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Surprises in Champagne including oak, magnums and Pinot Meunier

Surprises in Champagne including oak, magnums and Pinot Meunier

Krug Champagne

Expensive tastes?

Two intense, but wonderful days in Champagne in early December taught me much as always, not least that I have rather expensive tastes. Perhaps my greatest learning experience was to appreciate more about the very intricate and varied ways in which each Champagne House or grower chooses to make its base wines and the influence these have on the final Champagnes.

World Wine Tour visits Bollinger

Anja and Georges in Bollinger's ungrafted vineyard

The itinerary of visits over these two days was not created with my own education in mind, but rather to fulfil the twin aims of Anja and Georges of World Wine Tour 2010, who I have been helping with their European itinerary, most particularly  for their week in Champagne and Burgundy, when I drove them around. The visits needed sympathetic hosts who would, we hoped, be generous in their wine donations to the World Wine Tour 2010 charity auction to be held in Hong Kong in May 2011; the visits needed also to introduce two young people to the intricacies of Champagne even though strictly speaking they are not wine journalists or trade, giving Anja and Georges something to write about at a later date.

The more wine tourist-orientated (but nothing wrong with that) tours of Taittinger, Pommery and Moet & Chandon, I will cover in a post for the Wine Travel Guides blog next year; the visits I want to focus on here are to Bollinger (who I had visited before, but was thrilled to return to) and Krug, and to two much smaller producers Vilmart and J Dumangin. At all four I discovered significant nuggets of information new to me, and enjoyed exceedingly generous and educational tastings.

Laurent Champs is the 5th generation owner of the Champagne grower Vilmart et Cie in Rilly-la-Montagne. He is a firm believer in the use of oak for fermentation of the base wines, saying that oak especially suits Chardonnay. And this is the first surprise: despite being in the Montagne de Reims, known for its emphasis on Pinot Noir, Vilmart has a greater focus on Chardonnay (60% of their 11 hectare plantings), as Laurent says that with 40cm deep chalk in his vineyards, he can obtain a very intense and complex Chardonnay, though with less minerality than in the Côte des Blancs.

VilmartLaurent ascertains that he “makes wine first and bubbles second”. He aims to produce wines that will age well, and Chardonnay with its greater acidity level than Pinot Noir, is more able to provide this. All the base wines ferment in oak and unusually for Champagne remain in wood for almost 10 months maturation, with malolactic fermentation avoided. The oak is a mixture of large foudres,  big vats and pièces, Burgundy barrels. The foudres were purchased by Laurent’s father in 1970 when a bountiful harvest forced everyone to rush out to buy extra vats. In 1989 when Laurent took over, he invested in small barrels and today these are used for the top Vintage wines, renewing the barrels every six or seven years. Interestingly, reserve wines for later use in the Non Vintage blends are not kept in wood, but in stainless steel to preserve freshness.

After 10 months, the cuvée or blend is made and the Champagne process takes on the work from there.  I found the four Champagnes we tasted at Vilmart were all extremely vinous or wine-like, with a creaminess even in the Grande Reserve Non Vintage. The Grand Cellier d’Or 2005 was obviously too young, still unintegrated, needing, Laurent suggested, another six months to come together. The top-of-the-line Coeur de Cuvée 2001 was unlike any Champagne I’ve ever tasted, intense and earthy, full and almost peaty. Incredibly long on the palate, it is from 80% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Noir fermented in fairly new barrels, and then aged in bottle (sur lattes) for eight years before disgorging in February 2009.

J Dumangin et Fils
Nearby in Chigny-les-Roses, Gilles Dumangin is also the 5th generation in his family of small Champagne producers – the ‘J’ in the name is for his father’s name, Jacky. Gilles had a background out of wine and is a pragmatic workaholic, who speaks fluent English and is dedicated to keeping his family’s Champagne of the highest quality and in the public eye.

Dumangin ChampagneHere, I felt I was really in a small wine producer’s tasting room that could have been anywhere in France, and yet, we were tasting very fine bubbles. Gilles emphasized the importance of pressing, proudly showing us two special presses of which there are only 75 in existence in Champagne and that are no longer made because they are too expensive. When you work mainly with red grapes pressing, Gilles explained, it was crucial both to eliminate all colour and to obtain consistency of colour in the juice.

What excited me most on our visit to Dumangin, was Gilles’ pride in his use of Pinot Meunier, the often-not-talked-about third grape of Champagne. Simply put, Gilles explained, whereas Chardonnay provides finesse, and Pinot Noir structure, it is Pinot Meunier that gives the fruit to a Champagne, and this was amply demonstrated with the 2010 Meunier vin clair (unblended base wine) that we tasted that had a distinct grapeyness compared to the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vins clairs.

Gilles chooses Pinot Meunier to make the still red wine he uses in the blend for the delicious Dumangin rosé that accounts for 50% of his sales, and Meunier also makes up an extremely high 50% of the blend in the Grande Réserve Non Vintage white. We were treated to a wonderful tasting of a trio of wines, named for the Dumangin ancestors – Achille (pure Pinot Meunier), Hippolyte (Pinot Noir) and Firmin (Chardonnay). I just loved the perfume and stony character of the Achille, proving that Pinot Meunier is definitely an unsung hero of Champagne.

