Champagne: What have they got to hide?
Monday 21 June
What is it with Champagne houses being so secretive?
I was recently researching ferment temperatures and yeast selection (God, my life’s exciting) and asked a couple of Champagne houses if they could tell me. I added that the information would be purely for my MW studies and go no further then me, myself and I.
I managed to get the information on ferment temperatures from Veuve Clicquot’s winemaker but when asked his annual production, he said they ‘preferred to talk about quality not quantity’. What a cop out. It’s all about protecting the exclusivity of the product, I guess. Let’s face it, there’s an awful lot of Champagne made, yet they like to create an aura that there’s not enough to go around.
Similarly I put the request in to Laurent Perrier and was flatly refused. “Usually the wine making is not something our cellar master discusses preferring to focus on the end result,” the said.
What a load of cobblers. What do they think is going to happen? Someone’s going to steal their recipe? Hardly.
I had a moan to Ben Portet, winemaker at his father’s winery, Dominique Portet, in the Yarra Valley. Portet has done several vintages in Champagne and makes his own sparkling wines. He had had a similar experience but was more than willing to share his winemaking methods with me from the yeasts he uses (E118 Prise de Mousse, for all you geeks) to adding red wine at 400g/l of residual sugar in the liqueur de dosage at bottling for his sparkling rosé. If only the Champenois were so relaxed about revealing their methods. That’s big business for you. And it sucks.
Study Facts or Fiction?
Wednesday 2 June
Master of Wine students will be sitting their exams this week. Thank God I’ve decided not to sit this year as I’ve got a stinking cold – I can’t taste or smell a thing. For those who are taking the four-day nightmare that is the MW exam, good luck to you and, I hope you haven’t got the lurgy. Speaking to a few fellow students, I know they just want it all to be over so they can get their lives back.
On twitter there’s now a hashtag for all the MW students called #MWStudyFacts. If you have a geeky fact, it’s the place to post it.
Following the recent Veuve Clicquot tasting I attended, a Study Fact I learned many moons ago has been upended.
My trusty old Wine and Spirit Eductation Trust Advanced book tells me that non-vintage Champagne must spend 15 months maturing on lees (dead yeast cells) after the second fermentation, giving the distinct biscuitty/yeasty note to the wine. Wikipedia (not exactly the most reliable source) also says 15 months on lees is required.
But Veuve Clicquot’s winemaker, Francois Hautekeur, says this is incorrect. “The laws say it is 15 months between bottling and selling, including a minimum of 12 months on lees and three months for the sugar from the dosage to integrate.” So, for the past five years, have I been misled? Seems so.
Of course, most Champagne houses worth their weight would leave the wine on lees for longer eg 24 months for non-vintage at Veuve but there are surely others who are less scrupulous.
World Cup dreams for Veuve Clicquot winemaker
Sunday 30 May
Rugby-loving winemakers are looking for an excuse to be in New Zealand for the 2011 World Cup. Francois Hautekeur, winemaker at Veuve Clicquot, is a French rugby nut and would love to be at the France vs. All Blacks match in September. So, if anyone at LVMH is reading, I think a reconnaissance mission to Clicquot’s New Zealand stablemate Cloudy Bay is in order.
Hautekeur was in Auckland last night running an ‘Art of Blending’ masterclass but he was a year too early for rugby’s flagship tournament.
Why the Art of Blending? At Veuve Cliquot, there are 850 tanks filled with potential wines that make up the final blend of its non-vintage yellow label. That’s a lot of tanks. We tried six samples and, quite frankly, that was enough to have you reaching for the Rennies thanks to the eyewatering acids.
This was the first time its base wines were available to taste in New Zealand. “It is rare that the base wines leave the winery,” admitted Hautekeur.
The idea of tasting base wines is to understand what a still Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier taste like before they are blended together and go through the secondary fermentation in bottle which creates the bubbles. The fermentation in bottle also adds an extra 1% alcohol, apparently. I hadn’t heard this one before but every day’s a school day.
So, what do they all bring? The Pinot Noir gives flesh and volume to a Champagne. The ‘09 example from Verzy was closed at the moment but had pear, citrus and stoney notes. But it’s all about the weight and texture it gives to the final blend, which is usually around 50-57% in the Yellow Label NV.
