Champagne in the 1870’s – A double-edged sword

In the second part of this historical series, we look back to the world of Champagne in the 1870’s.

Champagne in the 1860’s saw the roots of style and prestige sown, and customer interest began to grow once producers had managed to deliver larger volumes of a sustainable product.

What they still hadn’t managed to crack though were the natural weather elements that winemakers now routinely correct with a standard toolkit.  This runs the gamut of the entire growing process beginning with different trellising systems to help the vines avoid frost damage, the use of chemicals and pesticides to keep fungus, disease or pests away, all the way through to the tinkering that can be done in the winery to ensure a balanced product is achieved year after year.

Bleak Champs

At the start of the 1870’s, winemakers would have been optimistic for the new decade.  Although 1869 hadn’t been an impressive vintage they were still basking in the success of the classic 1868, and the changeover from the old fashioned sweet Champagne style to the now classic dry style had begun.  Added to this sales were steadily beginning to rise, helping to keep their businesses ticking over in times of poor harvest.  The year of 1870 was one of those harvests where vintners would have been perturbed as, through careful selection to remove blighted grapes, they were able to produce wine of a good standard, but in only limited quantities.

When producing less volume whilst continuing to have all of the associated costs of a large crop it was a natural first step to increase bottle prices; after all, the market seemed to be increasingly buoyant.  There was one further factor to consider though, and this was the Franco-Prussian war which had broken out in the July of that year.  This uncertainty threatened the economic stability of the country and there was the real chance that, having now managed to bring a product to market, demand would be hampered with people tightening their financial belts.  Happily, the scarcity of the wine and a general understanding on the public’s part of the production risks in a time of war, meant that the market bore the higher prices regardless.  The smaller crop had come to the rescue.

Although they would be quite unaware at the time, this would be where their luck ended, and this smaller volume of higher priced wine would need to support their businesses for some years to come.  1871, 1872 and 1873 were all poor years, getting gradually worse with each harvest, and ending with a poor crop that was only one third of the size of a standard year.  Those growers and producers who managed to weather the storm desperately needed a good vintage, and they were rewarded with the magnificent 1874.

The sun was constantly shining throughout the summer and the resultant grapes were so ripe that the wines took on a deep, dark texture.  It was said that this ‘mahogany streak’ meant that it was easy to spot when the 1874 vintage was served to you, so distinctive was the colouring.  Being the first excellent vintage of the decade, this was also the turning point (see previous article) where the sugar levels were not heavily topped up and the drier style was born.

RueDlaAbbeye

The good times continued with the 1875 vintage which turned out to be the most prolific of the entire 19th century.  Approximately 98 million bottles were produced in the entire Champagne region (2.5 times bigger than the 37 million bottles of excellent 1874), and with most of it being of a good quality, it certainly held its own.

Conversely this bumper crop was both the making and the undoing of the year as, with such a deluge of grapes having been picked, the prices that the growers could achieve from them was severely diluted.  What this meant in real terms was that the winemakers were actually getting roughly just under half as much money per gallon as they had been paid for the 1873, and that was a significantly poorer wine.

Both 1876 and 1877 continued to give larger than average crops but they were not of vintage standard and deemed as failures.  The overall quality of the wine was thin and overly acidic in nature and therefore wouldn’t fare well in the ageing process.  Perhaps it is a little ironic that, at a time when Champagne had turned its back on a sugary sweet style, this may have been the one thing that could have saved the thin year?

Continuing the fluctuation between good and bad, 1878 was a healthy crop in both size and quality, but was followed by the 1879 which turned out to be the smallest vintage on record (at that time).  Although the quality of the wine was deemed as moderate, the scarcity of the product (less than 10 million bottles for the whole of Champagne!) came to its rescue again and resulted in both higher prices and strong market demand.

As the next decade loomed, growers and producers would have been no more certain of what fate awaited them, still being entirely at the mercy of the elements, continual political tensions, and a market that may finally be broken by price.

I am indebted to the works of Mr. Andre Simon for inspiring the bringing of this historical information back to the public eye.

Enjoyed this article?  Please take a moment to ‘Like’ and share using the buttons below. Keep looking around my site for more of the same.  Cheers!

