Every year Eric Lebel has to turn approximately 400 wines into one; a nice trick – if you can do it. As Chef de Caves of legendary champagne house Krug, Lebel uses the label’s unique ‘library’ of wines to build a champagne from scratch that both embraces and circumnavigates the concept of ‘vintage.’
There’s a strict system regulating the production of champagne but systems produce mavericks and, in 1843, Joseph Krug was one of Champagne’s first iconoclasts. Krug noticed how the region’s harsh climate made producers martyrs to vintage. They had to make wine whether or not the grapes were any good, which meant some years saw superb sparkling wine, others dreadful.
He also noted however, that even in the dreadful years, there was occasionally something to be salvaged. Perhaps a sharp acidity that might temper another year’s cloyingly sweet grapes or an over-richness that could even-out another vintage’s thin, watery wine. He dreamed of creating a Cuvée that would be consistently excellent yet absolutely unique to its own particular year.
He began a ‘library’ where half the season’s yield would be the base for the year’s output; the rest, if good enough, ‘archived’ for later use. A hundred and seventy years later, Krug’s Grande Cuvée is an understated, elegant contender at the best tables in town. Where other Champagne houses blend grapes from the same year but many growers, Eric Lebel and his team blend those of many years from their own plots; often tiny parcels of land no bigger than a garden.
Science and technology can now ‘fix’ vintage issues but Krug prefer to do it the hard way. “We take twenty years to create a bottle of Champagne that doesn’t even have a vintage on the label,” shrugs sixth-generation Olivier Krug. “But people remember their first glass of Krug.”
Champagne still throws up mavericks. “It’s all with the small producers at the moment,” says Daniel Illsley of Theatre of Wine in Greenwich, which seeks out champagnes rejecting the ‘commodity’ feel of the big labels. “Anselme Selosse, for example, uses fully-ripe grapes, which makes a change from the tart, thin stuff the big producers have to put so much sugar into.”
When Anselme took over his father Jacques Selosse’s’ Grand Cru vines in Avize on the Côte de Blancs in 1984, the first thing he did was cut production to concentrate on quality. He started to farm bio-dynamically and allowed the grapes to ripen on the vine, creating a base-wine that can be drunk straight-off, unlike most champagne bases, whose acidity make them almost undrinkable before adding sugar. At the forefront of the ‘low dosage’ movement, where little or no additives are used, Selosse matures the wine like a white burgundy in small, oak barrique barrels usually associated with Bordeaux, using only indigenous yeasts.
This intense approach has led to two results: top restaurant guide Gault-Millau naming Anselme as France’s best winemaker in every category in 1994 – an unprecedented honour – and a severe shortage of Jacques Selosse champagne.
The entire UK allocation of Vintage Selosse this year is 36 bottles, mainly sold into restaurants such as The Square and Sketch. Version Originale is a little easier to come by but still a rare treat.
Producing sparkling wine in the UK relieves makers from the stifling regulations of the Champagne region, but many English producers still follow the same basic methods. Gusbourne Estate, based in Appledore in Kent, are doing things their own way. Despite only releasing their first bottle of Brut Reserve 2006 in 2010, the team is the sole English winery finalist in this year’s BBC Food and Farming Awards.
“The majority of houses in both Champagne and England purchase grapes from growers,” says Christian Holthausen, one of four young blades running Gusbourne. “We own 100% of our own vineyards, and we’ve planted them with a majority of Burgundy clones, rather than the higher-yielding champagne clones.”
The grapes are hand-picked – as are the harvesters themselves, including veterans Rita Everett and Ann Hathaway, aged 72 and 73 respectively, chosen for their expertise and deftness in collecting the best grapes, This attention to detail, along with prolonged ageing on the lees (leaving the wine fermenting with the yeast deposits for extra flavour) and further ageing after disgorgement means demand constantly outstrips supply. Unlike other sparkling wine houses, though, the gang-of-four are committed to producing properly-aged wine in small quantities from their own grapes that attracts sommeliers from Le Gavroche, Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, The Fat Duck and the Dorchester. It would seem the true mavericks of sparkling wine are in for the long haul…
Krug Grande Cuvée NV Price: £129, Uncorked, Exchange Arcade, London EC2M 3WA
Jacques Selosse Version Originale NV Price: £122, Rose £124 – Theatre of Wine, 75, Trafalgar Road, SE10 9TS Greenwich, www.theatreofwine.com
Gusbourne Blanc De Blancs, 2010 Price: £37.95, Berry Brothers & Rudd, 3, St James St, London SW1A 1EG http://www.bbr.com