Champagne - a blind tasting of some top bottles, with surprises

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The older I get the more I like Champagne. This makes me sound like an old fart, but it is true. Champagne rocks. It’s a very interesting drink, and it takes a long time to begin to understand it. Slowly, I am beginning to understand it.

Last night I went to a fun blind Champagne tasting, organized by my brother in law William for his colleagues and some of their clients. It was more of a drinking than a tasting, with nine different bottles served single-blind (that is, we knew which wines were in the line-up, but not the order).

Here are my notes, as written. A few surprises, with wines I’d have expected to show well not performing, and a particularly strong showing for the least expensive wine. In this company, the English sparkler didn’t look at all out of place, which we’re beginning to find is a consistent theme in tastings like these.

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Towards the end of the evening there was some lively discussion about favourites, before the reveal. We had to nominate our choice of best, worst, which was the English fizz, and which was the Tesco bottle. As you’ll see from my notes, I rated the Tesco bottle very highly. Pierre Peters wasn’t as nice as I’d expected it to be, and Pol Roger Blanc de Blancs 2002 disappointed (normally one of my favourites). Group favourite was, I think, the Comtes. The Pierre Peters and Grattien fought it out for bottom place. No one had a clue which the English or Tesco wines were.

These wines were sourced from Berry Bros & Rudd, with the exception of the Tesco Champagne. Prices given in brackets.

pol roger

Champagne Pol Roger Blanc de Blancs 2002
Quite rich and toasty. Lively, rich and herby with apples and citrus. A fruity style with lots of toasty richness. Fresh, lemony and quite sweet on the finish. Distinctive and just a little rustic. 89/100 (£70)

conges

Champagne Janisson Baradon Conges 2006
This is a varietal Pinot Meunier, from a single vineyard planted in 1960, and it’s fermented in oak with no malolactic. Very fruity indeed with a waxy, herby edge. Distinctive and quite powerful. Structured citrus fruit with nice intensity, and a savoury quality. Some appley characters, too. 93/100(£53)

taittinger comtes

Champagne Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 2005
Rich and quite toasty with nice sweetness to the fruit: peach and pear to the fore. Accessible and delicious. There’s lots to like here, although maybe it is a bit too obvious, giving too much away? But it’s lovely. 92/100 (c. £120, not currently in stock)

tesco grand cru

Tesco Champagne Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs 2007
Made by Union Champagne. Very creamy nose is rich, fruity and toasty. Powerful palate is lively and creamy with a lemony core and great precision. A Blanc de Blancs? Structured and stylish. 94/100 (£24.99)

pierre peters

Champagne Pierre Peters Cuvee de Reserve Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs NV
This has a herby, plasticky reductive edge to it that spoils what is otherwise a fresh, pure, linear Champagne. 86/100 (£36)

ridgeview

Ridgeview Knightsbridge Blanc de Noirs 2010
half Noir, half Meunier. Lively, fresh, pure and lemony with some apple and pear notes. Citrussy and bright with a hint of pithiness. So pure and fresh: delicious. 92/100 (£31.95)

cedric bouchard

Champagne Cedric Bouchard La Parcelle Champagne Inflorescence Blanc de Noirs NV
From a single 0.73 hectare plot of Pinot Noir. Creamy, appley nose. Very fine, expressive, subtly toasty palate. Pure and linear. Fresh, lively and really elegant with finesse to the pear and peach fruit. 94/100 (£60)

jacquesson 737

Champagne Jacquesson Cuvee 737 Extra Brut
Lively lemon, pear and toast nose. Distinctive, herby and lemony palate with hints of cherries. Very pure and fresh with nice acidity. 90/100 (£42.95)

alfred gratien

Champagne Alfred Gratien Millesime 2000
Fermented in oak, no malolactic. Very toasty nose: peachy, rich and powerful, with an attractive personality. Rich, seductive style with a nice lemony finish. Bold. 91/100 (£55)

Find these wines with wine-searcher.com

How restaurants might be more innovative

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I eat out a lot. (Usually at other people’s expense, I admit.) So how restaurants work is something I think about often. How might they innovate more? How might they do things differently?

It’s a multifaceted discussion. Yes, people go to restaurants to eat food, but beyond this rather obvious statement, they visit for a variety of other reasons, and come with rather different expectations. The food itself, while my primary interest, is not the primary interest of all guests. And factors beyond the flavour and appearance of the food affect the enjoyment of that food in quite profound ways.

