Tag Archives: Laura Clay

What makes Champagne great – what makes a great Champagne?

I often get asked what makes a great Bordeaux, so, on a trip to Champagne, with UK Champagne Ambassador 2010 and Champagne specialist Laura Clay, it was my turn to ask the questions. On a lightning trip, Laura shared some amazing places and wines. It would have been longer were it not for the French train strike – but I suppose it’s good to leave thirsty……

Any great wine depends on an intimate mix of terroir and climate, the skill of the wine maker, the will and rigour to select fruit and the nerve to wait and hope for the perfect balance of ripeness and acidity. We looked at all of this.


In the terroir of Champagne – the chalk walls in the caves of Maison Deutz

The vineyards of Champagne are dominated by rolling limestone hillsides, or more precisely chalk. Visiting the huge underground cellars you can feel this terroir – the damp sticky consistency of the chalk subsoil is there right behind the rows and rows of champagne bottles stocked in the acres of underground cellars.


The Vines and Rolling Hills of Champagne

An important skill that Bordeaux and Champagne wine makers both need is blending. There are single varietal wines in both the regions, more famously in Champagne with Blanc de Blancs from Chardonnay, but blending remains key. Here they have Meunier (apparently nobody here says Pinot Meunier), Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to ‘play’ with. These are planted in 320 villages (‘Crus’) over 35 000 ha of vines divided into 280 000 different plots. Each plot is part of a mosaic of unique combinations of climate, soil and topography giving another layer of complexity to the notion of varietal blending as these plots are picked and vinified separately.

Then there is the blend of vintages for Non Vintage Champagne (NV) with the use of reserve wines. The notion of vintage is different in Champagne; around 70% of production is non-vintage, varying from year to year. Any house or producer can declare a vintage if they consider their wines up to par that year. If it is declared vintage, all the wine in the blend must come from that vintage. Non-vintage will be a blend from different years.

And then there is a whole other set of decisions to be made around the secondary fermentation, or prise de mousse, in the bottle. The time spent sur lattes, on the lees, during the second fermentation; this must be at least 15 months for NV and a minimum of three years for vintage. But the winemaker can choose to age for longer before disgorgement making the wine richer and more complex. The style of the liqueur de dosage – added to the bottle after disgorgement – also dictates the style of the Champagne, whether it be Brut, as most are, or anywhere between Zero Dosage to Demi-Sec. There is even a Doux (sweet) style of champagne.

There are choices for the first fermentation too; to undergo malolactic or not and the containers the wine is fermented in. With more and more experimentation at every level of the process, I don’t think there has been a more exciting time to discover the wonderful complexity that is Champagne – even on my short trip; I was wowed by the diversity.

How to navigate this diversity? If you thoughtLa Place de Bordeaux’ system of châteaux, brokers and negociants is complicated take a long look at the Champagne system. Some, but not all houses (Maisons), own vines and some, but not all, growers make their own champagne – choosing to sell some or all of their grapes to the houses. 15 800 growers hold 90% of the vines but the 320 houses sell 70% of the 300 M bottles produced (on average) each year, the remaining third is sold by independent growers and co-ops.

This raises the question of ‘What makes an expensive Champagne?’ Champagne may be smaller in size than Bordeaux but it is up there as far as value is concerned. 4.9 Billion euros turnover for 300 million bottles (Bordeaux turns over 4 Billion Euros for about 600 million bottles)

Perceived value is important. Quality is, of course, part of value but so is market history and consistency. They are very good at marketing in Champagne, brand identity is strong and the notion of consistency of style is of particular importance to the champagne houses and Grand Marques. Their objective is to create a house style that remains the same wherever and whenever you buy it across the globe, especially for the houses that have a large production and international reach. Buying from the many grape growers across the region, from the different terroirs and crus, offers a large palette from which they can blend to ensure this consistency and it’s no mean feat.

They are all pursuing quality but each champagne house seems to have a different approach or philosophy behind the method and the desire to communicate their difference. This might explain why there are so many champagne houses, and why each champagne house attaches such importance to their house style.

What style of champagne are you looking for? This may change with occasion, as an aperitif or to accompany a meal (more of which later), to celebrate a special occasion, a gift?   Quality can be technically defined, but style and preference is such a personal choice. Not sure of your preferred style? Taste as much Champagne as you can, from as many producers and houses as you can – purely in the interests of research, you understand! In this spirit here’s some of the conclusions from my recent visit to three houses where I saw three different points of view and a huge variety of styles

Straight off the TGV, AR Lenoble in Damery was our first stop. It is the perfect place to start your Champagne style discovery; their range of wines is both stunning and eclectic. AR Lenoble is 100% family owned and 100% independent and has been since the very beginning, a rare thing in Champagne. They own 18 hectares of vineyards mainly in the Grand Cru village of Chouilly for Chardonnay, in the Premier Cru village of Bisseuil for Pinot Noir, and also in the village of Damery in the Marne Valley where their cellars are.


