A vintage evening

Private Capital organized a blind tasting of 32 champagnes at Nicholini''s in the Conrad Hotel in Hong Kong. So which were the very best of the best? Read on to find out.

Reprinted from the Summer 2005 edition of Private Capital

Champagne. No other word in the vinous lexicon is quite so evocative or conjures up such a potent image of celebration, luxury and style. It welcomes us into the world, it is de rigeur at weddings, and likely as not, is the final gesture when we depart. No Grand Prix, ship launching, or IPO listing would be complete without it, and every occasion is enhanced by it.

It truly ranks alongside Coca-Cola, Microsoft and Rolls Royce as one of the great global brands. It is also, above all, the wine of, laughter, warmth and friendship, or to paraphrase the old champenois toast, "here's champagne to my real friends... and real pain to my sham friends".

Champagne is made in the Marne Aisne and Aube districts of Northern France, East of Paris, centred on Reims and Epernay. The permitted grape varieties, essentially are Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier, with Pinot Meunier very much in the minority. The Appellation Controlée system grades the villages and their vineyards on a percentage basis with those deemed the best - grands crus - rating 100%, and the next level down -premiers crus - 90%-99%.

But it is the way champagne is made - the méthode champenoise - which is the key to champagne, and its unique effervescence and complexity.

A bit of history

From its origins in the sixteenth century Abbey of St. Hilaire, this naturally sparkling wine was transposed to the chalky soils of the Marne valley and further developed, a hundred and fifty or so years later, by Dom Pérignon, legendary cellarmaster of the Abbey of Hautvillers. Dom Pérignon did not invent champagne but he was a master blender who was constantly seeking to improve the quality of his wines and who realised the importance of grape selection in making the best champagne he could. He also seems to have been the first person to produce clear white wines from black grapes, he invented the champagne press and he introduced a number of other technical refinements to the champagne making process.

In the three hundred or so years since his death, the méthode champenoise has further evolved, but the essential objective, to create a wine which is naturally sparkling as a result of a carefully controlled secondary fermentation in bottle, remains.

Essentially, the process starts with the newly pressed grapes' first fermentation in stainless steel tanks (or in rare cases, oak) followed by the assemblage, or blending of wines from different grape varieties, vintages (in the case of non-vintage) and villages by the 'chef de caves', to create a consistent house style - a highly skilled and complex art. After fining the wine is bottled with the addition of a dose of 'liqueur de tirage', a mixture of wine, sugar and yeast to stimulate the secondary fermentation, then sealed with a cap.

Following the completion of the secondary fermentation, the bottles are stacked at an angle neck down, for the remuage, a process of tapping or twisting the bottle to dislodge the sediment towards the seal, now almost universally carried out mechanically. At the conclusion of the remuage when the sediment has gathered at the neck of the bottle, the wine is ready for 'dégorgement', subject to having been kept on its lees for at least the minimum statutorily required time, in the case of non-vintage fifteen months.

The necks of the bottles are then plunged into a freezing brine, unstoppered and the plug of sediment removed, and the 'liqueur d'expedition' - a "dosage" of wine, sugar and grape spirit - is added, the bottles are corked and wired, labelled and ready for sale.

There are many other good méthode champenoise wines made outside the champagne region but none has to date challenged the supremacy of champagne itself, although it must be said there is also much mediocre champagne produced. Part of the reason is the unique chalky terroir and climate of the region, which produces a lean acidic, often barely ripe harvest, but which seems to empathise with the production process, and part is the dedication of the great champagne houses, or 'grands marques', many of which are now controlled by major commercial concerns, to the quality and consistency of their wines, supported in many cases by vast stocks of still wine for blending purposes.

Champagne is produced in a number of different categories, principally, non-vintage, a blended wine of a number of different years which tends to epitomise the style of the particular producer; vintage wines from years regarded as worthy of individual note; de luxe or prestige cuvées, being the grandest wines and the house flagship usually, but not always, vintage; and rosé which can be made either through maceration with red grape skins or with the addition of some local red wine, normally bouzy rouge, again either non-vintage or vintage. Some houses also produce a blanc de blancs, wine made from 100% chardonnay grapes - Taittinger's Comte de Champagnes is a brilliant example, or late disgorged wines which are left on their lees before bottling sometimes for many years to produce a rich, nutty mellow toasty style of wine, a particular speciality of Bollinger. Laurent Perrier produce an ultra brut, a bone dry wine without any dosage, while Veuve Clicquot's demi-sec or "rich" is made in a deliberately sweeter style.

