Decanter & Majestic tasting guide – November 2015

The tasting circuit comes alive in November as producers vie for your festive custom.  Despite having tickets I was unable to attend the Tesco event, but did get along to the Decanter Fine Wine Encounter which is always a fabulous day out with over 120 producers showing 600 different wines.  As a regular visitor for a decade now it was nice to see a few new producers this year, and first amongst these was Champagne house Charles Heidsieck.  Browsing through the show catalogue I noticed they were showing their 1995 Blanc de Millénaires (RRP ~ £150).  This was a wine I simply had to try and I wasn’t disappointed with the creamy, toasty dried fruit signs of age merging with light vanilla spice and vibrant mousse to keep it perky.

Also attending were Amazon, promoting their new ‘Fine Wine’ platform which stocks top quality brands such as Ornellaia, Opus One and Trotanoy.  Sadly none of these were available to taste on the day, but they did show off some fine old Rioja Gran Reserva’s as well as some newer premium Australian and Italian wine.

UK vineyard Nyetimber usually attend to keep up the home side, but absent this year the mantle fell to Bride valley, which is the estate of Decanter consultant editor Steven Spurrier.  He and his wife Bella were on hand to pour and give us the background to their Dorset operation which boasts 25 acres of southeast facing slopes benefitting from having the chalky Kimmeridge soils.  Similar in terroir as northern France, they concentrate on the 3 Champagne varieties to produce a fine sparkling wine up there with the best that this country is offering.   I do hope that we see more UK producers being invited/accepting to take part as I’ve done a few vineyard visits this year and the quality is something to shout about.

Not shy in coming forward these last few years are the Prosecco producers who were out in force again, and I got chatting to the chaps from Carpené Malvoti who lay claim to being the first ever producer of Prosecco.  There’s been much talk in the UK of the rise in popularity of Prosecco and the subsequent shortage if demand keeps up to its current levels.  I was keen to understand whether this was truth or simply media hype to stimulate sales.  He assured me that, whilst true, it was currently only confined to the lower level (but still quality) DOC wines as opposed to the DOCG level.  It will be interesting to see if this demand creeps in to top level offerings or whether people are simply interested in Prosecco as a cheap fizz.

My standout wine of the show would have to go to Heitz Cellars Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2009.  Having tasted their range before I gravitated towards them and this wine was pure velvet and silk, the 6 years of age having softened any tannic qualities away.  The fruit was as intense as you would expect with super ripe black cherry, blue plum, light spices and a fresh acid meaning that this was an absolute pleasure to drink.

Next up was the ‘Majestic Wines Winter Showcase’.  The rain may have been drizzling as I arrived, but I was set at ease with a ‘welcome’ glass of Laurent-Perrier’s superb NV Rosé.  It’s far from being the most expensive bottle of Champagne that I buy, but this is a lovely palate-pleasing Champagne I truly save for special occasions.

Also showing that night was the 2014 Cótes du Rhóne from Majestic’s new own-brand label ‘Definition’, which aims to capture the quintessential qualities of the world’s best wines.  This CdR was a powerful 15% wine, full of black cherry, wood, spice and light tannin, not unlike a Chateauneuf.  Also pouring alongside various reds and whites was a Tuscan Pinot Grigio from Banfi, an Amarone Classico from Masi, one sweet wine, and the multi-award winning Manzanilla Sherry from La Gitana.  My highlight of the evening came from a Brunello di Montalcino, again from Banfi, which had all the characteristics I love about old Bordeaux.  Dried red cherry and raspberry mixed with old wood and cedar, coffee, lightly grained tannin and a warming 14% alcohol carrying it through to a satisfying long finish.

I was a little disappointed that the regular tasting table wasn’t open that night (allowing you to try another 10 or so wines).  Previous tasting evenings have allowed this but apparently the volume of people expected would wipe out their entire weekly allocation of tasting wines.  A shame, so I’ll have to pop back.

Majestic recently dropped their 6 bottle minimum purchase, but with single bottle prices being raised slightly to reflect this, the discounts still kick in when you buy 6 or more bottles.  In addition to the 10% discount being offered on the tasting night, a Champagne promotion was running offering 33% off – a stunning 43% discount.  Being rude not to, I picked up the Laurent-Perrier Rosé and some Bollinger Grand Année 2005 in festive preparation.  At £35 and £53 respectively, this was certainly something to celebrate!

