Wednesday Wines – Episode 172 – A Collection of Stunning Sparklers

Bollinger, PN AYC18, Champagne, France (£92.00 per bottle, reduced to £86.00 each in a mixed dozen, www.thefinestbubble.com).

Technical Info
Vineyards: Grands Crus: Aÿ & Verzenay; Premiers Crus: Tauxières & Avenay-Val-d’Or
Grape Varieties: 100% Pinot Noir
Fermentation: More than 50% vinified in oak barrels
Reserve Wines: 47% from 2017 and 2016 with as much as 25% of 2009 vintage reserve wine from magnums.
Base Vintage: 53% from 2018
Lees Ageing: 4 years
Dosage: 6 g/L
Disgorged: January 2023

Three years ago, Bollinger released its inaugural ‘Pinot Trial’ wine.  Bollinger PN VZ15, essentially a wine based on the 2015 vintage, mostly coming from Verzenay (hence its name), with additional oomph coming from a host of reserve wines, was born.  Unfortunately, I didn’t fall for its charms.  PN VZ16 hit the shelves the following year, and I was more convinced this project had legs.  Aside from making a wine that showcases the glorious Pinot Noir variety and Bollinger’s skill of blending back vintages into a base to create a coherent symphony of flavour, the aim worked a treat.  Of course, Bollinger is famous for making rich, heady, flamboyant wines to satiate its adoring fan base, but this series of wines differs from others in their portfolio because they are designed to be drunk on release.  Both the 2015 and 2016-base wines were just that, and then last year’s more dynamic and edgy PN TX17 (this time made with fruit predominantly from Tauxières) put paid to this theory.  In need of time and undoubtedly delicious but somewhat raw, this is an excellent wine with decent potential.  Still, it flew in the face of the original reason for making this diffusion label.  So far, somewhat confusing.

So I am thrilled to report that this summer’s release of PN AYC18 is back to what I think is the point of this wine.  You need not work at Bletchley Park to decode this wine’s name.  The driving force in this engine is Bollinger’s home of Aÿ, and you will see (above) that bits and bobs of fruit from other famous Bolly villages make up the numbers.  This is the wine we have all been waiting for.  The 2018 vintage is lusty and suits Bollinger’s theatrical style, so I imagine that the non-Aÿ fruit has been used to control this beauty instead of adding heft.  A quarter of the wine comes from 2009 vintage reserve wine magnums, giving an undeniable gravitas to the whole.  True to the original brief, this wine is drinking now.  It will hold, but I cannot imagine it will improve because it is already bold, ripe, rewarding and multi-faceted.  Given its ancient ingredients (the 2009 element is the heart here despite being only 1/4 of the blend), this is not the fizziest of wines, making it vinous, calm, layered and soothing.  There is no doubt that Bollinger’s ‘Pinot Trial’ is proving to be fascinating, and I do not doubt that this 2018-based wine is the most accurate and faithful to the initial dream to date.  18.5/20 (Drink now)

NB – Several merchants are offering this wine, and it is a good idea to shop around because the price variations are bewildering.  I have listed the keenest price I can find above.

2009 Billecart-Salmon, Louis Salmon, Champagne, France (£146.00 per bottle, reduced to £140.00 each in a mixed 12, www.thefinestbubble.com).

Louis is Billecart’s 100% Chardonnay cuvée, and it hails from the finest Grands Crus vineyards in Cramant, Chouilly and Mesnil-sur-Oger.  I rated the 2008 vintage as one of the greatest Blanc de Blancs I have ever tasted, and the 2009 vintage continues in this vein, with a more forward, juicy and sensual stance on the palate.  While the 2008 will seemingly live forever, and you ought to be ashamed if you open a bottle right now, you can be forgiven for popping the cork on this lip-smacking 2009!  The exuberant Chardonnay fruit is tempered with trademark chalky minerality and teasingly sexy oak nuances, and these details serve to heighten the sheer class of the whole.  Park the 2008 vintage in the back of your cellar and drive this 2009 up to the door.  But please promise to only open this beauty for your best friends and loved ones because production is tiny, and the experience here is unforgettable.  19/20 (Drink now – 2035)

NV Billecart-Salmon Brut Réserve Explained

I enjoyed a fascinating conversation with Mathieu Roland-Billecart about his recent non-vintage releases and their component parts earlier this year. A number of Houses provide extra information on back labels regarding disgorgement dates and the like, and Billecart’s ‘code’ unlocks the amazing secrets in each bottle.

If you visit MY ORIGIN on the Billecart website, you are invited to discover every detail of each wine. To indelibly prove this point, Mathieu sent me three bottles – which looked exactly the same apart from one key fact – each one had a different code on the back label. All delicious, all perfectly balanced and all subtly different. It is time that you unlocked these secrets, too, so here is my guide!