I think high-end and mid-market restaurants could learn something from mass market restaurants. High-end restaurants may offer a range of different styles of food, but the actual experience is remarkably uniform, with all the same components. Is this because it’s what their customers want, or is there room for innovation?

One of the bits I dislike about the restaurant experience is getting the bill, and I’m not talking about the financial pain, more the process involved, especially when it’s a busy service. Psychologically, when you ask for the bill, you want to leave. But you have to wait for it, and then when you’ve got it you have to wait for the staff to return to collect the payment. It’s often a frustrating end to a meal. There must be a better way.

Tipping is ridiculous, too. Yes, it’s great to be able to reward good performance. But at a high-end joint you expect good performance as the norm. Does the fact that a tip is at stake actually improve the service? Not really, because only mean, cheap people leave less than 10% (in the US 15% is the baseline, and you’d only leave less if your server spat in your food, while you were watching). These days, a lot of places add 12.5% to the bill as a matter of routine. This further penalizes wine lovers who usually spend a lot more on the wine than the food, and opening an expensive bottle and pouring it pretty much takes the same effort and resources as opening a cheap one. Tipping has its origins in a different age and should no longer have a place in the modern world.

So, back to my theme: what can high-end restaurants learn from cheap ones? I’ve just been forced to eat at a fast food chain (I’m so embarrassed, but it was actually OK) because that’s the only food option past passport control at Barcelona airport. It has the usual staffed order points, but it also has ‘easy order’ touch screens, where you can examine the menu in more depth before you order, and customize it, even if your lack of Spanish would make this tricky at the staffed tills. The great thing from the restaurant’s point of view is that it offers an opportunity to up-sell that you’d never get face to face without seeming rudely pushy.

Translate this to a high-end setting. The guest arrives and is seated at a bar (or table) with an iPad menu. As well as the food and drink menu, fully illustrated, it includes video content of each dish. The chef introduces it, demonstrates how it is prepared, and the sommelier suggests some wine pairings. Each wine is available in 75 ml, 125 ml, 250 ml by the glass options, making wine and food matching a reality rather than just a fantasy. You order, and are given the option of paying with the credit card you used to reserve your booking (which would vastly reduce no-shows!), thus eliminating the annoying bill stage (if, of course you find it annoying). The iPad menu would also offer the opportunity for the restaurant to up-sell, suggesting sensible extras, or drinks, and making the ordering process for additional items painless. Technologically this would be complicated, but it could make service more scalable and less staff intensive, saving costs. It might sound a naïve suggestion to a restaurateur, who would take this as evidence of how little I know about restaurant service, but that’s looking at the situation through the lens of how things are done now.

Another low brow restaurant experience left an impression on me. It was ages ago, at the Epcot centre in Florida, where the various parts of the park are arranged by national theme. There was a restaurant in a South American (Mexican?) themed area that was in an indoor space that was styled to resemble an outside area on a clear, starry night. The food was, as you’d expect, pretty terrible, but the experience was great. Can restaurants do more to mould the experience of diners. Perhaps in not such an obviously faux manner as Disney’s Epcot, but modifying the environment to engage all the senses. What about experiential pods that change the sounds and lighting according to the food being consumed. The rhythm of courses could be reflected in a progression of different environments. A particularly experimental restaurant could even borrow from theme park static ride experience: fasten your seatbelt between courses as you journey through different landscapes. It would make the experience a memorable one.

Of course, there are many great, wonderful restaurants doing things the time-honoured way, and I love them. There are many restaurants whose menu is extremely innovative, too. But could there be room for restaurants taking innovation a step further, and changing the experience itself?

In Spain, at the Ecosostenible Wine conference

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I am in Vilafranca del Penedes in Spain, at the fourth Ecosostenible Wine conference, where I have been a participant.

It’s a technical conference examining organic wine production, sustainability and climate change. The discussions today were wide-ranging, covering aspects such as replacing copper in organic viticulture, life cycle assessments of the carbon footprint of wooden versus steel end posts, EU regulations (the boring frustrating bit – it takes 5-7 years for new regulations to be passed because 46 member states have to agree and lots of people make a living out of these sorts of extended discussions and committees), and new tractor engines the massively reduce carbon emissions.

