In an uncertain world, I like to remember that February has long been the month to celebrate romance and love.
Heart branch on beach in Vancouver
Since the Middle Ages and more particularly since Victorian times, St Valentine, Cupid and Aphrodite have been celebrated with romantic cards and images of hearts; like this wooden heart made by the Heart Man and placed on the beach in Vancouver.
Not only do we celebrate love and romance with hearts, roses and chocolates but also with champagne!
This year we celebrated with a half bottle of Billecart-Salmon Champagne. This is in keeping with my interest in smaller bottles with high quality wines. Billecart-Salmon is a small champagne house started in the 1880s, is still run by the family in Mareuil sur Ay and has a devoted following among champagne aficionados. One quote is that…“Billecart Salmon is perhaps the best representative of a Champagne house that has chosen finesse over brute strength.”
We discovered Billecart-Salmon on a wine tour of the Champagne region in 2013. Here are two photos from that visit including the line up of champagne bottles we sampled during a tasting.
Chateau Billecart-Salmon, Mareuil-sur-Ay
Billetcart-Salmon champagne tasting 2013
here is our half bottle (375ml) of Billecart-Salmon Brut Reserve Champagne 12.0%alc./vol.
Let us raise a glass to commemorate the bicentenary of the deaths of both Napoleon Bonaparte and Mrs Sarah D’Oyly with a glass of Port, a fortified wine popular in their days.
Mrs. D’Oyly of Curzon Street, London and Twickenham died 200 years ago this year. She might be surprised to know that she is being written about so long after her death and nearly 300 years after her birth in 1725.
Napoleon Bonaparte also died 200 years ago – it’s the bicentenary of his death this month of May and much will undoubtedly be commented upon regarding his considerable legacy.
Mrs. D’Oyly’s legacy, by virtue of the auction of her wine cellar contents in 1822, provides a window into a 19th century collection of Choice Old Wines – a gift to anyone interested in the history of wine and its context.
Photo of Mr. Christie’s poster advertising Choice Old Wines by auction in 1822.
Sarah D’Oyly was a child of the Enlightenment Period in the 18th and 19th centuries, whose three principle concepts were: use of reason, scientific enquiry and progress. It was a time of intellectual and scientific advancement to improve human life and a time of prominent thinkers like Voltaire, Diderot, Montesquieu, Adam Smith and Kant.
I recall reading Candide by Voltaire in my A level French studies at school and enjoyed the debates between Candide and the philosopher Pangloss and Candide’s encouragement that, “we must cultivate our garden”.
We now talk about the great changes in our lifetime and yet so much change happened during Mrs. D’Oyly’s lifetime. For starters, the American War of Independence 1775 – 1783, the French Revolution 1789 – 1799 and the Industrial Revolution 1760 – 1840.
So who was Sarah D’Oyly? She was the widow of Christopher D’Oyly, a barrister and administrator. They lived in Mayfair in London and also had a villa in Twickenham, 10.5 miles from their London home. Twickenham was first recorded in AD 700 as Tuick Hom and is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 following the Norman Conquest in 1066. In fact, D’Oyly is an old Norman name.
May showing Curzon Street, London and Twickenham
Upon the death of her husband in 1795, Mrs D’Oyly remained both at Twickenham and their Curzon Street house in London until her own death in 1821 at the age of 96, a considerable age at any time and in particular 200 years ago. She was buried at Walton on Thames beside her husband and her memorial reads:
“In memory of Mrs Sarah D’Oyly,
grand daughter of Sir Hans Sloane, Bart
and widow of the late Christopher D’Oyly, Esq who departed this life on the eighth day of September 1821, in the ninety seventh year of her life”
Sarah D’Oyly was the granddaughter of Sir Hans Sloane, (1660 – 1753), an Ango-Irish physician, naturalist, collector and prominent figure in 18th century London. Sir Hans Sloane’s collection of 71,000 objects from around the world were bequeathed by him to the British Nation on his death and were the foundation of the British Museum, the British Library and the Natural History Museum. Currently, this and other collections are being evaluated in the context of how these significant collections from the Enlightenment Period contributed to the development of knowledge and understanding with an attempt to understand the world in which the collectors lived.
18th Century enamel wine label of Cyprus wine, Commandaria
KEO St John Commandaria
The collection of Choice Old Wines for auction by Mr. Christie in 1822 highlights the taste for sweet fortified wines in that era. The practice of fortifying wines with grape spirit also reflects the long voyages required to bring the wines to England in a drinkable state. Additionally, with fortified wines, there was the advantage that the wines kept longer once the bottles were opened.