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Pol Roger Champagne Masterclass (Part 3)

Presented here are the second half of my tasting notes from the recent Pol Roger masterclass in London, presented by 5th generation family member Hubert de Billy and managing director of the Pol Roger portfolio, John Simpson MW.

A few notes on the wines:  Pol Roger had been using concrete vats since 1930, introducing cask barrels in 1975.  Stainless steel came in to play in 1985 and their entire operation moved to steel in 2012.

Vintage Pol Roger is a blend of 30-40 villages.  They have 92 hectares of their own, but have access to 33,200 hectares in total.   They have stated that they will happily buy up any adjoining land to their vineyards that comes up for sale but, as the average cost of a hectare of land is 1.4 million euro’s, they are sometimes adding plots the size of an average UK back garden.

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Pol Roger Brut 1999

This wine is the colour of dark hay but carries with it a lovely golden rim.  The nose is dense with a good intensity and leaves a full and rich impression.  This begins with dried yellow fruits, honey and light brioche, and moves in to darker tones of old wood and candied burnt sugar.  The palate manages to retain vibrancy whilst showing the signs of good ageing.  A mellow acid glides you through burnt toast, herbaceous notes and a clear biscuit character.  These give way to dried apricot and pineapple, and a clear long finish extremely reminiscent of toffee.  This is a well-structured wine which wasn’t hugely respected at the time (coming straight after the great 1998 and just prior to the millennial vintage), and is ready for drinking now (although will last for a further 20 years).  For me, it was probably the highlight of this masterclass.  Wonderful stuff.

Pol Roger Brut 1996

I may have been imagining it but there were almost hints of red in the dark gold colour of this wine.  A distinct ‘high’ nose spoke of a wine just starting to oxidise and tire, it gave off touches of wet undergrowth, leather and coffee.  The nose was also distinctly yeasty (it took me right back to visiting the Guinness factory in Dublin).  The palate was still vibrant although also showing age with over-ripe and dried yellow fruit, a light tannin and slightly cloying candied sugar.  Dark and brooding with coffee and nuts, a light cream and the persisting acid mean that it is an austere wine that can still give pleasure, but needs drinking up soon.

Pol Roger Rosé 2006

This was the dark colour of wild salmon, but the nose was light, floral and expressive, with red cherry and smoky, savoury characters.  The cherry leads the palate, followed up by strawberries and cream.  There’s a clean medium acid running throughout which glides you through some smoky characters and just takes the edge off the underlying sweetness of the wine.

Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill 2004

Released this year, this grand cuvée is deep golden yellow in colour.  The nose gives off fresh citrus lemons and ripe yellow melon before heading off in to sweet coffee and rich cream, toast and a popcorn-like buttery character.  There was also some fleshy green apple and pips hidden amongst the darker notes.  The palate is dense, nutty (certainly walnuts), ground coffee, savoury (some cheese), with sweet spice and mellow acid.  A lovely long finish, and somehow ‘golden’ in taste.

Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill 2000

Even darker gold in colour than the 2004, this wine also has amber hints to it.  The nose begins with stewed green fruit, and a slight oxidised character.  The herbaceous, sweet woody notes tell you that this is a wine that has seen some good ageing.  The palate is full and round, very dense and very creamy.  Guided with a medium acidity, the lemon citrus and apple flesh lead on to dried pineapple, peach skin, milky coffee, and nuts.  Despite these later darker tones the wine retains a vibrant and refreshing mousse and is a juxtaposition of light and dark.  Wonderful for drinking now or keeping.

These tasting notes round out my blog on what was an extremely pleasurable and memorable event.  The first part of my tasting notes from this event can be found here.

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Pol Roger Champagne Masterclass (Part 2)

Presented here are the first half of my tasting notes from the recent Pol Roger masterclass in London, presented by 5th generation family member Hubert de Billy and managing director of the Pol Roger portfolio, John Simpson MW.

A few notes on the wines:  Pol Roger had been using concrete vats since 1930, introducing cask barrels in 1975.  Stainless steel came in to play in 1985 and their entire operation moved to steel in 2012.

