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Blog of Michael Edwards Fine Wine Articles/Interviews Wine Reviews

Champagne – The Road to Recovery

Michael Edwards
Written by Aksel Ritenis

Michael EdwardsMichael Edwards
Wine Man & Prize-winning Author

Born in Hertford in 1944, Michael went to the well-known local school, Haileybury College, where he was taught history by Tony Melville, a distinguished Cambridge medievalist, who instilled in him the art of essay writing. After studies in Etruscan antiquities at the University of Perugia, Michael read for the Bar at Gray’s Inn. Though useful to be a trained lawyer, he never wanted to practise – having found a new passion in Italy to last a lifetime- wine. In 1968, Michael joined Laytons, the London wine shippers, as a trainee. Then while living in Burgundy and Provence in the ‘seventies, he travelled widely on behalf of wine giants like Michel Laroche, Gerard Chave and Leonard Humbrecht, who are now household names in England and the United States.

Since 1990 Michael has been a full-time wine writer and journalist. As the author of the best-selling Champagne Companion (Quarto:Apple Press 1994) he is widely acknowledged as an authority on this most famous of sparkling wines. As a working journalist, Michael writes regularly on Champagne,Burgundy and Italy for a wide range of titles including The World of Fine Wine, Wine KingdomJapan, The Drinks Business , Cotswold Style and www.italiauk.net.The author of five books including Mitchell Beazley’s Pocket Champagne & Sparkling Wine, The Red Wine Companion, Chablis, and jointly with the Hon. Gerard Noel Vermouth. His latest work is the well received book The Finest Wines of Champagne published in autumn 2009 by Quarto & the University of California Press. Michael is a laureat of Le Prix Lanson. He hasa also been honoured by the growers of Champagne with their Diplome d’Honneur (1994) and by the Archiconfrerie St Vincent of Epernay asAmbassadeur d’Angleterre (2006).

 

THE ROAD TO RECOVERY
Quality and Value reassessed in Champagne.The Finest Wines of Champagne

How quickly things change. In 2008, despite the near- collapse of the international banking system, Champagne at first looked recession-proof as business held up with consumers clinging to the consolation of the world’s most glamorous wine to lift their mood. It could not last. In mid-2009 the resilient US economy may show the first teeny signs of recovery, but Europe, and much of Asia, is now stuck in deep recession with Champagne shipments likely fall by at least 30 per cent this year. Although there are obvious perils if the world’s economies don’t look brighter next year, the downturn this time could be a blessing in disguise – cooling a bull market that had previously shown signs of serious price inflation as Champagne growers pushed their vines to the very limits of production in an attempt to meet a world demand they couldn’t satisfy in the long term. They now have a breathing space, with stocks likely to last longer than at first feared; yields of wine will drop to more reasonable levels for optimal quality and prices should stabilise. As always in straitened times, there are real opportunities for the astute buyer to pick up some bargains in Champagne, a region blessed with a run of four good crops and one great harvest (2008) in the last five years. This should ensure the quality of non-vintage Champagne for the foreseeable future. And for the connoisseurs of well-aged ‘Vintage’, 2000 is a delicious, foward year for current drinking; 2002 is likely to prove one of the finest vintages since the Second World War in a magical mix of unctuous richness and astonishing finesse; and the record sized 2004 has an energy and precision, making it a Chardonnay year par excellence.

To find your way to the best values in Champagne, it helps to understand the structure of the trade. The grandes maisons, the great houses with resonating names like Krug Veuve Clicquot, Lanson, Charles & Piper Heidsieck, own only about 14 per cent of the vineyards.So they have to buy the majority of their grapes from 15,500 growers, a significant number of whom belong to one of the powerful cooperatives. The growers, either in individual domains or collective groupings, usually have the whip hand. But in hard times like these, the vignoble and the négoce need each other. The present recession is a hairpin on the bumpy road to recovery,which needs to be skilfully negotiated if no one is to be left lying on the carriageway. The partnership between growers and houses, particularly in facilitating the flow of gapes from the vineyard to the winery, is currently healthy. But another contrasting reality is that there’s a much wider choice of supply for the consumer in buying champagne. Growers and houses are rivals for the business of private individuals, now that Reims andEpernay have rapid rail, air and road links to Paris, the Channel ports and northern Europe. Does the freer market favour the big merchants or the small wine farmer selling direct from the cellar door?