The A R Lenoble range

Twenty years ago sister-and-brother Anne and Antoine Malassagne, great-grandchildren of the founder, took over, and they have quietly innovated in the vines, the cellars and the marketing ever since.

Biodiversity and ecological responsibility are buzzwords throughout the wine industry and Champagne is no exception. AR Lenoble was the second House in Champagne to be awarded the “Haute Valeur Environnementale” certification in 2007 (nearly organic). You can see their efforts in the vineyard; encouraging biodiversity through natural habitat with hedgerows, orchards, embankments, trees, low stone walls, and ploughing and grassing between the vines, which also has the advantage of limiting yields. Less is more.

Innovation can be a back to the future moment; the two fresh pairs of eyes took their time to re assess the process from field to bottle and instead of throwing out everything from the past they incorporated the best practices. For example, pressing is still done in three traditional and beautiful Coquard presses.


The ancient Coquard press at A R Lenoble

The plot-by-plot wine-making takes place in a range of different vessels, some in small 225 litre barrels, others in 5000-litre vats or in stainless steel or enamel-lined tanks. The choice depends on the plot and the vintage, as does the decision to undertake malolactic fermentation, or not.

A peculiarity of AR Lenoble is the attention paid to the ageing of their reserve wines. In 1993, when they took over, the brother and sister team decided to start conserving their reserve wines in 225-litre barrels, using the principle of the perpetual reserve, topping up with each harvest. This is more familiar perhaps as the term Solera used in Sherry. The 5,000-litre casks allow for slower ageing than in barrels, bringing extra freshness to the wines. There are now two reserve wines: one uniquely from the Grand Cru village of Chouilly and the other that is based on Chardonnay from Chouilly blended with Pinot Noir from the Premier Cru village of Bisseuil. They are both aged in a mix of cuves, fûts and foudres, topped up each year with new wines.


La Reserve Perpetuelle at A R Lenoble

In 2010, innovating again, they took a portion of this ‘reserve perpetuelle’ and placed it in magnums under natural cork. Thus allowing the signature aromatic richness to develop whilst preserving freshness by limiting the oxygen exchange. Freshness is important and Antoine believes it will become even more so with climate change. He sees each harvest coming in with lower acidity levels than they used to have, so the reserve wines now need to add freshness as well as complexity and richness.

The timing for our first ever visit to the house was perfect, they had just released the first non-vintage wines containing these reserve wines aged in the magnums.

Antoine Malassagne made the decision to use these unique reserve wines into his blend following the 2014 harvest. The reserve wine from the Magnums was blended with parts of the ‘reserve perpetuelle’. This was in turn blended, with 60% wines from the 2014 harvest (total reserve wine of 40%). This final blend was then bottled and aged on their lees for three years in their 18th-century chalk cellars in Damery.


Stairway to heaven – the entrance to the A R Lenoble 18th century caves in Damery

Got that? It took me a while; check out the diagram below – it might help. Still not sure – taste them – all will be come clear. The AR Lenoble Intense “mag14” and AR Lenoble Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Chouilly “mag14” are now available with the Mag 14 logo clearly visible on the bottle. Jancis Robinson called it unignorable, in a recent article on her site, rating the AR Lenoble Grand Cru Blancs de Blancs Chouilly « mag 14 » NV up there with Louis Roederer Cristal Vintage 2008 and Dom Pérignon Vintage 2008.

Mag 14

We will have to return to Damery for the first edition of AR Lenoble Brut Nature Dosage Zéro “mag14” in 2019 and then again in 2020 for the first edition of AR Lenoble Rosé Terroirs Chouilly-Bisseuil “mag14”. Not a hardship.


The identification of the Mag 14 on the bottle

We were also treated to an amazing tasting of their range. I was stunned by just how diverse the wines were. The showstopper? Hard to choose, Laura loved the Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Chouilly “Mag14but Les Aventures probably got my vote. Normally I’m a ‘Blanc de noirs’ girl but this 100% Chardonnay, from the Grand Cru Village of Chouilly, was quite extraordinary. A blend of the excellent 2002 and 2006 vintages, it takes its name from the tiny (less than 1/2 ha) plot where the grapes are grown – but it really is an adventure in the glass, if you can find it, try it!

I don’t come to Champagne as often as I would like but when I have been I have been lucky enough to visit Maison Deutz on several occasions. I love their Champagne; part of this love affair was born from the ‘esprit’ of the house. Despite being part of the Roederer Group since 1983, Deutz has kept its family atmosphere. It is rightly proud of its heritage, clearly seen in the beautifully preserved family home in Ay, next to the historic cellars which run for 3kms under chalk vine covered hills.