Vintage Pol Roger is a blend of 30-40 villages.  They have 92 hectares of their own, but have access to 33,200 hectares in total.   They have stated that they will happily buy up any adjoining land to their vineyards that comes up for sale but, as the average cost of a hectare of land is 1.4 million euro’s, they are sometimes adding plots the size of an average UK back garden.

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Pol Roger Pure Non-Vintage

The ‘Pure’ release has no dosage added to it, meaning that no final sugar mix is added and it is extremely dry in character.  This non-vintage (and the Brut release below) is an even split of the 3 Champagne grape varieties (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier), and hail from between 60-70 different villages.  The colour is a clean youthful lemon, and the citrus carries on to the nose where it is joined by yellow tropical notes.  The body of the wine is light and airy, crisp and linear with just a touch of cream.  The palate is equally light and airy with the lemon notes coming to the fore.  Without the sugar, this is indeed a pure wine that allows you to detect even the smallest of traits, and I can just detect subtle red fruit characters from the pinot noir that would usually get lost.  The downside is that, without the sugar, the acidity is extremely noticeable.  Whilst it has a good length it is fairly one-dimensional (and tasted extremely thin after tasting the Brut).

Pol Roger Brut Reserve Non-Vintage

Like the Pure before it, this wine has been aged for four and a half years instead of the required three years to ensure that, even at NV level there is some complexity.  The blend here is therefore comprised mainly of reserve wines from the 2010 vintage, with both 2009 and 2008 also included to round it out.  The Brut has additional colour to it, adding gold tones in to the lemon yellow.  On the nose you can sense immediately that it is denser and richer (especially so for an NV Champagne), and you get the stalwart characters of honey, bread and cream.  The palate is much rounder than the Pure, giving you a creamy full mouthfeel.  Vanilla, toast and nuttiness are detectable as well as preserved lemon and cream.  The acid is much more restrained and integrated here.

Pol Roger Blanc de Blancs 2008

Encouraging us to commit this wine to memory we were told that there are now no longer any bottles of the 2008 left for sale (these bottles had been especially partitioned for the tasting).  Pol Roger make very little Blanc de Blancs and the grapes all come exclusively from Grand Cru vineyards.  The nose was floral and rich with discernible vanilla nestling alongside the lemon and tropics.  There was also hints of smokiness.  The character of the wine is very light, but the body is weightier and adds peaches and apricot to the citrus cream.  Delicate with lots more peach in the finish.  This wine needs 10-15 years to reach its full potential.

Pol Roger Brut 2006

Released just a month ago, this vintage needs 10-12 years to mature fully.  There are gold hints in the lemon colour.  The nose is extremely distinctive, expressive and intense, with nuts, dried honey and dried yellow melon coming through clearly, followed by toasty notes.  Conversely the palate is light and airy and, although still quite closed, you can detect the citrus developing in to broodier characters with touches of smoke.  Whilst vibrant and quaffable, this will need time to open up fully to show its true character.

Pol Roger Brut 2004

Like the 2006, this wine shows gold in its lemon colouring and has a distinctive nose, this time moving towards dense wood and oak.  Behind this you get preserved lemon and fruit, candy spice, violets, and floral spices.  The palate is rich with cream and butter characters, and there are touches of nut and toast, but the sum total isn’t as dense as the nose would lead you to believe.  The palate almost needs to catch up with what the nose offers, and needs 10-12 years to develop fully.

The second part of my tasting notes from this event can be found here.

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Pol Roger Champagne Masterclass (Part 1)

Being that its now 50 years since the death of British war time Prime Minister Winston Churchill, it seems a perfect time to consider a retrospective on what was his adoptive brand of Champagne – Pol Roger.  The below notes will act as a background to a tasting I attended in London on the 7th November 2015.

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Winston was introduced to Champagne fairly early in his life and, even though he was born in 1884, he was recorded as purchasing Pol Roger as early as the late 1890’s.  The first serious receipts kept in the Pol Roger archive show that in 1908 Churchill bought a stack of the 1892 and the 1895 vintages and was already on the road to being a very good customer. These records, rather unfavourably, also show that Churchill was incredibly bad at paying his bills – sometimes up to 3 years late!  Champagne in those days was different to that which we know today, with a high dosage (sugar mix) added and an element of cognac also present to provide the sweetness (the dry Brut style of Champagne is a post-World War 2 phenomenon).

