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Jefford on Monday: Talking it over

Much of the language used to describe and to sell Champagne is, to put it politely, wildly inflated, and it’s easy to develop an allergic reaction to Champagne guff. Yet even a boiler-plated old hack like me can come to admire the theoretical edifice which those involved in creating and selling expensive Champagne brands manage to create around them.

Champagne

Image credit: Danielle Hendrickx - Collection CIVC

I ended my last trip to Champagne secretly impressed with the sophistication with which those who make these wines come to think about their creations, and the articulacy with which they express those thoughts. Other regions should take note.

Let me give you a few examples. Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, the chef de cave for Louis Roederer, describes his house’s Champagnes as having “a spring bouquet, not an autumn bouquet.” Gloss? “We don’t like oxidation at Roederer; we want everything pristine. No reduction, no oxidation: as if it came from the vineyard.” I happen to love richly appley, autumnal bouquets – but the distinction is beautifully put, and I knew exactly what he meant.

Charles Philipponnat uses the gothic arch as his aesthetic ideal, and with Reims cathedral nearby (gothic perfection, surely) and with Champagne’s acidity lending its wine a soaring, vaulting quality, it’s not hard to see why the analogy is both fertile and apt. The orchestral metaphor is a Krug standby, with Grande Cuvée a kind of Mahler’s Second Symphony among Champagnes; the two Krug single vineyard wines are, of course, soloists. Audrey Campos at Delamotte and Salon defined dosage as “the possibility to balance the natural acidity of the wine, but not to change its personality”, which I liked a lot; indeed Henri Krug used to say of dosage that “if it wasn’t there, you might feel that something was missing”: another cunning formulation.

The master rhetoricians of Champagne, though, just have to be the Dom Pérignon team: their discourse is so polished that I suspect that Richard Geoffroy must herd them all off for an annual linguistic boot-camp.

“There is no ‘truth for quality’ in Champagne; there is no ‘one way’,” pronounced oenologist Vincent Chaperon, in full flow prior to a DP tasting in the spacious quiet of the Abbey of Hautvillers. And he’s right. “Acidity is a way to reach freshness, but it is not the only way.” Indeed!

He went on to talk about ‘the colour of fruitiness’ and in particular the choice of ‘white fruits rather than yellow fruits’ for DP, and how this translates into slightly earlier picking than for their peers. Like Lécaillon, the Pérignonistes are implacably opposed to oxygen: “From the time of fermentation to the time of release, we are fighting against oxidation. Oxygen is everywhere, working with time.” Pinot and Chardonnay, Chaperon said, grasping another succinct master metaphor, are the ‘ying and yang’ of Champagne: “we are working to achieve a perfect balance between the two.”

I did, though, get rather lost when it came to the ‘pillars of the vision’, which seemed overly Gnostic, even for a Pérignoniste; and the theory of ‘the three plenitudes’ (the idea that DP happens to be perfect as first released, then at middle age and then later as a senior, the latter two as per the pattern of Oenothèque releases) seemed commercially expedient.

The DP theory of ‘the three types of maturity’, by contrast, was so interesting that it merits a little expansion. According to Chaperon, the customary measurement of maturity as a function of sugar and acidity is simply one way of measuring these things. A second way is to look for phenolic maturity or flavour maturity. This, too, is a commonplace distinction, but it will make a huge amount of sense to anyone who has ever wondered why Champagne furnishes such superior raw materials for sparkling wine. If you pick grapes to make sparkling wine base at a typical Champagne level of potential alcohol (9.5%, say) in a warmer climate, you will harvest unripe fruit with raw, hard, inarticulate flavours. The ‘Champagne difference’ is that Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier harvested at 9.5% in this region have been through a full ripening cycle and have ripe and resonant flavours, even though they are critically low in sugar; they are phenolically adult, not adolescent.

What, though, is the third type of maturity?

According to Chaperon, it is aromatic maturity. “Very few people actually taste grapes in Champagne; they tend to rely on technical parameters. We’re trying to change that, to get back to the tasting of grapes. When you taste grapes, you go through a whole spectrum of aromas from unripe to jam. We tend to pick when we find citrus or white peach aromas. In 2003 it was apricot. In 1996, by contrast, it was noble vegetal.”

I like this idea. Every zone, I’ve come to believe, has its own maturity cycle, with its own idiosyncrasies and its own relationship with the key grape varieties used in that area; an over-reliance on the ‘technical parameters’ of sugar and acidity is misguided, since it implies a universality in grape maturation which might not (as far as fine-wine making is concerned) actually exist. There are, in other words, as many different Chardonnay or Cabernet ripening cycles as there are appropriate places to grow those varieties, and an emphasis on this ‘third type’ of maturity – in other words, the physical grape’s aromatic spectrum in the vineyard -- could be a key tool in understanding this.

It also, though, made me think that as Champagne should modify its dossier for Unesco World Heritage status. At present, the candidature is for ‘hills, houses and cellars of Champagne’ -- and I’m glad that ‘houses’ are included, since that implies the fascinating notion of house style: a different sort of communal human creation to an appellation. But why not drop the cellars (which most regions have, even if Champagne tops them all in terms of kilometres) and replace it with ‘homilies’? No one, after all, can quite match the Champenois for that.


Jefford on Monday

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Award-winning writer Andrew Jefford's Monday column on Decanter.com