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One thing was clear, though. The current regulations surrounding organic viticulture are too limited. Given the climate crisis we are facing, if you want to be sustainable and green in your wine production, the carbon footprint of wine production, and factors such as water use efficiency and waste water processing need to be included in any assessment. How can a winery boast about working organically when that very same work results in an increased carbon footprint? And is it acceptable for organics to allow copper fungicides when these accumulate in soils and reduce microbial diversity?

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We need a more clearly thought out, scientifically rational, holistic approach to ‘green’ wine production. Organics has a great name check value, so I think it would be fantastic if organics could embrace all aspects of sustainability, including carbon footprint, and revise the approach it has to dealing with fungicides. Allowing sulfur and copper products seems arbitrary and indefensible.Without any fungicides, wine production would not be possible.So there needs to be a compromise, and the existing compromise is unsatisfactory.

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On another topic, I’m staying at a remarkable hotel – Mas Tinell. It’s really luxurious and beautifully designed (it has only been open a short while). The hotel design is based on Cava bottles stacked up together, and each room represents one bottle. The window is spectacular, with its bubble design, looking out onto the vineyard. It’s winter, and raining, so the pictures I took don’t do it justice. The hotel’s website shows just how cool this place really is.

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Stepp Riesling 'S'

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This is a pretty serious Riesling. It’s made by Gerd Stepp, from a single vineyard, Kallstadter Saumage, with loess and loam rich soils with a high limestone content, in Germany’s Pfalz. The soils here have lots of tiny fossil shells, resulting in high calcium content. Apparently Saumagen translates as pig’s stomach. Gerd used to buy wines for Marks & Spencer, and now he consults more widely. He’s got this wine spot on.

Stepp Riesling ‘S’ Kallstadter Saumagen 2013 Pfalz, Germany
12.5% alcohol, 7.2 g/l sugar. Honey, citrus and melon npse. Lovely dry, mineral, fine palate with amazing texture. Pure and bright with lovely precision: a thrilling Riesling. 93/100 (£15 Marks & Spencer)

Wine critics and wine writers

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On Friday I wrote a piece for Tim Atkin’s website on the future of wine writing, considering the differing roles of critics and writers. In it, I suggested that if the future of wine writing is a move to wine criticism, where wines are assessed outside their context, then it’s not one I’ll welcome. My vision of hell is to spend my time in an office working my way through hundreds of samples. I’d rather be in the vineyards, finding stories and understanding the culture of a wine region. You can’t separate wine from place. You can consider it as just a liquid in a glass. And the idea that a professional critic can independently examine wine in a glass and deliver a definitive judgement on it is simply ludicrous.

There’s been a lot of response to this article, so I thought I’d attempt to clarify my stance here.

In reality, many of the critics are also writers, and some of them spend a good deal of time working the wine regions that they cover. Their core professional activity, however, is to generate ‘professional wine reviews’, as they like to call them (alternatively known as brief tasting notes with a score). The critic field has become overcrowded and competitive of late. This brings out poor behaviour in some, and also puts pressure on them to taste as many wines as possible. This usually means a lot of intense tasting sessions where over 120 wines must be tasted in a session. For an experienced taster, 120 wines isn’t a problem, as long as you are making broad distinctions (for example, awarding bronze, silver and gold medals, especially when you are tasting in teams). But for the precision that the 100 point scale implies, it’s very difficult to make nuanced judgements among wines when you are tasting a lot at a time.

The 100 point scale itself is a problem. It shouldn’t be, because it’s a good enough system. The problem is the compression at the higher end. The competition among critical voices has had an escalating effect on scores. The 85/100 of 20 years ago has become the 90/100 of today. You want to be the critic whose score is cited, so it’s very hard to resist the pressure to score highly. Australian critics have been the worst in this regard, where a solid commercial wine is frequently rewarded with a low-to-mid-90s score, leaving very little room for the decent stuff.

I can’t see this ending well for the critics. When Parker finally hangs up his pen and gets fed up of being trotted out at high ticket Wine Advocate events, there’s no one who has a chance of taking his place. The major publications operate now with teams of critics, and none of these look like being able to take his place as the superstar of wine rating. Couple this to the compressed point space at the high end (wine ratings are becoming increasingly predictable because there are only about five points left to play with), and it looks like the American-style critic model is close to collapse.

But there remains a need for criticism and rating of wines. People look to critics for guidance. Increasingly, though, I think consumers are realizing that wine is too complicated for any one critic to be an infallible guide. We look to critics whose palates and preferences we share to steer us to wines we will like. Despite protests to the contrary from some critics, it is impossible to set one’s own palate preferences (be they biological, aesthetic or stylistic) aside completely. So each critic will have something of them in their ratings, and smart consumers will choose their critic according to the usefulness of the advice to them.