The tasting

With Summer in full swing, it seemed a good time to compare a range of widely available champagnes of different styles from different makers under blind tasting conditions, to assess the quality and consistency of this unique product. A total of 32 different champagnes were gathered together and tasted in four different categories: non-vintage; vintage, from several different years; prestige cuvées; and rosé.

The tasting panel assembled by Private Capital consisted of Richard Orders, banker; Amanda Strang, model and actress; Eric Desgouttes, manager of Watson's Fine Wine Division; Paulo Pong, proprietor of Altaya Fine Wines; Candy Hsu, freelance writer; Stephen Williams, banker and vineyard owner; and Jennifer Fong, fashion designer and restaurateur.

The wines were covered in foil and tasted blind, and individually marked out of 20, with the whole event impeccably organized by Giovanni Viterale and his team at Nicholini's, who generously agreed to host us for the occasion and who did a marvellous job with all the logistics. All of the champagne was purchased by Private Capital, so as to ensure that no commercial biases would interfere with the tasting.

At the completion of the tasting, the panel compared tasting notes and marks across the four categories, and a lively exchange of views ensued - very much aided and abetted by the subject matter under discussion.

In the non-vintage category in which there were 11 examples, there was a unanimous conclusion that the wines were extremely consistent with very few marks separating them. "Much better than I thought they would be, several wines of real weight and class," commented Stephen, to which Paulo broadly concurred although he felt several of the wines were "a bit green" lacking the roundness that comes with more age.

The winner - by a nose as it were - was Billecart-Salmon with Eric noting its "persistent mousse" and "lively freshness", very closely followed by Louis Roederer with my own comment being that it was "a serious wine especially for non-vintage", and Paulo noting its "honeysuckle aromas earthy taste". Hard on its heels was the stylish and exuberant Pol Roger which Stephen found "well rounded with good length", with honourable mentions for Veuve Clicquot and Deutz.

The vintage category, where 10 examples were tasted, proved much more variable with three bottles plainly out of condition, and a much wider range of marks and views from the panel on the rest. This is partly due to differences in vintage character and age - there were bottles from '90, '95, '96, '97 and '98 - and also to the inclusion of several blanc de blancs. Interestingly, of the top three wines, two came from the recently released '98 vintage with one from the highly regarded austere and classical '96 vintage.

Of the top ranked wine, Veuve Clicquot '98 Amanda commented it was "fruity, nice bubbles, rounded and balanced" while Stephen liked its "biscuity aroma" although not scoring it as highly as some. The second ranked wine, Bollinger '96 was particularly liked by Paulo who gave it his joint highest mark describing it as "rich and serious" while Candy detected notes of "cinnamon and spice, classy".

The Taittinger '98 was third with my own notes stating it had a "refreshing elegance, hints of apple and citrus". The Dom Ruinart '90, from a great champagne vintage, and which was fourth, generated most disagreement, with Stephen giving it his joint highest mark, I scored it highly, but Eric and Candy giving it the thumbs down. Certainly, it had taken on many of the characteristics of old champagne, complex biscuity or yeasty aromas - pain grillé or brioche - a gentle mousse and rich and buttery flavours, but perhaps now needs drinking up.

In the prestige or deluxe group, there was an immediate step up. It is clear that the considerable additional cost of these wines delivers impeccable quality - and like the non-vintage wines, this was a very consistent group. From a very tightly marked bracket, the Bollinger RD '90 just nudged past the winning post.

Stephen commented on its mellow complexity and depth and said it "needs food", and spotted its RD character immediately, while Paulo liked its "maturity and class", with Jennifer noting its "amber smoothness". A mere mark or two behind came the Louis Roederer Cristal '96 with Steve admiring its length and toasty richness "everything you would expect from a deluxe cuvée" although Jennifer felt it "lacked complexity", Eric scored it joint top and Candy gave it her highest mark.

Also well rated and a clear third was the Dom Pérignon '96 which got my own top mark "pale, greeny gold, steely, dry, firm fruit great finessse, a long way to go" with Paulo also commenting "floral nose, good mousse, young and tight". Another wine much liked by some was the Taittinger Comte de Champagnes '95, one of the best blanc de blancs (100% chardonnay) showing an attractive minerality: dry, chalky, tingling, aristocratic a perfect aperitif.

More controversial was the Krug Grand Cuvée - in fact their non-vintage wine but by no means out of place in this exalted company (Singapore Airlines offer a choice of Krug or Dom Pérignon '96 in first class, or both of course, if you are in the mood). Paulo, in particular, liked its rich rounded flavours "mellow and yeasty" as did Stephen who found it "weighty and rich, oatmeal biscuits" while Jennifer noted a certain vegetal quality "smells like Pak Choy" but nevertheless liked it and gave it her highest mark with Eric giving it his joint lowest mark. All in all, however, a top quality group of very fine champagnes and while you may quibble at the price, you won't be disappointed by any of them.

