I do not exactly remember when I first found out about vins clairs. I have been an interior designer, painter, curator, so the science of materials and the techniques of art fascinate me. Foundations, composition and structure. Vins clairs are the base wines, the still wines, that the chefs de caves in Champagne use to create their cuvées. They are the individual characters of a vineyard, a village and a vintage, kept separately after the primary fermentation in barrel or tank. Before blending, before the second fermentation in bottle, and before the bubbles. There are many references to conducting an orchestra, voices in a choir, ingredients for a chef, and colours to an artist.
The brilliant colour blue from the rock Lapis Lazuli makes the most precious paint pigment prized by the grand masters of the fifteenth century, “ultramarine”. Beyond the sea. I once imagined that I would go to the mountains of Afghanistan in search of its origin. But my renaissance was discovering the chalky remains of another ultramarine, the Cretaceous sea that once covered Champagne. In the Montagne de Reims I found similar sounding names to Lapis Lazuli: Verzy, Aÿ Verzenay, Bouzy and in the Côtes de Blancs, Avize, Chouilly and Le Mesnil.
My first night in Champagne was in Le Mesnil sur Oger in 2002. Chance. It is still my favourite champagne village and champagne vintage since. I love the elegance, purity and austerity, the restraint, edge and endurance. I have spent a lot of time in Champagne since then, discovering and understanding more and more the characters and complexities of the vineyards, the houses and the hierarchies of qualities and styles.
The hierarchy of classification within Champagne distinguishes seventeen Grand Cru villages, and thirty eight Premier Cru villages. It does not reflect quality within or without those parameters. Quality in champagne is an individual and combined result from many factors. What grapes, from where, when, by who and for how long? Proportions of varieties, blend or vintage, oak or stainless steel, malolactic fermentation to soften acidity, and maturation time? The variables of champagne are probably infinite.
I love colour schemes of black and white. But I do not like grey. It blends away the crisp definition of the two extremes. I love the idea of describing my two favourite grapes varieties, although pinot noir is red and chardonnay is yellow, as black and white. I like the sound of Blanc de Blancs and Blanc de Noirs. However, champagne blends are famed for being greater than their parts, assemblage, but you can not really see the blends because the black grapes produce clear juice. I can get lost in the aromas, tastes, nuances, without losing any visual appeal. Before the wines are blended, when lined up, vins clairs form a range of subtle shades from crystal to golden tones.
Starting with small growers, I mapped my own way through Champagne. With no contacts or introductions, I followed my instinct, and Tom Stevenson’s guides. I did not imagine that two events in another hemisphere would change my champagne course. I met Cyril Brun of Veuve Cliquot in Melbourne and was invited to taste vins clairs next time I was in Champagne. Even further away, I judged wines at the Tasmanian Wine Show with Tom Stevenson. From one side of the world to the other, Tom then introduced me to Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon at Louis Roederer, and Patrice Noyelle at Pol Roger. Tastings of Charles Heidsieck in Paris and London created a special bond with the story of Daniel Thibault and Régis Camus’ collection of vins de réserve. And a ritual of Bollinger for every arrival and departure from Melbourne made me want to know how it is made to complete my vins clairs palette range.
While acknowledging the importance of the quality of vins clairs for the quality of the finished champagne, when it comes to the other palate, some people do not get excited by the taste of vins clairs. For Jancis Robinson “wines that are good raw material for the sparkling wine making process are not usually much fun to drink in their still state. They are typically high in acidity and unobtrusively flavoured”, and to Tom Stevenson they are “very acid to taste and seemingly unremarkable in character”. Seemingly. For me they are remarkable. The ideas, the possibilities. And some taste great. Knowing they will kept to continue to develop, many I have tasted I wanted to take to drink with lunch.
