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Imbibe Ice Awards 2008 - Champagne

Champagne

What do your customers want from a prestige cuvée champagne? Is it just a matter of showing off, a desire to be seen buying the most expensive champagne on the list? Or are they after a star quality wine?

The sad truth is that there are rather more customers in the former camp than the latter. But if prestige cuvée champagne is really to be seen as the pinnacle of excellence – the very best sparkling wine that can be made – then surely it should be ready to drink when it’s first sold, and ideally close to or at its peak.

That was what our panel of judges were looking for: something exciting, close to its peak and with a level of complexity, concentration and panache you wouldn’t find in a regular non-vintage cuvée.

Youthfulness meant that this wasn’t always the case here; a reflection not on the inherent quality of the wines but on the fact that some simply weren’t anywhere near their best yet.

Nonetheless, even with burgeoning demand from the public meaning that producers look set to keep on releasing these great wines too young, there was still plenty of reasons for the judges to get excited in this category.

All the wines had to be current releases that were available to the on-trade, and ranged between 1999 and 1995. Tasting was carried out from youngest to oldest, finishing with blancs de blancs.

So what did our team of tasters find? Well, not Dom Pérignon, Krug or Roederer for starters, since these three brands declined to enter. But there was still a premier league line-up, with many of the 30-odd prestige cuvées demonstrating terrific class and great potential.


ICE winner

Billecart-Salmon Cuvee Nicolas Francois billecart 1998

Top wine of the generally richer 1998 vintage, this was Aidan Bryan of Claridges’ top wine, and a consistent high scorer throughout. Though some thought it a little young still, it clearly has the structure for the long haul, and did creditably well in terms of luxury appeal, too. ‘Honeyed melba fruit, toasted brioche, very attractive marzipan and floral notes,’ said a happy Chris Losh. While Roberto della Pietra enjoyed its ‘intense biscuity, nutty nose,’ and Christine Parkinson savoured the fact it was ‘spicy, zesty and vibrant with a long finish’.


ICE runners-up

2nd Taittinger, Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs 1998

Another good effort from 1998. ‘Fresh, with a lifted citrus attack, still quite tight but with a long future,’ said Giles Fallowfield. ‘Balanced with good length, the most food-friendly blanc de blancs,’ said Ken Muspratt.

Hatch Mansfield, 01344 871800

3rd Salon 1996

The highest scorer from the impressive 1996 vintage that was both very ripe and had the highest level of acidity for many years. ‘Classy, elegant, attractive with a great structure,’ said Chris Losh. ‘Lovely vibrant floral notes on the nose, rich and fruity with attractive minerality,’ added Martin Lam.

Corney & Barrow, 020 7265 2430

4th Veuve Clicquot, La Grande Dame 1998

Proof that there’s substance behind the label, though the packaging was a big hit, too. ‘Mineral, toasty and floral with very fresh acidity,’ said Christine Parkinson. ‘Elegant with honey and floral notes, good length and complexity,’ noted Andrea Briccarello.

Moët Hennessy UK, 020 7235 9411

5th Bruno Paillard, Nec Plus Ultra 1995

This received the top tasting mark from several of the panel. Significantly, this wine was disgorged two years earlier in December 2005. But it was let down by its rather dull label. ‘Confit-spiced, dried fruit notes on the nose and a long finish,’ said Roberto della Pietra. ‘Meaty and savoury with an exquisite floral perfume, dried apricot and the structure to last,’ said Chris Losh.

Bibendum, 020 7449 4100

6th Dom Ruinart, Blanc de Blancs 1996

‘Savoury with notes of toasted nuts but still a little lean,’ said Christine Parkinson. ‘Complex and well balanced,’ added Andrea Briccarello.

Moët Hennessy UK, 020 7235 9411

7th Deutz, Cuvee William Deutz 1999

The highest scoring 1999 by a mile. ‘A great all rounder with decent fruit and attractive balancing acidity,’ said Ken Muspratt. ‘Harmonious, biscuity nose; zesty, vibrant and well balanced,’ noted Martin Lam.

