as a vintage wine is released virtually every year, “It’s a special spot,” says Charles Philipponnat, “we’ve released a vintage every year in the past thirty five except two when we didn’t make one, and one when we decided not to release it.”

Clos des Goisses is one of the most striking sites in all Champagne, a narrow band of a steep slope perched across the river at Mareuil sur Aÿ. The topsoil is very shallow, the slope ensures drainage, so the vine roots penetrate well into the chalk base. It’s one of the very few genuine clos in Champagne, and Philipponnat have owned it since 1935. Alcohol is unusually high for Champagne, at 13%, due to the ripeness of the site.

Goisses7JClos des Goisses from the top of the slope with Epernay just visible in the distance.

So you can get an unparalleled sense of vintage from Clos des Goisses. At a dinner with Charles Philipponnat organized by Bordeaux Index in London, wines were arranged into pairs on the basis of aromatic relationships, rather than presented chronologically. First came 1980 and 1997, because of a shared tendency to grassiness. In the case of 1997, Charles Philipponnat thought this showed as Angelica (an aromatic grass). One of the most varied impressions of the evening, this changed in my glass from toast and brioche to ginger and then to tea. The 1980 is steadier, with a nose poised between herbal and spicy, and a savory impression with vegetal overtones. I don’t believe I’ve had a vintage Champagne from 1980 before, and it’s certainly a stunning demonstration of the capacity of the site.

Next came 1996 and 2002, two great vintages joined by high acidity. The 1996 runs true to form; with 6 g/l of malic acid – malolactic fermentation is always blocked for Clos des Goisses – it has a tight structure showcasing precision of the fruits. Classic for the year, it shows well in comparison with the grand cuvées of other houses. By contrast 2002 is softer and more elegant, in fact it gives an ethereal impression of floating on its bubbles. For me, this pair gave the most contrast between any two matched wines.

1990 and 2000 were extremely ripe vintages with very large personalities – “more representative of the usual character of Clos des Goisses,” says Charles. The 1990 certainly seemed to be the wine of the night: the palate offers perfect balance between broad mature flavors with tertiary notes and lovely lacy acidity, which gives a sense of precision. This vintage epitomizes what Clos des Goisses is all about. The 2000 hasn’t developed nearly so far but gives an impression of a younger version of the 1990 with years to go.

Finally the 1976 was paired with the 1995. It’s a tribute to the character of Clos des Goisses as a wine (as opposed to an aperitif) that they could be matched with the cheese course. The 1976 is fully mature, with a savory impression that becomes a little vegetal in the glass. It conveys a more mainstream impression than 1980, but shares with it a feeling that there’s not much to be gained by holding on for any future disgorgements. Curiously the 1995 gave the impression of having been disgorged before the 1976, although in fact it was the other way round. A second bottle gave a fresher impression, but I still didn’t get that sense of infinite depth that came from 1990 and 2000.

Bottles came directly from Philipponnat and were relatively recent disgorgements. My sense of the older or lesser vintages is that at this point they need to be enjoyed fairly soon after disgorgement. 1990 and 1996, however, clearly have character to develop in the bottle; and 2002 is a mere baby. Clos des Goisses shows as one of the great Champagnes. Dominated by Pinot Noir, in great vintages it’s as deep and broad as any grand cuvée, and in lesser vintages it still comes over with great character and interest. Vintage absolutely shines through.

Comparing Ruinart Champagne in Bottle and Magnum Produces Unexpected Results

A tasting this week at Roberson in London of the current releases from Champagne Ruinart together with a short vertical of the vintage Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs included a fascinating comparison of the 2004 from bottle and magnum.

The style of the Ruinart Blanc de Blancs is quite deep. Indeed, when the tasting started with the “R” de Ruinart Brut and the nonvintage Blanc de Blancs, it seemed to me that the “R” had more of that crisp brightness I expect from Blanc de Blancs, whereas the actual Blanc de Blancs was deeper and nuttier. The vintage Blanc de Blancs follows the same profile as the nonvintage, but with greater intensity.

The 2004 from bottle shows lovely aromatics leading into deep white flower and citrus fruits on the palate. Nutty overtones give a mature impression that extends into slight suggestions of brioche. Overall it is deep but lively. The magnum offers less obvious aromatics and the most immediate difference in impression is a distinct touch of bitterness on the finish. The difference narrows with time in the glass, but the magnum continues to offer more obvious sense of texture and structure. (This did not produce any evident preference among tasters, some of whom preferred the bottle, others the magnum.)

Conventional wisdom holds that magnum is the ideal format to age wine; because the neck of the bottle and magnum are essentially similar, the greater volume of wine in a magnum has less exposure to oxygen (both initially in terms of the airspace in the bottle, and with time as oxygen enters through the cork). So if anything you would expect a magnum to age more slowly, and in the case of Champagne to appear fresher than a bottle, but this was not the case.

The house style at Ruinart is extremely concerned with oxidation. “Freshness is the golden thread of the house,” says Amelie Chatin of Ruinart, who came from Reims for the tasting. “To achieve our signature freshness we have a reductive winemaking process. For crushing we use a pneumatic press, not the traditional basket press. And there is no wood, everything is fermented and matured in stainless steel. Fermentation is at low temperature to maintain aromatics. Every stage is important, including our special shaped bottle, which has a narrow neck to admit less oxygen.”

I could attribute the effect of the magnum versus bottle more easily in terms of oxidation if we were dealing with red wine. In that case, I would assume that exposure to oxygen had softened the tannins in the bottle, but not yet in the magnum. That’s a more difficult explanation for Champagne, where every effort is made to limit skin contact (where the tannins originate) in winemaking. My companion, the Anima Figure, thought the magnum showed tea-like aromas, which would certainly be consistent with some effect relating to tannins.

At this point in time, I preferred the liveliness of the bottle to the bitter structure of the magnum, but I’m certainly curious as to whether the effect is actually due to a difference in rate of aging, in which case in due course the bottle may appear tired when the magnum is fresh. (The difference was not due to time of disgorgement. Magnums are often disgorged later because they age more slowly, but in this case both bottle and magnum were disgorged more or less together, about 16 months ago.) I hope to be invited back in, say, five years to reassess the situation.

Given the impression that the bottle is just on the point of developing toast and brioche, I would normally assess potential longevity at around another five years, but the next wine was the 1998, from bottle disgorged after 9 years in 2007, which is only a little tertiary. Blanc de Blancs here shows not with crisp freshness but in the creaminess of the palate, which is moving in the direction of toffee and caramel. The point about difference between bottle and magnum was perhaps made sideways on by the next wine, a 1993 magnum, disgorged after 10 years in 2003: this was more developed, certainly, with faint mushrooms and other tertiary notes, but it seemed more to have greater intensity of  butter and caramel on the palate than to be as much as five years older than the 1998. Another light on changes in Champagne, incidentally, comes from dosage, which has effectively halved over a decade: 10 g for 1993, 7 g for 1998, 5.5 g for 2004. (Amelie says it may go back up a bit in future). There is a really clear lineage of development from 2004 to 1998 to 1993 which identifies Ruinart’s style for Blanc de Blancs as complex creaminess. Anyway, the 2004 may go longer than I thought at first, but more tastings are needed to assess whether to go with bottle or magnum. I am always available.