Tis the season – good cheer, great friends and Champagne. For the longest time I remained dismissive of Champagne or any sparkling wine. I struggled to differentiate the flavours and aromas in the wines and they always resulted in a hangover. Turns out part of the problem was that if your budget is anything like mine, you’re more likely to be drinking tank or transfer method bubbles – the poor cousins of Champagne, rather than the genuine article.
Thankfully each of the wines at this tasting were selected to highlight a distinctly different style of Champagne. Each of the wines tasted was also a genuine French Champagne, a name that can only be applied to wines from Northeast France. Champagne is the coolest region in France, sitting at a latitude of 49⁰N – this is the same latitude as parts of Inner Mongolia and the top of Japan, with 49⁰S sitting 110km south of Stewart Island. At this degree of cold the focus of the base wines is to retain the natural acidity without showing too much fruit.
As well as having the where of things prescribed, Champagne must be made from some combination of pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier. Adding a little more or a little less of each varietal can impact the end wine as each varietal has its own character.
Pinot noir brings with it body, density and richness. Chardonnay adds the elegance and finesse to the end wine, along with a crisp acidity. Finally, pinot meunier shows as florality and fruit – it’s very perfumed. While pinot noir and chardonnay can be used on their own, pinot meunier always plays a supporting role.
As the percentages of each varietal are adjusted there are three distinct styles produced, from crisp, fresh and bright to soft, creamy and light, or richer, full bodied and yeasty. Those at the richer or beefier end of the scale tend to have a higher percentage of pinot noir and a longer autolysis.
As is the way at Wineseeker, the wines came with platters of well paired nibbles. Think triple cream cheeses, olives, almonds, caviar blinis, poached salmon. However, Michael did suggest that the ideal food match is fish and chips as good Champagne likes creamy and salty foods. He also pleaded with the guests: please, no strawberries, the sweetness of the fruit will render the wine rather bitter.
Albert Le Brun Brut NV RRP $55
60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay
Top wine of the night votes: 3
This is a creamy and round style; soft and easy, where the texture is key. This is a good example of the most familiar style in the market, the style with the largest production. The Le Brun brand is an old family house that was sold to American investors, but the family remains involved in the operations. The wine is very pale with a slight touch of green to it. Bready, biscuity and toasty on the nose with fleshy white pear aromas underlying the more savoury elements. Patience rewards you with the subtlety of nectarines. The effervescence of bubbles is very soft. There are hints of yeastiness but it’s not overpowering. Once the bubbles have passed you get a better sense of the base wine. It comes through as pears and nectarines. It’s very subtle, almost pinot gris-esque.
Bouby Legouge Brut NV RRP $90
40% Pinot Meunier
Top wine of the night votes: 3
Richer in colour and a much sweeter nose, with less toasty elements in comparison to the previous Brut. The high percentage of pinot meunier is providing a dominant florality and perfume character on both the nose and the palate. There’s an almost gewurz quality to the wine, with a big hit of rose perfume. The florality rounds out when enjoyed with the food on offer and results in a more balanced experience.
Dumangin Blanc de Blanc Extra Brut 2006 RRP $150
Top wine of the night votes: 2
As we move from the first two Brut wines to the third there are three distinct differences. Where the first two were Non-vintage, the third is a Vintage wine. The first two had multiple varietals, the third is Chardonnay only. Finally the first two are Brut, the final one Extra Brut.
With less than 6g/L of dosage the wine falls under the extra brut classification. It is fresher and crisper than the preceding two and with this freshness comes a lean minerality. The four years of time the wine spent on its lees has helped to build a strong brioche character. The extensive degree of dryness in the wine renders it more appropriate to a sipping experience. The wine shows a chablis-like base wine profile with a mix of savoury and salty character and touches of citrus. The sharpness is pulled into a softer, creamier state when paired with the saltiness in the olives.
Bouchard Blanc de Noir RRP $89
100% Pinot Noir
Top wine of the night votes: 10
A tiny producer with a total production of 70,000 over six wines. This wine shows a clear character of trampled straw, dung and general earthiness. Rich and elegant, the power and complexity on this one really sets the Blanc de Noir apart from the rest of the line-up. An initial touch of sulphur on the nose blows off quickly and reveals tiny touches of berries and notes of almond. The wine is heavier, richer and the fullest flavoured of the flight. The wine is a pleasure to come back to as it changes greatly with temperature, time and food.
Lamandier-Bernier Premier Cru Rose RRP $125
100% Pinot Noir
Top wine of the night votes: 3
A very berry nose that’s bright and fruity, really lovely. The palate is far more savoury with an elegant minerality or stoniness to it that helps to redeem the wine, bringing it back to being a serious rose. It is lighter on the bubbles than the others as the producer doesn’t really favour heavily bubbled Champagne. With the wine being under less pressure than normal, the aromatics are able to come through more clearly, providing a sappy red berries quality on the palate.
Egly-Ouriet Brut Tradition Grand Cru RRP $125
70% Pinot Noir and 30% Chardonnay
Top wine of the night votes: 5
Another small producer with about 68,000 bottles production per year across the range. The colour is starting to get darker – more of a champagne colour. It’s also starting to show a smokier, toastier quality. Super rich, with a full palate, this prestige cuvee shows a nice mix of a rather yeasty character with plenty of rock melon and red apple on the nose. The base wine was fermented in oak for additional richness and complexity with the body being amped up with the caviar blini.
Dom Perignon 2004 RRP $290
50% Chardonnay and 50% Pinot Noir
Top wine of the night votes: 8
Very smoky and toasty, nearly to the point of coming across as a bit burnt. The wine lingers and lasts an age; however, it is a bit skunky. This wine is all power and grunt without any elegance. Balance is the key to the Dom Perignon brand so this wine should be all about balance, with finesses being a close second. With a bit of time the smokiness starts to pass. And as the smokiness fades I’m better able to see the balance. However, I still don’t see any beauty. The caviar blinis help to soften the crispness of the wine but overall I don’t really enjoy it.
Laurent Perrier Demi-Sec NV RRP $95
45% Chardonnay, 35% Pinot Noir and 20% Pinot Meunier
Top wine of the night votes: 0
Being sequenced after the power of the Dom Perignon does something of a disservice to the more subtle and sweet aromas of the Laurent Perrier. Until relatively recently Champagne used to be much sweeter than it is today. It also used to be pink and cloudy. While this wine is clear and golden in colour it is otherwise a nod to the sweeter wines of years gone by. Showing dried fruit, specifically dried bananas and blueberries, an almond meal nuttiness and just a bit of biscuity goodness.
As an interesting reference point, this demi-sec rings in at 40g/L. This is greater than the 32g/L in a Doctor’s Riesling. The brisk acidity in a Champagne allows for greater sweetness without being cloying. With this example the dosage isn’t well integrated, leaving the sweetness to come off as clumsy and obvious. Stepping away to recalibrate after an otherwise fully dry flight helps the wine to redeem itself.