A typical cellar of the period could also have included Claret from Bordeaux and Champagne, at that time usually a still red wine.
The 18th and 19th centuries saw considerable innovation in grape and wine production in various parts of Europe, permitting a number of distinctive wines such as Madeira, Port, Sherry, Claret and Champagne to be marketed. However, there were high import duties so wine was a luxury.
Wine labels from the collection of Dr Richard Wells that match the wines in the poster
The main market in Britain at that time for alcoholic beverages was beer and spirits and even by 1815, the annual consumption of wine was low due to the high cost.
Between 1816 and 1820, Portuguese wines were the highest percentage of available wines for home consumption in Britain, as in Madeira and Port, and Sherry and Port accounted for approximately ¾ of all British imports of wines before 1860. Port became firmly established in the lifestyle and habits of a section of the British public.
Another 19th century wine cellar inventory that I am aware of corroborates that fortified wines were the mainstay of a wine cellar at that time.
Late 18th Century enamel labels for Cyprus wines, courtesy of Dr. R Wells
Perhaps these differences in wine taste between then and now illustrate one measure of changes over the centuries. A more significant difference between the lifetime of Mrs. D’Oyly and now, relates to transportation. The railway reached Twickenham in 1848. Throughout Sarah D’Oyly’s long life, she would have used horses and horse drawn vehicles to move between her homes in Mayfair and Twickenham. This contrast speaks volumes about the difference in lifestyle then and now.
Over the past few blog posts, I have reflected upon the Choice Old Wines in Mrs. D’Oyly’s wine cellar that were auctioned in 1822 and tried to put them in perspective from a historical viewpoint. As a visual cue, the wines have been beautifully illustrated by a photo-montage of historic enamel wine labels from the collection of Dr. Richard Wells.
I like to think that Sarah D’Oyly, following her long life, would be amused by this interest in her wine cellar.
Reference: Twickenham Museum www.twickenham-museum.org
I’ve been asked if Mrs. D’Oyly was a relative of the D’Oyly Carte family of Gilbert and Sullivan musical fame. My conclusion is probably not. Apparently, the word D’Oyly was used by Richard D’Oyly Carte and his sons as a forename, not part of a double surname. If anyone knows of a connection between the families, I would be interested to hear more.
Walking in central London, I see the sign for Hedonism Wines. I’ve read the name of this shop in a magazine article and decide to drop in to have a look. I am greeted with a cornucopia of wines and spirits in a modern, dynamic environment. It’s a great find for anyone interested in wine.
Hedonism Wines, London
Hedonism Wines, London
The large format wine bottles really attract my attention!
Hedonism Wines: Nebuchadnezzar of Château Palmer 2010.
The bottle with the gold coloured label (bottom left) contains 15000 milliliters of Chateau Palmer 2010, Margaux, Bordeaux. It’s the equivalent of 20 bottles, called a Nebuchadnezzar.
The use of large format wine bottles interests me for several reasons: the names given to these outsize bottles, the impact of large format bottles on the wine ageing process, and the trends in their use.
To help remember the names and dimensions, here’s a chart I prepared.
Large format wine bottles
With the exception of Magnum, the names used for these large format bottles all refer to kings in the Bible’s Old Testament. After some research into this, it seems the reason that biblical names are used has been lost in the mists of time, other than that the names relate to powerful kings. For example, Nebuchadnezzar is the Babylonian king famous for the hanging gardens of Babylon, who lived approximately between 605 BC and 562 BC.
It is thought that the use of these biblical names originates in the 1700s. I don’t know if the use of these names originated in France or elsewhere. Assuming the use may have originated in France, a link to the notion of powerful kings is that the early years of the 1700s were the latter years of the reign of an absolute monarch, Louise X1V. French historians generally regard the Age of Enlightenment (think Voltaire and Rousseau with their revolutionary ideas) as commencing with the death of Louise X1V in 1715 and ending with the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. This ended the Ancien Regime, however, the biblical names have stuck!
The wine ageing process is complex based on a variety of chemical reactions in the wine as it ages. It is also somewhat controversial.
Wine ageing pays tribute to the skills of the vine grower and the wine maker. The vine grower’s responsibilities in the vineyard with respect to managing the terroir, soils, weather and grape varieties form the platform for the wine maker’s approaches to producing quality wine. The appellation rules apply by region in terms of blends of allowable varieties and length of time for winemaking processes.
The value of ageing wine beyond the typical period of 12 – 24 months for red wines is often a factor of the grape varieties in the wine. For example, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah red grape varieties, which have high levels of flavour compounds or phenolics such as tannins, can benefit from further bottle ageing. Various grape varieties have recognized ageing potential. For example, Cabernet Sauvignon has from 4 – 20 years, Merlot 2 – 10 years.
