LONDON – Summer means fizz... and not just any kind of fizz. The great Champagne house of Pol Roger recently summoned a motley crew of enthusiasts, or should I say, experts, to Epernay for the launch of their superb Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill 2002 – named, of course, in recognition of Pol Roger being his Champagne of choice.
We broached our magnums with reverence, much as we would have done in the presence of the great man himself. The renowned 2002 vintage was the third year at Pol Roger for winemaker Dominique Petit and it proved perfect timing to try out all his new cellar equipment. It is a glorious Champagne, full but with so much finesse and ‘sweet’ nuttiness. We then had to review the Winston Churchill 1996, a classic of the genre, followed by the gentle maturity of the 1988, totally on song and giving pure, dancing pleasure.
Soldiering on, we moved into a different gear, as Pol Roger then produced three treasures from the depths of their deep cellars, starting with the 1921, a vintage that produced some of the greatest wines of my life. This is one of them. It had an intense, spicy nose, embracing heather, cinnamon and allspice. On the palate, there was brioche, marmalade and vanillin, brilliantly fresh and hedonistic, with a Fortuny silk texture.
Then we had the famed 1914, on its 100th birthday, bringing with it all the weight of history. It was made from ungrafted vines, in very difficult circumstances. Its bouquet is of a celestial beer and the flavours cover toffee, toast, caramel butter and salted caramel chocolate – so young as to be totally confusing. We finished with the 1892, much sweeter, as was the fashion in those days, like a great vanilla ice cream. The day was undoubtedly beguiling.
Dom Pérignon has made a name-change, with its late-released Oenothèque gems now called P2. It refers to the word Plénitude which Dom Pérignon winemaker Richard Geoffroy uses when describing the fullness of the taste. These very special Doms spend longer on their lees and thus are even more expressive and profound – in their second Plénitude. Quite frankly, when I meet a Champagne of this enchantment, I don’t care if it is named after Minnie Mouse!
We drank the P2 1998 over some tantalisingly delicious dishes produced by Simon Rogan at Fera at Claridge’s. Great Champagne has a knack of taming chameleon tastes, catching all the nuances of scents and flavours, and P2 1998 soared into its own throughout the meal, exuding energy and intensity. With its bouquet of light toast, fresh wild flowers, honey and smoke and streamlined taste of orange blossom and wild hedgerow fruit, this is tremendously seductive. It has a vanillin/saline, caramel/salt quality that keeps one guessing – and drinking – and saving up to buy a bottle!
Champagne still holds sway, bien sûr, but very interesting things are happening in the English sparkling wine world. We popped down to Hampshire’s Hambledon Vineyard, where owner Ian Kellett has planted Champagne’s three grape varieties, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier and is forging ahead in the pursuit of real style and quality. His background in biochemistry has helped create an impressive gravity-fed winery, with terrific sparkling wine technology that would startle any champenois. They would probably be equally shaken and stirred if they tasted the wines. The Hambledon Classic Cuvée, based on the 2010 and 2011 vintages and with a predominance of Chardonnay, has a briary, clover honey nose and very beautiful harmony on the palate, while the Première Cuvée, based on the same vintages but with more Pinot Noir in the blend, is just so complete, with great finesse and class. We poured some of it into a carafe and then into our glasses, expanding all the elements to an astonishing degree. Over a hundred years ago, particularly in Paris, this was common practice and I think I am going to revive it.
Sotheby’s international wine specialist Serena Sutcliffe, MW is one of the world’s leading authorities on wine.