Wednesday, 7 December 2011

A conversion on the road to Reims

There are two big problems with spending time in Champagne, sampling the best of what the region has to offer.

  1. It has spoilt my ability to appreciate cut price fizz – having spent three days sipping nothing but the finest Champagne, I found a glass of Lindauer Blanc de Blancs Brut decidedly below my now elevated standards.
  2. I'm going to have to spend more on my wine glasses. Having finally decided on some classic flutes with nice fine rims, I now find that this shape does not do good Champagne justice, especially if you're serving it with food.

Looks like either my standards are going to have to drop, or I'm going to have to up the drinks budget.

My recent trip was the usual jam-packed whirl of contrasting experiences: early start, touring cold cellars and trying to take notes with numb fingers; lavish lunch involving Champagne with every course; more cellars and tasting; another assemblage of food and Champagne for dinner; late to bed, up early, a quick, strong coffee at the hotel before piling into the minibus. Repeat for 3 days, then decant yourself onto Eurostar before returning to reality. Over the course of the week, my liquid intake was so dominated by Champagne I'm sure my wee must have been at least 80% wine, predominantly from grand and premier cru vineyards.

Our visits included mammoth houses, pint-sized growers and much in between. By luck or good planning, each managed to highlight a different facet of the Champagne experience, so I never felt that I was going over the same ground.

Here's a taste:

  • Veuve Clicquot's newly-opened Hotel du Marc in Reims, where invited guests can play the biggest table football I've ever seen, while enjoying a vertical tasting of Veuve Vintages – in magnum, natch. The serious bling side of Champagne. The food is pretty impressive too and Veuve Yellow Label was so much more expressive served in magnum and in these glasses.

  • The illustration by Violaine at the CIVC of how Champagnes can achieve their vinosity either through long ageing on the lees (De Saint Gall Premier Cru Brut 2002, disgorged 2011), or by barrel maturation (Alfred Gratien Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Brut NV, also disgorged 2011). 

  • Tasting, nay drinking, Bollinger Grande Année 2002, which has perfect weight, balance and development, at Bollinger with dinner.

  • From the jaws of defeat – a tasting that turned out to be the most memorable of all, for good reasons. Biodynamic grower Francis Boulard was clearly not expecting a group of 10 people to pitch up at 8.30am, but came round to the idea and treated us to some of the most individual and lively Champagnes of the trip.

  • Bruno Paillard guiding us through a tasting of his multi-vintage Brut Première Cuvée – four bottles of the same cuvée, all aged for 3 years on their lees, but at varying years since disgorgement. Paillard's is not my favourite style of Champagne in its youth, but tracing the development from 6 months since disgorgement, when it is lean, salty and mineral; to the same wine aged for 14 years post-disgorgement, when the spicy, Christmas pudding fruit, and toasty creaminess, wild mushroom and Comté cheese flavours are beautifully expressive, was fascinating.

  • A single glass of Pol Roger Brut Reserve NV with dinner – such lively fruit, depth of flavour and elegance – witchcraft surely! 


  • The 109 steps down (and then up again) to the deep cellars at Gosset. Our reward: a tasting of their stylish Grande Reserve, elegant Grand Rosé and newly-released Grand Blanc de Blancs.

  • Champagne and smoked salmon is hardly an original food match, I grant you, but the transformation of a Mailly Grand Cru Extra Brut NV from an admirable but rather austere Champagne, to something with much more fruit ripeness when drunk with a smoked salmon mousse, was a neat illustration of a great food and wine match.

My own personal epiphany on this trip: I tended to think that I wasn't much of a fan of Blanc de Blancs, but now I realise that I just hadn't tasted the right ones.  Oh, and the urban myth that Champagne never gives you a hangover may just be true.....

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