Les Glacières, the slopes behind Maison Deutz in Aÿ

The Deutz Brut Classic – is just that – a classic, I love the fact that it is made from one third of each of the varietals, spends three years on the lees (sur lattes) and is never disappointing. Diversity in style across different champagnes may be a part of the joy of discovering Champagne but for a brand the notion of consistency is so very important. Deutz owns 42 hectares of vines out of the 245 hectares they source the wine from – giving them the flexibility across the vintages they need for this consistency.

Another reason why Deutz has remained such a firm favourite is their generous hospitably. The Deutz family home must be an inspiration to work in, it was certainly an inspirational place to taste their wines and enjoy them with lunch.


One of the beautifully preserved interiors of Maison Deutz


and the old cellars

Embarrassingly, I had forgotten quite what great food wine champagne is. There is no doubt it is a great aperitif wine, a wonderful after dinner drink and, of course, a celebratory tipple. But a lunch in the spectacular dining room of Deutz put me back on track.


A taste of Deutz

If you have never had the opportunity to have a meal matched uniquely to champagne, I highly recommend the experience. Champagne styles are diverse, tasting several champagnes side by side, from the same, or from different houses, illustrates this, but a meal served with different champagnes highlights these differences even more and shows just what a versatile wine champagne is.


The amazing selection of champagne served at Maison Deutz

Deutz have just released a special edition of the NV Rosé that is perfect for summer drinking. This is a blend of the 90% Pinot Noir Grands Crus from the Montagne de Reims with 10% Chardonnay blended with about 8% of red wine made by the cellar master from old vines on the hill of Aÿ. The wine is then aged for three years on its lees. With rosé the appreciation always starts with the colour, with this special edition in particular, thanks to the label and box decorated with pink Japanese Cherry Blossom. It’s a perfect aperitif but try it with salmon, creamy cheese or any red berry dessert – you won’t be disappointed.


Summer drinking from Maison Deutz

I finished with the big guns, a visit to Ruinart, part of the large LVMH wine and spirits portfolio. The oldest of the Champagne Houses, Ruinart was created in 1729, and is right in the centre of Reims. The cathedral like Crayeres cellars, a Unesco heritage site since 2015, are amazing. See the video here


The cathedral like cellars under Ruinart

The visit was organised by Laura for the AWE (Association of Wine Educators) so the champagne geeks were out in force and Ruinart rose elegantly to the occasion thanks to Caroline Fiot, the winemaker, who shone as much as her champagne. Caroline was a perfect example of the dynamism of the new generation of wine makers in Champagne, her competence in explaining to an audience thirsty (excuse the pun) for technical details blew us away and put us in our place once or twice!


Caroline Fiot puts us through our tasting paces at Ruinart

She treated us to a technical tasting of their signature Blanc de Blancs, two non-vintages: one from magnum, and the Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs vintage 2006. Blanc de Blancs is really their signature, with the aromatic freshness Chardonnay coming from about 80% 1er Cru grapes.

The three wines could have been so similar, being all 100% Chardonnay – but no. The NV in bottle was based on 2015 wine with reserve wines from 13 & 14 and the magnum NV was based on 2014 base wine with 12 & 13 reserve wines. The Dom Ruinart 2006 100% Grand Cru vineyards, spends nine years on the lees before being disgorged in March 2016 (the disgorgement date is mentioned on the label). This is the 24th vintage of this wine, the first was produced in 1959, Dom Ruinart is always and only vintage.


Blanc de Blancs, the Ruinart signature

The notion of freshness was discussed at great length, the same challenge of the ripeness of the grapes raised by Antoine Malassagne at A R Lenoble. The response here is to reduce the percentage of reserve wine in a bid to maintain that all-important freshness, especially as their still wines systematically undergo malolactic fermentation. They choose not to use oak for ageing the reserve wine and use a pneumatic press for the harvest again to maintain that signature freshness. Same problem, different solutions – fascinating.


It’s not all work and no play at Ruinart

If you want to learn more about champagne, you should, of course, visit – if you can’t, you can learn more at the interactive wine school, Champagne Campus,  created by the Champagne Wine Bureau or ask Laura Clay, Chairman of the AWE, to organise a tutored tasting, she’ll be happy to demonstrate that famous diversity and you may even find your answer to ‘What makes a great Champagne?’


Rock ‘n Rolle.

I’ve written a couple of posts in the past on how rock n roll influences or encourages (depending how you see it) the world of wine and wine makers. In a recent post on  her blog Champagne expert Laura Clay talked about the changes in the taste of champagne according to the music played.

And The Ecole du Vin at Bordeaux Fête du Vin had visitors tasting wine to tracks selected by a DJ specifically selected to match the wines served. If you follow the twitter feed of Wine Advocate writer and Pomérol expert, Neal Martin, he’ll happily share the sound track to his tasting expedition and experiences.