So, if some wines can benefit from further bottle ageing, what is the advantage of using large format bottles, such as Magnums or Jeroboams or even Nebuchadnezzars?
It’s about the rate of ageing. In all large format wine bottles, wine ages more slowly than in a smaller-size container. The wine generally retains fresher aromas for a longer period of time as less oxygen enters the bottle through the cork relative to the volume of wine in the bottle. Oxidization, light and temperature can all degrade a wine if not managed carefully. It also means that if you buy a half bottle of wine, enjoy it and don’t keep it for a rainy day!
The controversy around wine ageing is that some authorities suggest that wine is consumed older than is preferable. Ageing changes wine but whether it improves it or worsens it varies. Certainly, ageing will not improve a poor quality wine.
An economic factor that impacts the winemaking choices around ageing wine is the cost of storage. It certainly is only economical to age quality wine and many varieties of wine do not appreciably benefit from ageing regardless of quality.
Personally, as a general practice, we don’t keep white wine longer than two years beyond the vintage and drink it within one year by preference. We buy red wine that we can cellar for another 2 – 5 years and that is as far out time-wise as we select. All this affects our purchasing approach, as we have learnt from experience that buying beyond one’s capacity to enjoy the wine is not a good idea!
Factoring in the economics means that the current trend is to make wine that can be enjoyed in the shorter term. Added to this is the fact that less wine is consumed these days due to health considerations including driving restrictions.
When discussing large format bottles recently with a wine maker in the Pécharmant area of the Bergerac Wine Region, I was told that the demand for large format bottles is declining. Apart from the decline in consumption, people live in smaller homes and entertain differently. The benefit of having that large Jeroboam or Nebuchadnezzar on hand is less evident! Today, these large format bottles are used more commonly for celebrations and gifts. Magnums of champagne are commonly bought for weddings and other celebrations. Magnums, Jeroboams, Salamanzars and even Nebuchadnezzars of fine wine are used as gifts and are generally specially ordered from the relevant chateau or winery.
A friend recently sent me this photo of a Jeroboam of Merlot 2014 from Burrowing Owl winery in the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia. This was a gift from a client. Another great example of a fine wine in a large format bottle.
Jeroboam of Merlot 2014, Burrowing Owl Winery, Okanagan Valley, B.C.
Its good to see old traditions continue in the spirit of generosity. I like to think that those old kings would be amused.
Best wishes for 2020.
References: various sources,
Hedonism Wines: hedonism.co.uk
Chelsea Flower Show! This show in London is an annual and powerful magnet that attracts gardeners, garden designers and all the associated businesses and artisans.
Hydrangea Fireworks Blue – Great Pavilion
Great excitement for me as I manage to buy an evening ticket to ‘Chelsea’, having almost given up on the possibility of going this year. Tickets are like gold dust! My preferred time slot is 5.30 pm to 8.00 pm, when it is cooler and less crowded around the popular gardens and exhibits.
Once in through the gates, I decide to focus on three gardens as well as the Great Pavilion and to treat myself to a glass of champagne!
First up is the Harmonious Garden of Life designed by French designer, Laurélie de la Salle. This garden appeals to me for two reasons. Laurélie uses her knowledge and experience to create environmentally friendly gardens. Secondly, the gardens she designs are primarily in hot and dry areas where water conservation is important, which in turn influences her choice of plants and garden materials. One small example is that instead of a traditional lawn, a clove meadow is featured which provides blooms for pollinators and enriches the soil as clover is rich in nitrogen.
The Harmonious Garden of Life
Next on my list is the Campaign for Female Education (CAMFED)’s garden: Giving Girls in Africa a Space to Grow designed by Jilayne Rickards. Created on a restricted budget, the garden demonstrates some techniques for gardening sustainability such as inexpensively constructed growing beds. It particularly highlights the CAMFED focus on helping girls in rural Africa stay in education and teaching them sustainable agricultural techniques to help them and their families thrive. All the plants grown provide food. Apart from appreciating the goals of this garden, I really like the energy and vibrancy of the design and colours.
The Camfed Garden: giving girls in Africa a space to grow.
The Camfed garden: giving girls in Africa a space to grow.
To mix it up a bit I then visit the Great Pavilion to get my Chelsea ‘fix’ of roses, hydrangeas and clematis. I look at many of the exhibits and am always drawn to these dramatic, mood enhancing displays. Who can resist walking among the roses: it feels like walking into a parallel world of different fragrances, colours and textures.
