Richard Mark James' wine & travel blog
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22 May 2004

"New" South Africa & South African Syrah - Shiraz

New South Africa
 OK, so names such as Vergelegen and Beyerskloof can hardly be called new, but it was difficult to pass them by without catching up on the latest from these two leading producers. Beyers Truter was also involved in an empowerment project, whereby the farm workers bought a majority share of Bouwland winery and vineyards; Beyers remains a partner and winemaking consultant. Delaire was a pleasant surprise, their wines showing real elegance and charm. In addition, Stellar Organics is an impressive operation, now farming or purchasing over 1000 tonnes of organic grapes. The Cabs and Shirazs are especially promising. Tasting notes to follow from the London Wine Fair May 2004.

South African Syrah - Shiraz
 Call back shortly to discover a dozen highly recommended Shiraz/Syrahs from the Cape, tasted in May at the 2004 London Wine Fair. These rich spicy reds are all from the 2001 and 2002 vintages. The latter, in particular, is looking big and sexy; but South African winemakers need to watch those alcohol levels, the downside of waiting longer to get full ripeness in Shiraz grapes.

17 May 2004

Pass the Bolly or "If it's the 85, you were expecting me..."

Notes and views on the Champagne market and the art of blending, based on a presentation to MW students on 17th May 2004 by Ghislain de Montgolfier from Champagne Bollinger. After the text, you'll find a few ecstatic tasting notes and reviews (well, Bolly is pretty good, no?) of the 'finished product' including Special Cuvée, La Grande Année 1990-95-96-97 and the incomparable one-off 1985 RD ("if it's the 85, you were expecting me," as 007 might have said...).

Despite all the smug reports of doom and gloom surrounding the French wine industry, somehow the Champagne just keeps on flowing. The French themselves remain the thirstiest consumers of the world’s most famous sparkling wine. In 2003, the Brits (the no. 1 export destination) set a new record by buying 34 million bottles, thereby eclipsing the pre-millennium frenzy of 1999. Americans managed an impressive 19 million (considering they make quite a lot of their own sparkling wine) closely followed by Germany, avid fizz drinkers as they are (Sekt, Cava, Asti…), with 12 million bottles. Stats for this year so far indicate a continuation of this mood.

Of the ‘multinational’ Champagne groups, which are mostly listed companies, the big daddy of them all is luxury goods conglomerate LVMH, whose brands include world leader Moët & Chandon, Mercier and Dom Pérignon totalling 60 million bottles. Rémy owns Piper-Heidsieck and Charles Heidsieck (a personal favourite by the way) representing 8 million bottles, about the same figure as British giant Allied Domecq with Mumm and Perrier-Jouët. Laurent-Perrier group is no slouch with sales of 10 million bottles, plus a further ten counting recently acquired Malakoff/Oudinot. Taittinger may give the impression of being a bit niche yet accounts for 4 million bottles. (In addition, Marne et Diffusion – essentially the 6 mill+ Lanson label – should really also figure here, but I don’t think they were mentioned).
The next batch could be termed ‘new players’, meaning recent mergers or acquisitions rather than new on the block. The names brought up include Vranken-Pommery, Martel, Duval-Leroy, BCC (De Venoge, Boizel etc.), Thiénot (Joseph Perrier, Canard-Duchêne), sales of which take place mostly in France and via supermarkets. The remaining companies are family owned, such as Roederer & Deutz, Bollinger, Pol Roger, Gosset and Bruno Paillard, who tend to sell through specialist channels (wine shops, restaurants etc.).

The Champagne ‘appellation’ is home to 15,000 (rather wealthy I’d imagine) growers who own 89% of the vineyards; 100 Houses, including the above, make up the other 11%. There are three increasingly important co-operatives emerging, and about 1000 growers now produce their own labels, another burgeoning trend. These small growers each have 2 hectares (ha) or less planted at a density of 8000+ vines per ha, i.e. very compact and all worked by hand; so you can appreciate where the real power lies. This is reflected in the price of land in the region, now around a staggering €1 million per ha!

The current surface area in production has reached the permitted limit of approx 35,000 ha, so the outcome could be shortages. The ‘Echelle des Crus’ (pricing scale of grapes from the different vineyard hierarchies) system set by the CIVC (Comité Interprofessionnel des Vins de Champagne), which determines the base price, could become irrelevant as growers are charging higher than established prices. Putting this in context with sales and production helps to explain these developments.

Total Champagne sales (including France) in 1950 were 33 million bottles; in 2003 this stood at 291 million with a peak of 327 million in 1999. Yields averaged 5,400 kg/ha from 1950-59 but in 2000 they came to 12,539. However, this isn’t a bad thing per se: 1970, 1982, 1990 and 2000 are examples of high yielding yet very good quality vintages; others such as 1987 were low in both because of poor weather. 290 million bottles of Champers are currently quaffed around the world, showing growth of 2-3% per annum. Maximum production of 295 million has already been attained, so scarcity could rule if the above continues (I detect an element of clever 'panic' marketing here).