UK 2016 Vintage Report #1 – April

A short blog now just to kick-off a diary of my vines in the run up to the 2016 harvest.  Like last year, whilst this content may only be of limited interest to readers around the globe, it will enable me to look back in the future and compare progress year on year.  In the spirit of this limited accessibility, I will keep the notes accordingly brief.

TwitPic 2016 Harvest KO

It was a month ago today that I noted and photographed my Chardonnay vines awakening from their winter slumber and so, as the longer days set in and Spring begins to truly take hold, I thought it would be a suitable first checkpoint to note the progress.  The weather remains fairly cool with temperatures in the 10-16° range, some days of heavy rain, sporadic sun, and no frosts.

2016 UK vines M1

Both the Chardonnay and Ortega seem to be at the same stage with the topper most leaves beginning to appear, and buds forming all the way down the canes.

2016 UK vines M1 v2

My third variety is a little further behind and this could be because it is not from the Denbies winery nursery like the others are, but it could also be for another reason!  I purchased the rootstock believing it to be Catarratto but last year, as you can see from the picture below, it bore red grapes (and suffered with serious millerandage), which means it clearly isn’t the variety I expected it to be.

2016 UK vines M1 v3

I now have no idea what variety it is, and hope that, as it has been planted for three years now, I can make some wine with it this year and see what characteristics it gives off.

Enjoyed this article?  Please take a moment to ‘Like’ and share using the buttons below. Keep looking around my site for more of the same.  Cheers!

Laithwaites Vintage Festival 2016

It was a typically drizzly April day as we gathered outside Old Billingsgate Market in London for the Laithwaites/Sunday Times Wine Club 2016 Vintage Festival.  The damp weather was, however, tempered with impressive views across the River Thames, the venue being directly across from The Shard and in clear view of London Bridge.

Founder Tony Laithwaite braved the elements to greet us all as we waited patiently for the session start time to arrive and, as if sensing the eagerness of the crowds, a stream of servers began to descend offering small samples of either red, white or rosé wine.  This was a nice touch and clearly warmed myself and those around me and kicked off conversation between strangers.  In a further stark contrast to my recent wine event queuing experience in New York, whether it was down to the rain, all exhibitors being ready or Tony getting impatient for the event to start, he announced that we could all go in 15 minutes early.  This may not be much extra time as the crow flies, but again, it was certainly appreciated.

LaithFest1

Once inside the venue we were immediately faced with Champagne house Laurent Perrier and a cluster of English Sparkling wines including Ridgeview. For me, sparkling is the best way to get the event going but, having been a fan and customer of Laithwaites wines for many years my strategy for this tasting was threefold:

  • Try wines from countries that do not appear in my usual cellar

I still really fail to find and try red wines of a decent quality level from the USA, and ditto German wines.  Then there are countries such as Moldova and Romania where any invitation to taste is a must.  Finally there is the humble white wine which, as primarily a red wine drinker, I tend to skip unnecessarily.

  • Trying the next level up wines from favourite or respected producers I am familiar with

Everyone has their favourite wines, but trying the Reservas, Gran Reservas, Limited Editions and Select Parcels is a good way to work out whether to ‘stick’ or trade up.  Looking back at the evening I didn’t actually manage to succeed too well in this category, such was the overall quality and volume of wine and producers that I had no prior exposure to.

  • Cherry picking the extremely pricey wines on show that I probably wouldn’t be able to try outside of an event like this

OK, so perhaps a bit shallow to do things merely on price, but it allowed me to check out the odd Coté Rotie (£31) and Pauillac (£40) that I would otherwise miss.

Talking of expensive bottles, I was lucky that my entrance to this event included the ‘Fine Wine’ upgrade – access to a whole host of top quality wines in a limited access VIP setting to ensure a relaxed tasting.  Entry was via a lift to a mezzanine level (slightly evocative of a Willy Wonka Glass Elevator type scenario) where you were greeted by a member of staff and handed a brand new catalogue of further wines to taste.  Without wishing to sound too nerdy, it was like unlocking a brand new level in your favourite computer game.

