2010 Institute of Masters of Wine Champagne Tasting: 79 Current Releases Tasted

Ferry Plaza Building, San Francisco, California
Tasted Monday, September 27, 2010 by Richard Jennings with 1,276 views

Introduction

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This was my fourth year attending this terrific annual event, which was, as usual, sold out in advance. The line up at these events is so strong, and the price so reasonable, that people flew in for the day from as far away as Seattle and L.A. to attend (including a few CellarTracker folk I got to meet at the event for the first time). The Champagne producers represented donate the bottles for the tasting. The Institute of Masters of Wine, which organizes this event, allows participants to pour their own samples of the wines, with the exception of some of the vintage and major house Champagnes of which they receive limited numbers. This year the Institute organizers cleverly timed the opening of the bottles for which they had limited samples (e.g., one bottle of Krug Rose every 20 minutes or so), which resulted in virtually every participant getting a chance to taste those higher end bottlings over the course of the tasting.

The number of producers represented (37) was the same as last year, but the number of bottlings was down a little this year--there were 80 wines on hand, of which I got to all but one, as compared to 91 last year. The quality level overall was very high, however, perhaps the highest it's been in the four years I've attended. Of the 79 wines I tasted, I rated 30, or nearly 38%, 92 points or higher. My wines of the tasting were the '95 Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires and the '98 Krug, both of which deserved at least 95 points. The producers whose wines were most impressive at this tasting, resulting in one or more scores of 93 points and above, were
Bollinger
Charles Heidsieck
Henriot
Jacquesson
Krug
Moët & Chandon
Pol Roger and
Veuve Clicquot.

Among the more reasonably priced (i.e., $50 and under) vintage and non-vintage Champagnes, the winners for me were Jean Lallement's Brut Réserve, the '97 Lanson Gold Label Brut, Mumm de Cramant Blanc de Blancs, Bruno Paillard's Brut Premiere Cuvée, and Perrier-Jouët's Blason Rosé. At the real bargain level for Champagne, i.e., $40 and under, my recommendations from this tasting for this year would be the following non-vintage bottlings: Henriot Souverain Brut, Perrier-Jouët Grand Brut, Piper-Heidsieck Brut, Pol Roger White Foil Brut, Louis Roederer Brut Premier and Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Brut. The tasting notes below contain additional detail about particular producers and the wines that stood out in this tasting.

Flight 1 - L. Aubry (1 Note)

Interesting small producer, currently run by two brothers, that owns 17 hectares in 60 different locations. They have gone back to the historical roots of Champagne to include three long forgotten Champagne grapes: Fromenteau (also known as Beurot, probably an ancestor of Pinot Gris), Arbanne and Petit Meslier. A lot of their vines are also planted "en foule," i.e., the generation of new vines by laying out a branch from a "mother" plant, and covering it with soil and manure, as was the common practice prior to phylloxera, especially throughout Burgundy. The wine we tasted is one of two cuvees they make from the old varieties--Campanae Veteres Vites meaning "old vines of the countryside." In '03, the blend was 25% Fromenteau, 20% Petit Meslier (said to give “orange and lemon” flavors), 15% Arbanne (for “herbs and honey” flavors), with 20% Pinot Meunier, 10% Pinot Noir and 10% Chardonnay.

Flight 2 - Ayala (2 Notes)

The house of Ayala dates back to 1860. Since 2005, it has been owned by the Bollinger family. The vintage Blanc de Blancs is a blend of three Grand Crus from the Côte des Blancs in which Le Mesnil-sur-Oger has the largest proportion, completed with wines from Cramant and Chouilly.

Flight 3 - Edmond Barnaut (1 Note)

This family enterprise was started in 1874 and owns 12 hectares in Bouzy. The Grande Réserve Brut Grand Cru cuvée is typically 80% Pinot Noir, 20% Chardonnay. They usually harvest late and hand pick the ripest grapes for their Barnaut bottlings (and sell off most of their grapes to negociants). The wines have at least five years bottle age before being sold.

Flight 4 - H. Billiot (1 Note)

I am usually a fan of H. Billiot, especially when the bottles have some age on them. Malolactic fermentation is not used, so the wines need some years in bottle. The Brut Réserve is generally 75% Pinot Noir, 25% Chardonnay.

Flight 5 - Bollinger (3 Notes)

This great house was founded in 1829 by a German, Joseph Bollinger. The vintage wines are fermented in small, aged oak barrels, and malolactic is not encouraged. These are typically very heavy, full bodied wines. The rosé was my favorite of the rosés at this tasting. The cuvée of the vintage La Grande Année varies from year to year, but is always dominated by Pinot Noir.
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Flight 6 - Chartogne-Taillet (1 Note)

This is a very old family-run grower/producer based in the village of Merfy. The Cuvée St. Anne is 60% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot Noir, disgorged in January this year; 80% of the fruit is from 2006 and the rest from 2004 and '05.

