Monday, 17 November 2008

Champagne: king of wines and wine of kings

“Champagne: in victory I deserve it; in defeat I need it.”, attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte.

Champagne is the most mythologized of wines: the wine of celebration and a byword for luxury. Imagine Napoleon’s quote applied to any other drink and it doesn’t have quite the same ring: “Lager: in victory I deserve it…” See what I mean?

Just what makes Champagne so special, so deserving of its unique status among wines? In the end it all boils down to where it’s made: the northern French region of Champagne which gives the wine its name. Other wines may use the same grapes, the same production methods and maturation, but no other wine can use the name Champagne. Everything else is simply sparkling wine, no matter how high quality.

Champagne the region is the most northerly wine-production area in France, not far from Paris and atop an all-important outcrop of chalk. We don’t fully understand all the ways in which chalk is important for grape-growing, but it seems to play a vital role of water-regulation for the vines, as well as providing a material which can easily be excavated to make cellars ideal for maturing wines.

Champagne the wine can be made only within this region and is usually a blend of three grape varieties: pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay. Of these, pinot noir and chardonnay have built their own considerable reputations as the varieties responsible for the great red and white wines, respectively, of Burgundy. Pinot meunier, little known outside Champagne, is more of a workhorse, useful sort of grape. According to accepted wisdom, Chardonnay gives finesse to the blend, while pinot noir provides structure and power; pinot meunier is responsible for an attractive fruitiness early in a Champagne’s life: useful for giving some early drinking appeal, where chardonnay and pinot noir take time to develop their full array of aromas and flavours.

What to look for on the label
Most Champagnes are, therefore, a blend of these three grapes. Each house or marque will have their preferred blend, which forms a large part of their distinctive house style. Veuve Clicquot and Bollinger are classic examples of Champagnes with a higher than average proportion of pinot noir. Taittinger, on the other hand, is proud of the high proportion of chardonnay in its Champagnes. You can even find 100% chardonnay Champagnes, which will be labelled blanc de blancs. Blanc de noirs, logically then, is made only from pinot noir and/or pinot meunier.

Most of what we see in this country – and we are Champagne’s number one export market, accounting for over a quarter of exports – is labelled Brut. In the somewhat arcane labelling laws of Champagne this is what dry Champagne is called. The other style that you’ll find, if you go looking, is Demi-sec: not semi-dry as the name suggests, but pretty sweet and something to serve with dessert. In between these two styles are various grades of sweetness, so the full and rather confusingly named, range begins with the driest Brut, moving through Extra dry, Sec, Demi-sec then sweet.

In addition to the level of sweetness in a Champagne, the other terms to look out for are vintage or non-vintage. Most Champagnes are non-vintage, ie they are made from a blend of wines from a number of different years. Champagne houses wanting to deliver their house style use this multi-year blending to maintain this style from year to year, ironing out differences in ripeness, acidity levels and so on. If a particular growing season is deemed to have produced a wine of sufficient quality and harmony, then growers will make a vintage Champagne, 100% of which will be from the named year. So vintage Champagnes are not made every year: in practice probably three or four times each decade.

Think pink
So much of Champagne is wrapped up in tradition and myth that it’s something of a novelty to see the region catching the pink fever that has swept through the whole wine world. Rosé Champagnes used to be a relative rarity, but now everyone seems to be having a go at making one and you can’t move for them. If Champagne denotes something to celebrate, then pink Champagnes seem to notch up the special occasion rate even further. As Michael Caine might say, not a lot of people know that most pink Champagne is made in a way positively forbidden for still rosé wine: a small amount of red wine is added to achieve the desired colour and flavour. Of course the Champenois have a suitably elegant term for it, rosé d’assemblage, but it can still seem like a surprisingly cheap method for a wine with a fancy price tag.

What to eat with Champagne?
The obvious answer is whatever you like! Champagne is supposed to go with anything and there is something in the cliché – whatever you’re eating, from fish and chips to haute cuisine, it tastes better with Champagne. Lily Bollinger put it best: “I drink it when I'm happy and when I'm sad. Sometimes I drink it when I'm alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I'm not hungry and I drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it, unless I'm thirsty.”

If this has whet your appetite to find out more about Champagne, then come along to one of my upcoming Champagne appreciation evenings. Taste a range of six different, high quality Champagnes and discover for yourself the difference between blanc de blancs, vintage, non-vintage, demi-sec and a range of “grandes marques”. Evenings run on Monday 17th November at East Horsley Village Hall or Wednesday 26th November at the Guildford Institute. They start at 7.30pm and cost £25 per person, including all of the Champagnes and glasses. More details are available on

Sunday, 2 November 2008

How soon is now?