The Négociants (merchant companies who trade in grapes and wine) usually buy 60% of the harvest and thus influence prices, which are particularly competitive for the best ‘crus’. Increasingly, growers are organising themselves into co-ops to make ‘vin sur lattes’ (wine sold before disgorgement), although I believe by law this is due to stop. The co-ops are, therefore, selling less and less grapes, and more still wines are available. As a result, there’s arguably a “danger of Champagne styles merging,” according to
Montgolfier. Bollinger say they won’t buy wines, as this would affect consistency of style and quality. Grape prices in 2003 were €4.25 per kg plus premiums of up to 20% for Grand Cru. In comparison, this is 15 times the price for Cava grapes, 6x Touraine and 5x California.

Moving on to Bollinger itself starting with a few facts and a bit of philosophy. The brand accounts for less than 1% of global Champagne sales, so the spotlight is clearly on quality. Independence through family ownership allows them “no compromises and a long-term financial view,” a fortunate luxury in these times of consolidation. For example, just four cellar masters have worked there in 60 years to maintain uniformity. Their focus is on the best possible grapes and trying to control supply. They buy grapes only in the main regions of the Marne and only Premier Cru (PC) and Grand Cru (GC) level.

Owning 160 ha of vineyards – 83% on PC and GC sites – supplies 2/3 of their needs. This means they don’t have to purchase from co-ops and work with contracted growers to influence decisions in the vineyard. Pinot Noir forms the backbone of the blends. PC and GC grapes make up min. 80% of the Special Cuvée and 100% of Grande Année and RD (Recently Disgorged); optimal maturity is required. In addition, ‘Bolly’ (Ghislain coined this nickname himself, so the House appears fond of the Ab Fab publicity) is not used on any other product; and no Bollinger sparkling wine is produced elsewhere (a little dig or a touch of jealousy perhaps, given the quality of e.g. Moet's Australian Chandon wines or Roederer's in California?).

Reserve wines play a very important role in the house style and quality of non-vintage Champagne (it’s actually illegal to blend any into vintage wines, which should be 100% from the year declared – Bollinger “doesn’t” but allegedly some do). The company holds more than five years worth of stock, as if they had to use too much in poor vintages to balance out, it’d mean less available for following years “to the detriment of quality.” More on reserve wines to follow.

Quality: the key areas are origin of grapes and variety, selection of musts, control of acidity, first fermentation, reserve wines (see I told you) and yeast lees ageing. The vines planted in Bollinger’s vineyards amount to 100 ha of Pinot Noir (mostly PC and GC), 41 ha of Chardonnay and 19 ha of Pinot Meunier. Special Cuvée is a blend of 60% Pinot Noir, 25% Chardy and 15% Pinot Meunier. Grande Année is often at least 65% Pinot Noir (30% of it from the village of Aÿ) & 35% Chardy. Pinot Noir from the GCs gives “backbone, vinosity (does that word exist in English? I guess it means winey mouth-feel) and complexity”; Chardy offers “elegance and finesse”; and Pinot Meunier adds “freshness and lightness”. Bolly only uses the ‘cuvée’ or first pressing (the first 2050 litres of juice from 4000 kg of grapes), which also has the lowest pH (see acidity below), and sell the second and third pressings. Some cast-offs, huh.

Control of acidity is the cornerstone of balance in the wines and their ability to mature. In a good year, the ‘cuvée’ has a pH of 2.9 – 3.1, i.e. pretty acidic. The first fermentation in cask is the next step in this process. Bollinger doesn’t use new casks and have their own cooper, but also buy 4-5 year old Burgundy barrels of 205 litres capacity. The GC and part of the PC (Chardy) musts are barrel-fermented, so 100% of the reserve wines and Grande Année plus a fraction of the wines for Special Cuvée are also barrel-fermented. In cask, the malo-lactic fermentation (MLF: the secondary bacterial fermentation that converts malic acid to softer lactic acid) is prevented (although some MLF is sometimes done for Grande Année – still with me?!), whereas the wines in vat do undergo MLF. The reasoning is preservation of malic acid (normally decreases during vinification leaving mostly tartaric acid) levels for longer ageing ability.

So balance of acidity is maintained by lower pH of wines in cask (due to no MLF - lactic bacteria struggle to do their thing in a high acid environment - and presence of protective sulphur dioxide) and higher total acidity (TA) in grams per litre (the usual measure) in tank, despite doing the MLF in tank (which in fact reduces TA); meaning therefore, they put the wines higher in acidity in tank. As for yeasts, the same ones are used for musts in cask and tank, and Bollinger buys good quality selected yeasts rather than develop their own strains, as some houses do.