LaithFest2

As a lover of Champagne I was immediately in my element being served the Krug NV (£130), Dom Pérignon 2006 (£120) and the Cristal 2007 (£130), alongside the Roederer NV (£40) and vintage 2010 (£50).  Krug, even at NV level, is always a pleasure such is the quality, and I’m very familiar (as readers of my blog will know) with the DP 2006.  One of the highlights of the night though was tasting the 2006 Cristal.  Having had some earlier vintages (2000 and 2002) I had cultivated a view that this was always going to be a very sweet wine that my palate didn’t agree with.  The revelation was that the 2007 is actually a really refined and not overly sweet wine at all.  That alone made my night but it continued with, amongst others:

Drouhin: Famed Burgundian estate showcasing their Beaune 2009 (£45), Nuit-Saint-Georges 2010 (£40) and Clos de Vougeot 2011 (£115)

Trapiche: One of Argentina’s top wineries and of extremely small production, so trying wines like the tres14 (£35) is an absolute privilege.

Penfolds: No introduction is necessary for Penfolds and this was a chance to try the Bin 311 2014 (£25), Pinot Noir Bin 23 2009 (£27), the Barossa Bin 138 2013 (£25) and the RWT (Red Wine Trial) 2013 (£90).

To be honest, these notes could go on and on such was the sheer diversity and volume of the event, and I’ve only scratched the surface of what was on offer.  As you can probably tell though, this is a serious must-attend event and one I will add to my regular wine events calendar.  The ‘Fine Wine’ room (at just a £20 upgrade to the ticket price) is simply a revelation.

As I was leaving the venue I was pleased to see that, if the complimentary tasting glass that each attendee received was left at the venue, they were quickly tidied and divided up in to boxes of six allowing you to take home a full box.  An awesome reminder of a great night!

With thanks to Laithwaites for providing the tickets used for this tasting.

Enjoyed this article?  Please take a moment to ‘Like’ and share using the buttons below. Keep looking around my site for more of the same.  Cheers!

Aldi (7th Panel) Wine Club Tasting #6 – Crémant du Jura Chardonnay 2013

My final review now for the Aldi Wine Club, and what better way to go out than with a bit of fizz!

When the French turn their hand to making sparkling wine outside of the delimited region of Champagne, it is known as Crémant.  Made in exactly the same way as traditional Champagne, you get all of the skill but without the baubles of prestige that drive up Champagne prices the world over.

Eight French regions produce a Crémant including Limoux, Alsace and the Loire, but today we are headed to the Jura which is located on the mid-eastern side of the country between Burgundy and Switzerland.  Although many Crémants use grape varieties not used in Champagne such Pinot Gris, Savagnin, Pinot Blanc or Riesling, today we’re trying one that is made with one of the thoroughbred Champagne varieties – Chardonnay.

Aldi Cremant

Philippe Michel Crémant du Jura Chardonnay 2013, France, 12%, £7.29

Bottled under cork and muzzle exactly like its Champagne counterparts, this bottle has a very pleasing appearance, with it’s squat bottle reminiscent to me of the uber-expensive Champagne, Krug.

Crémant is made in a lighter style than Champagne but in many other respects the look is similar, and this wine is a lovely golden yellow in colour with fabulous small bubbles trickling their way from the bottom to the top of your glass.  When some sparkling wines are falsely carbonated to give the fizz, the bubbles will be bigger (as in a can of fizzy drink) and noticeably ‘false’, so the fact that these bubbles are incredibly fine is a good marker.

On the nose I can pick up lemon citrus with a touch of lime zest as well as some honey and peach, white pepper spice and cream.

On the palate there is the citrus characters mentioned, which seem to now have more of a confectionate lemon curd quality.  There’s also the fleshy notes of green apple and, more precisely, the apple pips.  This quality hints to the fact that the fruit isn’t fully ripened, which isn’t something to worry about, but a fairly natural consequence of grapes grown in a marginal northern climate.