Chardonnay provides “backbone”. What does this mean? It’s not as fleshy as Pinot Noir and gives a cleansing citrus note on the tongue. We tried the 09 Chardonnay from the village of Cramant and it smelled of chalk, lemons and white flowers. It was feminine with a lovely long finish. An older Chardonnay base wine from 2000 was lean and minerally with white stoned fruit and butterscotch.
The Pinot Meunier is “hyper aromatic”, full of fruit from pineapple and pear drops to red cherry and stoned fruit. It lacks length, however and is usually a minor part of the blend.
More on Champagne in my next blog.
Save the Wine Column: it’s more than saving a column
Sunday 14 February
Those of you not yet signed up to the Save the Wine column campaign on Facebook, shame on you! At the last count we had 679 members and some pretty passionate comments.
I set the group up last week and didn’t realise quite how heated things would get. The loss of wine columns is a worldwide trend as seen by the number of international members getting involved from France to Canada, the US and New Zealand.
Champenois, Gilles Dumangin, said “First thing I buy when I arrive in the UK on regular visits is the Observer… Not anymore.”
UK-based Colin Smith, commented: “My Sundays will never be the same without a browse of Tim’s column in the Observer. What next? No Nigel Slater?”
But the campaign has unearthed the wider debate of the traditional print media and falling advertising revenues.
As more and more content shifts on-line, can the print media survive? They will co-exist for a time. I continue to earn my money from print media while blogging, tweeting and running a Facebook campaign so I’m in the game when my main source of income erodes. I sincerely hope that doesn’t happen but the prognosis isn’t promising. Personally, I’m a big fan of leafing my way through a magazine, rather than squinting at a computer screen and I’m sure I’m not alone.
But Olly Wehring, editor of online news site just-drinks.com, was not optimistic of the chances of saving our wine columns: “The move to cut back wine columns in national newspapers serves only as an indication that the times, they are a-changin’. To argue for the survival of something that is clearly on its way out is like trying to get toothpaste back in the tube,” he wrote.
Clearly advertising has fallen in the past 18 months with a number of magazines I write for combining (ie dropping) issues due to a lack of advertising. How to get wine companies to stump up for advertising or partnerships with magazines and newspapers is a real issue in the age of free vehicles like twitter.
Rob McIntosh, a blogger and social media expert also brought up the subject of advertising: “The number of column inches available are not related to the quality of the writing, they are about a chase for the quality dollars (or pounds). There simply isn’t the same advertising revenue from wine columns as for cars, travel,” he said. “There may be more consumers buying wine, but they are not necessarily doing so on the advice of wine columns in newspapers. Ironically, the editors’ attempts to address that (turning columns into shopping lists) reduces the value and interest of the column.”
Lanson, ‘99 claret and a pint of beer
Tuesday 23 June
I’m having a couple of days off after a 14-day working marathon but there’s still time to update my blog…
Champagne Lanson launched its new Extra Age Brut at Vinexpo and Wimbledon this week
The new blend has been release ahead of the company’s 250th anniversary in 2010 and, in keeping with the house style, hasn’t undergone any malolactic fermentation. It’s a blend of 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay from Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards, and takes parcels from the 1999, 2002 and 2003 vintages. All the wines in the blend have undergone at least five years on lees and it’s incredibly yeasty, almost mushroomy.
My tasting notes said: “Round and developed. Baked apple, Christmas cake fruit, and almonds on the nose. Lovely concentration and definition in the mouth with fresh acidity.”
It’ll set you back fifty of your finest English pounds but I think that’s fair. I’ve been watching Lanson closely for the past year and they’ve been steadily upping their profile and have just launched a major consumer campaign. We’ll see if that translates into sales.
On a completely different theme…Here’s a quick update from the 1999 Bordeaux tasting on my last post. All participants were asked to mark their favourites with Ch. Latour, Lafite, Palmer and Lafleur coming out victorious with Ausone and Vieux Chateau Certan runners up.
Interestingly, two wines that were, in my opinion, spoiled by brettanomyces made it into the best value category (Gruaud-Larose and Haut Bailly). It seems that other people like that farmyardy aroma it gives off but it was way too overpowering for me. Perhaps I’m getting too pernickety – I blame this darn Master of Wine course.
Now, back to wee break: mostly getting sunburnt in Greenwich Park and drinking Deuchar’s IPA. Life is good.