It is normally with great eagerness and anticipation that an invitation to attend the annual CIVC tasting is received. Each year, I have continued to traipse along to the event (traditionally held at Banqueting House on Whitehall in London) to sample the latest vinous offerings from the Champagne region. Over the past few months, much has been communicated by various Champenois mandarins and PR spin doctors and written in the wine press by a plethora of editors and hacks about the challenges which the Champagne region faces. These reasons are mainly due to current economic times and the hike in prices, and all of that entails. In addition, allegedly, one minute sales are up and everyone is enjoying a bumper boost in their figures and the next, they are down and the big squeeze is on.
The Champagne region, with its iconic brands are continually faced with increasing sales, growth and development of other sparkling wines, that are gradually encroaching on their own markets and customers. In fact, competition is rife, not only within Champagne itself, but also within the sparkling wine category, as a whole. With regards to overall Champagne sales, allegedly volume is down, but value is up. In other words, we are buying less Champagne, but are choosing to trade up to purchase better quality and more expensive wines. Champagne, always regarded as a luxury product, is currently enjoying rapid growth in emerging markets such as China, Russia and Brazil. However, it is apparently ‘struggling’ in its most loyal and traditional European markets, especially in the UK. To tell you the truth, I am a little bit confused. Who do you believe? Moreover, if I am confused, then more than likely, so are you too!
With everything, the best way to judge something is to taste it for yourself and form your own opinion. In addition, I was going along to the annual CIVC tasting with some preconceived ideas and certain expectations. The event is organised very well each year by Peretti Communications, with the enormous salon being split into two sections: the non vintage wines and the vintage wines – both categories are clearly marked on two separate tables. This makes it very easy for you to taste all of the wines and there is always plenty of room to move around. Furthermore, if you wish to engage with the vignerons, representatives and brand ambassadors, then they are all located around the room on their own tables.
I sincerely believe that every wine has its day. For instance, in the past whenever I have attended the annual Champagne tasting, the current vintage, whichever is showing has an opportunity to reveal its individual charms and/or to display its evolution in bottle and/or real potential for further ageing. Last year, for example, everyone had “written off” the 2003 vintage because of its atypical nature and exotic personality. For me, the wines from the excellent 2002 vintage showed really well. So, this year I was very intrigued to see which wines would be in full blossom on the vintage table. In addition, the majority of the current release wines came from 2004, 2005 and 2006, some even younger. However, unfortunately for me at this year’s tasting there were more disappointments than highlights. I was pleasantly surprised that the 2000′s that I tasted were absolutely delicious and still remained distinctly fresh. But unfortunately many of the younger vintage wines were either bland and insipid and/or ‘over-the-hill’ and lacked structure.
So, here we go with a few recommendations…
NV Tarlant “Brut Zero” – no dosage. Bone dry, salty minerality with a long, mouth-watering finish. This wine is screaming out for a platter of fresh oysters! The “Brut Zero” makes up around 80% of the Tarlant family’s production and could be described as Benoit Tarlant’s liquid business card. More to follow from my recent visit to Tarlant (located in Oeuilly, Vallee de la Marne) on our road trip around Champagne.
NV Gosset “Blanc de Blancs” – released in October 2011. Brand new and exciting project from this historic and elegant Champagne house. A blend of 15 ‘crus‘ – 4 in Montagne de Reims and 11 in Cote des Blancs. Based on 2005, with additions of reserve wines from 2004/03. Delicious, fresh and displays citrus/apple flavours on palate. Perfect aperitif.
NV Billecart-Salmon – consistently good from this well-established house. More to follow from our recent road trip to Champagne.
NV Bollinger “Special Cuvee” – consistently good and ticks all the boxes.
NV Deutz “Brut Classic” – light, fresh, dry with some lovely floral notes.
NV Jacquesson “Cuvee 735″ – Assemblage made up of 72% from 2007 vintage, 26% from 2006 and 6% from 2005. Spot on with typical attention to detail from the Chicquet brothers. More to follow from my recent visit to Jacquesson on our road trip around Champagne.
NV Larmandier-Bernier “Terre de Vertus” Premier Cru Blanc de Blancs (No dosage) - new label since 2007. Delicious, expressive, natural, mineral, energetic and pure. More to follow from my recent visit to Larmandier-Bernier on our road trip around Champagne. A personal favourite of mine for many years.
NV Louis Roederer “Brut Premier” – consistently good. Natch.