Champagne bottle BollingerHorses for courses. For those who like the flavours of a particular Champagne brand and prize a consistent house style, year after year, the best of the grandes maisons are the ones to stay with. They have the large stocks and the means to employ the best winemakers to deliver a dependable quality every time. These truly exceptional great houses are in fact a small select band. At the major annual Champagne tastingheld in London’s Whitehall each spring, this year’s showing of non-vintage cuvees was largely based on the hot 2005 vintage, which though rich sometimes lacks the necessary freshness and dash. Those famous houses that kept energy and precision in their Brut sans année are: Deutz, Louis Roederer, Laurent-Perrier and my favourite of all, as Pol Roger.

Don’t overlook smaller, less publicised merchant houses, which have less costly promotion budgets and give intrinsically better value for money – here I particularly liked this year’s blends from Alain Thiénot, Joseph Perrier and Giraud-Hémart, especially the first-rate Esprit de Giraud, both white and rosé. Also the best cooperatives, who have a double life – supplying the juice for the grand houses’ prestige cuvées, and marketing their own brands – can offer exceptional value for money. Three names stand out: the Union Champagne whose St Gall Blanc de Blancs especially the 2002 is as good as anyone’s but at fraction of the price of others; the Le Mesnil coop whose ‘Sublime’ Vintage cuvée comes form the finest sites of this legendary Chardonnay grand cru cru ,yet costs just t30 euros at the cellar door; and Beaumont des Crayères whose Grande Réserve is the delicious pouring champagne of several Michelin-starred restaurants in London.

And so to the most distinctive wines of top growers the full length of Champagne from the glacial Massif St Thierry north of Reims down to the lovely trio of stone-built villages called les Riceys, touching the Côte d’Or. These artisan producers along this 150-mile route may be country cousins but their champagnes rigorously selected are so full of natural character refleting their special plots of vines and terroir, which are very bit as complex as those of Burgundy and Alsace, if less spoken about until now. This is a happy hunting ground of new effervescent flavours waiting to be discovered by the adventurous in their touring automobiles with large trunks. On the Montagne de Reims compare the majestic power of a north-facing Blanc de Pinot Noir from Verzy with the richer fruit of another Pinot-based champagne from the southerly slopes of Bouzy and Mareuil-sur-Äy. Farther south, the Côte des Blancs is white grapes country, the home of great Chardonnay; brisk, mineral, incisive when young, but developing a toasty loveliness with age, akin to a great Meursault or Puligny -but with bubbles!

Two hours down the autoroute brings you to the Aube’s Côte des Bar, Southern Champagne, where the sun feels warmer on your back and the pink champagnes are especially rich and packed with warm summer sunshine. We are still in northern France, but somehow the Midi beckons. Salut!

 

BEST-VALUE CHAMPAGNE
Reviewing The Current Cuvées

 

Good champagne is at heart a blended wine for reasons of geography and climate Ninety miles north east of Paris on the road to Belgium, the heartland vineyards of the Marne lie on the last cold latitude in France where Pinot Noir, Meunier andChardonnay can reguarly show the class and subtlety essential to the world’s finest fizz. So far north, the weather is treacherous: spring frost, summer hail, rain at the wrong moment, these natural hazards have taught champagne-makers that a better wine is more often made from a blend of all three champagne grapes and different vintages; the aim is to meld the flavours of crisp fruit from say a racy cool harvest with richer mellow tastes of warmer years. With some justice, the best grandes maisons claim primacy in the art of blending because they can afford to hire the best blenders and also hold extensive stocks of older vintages. But, in truth, everyone blends in Champagne, be it the intricate trans-regional blend of 100 elements plus of a big house, or the smaller assemblage of three crus from contiguous villages and a trio of vintage that are the glories of the best growers. Here some personal favourites, whether chosen for absolute quality, an aspect of intrinsic interest, or- crucially- value.

