Image: © CIVC
March 11 2011
To celebrate my recent engagement, a friend gave me the pick of champagnes in his cellar, and I chose ’61 Dom Pérignon (much as Bond might have done, had the franchise not moved over to Bollinger in more recent decades). Easing out the rodent-nibbled cork later that evening, I was pleased with the discernible escape of gas from the bottle, indicating that the wine might still be alive, even if not well. Sampling older wines can often be more of a privilege than a pleasure or require too much imagination, but delightfully the Dom had a vivacity to match its complex character and after years silently gathering dust was showing wisdom but not wrinkles. Such a great wine encourages contemplation, elevates conversation, or at the least leads to a ruminative and slightly meandering blog post.
It’s the CIVC (champagne’s governing body) annual tasting at Whitehall on March 15 (pictured), one of the few tastings I rarely miss. For starters it’s close to WineChap HQ, so an easy stagger back after lunch; but also it’s an opportunity to try the broadest spectrum of those wines that are always hip, often hyped and about which general ignorance is matched only by our reverence and enthusiasm. It intrigues me that people will spend the equivalent of the cost of a good Premier Cru burgundy (which they rarely if ever do, really) on the most basic of champagne brands, and barely pause to consider: is it worth it?
The answer is yes; it just annoys me that few care why. Most experience champagne as an elegant accessory at soirées or launches, as peripheral to the primary business of looking important while being overheard as the charity or artist who have provided the excuse. Or more often a glass is raised to toast someone’s health, happiness or recent demise, but again enjoyment of its contents is wholly sublimated to the occasion. In fact usually when someone tells me their favourite champagne, I am ungenerous enough to conclude that this refers to the single occasion they bothered to look at the bottle of one that they remembered enjoying.
I am delighted that Britain leads the export market in supporting small, independent champagne growers – albeit often those “discovered” on the Bank Holiday drive back from Normandy, bottles of which are brought out with proprietorial smugness at dinner parties – but for me great champagnes show their worth only with maturity. And the number of wine merchants who advertise certain non-vintage stocks as being blessed with three to four years’ extra bottle age suggests that I’m not alone.
Peter Gago, Penfolds’ chief winemaker, once suggested over lunch that certain wines do not so much improve with age as change into something else. Many would say the same of champagne. For them the thickly yellow, barely effervescent, truffled character of old vintages is less pleasing than the fresh, exuberant citric tang of a younger wine; but not me. François Billecart opined over dinner that champagne ages more interestingly than chablis, and his ’74 Cuvée NFB was probably the champagne I have most enjoyed (although I remain sceptical about his insistence on pairing certain cuvées with cigars!). In fact the Champenois insist that you can drink their wines throughout a meal, and in the main if you treat the older pinot-dominated cuvées as gamey red burgundies this can be surprisingly effective (although I’ve yet to find a maison or cuvée to pair with rare roast beef: ask apologetically for something more rouge in character and you’ll be pointed to their generally rather thin Coteaux Champenois red (pinot noir in the mould of red sancerre).
Ultimately, to appreciate champagne properly, treat it as a wine, a fine wine but no more or less special; let it mature and drink it with a meal, or afterwards with a cigar – if you happen to have Billecart ’68 and François on hand to encourage you.