It is 1988 and I am the narrator in the school’s Christmas play. I have an argument on stage with the grandfather clock over his lines while Christian Bizot, the head of Champagne house Bollinger is doing something far more worthy: setting up the Madame Bollinger Foundation. It was formed in memory of Elisabeth …
New Zealand sparkling wine has great potential: vintage Pelorus, No. 1 Family Estate and older vintages of both Deutz and Daniel Le Brun show that when it’s good, it’s very, very good.
But if New Zealand is such a perfect place to make sparkling wine, why have the major Champagne wine houses not arrived? Admittedly, Moet Hennessy-owned Cloudy Bay produces Pelorus but beyond that, where are Taittinger, Roederer, Mumm and friends? They’re all in California – as are the major Cava producers.
Is it a question of our climate, soils or know-how? It’s probably the fact that New Zealand’s at the end of the earth. Next stop, penguins and polar bears. Plus, there are little more than 4 million people here, making the domestic market not half as attractive as the United States.
Nevertheless, there’s a tendency to compare New Zealand sparkling wine to Champagne. Benchmarking is only natural but let’s look at the figures: there are just over 35,000 hectares of vines across the whole of New Zealand: nearly 60% of plantings are dedicated to Sauvignon Blanc, followed by Pinot Noir mainly destined for red table wine, Chardonnay – mostly for still white wine, and pinot gris. The Champagne region has 35,000 hectares dedicated almost exclusively to producing sparkling varieties.
What’s more, there are just four producers dedicated solely to methode traditionelle sparkling wine in New Zealand. In Champagne, there are thousands of growers and hundreds of houses. Champagne is apples and New Zealand is pears – or kiwis.
If the country wants to be known for its high-quality sparkling wine, it’s going to need more than a small handful of producers focusing solely on the pursuit of beautiful bubbles. But that needs time and money, which many producers don’t have in abundance.
Nevertheless, a small group of producers in Marlborough have set up an association in a bid to take this category more seriously. Established in August, 2013, there are 11 founding members. Members of Methode Marlborough must make sparkling wine from the three Champagne varieties – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier – and the wines must spend 18 months on lees before disgorgement. It’s well intentioned and a good starting point although I would like to see the group grow to encompass other methode makers around New Zealand.
What’s more, there’s no minimum quality level. Surely, there should be an independent tasting panel of some sort to ensure that this group has the goods it needs to be taken seriously? But it’s still early days and these suggestions might already be on the cards. I wish them luck and hope that more New Zealand wine producers will fulfil the potential a small handful of Kiwi methode makers have shown.
Champagne house Bruno Paillard has come out in praise of Krug’s decision to put disgorgement dates on their bottles.
Disgorgement is the process whereby the dead yeast cells that fall to the bottom of the bottle following the bubble-inducing second fermentation, are removed before finishing the wine, sealing it with a cork and sending it to market.
Those wines that have been disgorged more recently tend to be fresher but it isn’t necessarily so. A wine that was disgorged a year ago and spent the last 12 months on a warm shop shelf will not be as fresh as a wine that was disgorged two years ago and spent the next period in a cool, dark cellar.
However, Pailard is ecstatic at Krug’s news. “Tremendous! At last the fact that the wine evolves after disgorgement is recognized,” Paillard announced in a press release. The producer, founded in 1981, has been putting disgorgement dates on its wine labels for the past 30 years.
“I can only be glad to see that such a house as Krug who I respect – such as before them, Philipponnat, Charles Heidsieck, Lanson and a few small growers – at last recognised that importance of this information for connoisseurs,” added Paillard.
It will also be music to the ears of Antonio Galloni, who reviews Champagne for Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate. He has announced that he will no longer review non vintage Champagnes that do not list disgorgement dates.
“If I rate producer X’s nonvintage Champagne highly, I want to know that my readers are going to be able to find the same wine,” reported the New York Times. “Without a unique identifier, which would be a vintage in any other wine, there simply is no way for the consumer to know they are buying the same wine.”
If you’re a wine connoisseur, and lap up extra information like a camel at an oasis, disgorgement dates could be of interest. But to many consumers, it adds yet another layer of confusion to the mysterious world of wine.
Laurent D’Harcourt, export director at Pol Roger agrees. “Sometimes it is a bit confusing. I think what is important is to have good distribution with good stock rotation.