And finally the rosés. There are those who say rosé is not really serious champagne, more suitable for the boudoir than the tasting room. 'Grown men in tights' as it's sometimes described. The legendary Madame Lily Bollinger adamantly maintained that champagne was essentially a white wine, although Bollinger has subsequently relented. But if rosé champagne is a joke, it is a very good one, as a number of those tasted demonstrated.

Perhaps the most immediately striking thing was the variation in colour from the bright lipstick red of the Taittinger to the pale salmon pink hue of Billecart-Salmon and Krug, perhaps reflective of different wine making methods. And it was the Krug which was comfortably voted top with Eric commenting "classic, tight and concentrated, serious wine" and Candy detecting aromas of "truffles and wet leaves".

Equal second came Billecart-Salmon and Laurent Perrier which Paulo and Steve both scored identically with Eric preferring the Laurent Perrier, which Amanda also liked noting the "nice balance, fruit, touch of sweetness". The wine that nobody liked was the Taittinger which I found "blowsy", and Stephen "a lollipops wine".

All in all a fascinating tasting which showed that after a wobble in the late '80s and '90 - when the pressure on stocks meant that many non-vintage wines in particular suffered from insufficient bottle age and were released overly green and acidic - champagne is by and large right back to form, helped by a succession of plentiful good to very good quality vintages.

It also brought home the tremendous difference in styles that exists in this highly versatile and complex of wines: the freshness and effervescence of the non-vintage wines contrasting with the mellow, nutty yeasty aromas and flavours of some of the older vintage wines of which the recently disgorged Bollinger '90, with the benefit of many years autolytic development on the lees, was the epitome. Or the weighty richness of the pinot dominated wines compared to the elegance and finesse of the blanc de blancs.

Champagne is not without its problems - since worldwide demand has not kept pace with the increase in supply. Nevertheless, the last decade or so has seen a steady increase in smaller 'boutique' houses making individualistic wines sometimes from, single plots, or a collection of small plots, which can be excellent, while the co-operatives continue to produce substantial quantities of champagne which vary greatly in quality.

While many of these lesser known names are available in Hong Kong and/or Singapore through specialist importers - look out for Francois Hemart and Lenoble to name two - a combination of time and palate fatigue limited us to the better known more widely distributed names. Of these it can certainly be said that champagne's image of luxury, mystique and quality is alive and well, and in very good hands.

Many of these champagnes are widely available from outlets such as Watson's Wine Cellar, Oliver's, Ponti Food and Wine Cellar, Berry Bros & Rudd, and Rémy Fine Wines in Hong Kong; and Vinum Fine Wine, and Booze Wine Shop in Singapore. In Hong Kong expect to pay HK$350-450 for non-vintage (Krug excepted), HK$450-1,000 for vintage wines, and HK$1,000-2,500 for prestige cuvée, with rosé varying enormously up to HK$2,500+ for Krug.

List of Champagnes Tasted


Non-vintage
Veuve Clicquot
Gosset
Deutz
Bollinger
Louis Roederer
Piper Heidsieck
Nicholas Feuillatte
Pol Roger
Laurent-Perrier
Lanson Black Label
Billecart-Salmon
__________________________

Vintage
Deutz Blanc de Blancs 96
Taittinger 98
Deutz 96
Veuve Clicquot 98
Nicholas Feuillate Blanc de Blancs 97
Billecart-Salmon Blanc de Blancs 95
Bollinger 96
Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs 90
Deutz 95
Piper Heidsieck 95
__________________________

Deluxe Cuvée
Taittinger, Blanc de Blancs Comtes de Champagne 95
Louis Roederer Cristal 96
Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame 95
Dom Perignon 96
Bollinger RD 90
Krug Grande Cuvée
__________________________

Rosé
Taittinger Rosé NV
Pol Roger Rosé 96
Billecart-Salmon Rosé NV
Laurent-Perrier Rosé NV
Krug Rosé NV


And the winners are...

Non-vintage
No. 1 Billecart-Salmon
No. 2 Louis Roederer
No. 3 Pol Roger

Vintage
No. 1 Veuve Clicquot 98
No. 2 Bollinger 96
No. 3 Taittinger 98

Deluxe Cuvée
No. 1 Bollinger RD 90
No. 2 Louis Roederer Cristal 96
No. 3 Dom Perignon 96

Rosé
No. 1 Krug Rosé NV
No. 2 (equals) Billecart-Salmon Rosé NV
Laurent-Perrier Rosé NV