Here’s a new offering on the theme: Dutch wine journalist and critic, Cuno Van’t Hoff known for his affordable wine guides in this very price sensitive market, has crossed over to the other side. With three friends, he has launched a new range of two wines from the South of France. Fermented from Vermentino, an Italian grape variety also known as Rolle when it is grown in the Languedoc Roussillon. Its bright acidity shows particularly well in even these hot climates – it flourishes in Sardinia for example.

Rock 'n Rolle

Rock ‘n Rolle

The IPG Pays d’Oc wines called Rock ‘n Rolle are made with Dutch wine maker Theo Kalkdijk at the Chauxdigue winery. The grapes are selected from old vines on the chalky, clay soils overlooking the Mediterranean. The Classic is unoaked whereas the Star enjoys a touch of oak to add complexity.

Two other friends also bring their expertise to the table; artist Selwyn Senatori designed the label and DJ Gerard Ekdom created the play list. Do you think they’re having fun yet?

A social wine


Enaleni’s Dream is a social wine in so many ways. A collaboration between specialist UK wine importer Enotria and Tesco, the varietals for the 2 wines (one white, one red) from the Enaleni Community in South Africa’s Stellenbosch Vineyards were decided upon at a social media tasting event organised by the global social media agency We Are Social.

Once the wines were chosen, fans of Tesco’s Facebook page were asked to submit designs for the label in an online competition. Rebecca Boamah, from Buckinghamshire, won the competition to design this lovely label, which is glossy, textured and colourful, you can pick out the African animals such as a giraffe and a rhino in the bunch of grapes that adorn the bottles.


But this is more than just crowd sourcing a wine and its label, this is a social project in the more traditional use of the word.

The Enaleni community  is a South Africa black empowerment project, and up until now they have only been able to sell their grapes to other winemakers. This campaign has allowed them to get their bottles onto the shelves in the UK without using a third party producer. The objective is to create a sustainable revenue stream, with funds going to families and to initiatives in education and healthcare as well as providing a sustainable long-term business structure.


Rebecca’s prize was a trip to South Africa to oversee the wine in production and meet the community; the families and workers of the Enaleni farm in South Africa who will benefit from the sales.

Although right now I’m closer to SA than Bordeaux, I haven’t tasted the wines myself  but Laura Clay, wine educator and blogger at Bywine tasted the Shiraz and describes the wine as

« everyday very easy drinking wine with a screwcap closure, naturally. It is not full-bodied, with gentle tannins so can easily be drunk on its own. It’s plummy with a sort of light nutmeg and clove spice. On the palate it’s light to medium bodied, cherry-flavoured with a hint of mild black pepper on the finish. Simple but with a slight dark chocolate note on the finish to give just a modicum of complexity. Great for a party wine as it’s a friendly crowd-pleaser. »

The Chardonnay and Shiraz wines have been on Tesco shelves and website since October for £7.99 a bottle so now you can party and drink up with a clear conscience knowing your wine spend is going to a good cause.



Cabernet Franc from Cheval Blanc


It’s not every day you taste 100% Cabernet Franc. It’s not every day you taste 100% Cabernet Franc from three different soil types. Nor is it every day you do exactly the same with Merlot and with the wines coming from the Premier Grand Cru Classé A St Emilion, Château Cheval Blanc. It is in fact so out of the ordinary that it has actually never before been done outside of the château or by anyone other than the technical team, yet here was Pierre-Olivier Clouet, the château’s Technical Manager since 2008, presenting plot samples alongside finished wines to 75 of the great and the good (and me!) of the wine world’s MWs, student MWs, educators, journalists, importers and merchants.

This new openness is refreshing. Pierre-Olivier explained vineyard and vinification decisions which lead to Cheval Blanc being one of the greatest wines in the world, then gave us the evidence to prove it, without any PR patter, prices or bumptiousness. His down-to-earth, clear and hugely informative presentation was a welcome relief from the usual hype.

Cabernet Franc samples ready for tasting

Initially we tasted 2012 samples – raw components, or ingredients, of the new wine to be blended, crafted, created at the end of the month. What a privilege to be able to make our very own 2012 albeit with just a fraction of the 44 plot samples the winemaking team will have at their disposal. As soil, (Pierre-Olivier tried very hard, and failed only once, not to use the word terroir) makes such a huge impact on the flavours, the grape variety being an expression of its soil, each plot in the 39 hectares Cheval Blanc farms, is vinified separately. Once fermented, and pre-ageing, the wines are tasted blind. No matter where the grapes originate – whether from the lesser sandy soils or those generally offering more complexity from the gravelly plots or the concentrated more structured grapes from clay soils – whichever are deemed the best in that year will fulfil their rightful destiny and make it into the Grand Vin, otherwise they will find their way into the second wine, Le Petit Cheval or even into the third wine. In this new spirit of glasnost, not only did we taste an expressive, concentrated, fine sample of Cabernet Franc 2012 from a clay soil plot but also one from sandy soils where the wine was not of sufficient quality, showing too many green pepper notes and with unripe tannins. Its final fate will be a less glamorous one.

