Monday, January 27, 2014

The Tapestry of Champagne [WS]

It's all in the details for these benchmark sparkling wines
Alison Napjus
Issue: December 31, 2011

A fine Champagne illustrates the art of blending. The chef de cave weaves together a variety of different base wines-hundreds in some cases-to produce the final bottling. Each base wine has its own strength and character, yet the finished product is seamlessly integrated. Champagne's beauty is truly not skin-deep.

In this sense, the wines of Champagne are a metaphor for the region as a whole. Behind the outward face of high-end bottlings, luxury and glamour lies a tightly knit community of farmers, vintners, marketers, businessmen and others, each performing a distinct role in creating the world's preeminent sparkling wine region. This is the tapestry of Champagne: individuals dedicated as a group to preserving the region's traditions and honoring its past, while also ensuring Champagne's success well into the future.

It's a complex balancing act. Small growers work alongside and with the big houses. They tend a mix of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier vines, planted on rolling hills that give way to the dramatic gradients of coveted vineyard sites. And the region's 84,000 acres under vine encompass an extremely diverse mix of soils and microclimates, from those at the northernmost limit of wine production to the more southern area of Aube, which enjoys a warmer continental climate well-suited to ripening the fickle Pinot Noir grape. This diversity is on display in the wines, and exploring the many styles is surely the most approachable and enjoyable path to understanding this unique region.

Since our last report ("Cause for Celebration," Dec. 31, 2010 - Jan. 15, 2011), I have reviewed more than 350 wines in blind tastings in our New York office. Few wine regions can consistently boast the across-the-board quality of Champagne, with this report finding 10 wines earning classic scores (95 to 100 points on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale) and the vast majority of the remainder, 90 percent, receiving scores in the outstanding range of 90 to 94 points. (A free alphabetical list of scores and prices for all wines tasted is available.)

The 10 wines at the pinnacle come from four producers; both vintage and non-vintage, all are currently available. Perennial leader Krug strikes again with this report's highest rating, 98 points, for its 1998 Brut Blanc de Blancs Clos du Mesnil ($849). This wine is beautifully crafted, an exercise in finesse and balance, and has only improved since its initial release in 2009.

Impressively, Krug earned five additional classic ratings this year. Two of the wines are also from the elegant 1998 vintage: the focused Brut (97 points, $279) and the powerful Brut Blanc de Noirs Clos d'Ambonnay (96, $2,549), made entirely from Pinot Noir from Krug's 1.7-acre Clos d'Ambonnay vineyard. The rich and aromatic 2000 Brut Blanc de Blancs Clos du Mesnil joins the Brut at 97 points ($979), while the house's two non-vintage cuvées each earned 95 points. The Brut Rosé NV ($299) is firm and mouthwatering, while the Brut Grande Cuvée NV ($169) partners power and grace. Sharing the spotlight with the Krug bottlings, Henriot offers its beautifully balanced Brut Champagne Cuvée des Enchanteleurs 1998 (95, $199) and Ruinart its Brut Dom Ruinart 2002 (95, $130), the latter harmonious and lacy, made from 100 percent Chardonnay (although not labeled as blanc de blancs).

Not least, one of the region's top grower-estates, Vilmart & Cie, received 95 points for both its 2000 Brut Cuvée Création ($141) and 2002 Coeur de Cuvée ($153). Vilmart's Laurent Champs utilizes 228-liter Burgundy barrels, two to four years old, to ferment and age his base wines for these high-scoring Champagnes. Over the past decade, Champs' vintage Champagnes have almost always been outstanding, but this year's releases show that he has really found the sweet spot in balancing the distinctive richness and exotic spice character that the oak imparts.

The 2002s from Ruinart and Vilmart illustrate the strength of this powerful vintage, whose top wines typically show fine balance and intense acidity partnered with ripe fruit and rich texture. For many producers, the year is the current release in the marketplace.

Other standouts from 2002 include more affordable offerings such as Philippe Prié's well-cut Brut 2002 (93, $59) and the rich Brut Vieilles Vignes from Le Brun Servenay (94, $90). At higher price-points are Bollinger's subtle-textured Brut La Grande Année (94, $125), an oak-fermented and oak-aged blend of the house's best barrels from 2002, and Perrier-Jouët's Brut Blanc de Blancs Fleur de Champagne Cuvée Belle Epoque 2002 (94, $350), a lively and graceful wine. Hervé Deschamps, chef de cave at Perrier-Jouët, attributes its success with the vintage to a windy period prior to harvest that concentrated the grapes' ripeness and acidity.