My hope is that we’ll see a return to writing that places wine rating fully in context. Forget about trying to taste all the wines you can. Instead, tell me stories. Tell me about the wines that you love, and why you love them. Why does this wine move you? Why should I visit this region, and who should I check out when I arrive? Tell the stories of the people you meet, and the places you visit. It’s about them, after all, isn’t it?

Lunch with two great South African wines, and a good northern Rhône

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Had a lovely long lunch yesterday. It was at Bread Street Kitchen, part of the Gordon Ramsay empire, located next to St Paul’s Cathedral.

The dining room is huge. Really huge. Impressively huge. It’s beautifully finished in a faux vintage, semi-industrial style, but it’s really noisy. We could hardly hear the waitstaff as they talked to us.

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The food? It’s kind of a half way house between a good chain restaurant and a proper gastronomic destination. Some things worked (my seared tuna starter, and pheasant main), others were a bit contrived. You get the impression that this place is all about GPs and making money. It was full, and full of suits. Bread Street Kitchen knows its market, and serves them well.

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This isn’t meant to be as negative as it might sound, because we had a really nice experience. This was largely because of the wine list, which is creative and reasonably priced, and the excellent sommelier Gergely Barsi Szabó looked after us very well.

We drank three bottles, two from South Africa and one from the northern Rhône. They were all excellent.

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Boekenhoutskloof Semillon 2011 Franschhoek, South Africa
Lovely rich wine with pear, spice, white peach and vanilla notes. Lovely rich texture with some grapefruit and fennel characters. A powerful yet balanced white with real intensity and finesse. 94/100

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Newton Johnson Family Vineyards Pinot Noir 2013 Upper Hemel en Aarde, South Africa
This is a fabulous Pinot. Sweet, juicy and bright with pure, fresh red cherry fruit with plums and raspberry, as well as subtle herbal characters adding interest. Fresh and elegant with a fine texture. 95/100

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Vincent Paris Cornas Granit 30 2012 Northern Rhone, France
Lovely fresh raspberry and black cherry fruit. Juicy and bright with plums, berries and a bit of pepper. Fresh and tight with lovely precision, it’s so easy to drink now but may well put some weight on down the line. 93/100

Judging at the International Wine Challenge, 2015, Tranche 1

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For the last couple of days I have been at The Oval (one of London’s two major cricket grounds) judging in the International Wine Challenge. It’s the second year where the judging has been divided into two tranches. This is tranche 1 of 2015, and the second (and larger) tranche will be held in April over two weeks. The idea is that the competition catches both southern and northern hemisphere wines at the optimum time for judging. It also allows the competition to grow, without compromising the judging process.

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So for two days 14 tables, each led by a panel chair, have been sorting through the entries. This first stage involves deciding whether or not a wine is medal worthy. Anything kicked out is then retasted by one of the co-chairs who make sure no good wines have been unfairly eliminated. On Thursday we’ll be awarding medals to the surviving wines. Once again, co-chairs will check all the results, to ensure consistency. Any gold medal wines will he held for trophy judging at the end of tranche 2.

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I have had two fun days working with great panels, including an associate each day – the associates are there to learn, and it represents a really good educational opportunity. Also the panel leaves feedback on us panel chairs, and we leave feedback on our team’s performance. This helps ensure that the judging process is as good as possible. On Thursday I’ll be joining the co-chairs, helping them out, and that will be a tough – but fun – day too.

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The best bit about all this? Hanging out with wine trade colleagues, and making new connections. It’s such a lovely business to be involved with, full of lovely, interesting people. Long may this continue.

 

Comparing the same wine sealed with cork and screwcap

cork screwcap

The closure debate has moved on quite a bit since the days when it was practically pitched warfare between the screwcap advocates (mainly Australia and New Zealand) and those who liked the traditional solution of natural cork. Now there’s a sort of truce.

For commercial wines, few have a problem with screwcaps. They’re taint free, they are consistent, and they are remarkably convenient. I drink screwcapped wines all the time, and I don’t have a problem with them.

But there’s no doubt in my mind that wines sealed with different closures do taste subtly different, and that this difference is exaggerated with time in bottle. We know this from cork alone: even in untainted bottles, old cork-sealed wines from the same case show some variation, presumably reflecting the variation in oxygen transmission that occurs with different natural corks.

