Wine column for week of December 10

As Christmas approaches people start to think about celebrations. Champagne tends to be top of the list of wines with which to celebrate.
Most people are aware of the big houses like Moet & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Lanson and Laurent-Perrier. These focus on consistency, producing the same profile in their non-vintage wines each year.
Smaller houses can be more adventurous. Recent tastings of two of these independent houses revealed some pleasant surprises.
Maison Lallier is based in the historic Champagne village of Ay in cellars built at the end of the eighteenth century.
Francis Tribaut, a local winemaker, bought Lallier in 2004 and has changed its focus, concentrating on champagnes sourced only from grand cru and premier cru classified vineyards.
Tribaut told me he only uses natural yeasts to make champagne, and low dosage. The phrase “méthode champenoise” describes the traditional way champagne is made. After the primary fermentation and bottling, a second alcoholic fermentation occurs in the bottle. This second fermentation is induced by adding several grams of yeast and rock sugar.
After ageing the position of the bottle is changed, either manually or mechanically, in a process called remuage, so that the lees (dead yeast cells) settle in the neck of the bottle.
After chilling the bottle, the neck is frozen, and the cap removed. Pressure in the bottle ejects the ice containing the cap.
Some syrup (the dosage) is added to restore the level within the bottle and, importantly, adjust the sweetness of the finished wine. The bottle is then corked to maintain the carbon dioxide in solution, and the wine allowed to age.
Champagne grapes are grown in a part of the world where it is sometimes difficult to ripen them fully, so adding sugar is sometimes necessary.
Zero dosage occurs when the winemaker, or chef de caves, thinks the grapes are ripe enough that the sugar in the grapes is enough to sustain the wine over time.
The amount of sugar in the dosage is the subject of much debate in the wine world. Some winemakers believe it is difficult to ensure vintage champagne will still be enjoyable after some decades unless some sugar is added in the dosage.
Non-vintage champagnes tends to be consumed relatively soon after becoming available. Lallier’s grand cru grande reserve brut non vintage champage is a marvellous wine, full of zingy acidity and aromas of freshly baked bread. Tribaut described it as his “flagship” wine.
Noted wine critic Jancis Robinson rated this the best value non-vintage champagne in a blind tasting earlier this year.
It had nine grams per litre of dosage, which is about average for brut or dry champagnes.
The Lallier grand cru zero dosage non vintage champagne received, as the name suggests, no sugar in the dosage. This is a classy wine. It is like a woman who ignores make-up, relying on her inner beauty. It tastes pure and elegant.
I deliberately ate an oily spring roll with chilli sauce with this champagne and the wine cut through the fat and chilli. It sang in the glass.
Both of these wines were made with a combination of pinot noir and chardonnay grapes, in a ratio of about two thirds to one third respectively.
Champagne made only with chardonnay grapes are called “blanc de blancs”.
Two non-vintage brut grand cru blanc de blancs by the Varnier-Fanniere house impressed with their intense aromas of green apples and bread dough.
The regular Varnier-Fanniere spends three years on yeast lees developing flavours of grapefruit and toast, and is made from grapes from a range of grand cru vineyards. The Cuvee St Denis rests on lees for five years, and the grapes come from one vineyard.
In the mouth both champagnes had intense acidity, and a piercing texture that fills the palate with joy, combined with flavours of toasted nuts and brioche. Both received 92 points out of a 100 in Wine Spectator magazine.
All of these wines would be ideal for those Christmas celebrations.
* Published 12 December 2012. Find a link here.

Categories: Not home, wine

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