Champagne: In Search of Good Taste

In his second column, Matt Pym, CALIBRE’s resident wine expert, takes a look at what constitutes good taste and nominates his Magnificent Seven Champagnes.

Some things happen when one works in the drinks trade.  At restaurants, wine lists automatically get handed to me (not a problem), dinner party guests rarely bring wine (which results in a house full of blooms and a sensational cheese board), and friends regularly ask for advice on what wine they should drink, what tastes good. Buying advice I can cover, and will continue to do so in these hallowed pages, but how does one define what tastes good? And does that differ from good taste?

Such were my musings as I sat on the train into London, to attend the recent ‘Taste Champagne 2019’ event organised by the Aussie wine writer Tyson Stelzer (International Wine Writer of the Year, no less). Ah Champagne, that most prestigious of drinks. Beloved throughout history, by old money and new, from rulers to rappers, from Russian tzars to, well, Russian oligarchs.

And the Champagne you buy makes a statement about you, about your ‘taste’.  Spending hundreds, even thousands, of pounds in a nightclub on big bottles of luxury cuvée champagnes says you are, or want to be, a footballer or a rapper, though most onlookers will assume that you are just a (bit of a) banker…..

The UK is the largest export market for Champagne in the world – we love the stuff.  Last year we imported nearly 27 million bottles. I won’t bore you with the production details; suffice to say it’s generally made from a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, and it’s fizzy, which is created by a secondary fermentation in bottle. Those wanting more in-depth knowledge should consult Google (or Bing which has recently and highly annoyingly annexed my Mac’s search facility, but I digress).

photo by Leif Carlsson

As with most things vinous, the best wines are those made in the best sites, on the best soils, and using the best equipment. Importantly they are also increasingly those made using the least intervention and most sustainable methods; like all agricultural produce, fewer chemicals plus more natural methods equals a better final product….who knew? But, where Champagne differs from all others is the association with celebration and prestige. The word itself is synonymous with wealth, decadence and fun. A triumph of taste and marketing. Like many luxury products, it has also long been a way of saying ‘look at me’. Yet, having such a high profile image is not without controversy.

In 2006, Frédéric Rouzaud, MD of Louis Roederer Champagne (who produce Cristal) was asked if he thought the association with hip hop artists would harm the brand.  He replied, ‘that’s a good question, but what can we do? We can’t forbid people from buying it. I’m sure Dom Pérignon or Krug would be delighted to have their business.’ Perhaps unsurprisingly, Jay Zee, who at the time regularly rapped about and was seen drinking Cristal, took umbrage. He immediately and very publicly boycotted Cristal, promising to “no longer support any of his products.” Jay Zee was true to his word, even going on to invest in the next Champagne of choice in the prestige stakes, Armand de Brignac (AKA Ace of Spades).

I’d originally expected this piece to be purely about these luxury or prestige cuvée s that most Champagne Houses make. But after an hour or swilling and spitting, once again selflessly putting my palate on the line for my profession, I realised that I was missing the point. Now, don’t get me wrong here, these famous luxury wines are GREAT champagnes. They are painstakingly and lovingly made and they do taste very, very good but in the end I resolved to forget the names, the price tags and prestige, and focus on the taste.

And this is the key to the whole thing about wine, it really is about what YOU like. People like me can give advice and the benefit of our experience, but it’s hard not to be in the wine trade for very long without becoming a bit of a wine snob – and if you like a certain wine that may be considered unfashionable or naff, who am I or anyone else to tell you that you’re wrong? This is still, at the time of writing, a free country.So, my advice is simply this: trust your instincts and your taste buds. I would always urge you to really think about what it tastes like: does it have concentration of flavour, a balance between fruit, alcohol, structure and alcohol? And if you really think about it, and still like it, that should be good enough for anyone.

What I can do is to hopefully point you in the direction of things that you will like. Having tirelessly tasted Champagne for most of the day, I narrowed my recommendations down to a Magnificent Seven, covering a spectrum of styles and prices. Many of these are real ‘Wine Trade’ favourites, wines I’ve been lucky enough to drink consistently for most of my adult life, and their quality is guaranteed. They do taste good, at least to me. I hope you like them too, but if not, well that’s where our tastes differ.

Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve

Charles Heidsieck relentlessly wins medals and trophies for its wines – the company may not have the marketing clout of some of the most famous marques, but it punches well above its weight on quality.  As a non-vintage blend, the idea is to maintain a consistent house style throughout the years, irrespective of individual vintage conditions, and this is achieved by blending a base of a single vintage wine with many different ‘reserve wines’ from previous years. For this, their standard champagne, around half of the blend consists of reserve wines, the oldest of which date back to 1990! And you can see that in the wine itself; it is honeyed, rich and powerful, with biscuit and brioche notes combined with lemon curd.  For the money this is hard to beat.

NB – I also tried this from Jeroboam (3L bottle), to compare. Of course these big bottles look amazing, but this even tasted better than from the 75cl bottle, which is saying something. Great fun for parties.

Price: £25-£30 per bottle

photo by Leif Carlsson

Billecart Salmon Brut Rosé

For me this is the benchmark for rosé Champagne.  Renowned for its grace and finesse, this is a blend of all three of the main Champagne grapes which then undergo a long, slow, cool fermentation.

The result is a very pale, very beautiful colour in the glass, which follows through in the mouth showing delicate flavours of raspberry, strawberry and citrus fruits held together by a fine persistent mousse.

Price: £40-£50 per bottle

Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs 2007

The only 100% Chardonnay wine on this list, this is always one of my absolute favourites. It’s like drinking fine, mature white Burgundy, but with bubbles. This wine receives nearly 10 years on ageing on lees in the bottle, yet retains real freshness and a lightness of touch.

Full of fresh fruits and floral notes, there are lovely toasty, bready flavours and a touch of salinity on the finish.

Price: £85-£100 per bottle

 

Krug Grand Cuvée

Regrettably this wine wasn’t on show at the tasting, but I couldn’t write this piece and not include Krug Grand Cuvée. It shows a deep gold colour, an expansive (and expensive) nose, and a dense, creamy texture.

Krug somehow manages to combine power, grace, freshness and maturity all at the same time. And like all great wine, those flavours last and last.  For a non-vintage, consistent style, this is hard to improve upon.

Price: £120-£130 per bottle

Louis Roederer Brut Vintage 2012

Increasingly using organic and biodynamic principals in their vineyards, Louis Roederer is at the forefront of Champagne’s leading lights. Best known of course for Cristal, I found its 2012 vintage to be absolutely superb.  Two-thirds Pinot Noir and one third Chardonnay, this is aged for at least four years on lees in their cellars.

The wine displays a lovely balance of toffee, toast and even chocolate combined with candied fruits. Powerful for sure, but beautifully poised and balanced too.

Price: £40-£50 per bottle

Bollinger Grand Année 2008

2008 is a superlative vintage in Champagne, and Bollinger is a superlative House, so it isn’t a surprise that this Champagne makes the list. A blend of 79% Pinot Noir and 21% Chardonnay, this is entirely fermented in oak barrels.

A beautiful golden colour in the glass, this is a powerful, rich and toasty wine, though with delicate notes of chalky minerals and orange peel intertwined. Wonderful now, but will age well for many years.

Price: £85-£100

 

 

Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill 2008

Pol Roger was the Champagne of choice for Winston Churchill – he regularly drank it by the pint bottle (yes, pint bottle) having fallen in love with the 1928 vintage. He described the home of Pol Roger as “the most drinkable address in the world”. This luxury cuvée is made in homage to him, and tries to embody some of his most famous traits – robustness, full bodied and mature!

The 2008 is wonderful, showing floral notes over a base of vanilla and brioche.  This is only made in tiny quantities, the last of which is being released in late June to the market, so you’ll need to get in quick to get hold of some.

Price: £150-£160 per bottle

 

Matt Pym has over twenty years in the wine trade. Starting on shop floor, mostly as a buyer, he rose to run the buying team at Majestic, the UK’s largest wine specialist chain. His extensive experience across all regions and styles has seen him act as the senior judge at many international wine competitions, including International Wine Challenge, International Wine and Spirits Competition, and Decanter World Wine Awards. He now works as a freelance consultant to wineries around the world.

He can be contacted via his website, Pym My Wine.