Champagne may have been shunned in favour of Prosecco and Cava during the downturn, but it’s making a come-back, and Raymond Blake has the steer on which ones you should be sipping
We are being told on a weekly – nay, daily – basis that the recession is over and boom times are, if not quite back, then just around the next corner. The Celtic Phoenix is about to rise from the ashes and those putting voice to dire warnings about lessons not learned and imminent catastrophe ahead are largely being ignored. All sorts of statistics can be cited as evidence of the good times returning: spiralling house prices, skyrocketing rents, new car sales and so on.
My own, admittedly unscientific, measure of the strength of the Irish economy is the number of Champagne tastings that were hosted in the last year by importers keen to entice lovers of bubbles back from the Proseccos, Cavas and other sparklers that ate into Champagne’s market share in the bleak years after the crash. The grandest tasting of them all was one featuring a quintet from the LVMH stable: Moët & Chandon, Ruinart, Veuve Clicquot, Krug and Dom Pérignon. The latter four showed well, especially the Ruinart and the Krug, the only slacker being the Moët & Chandon, which was pretty weak-kneed beside the others, lacking vigour and life on the palate by comparison with their vivid flavours.
Other big names that made memorable impressions were Pol Roger, whose 2006 is drinking beautifully at just over a decade old, and Bollinger, whose La Grande Année 2007 could easily handle another decade in the cellar before its full panoply of charms is revealed. Delicious, crafted succulence was their hallmark yet it was the smaller, lesser-known names, a trio of which are recommended below, that dazzled the palate thanks to their character and individuality. There is no doubting these Champagnes’ quality – each is an excellent example of why, at its best, Champagne is the best sparkler of them all – but they will have their fans and those whose taste buds will look elsewhere for satisfaction. Which is just the way I like it.
Only a few years ago it seemed that Champagne was either safe and satisfying from the big brands, or mean and swingeing from a host of producers who sought to sell on price alone. The landscape is far more varied and exciting now, wines of real personality abound, and new ones are discovered with delightful regularity. So the boom times are back? You decide.
IS CHAMPAGNE WINE?
It is a question I am often asked, to which the reply is a trenchant ‘Yes!’ True, Champagne is one of the most ‘manipulated’ of wines, meaning that, as with fortified wines, much of the character of the final wine derives from winemaking processes in the cellar rather than the vineyards in which the grapes are grown. Yet recent years have seen an increasing awareness amongst all producers of the kudos to be gained with savvy consumers by emphasising the vineyard origin of their wines rather than simply relying on a brand name to sell their wine. It is a trend that is bound to accelerate in the coming years and it is wholly to be welcomed.
THREE TO TRY
Larmandier-Bernier, 'Latitude' Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut
Next year sees the thirtieth anniversary of husband and wife Pierre and Sophie Larmandier taking charge of this family estate and, in those three decades, their fastidious attention to detail has seen Larmandier-Bernier take its place as one of the great small names of Champagne. For some Champagne aficionados, Blanc de Blancs is the ultimate style – it occupies the moral high ground as it were, in the process exuding effortless refinement and elegance. A sip of this beauty reveals why: there is no hint of aggression, no hard edges, just a gorgeous flow of deep and satisfying flavour.
Delamotte is part of the Laurent-Perrier stable and is a cousin of the famed Salon, so it doesn’t lack for an impressive genealogy. If a single word could be used to describe this Champagne it is ‘balance’. The blend usually comprises about 55 per cent Chardonnay, 35 Pinot Noir and 10 Pinot Meunier and such is the seamless blending of the three that the wine disappears out of the glass with alarming rapidity. The fruit is ripe, delicate and juicy; there’s polish and finesse and clean length on the finish. All of which makes it a perfect aperitif Champagne.
Bérêche & Fils, Brut Reserve NV
A sea-breeze fresh nose with even a whiff of iodine signals a Champagne of note, one that calls for, nay demands, all your attention to be fully appreciated. Zippy-fresh, lemon sherbet flavours follow on the rapier-sharp palate. There is intensity with a hint of refined austerity; if it is lush, charming flavours that you are after then you will need to look elsewhere. The mineral tautness keeps it lively all the way to the finish. It is absolutely delicious and would easily match with many seafoods. Oysters with nothing but a squeeze of lemon would be my preference.