Just what is it about champagne and Scandinavia? The crystalline air; the purity of vision, the taste for luxury? Who knows? One thing is for sure; between them the Scandi countries can offer three of the great fizz experts of our times; Richard Juhlin and Andreas Larsson MS from Sweden and Essi Avellan MW from Finland. To their number we must now add Marina Olsson, also from Sweden, a prolific collector and connoisseur, whose mission, it seems, is to spread the word, in Scandinavia and beyond, about the unassailable quality of top champagne.
And I do mean top champagne; in recent months I have been lucky enough to attend a vertical tasting of all the Krug vintages back to 1976 and a horizontal of the great names from the much-debated year of 1996 alongside these tasters. This time, it was something a little different: an assessment of the greatest blanc de noirs champagnes. An under-appreciated category, or the next big thing? Only by tasting indulgently from across the region can one hope to find out…
And so to Malmö. Until the 16th century the city was ruled by the Danes but it still seems a little odd to fly to Copenhagen to get to Sweden. Across the bridge we go, a frisson of excitement generated by recollection of the eponymous Scandi Noir TV series; also a pang of anxiety from a piece on BBC News, quite coincidentally, about three people murdered in the suburbs just the night before. Beyond the serene city centre things are more edgy, it seems.
The happy few, 20 or so in total, who gather to taste, are mainly collectors and journalists, and we are lucky enough to have Gilles de la Bassetière (president of Champagne de Venoge) and François Philipponnat (son of Charles) with us to share their expertise. There are 35 wines, tasted in eight flights; in each flight we know the identity of the wines but not their order. Semi-blind, therefore.
What were the expectations at the beginning of the tasting? When one thinks of blanc de noirs one is always drawn to a comparison to blanc de blancs: why is the latter category more widely appreciated and celebrated? Or is it? Black grapes, after all, make up nearly 70% of plantings in Champagne and are not, in their own right, seen as ‘poor relations’ in the blends. Is it all about elegance, acidity and structure; or more about the fact that, in the name of balance, it is deemed to be more important to add Chardonnay to her darker siblings rather than the other way round?
Will the famous villages of the Montagne de Reims forge their own identity in the same way as enclaves further south have done for Chardonnay? Will, in other words, the very distinct Chardonnay personalities of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger and Cramant find a Pinot reflection in the wines of, say, Mailly and Bouzy? And finally, will we be able to conclude that the identity of individual houses will become increasingly associated with certain villages? Philipponnat with Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, for example, or even Bollinger with Verzenay, the latter especially significant as Bollinger are not based in Verzenay: they are based in Aÿ.
Rather a lot of questions; and rather a lot of work for one day in Malmö, but this kind of work is far, far from onerous… Overall the results were positive and I think that the structure of the tasting was such that minute differences in terroir were easy to discern and appreciate; this reached an apotheosis with flights including four lieux-dits (individual plots) from Deutz (all from Aÿ) and three sublime examples from Selosse, so good that they are worth naming: Le Bout du Clos, ‘Sous le Mont’ Mareuil sur Aÿ, and La Côte Farron (all, interestingly, from different villages).
In conclusion, I found the wines (the oldest was a De Venoge Vinothèque from 1990) to be beautifully polished, resplendent in their diversity and fascinating to assay next to their peers. If there was maybe less of the silky, honeyed regality associated with blanc de blancs of similar quality, this was more than made up for by complexity and sheer interest. Few of the wines appeared inclined to evolve into leathery, truffle-ridden decadence; that stage may well come, of course, but these champagnes were so much more interesting than that!
My favourites? Tricky; let’s just say that the final flight was far from unappreciated. It was made up of Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame 2008 (an honorary blanc de noirs), Jacquesson Aÿ Vauzelle Terme 2009, Billecart-Salmon ‘Le Clos Saint Hilaire’ 2002, Bollinger Vieilles Vignes Françaises 2006 and Krug Clos d’Ambonnay 2002. Not too bad; not too bad at all…
Simon Field MW forsook the dubious charms of a life in the City to buy wine for Berry Bros and Rudd; twenty very agreeable years ensued, with specialisations in France and Spain the result, passions which has continued to nurture over the last few years, and which often inspire him to fitful bouts of creativity!