Champagne tasting from miniature bottles

Writing about Champagne towards the end of January may not be the very best timing imaginable for a wine blog. If I was writing about rosé at this time of year, I could at least claim that I was writing for readers located in more southern locations than Brussels, or or even antipodal ones, where these wines would be “in season”. But I’ve noted that my posts about Champagne tend to be more read (or less little read, if you get my meaning) than many other, so why not?

When I passed Brussels airport some time the past autumn, I noted a three-pack of miniature Champagne bottles (18,75-20 cl). Hey, that’s a conveniently pre-packaged Champagne tasting tasting, I thought. It was also an opportunity to let the producer of this box, François de Fonbelle, get a better review from me than what I wrote about their box of Bordeaux ampoules back in August.

There was of course one additional aspect to consider before actually performing the tasting. A Champenois saying is that a magnum bottle of Champagne is good for two, provided that only one drink. So a little less than 60 cl must surely not count as sufficient? With this in mind, I added a fourth miniature bottle, a Demoiselle E.O. Tête de Cuvée from Vranken bought at Delhaize (a Belgian supermarket chain). It had a shelf label saying “exclusivité”, which I believe must refer to the wine in this bottle format. The Champagnes of Paul-François Vranken’s stable are widely distributed in Belgian supermarkets, which is not very surprising considering that he is Belgian. I don’t have much pre-Belgian experience of Vranken or Demoiselle (they are hardly ever seen in Sweden), but good ol’ Pommery is also owned by Vranken since 2002, and therefore the group is now called Vranken-Pommery. Given its size, Pommery is well established in most markets, since long before the house was owned by Vranken. From a Swedish perspective, it might be noted that vintage Pommery has found its way into the 2010 wedding dinner of Crown Princess Victoria (the 2000 vintage) as well as several Nobel Prize banquets (most recently those in 2000, 2001, 2005 and 2006).

Demoiselle Vranken E.O. Tête de Cuvée Brut
€ 8,xx for a miniature bottle, € 24,99 for a 75 cl bottle. Stated to have a “large majority of Chardonnay”, Richard Juhlin writes 85% Chardonnay and 15% Pinot Noir.
Bright yellow colour. Rather big biscuity nose with some toasted aromas (toasted hazelnuts), yellow apples and some peach. Fruity palate with citrus, red apples, some peach, good acidity, good aroma concentration, fruity and rather long aftertaste. 88-89 p. Well made, fruity and with genuine Champagne aromas. Quite good and a positive surprise!

Nicolas Feuillatte Réserve Particulière
Light yellow colour with some oeil de perdrix shade. Rather discrete, generally fruity and apply nose, green apple, red and yellow apple peel, citrus. On the plate again citrus, yellow apple, good acidity, some mineral, acidity with a hint of bitterness in the aftertaste. 81-82 p. Nothing wrong with it, but it doesn’t rise above a well made Crémant from Loire, Alsace, Limoux or Luxembourg retailing at half or one-third the price of Nicolas Feuillatte. If you’re looking for a crisp, fresh aperitif-style sparkling wine, and don’t worry too much what the label says.

Although Nicolas Feuillatte, just like it sounds, is named after a “real person” (unlike, for example, Armand de Brignac) who did indeed establish this brand, it’s actually a very large cooperative, with a number of village-scale cooperatives as members and an annual production on the order of 10 million bottles. For comparison, this corresponds to little more than one-and-half times the volume of Bollinger, Pol Roger and Roederer put together. One of the advantages of cooperative winemaking, compared to being a small grower-producer with an annual production of, say, some tens of thousands of bottles, is the possibility to invest in good winemaking equipment and to be able to hire trained oenologists. On that part of the scale we have e.g. Mailly, annual production around 500 000 bottles, which is often mentioned by critics as the best cooperative of the Champagne region. (And I don’t disagree – their Champagnes are quite good.) The only real advantage of being considerably larger than this, i.e. being Feuillatte-sized, should be in marketing. A qualified guess is that they glance very much in the direction of Moët & Chandon’s (around 30 millions of bottles per year) marketing, and then implement their own low-budget version. I guess that one thing Moët & Chandon and Nicolas Feuillatte have in common is that their basic non-vintage Champagnes are correct and without any faults, i.e. technically well made, but rather anonymous in style, do not show much of the classic Champagne notes, and are overpriced compared to the quality you get in the bottle. (Scarlett, please forgive me for being so harsh on your employer!)

Lanson Black Label
Light yellow colour with some oeil de perdrix shade. In the nose biscuity aromas, citrus, red apple, mineral – elegant. On the palate red apple, citrus, very distinct acidity, slight bitterness midpalate, and an aftertaste with mineral notes. 87-88 p. A strict and distinct style. Lanson is known for never letting their Champagnes go through malolactic fermentation, which means that the acidity is high. As far as I know, they are alone in this choice for standard Champagnes among the big producers, because the extra high acid levels, while also giving a crisp impression, can also be seen as a little disturbing or even painful in a Champagne that the producer wishes to be “easy to drink”. Other Champagnes, e.g. some prestige bottlings, are also routinely produced avoiding malolactic, but then we are talking about wines sold with some age (and with a lot of substance), which results in a different overall impression. Lanson has a high proprtion of Pinot but a level of acidity/crispness that is at least as high as many pure Chardonnay Champagnes/Blanc de Blancs. The combination of “red aroma notes” (red apples in this case) and high acidity if what is typical for Lanson. The high acid level also means that Lanson responds quite well to cellaring. Among major brand non-vintage Champagnes, Lanson is likely the one best suited for a couple of years of cellaring on your own.

Pommery Brut Royal
A light shade of bright yellow, i.e., a little lighter than Demoiselle. Big biscuity nose with toasted notes, specifically toasted hazelnuts, and more toasted than Demoiselle. Fruity with yellow apple, citrus, slightly nutty and toasted, some bitterness that lingers in the aftertaste. The nose showed wonderful aromas, but it had more bitterness than any of the other three, and this reduces the score by several points. 84-85 p? In this case, I don’t think that this bottle is fully representative of Brut Royal, because it shouldn’t show this type of bitterness. Sure, it’s not anywhere near the power of a non-vintage Bollinger, but it is typically well made. If it isn’t this specific bottle that’s slightly weird, this batch must include a certain proportion of wine made from substandard grapes.

I tasted the wines from good Champagne tasting glasses, and I make the reservation that Champagnes may not be at their best from this bottle size, which always have a screwcap (and should not be used at ground level, according to one of my friends). This means that the wines have been transferred to these bottles after having been fermented in another bottle. (This is also true of most 375 ml half bottles, although there are some producers such as Pol Roger who ferment directly in 375 ml bottles as well.) My impression was that the mousse was less persistent than usual, and that could be because of the bottle format and the transfer process.

The Swedish version of this post can be found here.

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