Friday, 21 June 2013

Turning wine into Champagne

“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”

This is what the Wizard of Oz cries in desperation as he is unmasked as a mere mortal, issuing instructions to the inhabitants of the Emerald City from behind a curtain, his “magic” and might no more than a loudspeaker. 

Champagne houses have traditionally been keen to keep the curtain raised between us and them, keen to preserve the mystery surrounding the process of turning the very ordinary still wines the region produces, into the sparkling nectar of the Gods that is Champagne.  Maybe they thought if we knew the prosaic truth, if we glimpsed the man behind the curtain, then the magic would be gone and Champagne’s image would suffer.
Jacquart's new Oenothèque
Personally I find the truth much more fascinating and think Champagne producers impress more when they share the details of the skill, hard slog and dedication needed to make their sparkling wines.  Tasting vins clairs (the still base wines which will be blended together in order to make the final cuvée) with Floriane Eznack of Champagne Jacquart this week, I was reminded just what a skilful job blending of wines for Champagne really is.

Floriane Eznack of Champagne Jacquart

Floriane has a more complex job than many in Champagne, perhaps, as she is responsible for a brand that draws on wines made by three different wineries, which work together under the Alliance Champagne Co-operative.  In total, Floriane and her three cellar-master colleagues have 1,200 different wines to taste from October to December following the harvest each year.

2 out of the 1,200 possible blending components

And what wines.  These are the vins clairs, still wines made from just ripe grapes whose main characteristic is their screamingly high acidity.  Tasting them could not be described as any kind of pleasure.  And yet she and her team must evaluate each one with an eye to how it will marry with the many other elements of the blend, including reserve wines from previous vintages – as well as the small matter of envisaging how the whole shebang will taste once it emerges from the “prise de mousse”, the process of being made to sparkle. 

Wot no bubbles?

 After four months of work deciding on the blend, the wines will be bottled with yeast and sugar and put into the cellars for their second fermentation, which will result in the all-important sparkle.  Floriane still has years to wait, though, before she – and we – can judge whether her hard work has paid off.  The wines rest on their sediment, or lees, for a minimum of 3 years following fermentation before the removal of the sediment and the emergence of the final wine takes place.  Even then, though, more patience is required:  the wine understandably goes through a period of shock following the process of disgorgement needed to remove the sediment and needs time to recover and taste as it should.  For the cellarmaster, nerves of steel as well as skill are required.
Tools of the trade
If the wines I tasted this week go on to form part of Jacquart’s main blend, fittingly called Mosaïque Brut, they will not emerge in their final form until 2017 or 2018.  In the meantime, Floriane and team will have gone on to taste and blend three or more releases.  Everyone involved has to have a high level of confidence that they are getting it right – it will be too late to go back!

Interestingly, Floriane told us that creating the newly-released Cuvée Alpha prestige blend took only a couple of hours, compared to four months for the Mosaïque.  A wine produced in small quantities, made from the best of the best, I suppose, tends to make itself.  It does make me wonder, though, what Richard Geoffroy of Dom Pérignon does for the other 364 ½ days of the year.

The current Jacquart range is available from Great Western Wine and online at

Jacquart Mosaïque Brut NV - £25 from Great Western Wine
The current blend is based on the 2008 vintage, so has had plenty of time ageing on its lees and in bottle.  It has a classic bready, brioche nose with notes of apple and apple skin.  The long ageing has given it depth of flavour combined with clean linearity and well integrated acidity.     

Jacquart Blanc de Blancs 2006 - £39.50 from Great Western Wine
You might also see the 2005 in this country, which I have greatly enjoyed in the past.  The 2006 gives a sense of ripeness from the vintage.  Creamy apple blossom aromas lead onto a fairly broad palate with a definite spice and a lingering finish.  Blanc de Blancs is sometimes viewed as the ultimate aperitif Champagne but, as Floriane says of this wine, “a second glass of it needs food”. 

Jacquart Mosaïque Rosé NV - £32.50 from Great Western Wine (though on offer at £27.50 until 30 June)
Like most pink Champagne, this is made by blending in a small amount of red wine (made from Pinot Noir) into the regular white cuvée.  It’s a pale salmon pink and has nicely tart redcurrant fruit and a dry finish with notes of pink peppercorn and juniper berry – all this suggests an affinity with food, rather than being glugged on its own.

Jacquart Cuvée Alpha 2005 – £75 from Great Western Wine
Brand spanking new to the Jacquart range is this prestige cuvée, with just enough bling on the bottle so that people will know you’ve ordered something special if they see this on your restaurant table.  This inaugural vintage is a blend of 50% Chardonnay and 50% Pinot Noir that has spent seven years on its lees; it has delicacy in the form of hawthorn blossom, alongside more savoury bready-spicy notes and a structure to last.