This is an analysis of vins clairs I have tasted at Louis Roederer, Pol Roger, Bollinger, Charles Heidsieck and Veuve Cliquot over the past twelve months. All Grandes Marques, the first three listed are still family owned. I have narrowed my tasting notes from over one hundred down to twenty six vins clairs from 2008, plus two very young 2009’s and a couple of quiet wines from 2007. They are all from ten grand cru villages. Half are from five villages from the Montagne de Reims that express the rich fruit, power, backbone and depth of pinot noir. The other half are from five villages from the Côte de Blancs that show intense and direct, mineral characters of chardonnay when young, with the elegance, finesse and potential to age.
My selection here in no way reflects proprietorship or proportion of grapes used, or wine made by the houses. There is usually no prescribed formula of which still wines are selected to go into a brut, a vintage or a prestige cuvée. I am not going to draw any conclusions from these tastings. For now, I will let the base wines speak for themselves. It will be interesting to look for evident village, house, grape and vintage influence, and evolution. If styles do appear before they are revived by bubbles. And how the chefs de caves can predict what will happen once they do.
Louis Roederer tasting with Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, Cellar Master, 31 March 2009. Roederer always 30% less yields than permitted for concentration, maximum maturity, more fruit, volume and vinosity. Malic acid content is more important than sugar ripeness, to save natural acidity, little if any chaptalisation, and let each wine express themselves through the vinification with minimalist control of temperature, sulphur dioxide and yeast only. Assemblage is the key. They do not follow fashion and do not compromise quality. Jean-Baptiste does not believe single vineyards are an expression of Champagne (like it is of Burgundy and Bordeaux). Vins clairs are tasted in ideal conditions, 20 degrees celcius, from carafe to lighten the wines.
Tastings at Charles Heidsieck with Thierry Roset, Oenologist, on 4 March and 1 December 2009. Charles Heidsieck use no oak and always do malolactic fermentation. They refer to themselves as blenders not wine growers. The vins clairs are used to identify the complementary personalities of gastronomic Charles and apéritive Piper.
Tastings of Veuve Cliquot in Reims on 19 December 2008 with Cyril Brun, and 18 February 2009 with Dominique Demarville in England. Malolactic fermentation for all wines. Veuve Cliquot is not looking for a mono-gout of chardonnay, or a light aperitif style. Grand Dame only contains eight ingredients of vins clairs.
Bollinger tastings with Mathieu Kaufmann, Director of Caves, in Aÿ on 25 February 2009, and 4 December 2009 in Paris. Fermentation in barrels, gives very, very fine micro-oxygenation, wood advantage clarifies therefore wines are less fleshy with more acidity and more mineral, chalky finish. Today 100% malolactic fermentation, new practice induced in stainless steel
Pol Roger tasting with Hubert de Billy, Commercial Director, and Laurent d’Harcourt, Export Director, in Epernay on 2 April 2009. One third vinification in stainless steel tanks, one third in thermoregulated tanks, and one third in ten concrete vats (phasing out by 2012). No wood is used, and malolactic fermentation always for all crus. Pol Roger will not compromise image.
The Grand Cru villages below run on the white chalk soils from south of Reims, curving around the Montagne de Reims continuing directly south of Epernay along the Côte de Blancs, their vineyards are located with superior south and eastern aspects for sun ripening.
MONTAGNE DE REIMS
Bollinger, Mailly 2008
Very slight blush, very fresh crunchy skins, berry flowers. Very sour, rhubarb. Apple. Smoother in centre palate, but still linear. Harsh acids on sides of mouth and teeth. Little structure now.
Bollinger, Verzenay 2008
Verzenay and Aÿ are reference points for Bollinger. Palest blush. Stonger fruity character and structure than the Aÿ, has more flesh, lively and mineral from further north. A vin de garde ten to twenty years.
Louis Roederer, Verzenay 2008
Strawberries and cream, with no sweetness. Very very very long in the mouth. Soft but vibrantly textured lingering finish
Charles Heidsieck, Verzy 2009
Verzy is important in the assemblage and in reserves, because it is strong and vinous. Citrus, preserves, aromatic and power. 2009 was a year of perfect sanitary health and viticulture, warm, harmonious, balanced, complex, some rapid development. This wine has palate tension between power and finesse. Foundation, structure very straight and long. Great potential for brut and rosé, still young will stabilize.
