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:
- 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.
- 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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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