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Dry Champagne tasting

Dry Champagne tasting

Dry Champagne masterclass held on 5 December 2019 at IMW HQ

Moderated by Essi Avellan MW, participating:

  • Philipponnat with Charles Philipponnat
  • Ulysse Collin with Olivier Collin
  • Domaine La Borderie with Simon Normand
  • Louis Roederer with Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon

With Brut Champagne receiving increasingly low dosages and the driest champagne categories Extra Brut and Brut gaining foothold, Champagnes have become drier than ever. The tasting and seminar included two prestigious Champagne Houses, Roederer and Philipponnat that have ventured into Brut Nature production and two grower domains, Ulysse Collins and Domaine La Borderie who represent the new generation of Champagne producers.

The first tasting was with Charles Philipponnat. Philipponnat’s house style has always favoured drier wines. At the seminar, he said customers were now requesting drier champagnes and acknowledged that making dry champagnes were not easy. “Dosage can cover a great many issues, underripe fruit and bitterness just to name a few”. His overall quest was to make pure wines without any green notes, or in his words he wanted to “get rid of the green comments”. To that end, riper fruit has helped champagne and dryer champagne styles and for him, aging reserve wines in barrel has added the breadth and complexity needed for these drier styles.

We tasted Philipponnat’s Royale Réserve Brut NV and Royale Réserve Non Dosé. Both wines had 65% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay and 5% Pinot Meunier. The Brut NV was from fruit harvested in 2014 with 29% reserve wines and had 8gm/l of RS where the Non Dosé was from fruit harvested in 2015 with 35% reserve wines.

Charles described wines that had dosage as having fruit that was cooked or stewed compared to wines without dosage and the difference between the two wines was just that. The Non Dosé had fresher fruit with more citric aromas and flavours, was leaner with a taut structure. The Brut tasted riper and felt bigger on the palate and tasted richer. The 2007 Clos des Goissess (Philipponnat’s single vineyard) is always made in an Extra Brut style and had 4.2gm/l of dosage with a blend of 52% Pinot Noir and 48% of Chardonnay. Given that Clos des Goisses is a south facing vineyard and regularly produces grapes with a higher potential alcohol than other sites, you can understand why this wine is made in a drier style. It still had the ripeness and depth of fruit with a lean, tight acidic structure.

In comparison to the large houses, Ulysse Collin main goal from its inception was to produce single vineyard wines (all with older vines) so they could express the different terroirs of Champagne. Blocked MLF and low dosage where just two of the techniques Olivier Collin used in the beginning to emphasis this expression. By his own admission, his first wines were difficult and austere to drink so his winemaking had adapted slightly; employing partial MLF and softer pressing. These changes have resulted in his wines having the purity he is seeking with more elegance and finesse.

We tasted Ulysse Collin Les Enfers NV (100% Chardonnay with 3.6gm/l dosage) base wines from 2014 and 10% reserve wines and Ulysse Collin Les Roises NV (100% Chardonnay with 3.6gm/l dosage) also from 2014 vintage with 10% reserves wines. Each is a single vineyard site, Les Enfers faces east with red clay and Les Roises has deeper clay with a bedrock of chalk and black flint. Both wines were made exactly the same way, with the base wine aged for 11 months in oak and the reserve wines aging 23months in oak. With lower dosage, terroir does become more obvious. Les Enfer was a bit riper, rounder and richer on the palate whereas Les Roises also had a roundness but was a bit tauter and saline. For both wines, MLF was blocked for the base cuvée but completed for the taille. We finished with another single vineyard wine from magnum, Les Pierrières. Also 100% Chardonnay, base wines from the 2007 vintage and 30% reserves wines from 2006, dosage of 1.7gm/l. This vineyard has thin top soil, with a bedrock of both chalk and clay. The bottle aging resulted in a wine that was poised, complex and elegant with nuances of honey and almond along with fruit and a savoury mid palate balanced with the tangy acidity. Similar to Chablis, this wine proves that terroir shows up more clearly in wines with bottle age.

Simon Normand from Domaine La Borderie had similar ideas to Olivier Collin, to show terroir of Champagne. He also feels that there was no formula to achieving his goal. Every vintage is different, so yearly, he tastes all the base wines blind and from the tasting decides on time on lees, dosage, percentage of MLF and time in bottle. He dosage can be anywhere from 0-9gm/l. As Simon only started the Domaine (with his sister) in 2013, he admitted that his wines were a work in progress and he is still learning what his sites will produce.

We tasted two wines, La Borderie “De quoi te mêles”, 100% Pinot Noir from the 2016 vintage with 1gm/l dosage and La Borderie “La Confluente”, 80% Chardonnay and 20% Pinot Blanc from the 2014 vintage with 2gm/l dosage. The “De quoi te mêles” was floral, crisp with flavours of green apples and despite the low dosage, was balanced in the mouth whereas “La Confluente” was more delicate, tight and lean with a great freshness and persistence. Neither seems to need more sugar but interestingly enough, almost 90% of MLF was done for each wine suggesting that the balance between fruit, sugar and acid was achieve through MLF rather than sugar.

The final presenter was Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon from the House of Roederer who said historically, dosage decisions were based on the importers and the preference their market. Today, the decision is now based on the house or domaine and determined by terroir. Jean-Baptiste felt that without dosage or low dosage, oxidation and long-term aging was an issue for the style. To that end, his mantra is “fight for freshness” He believes that non dosage or extra brut are styles need perfect grapes in ripe years and ideally, lower pH but physiological ripeness. Picking time are an issue, as Pinot Noir can oxidise quickly once picked whereas Chardonnay is less prone, so having many pickers “at the ready” is also critical.

We tasted two vintages of Roederer’s Brut Nature Blanc, the 2009 and 2012 (both wines are 2/3’s Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier and 1/3 Chardonnay) and the Brut Nature Rosé 2012. These wines are only made in warm vintages when the fruit is healthy and ripe. With riper grapes, phenolics can be a problem so soft pressing is critical. At Roederer, MLF is not blocked but not encouraged, so if the wine does not complete MLF, CO2 is reduced to give a softer texture (to about 5-5.5 atmospheres of pressure). The creamier texture was apparent on both Brut Nature Blancs’ as they were noticeably creamier. It also seems to emphasise the autolytic character. The fruit was well defined, with aromatic floral hints and complexity was layered due to barrel fermentation of 25% of the base wines for 2009 and 15% in 2012. In addition, bottle age on the 2009 gave the wine additional nuances of honey. Roederer’s wines always have a tight, austere character and despite the ripeness of 2009 and 2012, these wines were the same. The Brut Nature Rosé 2012 was a revelation. Five days before the harvest, the ripest Pinot Noir bunches are picked and destemmed and spend 10 days at 10C, with a blanket of CO2. The grapes are then pressed and added to the rest of the pressed grape must (which is white) giving the wine its pale colour and aromatic red fruit character. The result was a delicate, pink rosé, with an aromatic lilt not often found in pink Champagne. The sour red fruit was more apparent, the acidity fresh with Roederer’s typical taut texture. A bit more bottle age for both 2012 wines would serve to increase their complexity.

The final discussion of the seminar was more philosophical- is low dosage a result of global warming or a result of better vineyard practices and growing trend? The panel agreed it was likely a bit of both. Historically, Champagne was demi-sec so the move to Brut was radical for its time. One cannot help but feel that the move towards Extra Brut and non-dosage is a natural progression and successful due to riper and healthier grapes.

Michelle Cherutti-Kowal MW