I would not be inclined to argue with Pierre-Olivier having tasted the 2001 sample of Cabernet Franc, blended from the various plots which went into the Grand Vin, that in his opinion it is ‘the best variety in the world’. It and Merlot are the only two grapes used in Cheval Blanc and the ratio of each is totally dependent on the vintage – there is no set formula. The only rule they work to is to work ‘like monks’, traditionally, toiling in the vineyards: limiting vine vigour in the Cabernet Franc, controlling yields by green harvesting the Merlot. In the winery, they only ever add sulphur, yeast and egg white but there was no suggestion of letting the wine make itself. Why spend a fortune on a truly beautiful new winery if you never actually go there!

The concrete vats inside the new Cheval Blanc cellar

And the ultra-modern architecture of the new cellars from the outside

Making the perfect wine is more than a lifetime’s work. Pierre-Olivier admitted to not yet having made the perfect blend so the toiling and striving goes on. Already, over the course of fifteen years, they have developed their own Cabernet Franc clone through micro-vinification experimentation. Every vintage they retain 24 bottles of each wine which makes up the blend to assess its development over the years – there are now 6 fewer bottles of 2001 – so the research, decisions and planning continue. The team at Cheval Blanc makes premium wine selling at stratospheric prices, yet is far from complacent. One feels sure that that perfect blend is within Pierre-Olivier’s grasp, and tasting the 2010, he’s certainly not far away, whether it will ever be 100% Cabernet Franc is anyone’s guess.
Thanks to Yvon Mau for organising such an enlightening (not to mention delicious!) tasting and to Pierre-Olivier for sharing his knowledge and insights with such candour.

Sherry anyone?

When was the last time you bought a bottle of Sherry? Last Christmas? Christmas 1983? Never? Well, let me tell you, Sherry is back, buzzing and all the rage. It is hip and trendy and you do not need to be over 70 or a member of the WI to feel it is ok to order in a restaurant. There are Sherry bars in London – recently a magazine listed the top 10!
I have always known just how wonderful Sherry can be but I was reminded recently of its very varied styles when I went to a tasting at the Lost & Found in Birmingham hosted by Gonzalez Byass, arguably the most famous producer of this captivating wine. Just as there is a generic term for Champagne but a myriad of styles, the same is also true of Sherry. Again, just as the name represents the area Champagne comes from, so Sherry is the name for wine from the region of Jerez.

The Venenciador at the Lost & Found, Birmingham

Sherry is essentially a dry wine made from the Palomino grape grown on special chalky soil, known as albariza, particularly important for its moisture-retaining properties. It develops into the various styles depending on what the wine-maker and nature do with each barrel. In the production of a Fino or Manzanilla (a Fino made in Sanlúcar de Barrameda), after fermentation, flor, a film of natural yeast, must develop and is encouraged to do so by filling the 600l barrels to only 5/6th full so that there is an air-gap. Here the wine will mature for about 4 years. These are not vintage wines – the wine is not all from the same year of harvest, (again, like most Champagne) but a mix of wines from various years and barrels and blended using a system called Solera , where each barrel is topped up from wine of another. A Fino is bone-dry and fresh, yeasty and refreshing – just wonderful with olives and deep-fried salted peppers or nuts.
If a Fino is left to age for more than 4 to 5 years, the flor will die off and the wine continues to age in contact with the air, when it will become darker in colour, with nutty and caramel aromas. This is known as Amontillado and is delicious with hard cheeses and Spanish hams.

Tio Pepe Palomino Fino

To produce an Oloroso, the wine is fortified to a higher level, too high in fact for flor to develop. It is then aged for many years, sometimes several decades, so it is an oxidative wine becoming very dark brown, rich and less dry than either a Fino or an Amontillado. It develops prune, toffee and walnut characteristics and works with game, figs and rich cheeses. A canny rule of thumb with Sherry to match with food – if it swims, drink Fino, if it flys, Amontillado, if it walks, drink dry Oloroso. Sometimes Olorosos are sweetened with dried Pedro Ximenez grapes making such styles as the Matusalem mentioned below, which are perfect with salty cheeses and chocolate puds..
Sherry is a fortified wine, it’s true, but the lighter styles are only 15%abv, about the same as some blockbuster Aussie wines, so there’s no need to restrict yourself to tiny measures. And don’t serve it in those titchy little schooners so you can’t smell the wine; give it a glass which will allow the wine to come alive.
You see how versatile and varied a wine it is? How classy and good value? How it should never have gone out of fashion but how fantastic that it is back?


The Gonzalez Byass cellars

Try these:
Tio Pepe – widely available, about £10
Marks & Spencer Fino £5.99
Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference 12 year old Dry Amontillado £7.99 (500ml)
Matusalem 30 year old Oloroso Dulce Waitrose £19.10 (37.5cl)

Laura Clay
Laura is an independent wine writer and presenter and runs BYWine – a club which helps its members to know more, buy better.