Monday, 10 June 2013

The shock of the new vs the tried and tested

I’ve been wondering about readers of this column recently.  It’s well reported that our appetite for consuming cookery programs on TV and buying cookery books to adorn our shelves is not a reflection of an increase in actual cooking in the UK.  We seem content to ogle Paul Hollywood as he expertly kneads brioche dough, or gaze longingly at Nigella as she coos over her billowy pillows of meringue or whatever – then find we don’t have time to cook anything ourselves. 

Do you read this, with a passing interest in the content (“Oh, tasting wine from Turkey this week.”) and then revert to your regular tipple of Pinot Grigio/New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc or Rioja next time you buy wine?  It’s not at all a criticism, I am genuinely interested to know if anyone out there is really encouraged to try something new by anything that I might write about. 

This is probably prompted by my own efforts to get out of a culinary rut (yes, by buying a couple of new cookery books) and making the food I dish up for my family less predictable – and (gasp) less reliant on meat.  I’ve been scouring the shelves of the supermarket in sections that I normally eschew as fit only for cranks who think they have “intolerances” to everything,  in search of new wave grains:  farro, quinoa, bulgur, giant couscous, Camargue red rice - all have been given shelf space in my food cupboards.  Some have even made it to the table, with mixed reactions from the rest of the family.  However, I am still (at this early stage at least) optimistic that we will find some new dishes that we all take to our hearts. 

Enough about my own domestic preoccupations, and onto what should be the primary concern of this column.  At this time of year, you are no doubt expecting wine recommendations for alfresco dining.  Has anyone EVER actually said that outside the world of journalism?  “Hello darling, I thought we’d dine al fresco this evening.”  Your other half would think you’d hit the Prosecco early doors.    

No matter, here are some recommendations for summer drinking (indoors or out) that I hope might encourage you to depart from the tried and tested and to strike out in search of glasses new.  

Grüner Veltliner

If you count yourself a Sauvignon Blanc fan, then I urge you to seek out this grape.  It’s a speciality of Austria and has plenty of zingy and zesty grapefruit-tinged fruit, with often more body and personality than many Sauvignon Blancs.  You might be interested to know that New Zealand wine growers have taken up the variety and are starting to produce their own versions.  It’s still early days, but look out for Kiwi Grüner in years to come. 

Laurenz V. Forbidden Grüner 2011, £11.99 from
This is a hugely unfashionable style – light, fresh, a bit of natural sweetness and with low alcohol (11%).  But this is exactly the sort of wine that, if it’s put in your hand, I bet many of you would enjoy.  Bursting with fresh lime and grapefruit, and yes, a touch of sweetness, but the finish is clean as a whistle thanks to a bright streak of acidity.  This will cheer up even the greyest summer’s day.

 Domäne Wachau “Terraces” Grüner Veltliner 2011 - £9.99 from Waitrose
Drier and higher in alcohol, this is a satisfyingly tangy and refreshing wine, which has nothing skinny about it – perfect for what passes for summer weather nowadays.

Australian Riesling

Here I go again:  Riesling, Riesling, Riesling.  Will I never tire of banging on about this variety?  The short answer is no – not until I’ve convinced you all to love it as much as I do. 

If the idea of sweet Riesling is too scary, then stick with Aussie versions which are reliably dry. 

Plantagenet Great Southern Riesling 2010 - £13.50 from The Wine Society, £13.99 from
I served this blind at a tasting recently (see what you Riesling haters have made me resort to) and many people loved the wine but were convinced it couldn’t be Riesling, which they were sure would be sweet and nasty and not bursting with zesty, waxy  lime fruit and resolutely dry.  Most guests thought it was Sauvignon Blanc (not sure whether to laugh or cry about that).  Need I say more?

Paulett’s Riesling, Polish Hill River, Clare Valley - £13.74 or £10.99 if you buy 2 bottles at Majestic
Despite the mangled name (is it from a river or a hill, it can’t be both) I have long admired this wine for its classic Clare Valley Riesling style – elegant lime and lime blossom fruit.

English fizz

The grape varieties may be nothing new, usually consisting of the classic Champagne trio of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, but the style is English all the way.  Our home-produced sparkling wines have yet again shown their quality by bagging medals at the major international wine competitions this year. 

Gusbourne Estate – wines from £24.99 to £29.99 online at and some independents
This newish producer in Kent managed to take home gold medals in each of the “big 3” competitions (International Wine Challenge, Decanter World Wine Awards and the International Wine and Spirit Competition) this year – a stunning achievement.

Ridgeview Bloomsbury 2010 - £24.99 from Waitrose
For my money Ridgeview are the most consistent producer of high quality English sparkling wine across their range, though they failed to bag any medals at the big three competitions.  Like Spurs, there may be no silverware in the trophy cabinet this year, but they are undoubtedly a class act.

 However, I do have to beware that I don’t push this experimentation with the new too far.  As my husband remarked the other day, when faced with yet another new dish for supper:  “It’s just like wine, we’re never allowed to have the same thing twice.”  Sigh.  Oh go on, crack open the bottle of Oyster Bay.