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

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

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

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 It was withdrawn around the first world war as it wasn’t to the taste of the French.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

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

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

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