“Charles Heidsieck puts the date of bottling and the date of disgorgement [on the label] and then it says it’s a non vintage. It’s a bit confusing.”
Indeed, I have to agree.
And Champagne houses are disgorging regularly – Pol disgorges every three months – which would make labelling each batch separately a bit of a headache in my opinion. Pol then lets the wine marry with the liqueur de dosage – a mixture of reserve wine and sugar – for three months in the cellar before release.
So, there are many variables when it comes to disgorgement, so it is difficult to say whether it will make us any better informed. It also seems to be a lot of effort for the benefit of a small number of people.
To make matters even more complicated, Taittinger is planning to add a smart phone code to their label so consumers can find out the base vintage of the champagne. Whatever happened to the principle, Keep It Simple Stupid?
Global warming doubters should head to Champagne where climate change is undoubtedly occurring. Following one of the earliest harvests on record in 2011, the Champagne region was hit hard by frost in April.
Speaking to Michel Drappier this week, the “manager, secretary, and babysitter” of Champagne Drappier, he admitted the region had been “badly hit”.
In terms of volume reduction, he said: “It could be 10, 15, 20 or 25 percent but we don’t know yet because we had a hot period in March and had an early budburst. The frost arrived and since then growth has been very slow because it has been cold.” However, Drappier isn’t worried about supplies running short – there is plenty of reserve wine in the region’s cellars.
But quality is a concern: “When you have frost the second budburst is not of the same quality. Vineyards are weaker against mildews and botrytis. When Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are badly frosted the shoots are more fragile. They are not as well fed by the sap, so that may affect the quality of the grape to the end.”
Looking back to the 2011 vintage, one of the earliest on record, it raises further questions about the consequences of global warming. “The climate has changed for sure because on average harvest would be September 22, but now the average is September 10,” he notes.
The Champagne house harvested its first crop in on August 21 1821, so early vintages are not totally unknown but at that time, yields were much lower, so the fruit ripened more quickly.
In terms of grape analysis, acids have fallen in recent years, according to Drappier but pH, which is crucial for wine stability, has altered little due to earlier harvest dates. And when it comes to wine’s sweetness level, the extra ripeness of the fruit means the sugar content in the liqueur de dosage is falling. (Consumers also seem to be moving toward Champagnes with a lower dosage.)
What’s more, climate change could alter the mix of varieties in the region. Currently Pinot Noir is the most-planted variety (39% of plantings), followed by Pinot Meunier (33%) and Chardonnay (28%). Yet, a little-planted variety, Arbanne, which along with Petit Meslier, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris make up 0.3% of total plantings in the Champagne region, may have a greater role to play in the future. Arbanne is a late ripening variety with high acidity and plenty of elegance, according to Drappier. I checked Oz Clarke’s Grapes and Wines, and the Oxford Companion to find out more about this little known variety but it didn’t get a mention! We’ll have to take Michel’s word for its characteristics.
Petit Meslier, another marginal variety, which is most commonly found in the Marne valley is also ripening more reliable too so it may have a greater role to play in the future. Both varieties are included in Drappier’s Blanc de Quatre Blancs. Unfortunately, it’s sold out in New Zealand so I’m going to have to wait for my first taste until the next shipment arrives.
Alas I am no longer the current Louis Roederer Emerging Wine Writer of the Year. That’s what happens with annual awards. You’re soon so last year!
But congratulations to Gabby Savage, deputy editor at the Drinks Business taking this year’s crown. Well deserved. She came to Harpers magazine when I was features editor on a work experience placement. A few months later, a staff writing job came up at the Drinks Business and she got it. She was quickly promoted to deputy editor when Jane Parkinson left the team, and she’s had her nose to the grindstone since. Well done. Spend your winnings unwisely!
Nice to see a few international writers getting on the winner’s podium this year. The competition has been accused of being UK-centric so it’s good to see US writer and natural wine supporter, Alice Feiring becoming online columnist/blogger of the year, Max Allen wine wine book of the year for The Future Makers: Australian Wine for the 21st Century and fellow Australian Tyson Stelzer win the Champagne writer of the year for his Champagne Guide 2011 eBook.
