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.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Romanian wines have come a long way

Sometimes I am brought up sharply by the realisation of just how much change has gone on in Eastern Europe since the fall of Communism.

My children (13 and 14) are very used to rubbing shoulders with tourists from all over the world, including Eastern Europe, on trips to London. So when I tell them that, until the 1990s, for citizens of Poland, Latvia, Romania and elsewhere, free travel to Western Europe did not exist, they have a look of blank incomprehension. The idea that a government could forbid its own people from visiting whichever country they liked is beyond their understanding.
Travel was only one area of life that was state-controlled in the not so distant past. The wine industry was too - and industry it certainly was, with no reward for quality but a utilitarian focus on maximising production, just like any other agricultural product in Soviet-era Eastern Europe. In Romania this meant planting vines on unsuitable land and planting low quality (but high yielding) hybrid varieties.

Now these countries are working hard to re-build their wine industries, based on quality this time -  and on making wines that people actually want to drink.

Romania has been one of the most successful in the new, open era and remains the biggest wine producer in Eastern Europe. The vineyard area may be 20-30% smaller now than it was under Communism, but there is an undoubted ambition and pride in what is made there – though we see very little of it here in the UK, as only 3-4% is exported.

Romanian wine producers in recent years have tended to rely on producing good value versions of international style wines from internationally recognized varieties, most notably Pinot Noir. Now, however, more producers are emerging who are also intent on building a reputation for their store of native grape varieties, which represent around half of all plantings in Romania.  

Cramele Recas, one of the country’s biggest and most forward thinking wineries, straddles both these camps, and with some success. They are responsible for producing attractively labelled, consumer-friendly wines made from both international varieties and native Romanian ones – as well as more ambitious wines.

Bradshaw Pinot Noir 2014 - £5 from Asda
Recas make some of the most appealing (and almost bizarrely cheap) Pinot Noir in Romania. It has lightweight, cherry fruit with real Pinot character. Don’t expect Grand Cru Burgundy at this price, but it certainly over delivers for the price.

The Wine Atlas Feteasca Regala 2015 - £4.97 from Asda
Another clever Recas label (this one makes me think of inter-war film posters) with a neat wine in the bottle. You can see why Romania’s native varieties will not be troubling the likes of Chardonnay and Shiraz on the global stage: Feteasca Regala, a white grape, is never going to trip off the tongue quite so easily. However, I like the juicy, ripe, fruit and crisp finish of this, another absolute bargain.

Prince Stirbey, by contrast, is a producer determined to champion the native varieties of Romania.

Prince Stirbey Tamaioasa Romaneasca 2015 - £9.50 from The Wine Society
Tamaioasa, (often known as “the frankincense grape”) is a local clone of Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains, a variety known primarily for making lusciously sweet wines with floral, grapey aromas. This, though, is a dry wine, with just hints of exotic rose petal and spice aromas. It is dry and quite fleshy, without being flabby.

Prince Stirbey Feteasca Regala 2015 - £12.50 from Oddbins
Meaning “royal maiden”, Feteasca Regala is Romania’s most widely planted grape variety. It too has some Muscat-like aromas, with a lovely textured palate and a pleasantly dry finish, thanks to the variety’s natural tannins.