Flight 7 - Gaston Chiquet (1 Note)

This producer goes back eight generations, and currently controls over 22 hectares. This bottling happens to be the only Blanc de Blancs made from the Pinot village of Aÿ.

Flight 8 - Charles Ellner (1 Note)

This producer received house status in 1972. They have 54 hectares in 15 villages, planted 55% to Chardonnay. The '99 Seduction is 55% Chardonnay and 45% Pinot Noir, disgorged in December 2007.

Flight 9 - René Geoffroy (1 Note)

Another small family owned grower that can trace their family ownership back to the 1600s. They harvest grapes in several passes ("tries"), use oak foudres and prevent malolactic. The Empreinte is 69% Pinot Noir, 12% Meunier and 19% Chardonnay, largely from 2005 vintage fruit.

Flight 10 - Pierre Gimonnet (1 Note)

The Gimonnets have been growers in the village of Cuis since 1750, and started to produce and sell their own Champagne in 1935. They own 26 hectares in Cuis and the Grand Crus of Chouilly and Cramant, all planted to Chardonnay.

Flight 11 - Henri Goutorbe (1 Note)

Henri Goutorbe owns 15 hectares, and the Cuvée Prestige, which showed well at this tasting, is typically Pinot Noir dominated (65 to 70%), with Chardonnay and sometimes a small amount of Pinot Meunier.

Flight 12 - Alfred Gratien (4 Notes)

This house was founded in 1864, and uses traditional methods: wines are fermented in small oak barrels, malolactic is avoided, bottles are hand riddled and manually disgorged. The grapes are all purchased grapes, with Pinot Meunier often making up a large percentage. The vintage wine is typically dominated by Chardonnay.

Flight 13 - Marc Hébrart (1 Note)

This is a fairly new producer, distributed by Michael Skurnik. The Sélection Brut is 65% Pinot Noir, 35% Chardonnay, largely from '05 vintage fruit; disgorged in January '08.

Flight 14 - Charles Heidsieck (1 Note)

One of my favorite houses, at all levels. Their lower end bottlings are always good and reliable values. Since '85, it's been owned by the Rémy-Cointreau Group. The house now owns 30 hectares in Ambonnay, Bouzy and Oger. I've had this '95 Blanc des Millénaires several times, and this was the best showing yet. It was made by the great chef de caves, Daniel Thibault, before his death in 2002, and remains the current release.

Flight 15 - Henriot (5 Notes)

The two vintages of Cuvée des Enchanteleurs poured at this tasting were certainly highlights of the day, and there was a lot of debate later in the evening as to whether the '95 or '96 was the better wine. I think the '95 is showing well and the most drinkable now, but the '96 is the greater of the two and has a long life ahead of it. The Henriot family have been growers in Champagne since the mid 1600s, and started this house in 1808. They have strong ties with Charles Heidsieck, and share offices and wineries with that house.
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Flight 16 - Jacquesson (2 Notes)

I have another in-depth post about Jacquesson here, following a tasting with one of the brothers that runs it, Jean-Hervé Chiquet. The 2000 Millésime was showing beautifully. I was a little underwhelmed by the Cuvée No. 734, following the splendid 733. Always worthy and interesting Champagnes. The 734 comes mainly from the '06 vintage, and is 54% Chardonnay, 26% Pinot Meunier, and 20% Pinot Noir. The 2000 is 50/50 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Flight 17 - Krug (3 Notes)

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Krug is always fabulous, and these wonderful bottles were definitely high points of the tasting, as usual. The house was founded in 1843. The wines are all fermented in well-aged 205-liter barrels, undergo just two rackings, and they do not induce malolactic fermentation. The wines are aged at least six years before disgorgement. The Grande Cuvée is made from 50 or so wines from 10 different vintages. The blend is usually about 50% Pinot Noir, 35% Chardonnay and 15% Pinot Meunier. The Rosé is 55% Pinot Noir, 25% Chardonnay and 20% Pinot Meunier. The '98 vintage was a very warm one, in which Chardonnay did quite well, so the '98 is dominated by Chardonnay. Truly delicious Champagnes, as always.

Flight 18 - Jean Lallement (1 Note)

This was an impressive wine, from a family operation that owns 4.5 hectares in Verzy, Verzenay and Ludes. Eighty percent is planted to Pinot, and 20% to Chardonnay. They use native yeast and very little dosage.

Flight 19 - Lanson (7 Notes)

Lanson was one of the first Champagne houses, founded in 1760. It no longer owns vineyards--those were lost when it was sold to Marne et Champagne, the current owner. They buy grapes from 60 villages. The wines tend to be high in acid, as they avoid malolactic, but they can be very ageworthy. I was most impressed by the two '97 vintage Champagnes.

Flight 20 - Lilbert-Fils (1 Note)

This was an impressive wine from a small Cramant grower (since 1746). The wines are aged for at least five years before being sold.

