"Buy my book about the Roussillon on Amazon UK in paperback or eBook or black & white version, and Amazon USA: paperback or eBook or black & white. OR BUY IT DIRECT FROM ME (UK & EU only). Also available in the US from Barnes & Noble in hardcover, paperback or eBook. For other countries, tap on the link above the cover photo (below right)." Richard Mark James

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

01 March 2004

Vinisud 2004: Minervois La Livinière / Pic Saint-Loup focus

Minervois-La Livinière was apparently recognised as a 'cru' village area within the Minervois appellation long before gaining official status in 1999, and, judging by the number of 90+ scores I've given to wines tasted at this year's Vinisud show, many of the wines prove the point. The appellation snuggles at the foot of the Montagne Noire hills around the village of La Livinière (and other neighbouring ones) roughly between Béziers and Carcassonne, and is for reds only. Once again Syrah (perhaps sometimes too much of it...), Grenache, Carignan, Cinsault and Mourvèdre are the main varieties, ranging from Clos des Roques majoring on 60 year old Carignan to Château Anger's super 100% Syrah wine La Chapelle de Calamiac. I'm not sure what Domaine de la Combe Blanche and Château la Croix Martelle - which is owned by Burgundian house Boisset and is experimenting with bio-dynamism - are up to with Pinot Noir, but their Minervois wines speak for themselves. Tasting notes / reviews on these producers' wines might follow, when I dig out that clunky old database copied from the original original WineWriting.com...

Pic Saint Loup is a subregion of the Coteaux du Languedoc appellation nestling on the garrigue (wild scrubland) about 20 km north of Montpellier. It's a good example of wines based on a distinctive 'terroir', I suppose, although it's the micro-climate and valley terrain (sandwiched between PSL itself and the Hortus cliff-face on the other side) here rather than soil that's particularly important), even if inevitably the winemaking styles vary from grower to grower (doh!). The Pic St-Loup name is only used for reds and rosés, and the grape varieties are Syrah, Grenache, Carignan, Cinsault and Mourvèdre, with Syrah tending to dominate the best barrique-aged cuvées. Noticeably, there were a lot of young enthusiastic faces representing the Pic producers at the show. I think it's an exciting area to watch, although I did only taste wines from half a dozen properties and the prices are already quite high. They were: Domaines Haut-Lirou (one of the largest at 40 hectares), Mirabel (a mere 3 ha making 550 cases), Saint Daumary (started in 1999), Château l’Euzière, de Lavabre and Château Valcyre-Gaffinel. Three wines from another relatively youthful estate (1980) are also included - Domaine Faurmarie, which is actually located next door to Pic in a yet another new subzone of the CdL called Grés de Montpellier. Ditto regarding their wines... watch this space...

07 December 2003

Bandol Fête du Millésime 2003

My tasting notes from this lively outdoor event can be found below under the relevant producer's paragraph (dated accordingly), or separately at the very bottom of the page, which offer a first glimpse of wines from this year's sun-drenched vintage; plus a few majestic older ones as well. Held on the 7th December 2003 (this is a worth-checking-out annual event by the way, usually over the first weekend in Dec.) all along the port in Bandol town, it was a kind of more hedonistic version of 'en primeur' tastings with the emphasis on a fun day out rather than serious trade affair. FULL STORY HERE.

01 June 2003

L’Ambassade des Vignobles, Marseille

Wine magazine (UK) June 2003 issue (the title was bought by another publisher a couple of years later and is now called Wine & Spirit).
L’Ambassade des Vignobles, 42 Place aux Huiles, 13001 Marseille.
Tel. 04 91 33 00 25, fax 04 91 54 25 60.
Restaurant 4/5 - Wine list 4.5/5 (alas, it's closed since...)

This vast tranquil square is easily found just a stone’s throw from the traffic lining the south side of Marseille’s historic Vieux Port, at the bottom of the steep ascent to that other postcard landmark, the magnificently kitsch Notre Dame de la Garde basilica. On the port side, touristy restaurants offering bouillabaisse aplenty dominate; in the furthest southwestern corner sits L’Ambassade des Vignobles. The building is very old, the walls made of near-crumbling stone with dark wood beams above. However it’s smart in style but unstuffy in atmosphere; this is the South after all.

The restaurant is famed for its cellar, shared with nearby La Côte de Boeuf also owned by Paul Léaunard (and is still open I think) whose magnificent moustache is equally famous. The full wine list is extraordinary totalling 82 pages, seven of them devoted to 'foreign wines' (as the French say a bit patronisingly) including several vintages of Vega Sicilia, Opus One, Grange etc., as well as less culty offerings and even English! The selection of French wines is bedazzling and too extensive to go into, suffice it to say they aren’t short of fine Claret, Burgundy, Alsace, Loire; in fact everything and plenty of older vintages. I was tempted to order a bottle of Bouchard’s 1864 Beaune Clos de la Mousser 1er Cru (1373 Euros) to see if it existed or was drinkable.

However we opted for local wines and I for the Menu Provence (36E for entrée, main and dessert; 43E with cheese), which includes one glass of a different wine matched with each course. To start ‘Remoulade de chicons, duo de moules et palourdes marinées, vinaigrette d’oursin’ came with Ch. des Anglades Collection Privée rosé 2001, Côtes de Provence. The mussels and clams were fresh sea-fishy set against an attractively crunchy and dressed bitter chicory salad. The wine was delicately pink, more serious than fruity; good but there are better. For main I had ‘Emincé de magret de canard au miel et baies roses, pommes paille et navets glacés’ accompanied by Réserve Perrin Côtes du Rhône rouge 2000. The succulent slices of duck sat in a reduced savoury honey sauce, enlivened by perfumed pink berries, alongside cute little chips. The red showed decent fruit, spice and complexity.

My companion went à la carte, kicking off with ‘Foie gras maison, toasts de pain briochés aux figues, compotine de rhubarbe’ (11E) helped along by a lovely rounded, oily and weighty white Bandol 2001 from Dom. de la Tour du Bon (27E 75cl, 5E glass). The foie gras was spot on: not heavy and contrasting with the sweet fig bread and rhubarb. This was followed by a nicely cooked ‘Pièce de filet de boeuf aux arômes de truffe, couronne de legumes de Provence’ (23E), served with a splendid meaty truffley sauce and elegantly topped with grilled courgettes etc.

Desserts were of a similar standard: my frangipane and apple pie was tastily gooey, although too much for Dom. de Salente Viognier 2001. Crêpes stuffed with Grand Marnier mousse (8E) were fortified by a glass of the same (5E). Service was professional and speedy but never pushy.

Wine Magazine bar & restaurant reviews

Follow these links to four bar and restaurant reviews written for Wine magazine (UK) in 2002 and 2003 (now defunct in this format: the title was bought by another publisher a couple of years later, and by another since, and renamed Wine & Spirit International):
L’Ambassade des Vignobles, Marseille
Chine Rouge, Manchester
Kro2, Manchester
Choice bar & restaurant, Manchester

Another Manchester resto is review here: Miyako (sushi) penned for Harpers On-Trade magazine, as well as a
 brief investigation into and review of sushi restaurants in Manchester... Plus a few thoughts on licensing policy and growth of late bars in the city centre...

And there's more Madchester food etc. on this page:
City Life (Manchester) 1998-2003: wine columns, food & drink guide and travel pieces...

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