Guide to wine tasting – part 1

Published by Sally on April 4, 2010

A version of this article first appeared in France magazine, January 2010.

Brits’ love affair with sparkling wine shows no signs of letting up, so what better wine style to both bring in the new year, and to start a new series exploring wine tasting, flavours and styles.

Champagne is by far and away the most important sparkling wine from France.  Alsace and the Loire are next with Burgundy falling into line, along with one or two specialist styles.

Style and flavour are inextricably linked to the way sparkling wines are made. In France, most are made by the ‘traditional method’, and even then, there’s plenty of flavour difference.

Traditional method is used to describe sparkling wines made in the same way as Champagne.  The term Champagne can only be used for sparkling wine made in the eponymous region of northern France.  Everywhere else in the world it’s ‘traditional method sparkling wine’. 

Wines reviewed below

Wines reviewed below

Still wine is fermented at harvest.  This still wine is then blended according to a number of desired styles.  The still wine is put into the very bottle that you will be pouring from, along with a little yeast and sugar, as food for the yeast.  A second fermentation takes place in the bottle. The bottle then rests ‘on its lees’ (the yeast cells), for a mandated period of time: for Champagne a minimum 15 months for non-vintage; minimum 36 months for vintage. At the end of this time the lees are removed and the bottle topped up. This top-up includes an amount of sugar to conform to the style on the label – mostly brut, but also sec, semi-sec, and increasingly trendy – zero dosage.

Most of what we drink is Brut, so dry, but it’s those lees that confer flavour. The more time spent on lees, the more nutty, savoury, toasted, complexing flavours can be found in the bubbly, including fresh cream, cob nuts, almonds, brioche, granary and toasted characters. 

A second crucial element is the grape varieties used.  In Champagne these are stipulated as chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier.  Most non-vintage is made of a blend of the three, but ‘blanc de blancs’ is made just with chardonnay (white grape) and ‘blanc de noirs’ is made with one or both of the pinots (black grapes).  More chardonnay gives more floral, lifted, citrus notes with a lightness of structure that belies its strength. More pinot noir gives greater power and body, more mouth-filling, whereas pinot meunier is supple and strawberry-fruity.

In the wine recommendations opposite, there is a ‘blanc de blancs’ and a ‘blanc de noirs’ to show as clearly defined differences as possible. If neither of these terms is mentioned, the wine will usually be blend of the three grapes.

A third crucial element in flavour is the acid structure of the wine and its mousse – the bubbles.  The best quality mousse is a fine, persistent one, where a steady stream of small bubbles erupts on the palate. If a mousse dissipates quickly or the bubbles are big and coarse, the sensation is less attractive, and is usually indicative of a lesser quality wine.

The acidity runs through the heart of all these elements. Early harvest is often ideal to preserve as much natural acidity as possible. Part of the refreshing and enlivening nature of sparkling wine comes from the perky and tingling acid core, around which all the flavours evolve and develop in the mouth.

Other regions in France call their traditional method wines Crémant, though the time on lees is often less: minimum time nine months. Already this suggests it will be fruitier rather than more nutty and toasty.

And the grape varieties used are those found locally, so this will also affect the flavour profile.  Sorg’s Crémant d’Alsace has pinot gris and pinot blanc which add floral aroma and fruitiness. The Presle Crémant de Loire has a lot of chardonnay and has developed toasty, creamy notes of notable time on lees, whereas the Crémant de Bourgogne has been made in a deliberately light and fruity style without the complexing characters of lees ageing, and is delightfully pure and fresh for that.

Bruno Sorg, Crémant d’Alsace Brut NV
£15.00 The Good Wine Shop   
Cork,  12%
A delicious bubbly focusing on fragrant fruit, from a top grower in Alsace.  This is a blend of chardonnay, pinot blanc and pinot gris. There’s freshness from the chardonnay, plus depth, weight and a little richness from the pinot gris (not to be confused with light, crisp, neutral Italian pinot grigio). Fragrant butter biscuit notes waft over white fruits, apple and pear, all with a hint of fragrant allspice. The nose promises much, and the palate does not disappoint, with fresh peach with apricot foam, and an evasive spicy hint of complexity.  

Château de la Presle, Jean-Marie Penet, Crémant de Loire Brut NV
£13.50  Bottle Apostle 
Cork, 12%
This is an aperitif to impress, with hints of those yeasty notes more usually found in Champagne, and little surprise as this is three-quarters chardonnay. Aromatic acacia flowers, apple, with white nectarine on both nose and palate.  Hint of honey-roasted white pepper spice also come through on the palate to complex the white fruit core of this bubbly. It has a creamy, persistent mousse, and a medium-full weight with rich fruit concentration alongside the silhouette of a savoury, creamy lees note.

Cave de Lugny, Crémant de Bourgogne, Blancs de Blancs Brut NV
£10.49  Oddbins
Cork, 12%
Blanc de Blancs so by definition chardonnay, with all the refreshing focus on primary fruit, so no savoury leesy character.  Fresh, crunchy apples, white pear and white rose fragrance leads into plenty of clean fruit on the palate. The mousse is creamy and well-defined. This is made by the well-known co-op in a widely appealing aperitif style. 

Sainsbury’s Blanc de Noirs Champagne Brut NV
£15.99 Sainsbury’s
Cork, 12%
Made only from black grapes: 40% pinot noir and 60% pinot meunier.  Hints of brioche on the nose are followed up by butter biscuit and fresh cream on the palate.  This gives way to fresh-roasted almonds and white flowers on the mid palate. With 30 months’ ageing on lees, this bubbly has a good level of complexity at the price.  It’s been made for Sainsbury’s for more than 20 years by the same co-operative in Reims.

Pierre Gimmonet et Fils Cuis 1er cru Brut NV
£168.00 per 6 bottles/£28 per bottle, Armit
Cork,  12%   
This is made only using chardonnay grapes, and is made by the Gimmonet family who have been crafting Champagne since 1750. Aromas of fresh bread emerge temptingly from the glass.  It is immediately gratifying and uplifting with a good density of flavour.  Acacia flowers and freshly-harvested cob nuts combine with hints of flavoursome creamy sweetness.  And lifted citrus notes meld into the enticing creamy mousse to create an altogether appealing sensation.

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