The wine is made in the dry Brut style which balances well with the medium acid levels.  Underpinning the fruit you have the deep rich weight and texture of butter and cream coming from the Chardonnay grape, and also a slightly discernible light grip tannin.  The weight is medium, and yet the wine is light and airy and the mousse completely quaffable prior to it dissolving in the mouth.  The length is medium and the overall sensation is clean, refreshing and moreish.

It’s very weird to be saying this, but at £7.29 this fizz represents the most expensive wine I’ve been sent as part of the Aldi wine club.  This is of course completely competitive alongside the price-point of both Prosecco and Cava, but when compared to virtually any Champagne (including those ‘on offer’), it is extremely good value.

The wine has also been especially well received with the critics and is the winner of several awards including a Bronze medal from Decanter, a Silver medal at the International Wine Challenge 2015, and a Gold medal at the IWSC (International Wines & Spirits Challenge).

As a reflection on the above bottle and indeed all of the others supplied by Aldi for this series of tastings, I can honestly say that the quality has been well above my expectations, and the prices substantially lower.  My future wine-buying routine will well and truly be changed going forward and, even though I always look for merit in any wine no matter what it is, I would be being untruthful if I said that I wouldn’t have previously been distrustful or perhaps dismissive of a wine priced up at £3.79.

My eyes have truly been opened – Cheers!

With thanks to Aldi UK for supplying the bottle used in this tasting.

Enjoyed this article?  Please take a moment to ‘Like’ and share using the buttons below. Keep looking around my site for more of the same.  Cheers!

Aldi (7th Panel) Wine Club Tasting #5 – Muscadet Sévre Et Maine 2015

I’m nearing the end of my 6 tastings for Aldi and so here we are already at my penultimate note.  Today we’re travelling to the western end of the Loire Valley, itself located in western France, and trying a Muscadet Sévre Et Maine.  The name of the wine comes from the area as well as the two rivers that flow through the Pays Nantais.

The grape variety used for this wine is Melon de Bourgogne (aka Melon in the USA) which, as the name suggests, was traditionally a variety grown in Burgundy.  Aside of some US plantings it is now so synonymous with the Loire that the grape is even sometimes known as Muscadet.  Whilst the grape variety might be unfamiliar to many, the fact that the French plantings survive in the Loire is a good indication that the variety works in this maritime northern climate.  This adopted homeland, alongside a fussy marginal northern climate (especially when moderated by the cool ocean breezes and the cool air from the Loire River itself), mean that we should be looking for both a delicate wine as well as a good overall quality.

Aldi Muscadet

The Exquisite Collection Muscadet Sévre Et Maine 2015, Loire Valley, France, 12%, £4.99

This wine is bottled under screw-cap as many a fresh youthful white wine is, and once again has the pleasing (to my eye) Royal blue coloured seal to offset against the green hue of the bottle.

In colour, this wine is on the lighter side of lemon yellow and has lovely green tints to the rim.  The nose is one you don’t want to over-chill and kill the flavours on, as it pairs a lightness of touch with an intense delivery. It draws together a myriad of sensations which kick off with lots of lemon, a whiff of lime, green apples, grapey characters, and a touch of peach.

In the mouth the first thing I notice is the gloopy quality and good weight that the wine has.  This is closely followed by a generous acidity which manages to be both all-encompassing and yet direct and linear.  Next up is a crisp delivery of lemon citrus, fruity peach, a dash of orange peel, and a slightly sour ending, which for me is like taking a huge bite in to a grapefruit.   The fruits are under-pinned with a smoky creaminess that comes from the lees (yeast) ageing, which is indicated by the addition of the words ‘Sur Lie’ on the bottle.  This ageing is what also gives the wine its gloopy weight and definition.

The tangy acidity continues on the palate for some time after the swallow, along with some of the sour grapefruit notes.  Overall this is an extremely juicy, bouncy, vibrant and fresh wine which will go perfectly with light bites, and most fish or seafood dishes, as well as patisserie.

I always write my own tasting notes before looking at the back of the bottle or included notes for the suggestions of the producer, and one thing that was mentioned a couple of times but completely evaded me (no matter how hard I looked) was mint.  I simply couldn’t find it, but it’s worth mentioning it in case that’s your thing.

