A light hearted insight into wine with no agenda other than to sniff out wine stories which capture the imagination… follow The Nose…

08/04/2021

Champagne without bubbles

Louis Roederer release a second vintage of Coteaux Champenois

No, not flat Champagne, but Coteaux Champenois, the still wine of the region. Not familiar with this? You will not be alone for production dwindled in the C20th. It was simply too difficult to ripen Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to make a regular wine, whereas the edgy acidity was perfect for making Champagne. The reversal of fortune came around 1850 when sparkling production outstripped still. Never-the-less Champagne houses continued to produce still wine long after this and Louis Roederer was among those to commercialise a pre-war Coteaux Champenois. 

Charmont in the cru of Mareuil-Sur-Ay

No, not flat Champagne, but Coteaux Champenois, the still wine of the region. Not familiar with this? You will not be alone for production dwindled in the C20th. It was simply too difficult to ripen Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to make a regular wine, whereas the edgy acidity was perfect for making Champagne. The reversal of fortune came around 1850 when sparkling production outstripped still. Never-the-less Champagne houses continued to produce still wine long after this and Louis Roederer was among those to commercialise a pre-war Coteaux Champenois.

Recently there has been a light bubbling of interest in the style with some of the high profile producers releasing a Coteaux Champaneois including Bollinger (La Côte aux Enfants) and Egly-Ouriet (Ambonnay Rouge) together with a host of smaller producers. At Louis Roederer, cellar master Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon draws a parallel with the trend for grower Champagne and single vineyard Champagne. Climate change has greatly improved ripeness, which has diminished the dependance on blending – not only blending grapes from numerous parcels, some riper than others, but blending vintages for consistency in the non-vintage Champagne. In the past growers had little choice but to sell to a Champagne house, whereas warmer summers have enabled them to make their own Champagne, including Champagne from a single vineyard and vintage.

This blog focuses on Roederer’s Coteaux Champenois ‘Homage à Camille,’ a red and white cuvée, the second vintage of which has just been released. They are named in honour of Camille Olry-Roederer who captained the company from 1932-75. She continued to produce small quantities of Coteaux Champenois for her own pleasure, with which she liked to surprise her dinner guests. 

Lécaillon explains that the concept of the resurrected Coteaux Champenois – now a commercial project – “to express terroir through a single vineyard and a single variety”.

The origins of Roederer’s project go back to the late ‘90s when Lécaillon began extensive research to understand the terroir of their many parcels, as part of their conversion to organic and biodynamic management. Both the soil and the root profile were studied and in the process he discovered five to six parcels with a high percentage of clay. “It’s the opposite of chalk, which is our DNA in Champagne,” remarks Lécaillon, but the clay parcels were promising for Pinot Noir, “to give the body, depth and structure.” (The appellation allows red, white and rosé, but in practice Coteaux Champenois is largely red.) 

Roederer focused on the lieut-dit of Charmont in the cru of Mareuil-Sur-Ay. The slope is full south facing. It has white clay in the middle third of the slope, top soil which has slipped down with erosion, leaving the highest third very chalky. The existing vines were removed from the mid section, which was left fallow for a couple of years, before replanting it in 2002 with a massale selection from Alsace and Burgundy. 

It is necessary to manage the vineyard with a taller and more open canopy to maximise the sunshine, which is quite the opposite of Champagne practice to shelter the grapes with foliage to retain the acidity. In the winery the approach has to be very different too. “We don’t want phenolics for Champagne, so we have a very soft press and minimal skin contact,” but with still wine we want extended time on the skin, as the skin, pips and stalks bring with them the expression of terroir.” 

Lécaillon and his team have clearly enjoyed experimenting with the winemaking process, although he confesses that not all has gone to plan. In 2014 they harvested too late “I had the wrong idea. I thought we should pick two weeks after Champagne.” In 2015, a ripe year, he concentrated on phenolic ripeness, which was achieved around the same time as the Champagne harvest, and he de-stemmed the bunches. He felt the wines were much better, very fruity, but too easy and crowd pleasing. In 2016 the stems were removed, passed along the sorting table and tasted to re-introduce the best. 2017 was bypassed as the vineyards were affected by botrytis. 

