Saturday, 8 May 2010

Champagne tasting at Leiths

What better way to celebrate election night than with Champagne. After work I hoofed it to the Leiths School of Food and Wine in Stamford Brook for a Champagne tasting hosted by fizz expert Richard Bampfield MW.

Six wines were on show, opening with Laurent Perrier Brut NV, paired with smoked salmon bagels. Bampfield was full of historical nuggets about Champagne – 90% of Champagne produced is non vintage and traditionally most wines made in the region were red and used for mass.

Bampfield went on to explain the different styles, from the bone dry ultra brut (a notch drier than extra brut), to the slightly sweet demi-sec. We tried a non vintage premier cru extra brut from unsung producer Larmandier-Bernier, which I found slightly austere and severe. It even tasted dry, with bitter lemon and sour apple on the palate.

Moving swiftly on, we compared a blancs de blanc – Legras Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru, Chouilly NV with a blancs de noir: Bollinger Special Cuvée Brut NV. It was interesting thinking of the two Champagnes in terms of their grape varieties, and trying to spot their differences. The Chardonnay-fuelled Legras was lighter and more feminine than the Pinot-dominant Bolly, with a fragrant nose of lemon meringue.

The Bollinger was immediately striking for its golden colour and powerful nose of alluring autolytic notes: buttered toast, brioche and biscuit. Bollinger is my favourite Champagne - I adore its distinctively rich character. The hallmark of good Champagne is that you don't notice the fizz, which is true of Bollinger and other greats like Krug and Dom Pérignon; they feel more like still wines than Champagnes.

Interestingly, Bampfield pointed out that in blind tastings it's virtually impossible to pick out individual Champagne houses, except for Bollinger, which has a signature style. I asked if he thinks the dramatic discounting that took place around Christmas will damage the Champagne brand. 'I don't think so. Champagne is so strong, it has survived savage discounting before and will survive this time round. Nothing can touch its position in the sparkling wine market'.

Moving on to the final two wines, we got talking about the vintage vs non vintage argument. Bampfield recommends buying non vintage Champagne and laying it down for 18 months. 'All non vintage Champagne benefits from a year or two of bottle ageing', he said, singling out the non-malolactic Lanson Black Label NV as a particularly good example offering fantastic value.

The penultimate Champagne was the trophy-winning Chanonine Vintage 2002. It's easy to see why it won an award - an attractive golden colour, it had bags of flavour with a fragrant, feminine nose and a punchy, toasty, brioche palate. Rich, masculine and robust, it makes a big first impression. Bampfield pointed out that it's hard to award subtlety in wine competitions, meaning a lot of incredibly well made wines fall short of the mark due to the sterile tasting conditions competition wines are subjected to.

Our final wine was Moet & Chandon Grand Vintage 2003, which, according to Bampfield, changed the game in terms of vintage rosé Champagne. It had an attractive orange hue, and was very light, fresh and fruit-forward on the palate - with strawberries, raspberries and summer fruits in the mix. The session ended with Bampfield urging us to experiment with Champagne and take it beyond the confines of the aperitif, with scallops, oysters, lobster and Pecorino cheese all named checked as great food matches.

We were all given a miniature bottle of LP to take home, which I cracked open while watching the election coverage, calling it a night at 1am. I turned on the TV at 7am expecting to see a newly-crowned Prime Minister, but nothing appeared to have been decided. And it still hasn't.

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