Charles Heidsieck, Verzy 2008
2008 is not typical Verzy, the pinot noir a bit closed. Not yet clear, with powerful nose aromas of citrus, dried apricots, fresh almonds. More contained, enveloped than usual but still has balance, structure, freshness and finesse. White pepper, starting to evolve, very acidic, lively. Exotic fruits, dried figs, soft roasted spice, some generosity follows the returning acidity. Very long, firm, straight. More pointed than powerful, which is very typical of vintage characters of 2008. Will become reserve wine in 3 to 4 years.
Charles Heidsieck, Verzy 2007
It is silent. Very, very discrete. Soft fruit, hint of preserves and dried fruits. Awareness of cognac character but not alcohol strength. Structure comes on the palate, apricot conserve, grilled fruits, nuts, soft spice, cinnamon. Finesse, length. Glistening, well cut and fresh, rests slightly creamy.
Louis Roederer, Verzy 2008
Small crunchy fresh strawberries, elegance, finesse, lovely acidity, alert and long.
Veuve Cliquot, Verzy 2008
Vif, light fragrance, purity of berry lightness, strawberries, white peach. Riper on palate, almost creaminess, round finish with firm structure. Good example of fast oxidation, power at beginning, strong palate, vibrant, big and long. This is the character wanted by Veuve Cliquot.
Pol Roger, Bouzy 2008
Palest salmon, delicate hints of fresh cherries, small red berries. Strong, very fine acid strength.
Pol Roger, Aÿ 2008
Very reserved berries, discrete, fine nose. Very pure, fresh, powerful yet elegant. Cascading acidity, mouthwatering. Long, lingering, firm, with some weight on finish.
Bollinger, Aÿ 2008
Verzenay and Aÿ are the references for Bollinger. Aÿ is very aristocratic, gives structure, is more supple, and always the most powerful of champagnes, with a south exposure where Michel Bettane says “the pinot does not pinot, the terroir is too strong” Palest blush of the three pinot noirs tasted, with citrus aromas and pear, not red fruits. You have to wait twenty years for red characters to come. Bouzy is completely different.
Glass 1, soft fruity structure, spicy and citrus. Strawberries, fresh sweeter berries. Although closed and needs time to begin to be like champagne, it is the easiest to taste now. Remarkably smooth, easy to hold in mouth although evident acid bite. Lovely smoothness on top of mouth. Cascading acidity at end is beautiful.
Glass 2, a parcel vinified in stainless steel gives freshness to keep and expresses fruit matter.
Glass 3, the same parcel with six months in old oak, amplifies the grapes and structure, more aromatic, pear, banana, aromas of fermentation.
Charles Heidsieck, Aÿ 2008
More perfumed than aromatic. Squared fruit, apricot, peach, roasted almonds and chestnuts. With the acidity of 2008, pinot noir is stronger, more present. On the palate strong fruit maturity, fleshy, red plums. A more classic expression of pinot noir to be used for vintage Charles, but not as usual for Piper Heidsieck Rare
Louis Roederer, Aÿ 2008
Glass 1. Strawberries, raspberries, prunes. Smoothness. Very brisk acidity, crisp, craquant finish.
Glass 2 a comparison of a parcel vinified in stainless steel shows pure, fresh tart berries.
Glass 3 same parcel vinifed in oak is more elegant, brisk, with even more power. A ready wine, smooth, round, a touch sweeter, rich, creamy.
CÔTE des BLANCS
Louis Roederer, Chouilly 2008
Glass 1, apricot cream, dry chalk minerality, but round, supple. Crisp finish .
Glass 2, from stainless steel, sur lies, but not stirred. Pure lemon, sour, wax, very tangy, both juicy and astringent acidity.