And now to 2018, the first vintage to be commercialised. Lécaillon used 40% whole bunch. No tasting the stems this year. He is keen to retain the whole berry for the intracellular fermentation. It is fermented in small vat with the grapes pushed down gently by hand. Twenty percent is subsequently aged in terracotta amphora “for the fruitiness, softness and delicacy it brings to the wine, but you must be careful with amphora, which has very attractive texture and fruit, but misses something at the end of the palate.” The majority is aged in oak barrels – ranging in size from 200-500l, forty percent of which is new. He considers some new oak is necessary to stretch the finish for both Pinot and Chardonnay cuvées.

Finding the right terroir for a still Chardonnay was not as straightforward as Lécaillon had imagined. He envisaged finding it on the Côte des Blancs in Avize or Cramant, leading cru for Chardonnay with which to make Champagne. “We tried again and again, but found the resulting wine tasted like the vin clair (base wine) for Cristal.” (Roederer’s prestige cuvée.) 

Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon
(photo Michael Boudot)

He changed direction having been greatly impressed by a 1961 Coteaux Champenois from Les Mesnil-San-Oger and specifically the lieut-dit of Volibarts. In this lieut-dit the vines are suffering from the court-noué virus. “They produce tiny bunches of very tasty berries, also high in acidity. I took advantage of this and used all the fruit from the virus infected  vines and macerated them on skins for 2-3 hours and then adding them to the rest of the bunches.” The white was fermented and aged in limestone eggs, with twenty percent in new oak and twenty percent in stainless steel “for the flintiness it brings.” 

“We have a very pure expression of Chardonnay. In the Chablis style, but specifically Champenois for its purity. There is very little white Coteaux Champenois and it has to establish an identity. Too many people are using a lot of new oak, trying to be Burgundian.”

“Every step we take is to move stylistically away from Burgundy. It is not interesting for us to make Burgundy.”  

And how would he differentiate the styles? “Burgundy is larger, richer and more concentrated. There is more texture, particularly in the Côte de Nuits. We have to find complexity from somewhere else.” 

It seems the special identity and complexity of Coteaux Champenois is linked its vibrancy. “Even if we have climate change and ripeness, we have wines that are full of energy. Our low pHs mean the wines react to things. (Typical pH for the whites is 3.1 and red 3.4). They are full of energy.” He seems concerned this character can sometimes be too extreme. “We want to domesticate them and make them more relaxed.”

“Now,’ says Lécaillon, “We can speak about Champagne terroir. This is not just good for communication, but for our understanding of our terroir, which is beneficial for the Champagne we make.”

This is just the beginning. There are plans for a collection of single vineyard wines. In 2008 a parcel in Dizy was planted on darker clay with a massale selection of Pinot Noir from Roederer’s  own vineyards. “This will give a much darker fruit expression,” says Lécaillon, and in 2012 the first parcel of green clay was cultivated. And Roederer are also planting field blends of the seven historic and official varieties recognised in Champagne, which include Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc. “We want to keep our biodiversity.” And as he points out, the varieties may prove useful as the  climate is unpredictable. “They have been grown here for 400 years during which the climate has gone through many changes.”  

In the climate change stakes it would appear the Champagne region is a winner. As Lécaillon remarks, “I can harvest when I want and it is always ripe and, with teh exertion of 2017,  we have not had botrytis in 15 years.”  But, it is not climate change alone which is responsible for improved ripeness and health. It is also that many producers are changing to organic practices and are decreasing their yields. “We have a new generation who are more artisanal in their approach and have a feeling for the land.”  

“Now,” he says, “is the golden age of Champagne.” 

It’s intriguing to taste wine from a single vineyard in Champagne which is not obscured by bubbles, autolysis and dosage. I was pleasantly surprised by the two cuvées. They are not wannabe Burgundy, with the exception of the pricing, which is very punchy.

Tasting Notes 

As an expression of a singe vineyard, the white wine showed a translucency to chalky soil. I am not convinced the Pinot showcases the clay. It felt more like a wine from calcareous soil with its somewhat strict finish, straight palate and vibrancy. I would like to see more depth, intensity and complexity in both wines, but it’s early days. I find the wines lively, stylish and elegant. 

