Opinion

My Top 10 Fizz of 2014

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

Hattingley Valley Classic Cuvée 2011
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

Nino Franco Prosecco San Floriano
Nino Franco Prosecco San Floriano

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

Wiston Blanc de Blancs NV
Wiston 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

Léon Launois Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs 2006
Léon 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.

Among the best were Jean Comyn “Harmonie” Brut NV (from Molloys), Bissinger Premium Cuvée Brut NV (from Lidl) and Beaumont des Crayères Grand Réserve NV (from O’Briens).

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

Gusbourne Estate Blanc de Blancs 2009
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

Varnier-Fannière Cuvée St-Denis Grand Gru Blanc de Blancs NV
Varnier-Fannière Cuvée St-Denis Grand Gru 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

Nyetimber Classic Cuvée 2009
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

Belle Epoque & Dom Perignon
Dom Pérignon 1995 (with a friend)

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)

Le Mesnil Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs 1999
Le Mesnil Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs 1999

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

Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires 1995
Charles Heidsieck Blanc 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.

If you didn’t catch them before, check out my Top 10 Whites and Top 10 Reds of 2014.

 

Long

My Favourite Wines of 2013 – Fizz

Following on from my favourite reds and favourite whites of 2013, here are a few of the sparklers which grabbed my attention last year.  There are a few patterns you might discern:

  1. They are all traditional method sparkling wines – I’ve had a few drinkable Proseccos, but nothing that has ever made me want to go and buy another bottle.  Although it appears on the face of it to be an inefficient production method, second fermentation in bottle seems to be the best way of making quality fizz.
  2. They are heavily weighted towards Champagne – this reflects that region’s preeminent standing in the world of sparkling wine and the fruits of several visits in person.  Franciacorta and decent Cava are on my 2014 Wine Resolutions.

Dom Pérignon 1999

Dom Pérignon 1999
Dom Pérignon 1999

Possibly the most famous Champagne in the world, and definitely the biggest production of any prestige cuvée Champagne, Dom Pérignon is a byword for luxury.  However, behind all the razzmatazz, it’s still a wine (though not a…erm…still wine, obviously).

1999 was only the second time in the history of DP that three consecutive vintages were declared (I’m looking forward to a mini-vertical of 02/03/04 someday!)  It’s relatively full bodied in the mouth, almost a meal in itself (well it did replace bacon butties on Christmas morning!) but still with a citrus spine to the exotic fruit body.

Nyetimber Blanc de Blancs 2003

Nyetimber Blanc de Blancs 2003
Nyetimber Blanc de Blancs 2003

I finally supped my last bottle (for now) of this tropical wonder.  If you cast your mind back a decade or so, 2003 was the summer of heatwaves across Europe.  In some parts of France, the heat was such that vines just shut down.  In Champagne, the extra ripe grapes made for a very different vintage – if indeed a vintage was declared at all.  Bollinger called their release “2003 by Bollinger” instead of the usual “Grande Année” and Krug only decided to release a vintage at all last month.

So how did the 2003 heatwave affect the sprinkling of vines in southern England?  In pretty much the same way, but because the climate is slightly cooler, the resultant wines still held on to some acidity.  The Nyetimber Blanc de Blancs 2003 is of course 100% Chardonnay, which tends to be on the lemon and lime side of the fruit continuum™, but here it also gives delicious tropical notes of pineapple, grapefruit and mango – almost like Lilt Champagne! (and yes that’s a good thing in my eyes.)

Louis Roederer Cristal 2005

Just a glass of this was enough to confirm why the luxury cuvée created for Tsar Alexander II is still so highly regarded.  The name comes from the flat-bottomed, transparent lead-crystal bottle – it has been suggested that this design made regicide by poison more difficult, though the lack of a punt underneath means that the bottle has to be made of thicker glass to withstand the pressure, and when on display Cristal is often wrapped in a decorative cellophane wrapper which blocks harmful ultraviolet light.

The 2005 vintage is still a baby – after all it has spent over five years maturing on the lees and a further eight months resting in bottle post disgorgement before release – so expect it to evolve for another five to ten years.  When tasted at the Dublin Wine & Fizz Fest hosted by Deveney’s of Dundrum, it showed lots of chewy brioche character with fresh lemon through the middle – a consequence of time on the lees and a little more Chardonnay (45%) than usual in the blend.