Code – 161233

44% Pinot Meunier, 28% Pinot Noir, 28% Chardonnay; 2016 is the most recent vintage used with 2006 the oldest component; 36% base wine & 64% reserve wine; 96% stainless steel tanks & 4% oak; 9.1 g/L dosage; bottled 4th quarter 2019

My note – The ‘oldest’ of the bunch, this is a mellow, seductive wine with lovely purity and a little more flesh than the other two. Interestingly, this wine’s dosage is significantly higher, and the smooth curves and undoubted allure demonstrate this. 

Code – 181213

41% Pinot Meunier, 30% Chardonnay, 29% Pinot Noir; 2018 is the most recent vintage used with 2006 the oldest component; 45% base wine & 55% reserve wine; 96% stainless steel tanks & 4% oak; 6.1 g/L dosage; bottled 4th quarter 2022

My note – With a similar palate weight to 161233, this wine has creaminess cut with citrus freshness, and it certainly feels a little younger, showing discreet tension on the finish. Drinking well but with some evolution ahead.

Code – 191204

40% Pinot Meunier, 30% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay; 2019 is the most recent vintage used with 2006 the oldest component; 38% base wine & 62% reserve wine; 92% stainless steel tanks & 8% oak; 3.0 g/L dosage; bottled 4th quarter 2022

My note – This is the youngest cuvée, and it also has the lowest dosage. The flavour makes perfect sense, given this information. Young, fresh, tense and linear, this has the most closed palate of the trio, and it shows stunning poise and elegance.  

Conclusion –  This has been a worthwhile exercise, and it means that I will be better informed when picking this wine off the shelf and when buying to lay down for future drinking.  There is no doubt that 161233 is the wine to serve now for a party or gathering, and 191204 is one to keep for another year or two. While 181213 sits in the middle, enjoying the best of both worlds. I look forward to hearing how you get on with this code-cracking initiative.   NV Billecart-Salmon Brut Réserve is widely available (RRP £50.00).

NV Langham, Corallian Classic Cuvée, Dorset, England (£30.95, www.langhamwine.co.uk).

While several wines this week are unavailable for sale in the UK, and others cost an arm and a leg, this one is ready to go, incredibly well-priced and has a score not dissimilar to every other wine in this piece!  The latest non-vintage release of Corallian is based on the fantastic 2020 vintage. You will remember it was a warm one when we were all locked down and unable to socialise, thanks to the pandemic.  With 79% coming from the 2020 harvest and 21% of reserve wine in the mix, this 88% Chardonnay, 6% Pinot Noir and 6% Pinot Meunier is an astoundingly impressive wine already, and I cannot recommend it enough.  Firm, layered, creamy, floral and discreetly chalky, Corallian draws on all of the traits of great sparkling wine and Champagne, and it does it with effortless style and grace.  18.5/20 (Drink now – 2030)

Domaine Chandon Australia samples from winemaker Dan Buckle

I have known winemaker extraordinaire Dan Buckle for aeons, and there are few people on earth with a palate as acute or as self-critical. His time at Chandon has been well spent, given the sheer excellence of the wines tasted below. I cannot believe that he has racked up 11 years at this temple to sparkling wine, and I suppose that of all vinous disciplines, making incredible sparkling is the one that demands the most patience, and Dan has this quality in spades. While none of these wines is currently sold in the UK, I have put in an impassioned plea, not least because the 20th anniversary of my 100 Best Australian Wines Report is launched later this year, and it would be a travesty if a Chandon fizz were not among the ranks of the finest Aussie wines sold in the UK. Here are my brief, unedited notes on a stellar quartet of samples.

2018 Chandon, Terroir, Yarra Valley Single Vineyard Cuvee (AUD68, www.chandon.com.au).

Lean, raspy and superbly classy, this is a super-long, Pinot Noir dominant blend with lip-smacking refinement and balance. I have been waiting a very long time to taste wines with this level of crispness and poise, and while there are a couple of small estates making epic fizz Down Under, this is the first famous name to do so with this level of panache.  18/20

2017 Chandon Vintage Brut (no price listed)

With more weight and intensity of fruit than the 2018 and a raw and more powerful kick of acidity, this wine has a longer-term feel than the 2018, and there will surely be even more to discover on the nose and palate in due course. Elegant and also forceful, this is a fascinating wine.  18+/20

2016 Chandon, Terroir, Strathbogie Ranges Single Vineyard Cuvee (AUD68, www.chandon.com.au).

This super-grand, remarkably tense and elegant wine is only just starting to show chinks of light in its makeup, and this makes it thrilling to taste and assess. Refined, lean and rakish, there is so much more to come here, but I can already sense that this is a tour de force and a wine that will confound connoisseurs in years to come.  18.5+/20

NV Chandon, Étoile Brut, Release No.1 (AUD120, www.chandon.com.au).

This is a multi-vintage blend based on eight Chandon Vintage Brut Reserves, representing hundreds of base wines. While I am lucky to have tasted a good few examples of fine wines made in this vein from Champagne, I have never experienced anything approaching this level of class, complexity and composure from Australia. This is absolutely top of the pile, and it is also globally relevant. With layers and layers of flavour compressed into a saline icicle of awesomely bright citrus fruit, this is a star.  19+/20

FIN