Flight 21 - A. Margaine (1 Note)

This is a small grower with seven hectares, planted mostly to Chardonnay.

Flight 22 - Jean Milan (1 Note)

Another small grower, with roots going back five generations, that owns five hectares of vineyards. Unfortunately, this was one of the least impressive wines of the tasting.

Flight 23 - Moët & Chandon (6 Notes)

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The two flagship bottlings, Dom Pérignon and Dom Pérignon Rosé, both from the 2000 vintage, showed very well at this tasting. They are based on a roughly equal blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The fruit is primarily from the vineyards owned by the Abbey of Hautvillers in the time of Dom Pérignon, and purchased by Moët & Chandon in the 1820s, but they are also now using fruit from the former Lanson vineyards. The Grand Vintage Brut, an '03, showed the ripeness of that exceptionally hot year. This mammoth producer owns over 553 hectares in 44 villages, but the produce of those vineyards only supplies about a quarter of the fruit they need.

Flight 24 - G. H. Mumm (3 Notes)

Mumm is a huge house, now owned by Allied Domecq. I usually find their Mumm de Cramant to be a good, reliable value, and this year's NV is another strong example. All three of these non-vintage samples are decent Champagnes, if not particularly exciting.

Flight 25 - Bruno Paillard (4 Notes)

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Bruno Paillard was a broker in Champagne for many years before starting his house in 1981. He has permanent contracts with many growers, keeps a good store of old reserve wines, and uses 15% oak on everything except the rosés. Both Premiere Cuvées are lovely wines.

Flight 26 - Pehu Simonet (1 Note)

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I don't know much about this producer other than that it is distributed by Michael Skurnik. This bottling is predominantly '07 fruit, 70% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay, and disgorged November '09.

Flight 27 - Perrier-Jouët (3 Notes)

This house dates back to 1811. It was acquired by Mumm in 1950, and is now owned, along with Mumm, by Allied Domecq. The house has excellent vineyards in Cramant, whose fine Chardonnay grapes play a major role in the house's delicate, elegant style. I particularly enjoyed the Blason Rosé in this lineup, which is typically about a quarter Chardonnay, and the rest a mix of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.

Flight 28 - Pierre Peters (1 Note)

This small grower producer controls 17.5 hectares, including 12 in the best parts of Le Mesnil. This was a very nice example, but not as exciting as others I've had from this producer.

Flight 29 - Piper-Heidsieck (1 Note)

The Piper-Heidsieck branch of the Heidsieck houses was formed in 1834, and became part of Rémy-Cointreau in 1989. The house doesn't own any vineyards, but buys grapes from 70 villages. All the wines now go through complete malo.

Flight 30 - Pol Roger (4 Notes)

This house, one of my favorites at all levels, was founded in 1849. It owns 85 hectares of vineyards, which supply 45% of the needed fruit, and they purchase the rest from Pinot villages. This was one of the best groups of wines in the tasting. The 2000 Brut is particularly stunning.
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Flight 31 - Louis Roederer (2 Notes)

Roederer gets 70% of its fruit from its own vineyards. The wines are fermented, cru by cru, in steel vats, while the reserve wines are raised in oak foudres. Up to 20% of this oak-aged reserve wine is used in the Brut Premier. The 2003 is 70% Pinot Noir and 30% Chardonnay, with 30% raised in oak casks treated to weekly batonnage. Malolactic fermentation was avoided for this very warm vintage.

Flight 32 - Ruinart (3 Notes)

Ruinart was the first Champagne house, founded in 1729. The Rosé is actually Chardonnay based, with a small amount of red wine added.

Flight 33 - Soutiran (1 Note)

This small house was established in 1955. I've enjoyed the few Champagnes of theirs that I've tried, and this was another strong example.

Flight 34 - Taittinger (4 Notes)

No Comtes de Champagne, unfortunately, this year. Taittinger owns over 250 hectares in 26 villages, which supply 45% of its fruit needs. These wines are were all fermented in large steel tanks and underwent malolactic.
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Flight 35 - Varnier-Fanniere (1 Note)

This is a tiny producer that owns 4 hectares of Grand Cru vineyards, entirely planted to Chardonnay. The wines undergo full malolactic. The Cuvée St. Denis is from 70-plus year old vines in the Clos de Grand Père in Avize.

Flight 36 - Veuve Clicquot (3 Notes)

I've had the '98 Grande Dame many times since its release in '07, and this was one of its best showings yet. Grande Dame tends to be 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay, based exclusively on grapes from eight grand cru vineyards originally owned by the great widow herself, Nicole-Barbe Clicquot-Ponsardin.

Flight 37 - Vilmart (1 Note)

Vilmart is a terrific grower Champagne, and this was an excellent example. They practice organic viticulture, ferment in large oak foudres, and avoid malolactic. The Grand Cellier is generally about 70% Chardonnay and 30% Pinot Noir.

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