Bichot at the Ritz.

Sometimes a change is as good as a rest especially when it comes in the form of a change from Bordeaux to Burgundy and particularly when said Burgundy is from Albert Bichot  and even more so when it is being tasted at The Ritz Club.

The venue was certainly good from the point of view of light – almost everything sparkled and glittered and if it didn’t it was simply because it was lacquered in gold instead. Opulent and plush do not adequately describe the room. The wines had something to live up to being sampled here and a statement was being made even before a bottle was opened.

Professionals tasting at the opulent Ritz Club.

Richard Bampfield MW, who organised the event, behaved as if this was his living room and Albéric Bichot, who exudes a charming mix of warm friendliness and French ‘cool’, seemed perfectly at home. Winemakers Alain Serveau and Matthieu Mangenot may have felt like fish out of water but as soon as they were talking about the wines they had made, the vintage conditions, the potential of the wines, they were in their element. In this grand room, great wines were tasted in a friendly, social atmosphere – there were no airs and graces from anyone.

Tasting cask samples, basically unfinished and incomplete wines, is not easy. It’s like interrupting a  woman  in the middle of getting ready for a party and trying to see just how beautiful she might look once the dress is done up, the hair is done and the make-up is on. If that’s too sexist for you, it’s like assessing a cake before it is fully baked and without the butter-icing and decoration, or looking at a half-finished impressionist painting up close. You get the picture! Back to the wines –  it is particularly tricky tasting unfinished reds, (some of which seemed to behave like a baby rudely awoken from his slumbers) but if you were very experienced at doing this, as are Oz Clarke and Charles Metcalfe (pictured), you would have found it much easier than those of us who weren’t. But we were prepared to give it our best shot!

According to Alain and Matthieu, the vintage was not straight forward and they initially categorised it as ‘easy’ and early maturing. They have since revised their opinions based on how the wines have developed and are pleased with the balance, the expression and the gentle fruit of the wines which have enough austerity, particularly in the reds, to allow for good ageing potential.

On the lesser appellations, the wines are already very appealing and balanced as seen in the Bourgogne Chardonnay Secret de Famille; well-made, from grapes sourced mainly in the Côte d’Or and treated as though a grand cru wine, through to the Batard-Montrachet Grand Cru, the whites were singing! Beaune 1er Cru ‘Clos des Mouches’, Domaine du Pavillon, a wine I have loved in previous vintages, was a star but then so were Chablis 1er Cru ‘Les Vaillons’  and the Grand Cru Les Vaudésirs Domaine Long-Depaquit. The whites are collectively very fine. It is no wonder that Alain Serveau was named IWC White Winemaker of the year in 2011. Of course, he also won the title for red winemaker in 2004.

So what of the reds? These were definitely more difficult to assess and there were issues with sulphur in some of the cask samples but the two Gevrey Chambertins, Les Evocelles and 1er Cru Les Lavaux-Saint-Jacques with their ripe fruit and classy tannins showed well. Vosne-Romanée 1er Cru ‘Les Malconsorts’ Domaine du Clos Frantin was silky and elegant and the Charmes-Chambertin Grand Cru radiated sheer class, such refinement. It seems that the wines from the Côte de Nuits won me over.

I look forward to renewing my acquaintance with these young wines in years to come and to witness them blossom into debonair, sophisticated givers of pleasure to those lucky enough to drink them. Perhaps, even, at The Ritz.




Lunch at Latour

It seemed an obvious choice to go to Hotel La Tour for lunch with my friend and fellow Bordeaux wine specialist for several reasons – proximity to the station, it’s new so needed investigating and the name bears a striking resemblance to First Growth Château Latour which we thought we could have some twitter fun with!

Being wine professionals the wine list, rather than the menu, grabbed our attention first. ‘Anything but Bordeaux’, says Wendy and this was easy to oblige as there was not a single wine from here, one of the oldest, most famous and highly regarded wine regions in the world. Quite a surprise as one of Bordeaux’s great strengths is its compatibility with food.

We began with a glass of Champagne, Veuve Clicquot Brut, as anyone would (or should) out for a girl’s lunch, putting the world to rights and not driving, and then actually continued with it through our starters. The olives we ordered never arrived.

The wine list is certainly more than adequate and the selection of whites by the glass is varied but for some reason nothing particularly excited us that day. Two glasses of Champagne is always better than one, however, so our lack of adventure was rewarded by tasty fizz which, people often forget, works really well with food. Wendy was impressed with her roasted fig tart with English goat’s cheese, hazelnuts and roquette and I thoroughly enjoyed my Heirloom tomato salad despite it being not an ideal course to match with any wine really but it was healthy and made me feel virtuous. And it was colourful, tasty and very, well, tomatoey.

