24 Jan 2012

Family-owned and proud of it (Champagne, France – Day Four)

During my week I had several engaging discussions with many of my hosts, and we shared our philosophies on wine and champagne. As this was my second visit to Champagne and considering my history with Domaine Chandon Australia, I feel like I have come to a reasonably good understanding of Champagne and what the most important things are. Champagne as a product is probably the best example of wine marketing, and brand strength and recognition has been built around the category. Today there are many more competitors for champagne around the world, and with so many houses and so much wine coming out of this small region, the question becomes how to stay relevant and competitive in a saturated and (currently) stagnant market?

A lovely welcome at Pol Roger

For me the most important thing that is neglected when talking about champagne is people, as the history and legacy of Champagne is the resilience of the region. When considering the savage nature of wars, economic fluctuations and agricultural maladies, it is amazing that some houses have managed to survive for over 300 years. Champagne as a brand trades heavily on the stock exchange and it is a valuable commodity. When visiting certain houses, the first thing they highlight is the family-ownership and operation of the winery, something very important to them in this age of mergers and acquisitions. It almost seems as though they are pointing out the David and Goliath situation they are in against much larger groups who have a lot more clout in the markets. Those that are not family-owned tend to focus on their founders of whom the house is named after, and the heritage they left behind.

Extensive cellars of Pol Roger
Each house I visited on my third day is proudly family-owned. The first was introduced to me in my capacity as the wine buyer of King & Godfree, particularly as it is distributed by a company owned by the same family as the store. Champagne Henriot dates back to 1808 and has had many ups and downs over the centuries. The history of the house is based around marriage, as the founder was a wine-broker who married into a winemaking family. The second marriage introduced vineyards in the Montagne de Reims, and the third introduced vineyards in the Cotes de Blancs. The ownership of these vineyards, particularly in the Cotes de Blancs, fuels the passion and quality of the house. The wines are not mass-marketed, flying under the radar, and are admired for their elegance and ability to pair with food. The family now have holdings in several other regions in France, including the esteemed Domaine Bouchard Pere et. fils in the city of Beaune, the heart of Burgundy.

Cellars of Champagne Henriot
Chardonnay is the key variety at Champagne Henriot, and it can be found in each wine. They interestingly like to start their tastings with the Rose NV due to its slightly fresh and fruitier character. Aromatically this wine interestingly combines raspberry with a savoury salty Edam cheese, and on the palate has a nice textural element. Whilst it is approachable it is far from simple, but whilst it is a very good rose it isn’t great. The Brut Souverain NV, a 50% chardonnay and 50% pinot noir blend, has complexity of fruit and lees texture, and is delicate yet fresh. The Blanc de Blancs NV is more restrained and broad, with soft creaminess and a nice rich lemongrass character. After looking at the wine fresh from bottle we then had a second look after transfer in a carafe. The second look showed much toastier elements which were subdued initially, and also a nice smoky cheese element. The recently released Millesime 2002 looked sensational but very young. The 1998 Cuvee des Enchanteleurs also looked wonderful, and the enjoyment of it was enhanced as we tasted it in the cellars surrounded by bottles in riddling racks.

Tasting at Champagne Henriot
Pol Roger, the son of a lawyer, was a wine merchant who founded his own Champagne house in 1849. Making the move to Epernay in 1851 to the Avenue de Champagne, he was one of the pioneers of dry (brut) styles of champagne that we accept as standard today, but wasn't in the 19th Century. In the early 20th Century the house almost went out of business when one of the original cellars collapsed, burying several vintages of wine. Luckily their neighbours supported them with bottles and thus they survived. It was decided that these cellars, under one of the original buildings, would not be excavated and rebuilt, so if you are motivated enough you may find some bottles there, perfectly preserved.

One of the new vinification rooms at Pol Roger
Still majority owned and run by descendants of Pol Roger, the brand has recognition that far exceeds the volume, similar to Champagne Bollinger. More recently there has been much investment in the winemaking facilities, expanding and modernising them. They have also been expanding their distribution globally, partnering with many renowned importers in new markets in Asia and Europe. The cellars though, remind you of the history of the house, as they actually feel like being in a cave, and they still hand riddle every bottle (pretty rare in the region these days). Amazingly the riddling team consists of four people, and apparently they had a good giggle when a winemaker from a prominent Australian sparkling wine producer boasted of the skill of their hand riddling team.

