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Jiles Halling's Blog

Jiles spent 10 years living and working in Champagne working for Moet et Chandon.

During that time, Jiles built up a vast amout of knowledge about all things bubbly, making lots of contacts in the region, and getting to know the people who've lived there for centuries while crafting their products with love and passion.

After moving back to the UK in late 2004, Jiles decided to bring this unique knowledge and contribution to the wider world.  The hidden secrets, the best champagnes and the insider knowledge that is not usually available through the normal channels, is now here for you.  Since March 2010, Jiles is once again based in Champagne, living in the small grand cru village of Verzy.

In this you'll find everything you ever wanted to know about champagne, the drink, the people, the region and the food.  Please enjoy your visit and please join in the conversation by leaving your thoughts in the comments section or liking us on Facebook.


 

This is the second part of an article all about how champagne ages and how you can avoid wasting your money by keeping champagne too long until it has no bubbles and is completely undrinkable.

Degorgement-a-la-volee225As we have already seen, before a bottle of champagne can be sold to you the yeast sediment is removed from the bottle of champagne by the process called disgorging (dégorgement in French). When that happens Autolysis stops and oxidisation takes over producing a rather different effect on the champagne.

That doesn’t mean that the champagne stops ageing altogether; on the contrary, if anything oxidisation speeds up the ageing process. Oxidisation is the effect that oxygen has on the wine and it takes place more rapidly after disgorging because the champagne is no longer protected by the CO2 inside the bottle. The flavours and aromas can become more intense and richer during oxidisation; the biscuit and toasty notes that for many people are the hallmark of good champagne, can become more pronounced.

However, it’s important to remember that oxidisation certainly doesn’t suit everyone. It is essentially a process of decay and when it goes beyond a certain point the champagne is ruined.

The best analogy I can think of is when game, such as pheasant for example, is left to hang for several days, or longer, before being cooked and eaten. The flavours become much more pungent and pronounced. Some people adore this but others find it just too strong to the point that it spoils their enjoyment of the meat entirely.

The trick then is to keep your champagne just the right amount of time and to avoid keeping it too long and finding, when you open it, that it has turned dark brown, has lost its bubbles and tastes more like vinegar than champagne.flying-cork

Unfortunately this is all too common. I have lost count of the number of people who have told me that they were given a special bottle of champagne on their wedding day, or on the day of their child’s birth and that they can’t wait to open it on their 21st anniversary, or on the child’s 21st birthday. That’s way too long and they are almost sure to be disappointed.

So here’s what to do.

There’s one approximate way and one more precise way.

I’ll tell you both

  1. The general rule of thumb is that you can keep champagne, after disgorging, for about the same length of time as it spent ageing in the cellars before disgorging.  So let's say between 2 and 3 years for non-vintage and 5 to 7 years for a vintage.

    However, and this is very important, the rule above only applies if you have good storage conditions at home. If you keep your wine in the kitchen, in the fridge, in the garage, under stairs or wherever, it won’t keep well and the best advice is to drink it within a few months of purchase.

  2. If you want to be more precise then you need to know the date of disgorging. When you know that you simply count forward to today’s date and you know exactly how much time has passed since the precious lees were taken out of the bottle.

But where do you find that disgorging date?

Unfortunately this is another piece of information that very few brands actually share with you. They know this date themselves but they don’t trust consumers with the information for fear, amongst other things, that the consumer will think it is a ‘Best By’ date and conclude that the bottle is ‘out of date’. However for people such as you who are more interested in champagne than the average consumer, you’d find this really useful.

Fortunately there is an increasing number of champagne producers, mainly amongst the grower champagnes, who have the good sense to put the disgorgement date on the bottle. Let’s look at an example.

Champagne De Sousa

Disgorgement-Date225You’ll see from this back label that this bottle was disgorged on 22nd March 2010, so when I drank it on 21st March 2011 I knew it was one year since the disgorging and the champagne should be just right to drink - it was by the way.