Louis Roederer Hommage à Camille Coteaux Champenois Blanc 2018

Breezy aroma which is fresh, elegant and floral with a hint of lime leaf. Airy and delicate, it floats lightly on the palate, straight, lively and pure into a finish which has a light note of salinity. I like the crisp, tissue-paper finesses of this wine.  As the wine evolved over 3 days it became more salty, chalky and focused. 2022-25 (Price approx £130)

Louis Roederer Hommage à Camille Coteaux Champenois Rouge 2018

Pure and fruity aroma with the freshness of cranberry. A crisp and energetic spring on the attack. Talcy tannins mid palate. The oak is apparent in the hints of smoky tobacco and liquorice.  Bitter cherry tanginess combines with higher toned, elegant florals and lower toned earthy notes. It’s bright and vivacious with a slightly strict and snappy austerity at the end. Over three days it settled nicely into its fresh and crunchy character. From 2021-26 (Price Approx £155)

I have written about Roederer’s still wines for Club Oenologique. Follow the link to Club O’s website for articles by other writers on Champagne and Coteaux Champenois. https://cluboenologique.com/story/reviewed-louis-roederers-new-still-champagne-wines/

Stockists

Harrods, Hedonism, Selfridges and Fortnums. The Finest Bubble and other reputable indies.

01/05/2020

The Real Deal – Fizz from Franciacorta

Frederico Fossati

I’m a sucker for sparking wine and particularly partial to Champagne. A while back I wrote about Prosecco which is made from the charmat method, but now let’s up the ante with a fizz to challenge Champagne.

You don’t have to travel far from the Prosecco’s Northern Italian homeland in the Veneto to find the small wine growing region of Brescia in Lombardy where they make Franciacorta . This has a higher price tag than Prosecco, but it’s a pucker bottle fermented sparking wine.

And boy, is a time consuming process.

After fermenting in stainless steel the wines put into bottle for the second fermentation. In fact the minimum maturation on lees for Franciacorta is 18 months for a non-vintage, 24 months for rosé and 30 months for Millesimato, ‘vintage’ wine and this cannot be released until 37 months after harvest. In other words the winery has also got to keep it for a while in bottle after its been disgorged. Actually all styles require some bottle age. ’Reserve’ classification requires a whopping 60 months of ageing.

Franciacorta is a DOCG area – ie a recognised top spot for wine production (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita or Controlled and Guaranteed Origin.)

It’s cool region is a few km south of Lake Iseo where Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are happily ensconced in the calcareous soils. While is the classic fizzy duo, up to 50% of Pinot Blanc can join the party and even 10% of local Erbamat is welcome.  

The climate is mellowed by the small lake, and the wind which blows across it prevents the vines from freezing in the winter and provides a cooling and healthy breeze in the summer.

This basic Franciacorta and the rosé can be dry or sweet or anything in between. A blanc de blanc brut style called Satèn is currently very trendy. It has a softer – satin-like – fizz than most Franciacorta (4.5 x atmospheric pressure or 4.5 bar) while generally Franciacorta has around the Champagne level of 6 atm. Millesimato and Reserve are also drier styles with higher pressure fizz. 

At a recent tasting I met Federico Fossati who left behind his job as an accountant in the Veneto for Franciacorta in 2009. Here’s a man who bubbles with excitement for his wine. 

It was a chance meeting with an experienced winemaker Pierangelo Bonomi, that set Federico on his new and sparkling path. The ‘ever so enthusiastic’ accountant and the experienced oenologist established a new label Corteaura in Adro. 

Adro is the hot spot for quality vineyards. They have been making wine here since the C13th, but sparkling wine production is relatively new. Federico has some vines of his own, but also sources from local growers.

Corteaura Winery

The Champenois have spent some centuries establishing a reputation for a decent sparking wine, so it will take time for Franiacorta to gain a global following. However if Federico Fossati is anything to go by, the energy is there to fast forward the process. In the meantime the wines remain very reasonably priced for the quality, so it’s a good time to enjoy them.

