Wine: Bubble jeopardy
Saturday 03 May 2008
As the wine world's biggest success story, champagne is rarely off the front pages. The latest news is that the region's growers are aiming to extend their vineyards to make it possible to produce an extra 100 million or so bottles a year on top of the 330 million they already make. With demand outpacing supply, it's hardly surprising that its famous houses are not shy when it comes to charging. Last month Krug launched its first blanc de noirs, Krug Clos d'Ambonnay, a champagne that will retail at around £2,000 per bottle (no, I haven't had the sample yet).
The past few years have seen a rise in rosé fizz. Where once rosé bubbles were the province of just a handful of champagne houses, notably Billecart-Salmon and Laurent Perrier, the number of rosé champagnes today has reached the necessary critical mass to turn it into a "category". If you're keen on both champagne and rosé wine, try the toasty, elegant, red berryish Ayala Rosé NV Champagne, £26.99, M&S, or the slightly more affordable, pale salmon pink, raspberryish Petrot Bonnet Rosé Brut Champagne, £22.99, also at M&S.
There's an interesting trend that's bubbling under in the world of champagne: a fashion for natural wines with no added dosage. Dosage is the spoonful of cane sugar, combined with an equal amount of champagne, with which each house tops up its brut fizz to help the medicine go down. Following in the wake of its Grand Vin Sans Sucre, for which it was known in the 19th century, Laurent Perrier has made a success of its summery Laurent Perrier Ultra Brut Champagne, £31.99-£36, Oddbins, Harvey Nichols, Harrods, which comes with a tart Granny Smith bite to it.
A number of other producers are now following suit, with names such as Brut Nature, Extra Brut, Sauvage, Non-Dosé, Brut Zéro and Zéro Dosage. They include Tarlant, Dumangin, Drappier, Nicolas Feuillatte, Mandois, Piper-Heidsieck, Pannier, Pommery and Ayala, the latter making a big splash with a superb ultra dry rosé to be launched in the UK soon and a new prestige Perle d'Ayala. Probably the most notable of the new launches comes from Pol Roger for the simple reason that PR is arguably the most prestigious of the champagne houses to test drive the new style. Pol Roger Pure Brut, £32.99, Harvey Nichols, and Amuse Bouche bars, has been produced, according to Pol Roger, "specifically for gastronomy" and with its stylish look, natural and tantalisingly zesty flavours, it has plenty going for it.
The bone-dry style is well-adapted to oysters, seafood and Japanese cuisine, as Didier Gimonnet pointed out when I caught up with him and his brilliantly creamy 1999 Gimonnet Extra Brut Oenophile Non-Dosé Champagne at this spring's Champagne Bureau tasting, £180.97 per 6 bottles, John Armit (020-7908 0600), Inverarity Vaults (01899 308000), Bowland Forest Vintners, Clitheroe (01200 448688).
But ultra-dry champagne can be a little too too austere for many palates. According to the author of the Champagne and Sparkling Wine Guide, Tom Stevenson, after tasting great old champagne vintages disgorged straight from the cellar (and great, mature vintages require little or no dosage), "certain French wine journalists theorised incorrectly that champagne per se did not need any added sugar, so it became macho to want no-dosage champagnes". As Didier Gimonnet cautions, while the style appeals to true champagne lovers looking for a natural wine without embellishment, "It's not easy to do it well and in order to get the right balance, you have to choose the best vintage cuvée, otherwise it can too easily become unbalanced." Pure as the new style may be, the blender's art is still prized above all.
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