Roses in the Great Pavilion
Coming towards the end of my tour of the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Chelsea this year, I head to the champagne bar!
Fortnum and Mason of Piccadilly are the official supplier of champagne to the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. I select a glass of their Brut Reserve, made by Louis Roederer, which is a blend of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. Also on offer is the Fortnum and Mason Rosé NV, made by Billecart Salmon, which is again the blend of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier but this time rosé. Fortnum and Mason also offer a Blanc de Blancs which is 100% Chardonnay and made by Laurent Hostomme.
Fortnum and Mason Champagnes
Happy with my champagne choice of Brut Reserve, I wander off to join the queue for my last but not least garden choice.
This is the RHS Back to Nature Garden, co-designed by The Duchess of Cambridge and landscape architects Davies White. The brochure and accompanying plant list states that the objective of this garden is: “to highlight the benefits of the great outdoors on our physical and mental wellbeing and inspire children, families and communities to connect with and enjoy nature – which is core to the charitable work of the RHS (Royal Horticultural Society).”
The RHS Back to Nature Garden – co-designed by the Duchess of Cambridge
The RHS Back to Nature Garden
The RHS Back to Nature Garden – recognize the swing?
I enjoy the stroll through this compact, choreographed garden. The use of a winding path through the predominantly green landscape featuring fun places, like the wooden tent, the tree house and the great ball of string swing, provides that magical mix of adventure and calm that would interest the child in us all.
There are so many wonderful exhibits at ‘Chelsea’ and I appreciate all the hard work, time and effort put in by the many exhibitors. Thousands of people come each day to the show, which is spread over 11 acres (4.45 ha). I am writing about a very small percentage of what can be seen and enjoyed there.
Experience has taught me that less is more when visiting such a magnificent flower show as ‘Chelsea’ and my feet thank me for this approach. The experience is always enhanced by a glass of champagne!
Chelsea Flower Show 2019
References: The Harmonious Garden of Life Laulérie de la Salle
I am inspired by the magnificent displays of flowers and plants at the Chelsea Flower Show this year in London and sustained by a memorable glass of Louis Roederer Brut champagne.
David Austin roses
David Austin roses at Chelsea
Not just roses catch my eye but hostas, dahlias, alliums and succulent plants all attract attention. Thoughts turn to where I can squeeze in another plant in my garden; what about that Restless Sea hosta?
Restless Sea hosta
Foxgloves and Alliums
Iris in striking colour combinations
We spend three plus hours at Chelsea, looking at the model gardens, enquiring about various plants in the Pavillion and admiring the garden sculptures in stone and wood. Such creativity and talent on display.
Wooden garden sculptures
We are impressed by the Royal Bank of Canada model garden, inspired by the Boreal forests of northern Canada. RBC wins a gold again this year.
Royal Bank of Canada wins gold
Royal Bank of Canada model garden
On a hot afternoon, a visit of several hours is the best way to enjoy Chelsea Flower Show in my view. In previous years, I have attended for the whole day and my feet have not appreciated my efforts.
In the last half hour before closing, we find our way to the champagne tents where both Louis Roederer and Billecart Salmon champagne are on offer. I enjoy both and have visited each of these champagne houses in France. In 2014, I wrote a series about champagne and associated visits, which are listed in my archives. Here are a couple of photos from the 2014 elizabethsvines archives:
Tasting Room at Roederer
Door Sign at Champagne Billecart-Salmon
Today, we choose the Louis Roederer Brut. The classic, dry, biscuity, refreshing flavour with subtle bubbles is just what we need to celebrate another Chelsea visit. I even forgot to take a photo…
We are in the in-between zone, that time between Christmas and the New Year: recovering from the wonderful festive time and not yet in the grip of New Year resolutions. Sometimes, these few days can provide an opportunity to catch up on outstanding items. For now, it’s a time for reflection.
This includes reflecting on elizabethsvines. I look back at my 10 published postings over the year. My aim is always to write about wine in the context of art, music, literature, science, recipes for cooking, history, restaurants and about wine as an expression of culture, as in the Confréries in France.
In 2015, my wine repertoire includes the Bergerac Wine Region in SW France, a specific British Columbia wine and references to particular South African wine, to Champagne, Port and hot punches (aka the Dickensian Smoking Bishop). It’s a personal focus.
Here are a few updates related to wine stories I have written about in 2015.