 

On the other hand if I was in a shop in 2014 and was thinking about buying this bottle, I'd know that it had been hanging around quite a long while since disgorging and would probably have lost some of its freshness. I'd think twice before buying it unless I knew for sure that it had been kept in perfect storage conditions. Then, but only then, I might give it a try.

So look out for the disgorgement date somewhere on the label. You may not always find it, in fact it's still only a minority of makers who do put this date on their bottles, but it is becoming more common and one day it might even become the norm. Let’s hope so.

Meanwhile... Stay Bubbly

Jiles

 

There are dozens of anecdotes and quotations associated with wine and champagne. I’m sure you’ve heard lots of them.

One of my favourites is

“Wine improves with age. The older I get, the better I like it.”

It’s not surprising then that if you ask most people about wine they will probably say that the older it is, the better it is, but that’s not necessarily true, especially when it comes to champagne. In the next few minutes you’ll find out why not and you’ll learn the golden rules about ageing champagne.

Bottles-ageing-at-Krug225With champagne, unlike most wines, there are two distinct ageing periods that you need to take into consideration: the first is the time spent ageing in the bottle before it leaves the cellars in France and the second is the time from then on until you actually drink it. 

The first is called ageing on lees. ‘Lees’ is the name for the dead yeasts cells left over after the fermentation inside the bottle has finished and which form a sediment in the bottle.

The second is called ‘bottle ageing’ and is not at all the same thing.

Here’s how they are different and why that’s important

---

The rules of champagne making set down the minimum age a wine must be before it can be sold. The rule is the same for grower champagnes as for famous brands; everyone plays by theDepot-in-Rose-at-De-Sousa225 same rules. For non-vintage champagne it’s 15 months and for 12 months of that time the champagne must be allowed to age in the cellars with the lees in the bottle.

During this time the dead yeasts cell break down and release into the wine a cocktail of amino acids, enzymes and other nutrients which enrich the wine and develop its subtle flavours and aromas. This process is called autolysis.

At the same time there is another process going on called oxidisation. This is the reaction between the wine in the bottle and the oxygen in the atmosphere outside. It can take place because even though the bottle is sealed, the seal is not totally hermetic and a minute amount of air still gets into the bottle to react with the wine.

Bottles-ageing-at-Philipponnat225Oxidisation will also produce richer, deeper flavours in the wine up to a certain point, but it is also the process, if carried too far, that will turn the wine into vinegar.

The cellars in Champagne provide the perfect conditions for the wine to age and for these two processes: autolysis and oxidation, to work together, so generally speaking, the longer a champagne ages in the cellars in Champagne, the more rich and complex the wine becomes and, thanks to the yeast cells, the champagne retains its freshness and liveliness.

So how do you know how long the champagne spent in the cellars before you bought it?

Well for most wines it’s easy. There’s a date on the bottle which indicates the year of harvest. No such luck with non-vintage champagne mind you; there’s no date on the bottle.

To make things worse champagne makers don't indicate on the label exactly how long the champagne has been aged. This is a shame because it’s crucial information for any serious champagne lover.

We saw above that the minimum ageing is 12 months on lees, but this is hardly time enough to allow the champagne to acquire any real quality so most reputable champagne makers will age their champagnes for 2 -3 years, but there's quite a difference between 24 and 36 months and you're none the wiser from just looking at the bottle.

However, if you are content to stick with just the famous brands and take their word for what they say about the ageing period then you should be fine. However if you want to explore grower champagnes and discover all the amazing variety and quality they offer, then you’ll need some more information.

Now because non-vintage champagne is a blend of wines from several different harvests what you need to know is which harvests, but where do you find that information?

One way is to ask your supplier and if you are dealing with a specialist retailer, or a top quality sommelier, he or she will know. It’s part of parcel of doing a good job. However you will need to go to a specialist because you won’t get that level of expertise at your local supermarket – mind you, you probably won’t find a good range of champagnes there either.

