I look up. Faces stare down at me from out of the clouds and light twinkles through crystal that floats effortlessly in the air. Have I died and gone to heaven? Looking down I am greeted by two circles of sixty or so bottles of non vintage and vintage champagne – it would appear I have.
The high vaulted, frescoed ceiling of the Banqueting House in Whitehall with its pendulous chandeliers is the site of the 2012 Champagne Bureau Annual Tasting, and although it’s a magnificent sight, all eyes are on the Champagne.
I’m with Matt from The Bordeaux Cellar, and we’re both grinning like Cheshire cats. “Try the non vintage Taittinger,” says Matt, so I do – and hence begins a voyage of discovery that takes me over the Montagne de Reims through La Vallée de la Marne and into the previously uncharted territory of the Aube. I quickly realise as I flutter from bottle to bottle like a butterfly in search of nectar, that I must keep my wits about me on this journey, and the spittoon quickly becomes an unlikely but essential travel companion.
The non vintages are encouragingly good, and thinking of the famous Krug Clos du Mesnil, I have a random taste of Le Mesnil Grand Cru (this is the beauty of the DIY Tables, you can pick and choose at will). It might not be Krug, but boy it’s good. Beautiful toasty, yeast infused citrus on the nose and lovely depth and gentle mousse on the palate. I eagerly track down Matt to tell him I have struck gold, and low and behold he sells the stuff. If you’re after a drop of beautiful yet reasonably priced Grand Cru Champagne, you know where to go.
Before moving to the producers and distributors stands set up round the perimeter of the room, I pop quickly to the vintage table which ranges from 1998 to 2007, and a suspicion formed earlier begins to be confirmed. For me there is quite often a sense of sulphur or struck match on the nose of Champagne which makes me feel that the yeasty, bready goodness isn’t quite integrated with the fruit, or that the fruit has simply receded. Each to his own obviously, but I like the zingy complexity that the fruit and autolytic qualities achieve when in concert, but don’t when they’re singing solo.
The stands are as equally rewarding; producers, distributors and marketers eager to tell the story of their wines, talking you through them as you sip, swill and spit contemplatively.
I meet Matteo from Roberson Wine at the Dosnon & Lepage stand who amiably shows me his wines, talking with great passion and knowledge. One can’t help but be inspired and the enthusiasm is catching, the wines doing everything to back up his words.
It is my first known encounter with fruit solely from the Côtes des Bar in the Aube, a district some fifty miles south of Epernay, and in some ways la mouton noir of Champagne’s recognised regions. We’re on the way to Chablis this far south, and soil is moving from belemnitic chalk to kimmeridgian clay, reflected in the fullness of the wines, enhanced too by Dosnon & Lepage’s ethos of making a stunning base wine before it undergoes its second ferment and ageing on lees. The barrel ferment in ex-Puligny oak, another factor in this I would imagine.
I try the Recolte Noir, which is 100% Pinot Noir, the Recolte Blanche, which is 100% Chardonnay and the Rosé with it’s slightly higher dosage. It’s great to see a company doing something different, all three show great varietal character and minerality, the Noir having greater structure and hints of red fruits, and the Blanche showing a leaner vanilla and citrus purity. The Rosé is a lovely drop too, and makes me realise how much I have fallen for Rosé Champagne in the last wee while. I had until recently considered it a gimmick, an invention more for the patron saint of commercialism (also known as Saint Valentine), but it’s not. Made by blending with red wine (that’s cheating cries a small voice in Bandol) it’s every bit a serious drop, showing complexity, depth and more fruit than many standard Champagnes, not a bad thing for those amongst us with a jaded pallate. A Champagne for red wine lovers perhaps?
I have another encounter with the Côtes des Bar at the Chassenay D’Arce stand, and although wanting to move straight to their finest, it is insisted that I try the Non Vintage first. It’s a knockout, recently placed in the top 10 sparkling wines of the World in the Concours des Effervescents du Monde I am told, and it’s understandable why. Beautiful autolytic qualities, but once again a fruit backbone to hang these round. Inspired I try the rest; grab a business card and walk away seemingly enriched.
Deciding it would be appropriate to sample a few more of the Champagne royalty, I pop round to Roederer via Pol Roger and then pay a visit to La Grande Dame. The widow is very welcoming, showing me her charms, but I notice I have become a touch blasé in the presence of such magnificent wines. My palate seems to hold the wine like a weary boxer in the eleventh round, hugging his opponent to stay in the game, and so I realise it’s time to call it a day.
All this cogitating, ruminating and spitting has been intense, and I pour a glass of bubbles and just drink it. It slides down effortlessly, a just reward for a serious day’s tasting. I overhear a besuited gent next to me talking to a colleague, “This has to be one of the best tastings of the year!” he exclaims, and you know what, he’s probably right.