So much has been written about this wonderful House in Aÿ near Epernay, particularly about its fabulous two little vineyards of old ungrafted vines that they call ‘a live museum’. In addition to their very impressive dedication to their vineyards (they own 70% of their needs, a very high level for a Champagne House) there are two things that struck me particularly. Firstly, it was fascinating how their approach to use of oak for fermentation was quite different to Vilmart’s, and secondly it is so  impressive seeing cellars full of magnums filled with reserve wines maturing under cork.

The magnums contain wines that are kept separate, plot by plot and are not, strictly speaking, completely still reserve wine, as they are bottled with a little yeast to provoke a very light 2nd fermentation. The magnums are sealed with a cork and agrafe or metal clip, as they believe that beyond four years of ageing there is a risk of oxidation with the usual metal caps, and Bollinger keeps reserve wines for up to 15 years.

BollingerBollinger has its own cooperage, to maintain the old oak barrels it uses from Burgundy, chosen for their gentle oxidative effect on the wines. About 30% of the base wine for the Special Cuvée NV is fermented in oak, whereas the Vintage and Prestige Champagnes are from 100% oak-fermented base wines, all undergo 100% malolactic.

I love Bollinger’s Champagnes, but new to me was the absolutely stunning wine-like rosé Vintage 2002 with 70% Pinot Noir in the blend including just 5% still red wine from their own Côte aux Enfants vineyard in Aÿ. A deep pinky, orange colour was followed by a beautiful scent of strawberries and spice. The delicious palate was fine and elegant, again with the spiciness. I didn’t even make a note of the bubbles – this is simply the finest rosé wine I’ve ever tasted, I believe. Bollinger sometimes describe themselves as “Burgundians lost in Champagne” … ahh, that explains much.

I had hoped and half-expected something magical about our proposed visit to Krug, organised by Anja and Georges themselves after Olivier Krug showed an interest in World Wine Tour 2010. I was not disappointed. It was snowing as we arrived in the courtyard to be greeted by Mylène Soulas, a fluent English speaker charged with looking after visitors (hard, but not impossible for Krug lovers to get an appointment to visit).

Krug ChampagneIn the beautiful reception area, we were immediately offered a glass of what Mylène described as the ‘icon of Krug’ Grande Cuvée (don’t even think of calling it Non Vintage, for all Krug’s Champagnes are prestige wines), but it does account for 85% of their production. It had a fine mousse on the palate, and was elegant with that intensity I was becoming to associate with oak-matured base wines.

At Krug, as at Vilmart, all the base wines are fermented in oak casks, and malolactic fermentation is generally avoided. However, here the big difference is that firstly, the average age of the barrels is 25 years (the barrel cellar reminded me of a Sherry cellar, or even one in Setubal, Portugal) and secondly the oak only “gives birth” to the wines (their expression, not mine). This means the base wine is simply fermented in oak and then moved to tank by the end of the year, and according to Krug, the oak’s task is to allow a micro-oxygenation that helps ensure longevity of the wine.

It’s a wonderful mixture of traditional and modern at Krug, with a gleaming bank of small stainless steel tanks used to store the Reserve wines, quite the opposite of Bollinger. The all important blend or cuvée is created at Krug by a tasting committee of seven people (three family members, three winemakers and the cellarmaster) who take no less than five months to create the cuvée each year from a choice of up to 250 different wines. Grande Cuvée usually ends up with around 100 wines from 6-12 different vintages and then undergoes a minimum of six years ageing in bottle before disgorgement.

Our tasting after the cellar tour was deliberately planned upside down. We started with arguably their finest wine, Clos de Mesnil 1998 from the single walled Chardonnay vineyard in the Côte des Blancs. Mineral (unlike Vilmart’s Chardonnay-based wines) and elegant it has a chiselled character to it and a delicate mousse, I wanted badly to just stop there and drink it. But no, we went on to the Vintage 1998, which as in most Vintage years at Krug includes Pinot Meunier, a variety highly valued at this House too. More yeast character was noticeable along with a rich, buttery and nutty character. A gorgeous wine. And finally, we returned to the Grande Cuvée, this tasting being designed to prove that Grande Cuvée is made up of wines from different vintages and vineyards, and that there is no hierarchy between their Champagnes. I agree, each was very different, but all great.

World Wine Tour 2010 visit Krug

Georges and Anja receive a lesson from Olivier Krug

As we were about to leave, Olivier Krug arrived straight off a plane, especially to greet and encourage Anja and Georges. He is an impressive brand ambassador for this great House, that somehow still appears as a family-run business, even though it is owned by the giant LVMH, owners of Moët & Chandon and Veuve Clicquot. I wished we could have spent longer, but this intelligent world traveller and scion of one of Champagne’s great dynasties, did have time for one particularly fascinating observation: “What’s interesting in Champagne right now is the rise of the growers,” he said “they are creating excitement and they are influencing the Houses to do different things. The challenge of the Houses is to react to the rise of the growers, especially in their work in the vineyards”.

Our visit to Champagne was in mid-winter and so it was obvious (but it too often is with Champagne visits) to focus on the cellars, but I hope on a future visit to learn more about the vineyards that are so important too. My growing understanding of the influence of oak, Pinot Meunier, magnums for reserve wines and even the right press have given me a much greater appreciation of these fine Champagnes.

Thank you to all these Houses for their generosity and hospitality on our visits and to Philippe Wibrotte of the Champagne Bureau for his help too. Happy New Year to all lovers of great Champagne!