* = acceptable
** = good and recommedable
*** = very good to excellent
**** = exceptional
***** = Outstanding

abbreviations:

PN Pinot Noir
PM Pinot Meunier
Ch Chardonnay
g/l grammes of sugar per litre

 

Assemblages(blends up to £25)

 

***** Esprit de Giraud Brut outstanding entry level NV from Henri Giraud, one of Aÿ’s greatest producers.70/30 PN & Ch.Thermo-regulated vinification and kept on less for 12 months without racking. Shimmering gold, first an enticing bouquet,white blossom and honeysuckle, ceding to succent orchard fruit flavours of apricot and peach, a touch of pear – all enlivened with a jig of white pepper. Has everything, great acidity, dash and tension, richness and vinosity. www.topselection.co.uk

***** Berry‘s United Kingdom Cuvée Mailly Grand Cru another 70/30 PN & Ch blend, here of top Grand Cru grapes from one of Champagne’s best cooperatives. A superb balance of richness and elegance, full body and poise, enhanced by ageing in oak barrels from Chateau Margaux. A gastronomic Champagne great with pot-roasted guinea fowl, Bresse chicken, and mature Comté cheese. Terrific value at around £20. www.bbr.com

 

****Alain Thiénot Brut all three classic grapes shape this model, extra-dry champagne. Fine bright gold, a creamy mousse of little bubbles, elegant to the eye, lively yet gentle on the tongue; powerful nose but with a nice touch of yeasty complexity signalling decent maturity; impressive on the palate, round, full, with a spring- like freshness and a lovely medely of orchard fruit flavours. Beguiling, supple, mouthfeel yet with classy acids. A fine food champagne.www.thienot.comwww.champagneandchateaux.co.uk

 

**** Edmond Barnaut Extra Brut From a leading Bouzy grower, bone dry (less than 2g/l) so always made in ripe years, which in the past had made its 90 per cent PN content a bit weighty: now a touch of young Chardonnay is added for freshness and zip, the sugarless style making it an ideal champagne for the marine flavours of oysters. Lea & Sandeman www.londonfinewine.co.uk

**** Pol Roger ‘Pure’ Brut Nature a complete departure for Pol, for this is one of the very rare truly bone, bone dry champagnes with not a gram ofsugar. It has splendid verve and purity, yet it is full flavoured, with lovelty fruit. Made with younger wines and less reserve wine than for Pol’s ‘White Foil’ (still consistently one ot best NV).

**** Bérèche et fils Extra Brut an exceptional bone-dry champagne (less than 2g/l) from a brilliant young wine grower in Ludes on the Montagne de Reims. Classic mix of all three Champagne grapes in a blend that is more mature than most (mostly 2004 with some 2002 and reserve wine). Good post disgorgement age (18 months) without loss of vitality and no hint of oxidation: wonderful finesse and a very classy saline, mouthwatering finish, calling for a plateau de fruits de mers. Fully worth its price at just under £25. This is a grower to follow. www.vinetrail.co.uk

*** Joseph Brut Cuvée Royale Brut NV A blend of 35/35/30 Ch, PN and PM. Bright pale yellow; ripe orchard fruits, particularly pear, with a hint of spices, on nose; incisive Chardonnay profile on entry, then fine mature fruit of Pinot and Meunier on mid-palate, enhanced by a more moderate dosage (7grammes per litre) than in previous cuvées. Decent length. Very good to excellent. www.josephperrier.com

 

*** Deutz Classic Brut

Bright yellow with green reflection; fresh frank expression of both citrus and orchard fruit aromas; splendid balance between a fine vigorous attack (spirited but still gentle mousse) and a delightful fleshyroundness in the mouth. On top form.www.berkmann.co.uk

* * * Duval Leroy Fleur de Champagne Ier Cru. Very keenly priced entry level champagne (under £18) from dynamic Cote des Blancs house. Mainly Chardonnay with a quarter Pinot Noir, a fine floral champagne for all moods and circumstance. Fine aperitif style. www.duval-leroy.com

**** Edmond Barnaut Blanc de Noirs Deep yet bright copper-gold, classis blanc de noirs hue. Rich stone-fruits (cherry, plum and peach) pervade both aromas and flavours. Real Pinot punch and thrust on the palate butas always with this winemaker, the mouthfeel is poised and finely balanced. Lea & Sandeman

Written By Michael Edwards

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Aksel Ritenis

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