When asked why Churchill had immediately turned his head towards Pol Roger, our host Hubert de Billy (5th generation family member) stated that drinking good Champagne was the character of the Victorian gentleman and it could have gone one of three ways.  At the time the available Champagne was largely split between the 3 P’s – Pol Roger, Pommery and Perrier Jouét.

The Pol Roger story begins in 1849 when he received a few vineyards from his mother, primarily with a view to produce fruit to sell to other producers.  In tandem with this production, some grapes were held back in order to produce wine made purposely for the consumption of the family.  It wasn’t long before this ‘family’ wine was gaining more plaudits than that of the wines produced by the people he was selling his grapes to.

As time went on, further land was acquired.  As he couldn’t sell the wines in France (being in direct competition with the producers who were selling his other grapes), he looked to the UK.  The first bottle was sold here in 1874, and production sat at circa 3,000 bottles in total.  Even today the firm only produces 1.6 million bottles each year.  To put this in to perspective, the total amount of bottles produced annually in Champagne is circa 300 million, of which Moét produce 30 million bottles on their own.  This clearly shows that the bottles produced by Pol Roger are only a drop in the ocean.  The nearest family owned producer, in terms of volume, is Bollinger.

Churchill had a penchant for older wines as opposed to getting his hands on the latest vintages and, after somewhat exhausting supplies in the mid 1950’s of the heralded 1928 vintage, he moved on to the equally wonderful 1945.  He then progressed on to the 1947 which lasted him until his death in January 1965.  It’s estimated that throughout his life he managed to work his way through something like 42,000 bottles.  That’s a lot per breakfast, lunch and dinner, and it was said that during the austerity of the 1930’s he had to limit himself to one bottle per day!

The first Cuvée Winston Churchill vintage was the 1975 and comprised a blend of mainly Pinot Noir (an 80/20 split with Chardonnay).  Normal vintage Pol Roger is split 60/40 in Pinot Noirs favour, but in order to be true to the style of Champagne that Churchill favoured (Chardonnay was only a small part of the blend until the 1930’s), the Pinot heavy blend was retained.  In a further step towards authenticity, the Cuvée also only uses grapes from vineyards that would have been available to Pol Roger in Churchill’s lifetime.  The essence of the brand remains ‘the heart of the best’, and a wine that needs breathing like the best white wine.

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The true rarity of Pol Roger comes from the fact that they are one of only a handful of all the Champagne producers still in family ownership and, prior to beginning the tasting, Hubert was asked to take a few questions from the floor.

Q.What’s the strategy of the house?

A. They are able to take a long term view instead of pleasing short term shareholders or trends. The company are always working for their children’s future and, whilst the famous saying is ‘time is money’, they are able to say ‘time is quality’.

Q. How do they guarantee the quality of the grapes from external growers?

A. Hubert confessed that they are in 5 year contracts with their grape growers so, in some respects, short term variations in quality are unable to be addressed. The net result of this is that they must maintain an element of trust with their long term partners.

Q. Which is the best bottle he has opened?

A. The ‘one that he is selling!’ As an aside to this joke Hubert did express a penchant for a recent Jeroboam tasting of the 1988.

In the two articles that follow I will describe the wonderful rundown of 10 wines from the producer that culminated in two vintages of their very rare Winston Churchill Cuvée.  What came through very clearly was, buy this wine when you see it, as the low quantities and high qualities make it a rare purchase indeed.

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Dom Pérignon; Going it alone

Part 12 of my Dom Pérignon History Series

January of 1992 saw the release of the much lauded 1985 vintage – a wine of great distinction characterised by aromatic intensity and a balanced constitution.  The harvest had begun on the 30th of September in what could only be described as ideal conditions, but the year hadn’t started out as obviously prosperous.  The winter, January in particular, had been exceptionally cold and a lingering hard frost throughout the entire spring had caused the loss of several thousands of hectares of vines.  It wasn’t until July that the weather finally picked up and, when the sun came out, the flowering managed to pick up pace and recover from the slow start.  In the end, the harvest was started only a couple of weeks later than usual.