The other winners were…
The Artistry of Wine Award
International Wine Website of the Year
Tim Atkin M.W. for timatkin.com
International Wine Publication of the Year
The World of Fine Wine
Regional Wine Writer of the Year
Liz Sagues for the Hampstead & Highgate Express
International Wine Columnist of the Year
Victoria Moore for articles from the Guardian/ the Telegraph
International Wine Feature Writer of the Year
Andrew Jefford for articles from The World of Fine Wine and Decanter
French producers started to return to their estates this week after their annual August holidays. I was on the news desk at Decanter.com and here’s the highlights of this week’s news.
It was a busier week than anticipated with the harvest beginning unusually early in Bordeaux. Sauternes star Chateau d’Yquem and rose producer Chateau de Sours started to pick the first grapes on Wednesday.
On Friday. Champagne producers in a number of villages were also permitted to start the harvest. The only harvest that has ever been earlier was the sweltering 2003 vintage. Grape growers and Champagne houses came to a compromise to allow 12,500kg to be harvested per hectare this year – more than 20% up on 2010, in response to growing demand
Heading to the southern hemisphere, New Zealand was covered in snow. The white stuff even fell in Auckland for the first time since 1939. Unhappily for one winery, it wasn’t just the weather that was gloomy. Gisborne winery Amor Bendall has gone into liquidation. The company has faltered amid the oversupply situation, the strength of the New Zealand dollar, and tough competition. The question is, who’s the next victim?
Over the Tasman, Australia is also struggling with its oversupply problems, and change is not happening fast enough, according to its generic body, Wine Australia. Its chief executive has been brutally honest, admiting many players are still in denial that the problem is long-term and requires major change. The new realities reshaping the industry include depressed trading conditions in its two main export markets: the US and the UK; the continued strength of the Australian dollar, higher production costs and tougher competition in all markets. Bulk wine sales and ‘opportunistic brand trading’ have also eroded margins, said Wine Australia’s Andrew Cheesman.
August is a quiet month for the wine industry – most of France, Italy and Spain go on holiday. Yet, there’s been plenty to write about this week at Decanter.com, where I’m acting as news and commissioning editor. So here’s a digest of the main news stories in the wine industry this week…
The Champenois have announced the yield for the 2011 vintage – 12,500kg – which is approximately 20% more than last year due to increased demand for bubbly. The Champagne houses wanted a higher yield with their sales up 13% last year but the growers weren’t so keen, and this was the compromise.
The Champagne region is now recovering from a blip during the economic crash of late 2008 and if sales continue on the upward curve it is now on, they’ll have a shortage. The industry is currently undertaking research to figures out a way to manage supply and demand. With a restricted area that is planted to bursting point, they will struggle to make more, so it will be interesting to see what solution they come up with.
In Burgundy, five grands crus vineyards are banning the use of machine harvesting from the coming vintage. I spoke to president of the Union of Burgundy Grands Crus, Louis-Michel Liger-Belair, during his holiday in Tuscany to ask him why they’d done this. There are 5% of the grands crus that use machines and it gives us a bad image. Hand harvesting does cost a bit more but the quality is much better,’ he said.
At the end of the week, Domaine de l’Arlot’s winemaker of 13 years has also left to establish his own domaine down in the Ardeche. More on that next week, I hope.
Over in the US, there have been acquisitions aplenty. At the start of the week, Fiji water billionaire, Stewart Resnick bought Chardonnay specialist Landmark Vineyards of Sonoma. It’s the second purchase for his company Roll Global in eight months.
Roll Global is one to watch, as is Alejandro Bulgheroni. While most magazines reported his acquisition of Renwood Vineyard from the company’s press release, there seemed to be more to this one. A 20-minute chat with Alejandro, revealed he was not only a charming businessman that has made his millions in oil and gas, he’s also got grand designs for a wine empire, aspiring to run six wineries, including what’s thought to be the world’s southernmost vineyard.
London rioters stormed Michelin-star restaurant The Ledbury at the start of the week, smashing windows and stealing personal items from customers. The Ledbury’s kitchen staff managed to chase away the rioters, armed with a variety of kitchen items. While it must have been terrifying for diners, The Ledbury offered them all Champagne to ease their anxiety.
Further restaurant news in London: Spanish chef Jose Pizarro will be opening a Cava bar at his new restaurant Pizarro. It is in Bermondsey Street – the same road as his newly-opened tapas and sherry bar. It should open in October. Should….
