Low-key houses are in sparkling form, says MARY DOWEY …
There’s a shake-up in champagne that fans of fabulous fizz should know about. A region often accused of caring more about flashy marketing than meticulous methods is quietly bubbling with new determination. Growers whose parents sold their crop to major companies are producing better grapes and keeping them to make striking champagnes of their own – often terroir–based, organic or biodynamic. While these solo operators step out of the shadows and stir up interest in unfamiliar names, established houses more associated with high quality than a high profile are also beginning to deflect attention from the purveyors of big-budget bling.
So here’s my plea: stop and think before you choose the same old brand you’ve bought for years. Champagne is finally being treated more like a serious wine than a frivolous indulgence. Pick a winner from the inside track.
Finest quality, lowest profile, smallest output … It can only be CHAMPAGNE SALON, the below-the-radar house so revered by enlightened enthusiasts. Conceived in the early 1900s by Eugène-Aimé Salon, a Parisian fur and leather trader, purely to please his friends, Salon ‘S’ is a 100 per cent Chardonnay champagne made from grapes grown in a single grand cru, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, in the best years. (Only 42 vintages have made the grade since 1905.)
It’s remarkable for its richness lifted by mouthwatering acidity which helps it to age far beyond the ten years spent in cellars before release. I’ve tasted Salons over 30 years old that I’ll never forget. Yes, of course it’s wildly expensive – ¤420 to ¤1,400 depending on vintage, from select merchants who can order in a bottle from importers Pembroke Wines on request. (2007, 2006, 2004 and my favourite 2002 are available in tiny quantities.) Salon’s sister house DELAMOTTE, sharing the same winemaker, is the source of more affordable bubbles. Zero in on its zesty Blanc de Blancs NV (Grapevine, Dalkey, ¤72).
Jump back 40 years. CHARLES HEIDSIECK is among the most respected champagne brands in Ireland – partly, no doubt, because sales director Charles Jean-Marc Heidsieck is a graduate of Trinity College but also because the quality is superb. Before long the company is sold to the giant Rémy-Cointreau which does it no favours. Its champagnes all but disappear from sight until it is rescued in 2011 by businessman Christopher Descours. He loves Charles (as it is known) for its finesse and stupendous staying power. He resolves to resurrect it. Quietly.
And so he has. Visiting Champagne Charles Heidsieck in Reims recently, I was struck almost as much by the openness and lack of hype in this understated, conscientious house as by the bottles opened for tasting. The Charles style is generous and consistently impressive. These are champagnes of substance: even the non-vintage BRUT RÉSERVE (see above) sees 40 per cent of its blend coming from reserve wines (wines from previous years, here aged for a decade on average) and spends seven years on its lees before release – almost unheard of for a non-vintage. “Wow” is plastered over my notes, particularly for the Brut Réserve and the magnificent BLANC DES MILLÉNAIRES 2004 (from O’Briens outlets and Redmonds, Dublin 6, ¤180).
Does CHAMPAGNE BOLLINGER qualify for niche status? Hardly, although the uncompromising emphasis on excellence that shows across the range deserves to be more widely recognised. It does have a half-hidden gem, however. R.D. (“recently disgorged”) is a magnificent Bollinger speciality. Aged in bottle on its yeast lees for twice as long as is usual for vintage Bollinger, this mature beauty is disgorged (removing sediment from the neck of the bottle) just before release. The result? Penetrating freshness parallels astonishing depth of flavour. R.D. 2004 is on sale now, see below.
Three wines to try
Champagne Larmandier-Bernier Latitude Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut NV. Stars of the Côte des Blancs famous for Chardonnay, biodynamic producers Sophie and Pierre Larmandier have been torchbearers for the new generation of quality-obsessed growers. Their crystalline champagnes are exquisitely precise. From Terroirs, Dublin 4 and terroirs.ie, €59.50.
Champagne Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve NV. Rich and firm with admirable freshness, the distinctive Charles style (see how it is achieved below left) is concentrated, mouthfilling and lingering. From O’Briens outlets; Baggot Street Wines, Dublin 4; Redmonds, Dublin 6; Sweeneys, Dublin 11; Bradleys, Cork; World Wide Wines, Waterford, about €70.
Champagne Bollinger R.D. Extra Brut 2004. Thrilling with a special meal, this limited-edition treat unleashes layers of intense flavour – roast peaches, butter, honey, toast, then Bollinger’s classic salty endnote. From Mitchell & Son, Dublin 1, Glasthule, Avoca Kilmacanogue and mitchellandson.com; Corkscrew, Dublin 2; Bradleys, Cork, about €225.
More insiders in Ireland
Bérêche • Billecart-Salmon • Cattier • Drappier Gimonnet • Gobillard • Henriot • Larmandier-Bernier • Léclerc-Briant • AR Lenoble • Vilmart
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