Newsletter December 2020
Recently a prominent wine critic published his 2020 champagne report, boasting that he had tasted 600 champagnes and picked out the best for his subscribers. In consideration that the same tester covers the following regions: Bordeaux, Piemont, California and Tuscany. One does not know, if one should feel grateful for his sacrifice or pity for his hubris.
In the past I have in some years tasted up to 4000-5000 wines and champagnes in a year. What one learns from such tastings is how to evaluate a wine quickly and superficially. The soul of the wines and champagnes however cannot be assessed in my opinion in depth and points and tasting notes, with their fruit salad and floral descriptions ultimately can only be taken as a snapshot of the wine or champagne in a very limited time frame.
2020 changed for me the way we taste new releases. Instead of visiting professional tastings and tasting en masse, we have tasted the champagnes as they have arrived, drunk over a prolongued period of time, with and without food and probably got to know champagnes better, that would not have shined in a large tasting events, where the flashy and most exuberant bottles usually come out on top and those that need time to unfold, do not get the recognition they deserve.
In this newsletter I want to highlight champagnes that have particularly impressed me this year and believe offer great value. To better understand the champagnes I have highlighted them in categories which are particularly relevant to the Champagne region and may be useful in understanding their uniqueness.
As the approach of a vaccine for covid and a return to what is considered normal seems imminent, it seems our visionless politicians will breath a sigh of relief and return to their old ways without addressing the underlying issues that caused the whole disaster in the first place. It is easy to write off bio dynamics as hocus pocus and unscientific, yet when one looks at farmers or in my case champagner producers who work within biodynamc parameters, one cannot help but notice their plants are healthier and disease resistant, their soils fertiler and the ecosystems within their vineyards host a multitude of plants, insect and birds which cannot be found in the monosystematic vineyards supported by chemicals.
A lot of producers talk of the green harvest in positive terms. In vineyards where chemicals are used, the vines produce too many grapes due to the success ot the chemicals used which in turn leads to diluted wines. To counteract this, the producer does a green harvest, meaning they cut off a third or a quarter of the grapes hanging on the vines, resulting in the remaining grapes becoming more concentrated. Imagine buying a chicken and cutting off one leg so the rest of the meat becomes juicier, the idea is ridiculous. Bio-dynamic producers allow the vines to produce the natural amount of grapes, no green harvest is required or in other words no waste of resources.
L'Atavique Extra Brut 27,95 €
Terroir-Champagnes and blended Champagnes
In the wine world in general there are two types of wines. Terroir wines/champagnes, where the producer attempts to express in the best possible way the idiosyncracies of the site with all its positive and negative attritubes. With blended wines or champagnes the producer attempts to make the best possible wine or champagnes with the best possible grapes regardless of where they come from, individuality is sacrificed for homogeneity. Burgundy is the paragon in the search for the ultimate expression of terroir. Bordeaux the peer in the art of blending.
Champagne for a long time followed the Bordeaux model. The master blenders of the champagne houses understood the specifics of each site in the Champagne region and new how to blend these into masterworks, sometimes using as much as 200 different ground wines to create a cuvée.
Over the last thirty-forty years we have witnessed the emergence of small prodcuers, who follow the burgundian model and rather than create blends, want to allow the site to express itself.
Both blends and terroir champagnes are legimitate. The Champagne possesses sites capable of producing fantastic crus but also many sites which alone do not have the potential and are better suited for blending. Ultimately the drinker has to ask themsleves what they want. Terroir, individuality with all its ups and downs or constancy and homogeneity.
The Champagne region lies in the Paris Basin, where chalk is predominant. Chalk is the driving force behind champagne and what makes the areas so unique. To really get to grips with the region, the best way is to understand the differences in the soil types, first broadly, and then in more detail.
Generally we can say the Côte de Blancs is dominated by chalk where chardonnay fares best, the Montagne de Reims with clay, where Pinot Noir flourishes, the Valle de Marne with more sandy soils where Meunier works best. Then within these regions their is great diversity of the composition of soils. For instance in Verzy in the Montagne de Reims, their is clay, limestone, chalk, sand, silex etc etc. This plethora of terroirs in turns leads to unlimited potential for terroir champagnes. Unlke Burgundy, where thanks to the cistercians, the individual terroirs have been explored for centuries, in the Chamapgne we are in an embryonic state. Producers are at the beginning of a journey that will out last our lifetimes on discovering the idiosyncraticism of their holdings. Unlike Burgundy in the Champagne we have the chance to witness this evolution.
Champagner Prisme .15 100% Grand Cru Guiborat 39,95 €
L'Ineffable Blanc de Noirs Mouzon-Leroux 35,95 €
Reserve wines play an integral part in the production of champagne; they guarantee a continuity in quality in the blending process of non vintage champagnes and give the producer an ingredient to play with when creating blends. The classic term is reserve wine or vin perpétuelle. Simply explained, the producer has for instance a barrel where a part of the current vintage is added to aged vintages (fractional blending). Usually when making new blends, a third of the reserve wine is taken from the barrel to add to the new blend and this third is replaced with wines from the new vintage.
This blending process has two distinct advantages: a continuity of quality meaning the producer can compensate weaker vintages by adjusting the amount of reserve wines added to the blend and secondly to blends made with younger vintages the reserve wines give body and depth and counterpoints the freshness.
It has become fashionable to replace the term vin perpétuelle with the term solera. The solera system derives from sherry making, where oxadition plays a big role and here confusion arises.
There are producers, most notably Selosse, who pioneered and uses the solera system in the sherry sense and oxidation plays a big part in his champagnes and then there are many producers, who use the term Solera for what in fact is a vin perpétuelle.
Oxidation in wines is either something you like or dislike. The champagne critic Tyson Stelzer is no fan, he writes of Jacques Selosse „Regrettably, his approach too often pushes his wines beyond the realms of sound champagne and into the outer limits of oxidation.“ You can agree or disagree with this statement.
From my point of view oxidation adds a dimension of complexity to the champagnes and makes them an excellent partner for a variety of foods. As with the oxidative wines of the Jura, you have to think beyond the oxidation, this takes a certian amount of practice but the rewards are immense.
The greatest difficulty with oxidation in Champagnes is retaining freshness.
R. Pouillon & Fils Solera Premier Cru Extra Brut 49,50 €
Bereche et Fils Reflet d'Antan Brut 89,95 €
Huré Freres Mèmoire Extra Brut 45,00 €