Ever-hotter summers keep delivering more and more wines that would have been unthinkable two or three decades ago when the grapes would simply not have been ripe and healthy enough: Norwegian Riesling, Nova Scotian fizz and Belgian Chardonnay to rival Puligny-Montrachet to name a few. Regions that were once associated with sparkling wine are now also producing really serious still wines.
Base wines for sparkling wine should be nice and tart so that the finished one is still appetising despite the added sugar and yeast needed to produce bubbles. Champagne and England, with their traditionally cool climates and only-just-ripe, high-acid grapes, were natural sources of sparkling wine.
Visiting Champagne 30 years ago, I would occasionally be offered Coteaux Champenois, the still wine produced from the local grapes, and I tended to think that these pretty sour liquids proved why champagne has bubbles in it.
English vineyards started making convincing sparkling wine towards the end of the 20th century, made from the same grapes and methods as champagne but with their own distinctive character. In those days, most still English wines were a bit too meagre, and obviously made from less than fully ripe grapes.
But global warming is changing all that. On my last visit to Champagne, in 2019, several producers showed me with pride the still wines they had been working on. Charles Heidsieck has been developing a range of very respectable still Chardonnays from different villages known for that grape variety. Most exciting of all, Louis Roederer’s Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, perhaps the most admired winemaker in Champagne, poured the 2015 and 2016 vintages of a still red project he has been working on since the late 1990s, when he started to analyse the make-up of the many vineyards owned by the house. He was looking not for the chalk that is so suitable for growing grapes for sparkling wine, but for the clay favoured for still Pinot Noir.
The first plot chosen specifically to produce still red was the 0.43ha Charmont parcel of white clay in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, which was planted in 2002 with a “mass selection” of vines from Burgundy. “It would have taken us 15 to 20 years to find a similar mass selection in Champagne,” says Lécaillon, who has many friends in Burgundy. They have since identified and planted several other plots of vines destined to make still wine.
While the Charmont vines were establishing a decent root system, their produce went into Roederer’s non-vintage blend Brut Premier. Lécaillon decided it was worth having a go at a still wine in 2014. “But it didn’t work very well,” he confesses via Zoom. “I was still too Champenois and waited too long before picking. I waited and waited until we’d reached 13 per cent potential alcohol but it was a complete mistake. The wine was flat. Fruity, but lacking energy, saltiness and structure.” It too went into Brut Premier.
He was happier with the 2015 but misjudged the oak on the 2016. He still has about 1,000 bottles of each vintage so he can monitor the wines’ progress. Rot was such a problem in 2017 that he didn’t even try but, finally, the 2018 harvest produced a pair of red and white still wines he felt worth releasing. The grapes are picked about three days after the sparkling wine harvest, from vines that are specifically trained higher and leafier. After painstaking selection of various ambient yeasts, he ages his still wine in a mix of new barrels (now with steam, not fire-bent, staves to temper oak influence), one-year-old barrels and 250-litre sandstone containers.
“I really wanted to create a modern wine. It has to be delicious and it has to give a lot,” says Lécaillon. His results have been sufficiently convincing for the Rouzaud family, who own Roederer, to introduce organic and biodynamic viticulture, at Lécaillon’s bidding, as well as to humour him with a panoply of equipment. This 2018 Camille Pinot Noir manages to combine convincing Pinot character with delicacy and ageing potential.
Roederer will eventually produce a range of still single-vineyard wines branded Camille in honour of Frédéric Rouzaud’s great-grandmother who always served a Coteaux Champenois when entertaining. The white Camille 2018 — based on Volibarts, 0.55ha of old Chardonnay vines in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, and inspired by a still 1961 from the same village — turned out to be more of a challenge, Lécaillon admits. He didn’t want to make a copy of burgundy. The 2018 is like a Chablis but has a certain Riesling-like quality to it. Promisingly, the Camille wines in my 75cl sample bottles were still going strong more than 10 days after I opened them.
This pair of wines seems to have raised the bar for Coteaux Champenois in an exciting fashion, although since only 2,880 bottles of red and 1,631 of white were made, they will not be bargains once they are launched early next month.
But it’s not just Champagne that is unexpectedly producing more and more fine still wine. The 2018 and 2020 vintages have yielded some exceptional still wines from British vineyards. Viticultural consultant and Master of Wine Stephen Skelton reports that in 2020 one English vineyard produced a Chardonnay with 14.7 per cent natural alcohol. Skelton is currently a consultant to an embryonic wine estate outside Glasgow whose vines will go into the ground next month.
A new English vineyard in a particularly warm corner of Essex, Danbury Ridge, has produced some still 2018 Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that surely break new ground, even if there is now no shortage of producers who have made good still English and Welsh wine, such as Blackbook, Bolney, Bride Valley, Chapel Down, Gusbourne, Hush Heath, Lyme Bay, Simpson’s and Stopham. At Danbury Ridge, vines were planted and grown specifically to produce still wines, just as chez Roederer, with clones carefully selected for that purpose and the crop thinned to encourage more flavour in the remaining bunches. The results are really very impressive.
The outer limits of the world wine map are creeping inexorably polewards. Château Reykjavik, anyone?
Tasting notes on Purple Pages of JancisRobinson.com. More stockists from Wine-searcher.com
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