Overall this is an incredibly refreshing, and once again extremely competitively priced wine, given the layers of flavours that can be found.  At just 12% alcohol (which was once the norm but, thanks to the New World and global warming, is probably actually considered a low alcohol level now) my own personal palate yearns for a bit more of the robust and fuller bodied white wines that I am used to.  That’s not a criticism of the wine or how it compares to other bottles of Muscadet (of which delicacy is a key trait) but merely to highlight that whilst this does have an intense character, it is notable for a lighter, subtler style.

With thanks to Aldi UK for supplying the bottle used in this tasting.

Enjoyed this article?  Please take a moment to ‘Like’ and share using the buttons below. Keep looking around my site for more of the same.  Cheers!

Aldi (7th Panel) Wine Club Tasting #4 – Toro Loco Superior 2014

I first heard of Toro Loco in 2012 when it managed to scoop a prestigious IWSC (International Wines & Spirits Challenge) Silver medal.  That’s no mean feat by itself, but when you consider that Toro Loco is the Aldi own-brand Spanish offering and priced at the crazy low price of £3.49, the win was all the more special.  It’s no wonder that journalists were queuing up to publicise the ‘find’ (you can read more on the triumph here) and very soon it was ‘out of stock’.  Astonishingly the wine remains at the same £3.49 price-point in 2016.

The wine hails from Utiel-Requena, in the province of Valencia on the mid-eastern coast of Spain.  Using leading red Spanish grape variety Tempranillo alongside a healthy helping of another local variety (Bobal) this is a wine that wants to highlight it’s Spanish roots.  The name Toro Loco translates as ‘Crazy Bull’ (hence the label bull/corkscrew design) and was chosen to personify the essence of Spain, from the local custom of bull fighting to the ‘living-life-to-the-full’ ethos of its residents.

When I first heard about Toro Loco back then I went straight out and bought a bottle to see if the fuss was justified.  I wasn’t disappointed and, having purchased it a couple of times since, this tasting was a great chance to re-visit the current vintage on offer.

Aldi Toro Loco

Toro Loco Superior 2014, Tempranillo (75%) & Bobal (25%), Utiel-Requena, Spain, 12.5%, £3.49

The wine is bottled under screw-cap and is a youthful vibrant clean purple in colour with a fine watery white rim.

The nose, whilst being full of character, is fairly restrained and is more about the thoughtful reflection of a local style, rather than the ‘in-your-face’ blockbuster style.  I can pick up a good array of both primary and secondary aromas from the dark black cherry fruit, stewed prune and raisin, to bitter black chocolate, woody notes and floral vanilla.

After the nasal sensation, the medium body that follows has a surprising lightness of touch.  Once again you get the upfront hits of black cherry and sour plum, but this is closely followed up with a typical Spanish vanilla creaminess and a touch of pepper spice.  The fruits are succulent, ripe and juicy and the fresh acid drives an uplifting palate.

At the same time this wine manages to show sophistication and blends in darker touches and a medium tannin level which grips the inside of your mouth.  There’s a decent layering of bitter chocolate, leathery tones and tobacco which all add together to create a deep multi-layered flavour sensation.  The length is equally impressive and retains the bitter chocolate from the mid-palate.

In the spirit of delivering a balanced review, if I had to make one criticism about this wine it would be in regards to the lighter weight delivering so much character, and when I tasted this wine the following day a lot of the deeper mid-palate tones had started to disappear, almost as if too much had been forced in too soon (remember that the vintage is less than 2 years old at this point).

Clearly this is nit-picking, and on the day of opening this wine was as good as any in terms of being a fine food match.  It’s worth remembering that drinking wine with food is an inherent part of Spanish culture and over time they have created a balanced wine style that suit the local flavours.  I can imagine this wine pairing well with a whole host of tomato based meals, tapas dishes, stews and much more.

As a last thought, I simply can’t believe there is any way that this can be produced for £3.49 a bottle – it simply defies logic.  There are numerous costs that every bottle of wine has to bear including transportation, retailer mark-up, and packaging & labelling.  On top of these are the hefty VAT and Duty costs imposed by the Government which can easily make up 50% of the overall price on a standard bottle of wine.  Estimates show that on a £3.79 bottle of wine only about 15p actually goes on the wine itself, and that runs the whole process from growing the grapes, to harvesting them, to the final production.  To get all the above depth from 15p seems unbelievable, almost unreasonable.

