Emmanuel Tresmontant - 2010-12-10
Clear cut, crisp and distinct, unsweetened champagne lends itself well to all kinds of festive occasions. David Biraud and Antoine Pétrus, the two famous sommeliers from Paris’ Hôtel Crillon agreed to sample and comment on a small selection of handpicked extra-brut champagnes.
Extra-brut - the quintessential champagne?
When you taste a champagne with a very low or non-existent dosage or sugar content (between 0g and 6g of sugar per litre) you are tasting the real wine which was originally produced by the winemaker. There is no “make over” in the sense that sugar is all too often utilised to supplement and mask the inherent deficiencies of the wine (in particular the immaturity of the grapes.) Non-dosage is therefore an indicator of real quality.Champagne thus fully expresses the chalky terrain from which it originates and the work of the winemaker who made it. Nevertheless, the decision not to use sugar is a risky choice in which the winemaker has to start with a perfect raw material. There is no room for error here!
The dosage for Brut champagnes (between 6g and 12g of sugar per litre) is however an integral part of the Champagne tradition and this should not be denigrated in any way. The addition of sugar can provide body and smoothness to the champagne, making it more accessible.
For David Biraud and Antoine Pétrus, the sommeliers of the Hotel Crillon, Brut champagne is a “consensus” wine that receives unanimous approval. However, if you are looking for a new experience, then the world of Extra-Brut is the right choice. As an apéritif it is lively and fresh, just perfect for whetting the appetite. Taken alongside a meal, it lends itself better to the art of marrying food with wine as its bubbles are finer and its tastes are sharper.
The following champagnes were sampled at 10.30am at a temperature of 10° Celsius (never serve an iced glass of champagne!) The selection could have been more extensive, but this little medley nevertheless constitutes a good introduction to the charms of Extra Brut. If you’d like to probe further into this realm I suggest you look for the fine champagnes of Maison Tarlant in the Marne Valley, of Benoît Lahaye in Montagne de Reims and of Jacques Lassaigne in Montgueux.
Larmendier-Bernier: Premier cru Blanc de blanc.
Established in Vertus since 1988, Pierre Larmendier-Bernier is one of the great winemakers of the Côte des Blancs and one of the rare Champenois to have dispensed with using chemical fertilisers. Starting from his guiding principle that “everything begins at the vine” his own plants are cultivated according to the strictest criteria of biodynamic agriculture. For the vinification process of his very intense Extra Brut Rosé Champagne, Pierre uses the egg-shaped vats made of natural cement rather than the traditional barrels. In terms of its concentration, the result has been worth the effort.
The champagne we have selected is his Premier Cru Blanc de blancs with a dosage of 4g per litre originating from the Chardonnay grapes of Avize, Oger, Cramant and Vertus.
David Biraud: “This champagne has a beautiful pale yellow colour, with shining silvery glints. The bubbles are very fine. You notice them in the palate, which is proof that the secondary fermentation has been properly accomplished. As far as the aromas are concerned, the mineral aspect is what stands out: we are not in (sweet) notes of brioche and pastries with this wine.”
Antoine Pétrus: “This is a ‘champagne de gastronomie’ with a real wine basis. I can imagine this marries well with a dish of roast langoustines with fennel confit, or a Saint-pierre meunière with carrots.” This is a straight, pure, clean and elegant champagne.
29 € for a bottle.
Jacquesson cuvée 734.
The Maison Jacquesson is a family run, independent firm with a vineyard that covers 31 hectares and two distinct regions - the Grande Vallée de la Marne and la Côte des Blancs. Laurent and Jean-Hervé Chiquet, who have run the company since 1988, practice a reasoned culture which expresses the grandiosity of the terrain of Avize, Aÿ and Dizy.
This cuvée with a sugar content of 3.5g per litre originates mainly from the 2006 wine harvest. It consists of 54 % Chardonnay, 26 % Pinot meunier and 20 % Pinot noir.