Tarlant-Back-Label225It would be nice to think that the champagne makers put this information on the back label and there are a few of the more enlightened ones that are doing just that. Take champagne Tarlant for example. They have some of the most informative back labels in the business

The bottle you see in the picture is a blend of wines taken mainly from the 2005 harvest therefore bottled in 2006. So when I was drinking this champagne in 2011 I knew that the youngest wine in the blend was at least 5 years old. That’s an impressive age and far longer than any of the major branded champagnes will ever offer you for a non-vintage champagne.

In the next article I’ll explain about bottle ageing and how you can avoid having to throw your precious champagne down the drain.

Champagnes-de-Vignerons225I recently ran a small survey on my Facebook page and on LinkedIn asking people what the phrase Les Champagnes de Vignerons meant to them.

There seems to be a vague general agreement that it means champagne from a small producer, but in fact it doesn’t mean Récoltant Manipulant or ‘Grower Champagne’ as many people thought., although it doesn’t exclude that either.

No one seems to know precisely what it means and that’s a problem because the expression is being used by Le Syndicat Général de Vignerons as the headline phrase to promote the less well-known champagnes and to persuade people to try them.

So I thought it was time to give everyone the real story.

The reason I wanted to do the survey was that I work exclusively with small and medium sized champagne producers who want to improve their business. I know that many of them make wonderful champagnes which, in my opinion, are equally as good as most of the better-known brands and which, for me at least, are far more interesting by virtue of their variety and individuality.

However I also know that they struggle to sell their champagne at anything approaching the price of the big brands and I wanted to understand why this should be.

Was the slogan Les Champagnes de Vignerons helping or hindering and what exactly were the images and associations that the slogan evoked for champagne drinkers?

Well it was surprising and the most obvious thing was that people don’t share the same perception.

Made with Herzblut

Some people thought Les Champagne des Vignerons were made by small cooperatives; some people said they were’ independent’ producers. A few people used the word ‘authentic’ and some said ‘high quality’

Martin in Germany used some more emotional adjectives and said it meant champagne made with love and with Herzblut which I guess you could translate by saying that the maker had ‘put his all’ into making the champagne.

All this is true, but is still pretty vague and that’s not surprising for the very simple reason that there is no definition of a Champagne de Vigneron. Here’s why

The concept is supposed to convey the idea that the champagne is made by the person who owns the vineyards – grower champagne if you like, but that’s not a hard and fast rule.

Any champagne maker can be a Champagne de Vigneron and display the sign. The main criterion is that the producer has to be a member of the Syndicat Général, but the members of the Syndicat can be RM, cooperatives or even NM.

Erick-checking-the-grapes225There are no criteria about quality, size of production or anything else for that matter. It appears you just have to persuade the Syndicat that the champagne is made in smallish quantities, and that the maker was directly and to a significant degree, involved in making the champagne.

If the rules about being in this 'club' are so broad no one should be surprised that there is no clear agreement amongst champagne drinkers about what Les Champagne de Vignerons means.

It’s all much too vague to my mind and I think a good deal more thought needs to go into the whole concept.

What about the price?

Learning-about-Enherbement225Many people said that they associated Les Champagne de Vignerons with good value for money. This is true from the consumers’ point of view, but not necessarily from the producer’s point of view. They would love to sell their product at the same prices as the big brands.

I wonder why it is that in many other industries, descriptions such as hand-made, limited quantity, artisan and so on, are usually and automatically associated with higher prices, yet when it comes to Champagne, consumers and people in the wine trade often expect these amazing artisan champagnes to be cheaper than the big brands.

When one finds these superb champagnes on sale at discounted prices, is that a service to the consumer or a disservice to the producer?

Would you be prepared to pay a bit extra for a Champagne des Vignerons, or do you always expect them to be cheaper than well-known brands?

Cheap prices for top quality artisan champagnes are all the more illogical when you realise that the big brands have significant economies of scale so it’s those champagnes that should be cheaper than the smaller brands, not the other way around, but that’s the power of marketing I suppose and we humans are all too easily influenced by it.

