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Understanding Champagne - a progress report 01/05/2005 (TNB)

So how goes my resolution to find out more about Champagne, and in particular the smaller houses and the growers? I have been working pretty hard at it for the last few months and here are a few initial conclusions. Firstly, if like me your choice of Grande Marques is usually Pol Roger, Roederer and Billecart-Salmon, then you are not going easily to find things that are notably better by broadening out - rather you will taste some interestingly different things, the best of which are at the same sort of level of quality. Dom Perignon, Winston Churchill and the like are great wines made by houses with considerable resources to select from. On the other hand, the very best small growers are at least matching the top houses for basic NV wines and in many cases are a bit cheaper. Their prestige cuvees too can be exciting even if they are from smaller resources and they are often priced well below the big names. I suppose one might think of D.P. as being a sort of "Grange" - made to a house style with the best grapes from diverse sources, and perhaps prestige bottlings from small producers are more individual. My best discovery so far is A. Clouet who makes a splendid zero-dosage blanc de noirs for a good bit the right side of 20 and an interesting late-disgorged "Cuvee 1911" at a bit over 30.

There are a number of small growers who seem to be pushing at the limits a bit and I am not sure yet what I make of, for example, Egly-Ouriet and Selosse. I worry a bit that they are trying to make modern table wine with bubbles and I have some reservations about the balance of the wines. It may be a question first of all of letting the wines mature in bottle for a while and secondly of familiarity and I will reserve judgement for now.

I have long been a fan of the elegant style of Champagne epitomised by Billecart, but in drinking around I have become a bit more sympathetic to the weightier, meatier, often Pinot-dominated style of houses like Bollinger, at least when the effect is not too rustic. At the other end of the scale, I am making an effort too to get more involved with blanc de blancs wines too - the most exciting so far has probably been Billiot's NV Cuvee Laetitia.

I have been sampling some of the moderately sized houses I haven't tangled with much before, like Henriot, Jacquesson and Deutz who all produce good stuff, and everybody agrees the last particularly is on the way up since its acquisition by Roederer in 1993.

One oddity with Champagne is this business of disgorgement, the time at which the lees of the secondary fermentation are removed from the bottle. Late disgorged wines are supposed to pick up more of the yeasty ("autolytic") bready notes and the wine also ages differently and apparently more slowly while still on the lees. On the other hand, many believe that late disgorged wines that have been on their lees for a decade or more are best drunk relatively soon after bottling. It is an important point, particularly if you are sitting on cellared bottles of Bollinger R.D. or Moet's DP Oenotheque releases - it's probably the standard vintage bottlings that are the best bet for long-term keeping.

On practical matters, I have decided I am not so keen on Riedel's Champagne glasses having - the wine has more presence drunk from an ordinary wine glass although these somehow detract from the full fizz experience. I have now bought a couple of Spiegelau glasses which while clearly flutes are quite wide in the middle and seem to be a good compromise. Finally, my Champagne opening tip (learnt from my father years ago) that doesn't appear in the usual sources: untwist the wire cage but leave it on the cork - it provides a much better grip, particularly for the occasional bottle where the cork really does not want to come out.

Article added to Fine Wine Diary 01/05/2005   Return to top