It was sold out the last time I went to get it, but trust me, I’ll be buying it again very shortly if I can get it.  I may even ‘trade up’ to the Toro Loco Reserva, which sees additional ageing in oak and adds Garnacha and other international grape varieties (Merlot and Shiraz) to the blend.  As the premium offering for the brand, it still comes in at a very modest £4.99

Toro Loco is truly a gem of a wine and one that you don’t want to miss.

With thanks to Aldi UK for supplying the bottle used in this tasting.

Enjoyed this article?  Please take a moment to ‘Like’ and share using the buttons below. Keep looking around my site for more of the same.  Cheers!

Aldi (7th Panel) Wine Club Tasting #3 – Exquisite Limestone Coast 2014 Chardonnay

On to the third of my Aldi tastings now and we’re back in Australia, but this time dealing with something a little bit more special.

When reviewing a wine I like to consider all aspects of it and, if having the word ‘Exquisite’ in the name is not enough, this wine hails from the Limestone Coast, which I find quite an exotic term and it transports me immediately to sunnier and foreign climes.  For me, I can almost taste the minerality and warmth.

The Limestone Coast is fairly obviously named to highlight the geological make-up of the base soils of this region of Southern Australia, and that’s important when knowing that you’re about to try a Chardonnay.  Chardonnay is of course a French grape, happiest in the quality wine regions of both Champagne and Burgundy.  What may not be so well known is that both of these French regions have a Limestone base, and this bodes extremely well for this wine.  As they’ve planted the right grape in the right place you know you’re probably in for a good tasting.

Aldi Chard

Exquisite Collection Chardonnay 2014, Limestone Coast, South Australia, 13.5%, £5.79

The wine is bottled under screw-cap, and I love the effect that the colour scheme has on the overall presentation of the bottle, with the ‘Royal’ blue off-setting the green/yellow of the bottle/contents very well.  A nice clean scripted label compliments the whole, which also tells us that this is the product of one year, and that the wine is unoaked.  This is an important point, as many New World Chardonnays faced a backlash a few years ago due to the addition of too much wood flavouring to bolster the sometimes neutral flavours of Old World Chardonnay.

Upon pouring the wine is a nice clear light straw colour with touches of gold.  The nose is good, clear and nicely intense, almost plump (if that’s possible for just a scent).  You can immediately understand that this is a rich creamy wine with a clear lemon and lime citrus hit, but also with deep honeyed characters and tropical pineapple.  It’s an incredibly fresh sensation which again brings me back to those warm and sunny days, and I swear (if it’s not too wine-geek-fanciful) that I could taste ‘blue skies’.  No?  Let’s just say then that it is a full, evocative nose.

On the palate you again get the sensations of a pleasing density and fullness and, alongside the good weight you get the fresh burst of yellow fruits including lemon, Galia melon, and the aforementioned pineapple.  There’s also a touch of florality, and a touch of honey (which I will assume to be the honeysuckle referenced on the label).

In addition to the clear fruits, this wine has much more to offer.  There’s the added warmth from the 13.5% alcohol, a lush creamy spice (which comes from its time ageing on its yeast) and a discreet smokiness that rounds out the end palate.  Overall this is a well-crafted, densely populated wine, and it’s easy to see why it forms part of the ‘Exquisite’ line.  The length was equally as impressive as I’d gone away to do something else and realised some five minutes later that I could still taste it.  Wonderful stuff.

I really like unoaked Chardonnay so didn’t actually pair this with food for this tasting.  Whilst it was absolutely perfect on its own, the smokiness and richness of the flavours would pair very well with a sauce of the same nature, or seafood and light bites in order to bring out the yellow fruit notes. A sure-fire winner and another one which, at the price-point of £5.79, is truly remarkable value for money.

With thanks to Aldi UK for supplying the bottle used in this tasting.