To be honest I’m probably just as susceptible to marketing as anyone else. It’s just that I like to think that I have more discernment, won’t be taken in by the marketing and will make my own choices about which champagnes to drink.

Maybe I just delude myself, but I still prefer the small champagne brands whether they’re called Champagnes de Vignerons, ‘grower champagnes’ or just simply ‘amazing’.

If you’d like to make any comments, please feel free, either on

Facebook

 https://www.facebook.com/MyManInChampagne?ref=hl

or on LinkedIn if you’re a member

 http://www.linkedin.com/in/mymaninchampagne

I’d love to read your opinion

Bubbly Best Wishes

Jiles

Sabrage225Have you ever seen people open a champagne bottle with a sabre? It looks pretty impressive doesn’t it? Yet when it comes to doing it yourself, it’s something that most people are really apprehensive about

The thing about ‘Sabrage’ to use the French word, is that once you learn to do it you realise that it’s actually a lot easier to do than you had imagined.

The trick is to have good teacher and I had the good fortune recently to meet one of the best: M. Philippe Brugnon who has achieved a lofty position in the Ordre du Sabre d’Or – the international association for those who have mastered the art of sabrage.

Sabrage-certificates225Champagne Philippe Brugnon in tucked away in a quiet street in the village of Rilly-La-Montagne and you’d never find it unless you knew where to go. There’s no sign on the gate, or the door and everything is very low key. Inside however you are in for a treat.

Just take a look at these photos to see how much fun it can be to learn sabrage and there’s even a video below which the ‘star’ has graciously agreed I can use on my blog.

If you’d like to try your hand at sabrage I can include it in my private guided tour programme for you at a modest extra charge, provided you give enough advance notice. So send me an e-mail now if you’re interested and I’ll get straight back to you This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

WeirdMachine225I came across a weird machine the other day.

I just spotted this very elegant parasol which looked like it was gliding over the tops of the vines, so I stopped to ask what was going on.

The vineyard belongs to Champagne Mumm, the tractior is state-of-the art and is GPS guided, but the bit at the back look as if it has come out of a museum.

Planting-new-vines225Take a look at the video and see if you can guess what they are doing before the answer appears on the screen.

 

 Still, I guess this chap is grateful that he doesn't have to do it by hand.

Here's the video.

 

 

There’s something stirring in champagne. Perhaps it’s not a full blown revolution just yet, but it’s something no champagne lover can ignore: the ever increasing interest in what are called Grower Champagnes.

If you haven’t come across them yet and have never tried them, then I, for one, think youChristophe-Mignon-Brut225 should. Here’s what it’s all about and what you need to know....

The change is happening everywhere if you take the time to look around you –

Micro breweries producing local beers that are more than a match, flavour-wise at least, for the giants of the industry;

Farmers’ markets where you can discover some fabulous produce and meet the fascinating ‘real’ people who produce or grow it, instead of struggling round the same old supermarkets shelves every week for mass-produced produce.

Well, the same thing’s happening in champagne and that’s where grower champagne comes in....

It’s the return of the small man, or woman, because more and more people are looking for something that gives them not just good value, but a sense of being.... what’s the best word? Perhaps ‘honest’ or ‘authentic’.

DidierGimonnet225Meeting champagne makers is always a fascinating experience, but although they all have a huge amount of experience and knowledge to share, some are much better at explaining things than others; that’s why it’s such a pleasure spending time with Didier Gimonnet of Champagne Pierre Gimonnet in Cuis. Not only does he make fabulous champagne, but he talks about it and about champagne in general with ease, authority and humour.

I was with him last Saturday when, with 3 guests, we tasted almost the entire range.

Didier explained that when he and his brother Olivier took over the management of the family business from their father, he left them few instructions. Most of the knowledge their father had accumulated over his lifetime working in the vineyards and making champagne was contained in a precious little notebook which he handed to the boys and pretty much said : “Here’s all you need to know, now just get on with it.”Littleblackbook225

In it are all M. Gimonnet senior’s notes on each of the harvests he knew in his lifetime. Of course Didier still has the notebook; its secrets remain for the family’s eyes only but here’s a glimpse of just one page.

