Our dear editor in chief (Hervé Lalau, for those who have no idea who runs this sloppy shop), in his great and incommensurable wisdom, has discretly suggested that we tune into the seasonal spirit this week by talking about sparkling wines. I had no particular objection to this, despite the fact that I seem to increasingly lack this so-called seasonal spirit of celebration (of what exactly?), and also that I had planned to talk about Cornas today. That can now wait. I have also been allotted the task of talking a bit about the French market, but have been given the liberty to pick and present a few sparklers from anywhere, provided that at least one of them is a Champagne. It will be so, but more of that later….
If Champagne comes from a particular part of north-eastern France, as a sparkling wine it was of course invented in England in the 17th century. I won’t go into the details here but it all hangs together very well and the story has been told by both French and English historians (not so much by Champagne producers as you can imagine!). Here is link to a BBC site that tells just a small part of the story :https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-gloucestershire-39963098
Back to today and the French market, which consumed, in 2017, exactly half of the Champagne sent out by its many producers. If this is true in terms of volume, the proportion drops in value to around 43% as much of the more expensive ones go to export markets such as the USA and the UK. This means that the French (and visitors to that country) drank around 150 million bottles of the stuff last year, making them by far the largest market for Champagne, both in terms of volume, value and indeed per capita consumption.
If the markets for Champagne were created by what are known as « houses », ie brands, and usually big ones, these structures only own 10% of the vineyards and so are dependant on the grape growers and their cooperatives for a steady supply of grapes and/or must to make their wines. Whilst these major brands then export most of their Champagne (60%), the small growers who do make wines (a minority amongst the 15,000 grape growers) rely heavily on the domestic market to the tune of 87% for their sales.
I cannot tell you much that is statistically significant about what kinds of Champagnes the French drink (by this I mean brut non-vintage, demi-sec, rosé, vintage and special cuvées, etc) as there are apparently no such figures available for the domestic market, unlike for exports. Despite minority trends such as un-dosed Champagne (which I rarely enjoy much) and a predicatble rise of pink Champagne in line with fashion, I suppose that the vast majority of Champagne drunk in France is still non-vintage brut.
The domestic French market has been declining gradually since 2011, partly for economic reasons, and perhaps also partly on account of competition from less expensive sparklers from various other regions in France. The best of these are usually called « Crémants » tagged on to the name of the region concerned. So we have Cremant d’Alsace, Crémant de Loire, Crémant de Bourgogne, and so on. There are six of these regions, and some of them produce very decent stuff that is usually quite a bit cheaper and as good, if not better, than indifferent quality Champagnes.
Now for my choice of sparkling wines, including Champagne
This is not based on any serious comparative tasting, but rather on wines that I have tasted more or less recently and which stand out in my admittedly deficient memory. There will be five wines: two of them come from Australia, one from Austria, and two from Champagne. Let’s start by travelling to the Antipodes:
Jansz, Premium Cuvée (NV), Tasmania, Australia
This firm started life as a joint venture involving Champagne Roederer, but was acquired in 1997 by the Hill-Smith family. This is provocatively described as using the « méthode tasmanoise » showing that it’s producers share a sense of humour and some knowledge of the French language. It retails in Australia for 30 dollars, and for 22 euros in France. It is the result of a blend from various vineyards in Tasmania, whose cool climate has made it a happy hunting ground for several sparkling wine producers and quite a few top still wines also.
A pale gold colour with its aromas showing primary touches of green apples and lempn as well as a hint of something like tarragon. More rounded secondary aromas such as fresh bread, pastry and hazelnuts show that this has been aged for a decent amount of time on its lees. The palate is quite full and rounded, without losing any focus or crispness and the dosage is totally integrated. It has very good length and represents excellent value for a wine that would shame many a Champagne at this price level (22 euros in France). I also tasted half of a bottle that had, by accident, lost almost all of its gas, and the wine behind the bubbles was very good, which says a lot for the quality of the base material.
Grant Burge, sparkling Shiraz-Cabernet (NV), South Australia
Here we have what to many will seem as a curiosity: a sparking red wine, and one made from two rather tannic grape varieties. But in fact it follows a long tradition of sparkling red wines that were quite popular in Champagne and in Burgundy during the 19th century. One can still find the occasional wine of this type in the Saumur region, made from Cabernet Franc. To cover the tannins of these red grapes, the dosage levels need to be quite high, making this kind of wine a credible option either for an aperitif drink or with a dessert using red fruit, for example.
A bright ruby colour and quite a bit of foam in the glass to start with. The nose is complex with initial notes that are more tertiary and oxydative than anythng else (leather, woodland, etc) but which are then under-scored by primary notes of slightly jammy red fruit. This character carries through on the palate, helped along by a dosage in sugar that rounds out the tannins of these two varieties. The result is quite delicious and the bubbles make the whole thing seem almost light, even if it is quite a mouthful. Definitely worth a try at around 20 euros.
Bründlmayer Brut Rosé, Langenlois, Austria
I tasted this wine at a food and wine fair in Vienna last spring and I can still remember just how good it tasted at the time. In fact I have been waiting for an opportunity to talk about it ever since. It is made essentially from the red varieties Pinot Noir, Zweigelt and St Laurent. Grapes are sourced from different chalky plots in this producer’s vineyards near the Danube on mainly south-east facing slopes. The base wines are vinified separately and undergo malolactic fermentation. I cannot find my tasting notes for this wine but I remember being struck by its wonderful freshness and energy, as well as the precision of its flavours. I thought at the time that this was easily on a par with several top Champagnes. Since then, Austria has declared a specific appellation with some very severe quality stipulations for its top sparklers. This, as well as its white stable companion, is well worth looking for, as indeed are the excellent still wines from this fine producer. It also represents excellent value (25 euros at most in Austria)
Yann Alexandre, Sous les Roses Blanc de Noirs (NV)
This comes from an independant Champagne producer whom I picked out from quite a broad tasting of wines from others of his ilk last year. So I visited him earlier this year and was even more convinced by the quality of his wines, a good part of which derives from some very painstaking work in the vineyards which are spread out over numerous plots in sereval areas, giving him a palate of wines for his blends.
This wine show a broad spectrum and plenty of complexity with great ageing potential. The primary fruit aromas and flavours are very savoury and show great length. It is very pure and equally sapid on the palate and it clearly can be drink now with pleasure, or else be kept to allow a few years of patina to add layers of complexity. A, excellent Champagne that is worth its price of around 45 euros
I will now finish with a rare and admittedly expensive bottle that I tasted with friends just last week and which is exceptionally good. Another Champagne and definitely a once-a-year kind of thing probably.
Champagne Jacquesson 2002 (late disgorged December 2017)
Ok this is expensive and I know that I can be critical of wines with high prices. But it is very good indeed and shows that top Champagnes can be great wines in a wider field, as well as wines that can age beautifully. Released some 16 years after it’s date of harvest, this still has decades ahead ot it for those who have patience.
The colour is a deep gold. The aromatics take a while to develop after opening, but have great complexity and finesse, with touches of white truffle, gingerbread and dried fruit. The flavours are sapid and very long-lasting, thanks partly to very judicious and delicate dosage that has not made the mistake of forgetting this essential part of Champagne production (it is an extra-brut and not a brut zero). The balance seemed perfect to me, complex and well rounded by time without any agressiveness from an over-dry finish. A truly great bottle of Champagne, but you will have to pay around 200 euros for one.
Best seasonal greetings to all, and hoping that you can find some of these wines wherever you are.