It’s a question I’m often asked: which wines should you keep? And for those that can be laid down, how long for?

First things first: the vast majority of wines bought in the UK are drunk within days (if not hours) or purchase. Consequently most wines on sale here reflect that fact and are best drunk straightaway. Obviously wines do have a shelf life (they’re not bottles of milk), so straightaway needn’t be taken literally: what I mean is, within months. However, not all wines are created equal, so here’s a quick guide to drinking up times.

DYA – drink youngest available
At one end of the spectrum are those wines that should be drunk as young as possible: they don’t improve with age and are best enjoyed in their fresh and fruity youth. Rosés and pretty much all wines made from Sauvignon Blanc fall into this category. Another thing to bear in mind is that the southern hemisphere is six months ahead of its northern counterpart in wine-making terms, so 2008 Sauvignon Blancs and rosés from the likes of New Zealand and Chile are hitting the shelves around now: treat 2007s as needing drinking up pronto and be wary of anything from 2006.

The middle way
Most everyday wines fall into this category: they probably won’t improve with age, but you can hold onto them for a year or so without any harm being done. If you have found a terrific little wine from the south of France that didn’t cost much and fancy stashing some away to age – by all means have a go. But don’t be too surprised if, after three or four years, it hasn’t got better – it probably wasn’t designed to.

Wines for laying down
As a very general rule of thumb, any wine costing less than £10 a bottle is not going to be laying down material. Wines that are going to repay ageing are not usually readily available on the High Street, so don’t worry that you might buy one by mistake! If I were buying really fine wines with a view to keeping them for a number of years, then I would rather deal with a specialist merchant – and probably pay for proper cellar storage too.

The ingredients needed to allow a wine to age are plenty of fruit, acid and tannin (for reds) or fruit and acid (for whites). Tannin is the “stewed tea” feeling that you get from red wines and which can make young wines designed to age almost undrinkable, until those tannins have had time to soften and mellow.

Prime candidates for ageing include:
Claret (red Bordeaux): high acid levels, tannins and dense fruit make the most expensive claret unlovable in its youth. The best wines in a good year can need ten years or more to mature and show what they can do – and can then last for another decade or more. A word of warning – this applies only to the very top level of Bordeaux. The vast majority of what you see for sale is more humble stuff designed for early drinking rather than cellaring; as usual, let price be your guide: if it’s under ten quid, it’s probably not for keeping.
Northern Italian reds, especially Barolo and Barbaresco. If you want to know what tannin really tastes like then pick up a bottle of Barolo – this wine needs a decade before you know what all the fuss is about.
Vintage port. These wines can happily age for decades; probably the ultimate “lay some wine down for your children” wine.
Dessert wines. The magic combination of sugar and acid allows sweet wines to live amazingly long lives. Sauternes and intensely sweet wines from the Loire and Germany are classic examples.

Do you have to lay these wines down?
In the end, everyone’s taste in wine is personal, so there are no hard and fast rules. The English think it sacrilege to drink a vintage port until it’s getting on for voting age; Americans love to get their teeth into one that’s barely started primary school. The French, too, seem to enjoy drinking wines younger than we do.

One wine that I would always suggest keeping – if you can manage it! - for at least a few months is non-vintage Champagne. Champagne houses are legally obliged to age their wines for a certain period of time before selling them. Vintage Champagnes, produced from a single year’s harvest, must have at least three years’ maturity before release, though many producers keep them much longer. Non-vintage Champagne, however, need only be aged for fifteen months before being released for sale. Buy it, stash it under the stairs or in a cupboard for a few months and you should find that the Champagne has more harmonious, more complex flavours as a result.

Tasting notes on back labels for grander wines often say something like “enjoyable now, but will repay cellaring for a further four or five years” – unless it’s a French wine, when of course it won’t have a back label at all. But will you enjoy it more in five years’ time? There’s only one way to find out. You might find that, in fact, you preferred it in its exuberant, dense youth. Wines do change as they age and it’s down to personal taste whether you prefer older wines to younger ones. The best advice is to buy 6 or 12 bottles of a wine that you like (just not £5 Cava please) and try a bottle a year to see if you like the way it evolves. Why not have a go and then let me know in six years’ time how you got on?