David Biraud: “A golden colour with a tinge of pink. It’s almost like an “Oeil de perdrix Rosé”. Truly astounding! This is probably due to the proportion of Pinot noir, but also because of the grape’s maturity and the pressing methods. This champagne is tighter on the palate than the last one.”
Antoine Pétrus: “This is very vinous, structured and tannic champagne. It has a very dry finish with a bitter component intended for whetting the appetite.”
D.B: “Yes there’s a mineral and salty aspect making it a real table wine. This is champagne that should be highlighted by a chef and sommelier.”
36 € for a bottle.
Françoise Bedel, “Vin Secret”
Françoise Bedel is an unusual and enthusiastic winemaker whose very personal champagnes absolutely have to be discovered. Her estate located in Crouttes-sur-Marne has been cultivated using biodynamic methods since 1999, which has not only enabled her to bring the soils back to life but also to develop an exceptional level of minerality. Since the roots of her vines are no longer fed from the surface by fertilisers they naturally have to dig deeper into the soil to find nourishment close to the bedrock.
Her vin secret cuvée with a dosage of 0.70 g per litre originates from the silt terrains that are very favourable for the Pinot meunier grape. This explains the atypical composition of this champagne: 86 % Pinot meunier, 8 % Pinot noir and 6 % Chardonnay.
D.B: “A very golden colour. The exuberant nose reveals a long maturation on the lees (4 years.) This champagne’s texture and bubbles are creamier and more intrusive than the previous ones.”
A.P: “This champagne is more evolved than the others and has marked tertiary aromas of cherry plum, honey, quince and white truffle ... It’s an autumn wine that matches marvellously with white poultry meat, Jerusalem artichokes, mashed parsnips and chanterelles. In other words mushrooms and roots!”
D.B: “This champagne has great consistency in the palate, it works well with poultry, sweetbreads etc.”
A.P: “I can even see it with a fine cheese like a mild Mont d’or for example.”
29.70 € for a bottle.
Drappier « VintaBrut nature »
Situated in Urville inside a 12th century Cistercian abbey, the Maison Drappier became famous in the second half of the 20th century for supplying the personal cellar of General de Gaulle, to whom the firm has now dedicated one of its cuvées. This fine, traditional firm, in spite of it quantitative output, does not spare any efforts in its attention to the vines.
The Brut nature Cuvée 100% Pinot noir has no dosage whatsoever and is therefore to some extent the archetypal Extra Brut champagne! The only remaining sugar content is the natural residual sugar of less than 2g per litre.
D. B: “A sustained straw-yellow colour, a nice sparkle with the presence of bubbles. It’s a mineral champagne with a marked chalky identity, similar to the first two we sampled.”
A. P: “Yes the Drappier and Larmendier-Bernier certainly have the virtue of being the most refreshing of the selection at the moment. However the Pinot noir gives more of a stated vinous quality than the Chardonnay. So it’s a question of taste.”
D. B: “The effect in mid-palate is agreeable; this is where we see the real power of the body of Pinot noirs. It’s perfect for an aperitif.”
An original champagne that is lively andcharacteristic and it’s also available "sulphur free" for adepts of "natural wine".
25 € for a bottle.
Cédric Bouchard, cuvée Rose de Jeanne.
This young winemaker who is as enthusiastic as he is unassuming, has just one fault – he doesn’t produce enough bottles! After setting up in 2000 in the Aube region in Celles-sur-Ource, thirty kilometres from Troyes, Cédric Bouchard carefully cultivated a micro-terroir that he wanted to resemble a beautiful garden. His yields are so small, they are derisory and his grapes are very concentrated which still allows a sufficient level of acidity to create a good secondary fermentation. Today, his “Rose de Jeanne” stands out as one of the finest expressions of Pinot noir in the whole region. However Cedric also decided to produce a Chardonnay like a thunder bolt from Zeus, as well as an unusual champagne with a Pinot blanc basis (a grape variety which used to be important here but which is all but forgotten nowadays.) As a perfectionist, Cedric and his wife lead a monk-like existence throughout the year in order to produce their exceptional champagnes. His sole luxury? Treating himself to 2 weeks holiday in Las Vegas every August!