So are screwcaps ideal for sealing fine wines? And fine red wines? Aside from the issue of reduction, which is too big to tackle here, the question is, what do you prefer based on the taste? Almost all screwcapped wines from Australia and New Zealand are sealed with a tin/saran liner, and the metal layer means that they have very little oxygen transmission. So wines sealed this way taste different to wines sealed with natural cork.

So, the big question is, given the choice – and assuming your cork is a good one – which do you think tastes better?

I had the chance to try this out at Pegasus Bay winery in New Zealand’s Waipara, over dinner. I tasted two versions of  the 2003 Pinot Noir, blind, at 10 years of age:

Pegasus Bay Pinot Noir 2003 Waipara, New Zealand (screwcap)
Fine, fresh and cherryish. Sweet, lively and aromatic with supple cherry fruit and also a bit of richness. Slightly cola-ish lively tangy finish. Drinkable style, now fully evolved and at its peak. 92/100

Pegasus Bay Pinot Noir 2003 Waipara, New Zealand (cork)
Sweet and with a lovely texture, showing nice aromatics. Rich, bold, fine and expressive with cherry and plum fruit and a hint of earth. Expressive and wonderfully textured, showing some evolution. 94/100

More recently, I was sent two samples (by accident) of the Penfolds Bin 28 2012, one sealed with a natural cork, one sealed with a screwcap. I spent a couple of nights comparing the wines (one argument is that screwcapped wines need time to open out). Both were nice wines, but the cork-sealed wine was nicer. It had more harmony on the palate, and less edginess. Texturally it was finer. Small details, perhaps: they were both recognizable as the same wine. But these small details are what you pay your money for with top quality wines. The difference in scores was just a point, so it wasn’t a huge deal. But I had a preference.

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What about a triangle test? I was with Vincent Cruège at Chateau La Louviere in September and he had two bottles of the 2006 white, one sealed with screwcap and one sealed with cork. So he gave me a triangle test blind. Two glasses were poured from one bottle and one was from the other. Could I tell the difference? I thought that wine 1 was the outlier, because it reminded me a bit of an Australian white wine. 2 and 3 were the same, and nicer. The difference in score? 4 points. A strong preference.

Screwcap: distinctive limey fruit. Maybe a bit reduced. Spicy and vivid with some toast. Angular and a bit disjointed. 89/100

Cork: lovely focused wine with some richness. Great balance with pear and grapefruit characters, and just a hint of fennel and toast. 93/100

So this has all got me thinking. I hate cork taint, and the variation that occurs with cork. But when you get a good one, I seem to prefer the taste of the wine compared with a wine sealed with a tin/saran lined screwcap. What price do you want to pay for consistency? For commercial wines, does it matter? For fine wines, I think it might.

Port Philip Estate Chardonnay 2012 Mornington Peninsular

port philip chardonnay

Now this is an impressive Australian Chardonnay, from Sandro Mosele at Port Philip Estate. It’s a single site wine, from a 1.64 hectare vineyard block, and it shows massive potential for future development (on day 2, this wine was significantly better than just after opening), which might make my current score look conservative. It’s wild ferment, with 16% new oak.

Port Philip Estate Chardonnay 2012 Red Hill, Mornington Peninsular, Australia
13.5% alcohol. Very lively nose with struck flint/matchstick notes alongside fresh lemon and some sweet pineapple notes on the nose. The palate is powerful, fresh and complex with lemon, toast, fig and mineral notes. Richer pear and white peach notes are hemmed in by the fresh citrus character. A taut. complex wine with a bright future. 94/100 (UK agent Carte Blanche)

Find this wine with wine-searcher.com

Gusbourne Brut Reserve 2010, another fine English sparkling wine

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I’m getting quite excited by the progress of English sparkling wine. Here’s another good one. Gusbourne Estate is one of the most highly reputed of the English producers, and they’ve got sizeable vineyard holdings: 40 hectares in Kent and 22 in West Sussex. Gusbourne was founded by Andrew Weeber in 2004, and first vintage was 2006. This 2010 is lovely: the style is one of approachability and relative richness.

Gusbourne Brut Reserve 2010 England
12% alcohol. Fresh, clean, pure with lovely citrus and pear fruit. Very refined with some subtle toastiness and a bit of white peach. Fine acidity with a fresh lemony edge. Sophisticated stuff. 91/100 (Stockist list here. This sample was from Oddbins)