Along with 2002, the bulk of available vintage Champagne comes from 2004, another excellent year. After a cool, wet August, this vintage was saved by near-ideal weather during harvest. The resulting wines consistently partner ripe fruit with good, balancing acidity, making them approachable from the get-go. As an added bonus, the year produced a banner crop in Champagne, one of the largest in the past couple of decades, so there should be plenty of 2004s to go around.

Among the 2004s currently available, seek out Piper-Heidsieck's rich and toasty Brut (94, $75), the top-scoring '04 in this report. At 93 points, several grower-estates produced distinctive offerings, including L. Aubry Fils' vibrant Brut Le Nombre d'Or Campanae Veteres Vites ($68), made from Champagne's ancient varieties of Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Petit Meslier and others; Pierre Gimonnet & Fils' subtle Brut Paradoxe ($88); and Pierre Moncuit's finely meshed Brut Blanc de Blancs ($60). And three of Champagne's larger houses stood out for their outstanding examples in 2004, also at 93 points: Drappier's Brut Grande Sendrée ($86) is a vibrant, toasty version; Veuve Clicquot's Brut ($75) is refined and graceful; and Taittinger's Brut Rosé Comtes de Champagne ($220) is a rich rosé well-suited to food.

While vintage bottlings are often the pride of a house and a highlight for any Champagne lover, it is the non-vintage bottlings, which are more widely produced, that some argue are the better judge of a house's or a grower's overall character.

The majority of the blend for most non-vintage Champagnes is based on two to three recent vintages, mixed with some percentage of "réserve" wines from older-sometimes much older-vintages. The goal of the chef de cave is to produce a consistent style for his non-vintage Champagne from year to year, despite the variety in the characters of the vintages going into the blend. Although the base years may differ depending on the resources of a grower or house, many non-vintage Champagnes currently available at retail and in restaurants are based primarily on the 2008, 2007 and 2006 vintages, in varying percentages. This is promising, because while 2007 is a somewhat variable vintage, both 2006 and 2008 are excellent years.

This promise has been realized in the results, with 87 percent of the more than 230 non-vintage wines I reviewed receiving scores of 90 points or higher. Of those wines, several were notable for their balance and refined textures, often offering good value for such high quality.

On the heels of Krug's 95-point non-vintage wines, Gosset stands out for its Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs Celebris NV (94, $208), a beautiful Champagne with fine definition and detail. At just a notch below, 10 wines in the non-vintage category received scores of 93 points, representing a mix of different styles-brut, brut blanc de blancs and brut rosé-and a variety of houses: Henri Billiot & Fils, Bollinger, Diebolt-Vallois, Alfred Gratien, Charles Heidsieck, Henriot, Jean Laurent and Piper-Heidsieck. Among these estates, Henriot made a particularly well-priced bubbly, the fresh and juicy Brut Souverain NV ($50), while sister-houses Piper-Heidsieck and Charles Heidsieck delivered a one-two punch with the former's vinous Brut Rosé Sauvage NV and the latter's finely woven Brut Réserve NV, both at $55.

Other terrific values include two bottlings available for less than $40, the focused Brut Blanc de Blancs Réserve NV from Guy Charlemagne (92, $39) and the creamy Brut NV from Nicolas Feuillatte (92, $36). Also worth searching for are Ayala's Brut Majeur NV (92, $40), firm and minerally, and G.H. Mumm's rich, flavorful Brut Cordon Rouge NV (92, $40).

Like many Old World wine regions, Champagne walks the fine line of preserving a storied past while maintaining relevance and position in the modern marketplace. Two success stories stood out to me during a visit to Champagne earlier this year as illustrative of this balance.

Veuve Clicquot showed its market savvy and foresight when it recognized, in the late '90s, the growing interest in rosé Champagne on the part of various demographic groups and in the Asian market. After several years of development, the house's response was to reintroduce to their lineup, in 2005, a non-vintage rosé Champagne.

"Veuve Clicquot almost invented the category, in 1775," explains Cyril Brun, a member of Veuve's winemaking team, but the house's focus for many years and even into the 1990s was on the vintage rosé. At that time, he says, "It was hard to make a consistent style of non-vintage rosé-we needed less swings in nature, and [the ability] to keep reserves of red wine in order to apply the same philosophy of winemaking to the rosé non-vintage as to the regular non-vintage."

