John Saker talks the state of Champagne with Dr Tony Jordan
THERE HAVE BEEN hard times aplenty in the Champagne region’s rich history. Markets have collapsed and wars have been fought among its vines. In 1940, two million bottles were looted during the first few weeks of the German occupation alone. There are downsides to being an object of the world’s desire.
The present day, however, is not such a bad time. World consumption is almost back to the record-breaking pre-GFC levels. Quality continues to be carefully maintained, and the marketing machine that is the envy of every other wine region in the world never seems to make a false step.
Australian Dr Tony Jordan is someone with a good knowledge of Champagne. He worked for Moët Hennessy for 21 years, during which time he established Domaine Chandon in the Yarra Valley and consulted to Chandon wineries worldwide. He now describes himself as “somewhat retired”. He still consults and judges around the world. He is a fixture on the panel at the Champagne and Sparkling Wine World Championships held annually in London. This year he lent Cuisine his expertise, joining the judging panel at our bubbles tasting. We asked Tony to share some insights on Champagne today. On the rise and popularity of the small, grower Champagnes: There have always been a lot of smaller growers in Champagne but now they’re attracting greater attention. Some of it is hype from sommeliers and writers and the like, and their endless search for something different. They suggest grower Champagnes are more authentic. I just scratch my head at the idea you can only be authentic if you’re small. It doesn’t stand scrutiny, when you look at the quality produced by many of the bigger brands in
Champagne. Both groups – big and small – are capable of producing sensational wines and so-so wines. As long as your vineyards are quality vineyards and you’re in a position to capture that quality, you’ll produce good wine whatever your size. Champagne is a region that is blessed in having large areas of great-quality grapes. On the strength of the Champagne
brand: More than any other wine region in the world, the name of the region itself is the brand. The average consumer knows the name Champagne. They believe that if it has that name, it’s good and that he or she should have some. It’s an extraordinarily powerful brand that has been built up over a long period. The big Champagne houses have done a service for everybody. The entire region shares in the wealth of that brand, but the name wouldn’t be where it is today without the development of the quality image by Veuve Clicquot, Bollinger, Taittinger, Pol Roger, Mumm, Moët & Chandon and many others. On the challenge posed by other sparkling wines around the world: There are certainly some superb sparkling wines being made from the traditional Champagne varieties – chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier – in countries including New Zealand, Australia, Argentina, California (which is like a separate country), Italy, England, South Africa. Consumers should look out for them. Also, there is the non-traditional variety sparkling wine, prosecco, which is hot at the moment.
Do they worry Champagne? I don’t think so. These styles introduce people to bubbles, but the reputation of Champagne still manages to overshadow all else in the category. It’s interesting that if you buy a Margaret River or Hawke’s Bay cabernet, your expectation (and hope) is for a wine that reflects its own terroir. You don’t expect it to taste exactly like a Bordeaux. With traditional-variety sparkling wine, that logic seems to escape many consumers. People will say, “Well, it doesn’t taste exactly like Champagne so it can’t be as good”, or, “It’s different so it’s not as good as Champagne”. That’s an unfair basis of comparison but, again, it shows how powerful the brand “Champagne” is. On new style developments: We’re increasingly seeing greater use of oak; in some styles the oak influence is quite overt. Winemakers are coming at this in different ways – some carry out fermentations in new oak, others mature base wines in new or old oak. It’s good to see winemakers are not averse to evolving styles. Personally, I like Champagne and other traditional-variety sparkling wines not to show too much oak, but done well it brings greater character and complexity to the wines. On the differences between nonvintage and vintage Champagne: It’s a Champagne story that’s not well understood. People think of NV and Vintage champagnes as being different quality tiers, but actually they’re different styles. NV (about 95 per cent of Champagne’s production) are blended from the current harvest with reserve wines (wines from previous harvests that have been aged to develop character and complexity) so that they usually need relatively short yeast age (18-plus months) before they are ready for disgorging and release.
Vintage wines are blended from base wines of one year, which are chosen so the blend will benefit (texture, complexity, aromatics development) from long (three years’ to seven years’) yeast age before disgorging.
In the Cuisine tasting, we saw great NV and vintage examples and I suppose you can say the very best were vintage blends.
Dr Tony Jordan, below, worked for Moët Hennessy for 21 years.