Monday, 20 June 2016

Champagne - beyond the brands

Champagne, like no other wine, is dominated by brands. Veuve, Moët, Bolly…I don’t even need to spell out the full name for you to know who I mean.

Brands give the reassurance of familiarity, consistency of quality and a certain cachet. And you don’t need me to tell you to buy them. What you do need from a wine columnist, is a tip for under the radar Champagnes that offer great quality and that over deliver in terms of value for money.

One that springs to mind is Champagne Mailly Grand Cru – a co-operative based in the Grand Cru village of Mailly in the Montagne de Reims. The Wine Reserve in Cobham stocks a range of their high quality, Pinot Noir-dominant, big-boned Champagnes starting at £29.99 for their Grand Cru Brut NV.

This week I had the chance to taste through the range of another Champagne that is not a household name, Champagne de Castelnau.

All Champagnes look to establish a point of difference and in the case of de Castelnau it’s the long lees ageing. For their Brut Réserve Non Vintage blend, that means over six years.

What is lees ageing? 
The Champagne method involves making first a still wine – or in fact a range of still wines. The different grape varieties (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier) and different vineyard parcels will usually be fermented separately. The resulting wines are then reviewed once their fermentation has finished, to assemble the wines to create the desired blend, or cuvée.

The blend is then put into bottle, along with yeast and sugar, in order to undergo a second fermentation – this is the one that will transform the still wine into one with bubbles. Fermentation lasts a few weeks, but all Champagnes must then be left in the bottle for a period of time (legally 12 months at a minimum) before disgorgement of the yeast sediment and re-corking. During that time in bottle, the wine will interact with the lees (dead yeast cells), thereby developing additional flavours and complexity. Champagne makers who want their wines to express youthful fruitiness and freshness in their wines will generally age them for a shorter time on the lees. Those looking for greater depth and complexity will, naturally, want to age their Champagnes for longer – sometimes much longer.

I’m no accountant, but even I can work out that long ageing has a financial cost – not being able to sell your Champagne until it is over six years old is going to impact your cash flow. Champagnes like these cannot be made cheaply or quickly.

Where to find de Castelnau Champagnes?
They are stocked by restaurants and independent wine merchants. Spirited Wines ( and Nicolas wine shops list the full range of de Castelnau Champagne.

De Castelnau Brut Réserve NV - £29.99 Spirited Wines/Nicolas
This is what they like to call “a Vintage soul in a Brut Non Vintage body”, with its complexity and depth of flavour. It makes for a very versatile style with hints of wild mushroom, toastiness and nuts.

De Castelnau Brut Vintage 2002 - £39 Spirited Wines/Nicolas
2002 is regarded as a great year for Champagne, so this is one for real Champagne lovers to search out. With eleven years on the lees, this has developed a range of quite savoury flavours – it is a gastronomic Champagne to serve with food.

In order to signal their high quality credentials, and to mark their centenary in 2016, de Castelnau are launching a prestige cuvée, dubbed Hors Catégorie, the name a nod to the toughest climbs of the Tour de France. The style is a departure from their house style, with “just” five years on the lees and with a blend of three different years in the cuvée. This finely etched Champagne is made in tiny quantities, in eye-catching packaging. If you spy a bottle, it can be yours for £85.

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