Champagne: A True Underdog Story
Harriet, our Spanish Buyer, tells us a thing or two about one of our grower Champagnes...
In adult life, one of my most favourite declarations has always been “I think this calls for some Champagne”. There is something undeniably magnificent and slightly decadent about popping open and sharing a bottle of the world’s most luxurious wine. I love a good Champagne. My thirst for the stuff means that my reasons for celebration can occasionally be somewhat dubious: “I had a pretty good day at work today... I think this calls for some Champagne! or “oh look, the cat came home... I think this calls for some Champagne” An attitude that I can ill-afford given our wavering economy and the high prices that Champagne can fetch. But, whilst Champagne has the capability of lifting the spirits - sometimes with immeasurable symbolical weight, it can also be associated with achingly dull receptions and yet another tedious Christmas party. This latter point could perhaps be explained by the notion that: Champagne is the only quality wine producing region in France where the brand supersedes terroir. Whilst most of the Champagne Houses boast good to excellent quality (we all have our favourites!) they are also ubiquitous and we tend to see the same 9 or 10 brands over and over again. Call me spoilt but I think it’s a bit boring.
The little guys
Whether you work in the wine trade or just simply love wine, by far the best thing about good wine (apart from drinking it) is discovering it. In a market where Champagne Houses dominate with generic blends and brands a plenty, perhaps this notion of discovery is what is lacking. To put it in perspective, Champagne Houses make up a whopping 88% of Champagne exports (97% outside Europe) and of the 19,000 growers in Champagne, around only 4500 actually make what they sell! A recent report (Drinks Business June 2013) suggests that, due to competition from the big players and squeezed margins, these little guys are in decline. But it is this type of champagne producer that can display real individuality more than any other, expressing terroir-focused nuances from one particular village. These little guys are known as grower champagnes. There is also a certain reassurance in the knowledge that when you are buying a grower champagne, the money you part with tends to go predominantly into the (complex) production of the wine, rather than to the marketing budget. Now there’s a thought... There is a whole host of grower champagnes to discover out there, and I’d like to start with one I recently visited and have slightly fallen in love with (the wine, that is).
Love at first sight
I first came across Champagne R.Dumont et Fils at the Champagne de Vignerons (grower champagne) tasting in London earlier this year. There were about 15 producers present and in general the quality was excellent with an abundance of different styles on offer. However, there was one producer whose wines particularly struck a chord: Champagne R.Dumont et Fils. Interestingly, it wasn’t situated in either of the more famous, Grand Cru producing Montagne de Reims or Cote de Blanc regions, but from the lesser known Côte des Bar, no less than 100 miles south of Reims. It is a curious and eccentric region, not because the champagnes are inferior, but because it is in a totally different geographical location and consequently the vines are planted on Kimmerdigian Clay soil (home to Chablis and Sancerre) rather than the classic chalk of Champagne. Kimmerdigian clay, I am told, generates wines with generous fruit, enviable minerality and, in the highest spots, searingly fresh acidity. So I was excited to discover that Dumont’s 23 hectares, all of which come from the village of Champignol-Lez-Mondeville, are situated at 370m above sea level and are some of the highest in Champagne - 100m higher than the average vineyard in the Aube department. The region is situated where the oceanic and continental climates collide. What does all this mean? It means later harvest, thus an accrued freshness, with higher acidity and better ageing potential. Now this was a surely a true “Champagne du Terroir” if ever I saw one...my heart was all aflutter and I needed more.
A visit to the winery
Last week, I visited Bernard Dumont at the winery which not only confirmed that Champagne R.Dumont et Fils was a true Champagne de Vigneron but also revealed an innovative and pioneering side that we are not used to in Champagne. Bernard is a subtle, gentle and modest man – one third of the entire workforce at the winery which includes his cousin and sister-in-law. (During pruning and harvest they will hire in more). His family have been growing grapes in the village for over 200 years but it wasn’t until the 1970s that they started producing champagne. Here are some of the major factors that make Dumont special.
