The new vins clairs in Champagne: eating a little humble pie
It's always a good humbling experience for a soi-disant specialist to eat a few of his words about a new vintage in a marginal climate like Champagne's . I took the Eurostar to Paris and onto Epernay late last month, fearing the worst after experiencing some ghastly, cold, wet weather there through much of last August. On Christmas day, on my blog I wrote impetuously that the authorities may have fired the starting gun for the 2007 harvest (August 26) a couple of weeks too early before the returning sun had a chance to ripen the grapes adequately.
Renaissance church Le Mesnil.
It turns out that the vintage was saved at the end of August by a north wind which dried the grapes and stalled any incipient rot. I now understand why picking started when it did. But I note from a naughty peep at a fiche of quality evaluation sheets for the grapes coming in to a very Grande Maison a big variation in the grades (A – D) given to grape lots received at the start, middle and end of the harvest: e.g one lot 26 -30 August got a miserable D, a loud raspberry; those in the middle around 9-12 September gained Bs and even the occasional A; those at the end of picking, dropping generally to C level. What is absolutely clear is that 2007 is an uneven year, with some remarkable highs but several poor lows. It depends very much on the exact picking date and of course the vineyard zone.
Outsidel mural at Domaine Pierre Peters
The greatest surprise in 2007 is the fine quality of Chardonnays from the best sites in the Côte des Blancs – it's very much a year for grands terroirs. One of my first visits was to the exceptional Domaine Pierre Péters in Le Mesnil, having enjoyed wonderful hospitality from the village's growers the day before at the Fête de St-Vincent. After Mass in the lovely Renaissance church, the congregation was given a little blessed brioche – a Champenois tradition. Tasting the 2007 vins clairs with Redolphe Péters, whose family owns 17 hectares mainly in Grands Crus, I was impressed by the supple, pure grapefruit-like flavours from the lieu-dit of Les Mussettes (Le Mesnil) contrasting intriguingly with the more powerful fuller bodied La Fosse (Avize) where the soil has clay elements as well as chalk. The greatest of Péter's lieux-dits was as always the legendary Les Chétillons in Le Mesnil, one of the best bits of earth in Champagne: the top soil is very light, the vine goes straight down into a stratum of the purest chalk giving the wine an incomparable minerality that often takes a full decade for the finished champagne to really show its paces, though th e ripeness is there thanks to the south-facing aspect of this vineyard. The 2007 Chétillons is as Redolphe says “a difficult child but very promising.” For me, it has real punch and minerality, terrific length and a magnificent capacity for aging.
The 07 still wines from Montagne de Reims Pinot Noir, always a capricious grape, seem to lack overall the ripeness of a great black grapes year like 2002. But I did taste some fine wines from Aÿ, Mareuil, Ambonnay and Verzy in particular at Louis Roederer and Veuve Clicquot. The Widow's team are wisely in my view not going to release 2007 as a vintage year: it's too heterogenuous, there is a real problem with sufficient ripeness in Meuniers from the Marne valley, and it's a very difficult year in the Aube (Côte des Bar) where a lot of the crop was struck by hail. The best of Clicquot's wines will go into Yellow Label non-vintage, to enhance the quality of this famous label.
Winter foggy morning from Abbey d'Hautvillers over shrouded Marne valley.
On my last morning (25 January) I took a taxi ride up through the fog (the sun peeping through) to the Abbey of Hautvillers for a real treat, a Vertical tasting of recent vintages of Dom Pérignon with Richard Geoffroy. An interesting result for my notebook: the 2000, a touch foursquare but full of character; the 1999, all upfront, a grandstanding wine but lacking the substance of a truly great vintage; the 1998, an absolute classic, subtle, stylish and complex; the 1996, big and deep but not quite at the level of the 1998 (a controversial view?) Then two glorious DP Rosés: the 1996, all captivating fragrant-in-the-mouth red fruits flavous, very Pinot with a bracing balance of Chardonnay; the pink 1990, a show-stealer of evolved secondary “sweet” tastes of prunes and brioche.
Wine scribbling certainly beats selling insurance or sweeping the streets.