Varnier-Fannière Brut Zero NV*, Grand Vintage 2006* & Cuvée St Denis NV

Varnier-Fannière Grand Cru Brut Zero NV
Varnier-Fannière Grand Cru Brut Zero NV

Three wines from my favourite grower in Champagne, Denis Varnier, based in Avize on the Côte des Blancs.

The staple of any Champagne producer is their non-vintage (NV) Brut, which should be fairly dry.  The Brut Zero is made in exactly the same way as the regular Brut NV but without any sugar dosage in the liqueur d’expédition, the top up of wine after the dead yeast sediment has been expelled from the bottle.  This is a very fashionable style at the moment, dubbed “skinny Champagne” by some because of the lack of residual sugar, but it doesn’t always work; there has to be enough flavour from the underlying fruit and / or some autolytic character from the yeast to make it interesting, otherwise a Brut Zero can be table-grippingly acidic without anything to balance it.

Thankfully Denis has got it right!  This was served as an aperitif with olives, and was a perfect match; it didn’t feel it was lacking anything without added sugar.  It is pure and linear, with delightfully fresh citrus from the 100% Chardonnay grapes.

Varnier-Fannière Grand Vintage 2006
Varnier-Fannière Grand Vintage 2006

So what’s the difference here?  The most aromatic grapes from old vines are selected when the overall quality is good enough to make a single vintage wine.  After the second fermentation the minimum ageing is 36 months, though this is exceeded.  Production is much smaller than the NV and so allocations are limited to a dozen bottles per customer each year.

And finally, the Cuvée St Denis which is a non-vintage, though Monsieur Varnier probably regards it as a “multi-vintage”.  It is made exclusively from the first (and best) pressing of 65+ year old vines in a single vineyard in Avize called “Clos du Grand Père”.  However, the Clos is apparently is being ripped up and replanted (possibly because yields have fallen so low) so there won’t be any more Cuvée St Denis produced for the next decade or so – get it while you can!

Cave de Turckheim Confidence Crémant d’Alsace NV

The precise blend of grapes in this Champagne method sparkler is a secret, but it most probably has a majority of Chardonnay (allowed in AC Crémant d’Alsace but not AC Alsace) plus a splash of Pinot Blanc.  It is thus a blanc de blancs, but a very different BdB from the Pierre Gimonnet below – it is fresh, floral and citrus-driven, and so could be a perfect aperitif.  At €39.75 for three bottles direct from the winery it is also something of a bargain!

Those of you familiar with French wine may notice the “Cave de” at the beginning of a winery name, meaning cellar but nearly always signifying a cooperative.  The wine from some coops can be dreadful, just made with volume in mind and very little attention paid to quality.  The Cave de Turckheim (and several others throughout Alsace) have much more rigorous standards, with several quality levels ranging from basic everyday drinking (just one or two glasses, of course!) to Grand Cru stunners.  Furthermore, they produce different cuvées based on the type of soil in the vineyards that contribute grapes, whether it’s granite, clay and calcium or sand and pebbles.  You can test the effect of terroir for yourself!

Pierre Gimonnet Premier Cru Cuis Blanc de Blancs NV

Pierre Gimonnet 1er Cru Blanc de Blancs
Pierre Gimonnet 1er Cru Blanc de Blancs

I bought a case of six from The Wine Society as a relatively inexpensive fizz as it was on a case discount.  However, despite its modest price it turned out to be excellent fizz – it showed very well at a Sweeney’s-On-Tour summer barbecue and was one of the stars of the 2013 Glasnevin Fizz Fest.  The winery is in the premier cru village of Cuis where Didier Gimonnet’s family has been growing grapes since 1750, though they also own vines in other grand and premier cru villages.  As always with France, if there’s a blend of different quality levels then the lower level is what goes on the label.

This is unmistakably a 100% Chardonnay such is the streak of lemon and lime through it, though it has obviously spent more than the minimum of fifteen months ageing on the lees as there are lovely bready characters as well.  A typical Non-Vintage cuvée can contain as many as five different years’ wines; reserve wines are stored ready-blended in bottle to make future assemblage easier.

I hope you liked this post, please leave a comment and/or follow my blog  if you haven't done so already.