Our mains of Yorkshire Venison Sausages, grilled spring onions and celeriac mash for Wendy and Pig’s Cheek for me cried out for a Bordeaux red (which of course we wouldn’t have ordered anyway, we could do with a change from time to time) but we couldn’t breakaway entirely from the style and needed our Cabernet Sauvignon fix. As I had recently returned from a wine trip to South Africa we ordered a glass of Journey’s End Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 from Stellenbosch, which we were told we would love as it was just like a Burgundy, where they grow not a single Cabernet Sauvignon vine!

The wine was fine, with a ripe black fruit juiciness and oaky edge but I was unable to finish my glass. There were two reasons for this; firstly, it lacked a little bit of acidity or lift and after a while it felt a tad overtly fruity and struggled with the food. Secondly, we had been given 250ml glasses which we didn’t ask for. To be fair, we didn’t request the small size either but weren’t asked which we wanted so they erred on the wrong side of caution.

The food was delicious. My slow braised pork cheek with apricots, lentils, sage and mash was so good it prompted me to attempt to cook something similar at home. Wendy, too, was pleased with her dish, particularly to have proper English sausages which she can’t get in France. The salad we ordered never arrived.

The Aalto restaurant at Hotel La Tour

We lingered so long over our coffees that top ups were forthcoming not to mention an extra plate of deliciously salty truffles, neither of which, very generously, were included on the bill.

Hotel La Tour has much to recommend it; the décor is contemporary and appealing, the food is definitely worth a return visit, the service was friendly and helpful and the issues of things being ordered but not being served or our coats hanging on the back of our chairs throughout our meal didn’t bother us that day. The wine list is modern, manageable and acceptably priced and we forgave it its lack of claret.



Wishing you a Bubbly Christmas

It’s that time of year again so I thought I would add a few sparkling suggestions for presents for your loved ones. Champagne is always a winner and the champagne houses really have the knack of creating great ways of making the lovely liquid even more desirable as a gift – so much so there is something for everyone.

Taittinger have created an award winning ‘Bubbles’ hologram-effect gift packaging for their Prestige Rosé and a similar design for Taittinger Brut Réserve NV and Vintage 2005. The 3D sparkling bubbles are so realistic that you don’t realise until you touch the side that the bubbles are not in 3D but completely flat. In fact it’s so special I wouldn’t buy this as a present but drink it whilst decorating the tree and hang the empty box(es) from the boughs !

The beautiful new decorative boxes for Taittinger

For couples both Krug and Taittinger have had the great gift idea of a bottle accompanied by two flutes. At Krug their Grand Cuvée box has a secret drawer containing two flutes, especially designed by Reidel to show the wonderful bouquet of the wine to its best advantage.

Taittinger à deux

Talking of sharing why not gift an event rather than a product, which is a sure way of participating yourself. There are a couple of interesting champagne events in the run up to the festive season. Consider it a vinous advent calendar.

Krug has joined the trend for pop-ups, (no pun intended). From this December 5 to 8, a driver from Krug’s Institute of Happiness will take you to 85 Swaines Lane – one of the most beautiful private houses in London for a dinner created by Michelin starred chef Nuno Mendes to complement Krug’s champagnes. .

Or in the same spirit of the warm up to the festive season you could always offer a couple of tickets (one for yourself of course) to the Berry Brothers and Rudd Very Special Vintage champagne tasting on 10th December.

If you prefer your Champagne tasting experience in the comfort of your own home Laura Clay winner of the prestigious UK Champagne Ambassador award in 2010 will come to your home to give a Champagne Masterclass with a selection of champagnes from hidden treasures to top cuvées to introduce you to the subtle complexities of this wine region. The budget and number of champagnes can be designed around a dinner or the number and tastes of your guests. Perfect for starting off the season in style.

For the ladies what better Champagne than a magnum of aptly named Femme De Champagne from Duval-Leroy presented in its elegant gift box.  It is the perfect wine for a lady, its name underlines the fact it is made by a woman : Sandrine Logette-Jardin, Chef de Cave at Duval-Leroy is the only woman of this rank in Champagne (see previous post by Laura Clay) and the company is also run by a woman, Carol Duval-Leroy.

Femme de Champagne

For something more original it’s worth remembering that Champagne is not the only wine that sparkles and recent years have seen the rise in the profile, quality and ensuing success of English Sparkling wines. West Sussex Nyetimber was the very first producer of English sparkling wine to craft wines made exclusively from the three celebrated varieties found in Champagne: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. Their Classic Cuvee 2008 is now available in a Festive Celebrations Gift Box, perfect  for the more patriotic on your gift list.

The Festive Celebrations Gift Box for Nyetimber Classic Cuvee 2008

Finally celebrate the 50th anniversary of James Bond films, and 40 years of Bollinger being his favourite tipple, with their  limited edition presentation box in the shape of a Walther PPK silencer. Perfect for the man in your life, it opens by aligning the three figures to 007 (of course) and by clicking on the gun logo button to reveal a bottle of the delicious Bollinger La Grande Année 2002. It ticks all the boxes Chic, fun and inventive, just like Mr. Bond – now all we need is to get Daniel to deliver……..