Time for some wine

Corteaura Franciacorta Brut

This is 90% Chardonnay and 10% Pinot Noir. This has biscuit flavours blended with nettle notes in a very appetising way. It has a refreshingly tart finish. There is no lack of finesse. Score 17

Corteaura Franciacorta Pas Dosé Brut

This 20% Chardonnay and 80% Pinot Noir blend has 50 month ageing. Plenty of rich, nutty autolytic characters.  Notes of marzipan. It is creamy and full, quite firmly structured, with a delicious dry finish. Score 18

Frederico also makes this delicious rosé. It’s not currently available in the UK

Corteaura Franciacorta Rosé

This rosé has a pretty colour and a hint of rose petal on the nose which belies its structured palate. After a vibrant jump onto the palate, it is rounded, silky, well structured with good intensity and some tension on the floral finish. This is the sort of fizz that would see you through from the aperitif to main course.  

Corteaura Franciacorta Insé

This is a vintage wine from 2012. I love the rich and creamy texture. It has generosity, ampleness and is wonderfully mellow. 

Stockists

My local wine merchant – Lea and Sandeman https://www.leaandsandeman.co.uk

Corteaura Franciacorta Brut £19.95 (Price per bottle as a case £17.95) 

Corteaura Franciacorta Pas Dosé Brut £23.95 (Price per bottle as a case £21.95)

08/04/2020

My ‘dessert’ island wine

Klein Constantia Estate

“I was in Spain recently where I drank Vin de Constance with a tapas of Iberico ham,” says Hans Astrom of Klein Constantia, the South African estate renowned for its sweet wine Vin de Constance. 

This would work.. the salty savoury flavours offset by the sweet. “However,” Hans continues, “we usually prefer to serve it with cheese at the estate, but the most important thing is to serve it cool. When it’s too warm the sugar dominates and the wine feels heavy in the mouth.”

Given the estate was established in 1685, they’ve had plenty of time to work out food and wine combos. Simon Van der Stel, first governor of the Cape chose the spot, 20 miles outside Cape Town for its beauty, its decomposed granite soils and cooling ocean breezes – the later being perfect conditions for growing vines. 

And it was not long before Vin de Constance hit the sweet spot for royalty, wine lovers and collectors across the globe.. Sadly however this was not to last. Phylloxera and a new fashion for Bordeaux saw the winery and its sweet nectar fall into obscurity.

Fast forward to modern times and Duggie Jooste bought the estate in 1980. When The Nose visited many years ago to sniff through a vertical of Vin de Constance, these sweeties had been joined by a range of dry wines. 

However the estate faltered and by 2011 the vineyard had shrunk to just 4 hectares. Czech-American investor Zdenek Bakala and Charles Harman came to the rescue. Together with Bruno Prats and Hubert de Bouard they saved this vinous damsel in destress… and an important part of wine history. 

Apparently they had a bit of party, opening bottles from the 1700s and 1800s to trace the stylistic changes over the ages in order to discover the true Vin de Constance. It was always a late harvest wine, in other words left to ripen on the vine, rather than passito where grapes are harvested and dried. Traditionally there was no botrytis. During the 80s the style changed as Duggie Jooste experimented with botrytis, but the new team feels strongly that the wine is more elegant, purer and true to the original without. 

The strong winds and heat of the Constantia Valley encourage the Muscat grape to develop a thick skin which makes it quite resistant to botrytis. However if the mould develops, it is cut out. The new team, if I understand correctly, they harvest by berry, not by bunch, and over a stonking period of 90 days, making the attention to detail quite extraordinary. 

As Jooste carried his experiments into the winery, Vin de Constance pre 2011 can vary immensely in style with much drier wines, illustrated by the 1996 (see below) to wines with a whopping 240g of residual sugar. 

Another thing to point out, Vin de Constance is not a fortified wine. Well… not recently and never by choice. In the very early days, when it was shipped in barrel to Europe, it would start to flag en route and was stabilised aboard with a dose of spirits. Yet by the early 1700s a Dutch shipper, rather ahead of his time, persuaded the estate to bottle at the winery. 