JAK Meyer of Meyer Family Vineyards in Okanagan Falls in British Columbia has mentioned to me that their Pinot Noir is now available in 169 stores across the United Kingdom with Marks and Spencer, the food retailer. This is an exciting development for this British Columbia winery. Last February, I wrote about their wine in: “ From Terroir to Table: Meyer Family Vineyards wines from Okanagan Falls, British Columbia to Mayfair in one leap”.
Klein Constantia Vin de Constance and Warre’s Port which I wrote about last January in “The Wine Ghosts of Christmas Past (with a toast to Charles Dickens)”, were featured in the menu for the October 20th State Dinner at Buckingham Palace for the President of China, Xi Jinping. More specifically, the Palace menu includes Klein Constantia Vin de Constance 2008 and Warre’s Vintage Port 1977.
In April, when I wrote, “Bergerac Wine Region – Chateau Le Tap addresses customer interests”, I jokingly referred to Bertie Wooster of P G Wodehouse fame and his apparent love of “half bots” of wine and commented on a noticeable consumer interest in smaller bottles of wine. This consumer interest was brought home to me again the other day in a supermarket in Paphos, Cyprus when I saw on display a large selection of wine being sold in small wine bottles between 187 ml to 200 ml.
Small bottles of wine meet consumer interests – Paphos , Cyprus
I hope you have found the 2015 posts informative, interesting, perhaps entertaining. I am always interested to know.
In the spirit of Robbie Burns 1788 poem, Auld Lang Syne, let’s raise a cup of kindness. Best wishes for 2016.
A visit to London before the Christmas holidays and I like to check out the decorations. Snowflakes, pine trees and feathers, with lots of colour and dazzle, seem to be some of the motifs this year. My camera isn’t poised ready for them all but here are blue snowflakes and red and green vertical pine tree decorations:
Christmas lights in Mayfair
Christmas holiday decorations
Another stop along the way of special places is the Royal Academy in Piccadilly. The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s man-made forest installation in the forecourt creates a powerful image for me of fluid shape and colour, enhanced by a brilliant blue November sky.
Royal Academy of Arts – Ai Weiwei’s man-made forest installation
Walking along Pall Mall one morning I hear a band playing and drawn like a magnet to the sound, I find a small ceremony with a military band at the Yard entrance to St James’s Palace.
Ceremony at St James’s Palace
Towards the end of that day, I head towards Berry Bros and Rudd, wine merchants in St James’s since the 17th century. Another favourite haunt, this time combining history and fine wine where I have enjoyed Berry’s Own Selection of wines and wine events.
Berry Bros and Rudd – wine merchants in St James’s since the 17th century
Berry Bros and Rudd – part of their own selection
In general chit chat with the wine consultant, I ask about Canadian wine and Bergerac wine region offerings. The Canadian selections focus on ice wines from the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia including an ice cider. While I haven’t tasted this selection of Domaine de Grand Pré, Pomme d’Or, I have tasted other ice ciders and they are worth every sip of nectar: delicious. Nothing from the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia.
The wine selection from the Bergerac Wine Region is limited to Chateau Thénac and no Monbazillac or Saussignac late harvest wines are listed.
In reflecting upon these gaps in their wine list, I realize that these geographic areas of interest to me typically have small production volumes and that this can be a challenge for both wine producers and wine importers considering new markets.
I am pleased to see that a Maratheftiko red wine from Zambartas Wineries in Cyprus is still offered together with a Commandaria.
After all this exploring in London’s St. James’s area, a post-jet lag treat seems in order. What better than a glass of champagne. I enquire about the Bollinger selection, one of our favourites. A half bottle of Bollinger Rosé fits the bill.
This champagne is dominated by Pinot Noir which is known to give body and structure. The Berry Bros and Rudd employee suggests it will go well with game in a wine and food pairing and I take note for future reference. We enjoy it solo, with a handful of home roasted nuts: characteristic tight bubbles, crisp and dry, subtle fruit nuance yet savoury, refreshing. A champagne that really stands on its own.
It’s our second day in the Champagne region and another sunny day. In Reims, we arrive at the House of Roederer and pull up to the main gate, which slowly opens to let us into the parking area. There to greet us is our guide for the visit, Martine. Chic in black and white with natural elegance and a straight back that would have merited a Good Deportment Badge at my old school, Martine is the quintessential wine professional; knowledgeable, confident and attentive to her guests.
This style typifies our experience at the House of Roederer whose mantra is “Quest for Perfection”. Originally established in 1776, it was renamed in 1833 and has built its strength from this 19 Century organization. Roederer remains a private company under the leadership of Frédéric Rauzaud, the seventh generation of the Roederer family.
