Despite not making a personal trip to Champagne in 2014, it was an excellent year for fizz, rounded off by a big fizz tasting on New Year’s Eve.
During the year I observed that nearly all retailers in Ireland have very good Champagne and sparkling wine on their shelves, whether from a recognised big producer or not.
More and more countries are now making top rate sparklers to satisfy the increased international demand for bubbles: old favourite Cloudy Bay Pelorus from New Zealand was joined by Roederer Estate Quartet from the USA and Quinta Soalheiro Alvarinho Espumante from Portugal.
Despite my intentions at the beginning of the year, I didn’t taste any excellent Cava during 2014 and Franciacorta remains an enigma – more tasting needed on both fronts! I also hear of sparkling Arneis from north west Italy which I will endeavour to seek out.
So what were the hits in 2014? As you will see, I tried some outstanding new (and established) English sparkling wine plus some excellent Champagnes.
10. Hattingley Valley Classic Cuvée 2011
Just like that crappy advert for Shake n’ Vac from the 80s, this English fizz really puts the freshness back! As hinted at by the term “Classic Cuvée, this is made with the three main Champagne grapes. As the blend is 71% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Noir and 9% Pinot Meunier it has a fresh and lively aspect to it – a great start to a party!
I would be interested to taste the same bottle with a bit of age to see how it develops.
9. Nino Franco Prosecco San Floriano 2012
Or to give it its full name Nino Franco Vigneto Della Riva di San Floriano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superior DOCG. If that sounds a mouthful, it is – but in a good way. I was keen to try it at the James Nicholson tasting after hearing it had been recognised by Mr Fizz himself, Tom Stevenson.
As I often say, when trying most Prosecco one glass is enough for me, a second means a really good wine – well this is “give me the bottle and I’ll finish it on my own” good. In case that wasn’t quite obvious enough – I really like it!
This single vineyard bubbly is made by the Charmat method like all other Prosecco, but has four months on the lees while in tank, and therefore picks up a little autolytic character. It’s also dry and savoury, so it tastes like a serious wine – you could easily drink this with a meal as well as the usual aperitif.
8. Wiston Estate Blanc de Blancs NV
Several people who like Champagne but aren’t that well-acquainted with English sparkling wine have been surprised by the proportion of English fizz that has a vintage, i.e. made from grapes harvested in a single year. Given the vagaries of the English climate – even more unreliable than that of northern France – you might expect many more non vintage wines where reserve wines have been used to smooth out less than perfect years.
I’m not sure why this is the case – it could be that so many English wineries are new and haven’t had the time or spare cash to lay down lots of reserve wines – but here’s an exception to the norm.
Irishman Dermot Sugrue has done a wonderful job with the Wiston Rosé, but the combination of creamy bubbles, refreshing lemon sherbet and hints of tropical fruit blew me away. If you like your fizz and you haven’t tried this yet, sort it out!
7. Leon Launois Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs 2006
As I mentioned in the introduction, the big retailers in Ireland have put a lot of effort into their house Champagnes as there were some very creditable bottles tasted this year.
However, my favourite – and one that exceeded my expectations of a house Champagne – is Aldi’s Léon Launois Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs 2006. From the Grand Cru village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger in the Côte des Blancs, this 100% Chardonnay has spent half a decade on the lees giving it lovely brioche character supporting refreshing lemon.
6. Gusbourne Estate Blanc de Blancs 2009
First, an admission: on meeting a well-presented chap at the James Nicholson tasting with the hand-written name badge “Charlie Holland-Gusbourne” I leapt to the conclusion that this was an English toff with a double barrelled-name showing the fruits of his ancestral estate. Prior research or even just paying attention would have revealed that Charlie Holland is the award-winning winemaker from Gusbourne. I’m still blushing.
Anyway, trying Gusbourne’s wines for the first time impressed me, and the Blanc de Blancs was my overall favourite. Fairly young still but with three years minimum on the lees behind it, this will continue to improve and add layers of complexity over the coming years. 2009 was an excellent vintage in England!
5. Varnier-Fannière Cuvée St-Denis Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs NV
This is a non-vintage, but as a “prestige cuvée” it deserves the more fitting moniker “multi-vintage” as used by Krug for their Grande Cuvée, for example. I took this as an interloper to Morgan Vanderkamer’s Grower Champagne tasting and it was tricky to guess (almost) blind
It had much more body and texture than usual for a Blanc de Blancs. But rather than maturing base wines in oak, it’s the extended ageing on the lees (five years minimum) and the excellent fruit that give the oomph. Denis Varnier eschews oak and blocks MLF to keep the wines as fresh and pure as possible.
The grapes for this bottling are grown in a walled vineyard in Avize called Clos du Grand-Père, named after Denis’s maternal Grandfather Jean Fannière who moved on from “just” growing grapes to being a fully-fledged Champagne producer when already in his 50s.
4. Nyetimber Classic Cuvée 2009
I had three opportunities to taste Nyetimber’s “best vintage yet” over the course of 2014.
Firstly with the nice people of Liberty where it showed well.
In the middle of the year I took my wife to Ely Wine Bar for her birthday. After a few bubbles at home she wasn’t in the mood for any more when we arrived at Ely, but she changed her mind when she saw Nyetimber on the list.
Then finally I popped a bottle on New Year’s Eve – and it was better than ever! Perhaps the bottle on my wife’s birthday hadn’t really shone as much as it should have done after a heavyweight rosé Champagne (so heavyweight that I put it in my Top 10 Reds of the year!) But in a more sympathetic context it was magnificent, and the Pinot really shone through.
3. Dom Pérignon 1995
You know how when you’re having a ball of a time at a party, and you open a bottle that, in a more sober frame of mind, you might have saved for a special or at least contemplative occasion? If you’ve been there, did it feel like a waste?
Sometimes, it’s not a waste! Thus it was when I popped my oldest bottle of Dom Pérignon, from the excellent vintage of 1995 – it was just sumptuous!
As part of the drinks group Moët-Hennessey (itself part of luxury goods group LVMH), Moët et Chandon NV is much more about marketing than wine quality. Unfortunately, the Moët vintage was also a disappointment this year. But the prestige cuvée is still the real deal, in my opinion, despite the large quantities produced.
I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned this year is that even Champagne has to be kept until the right age and the right moment – whenever that comes – and then it can be a transcendental experience.
2. Le Mesnil Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru 1999 (Magnum)
This modest co-operative-produced Champagne was a delight over Christmas (I think I had a magnum to myself on Christmas morning) and the star of the night at the NYE Glasnevin Fizz Fest.
As you might gather from the name, it’s another excellent aged Blanc de Blancs from Le Mesnil-Sur-Oger, one of the top few villages for Chardonnay in Champagne. It has the trademark yeasty, bready characters on the nose., followed by a sumptuous palate of citrus and soft stone fruit. Just delicious.
1. Charles Heidsieck Cuvée des Millénaires 1995
Even in the context of all the excellent sparkling wine I tried in 2014, there was only ever going to be one winner for me.
The Charles NV is pretty good, but this is on another level entirely. Almost two decades maturing in the cellar has brought aromas and flavours of brioche, nuts and candied fruit in addition to refreshing citrus. It has the voluptuous texture without sweetness of salted caramel. It’s time to sell a kidney and buy a case.