D. B: “The colour is lighter than the previous champagnes, even though this is made from 100% Pinot noir grapes. Bouchard has a high precision pressing technique. His aim is to avoid extracting both the colour and the tannins.”
A. P: “This is a young champagne in every sense of the word. On the one hand it highlights the floral side of the fruit; you have the impression of tasting pure fresh grape juice, and on the other hand, its minerality potential won’t come out until a few years from now.”
D. B: “What Antoine said is very true. It’s the first champagne on the list that really brings you back to the original fruit. Here you can taste the white flesh of the grape in its purest form.” This is a very rare wine! I can imagine this wine with quality shellfish. A lobster accompanied by nettle gnocchi for example, just to add a tangy twist into the equation.” This is well defined, delicate champagne for pleasure.
45 € for a bottle.
Jacquesson cuvée millésimée 2002
This CuvéeMillésimée Extra-Brut which comes from some of the finest plots of land has a sugar content of 3.5g/litre. The chardonnay comes from the premiers and grand crus of Avize, Chouilly, the Pinot noir of Dizy, Aÿ and Mareuil.
D. B: “It has a subtle empyreumatic edge to the nose with notes of toast, smoke and peat. In order for a champagne with such a low sugar content to offer such aromatic richness, with such depth in the mid-palate, the wine had to be exceptional from the outset! The tannins are very fine. This champagne makes me want to have a fine dining experience!"
A. P: “I could envisage a white truffle or sweetbreads with chestnut pieces ..."
D. B: “Or how about a roast hen with an Alain Passard Cévennes onion gratin, or even his hay chicken with salted butter – this would make a great food wine match.” (We have to point out here that David Biraud is not only a great sommelier but also an excellent cook!)
Over 60 € for a bottle
Anselme Sélosse Cuvée Version Originale
Here we introduce Anselme Sélosse yet again. Anyone who had the chance to taste his wines once in their lifetime can still remember it, such is their difference from others. Rich, complex, vinous - they are unique in their genre! This great figure of Champagne is today one of the most passionate winemakers in France. Throughout his life, Anselme has been driven by the idea of reintroducing the taste of the champenois chalk from the place where he grew up as a child. With advice from the agronomist Claude Bourguignon, he has made every effort to bring life back to the terroirs of Avize, Cramant and Oger to the south of Épernay.
David Biraud: “The thing I like about Sélosse’s champagnes, is that not only do they have a low dosage, but they also have a real bite to them. They bring together everything that’s important in champagne: the aromatic complexity, the freshness, the fine bubbles and its phenomenal texture. As far as persistence in the palate is concerned, we’re not talking about a few seconds, as is the case with other champagnes, but of several minutes. These are wines that leave an impression on the palate! Sélosse above all makes wine... the effervescence is secondary.” »
Antoine Pétrus: “For him it’s working with the vine which is most important. Some of these vines are nearly 100 years old. That necessarily creates complexity. Sélosse has also made himself known by making his champagnes in oak barrels, not to give them a woody note, but to allow them to breathe and thereby develop their aromas.”
So it’s quite clear, this is an “extraordinary”champagne to be consumed by those who know how to appreciate it.
Over 70 € for a bottle. (Only available from wine merchants.)
In their profession they are nicknamed “Laurel and Hardy”, David Biraud and Antoine Pétrus make the finest pair of sommeliers in Paris. Laden with titles (Meilleur Ouvrier de France for Biraud, Best Young Sommelier of France- the Ruinart Trophy for Pétrus), they often prove to be a great double act in public. They are at turns playful and analytical, scholarly and spontaneous, technical and pedagogical ... But it is above all the love of wine that exudes when both of them speak.
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