The riddlers hard at work at Pol Roger
The portfolio at Pol Roger consists of three non-vintage wines, three vintage wines and one prestige cuvee. Interestingly each of the non-vintage wines is roughly one third of each Champagne variety; chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. The tasting I enjoyed began with the Pure, which is a non-dose brut style. It is astoundingly crisp and fresh, and easy to understand why it is so well received in Japan as it is a great companion to sashimi. Without the dose the chardonnay is prominent, as freshness is the focus, pure in name and nature. The Rich is quite opposite, with a dosage of 35g/L of sugar added, making it a demi-sec style. This gives it a more creamy and toasty aroma, with a distinct marzipan and glazed cherry character.

The Pol Roger range
Once again I got the opportunity to try another vintage wine from 2002, with the Pol Roger Reserve, set to be released later this year. To all my colleagues in Australia, this is a wine to look forward to. This is a wine with amazing integration of acid, fruit and yeasty complexity, finesse and elegance beyond comparison. The wine appears to explode like a firework from the middle of the palate. It is both approachable and yet subtle and complex, but having only recently been disgorged and dosed needs more time in bottle before release. If this wine is so good now, it is not hard to imagine how good the 2002 Sir Winston Churchill will be. For those unaware, the prestige cuvee of the house was named after the famous British Prime Minister, whose favourite champagne brand was Pol Roger. Very generously I was given a bottle of the current vintage, the 1999, to enjoy at a later time with food, along with a bottle of the 2004 Reserve Rose (also not yet released). Slightly encumbered I thanked my wonderful house and hurried to my final appointment for the day.

Champagne Billecart-Salmon
A second house that I had previously visited and was glad to return to was Billecart-Salmon, nestled in the village of Mareuil-Sur-Ay. My timing on this visit was slightly better as it is a much quieter time, which meant that I was lucky enough to enjoy a tasting with the Chef de Cave himself, Francois Domi, along with my previous host who served as interpreter. Champagne Billecart-Salmon was established in 1818 with the marriage of Nicolas Francois Billecart and Elisabeth Salmon, and has been family-owned ever since. Fairly small, it maintains the highest principles of family, tradition and quality. In honour of its founders it named the prestige cuvees after them.

As I had taken the tour of the facilities and cellars on my previous visit, we immediately sat down to the tasting. We began by looking at three base wines from the 2011 vintage, each of them a different variety. The first was a pinot meunier from the Charly-Sur-Marne village, which had an aromatic herbaceous lime and kiwi fruit character. The pinot noir base wine from Ay had quite a savoury cherry component, and was very contained and zippy on the palate. The difference between the first two base wines was quite pronounced. Finally we looked at a chardonnay base wine from Mesnil-Sur-Oger, which was in the nashi and grapefruit area, but having amazing drive and freshness on the palate. Apparently the 2011 vintage will be much better for chardonnay, but it is still very early to know exactly where the wines will be going.

A highlight wine
The tasting of finished wines commenced with a look at the Extra Brut, which is a non-dosed wine made up of 40% pinot meunier and 30% each of chardonnay and pinot noir. For a brut nature style it was surprisingly toasty, showing dried herbs and a honey tinge. The acids provide tremendous focus on the palate, and the meunier gives the wine lovely spicy red berry notes. The Blanc de Blancs NV is made of grand cru chardonnay fruit, and is one of those champagnes you could appreciate without the bubbles as a still wine. A new wine, the Brut Sous Bois, is a barrel fermented and matured wine. It has so many layers of complexity and texture that it was a shame not to enjoy it with food. It smells and tastes very Burgundian, which isn’t hard to imagine. It has 1/3 of each variety, and 25% of the base wines are reserve.

Cuvee Nicolas Francois Billecart
Of particular interest and a favourite of mine and Francois’ was the Brut Blanc de Blancs 1999, which had a struck-match and quarzy aroma reminiscent of grand cru Chablis. The citrus peel aromas had a slightly reductive quality to them. The palate was very expressive in it’s fruit, showing remarkable youth and freshness, but was also quite subtle at the same time. We finished with the Nicolas Francois 2000, which was composed of 60% pinot noir and 40% chardonnay. The nose had a faint aroma of sweet butternut pumpkin to it, something that was quite foreign to my French hosts, where pumpkin is always savoury. The palate was very soft, full, rich and complex, and had very subtle smoked artichoke undercurrent. At the moment it is very fruit-forward, and could do with some age.

Click here to see more photos from Day Four of Champagne, France.

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