Whilst his current production is comprised of 85% Pinot Noir and 15% Chardonnay – he has started planting the remaining forgotten champagne grapes, Petit Meslier, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Arbane. Depending on how they fare – he would be interested to use them in some new or existing cuvées.
Bernard is also experimenting with oak maturation, the oak all comes from the vast surrounding local forest, produced in the neighbouring village “Cunfin”. I might point out at this point that the surrounding landscape is terribly romantic, basically lots and lots of woodland, scattered with old, sleepy villages.
He makes quirky cuvées: The “Solera Reserve Brut NV”, of which he produces only 4000 bottles a year, comes from a 120hl vat of Chardonnay which hasn’t been fully emptied for over 20 years. Each year they draw-off 30% of the volume and refill it with Chardonnay from the last harvest. (It’s extraordinarily good btw) This perpetual method functions in a similar way to the Sherry Solera System in Jerez, hence its name. Other less usual cuvées include a 1998 Blanc de Noir Extra Brut, a Brut Nature NV and a Douce Cuvee NV.
Dumont is one of the very few champagne producers who make rosé using the “Saignée” method. Almost all champagne producers make rosé by mixing red and white grapes. M. Dumont makes his rosé from 100% Pinot Noir. To extract the rose petal pink colour, he lets the skins stay in contact with the must (unfermented juice) for a 1-2 days before bleeding the juice off to continue fermentation. Genius.
The Brut Tradition NV comes in wide variety of all the mega sizes: magnums (1.5L), jeroboams (3L), methuselah (6L), nebuchadnezzar (15L) not forgetting the extremely rare solomon (18L or 24 bottles) where the bottle alone costs nearly 800€!
He keeps a small library of old vintages dating back to 1983. I was lucky enough to taste a 1988 – (see below)
I will leave you with a couple of tasting notes and with the excellent news that Enotria will be launching Dumont’s wines at our sparkling wines table at the September Roadshow! Please come and taste the Rose and the Brut!
Brut Tradition NV
Made from 90% Pinot Noir and 10% Chardonnay, pale gold with small fast bubbles which froth up when poured. The nose is insanely fruity with lemons, white peaches and red cherries. In the mouth, power is met with elegance. Pinot Noir-y red fruit hits you first alongside a creamy, briochey note, all of which lies in the palm of zingy, refreshing acidity. YUM. The wine comes from 4-5 harvests making up 40% reserve wines, with 3-4 years on the lees, disgorged typically 3 to 4 months before release.
Brut Rose NV
Delicate pale pink rose colour – the nose sings with cherry drops, raspberry and violet. The palate is structured with very faint tannin and again, lots of red fruit and fresh acidity. The finish is a long with a savoury, pleasantly bitter note – suggesting to me that it would be great with food. According to Bernard – it’s a great match with local creamy cheese “Chaource”!
1988 Brut Vintage
Bernard pulled out this unlabelled treat at the end, just before our long drive back to Calais. It had been recently disgorged and was made up of 75% Chardonnay and 15% Pinot Noir. Mon Dieu! I will always remember this wine. The colour was a notable intense gold, as to be expected but without any of the brown hints you might expect. One whiff confirmed that there was a LOT going on. Apricot jam, honeyed toast, tobacco, toffee, liquorice are to name a few and then there was the palate which unfolded in 3 stages.
- Acid Attack: The first few seconds I was slapped round the face with racy acidity and fresh fruit notably apricot, white peach and red apple. Wow.
- Creamy Centre: This fruitiness then morphed into a mouth-filling, creamy spice. Burnt honey, liquorice, bread and leather.
- Flinty Finish: All rounded off by an intense earthy smokiness with mineral flint at the forefront. I could still taste it as we passed Paris several hours later.
Bernard Dumont and everyone else at R.Dumont et Fils, I salute you.