NV Pol Roger “Brut Reserve” - ditto. A perennial favourite.
1999 Bruno Paillard – fresh, lively, floral, citrus nuances with a lovely delicate mouthfeel.
2000 Charles Heidsieck – on nose: hot buttered toast in a glass. Spot on right now. Opulent mouthfeel, perfectly-poised on palate with long, elegant finish.
2000 Gosset – pleasant and appealing floral, bergamot and elderflower aromas on nose. Very fresh, elegant, sumptuous and utterly delicious.
2000 Tarlant – wow!! My favourite wine of the day. More to follow.
2001 Philipponnat “Clos des Goisses” – ditto!! A real treat, even though according to Champagne expert Tom Stevenson “Charles Philipponnat is absolutely mad to release a Clos des Goisses from this vintage“. More to follow from my recent visit to this iconic estate on our road trip around Champagne.
2002 Piper Heidsieck “Cuvee Rare” – to tell you the truth, I am very sceptical when it comes to tasting wines, especially Champagnes whose bottles are adorned in shiny, eye-catching ’bling’. However, this special cuvee from Piper did not disappoint. It is a blend of 70% Chardonnay and 30% Pinot Noir. Since its inception in 1976, the wine has only been produced in 8 vintages – hence the name ‘rare’. The quality I liked the most about this Champagne was its food-friendliness.
2002 Bollinger “Grande Annee” – excellent, focused, well-structured, firm backbone and core, yet fresh, fruity and vibrant.
2002 Jacquesson – boom!! This was my pick of the 2002′s and has great depth, complexity and character. Still plenty of ageing potential. Refer to follow up blog article for more information. Please note: the 2002 is the last of the ‘classic blend’ vintage Champagnes produced under the Jacquesson label. From now on they will focus on their four single vineyard, single varietal and single vintage wines, e.g 2002 Avize Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs, as well as still continuing to produce their NV “700″ series blend.
2004 Le Mesnil “Blanc de Blancs” – almost samphire-like salty minerality, crunchy green apple and mouth-watering acidity. Approachable and very satisfying.
2005 H.Blin – I really enjoyed this one. Already approachable and a nice discovery amongst a whole plethora of lack-lustre disappointments.
2005 Louis Roederer – good, but needs time.
2005 Moutard Pere et Fils “6 Cepages” – a curious blend of six Champenois grape varieties produced in the more southerly Aube district. This lesser-known region allows the production of other, more obscure grape varieties to be blended into the Champagne wine. This one is really interesting and will appeal to a Champagne lover, who is looking for something a little bit different. It displays lovely apple and floral aromas.
2006 Larmandier-Bernier “Cramant” Grand Cru Vieilles Vignes Blanc de Blancs – fresh, pure, lively, expressive with bags of fruit and perfectly balanced. Delicious salty minerality and mouth-watering acidity on long, persistent finish. More to follow, including a video interview with talented winemaker Pierre Larmandier talking about biodynamics during my recent visit to Larmandier-Bernier on our road trip around Champagne.
In the final anaylsis, for me the vintage which showed well at this year’s CIVC tasting was 2000. In my opinion, most of the wines from 2002 were already ‘tired’ and tasted as if they had nothing left in the tank. This really disappointed me, as I had high expectations for these wines. In addition, unfortunately most of the younger wines showed little promise either. Yes, most of them showed attractive and approachable fruity aromas, but seemed to lack any real depth and substance. I prefer wines with a bit of bottle age too.
With regards to non-vintage Champagnes, it is all about consistency, not only on style and meeting consumers’ expectations and demands, but also delivering value for money. Most of the wines within this category ticked my boxes. Perhaps I am being rather picky, but nowadays it has become much harder to find a decent quality Champagne, whether vintage or not, which can fully justify the high prices in the marketplace.
Finally, it was very difficult not to notice “Please note: there will be no lunch served this year” emblazoned on the invitation. For those of you who are not aware the CIVC lunch at Banqueting House has gained a rather iconic reputation. Perhaps, this was a ploy by the Champagne Bureau to deter the usual freeloaders and chattering classes to attend the CIVC tasting, as they would normally come just to enjoy a slap-up lunch and quaff on free fizz all day long? Luckily, I made sure I had a big bowl of porridge and large flat white beforehand. Moreover, perhaps even the Champenois are having to tighten their belts like the rest of us…
As mentioned earlier, I will be posting more Champagne-related blog articles, tasting notes and videos in due course.
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The epicurean odyssey continues…