Didier Mariotti wanted to be a brewer but ended up as chief winemaker at Mumm Champagne. I guess they’re not too dissimiliar: yeast, sugar and bubbles. But the Corsican-born Mariotti was perhaps always destined for wine. His grandmother’s brother was Burgundy winemaker Charles Rousseau of the great Domaine Rousseau and his cousin is Eric Rousseau, current winemaker at Domaine Rousseau with whom he swaps Champagne in exchange for Grand Cru Burgundy. We all need cousins like that.
Didier was on holiday in New Zealand but gave up one of his precious days to launch the 1999 Cuvee Lalou, Mumm’s prestige cuvee, in Auckland. The poor guy had to sit next to me badgering him with technical questions with just eight weeks to go until the Master of Wine exam. He said he was going to go for a nana nap after the lunch – I must have worn him out.
While the organisers of the tasting had decided to centre the tasting around how the wine changed in structure between two different serving temperatures, I was keen to know more about rosé Champagne.
Rosé Champagne is the only European wine permitted to blend red wine with white wine to make a pink. Everyone else has to use the saignee a.k.a bleeding off method.
Most houses add a proportion of red wine to their ‘normal’ NV brut cuvee to make rosé. The more red wine you use, the greater the colour, structure and red fruit character. Bollinger uses just 5-6% red wine in its rosé and it is pale – a tinted white as opposed to a red fruited rosé. Mumm has 12% red wine in its rosé and, one-quarter of Piper Heidsieck’s Rosé Sauvage is actually red wine making a deeply coloured, powerful and aromatic pink.
So, why don’t more people use the saignée method in Champagne? Mariotti explained: “It is difficult to control the colour with saignée. It’s ok for making small volumes of wine but with larger volumes you need to maintain the consistency of the colour through the blending of the red into weight.”
Has biodynamics and organics become mainstream? The holistic approaches to grape growing are becoming more popular. They still represent a minority of vineyards but even the most traditional producers are starting to experiment.
In the news this week: Champagne producer Lanson starts dabbling in biodynamics and New Zealand aims for 20% of vineyard to be organic by 2020. If you’d predicted this 10 years ago, you would have been called a loon.
Yes, Lanson has purchased 14ha of biodynamic vineyards in the Marne Valley and Louis Roederer has bought 2ha of biodynamic vineyards in the same region. Conveniently, both sites are already certified so they don’t have to go through the drawn-out conversion process but it will represent a challenge for companies that are better known for buying the grapes to make wine rather than tending the vines.
In the same week, a group of New Zealand producers has announced that it hopes 20% of the country’s vineyard will be certified organic by 2020. It’s an admirable aim but it’s a big ask considering only 4.5% of NZ’s vineyards are certified organic at the moment.
I wonder what the herbicide, pesticide and fungicide manufacturers are thinking? I don’t think they’ll be quaking in their boots quite yet. And, even if producers do look to go organic or biodynamic, they’ll still be using sulphur and copper sulphate for powdery and downy mildew respectively.
Chemical companies would be smart to adapt to the changing attitudes toward chemical intervention by producing biodynamic preparations on a commercial scale. Or, will we see what’s happening in the on-trade with the drinks major companies offering no-interest loans and cash incentives to stock their products?
I have a fuzzy head. It’s no surprise – an evening with Louis Roederer and Cristal flowing will inevitably end in feeling jaded the next day. Happily, I woke up to the pleasant reality that I was now the Louis Roederer Emerging Wine Writer of the Year, which alleviated the headache – as did a couple of ibuprofen.
It was my last night in the UK before I head back to New Zealand, and the top floor of the Gherkin (or the Artichoke as my sister called it) is an amazing place to sup Champagne with 360 degree views of London town.
It was made even better when I won the Emerging Award. You work your ass off as a young freelancer to gain credibility – and make a living – and it’s great to gain acknowledgement from the industry. The £1500 prize is also helpful. I have already spent it twice over in my head.
Fellow northerners had a good night. Simon Woods walked away with the International Online Columnist of the Year and Tom Bruce-Gardyne from bonnie Scotland won the Regional title.
Other winners were…the FT’s John Stimpfig for International Wine Feature Writer of the Year, jancisrobinson.com taking International Wine Website of the Year and The World of Fine Wine taking International Wine Publication of the year.
Back to NZ now with a day in Hong Kong to check out what’s happening in the Asian wine world.