Glass 3, the same wine from oak, six months stirring without racking. Softly vanilla cream, not at all sweet, dry. Illuminates the first wine without any oak dominating. The grapes are selected to take lots of lees. No oxidation to avoid fatigue, controls acidity but does not stop sensation of smoothness.
Glass 4, without malolactic fermentation, fresh, lime, citrus fresh, high acidity.
Glass 5, after MLF, pure fresh butter, rounder, with a spiky, piquant sharp feeling, like acidophilus in yoghurt, the aroma of lemon and lime flattened. Roederer do not use malolactic very often.
Pol Roger, Chouilly-Ouilly 2008
Adjoining vineyards already assembled. Lightly spicy, noted malolactic results, fruit tingle effect but not candy sweetness. Lime juice, pure flavour with smooth slightly creamy texture.
Pol Roger, Cramant 2008
Spice, cinnamon lemon juice and freshly grated rind. Very mineral, lovely chalky texture on finish, craquant.
Veuve Cliquot, Cramant 2008
Lemon, fresh cream. Very beautiful structure, mineral and pure texture of creamy vanilla following malolactic fermenation. Porcelein like texture. Purity.
Bollinger, Avize 2008
Strawberry and apples. More linear in mouth than Oger, higher note on top palate. Shorter finish, softer yet harsher, feels younger.
Louis Roederer, Avize 2008
Glass 1, mineral, stone fruits, lime blossom. Very tight, intense acidity, citrus.
Then a comparison of two wines from a single parcel, one half conventional and the other half biodynamic.
Glass 2, conventional, more tangy, orange peel, shorter on nose.
Glass 3, biodynamic, more amplified, showed more acidity, ripeness, and a very mineral long finish. Nine hectares of biodynamic vineyards at Avize, Aÿ and Verzenay.
Louis Roederer, Le Mesnil sur Oger 2008
Very restrained, reserved, nearly closed. Pale lemon, citrus, fresh, purity, mineral. Can taste blooming volume.
Le Mesnil, Cramant (2008 light apricot, white peach, very juicy, citrus) and Avize (see below), with a little of Chouilly and Vertus make the 40% blanc of Cristal.
Bollinger, Le Mesnil sur Oger 2008
Minerality, vivacity, citrus, elegant. Bollinger use different crus from Mesnil for purity and length.
Bollinger, Oger 2008
Aroma of apples, raspberries, citrus, fresh lemon, pear. Nervy, in shock, yet solid. Finesse and graceful. Rounder palate, generous, quite supple, even though hard for this stage. An agreeable vintage, but the pinot noir riper than chardonnay. The full potential is not evident yet. Will sell in 2018.
Pol Roger, Oger 2008
White flowers, lemon fresh, not sour. Very fresh palate, smooth, very high acidity, clean, brisk, lemon tart soufflé and cream. Very approachable, becomes harder on palate, finishes long, crisp, powerful.
Charles Heidsieck, Oger 2009
Very balanced nose, yellow plum and Mirabelle, atypical characters of the vintage 2009. A litte reduced and closed on palate. Generous, supple, warm, fleshy, rounded minerality. Not the vivacity expected of Oger, will keep for vins de reserve.
Charles Heidsieck, Oger 2008
2008 was a chardonnay year in the manner of Charles. Very floral, white flowers, lime blossom, perfumed, aromatic, light, feminine, mineral ginger preserve, fleshy, spice arriving softly. Fresh, vivacious acidity blending well on palate, long, citrus and notes of grilled preserves. Finesse but not yet expressive. Balanced and more evolved than 2008 pinot noirs.
Charles Heidsieck, Oger 2007
Limpid. More discrete nose than 2008. Recalls 1997 dried flowers and preserves. Rustic, a little creamy but volatile, soft spices blending with citrus peel and ginger. A very discrete year. Will age 4 to 5 years into reserves.