Enjoyed this article?  Please take a moment to ‘Like’ and share using the buttons below. Keep looking around my site for more of the same.  Cheers!

Champagne in the 1860’s – The birth of ‘Style’

In the first part of this historical series, we look back to the world of Champagne in the 1860’s.

When we think about a ‘Vintage’ Champagne, we are not merely assessing the product of one particular year, but a whole host of stylistic factors, such as the ability to age well, the price-point, the availability and the prestige.  In the latter half of the 19th century a handful of events would shape the way that Champagne, particularly Vintage, is still made and sold today, well over 100 years later.

The roots lie somewhere buried in the 1830’s, when science caught up with understanding the maximum sugar levels that a bottle of Champagne could withstand during fermentation.  Losses due to a too-effervescent mix and the subsequent bottle explosion from the pressure build-up could affect as much as 20% of production in some years, which was obviously catastrophic for producers.  Once science intervened and the process was understood, losses were reduced to levels of around just 2%, meaning prices could be stabilised and the availability of the product maximised.  Skipping forward 20 or so years, youthful vintages such as the 1857 were soon jostling against celebrated ‘older’ years such as 1842 and 1846.

VinChamps

The next key step came courtesy of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Gladstone who, in his hotly anticipated 1860 budget, made radical changes intended to strengthen the British economy.  There were several prongs to his strategy, including reducing Government spending, but it very much hinged on removing the burdens on the working classes and stimulating economic growth.  To do this he pledged to introduce free trade between other countries – crucially in this case, between Britain and France.

Circa 90% of inter-country duties were scrapped completely whilst the remaining few were fully revised.  Duty on wine (and brandy) was reduced, but Champagne, not viewed as part of the daily life of the working classes, was singled out for a higher rate of tax.  Whilst this additional duty realised a very inconsequential amount for the Chancellor, the seeds were sown to ensure that Champagne was viewed as a luxury product in a class of its own, and something saved for celebrations.  It’s an image that continues to define it to this day.

Despite the strides in science, producers still hadn’t gotten to grips with outwitting Mother Nature and great years were still few and far between (the 1860’s only produced two vintages that were well rated; 1865 and 1868).  The 1868 Vintage was also a landmark year as it was the first time that many houses shipped Champagne as a ‘dry’ wine, in the style close to what we now consider normal.  As a bit of background, Champagne at this point contained very high levels of sugar and, whilst these sugars were the cause of the bursting bottles mentioned above, it was also its saviour as the high levels of sweetness would cover up the raw taste of youth.  Due to the volatility of the bottles, they needed to be produced, shipped and drunk quickly and there was no time for ageing them, or indeed, improving them.

A few experimental ‘dry’ bottles had been produced once sugar levels had been understood and, as early as 1848, Perrier Jouét reluctantly agreed to supply a cache of their 1846 to a determined merchant.  The drier taste proved to be somewhat ahead of its time, falling foul of the London set and leaving the merchant who requested the consignment having to drink it all himself (he apparently enjoyed every bottle!).  It didn’t deter him, and despite several knock-backs from Roederer and Pommery he continued to push the idea.  By the mid 1870’s the so-called ‘cult of candy’ had all but died out completely and, as fashion changed and the new dry style was considered an improvement and step-up in quality, Champagne houses and shippers were actually able to put their prices up.

Sales of Vintage Champagne would start to improve dramatically from this point as producers could now utilise much more of their overall production and feed whatever demand came their way.  Merchants were also happy to take on larger consignments as they were no longer under pressure to sell whatever they had as quickly as possible.  This growing volume also allowed the Champagne houses to build up their own stocks and reserves which, now there was no sugar covering the shortfalls of youth, would allow them to start realising the potential of storing and ageing a wine for several years in the cellars.  This allowed the bottles to gain complexity from time on their lees (yeast), and be presented to the customer when they were ready to drink, not when they were desperate to sell.

The birth of what we now consider Champagne had arrived.

I am indebted to the works of Mr. Andre Simon for inspiring the bringing of this historical information back to the public eye.

Enjoyed this article?  Please take a moment to ‘Like’ and share using the buttons below. Keep looking around my site for more of the same.  Cheers!