House of Roederer, entrance hall with champagne bubbles overhead and bronze bust of Russian Tsar Alexander 11 in the centre
We are shown into the entrance hall, which immediately speaks to the illustrious, past and present of Roederer. The bronze bust of Tsar Alexander 11 has pride of place. He was the Tsar for whom Roederer created Cristal Champagne in 1876. Already a fan of Roederer champagne, the Tsar requested a new champagne to be unique in style and bottle for his personal consumption only. It is said the clear crystal bottle with a flat base was designed so that nothing could be hidden either within or underneath the bottle. This was to forestall any assassination attempt on the Tsar.
Then we enter the spacious, pale wood paneled tasting room where the 19th and 20th century Royal Warrants of several devoted European royal families are displayed around the room. There are other contemporary symbols of recognition and awards on display. They all demonstrate the high esteem in which Roederer has been widely held over the centuries.
Tasting Room at Roederer
Martine guides us through a tasting of several Roederer champagnes. She talks about each champagne and as she does so, in true connoisseur style, silently opens each bottle with a gentle twist of her wrist. No popping of corks here.
Roederer champagnes are known for acidity and fruitiness, which together develop the refreshing citrus and biscuity characteristics with a subtle explosion of bubbles in the mouth. An unsophisticated yet definite “Wow” exclamation was my response to those bubbles. We particularly liked the Blanc de Blancs 2006 (Chardonnay) and a primarily Pinot Noir 2006 vintage from the Montagne de Reims vineyards. We also enjoyed the non-vintage Brut Premier for its fresh style.
Cristal Champagne, created by Roederer for Tsar Alexander II of Russia in 1876
For the finale, we tasted Cristal. While all the champagnes we tasted were memorable, there was something special about Cristal, perhaps an added silkiness. Cristal is made from Pinot Noir (60%), Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier from the seven finest vineyards on the estate and is only created in the best years. The vines for the grapes for Cristal have to be a minimum of twenty-five years old. The champagne is aged in the cellars at Roederer for six years and can be kept for many years before it is drunk.
We leave Roederer before lunch and drive on to the House of Bollinger, arriving at the imposing former home of the family and present day premises in Ay. The House of Bollinger was established in 1829 and named for one of the founders, Jacques Bollinger. There are currently three branches of the Bollinger family involved in managing the business.
House of Bollinger – the original family home, Ay, Champagne.
Bollinger has been a popular champagne in Great Britain for many decades and one third of their sales go to Britain. The House has been providing champagne to the Royal Family since the time of Queen Victoria. The Royal Warrant was granted in 1884 and it is said that it was Edward V11 who originally coined the phrase: “…a bottle of Bolly”. In addition to their royal connection, Bollinger is, of course, known in the world of film, for over four decades now, as James Bond’s favourite champagne. These long standing connections are a source of immense pride to the company.
Behind all the publicity and fun there is a deep respect for tradition at Bollinger, which has received the first award given to a champagne house for their efforts in preserving and handing on the best of the traditional techniques and heritage. This is the Living Heritage Company award – EPV or Entreprise du Patrimonie Vivant. At the same time, modernization and innovation have been encouraged.
We enjoyed a delicious lunch at Bollinger with paired champagnes. Lobster in a soup of tomatoes and zucchinis/courgettes, guinea fowl with truffles, cheese, followed by a warm apricot and peach fruit soup with apricot sorbet. We started with Bollinger Rosé, followed by Bollinger La Grande Année 2004 and finally, Bollinger Special Cuvée. Bollinger’s style is distinctive for its full bodied toasty characteristics, possibly as a result of the higher percentage of Pinot (60%) typically blended in their champagnes. Like all the Champagne Houses, they have adapted to the changing tastes of customers over the centuries; from the sweeter style of the 19 Century to the current preference for dry (brut) champagne.
The pairings, needless to say, are excellent. Bollinger recommends the Grande Année 2004 for duck breast, quail or quinea fowl. The Rosé is recommended for both seafood and fruit dishes. Bollinger Special Cuvée, the third champagne we taste, is regarded by many connoisseurs as one of the finest of all French champagnes.
‘007’ and Bollinger
After this unforgettable lunch we are shown the extensive Bollinger cellars. During this time we are reminded of Mme. Jacques Bollinger’s interview with the Daily Mail newspaper during a visit to London in 1961. When asked: “When do you drink champagne?” she replied:
“ I drink it when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it – unless I’m thirsty”.
When it came to choosing champagne to drink on New Year’s Eve, we would have been delighted to enjoy a bottle from any of these Houses. As it turned out, we selected Roederer Brut Premier.