Golden nuggets

What else did I learn? Lots and too much to put it all down in just a few lines, but here are some of the little nuggets of information I gleaned.

Didier doesn’t entirely subscribe to the theory that small yields are necessarily better. Some people would have it that a small harvest, with fewer grapes, is desirable because it produces greater ripeness in the grapes and therefore more intensity in the aromas and flavours of the champagne.

Didier’s opinion, if I can summarise it accurately, is that Champagne is too far north to give the level of ripeness that will produce really intense flavours, even in a very good year. Besides, champagne is not about intense ripeness; champagne must have a certain level of acidity to give the wine freshness and vivacity and you are more likely to find these qualities in a more abundant harvest.

To put it into concrete terms, in Didier’s view the ideal range for the yield is between 50 – 75 hectolitres per hectare, or if my calculations are correct, between 8,000 and 10,000 kg of grapes per hectare.

YIELD PER HECTARE

Kg

Hectolitres

Litres

Bottles

160

1

102

136

4,000

26

2,550

3,400

8,000

51

5,100

6,800

10,000

64

6,375

8,500

12,000

77

7,650

10,200

 

Grand Crus

What else did I learn?

Well for one thing, I learned that there were originally only 4 Grands Crus villages: Ay and Verzenay for Pinot Noir and Avize and Cramant for Chardonnay. Le Mesnil-sur-Oger , for example,only became a Grand Cru in 1982

I learned that on La Côte des Blancs, Avize, Cramant and Chouilly lend finesse to a blend whereas wines from Oger and Le Mesnil-sur-Oger bring more power with minerality and even a slightly smokey touch.

Cuischurch225Cuis on the other hand, has the highest acidity of all the villages in La Côte des Blancs and because the style of Pierre Gimonnet champagnes is very much that of the northern part of La Côte des Blancs, there is always a proportion of wines from Cuis in their blends.

 

 

"I am not a wine maker"

Didier’s view is that the chefs de caves at the large champagne houses have to be real wine makers.

Their brief, at least for the majority of their champagnes, is to produce the same quality and same house style year in, year out. They take the grapes and the juice from a wide selection of different villages and grape varieties and they have to mould those ingredients to make the style of wine they already have clearly fixed in their minds and for which the house is famous.

The smaller producers such as Pierre Gimonnet, don’t have the breadth of supply to pursue the same strategy.CuveeGastronome225

Smaller producers usually have grapes from a fairly limited number of villages, often quite close to one another. There is not sufficient diversity to mould the wine to a model set by the wine maker. Consequently the smaller producers must adapt themselves to what the vineyards give them, not the other way round.

That’s why Didier doesn’t call himself a wine maker; his role is more to let the terroir express its full potential even if that means slight differences in the champagne from one year to the next.

The price of champagne - something’s got to give

It’s undeniable that consumption of champagne in some markets has declined in recent years due mainly to the sluggish economy. On the other hand more countries are acquiring the taste for champagne and on a global scale demand for champagne is on an upward trend, and that is certainly true is we look a few years into the future.

I can’t help thinking therefore that the days are numbered when you can still find champagne in supermarkets and the like at bargain basement prices.

Just look at these figures that Didier Gimonnet shared and you’ll see what I mean.

In the past 10 years

  • The price of a hectare of vines in Champagne has increased 70-80%
  • The prices of a kilogram of grapes has increased by 20%
  • The average selling price of a bottle of champagne has increased by just 1%

That is not a sustainable situation and it seems that there must inevitably be a price increase.I’d stock up now if I were you.

So what’s the conclusion?

SpecialClubandOenophile225I suppose it’s that no matter how much you think you know about champagne, you still don’t really know at all.

No matter what trend or fashion there seems to be, whether it is the tendency to produce low dosage wines, or to extol the virtues of small harvests, there is always another point of view and always more to discover.

Oh well. We may never become masters of champagne, but we all have the consolation of knowing that there will always be a lot more tasting and sampling to be done.