The name is Bollinger



Power to the Fraternité de la Femme

Yet again I am indebted to my dear friend and colleague, Bordeaux expert and Champagne lover, Bordeaux Blonde, for passing my name on to the PR company organising a wonderful sampling lunch of Duval-Leroy Champagnes at The Greenhouse, Mayfair last week. I went in Wendy’s place and I truly hope that I did justice to the dishes (yummy) and particularly the champagnes (delicious) and now, here to her blog.

This was my third visit to The Greenhouse (number 25 in The Sunday Times’ Britain’s Top 100 Restaurants list, don’t you know?) and, without wanting to sound too swanky, they have always involved Champagne and some  Very Important Bods of the wine business. This occasion was no different and I was delighted to be sat next to Sandrine Logette-Jardin, Chef de Cave at Duval-Leroy, the only woman of this rank in Champagne.  I have met and tasted with Sandrine before and was charmed by her and her wines then, as now.

Her modesty is typically feminine; she credits Carol Duval-Leroy, her boss, for her success. Having spent all her working life at Duval-Leroy, straight from university and working her way up to take control of the wine-making, it is easy to see why she may think she owes Carol much. No doubt she does, but Carol, who learnt to become a businesswoman overnight when she was widowed very young  having to take sole charge, not only of her three young sons, but of a leading Champagne House would not, there is no question, have entrusted Sandrine with such a role if she wasn’t entirely sure she would come up trumps.

And she seriously does. Sandrine produces Champagnes of delicacy, attractiveness and classy commerciality. She makes wines which are firm, focussed and great matches with food; others that are herby, lean, complex and worthy of long-term keeping. There is a house style which runs through  the range from Brut NV to the Vintage Blanc de Blancs, from the Rosés to the pinnacle of the collection, Femme, and then there is Clos des Bouveries, something different; from a single vineyard, oak-aged, powerful, an intellectual wine, as Sandrine described it.

The Menu

Fleur de Champagne 1er Cru NV with Canapés – easy, fruity, fresh and appealing exactly what you want from an aperitif Champagne

Rosé Prestige 1er Cru with Wild Salmon, cucumber, coconut, wasabi and curry – a wonderful pairing. Rosés are not always easy to get right but this, made differently from most, certainly ticks the right boxes and worked beautifully with the dish. 90% Pinot Noir macerated for about 18 hours, Sandrine adds vinified Chardonnay at the end of the wine-making to lighten the colour, add a soft edge and to harmonise the wine.

Femme de Champagne 2000 Grand Cru with Cornish Crab, mint jelly, cauliflower, Granny Smith apple and curry. A classy Champagne this but not the best match with the dish. This is 90% Chardonnay, 10% Pinot Noir with 25% vinified in oak barrels, so no surprise that the aromas were of apple, honey, toast, truffles. Wonderfully textured, very complete and harmonious, I kept mine in my glass to enjoy with the main dish.

Femme de Champagne

Clos des Bouveries 2005 Cuvée Oenoclimatique with Chicken, truffle, chestnut and squash. This Champagne with all its complexity, its linear quality, its earthy freshness and crispness would have, I think worked so much better with the previous course. It didn’t clash with the chicken however, but I enjoyed the Femme so much more with it. (Sandrine and Julien Duval-Leroy agreed)

Lady Rose NV with Raspberry, lychee, rose. A heavenly dessert with a fun, sweetish Rosé, both of which slipped down far too easily and all too quickly!

Lady Rose

How fitting to end with such a perfect match.

Serendipty, karma, good commercial management, call it what you will, Sandrine makes world-class wines and Carol runs (with her sons) a great business with international recognition. Long may the sisterhood run. (Did I mention that 45% of the staff are women?)

A guest post by Champagne Ambassador and Accredited Bordeaux Tutor Laura Clay.

Laura Clay






Do you want to learn about Champagne?

The Champagne Ambassador is a prestigious award organised every year (dare I say vintage) by the CIVC, Champagne’s interprofesional organisation. Candidates in Europe compete for the honour of representing these wines in their home countries before vying for the European title. In 2010 wine educator Laura Clay was awarded the title of UK Champagne Ambassador. If you need to know more about bubbly, Laura is the one to ask. Conducting a Champagne masterclass yesterday for a group of, less than disciplined, enthusiasts she explained in detail not just how champagne is made but why the 10 wines she had selected tasted the way they did. The wines ranged from affordable and little known small growers, which were an eye-opening discovery, to the ‘Grandes Marques’. 2 favourites came out, though not unanimously; lesser known Penet-Chardonnet Grand Cru Reserve Extra Brut and Pol Roger 1996. If you want to know more about Champagne, contact Laura at laura@birminghamimbibers.co.uk

The line up