Tasting Events

Sémillon and Sauvignon – Together In Perfect Harmony?

Sweeneys Wine Merchants in Glasnevin, North Dublin, are both my favourite merchants to visit and happen to be my local wine shop, so I was sure to drop in to see what bargains they had on offer in their summer wine sale.  Everything they had more than a couple of bottles of was open for tasting so it was “try before you buy” for about a dozen whites and reds, with a solitary rosé holding station in the middle.

Of course I tried all of them (just for completeness, you understand), but which most piqued my interest?  There turned out to be a theme – all were Sémillon / Sauvignon Blanc blends, but from different areas.

Around ten years ago I did a “wine-walk” at the London Fine Food & Wine Show with the theme “Sémillon and Sauvignon – better on their own or together?”  Wine walks are informative and good craic – a wine writer / personality / celebrity takes you on a tour of the show, stopping to taste around half a dozen or so wines from all over the show and talks you through them.  I find them more engaging than the classroom-style talks, even if they can get a bit crowded at the peak times of the show.

Nowadays Sauvignon Blanc is most closely associated with Marlborough and New Zealand in general, since the Cloudy Bay and Montana phenomenon.   Sémillon (usually without the accent) is most commonly seen on its own in Australia – it has become a speciality of the Hunter Valley in NSW.  But, like many grapes grown round the world they both originated in France.  Before the Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc explosion it was best known as the variety behind Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, plus some slightly lesser status Loire whites.

Both grapes are allowed in White Bordeaux (along with Muscadelle which is less common) and it is together where they can reach the heights.  Sauvignon gives the freshness and acidity, Sémillon the richness and body.

So what were the beauties I picked up?

Thomas Barton Graves Blanc 2007

A famous name from South West Bordeaux.



Chateau Bonnet Entre Deux Mers 2009

An oaky wine from Bordeaux, in between the Garonne and Dordogne rivers.


Hollick Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2007

A blend of grapes from the Coonawarra and Mount Benson areas on the Limestone Coast in South Australia.




Clairault Swagman’s Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2005

From Margaret River in Western Australia – a rare area in Australia known for blending the two grapes together.


Information, Opinion

Of Champagne and Serendipity, part 2

So I was fortuitous to find a full wooden case of Champagne in my porch – but where did it actually come from?  It didn’t appear by magic (unfortunately) but was one of our purchases on a trip to Champagne in 2012 – “our” referring to my wife Jess and baby son James, though his main involvement was in charming every lady he met.

I’d like to highlight two of the growers we visited on our trip.  I narrowed down the choice from several on Terry Theise’s list and those mentioned in the Finest Wines of Champagne book (see Part 1) – and, to be frank, places that were actually going to have someone in to receive us.  Small firms can’t afford to have permanent cellar-door staff (and this is typical of small producers throughout France) so it’s the owner and his family or someone in the office who steps in to pour.

The first was Réné Geoffroy in Aӱ (pronounced something like “aye-ee”) which is a Grand Cru rated village in the Vallée de la Marne.  This area is famous for its Pinot Noir, which gives body and strawberry / raspberry / redcurrant flavours to Champagne (just like fruit-driven Pinot Noir still red wines).

Réné Geoffroy produces several different wines, three of which we decided to buy:

Volupté, which has a very high proportion of old vine Chardonnay

Empreinte, a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, fermented in oak

Rosé de Saignée, a 100% Pinot Noir rosé

Although the Empreinte was fermented in oak barrels it did not have an oaky taste.  So “why do it?” you may ask.  It’s all down to tiny pores in the oak which let oxygen in and the affect this has on the body and longevity of the wine.  Krug is a major advocate of oak – and their best wines often last for several decades.

The last one of the three was the most interesting from a wine geek (guilty as charged, m’lud) point of view.  The vast majority of rosé wines throughout the world are made solely from black grapes, and the lighter colour comes from reducing the time that the clear juice is in contact with the grape skins (where all the colour is).  Champagne is the only region in France where the blending of red and white base wines is permitted in the production of rosé.  However, some Champagne houses do try the light skin contact method, known as saignée (as the colour is bled from the skins), and Réné Geoffroy make a great example.

The second highlight of our visit was Varnier-Fannière in Avize on the Côte des Blancs, famous for its Blanc de Blancs Chardonnay.  This is another Grand Cru rated village, the top rung of quality in the Champagne region, with Premier Cru second (first is second, I’m sure that makes sense to someone).  Our host was the own himself, the charming, passionate and dynamic Denis Varnier.

Given the location there was no surprise that most of his wines were Chardonnay dominated, giving primary lemon / lime citrus flavours.  The body is usually light and the finish crisp, depending on the amount of time between second bottling and disgorgement (see below).

M. Varnier made a couple of very interesting remarks:

Firstly, expensive prestige cuvees such as Dom Pérignon are often made with 100% Grand Cru grapes, so the maker is entitled to use that label, but it is very rarely seen.  Could this be because LVMH, the ultimate owners of Dom Pérignon, don’t want consumers to think other producers use the same quality grapes?  Where would the magic be then?

Secondly, he preferred not to use oak barrels at all in the winemaking process as he prefers the wines to be as clean and linear as possible.  This is a different approach from Réné Geoffroy – neither is right or wrong, it’s a stylistic choice.