To answer these needs, in 2006 Veuve Clicquot renovated and expanded a red-wine production facility located in Bouzy, where the company owns almost 70 acres of prime Pinot Noir vines. Dedicated to the production of still red wine, made from only the best red grapes, to be used in rosés, the facility represents a considerable yet highly worthwhile investment for the company. Today, Veuve Clicquot's Brut Rosé NV (91, $64) is second only to its ubiquitous yellow-label Brut NV (91, $51) in terms of availability, and is well-placed in the still-growing, trendy rosé market.

While these results are already measurable, those of another recent investment by Veuve Clicquot-the purchase of 30 large oak foudres in 2007 and 2008-have yet to be seen. The 7,500-liter and 5,100-liter new oak barrels are intended primarily to ferment and age the wines for Veuve Clicquot's vintage Champagnes, but will be used for its non-vintage wines in years that the house does not declare a vintage.

Like two kids in a candy store, Brun and chef de cave Dominique Demarville get excited when they walk among and talk about their barrels. The 2008 harvest was the first to go into the barrels, which Demarville says add further complexity to their blends: "More diversity in the wines, more choices-and two sizes to allow us to diversify even more."

Compounding that diversity is the uniqueness of each barrel. "Each foudre is a personality and has its own character. This is a Chard guy, this one likes his Pinot," Demarville jokes. He adds that they're also now able to extend the aging of the reserve wines with these barrels, which "automatically raises the complexity of the blend."

While the changes at Veuve Clicquot relate to its infrastructure, the second success story I encountered this past year involved a change in corporate structure, one that will shape the future for sister houses Charles Heidsieck and Piper-Heidsieck.

In late 2010, then-owner Rémy Cointreau put the houses up for sale, and a deal was struck in June of this year with Société Européenne de Participations Industrielles, a French luxury goods firm. EPI quickly appointed Cécille Bonnefond, former CEO at Veuve Clicquot, to head up its new Champagne division.

During the interim period, Régis Camus, chef de cave for both houses, kept doing what he does best: maintaining high quality while producing a distinctive style for the wines of each house. At times in the past, the Charles Heidsieck line of Champagnes may have offered a more consistent quality level than the more abundant Piper-Heidsieck line. But that was certainly not the case this year, and wines from both houses showed equally well. In my tastings, scores ranged from 92 points for Piper-Heidsieck's Brut NV ($45) to 93 points for its Brut Rosé Sauvage NV ($55) and Charles Heidsieck's Brut Réserve NV ($55) and Brut Rosé Réserve ($75) to a high score of 94 points for Piper's elegant 2004 Brut.

"It's a privilege to make both-because they must stay separate in style, but both come from the same source materials," Camus says. One system of vinification is used to produce the base wines that are ultimately blended into the individual bottlings from each house.

The poet in Camus comes out as he describes the difference in style between the two houses. "Piper is springtime, all floral, citrus and white fruit; Charles is fall-golden-with Mediterranean dates and stone fruits." He explains that the style for each is maintained in part through the proper selection of reserve wines to add when blending the non-vintage cuvées, using younger reserve wines for Piper-Heidsieck, and older reserves-usually eight to 10 years old-for Charles.

With Bonnefond at the helm, both houses will surely see changes, but Camus' position will stay the same. Bonnefond affirms, "Régis Camus is and will remain the lead man behind the two lines of wines, ensuring their elegance in their own ways. We have projects for each house. But one clear focus will be to put the wines at the core of our plans."

The leaders at both Veuve Clicquot and Charles and Piper-Heidsieck make it clear that despite the changing times and new opportunities, the heart of the matter is always the wines.

For Demarville at Veuve Clicquot, that focus is on the yellow-labeled NV Brut and the overall Veuve Clicquot style. "[We have] to continue what was done by our predecessors. It's easy to be good for Grand Dame when you use only the best wines," he says, referring to their tête de cuvée vintage Champagne, but adds, "Yellow Label drives our decision-making process."

At Charles and Piper-Heidsieck, Camus's goal is stability. "A Champagne house is judged for the quality of the style," he says, "but most importantly, the consistency."

Each are sentiments echoed by their peers in the region, and reminders that though continually looking ahead, the Champenois know their primary goals and can stay well-tuned to the here and now. It is this ability-to blend all of the little pieces together to create the whole-that keeps Champagne dynamic and fresh, and earns it its place as the world's benchmark for sparkling wine.

Senior tasting coordinator Alison Napjus is Wine Spectator's lead taster on the wines of Champagne.

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