Sunday, 28 August 2011

Growing in Popularity - Grower Champagnes

There are more than 15,000 growers in Champagne owning around 90% of the vineyards, yet if you were to ask most people to name as many champagnes as they could they would struggle to name more than ten. This is because the vast majority of these growers sell there grapes on to Negociants. These tend to be large champagne houses for which a consistant house style year in, year out is very important. This is acheived by blending wines from, often, over fifty different vineyards. For those who seek champagnes which can display a more acute sense of terroir and the sense of place you find in other many french regions, then Grower champagnes are definitely worth investing some time into.

The is a myriad of lesser-known champagnes in the market, so the first thing you need to be able to decipher is which are grower champagnes and which are Negociant champagnes. You can do this by looking carefully at the front label (usually the bottom right hand side). There should be a batch number starting with two letters and followed by some numbers. The letters will tell you the type of producer the champagne has come from. If it has come from a merchant like Veuve Clicquot or Lanson it will start with NM (N├ęgociant manipulant) and if it has come from a Grower it will start with RM (R├ęcoltant manipulant).

So how do you know what to choose? There are so many grower champagnes in the market there are obviously going to be many good ones and many bad ones. Here are my tips for helping you choose:

1) The best grower champagnes tend to come from the best vineyard sites. Picking a bottle with 'Grand Cru' on the label is a good indication of quality (its not a guarantee though)

2) Due to grower champagnes coming from small estates they have less ability to blend from multiple different sites (or Lieux dits) and vintages to ensure a consistent style. I say, ignore consistency and embrace vintage variation, after all, we do it with every other wine we buy. Buying vintage grower champagnes should be another indication of quality. If you are buying a champagne from an excellent site and from an excellent vintage you should be on to a winner, as long as the grower has a proficient winemaker.

3) Buy from a wine merchant which you trust. My favourites to buy from are:
  • The Sampler (South Kensington, Islington) - winner of best independent champagne retailer 2011 by the Champagne Summit. A thorough list headed by cru.
  • Berry Bros and Rudd (St James Street) - The worlds most famous wine merchant with a top champagne list.
  • Champagne Growers Direct (online) - lots of big name grower champagnes, plenty of tasting notes from well known critics and free delivery for purchases of three bottles or more. It also has profiles on all the growers that it uses.

Here are some of my favourite grower champagnes:
  • Eric Rodez - Eric Rodez is based in Ambonnay and spent a year working at Krug. He's famous for his full bodied, meaty Blanc de Noirs champagnes which are vinified in oak.
  • Egly Ouriet - another Ambonnay grower whose average vine age is 35 years producing intense, powerful Pinot Noir based champagnes which are aged for a minimum of 3 years before release.
  • Bonnaire - from Cramant this grower concentrates on Chardonnay based champagnes which are full of elegant fruit, floral notes and a flinty stone character. An excellent example of the Cramant regional style.
  • Guy Charlemagne - This Le Mesnil-sur-Oger producer makes champagnes which epitimise the Le Mesnil style. They are so pure and racy with heaps of delicate fruit and a chalky minerality. The average vine age in their vineyards are 31 years which helps explain why they produce such focused champagnes.
  • Jacques Selosse - Jacques Selosse is a legend in champagne who produces truly unique, vinous champagnes like no other. Selosse is based in Avise with vineyards in Cramant and Oger as well. His champagnes all vary in style massively and do not come cheap but are worth splashing out on for a treat.
I have attached a good video from Wine Library TV with a few grower champagnes recommended for your viewing pleasure:

Sunday, 7 August 2011

To Decant or not to Decant?

For most people, even many champagne aficionados, the thought of decanting a champagne before they serve it would not even even cross their mind. Surely it will cause your prized champagne to lose all of its bubbles, wouldn't it? However, it is an interesting practice which seems to be gathering momentum recently, especially with the sommeliers in Paris. It's not as mad as you may think though, after all, it is a fine wine and you wouldn't dream of opening your favourite Bordeaux or Burgundy without allowing it to 'breathe' for an hour or two. Furthermore, the act of decanting doesn't actually cause a champagne to lose its bubbles as fast as you may think. Experts have worked out that a champagne will only lose 10-15% of its effervescence through the act of decanting. A word of warning though, you must take care when decanting your champagne, imagine you are trying to pour the perfect pint!

So, what can you actually gain from decanting a champagne? Like, with other wines, decanting champagne allows aromas in the wine to be released. This causes the champagne to become more fragrant and it can also dramatically change how your champagne tastes. Something which seems fresh and citrussy upon opening can give way to rich, earthy and all together more vinous flavours after just 10 minutes in a decanter (or even just left in a glass).

Charles Heidseick, one of my favourites of the big champagne houses, is a big advocate of decanting their champagnes. They have even teamed up with Riedel, the glassware giant, to produce a very elegant decanter. Billecart Salmon have also produced a limited edition decanter which some Searcys champagne bars in London will be using.

Decanting champagne is definitely worth a try. A fun experiment to try which I saw Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan , MV do on Wine Library TV is to open a bottle of champagne and decant half the bottle and leave to rest in the bottle with a champagne stopper in. Leave both for around 30 minutes and then do a side-by-side comparison. The differences between each samples are noticeable and dramatic.