Champers at Comptoir Gascon

by Suw on October 3, 2006

Kev and I went to a champagne tasting last week, and as he was busy scribbling on the tasting notes, I thought I'd ask him if he wanted to write up his thoughts for CnV, as he doesn't have his own personal blog yet. So please welcome T'Other to the blog:
Wow, it feels a little weird to be writing here on Chocolate and Vodka. I'm T'Other, Kevin as you know by now. Suw and I are true geeks. It's not just technology. When we're interested in something, we really get into it. For Suw, it's vodka. I'm an journeyman oenophile. Some of my new colleagues at the Guardian took me to Comptoir Gascon for a lunch meeting, and they were handing out invitations to a free champagne tasting. It's a wonderful place to host wine tastings, in my humble opinion, with a great rustic decor. It's well reviewed, and those reviews are well deserved.
Suw loves the bubbly stuff. I'm a novice. In the States, we only drink champagne at New Years, weddings and special events. Here in the UK, everyone seems to come up with more reasons to break out a bottle of bubbly. I had not heard that much about the champagne maker Ruinart before last week. I had seen a few bottles in a duty-free shop at a few airports. The bottle is distinctive, shorter and more rounded, than the typical champagne bottle.
Tom Fortune from Ruinart gave us a great history of Ruinart. It is probably the oldest of the 26 Grand Mark champagne houses having begun in 1729. Ruinart produces about 3 million bottles a year, as opposed to the larger houses that produce ten times that amount. He walked us through the entire production process for making champagne. Three grapes go into making champagne: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Also, he said that between 9 to 13 grams of sugar are added per litre. “If no sugar was added, it would taste sharp, like fizzy lemon,” he said.
My favourite fact about champagne is that champagne bottles, with the punt or indentation in the bottom, was actually an invention of the British. Before that, the bottles were flat on the bottom and tended to explode. Champagne makers used to have to enter their cellars in armour because of the tendency of the bottles to explode.
Tom had five champagnes on hand, the “R” de Ruinart Brut, Rose, Blanc de Blancs, 1996 Dom Ruinart and a 1990 Dom Ruinart Rose. I really liked how he conducted the tasting. Sure, he wanted to sell his champagne, but he tended not to over emphasise the prepared tasting notes. As he said, everyone's tastes are different. People will smell and taste different things. I also agree with his point in that, too many people get caught up in what they are supposed to like instead of finding something they like and going from there.
The brut was quite nice, and I tasted a nice bit of strawberry in it. There were notes about the nose, (the smell), but frankly, I've never smelt much in champagne. I think my nose is too busy feeling the bubbles to do much more. One point Tom made was that a misconception about champagne is that it has to be served ice cold. No, he said, only a few degrees below room temperature. And both Suw and I noticed that the more the wine got to that right temperature, chilled but not cold, that the more we could smell and taste.
The next champagne was the Blanc de Blancs, so named because it's only Chardonnay grapes. Again, the nose was supposed to be full of 'brioche, French toast and roasted almonds', but I got none of that. The fruit, the berry that I tasted in brut was almost completely absent. This had a mineral notes softened with a lovely hint of honey. Suw really liked this.
Tom said another misconception about champagne was that rose was supposed to be drunk with chocolate. I think I've only had sparkling rose or red once, and that was some sparkling Australian wine that left me unimpressed. Rose seems huge in Britain, but I don't drink much of it. It's sort of an unsatisfying halfway house between white and red, for me. But then, I tend to like big reds, Cab Sauvs, Syrah, Shiraz, California Zins and Italian Amarones so that's hardly surprising.
I was expecting sickly sweet, but no. Stick with the demi-sec for pudding. Ruinart rose was fruity and better balanced than I was expecting. Ruinart makes their rose by adding Bouzy Rouge, a C?¥teaux Champenoise, still wine made from Pinoit Noir grapes. I had thought that it would have been made by maceration, leaving the wine in contact with the skins for a while. But Tom said that only a few houses like Laurent Perrier made their roses like this. It's their most successful champagne on the market. They are selling all they can make. It will take four years for them to increase production, and by that time, the market may have changed.
Now we moved onto the good stuff, the prestige cuvee, 1996 Dom Ruinart. Now, I learned something. I'm a big fan of port, and I have a 1985 Taylor-Fladgate vintage port in my parents cellar. They don't have a wine cellar, just wine in their cellar, but it's a little better place to keep wine than our flat. Now, vintage champagne is like vintage port. It's not only made with one year's harvest instead of a blend of vintages, but it is also made only in years when the houses believe certain characteristics are being met, namely a perfect balance of sugar and acidity. Non-vintage champagnes are meant to be drunk young, but a vintage champagne can and should be cellared. Tom said that Dom Ruinart 1996 would be awesome in five years and 'spectacular' in 10 years. It was pretty damn good right now. Unlike champagne that seems to rush down in an explosion of bubbles and sweetness, this had some structure, some complexity. This did have a nose with a floral, citrus character, and the taste was lovely with honeyed fruit. I'd agree with the tasting notes, of exotic fruits possibly more subtle guava than passion fruit.
The last champagne was a 1990 Dom Ruinart Rose. Tom said this was best vintage in 20 years, “nothing short of exceptional”.
This was something completely unexpected. Suw's thoughts: “It was like a slap in the face, like a fizzy salmon mousse.” My palatte and Suw's are one of the few points where we diverge, the other being my love of jazz. I didn't smell fish. I did smell smokey fruit, and I'll cede a point to the tasting notes, I might even had caught a whiff of leather as it warmed. Although there was only 17% Pinot Noir in it, I could taste its influence. This wasn't rose to me, this was something completely other. It was like a fizzy, really subtle tawny port to me. Of course, what is subtle for a tawny is full on for a champagne, and this was full on. It might not be a taste for everyone. If you like sweet rose, this probably won't suit. If you like a little fuller, more complex champagne with some backbone to hold up against game, this is something to try (well, that and if you have a fairly big wine budget).

Anonymous October 3, 2006 at 2:08 pm

Ruinart is indeed an excellent champagne, right up there with the usual, better known, suspects… Possibly my favourite, even over Veuve Cliquot and Billecart Salmon.
As for the serving temperature, in all the professional tastings I joined the wines were served chilled, *but* we came back to the wines several times [since in these tastings champagnes are usually compared], and one of the things we have to consider is how it evolves over a lapse of time, getting warmer. That's also usually when the nose comes fully.

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