The blend was split 40% Pinot Noir and 60% Chardonnay with the Pinot grapes contributing body and structure to the subtle and persistent aromas of the Chardonnay.  The wine was described by Moét as being complex and warm, toasted and sweet, with hints of almond and walnut.  Tasting the wine in late 1991, winemaker Dominique Foulon described his creation as giving a floral attack to the nose, with added honey and preserved fruits.  On the palate he described it having the darker notes of figs, raisins and undergrowth, and a finish that was long and precise.  In addition to the vintage release a Rosé was also released at the beginning of 1995.  This was again characterised by the vegetal notes and the candied red fruits from the ripe Pinot grapes, and added hints of brioche and lemon citrus.

The year of 1986 saw a first for the brand and, at the current time of writing, is still the only time that a Rosé Dom Pérignon has been released without a vintage wine being made as well.  The answer as to why this anomaly occurred lies in the weather for that year which has been described as both unpredictable and dramatic.  A cold winter led in to an equally poor spring, but the vines remained healthy and bud burst occurred around the 7th of May, just a few weeks later than usual.  Warm sunshine soon arrived and the rising temperatures in June saw flowering begin on the 25th of the month.  Summer remained modestly sunny and warm, but heavy rains hitting from the 10th of August until early September ensured that the possibly high yielding crop was now subject to rot and strict grape selection.  A last burst of dry weather from the 18th of September pushed the harvest back slightly to ensure that grapes could maximise their ripening time and was commenced between the 28th of September and the 2nd of October, depending on variety.  With the Pinot Noir grapes faring better than the Chardonnay (which hadn’t fully ripened and were a touch too acidic) it was felt that the flavour profile better suited a darker Rosé release than a short living and (perhaps) harsher vintage release.  The final blend was 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay.

The official tasting guide for the wine references these attributes and describes the wine as being pale rose in colour, with gentle shades of copper and very fine bubbles.  The aromas were of fresh cherries and redcurrants and gave way to notes of mirabelle plum and toasted bread.  On the palate, there was the sensation of roundness, purity and concentration, perfectly balanced by an almost youthful liveliness.

Available in September 1996, one final thing to note about this unique release was that it was the last Rosé to come in a green coffret identical to that of the vintage release (which may have been a touch confusing in a year where no vintage 1986 was released).  From the next Rosé vintage onwards (1988) they would come in pink/rose coloured coffrets more befitting of their contents.


As if to herald the long seen phenomenon that Dom Pérignon was rarely released in three successive vintages (and certainly continuing the trend for Dom vintages not to be released in years ending with a 1 or a 7), 1987 saw poor weather and resulted in no wines being released.  A wet spring was followed by a wet summer with the weather perking up for just 3 weeks in August.  This late sun wasn’t enough to stop what was an average harvest producing a small crop suitable only for topping up reserve stocks.

Next up was the ‘very good’ vintage of 1988 which would prove to be extremely long lasting wine and one which was very much in demand.  An extremely mild winter saw early and rapid flowering of the vines, but only produced a limited number of potential bunches (quantities were down approximately 10% on the moderate crop of the previous year).  Summer was marked with heavy rains alongside sunny weather and high temperatures but, conversely, the rains helped to swell the grapes available.  The sun returned in August and picking began on September 26th for the Chardonnay and the 27th for the Pinot Noir, with the final vintage being comprised of 55% Chardonnay and 45% Pinot Noir.  On the nose it was described as floral, citrus, toasty vanilla, graphite and walnut.  The palate added almond and bitter marmalade, culminating in a long and fine finish.

The Rosé release for 1988 showed dry figs and candied cherries to the nose, adding spice and vanilla to a palate described as dense, vigorous and precise.  The vintage release would come to market in the early part of 1995, with the Rosé release following in 1998.

Initially declared to be a great year but steadily reduced over time to ‘very good’, the harvest of the 1989 was generous in yield and declared by many Champagne houses.  Noting the quality and extra time needed for the 1988’s to fully realise their potential, some houses released the youthful and early drinking 1989 first.  Moét decided to hold back and, in a curious mirroring of the start of the decade where patience with the tempting 1981 vintage gave way to the superb 1982’s, the 1989 grapes were still young in their bottles when the superb quality of the 1990 vintage was spotted.  The 1989 vintage was ultimately skipped in favour of the upcoming potential presented by the new decade.

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