Roederer Champagne and Smoked Salmon
We enjoyed that characteristic taste of medium acidity, lemony-citrus, biscuit/almond flavour and its refreshing style with soft yet pronounced bubbles, and savoured the moment. We drank the champagne as an apéritif and paired it with smoked salmon on rye toast. The appetizer was prepared with toasted rye bread cut into slices and spread with cream cheese, and then topped with smoked salmon, capers, chopped fresh cilantro leaves (coriander), and freshly squeezed lemon juice.
Our visit to the Champagne region and these four Grande Marque Champagne Houses has provided us with lasting memories. Our stories about the people and their pursuit of excellence, the historic places and delicious champagnes that we tasted will linger on.
There’s a sense of excitement in the air as we start our drive last October through the vibrant green vineyards of the rolling Champagne countryside. We are going to visit four of the Grande Marque Champagne Houses, see their premises, taste their champagnes and have the opportunity to feel the ambience of these historic businesses.
Caravans of the grape pickers – Champagne
It’s harvest time and everywhere we see grape pickers at work.
We arrive at Billecart-Salmon, a medium sized Champagne House based in Mareuil sur Aÿ.
Door Sign at Champagne Billecart-Salmon
It was established in 1818 through the marriage of Nicolas-François Billecart to Elizabeth Salmon and is carried on by their descendants. I was first introduced to their champagne a year ago and enjoy the restrained, elegant style. Billecart-Salmon are known particularly for their rosé champagne but offer the full range of styles.
Four legged friends trimming the grass at Billecart-Salmon
At a tasting lunch, we experience their different champagnes with a corresponding range of savoury and sweet bouchées (bite sized offerings) from smoked salmon to chocolate, all elegantly presented in ‘silver-service’ style. We are impressed by their gracious hospitality and their pleasure in providing a full tasting and pairing experience.
Suite of Billecart-Salmon champagnes for tasting lunch
We visit the cellars where we are interested to see the chalk board listing the different plot harvests. The magic of the grape growing areas come to mind as we read Chardonnay from Cramant, Mesnil, Chouilly; Pinot Noir from Äy, Le Clos Hilaire, Verzenay, Mareuil sur Äy.
We also meet some of the younger generation of staff being groomed for senior positions and it is encouraging to see this kind of organizational development in place.
Krug premises in Reims
We continue our drive through the vineyards towards Reims, the famous Gothic Cathedral town and important hub of the Champagne industry. Our second visit is to Krug at their establishment in Reims.
Established in 1843, Joseph Krug, founder, watches solemnly over the present day proceedings from his centrally positioned portrait in the main Salon. Krug has its own allure and dedicated client following supported by the marketing arm of the LVMH, Moët Hennessey Louis Vuitton corporation, purveyors of luxury goods. Krug aficionados are invited to “share your unforgettable experiences at kruglovers.com.’
Joseph Krug, Founder and his famous notebook
At Krug, the extraordinary attention which is paid by all the great Champagne Houses to sampling, assessing and recording the year’s wines is emphasized to the extent that we understand the skill, expertise and patience that is in every top quality Champagne. At Krug itself, they sample and assess the year’s wines from nearly 250 plots. They also taste again 150 reserve wines from previous years. Each year over 5000 tasting notes are collected and recorded. This work of the Cellar Master, with Olivier Krug – who we had the opportunity to meet – and other members of their Tasting Committee sets the stage for the blend of wines for the year’s Non Vintage Champagne. We visit their cellars and see the large number of individual vats for the fermentation of wine from the individual plots, secure within a special space in the cellars. This is before we taste their formidable suite of champagnes.
Krug – individual vats for first fermentation from individual plots
By the end of the day our minds are buzzing with the experience of it all: the countryside, the people we met and their stories, the exhilarating taste of a number of champagne styles, the sights and sounds of the Champagne Region.
The hills and vineyards of Champagne
More than anything it’s the sense of being there, soaking up the atmosphere and experiencing the Champagne heritage. It’s been a great day.
Fast forward to January, 2014 and France’s culture ministry has proposed the vineyards, houses and cellars of Champagne for world heritage status (UNESCO) along with those of Burgundy. The proposal will go before the UNESCO World Heritage Committee in 2015. If approved, they will join Saint-Emilion (Bordeaux) representatives of French winemaking on the UN body’s list. We applaud this proposed recognition of talent and tradition.
In Optimism in a Bottle post 3 of 3, I describe our visit to Roederer and Bollinger.
Champagne – the great celebratory sparkling wine. For me, it’s optimism in a bottle; an immediate feel-good emotion.
