Wine Down The Sink (Hole)

It’s always a sad day when you have to tip some wine down the sink.  Whether it’s because the wine has become tainted, isn’t to your taste, or has been left open for too long, you inevitably arrive at the same on-the-spot decision: “Could I feasibly use this in some sort of cooking”.  Pouring wine away feels such a waste.

One can only imagine then how famed Champagne producer Pol Roger felt back in February 1900.  The bumper harvest of 1899, the first of decent size and quality in over 5 years, was safe in their underground cellars.  A new century was dawning, and hope was high despite the prolonged period of heavy winter rains. 

But as the soils became more and more waterlogged, two cellar floors (and several adjoining buildings) collapsed into each other burying an estimated 500 casks and 1.5million bottles.  That’s a lot of wine down the drain.

 A rescue operation was prepared but, when poor weather continued and a neighbouring cellar also caved in, plans were abandoned as being too risky.  Having to make the best of the losses and soldier on Pol Roger built new and improved cellars, going from strength to strength across the century and are still remembered as being the go-to Champagne of ex-British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

The landslide could have become a mere footnote of Pol Roger’s history; indeed, much darker times were ahead with the destruction and looting stemming from two world wars but, like in the movies, some things don’t like to stay buried forever.

In 2018, the Pol Roger family were looking to build a new packing facility on the ground above the old cellars.  Construction began, moving away layers of earth with the sort of heavy machinery that is standard practice today, but unthinkable in 1900.

The diggers came across a small cavity beneath the surface which was then widened to allow access.  As well as much broken glass they were astonished to find a still intact bottle, then 6 more, and then a further 19 bottles. 

Incredibly the corks were still in place and the amount of wine in each of the 26 bottles was as packaged.  This meant that the liquid hadn’t been evaporating and the bottles remained airtight.  There was every chance that they were still drinkable!

The family were now very excited to push on, but in a cruel mirroring of the original rescue plan, two months of heavy rain once again saturated the soils and made further rescue attempts impossible.

Not being defeated though, Pol Roger have now announced that they will be continuing the rescue operation with a remotely controlled robot guided through small discovery tunnels to see what’s left to discover.  A far cry from the shovels originally used to try and dig the wine out.

How incredible would it be for them to raise a commercially viable number of bottles so that everyone could taste a 120-year-old Champagne?

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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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