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)

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.

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.