Tasting of the constituent parts (1-4 all from 2003):
1. Pinot Noir Aÿ (fût = cask) – very light tinge of pink in colour, quite toasty with a touch of milk chocolate and aromatic too; shows reasonable weight with nice creamy red fruits set against quite firm acid structure and length, yet it’s fairly soft and rounded at the same time.
2. Pinot Noir Verzenay (fût) – creamy and fruity displaying attractive aromatic esters plus a hint of toasty yeast in the background, has higher acidity than 1 with sharper mineral finish yet still offers rich roundness too. Wines from Verzenay are known for their ageing potential.
3. Chardonnay Mesnil-sur-Oger (fût) – shows clean fragrant peach and butter notes with subtle lightly bready characters, nice elegant fruit contrasts with fresh acidity and greener notes, yet still soft-ish and fruity on the finish.
4. Pinot Meunier Venteuil (cuve = tank) – fragrant, floral and peachy with rounded fruit v crisp acid structure, lighter and more one-dimensional in the sense of linear palate focus.
5. Aÿ 1998 (reserve wine with no dosage, stored in magnums) – fairly rich and buttery tinged with yeasty pungency, very firm acid framework leading to creamier rounder finish, green edges v weighty mouthful, tight and long. Reserve wines lend overall balance and also balance out the cru wines depending on the vintage.
6. ‘Assemblage’ (final blend) for Special Cuvée (mostly parts 1-4 + another 25 or more + a small proportion of 5 then 3 years lees ageing in bottle) – nice balance of fragrant red fruits, light yeast and creamy grapey characters too, complex lingering nose; soft concentrated fruit with greener acid backbone, notes of chocolate and red fruits too, rounded v tight finish.
Richard M James Sept. 2004

My notes and scores on various Bollinger Champagnes (with a bit of techy info to start just to set the scene), tasted after this seminar and on other occasions as indicated:

Special Cuvée (7.7 grams per litre (g/l) total acidity (TA), pH 3.05 and dosage of 7 to 9 g/l residual sugar; blend of two vintages with 5-10% reserve wines and 3 years yeast lees ageing = twice the average for NV Brut, by the way) - Lovely balance of fresh floral fragrant fruit and light toasty notes, complex yeasty baked bread underneath; similar characters on the palate with additional creamy and lightly tropical fruit v fresh acidity and yeast intensity, 'winey' viscosity builds to focused length. Impeccable balance and style. May 2004. 91
And previously (among other occasions): Aged and rounded palate with nice tangy yeast character, shows the usual classy subtle balance of intensity, concentration, age and freshness; finishes very dry and long with beautiful firm acidity. Class, pure and simple. Safeway Champagne tasting July 2002 (under reconstruction...).
90

1996 La Grande Année (70% Pinot Noir & 30% Chardy; 9.2 g/l TA and dosage up to 10 g/l) - Yeastier than the SC with baked malt bread undertones yet at the same time lovely and fresh & fragrant, floral and also showing ripe red fruits, addictive aromas; gorgeous fruit and weight, yeast intensity, super concentration leading to fine tight structure set against seductive roundness and 'sweet' ripeness; offers mouth-coating weight and length v elegance and real class. Very good indeed: needs another 5-10 years in bottle, still tastes young. May 2004. 95

1995 La Grande Année - Much more golden than the SC with riper smokier nose, also has more tropical fruit and fatter 'sweetness' (not really sweet with only 8g/l dosage coupled with very high acidity), quite rich and concentrated yet elegantly balanced; shows creamier development on the palate with weighty length and yet again tight acid structure. Still youthful really, will be fab over 5-10 years. March 2002. 94

1995 La Grande Année - A touch of oak and aged maturity on the nose, very yeasty and concentrated in the mouth developing to a tight finish with bite of acidity on its huge length. Far too young at the moment, wow... Safeway Champagne tasting July 2002 (under reconstruction...). 93

1997 La Grande Année - Closed yet complex Champers showing green fruit edges contrasting nicely with subtle toast and cream, very tight fresh palate and length; needs more time to develop. October 2004. 93

1985 RD (65% Pinot Noir & 35% Chardy; 8 g/l TA, pH 3 and dosage of 3-4 g/l (very dry); disgorged on 10/9/03 i.e. aged in bottle on the yeast lees for nearly 18 years!) - Deep golden colour; mushroom, coffee and chocolate, very ripe and very yeasty yet still shows underlying freshness combined with a creamy yoghurt character too, such a wild complex nose; wow: super rich and concentrated yeasty flavour, toasty maturity v tight acid framework, uncompromising richness and style, mouth-filling flavours. Extraordinary stuff although not for everyone. May 2004. 97

1995 Grande Année Rosé - Fairly full pink colour, scented red fruits and chocolate on the nose, nice ripe floral fruit set against zingy crisp stylish length; rounded, very fruity and weighty yet showing impeccable balance and panache. March 2002. 94

1990 La Grande Année - Arguably the best of the superb 90 vintage, this just keeps getting better as it lounges in bottle. It's very rich and concentrated but still showing fine balancing acidity on the finish; try with food too. No wonder James Bond switched (back?) to Bolly. One of my Home Magazine wines of the month (under reconstruction...), January 2000 issue. 94-96