Stay Bubbly

Jiles

Sexual-Confusion225I thought that title might grab your attention, but now that I have it perhaps I am going to disappoint you, because this article and video may not be about quite what you think it is about. It’s more to do with the environment in fact, although sex does come into it.

20 years ago Champagne had a poor reputation as regards looking after the environment, but things have changed a great deal since then. People are much more attuned to environmental issues and they are coming up with all sorts of innovations and ideas to manage the vineyards and still be kind to Nature. One such ingenious new idea is called Sexual Confusion.

So who or what is confused?

AIVABC225I think I’ve said this before but it’s worth saying again. The thing I find most rewarding and enjoyable about what I do is not drinking grower champagnes, pleasant though that can be. Rather it’s getting to meet the people who produce grower champagnes. There are some real characters and there’s is always something new to learn.

I had a meeting yesterday with Vincent Laval of champagne Georges Laval – a fascinating man who is the president of the biological champagne makers association. There is an acronym for the association but I won’t bother you with that for now (it wouldn’t be France without one; they do love their acronyms)

Vincent cultivates a very small estate of just 2.5 hectares of vines to make his champagnes, but contrary to what you might think he is quite satisfied with that. His philosophy is that small is usually better, and that approach is clearly illustrated in what he thinks about last year’s harvest.

Most people you talk to say that it was a superb vintage despite it being a small harvest. Vincent would turn that around to say that it was great quality because it was a small harvest.

There’ll be more on Vincent, on bio champagne and on bio-dynamic champagne (Yes there is a difference) in a new video coming soon and I’m really looking forward to filming it.

Biological (organic) cultivation started in Champagne back in the 1970s. I imagine you should say re-started because an hundred years ago I suppose that everything was biological. Anyway in the 1970s there were just 7 champagne houses who used biological methods and of those only 5 are still in operation:

Georges-Laval-web-page225Georges Laval at Cumières

Serge Faust at Vandières (these days the company is called Ardinat Faust)

Jean Bliard at Hautvillers

Yves Ruffin at Avenay Val d’Or

and

Jacques Beaufort in Ambonnay

More have started more recently but there are still only 30 or so members of biological growers association in Champagne.

Anyway there will be lots more in the forthcoming video when I plan to interview several of these very passionate grower champagne makers and let them tell you all about what they do and why.

Avenue-de-Champagne-sign225It's the most famous street in Champagne: The Avenue de Champagne in Epernay. For hundreds of years it's been the preserve of big houses such as Moët & Chandon, Pol Roger, Perrier-Jouët, De Venoge and a few others, but recently a few new names have started to appear. Names that you may not have heard of yet, but the chances are that you will hear of them soon.

Yes, the grower champagnes are starting to move into the most illustrious piece of real estate in town.

A-Bergere-on-Avenue-de-Champagne225First was André Bergère who bought an elegant, but neglected house and did a magnificent job of restoring it to its former glory. The company has it's winery and most of its 40 or so hectares of vines just south of the Côte des Blancs in the village of Fèrebrianges. It won't surprise you to hear they make some excellent blanc de blancs champagnes.

 

 

 

Champagne Michel Gonet hails from Avize and as well as champagnes they have interest in other vineyard regions Michel-Gonet-on-Avenue-de-Champagne225around France making them quite a diverse company.

Collard Picard is from Villers sous Chatillon in the Vallée de la Marne. Not a place that's on everyone's route so their new boutique on the Avenue de Champagne should get them a lot more attention.

It's been a whle since I tasetd their chanpagnes but I do remember their fabulous rosé: a blend of 50% Pinot Meunier and 50% Pinot Noir  with a wonderfully soft taxture and rich fruity taste. Once tasted, it was almost everyones's favourite.

Collard-Picard-On-Avenue-de-Champagne225 

It's good to see some of these smaller producers with the vision and ambition to move on to the Avenue. Their champagnes bear comparision with almost all the better known brands; all that was lacking was big enough thinking, but obviously that's beginning to change, at least for some.

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