A recent trip last October to the Champagne region of NE France about 130 kms from Paris was an experience in geography, history, tradition, science and an exploration of champagne style and tastes.
Harvesting in Champagne vineyards near Epernay
While drinking champagne epitomizes fun and frivolity and the marketing is conducted with great hyperbole and lyrical language, the wine making production behind this façade is serious, detailed, patient, professional and exacting. As they say at Billecart-Salmon: “Give priority to quality, strive for excellence.”
In each of these four Grande Marque Champagne Houses of Billecart-Salmon, Krug, Roederer and Bollinger, we were impressed by the infinite attention to quality and detail. This was particularly evident in the precise knowledge of hundreds of individual small plots of vines throughout this most northerly wine region of France. It is the nuances of soil composition, orientation to the sun, topography and other details which singularly or together create the subtle differences in the wine from each plot which is so important in the essential blending process to make top quality champagne.
The Champagne Appellation d’Origine Controllée (AOC) designation governs all aspects of the production of champagne from planting to labeling and production in the Champagne delineated area of over 35,000 hectares. Only sparkling wine produced in this area can be called champagne and the Champagne Houses are relentless in their protection of this name.
Three main grape varieties are permitted in champagne making: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Generally, champagne is white although most Houses create a rosé. There are exceptions to the standard approach: Blanc de Blancs is made from Chardonnay and Blanc de Noirs is made from Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.
The four most important wine growing areas are Montaigne de Reims (mainly black grapes) , Côte des Blancs (mainly Chardonnay), Vallée de la Marne and Côte des Bur . These areas are outlined on the Wine Spectator map included. It identifies the “heart of Champagne” around Epernay and Reims, however, there is a Champagne area further to the south which is not visible on the map.
Wine Spectator map of the Heart of Champagne
So where do the champagne bubbles come from? The quick answer is that they are made through a natural process in the bottle. The Champagne AOC requires that the traditional method of champagne production is used which requires both the mandatory secondary fermentation in the bottle and minimum periods of maturation on the lees (dead yeast molecules) of 15 months for non vintage champagne and 3 years for vintage. The top Champagne Houses allow for much longer maturation periods – 10 years is not unusual – to create their signature styles.
Champagne is made in several complex steps which I won’t attempt to elaborate. Some key elements only are referred to below. Each Champagne House uses their own specific approaches to create their Champagne House signature style and flavour. An important fact to note is that the grapes are harvested according to the plot where they are grown and the still wine produced from each plot is kept separate until the blending stage. This means that the nuances from the individual plots are retained.
This individuality is important in the detailed and exacting process of sampling and assessing the still wine from each of hundreds of plots. In non-vintage wine where consistency across years is the objective, the chosen individual wines are blended together with reserved wines from previous years to create the assemblage (blend) for that year.
The reputation of each Champagne House rests significantly on this sampling, assessing and blending of different wines. It’s the alchemy of champagne making and the responsibility of the cellar master and the blending committee. It is after bottling and with the addition of a liqueur de tirage ( including sugars and yeast nutrients) that the bubbles are made during the secondary fermentation.
The mystery and sophistication of champagne has been carefully nurtured over time. The four Champagne Houses we visited were founded in the 19th century although Roederer has its origins in the 18th C. Apart from Krug which is part of the LVMH Moet Hennessey Louis Vuitton corporation, the Houses are independent and have passed from generation to generation. Even at Krug, Olivier Krug, 6th generation of the Krug family is still actively involved in the business.
Reims Cathedral – the west portal with rose window and tympanum
The Champagne region is steeped in history. Much of the area was significantly affected by World War 1. Half the Louis Roederer vineyards were destroyed in that war. During that period the Bollinger cellars were used as a hospital, courtesy of Mme. Bollinger. The history of Reims, a major hub in the Champagne industry goes back to the Roman times. For more than one thousand years the sovereigns of the Franks and then France came to the Cathedral or its predecessor to be crowned (816 – 1825). Keeping pace with more modern times, the great Gothic Cathedral is home to stained glass designed by Marc Chagall and installed in 1974.
With only time for a brief visit, we walked from the bright October afternoon sunshine into the shadowy, chiaroscuro atmosphere of Reims Cathedral. Our footsteps sounded heavy as we walked up the aisle admiring the vaulting and the brilliance of blue and red shafts of light from the stained glass. Before leaving this inspiring place we followed our usual practice of lighting a wax taper, casting our own pencil of light into the shadows.
In the Part 2 of 3, I will write about our visit the same day to Billecart-Salmon and Krug.
References: With thanks to Wine Spectator for the map of the Heart of Champagne