The biggest share of Varnier-Fannière’s production (which is true for virtually all Champagne houses, large or small) is the non-vintage (NV) Brut.  In this case it is made from Grand Cru small parcels in Avize and the nearby villages of Cramant and Ogier.

An interesting variation is the NV Brut Zero, made in exactly the same way as the regular Brut but without any sugar in the liqueur d’expedition, the liquid used to top up the bottle after the dead yeast lees have been removed post second fermentation.  This process is known as disgorgement (dégorgement in French).  Depending on the required style, different amounts of sugar are included to balance the acidity.  Brut Zero is a fairly recent phenomenon – great with sushi and other seafood!

For his Rosé he prefers to blend – he uses 10% Pinot Noir from Aӱ – rather than using the saignée method.  This makes sense if you’re great at producing Chardonnay!

He does produce a demi-sec (which tastes off-dry to medium) for certain clients who request it – he feels the additional sugar masks the underlying flavours so he’s not a fan himself, but if customers want it…he is running a business after all.

The Cuvée St Denis is made from grapes at least 65 years old grown in a single vineyard called Clos du Grand Père (referring to Denis’s grandfather Jean Fannière).  This is a cut above the regular Brut but although it is a premium Champagne it isn’t vintage, i.e. from a single year’s production of grapes.  In general – that should almost be in capitals – vintage champagne is the best that can be made with a single year’s grapes, and isn’t made every year if the harvest isn’t good enough.

Non-vintage is much more about maintaining a “house style” by blending component base wines from several years, though this is much easier for the grandes maisons to achieve as they also source grapes and base wines from all over the Champagne region.

Finally, we tasted the Varnier-Fannière 2005 Grand Vintage.  This is made from grapes from the oldest vines, giving more concentrated flavours, though lower yields.  It spends at least three years maturing in bottle compared to the minimum eighteen months for non-vintage.  This gives the wine more flavours from the yeast, often similar to bread or brioche (for Marie-Antoinette).

So the 64 million Yuan question – of all these interesting and delicious choices, which did we buy? As much as we’d loved to have taken it all with us, budget and space constraints meant we had to be sparing with our purchases.  We took a pair of the Brut Zero NV and a lovely wooden case of the Grand Vintage – and that’s what I just found in the porch!




PS an admission: I’m such a fanboi, I got Denis Varnier to sign his page in my Champagne book – here’s hoping I collect ‘em all!

Information, Opinion

Of Champagne and Serendipity, part 1

The subject of my first blog was prompted by an unexpected discovery.  While clearing a bit of space in the porch last week I thought to use the sturdy empty wooden box I had spotted to collect all the knick-knacks lying around.  To my delight the box was actually full, containing six bottles of Varnier Fannière Champagne!  I suppose I ought to tidy up more often, who knows what else I might find!

Despite being a self-confessed wino for twenty years, I’m a relative latecomer to the charms and intricacies of Champagne.  For a long time I’d see it as something for celebrations and posing without any inherent character as a wine.  The Champagnes I’d tried had been either terribly acidic (bye bye tooth enamel) or just bland – neither of which are good enough when the ticket price is so high.  Don’t get me wrong, if offered a glass of Moët I’d sup away, but it’s almost offensive in its inoffensiveness – it’s wet, fizzy and alcoholic but lacking in character.

Two books gave me cause to reconsider my stance:

Terry Theise’s Reading Between The Wines is an impassioned championing of artisanal wines, including “Grower Champagnes”.  Above all, Champagne can and should be treated primarily as a wine, and it can be a fine wine.  This might sound self-evident to some people but it needs to be stated explicity.

Michael Edwards’ The Finest Wines Of Champagne was the first of the Fine Wine Editions that I bought (or received as a gift, as in this case).  As well as an introduction on the history of Champagne and viticulture and winemaking of the region, this book contains engaging profiles of ninety producers, both big and small.  So engaging, in fact, that I resolved to travel to the area and taste some for myself!

The commercial landscape of Champagne has traditionally been dominated by grandes maisons (Négociants manipulants, the big names everyone has heard of, with huge marketing budgets) on one side and grape growers (farmers who happen to produce grapes) on the other.  Several cooperatives (Coopératives de manipulation) have bridged the gap somewhat, but it is only in the last five to ten years that grape growers making their own Champagne have come to prominence.

As the Growers (Récoltants manipulants) usually own small parcels of land within a distinct subregion of Champagne their wines are somewhat likely to reflect the place where the grapes are grown, compared to the consistent “House Style” which most big houses try to attain.  Of course viticultural and winemaking choices also have significant impacts, but the grower’s terroir (more on this elusive term in future posts) is laid bare without the blending regime of larger producers.

Ironically, despite prestige cuvées such as Louis Roederer’s Cristal, Moët & Chandon’s Dom Pérignon and Taittinger’s Comtes de Champagne being blended from sources all over the Champagne region, among the most expensive bottles available are Krug’s Clos du Mesnil and Clos d’Ambonnay.  These Blanc de Blancs (made from white grapes only, i.e. Chardonnay) and Blanc de Noirs (made from black grapes only, i.e. Pinots Noir & Meunier) respectively are made from tiny single vineyards.  Is this not a return to terroir?

More in my next post.