Berkmann Wine Cellars, 020 7609 4711

8th Charles Heidsieck, Blanc des Millenaires 1995

‘Elegant and complex, with sweetly layered fruit and a long finish,’ said Andrea Briccarello. ‘Rich, dried apricot fruit and plenty of yeast autolysis. Big attack and then palate is really quite pure, with zingy acidity,’ added Chris Losh.

Maxxium UK, 01786 430500

9th Pol Roger, Cuvee Sir Winston Churchill 1998

Ken Muspratt admired its elegance, while Roberto della Pietra noted its ‘fantastic finish’. Andrew Connor praised its ‘balance and toasty notes,’ and Andrea Briccarello commented on ‘its creamy palate’.

Pol Roger UK, 01432 262800

10th henriot, cuvee enchanteleurs 1995

‘Powerful, taut and edgy’, said Andrew Connor, while Roberto della Pietra saw it as ‘lovely, fresh and biscuity with a long finish’.

Enotria, 020 8961 4411


Best by taste

1 Bruno Paillard, Nec Plus Ultra 1995
2 Deutz, Cuvée William Deutz 1999
3 Joseph Perrier, Cuvée Josephine 1995
4 Billecart-Salmon, Cuvée Nicolas François Billecart 1998
5 Charles Heidsieck, Blanc des Millenaires 1995
6 Henriot, Cuvée Enchanteleurs 1995
7 Salon 1996
8 Pol Roger, Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill 1998
9 Taittinger, Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs 1998
10 Dom Ruinart, Blanc de Blancs 1996

Best by design

1 Perrier-Jouët, Belle Epoque
2 Veuve Clicquot, La Grande Dame
3= Bollinger, La Grande Année
3= Taittinger, Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs
5 Dom Ruinart, Blanc de Blancs
6 Billecart-Salmon, Cuvée Nicolas François Billecart
7 Salon 
8 = Pol Roger, Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill
8 = Pannier, Cuvée Egerie
10 Pommery, Cuvée Louise

The Judges

Ken Muspratt – head sommelier, Hush

Andrea Briccarello – head sommelier, Bentley’s

Martin Lam – proprietor, Ransome’s Dock

Aidan Bryan – bar manager, Claridges

Christine Parkinson – wine buyer, Hakkasan

Chris Losh – editor, Imbibe

Andrew Connor – head sommelier, The Lanesborough

Roberto della Pietra – head sommelier/wine buyer, Roussillon


A digression on disgorgement

Disgorgement: process by which sediment is removed from the neck of the bottle. Those with more bottle-ageing post disgorgement tend to show more complexity.

Freshness is certainly a desirable quality in any champagne, but I’d be willing to swap some freshness for richness and complexity, writes Giles Fallowfield. Judging from the (fully bulbous) shape of most of the corks, it was obvious that most of these wines had been disgorged recently in 2007.

All of which goes some way towards explaining why the 1995 vintage provided four out of the top six wines, judged purely on taste. This wasn’t only because 1995 is a top vintage, or because the wines from this harvest had aged longer per se, but may well be due to the fact that three of the four examples had quite a bit of post disgorgement bottle-age.

Indeed, fifth-placed Charles Heidsieck could have done better still, but for the fact that the recently disgorged example wasn’t showing the complexity I’d seen previously.


THE LOOK: TWO SCHOOLS TRIUMPH

The two winners when it came to packaging with the ‘wow factor’ were, by some margin, Perrier-Jouët Belle Époque and Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame. Interestingly these two champagnes effectively represented the best of two opposite schools of thought.

Perrier-Jouët’s highly decorative art nouveau-style bottle, with the pretty Emile Gallé-designed flower motif, stands in complete contrast to the stylish minimalism of Clicquot’s
iconic yellow label which is set against a dark background.

The judges noted however, that for wines that are rarely likely to sell for less than £200 a bottle in restaurants, many of the other champagnes were let down by their packaging: too dull, too understated or too over the top – and probably aimed either at the Far East or Russian markets, where lashings of gold aren’t a problem.


Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine - January / February 2008

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