While the wine is not shy in alcohol – it’s about 14% Vol, these are naturally fermented sugars. This leaves around 150-160 grams or so of residual sugar in the wine. It takes about a year to ferment in 500l barrels with a further 2 years of oak ageing to follow. From the 2015 vintage, the new team  prefer to move it to large fudres for the second half of ageing.

Enough of history and winemaking, it’s time for some wine. Just a word of caution. You can drink Vin de Constance young, but it’s a shame to do so. 2016 is the latest release. It may be five years old, but best left for ten… to ease into middle life and the opportunity to develop complexity.

At the moment 2012 is also too young. 2008 and 2007 are at the beginning of an interesting evolution. My favourite at the moment is 2007, but 2016 is the best wine in this small flight. So buy some now, tuck it away and don’t be tempted to open it. It is practically indestructible. You could do worse than cellaring 2016 for the next generation.  

Klein Constantia, Vin de Constance 2016

This is the most recent release. Very light colour, something quite new for Vin de Constance which began life with a deeper colour in the past. It’s perfumed and expressive with notes of lemon balm on the nose. The palate is citrusy and juicy with plenty of energy and freshness. There is a savoury note of rosemary and spice. There’s plenty of residual sugar (164.8 g/l) but the texture is slim and the wine has precision and a slightly saline long finish. This is the most elegant of vintages in this small flight, but far too young for drinking now. Score 18.75.  From 2028 but I would wait much longer.    

Klein Constantia, Vin de Constance 2015

Rich, intense and beautifully balanced. Notes of lemon grass and oregano. Maybe not as pure as the 2016, but I tasted this later, separately and rather swiftly on the hoof so it’s difficult to compare. 

Klein Constantia, Vin de Constance 2012

2012 was the first wine of the second change of ownership. (The estate was on the market during the 2010 and 2011 vintages, so they may not be the best, but I have not tried them). 

This has developed a slight hint of coffee on the nose. Rich, maybe deeper in texture than the 2016, but nicely contained and with freshness to balance. It has luscious elegance. Slightly caramelised with some spice and a touch of tamarind. It has a long, purposeful and pure finish. Score 18.65. Drink from 2025 and for a long, long time. 

Klein Constantia, Vin de Constance 2008

This is a light amber colour. The new team didn’t make it, but they blended it. A honeyed aroma, maybe a touch oxidative. On the palate toffee, butterscotch. It’s very attractive, but lacks a bit of energy and length in comparison with 2012. Score 18. From now onwards. 

Klein Constantia, Vin de Constance 2007

The first wine of the new era. Once again, the new team didn’t make it, but they did blend it. At this point the estate changed direction. I prefer this to 2008. This wine is both sweeter and more acidic and really seems to punch. Good tension. Notes of caramel and cocoa… but it also has a cleanliness and purity. Slightly herbal and smoky graphite finish which is certainly persistent. Score 18.25   

Klein Constantia, Vin de Constance 1996

Much darker amber colour. A slightly medicinal aroma and butter-mint on the palate. It has a nicely bitter caramelised note which adds to the crispness and bite on the palate. It’s drier than the previous wines at 112 g/l residual sugar. While not as energetic and intense as the wines they are making now, it’s a lovely mature wine. Score 17.5 

Despite the new found security for Klein Constantia, it’s a sad, but irrefutable fact that sweet wine has fallen out of fashion. By the time most of us have reached dessert, sweet wine is a wine too far. Hans recommends serving Vin de Constance with panna cotta, but maybe, he suggests, the answer is to bypass the dessert and sip a glass of sweet wine instead. Wine as dessert. The Nose approves.  

Constantia Estate – to access their website.

Stockists

2016 –  Lay & Wheeler, Farr Vintners, Fine + Rare Wines (£39 IB so around £48.50 DPD)

2012 – Armit Wines (£50 DPD)

2008 – Fine & Rare (£60 IB), Lay & Wheeler (£73.30 IB)

2007 –  Fine & Rare (£50 IB)

Back vintage prices vary across different stockists, but the above is an example of what is available.

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