Due to our desire to stay ahead, each tasting in The Drinks Business Global Masters incorporates small improvements. And in this respect, 2015’s Champagne Masters was no different.
Judges in previous years – this was the fifth Champagne Masters we’ve run – have said that they’d like to blind taste the world’s two biggest brands alongside the other entries we attract, which include almost all the grandes marques.
So this year their wish was granted, and you’ll see from the results that every one of the 10 largest Champagne labels have been assessed, along with the top two by volume: Moët & Chandon Brut Imperial and Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label.
You can look through the performance of these 10 leviathans in the separate table below, alongside information on their lees-ageing times, dosages, and reserve wine proportions, just to shine a little more light on to the components of the most commercially important brands in Champagne.
What the medals highlight is the high quality of these massive blends. As we reported in the October edition of db, the volume leaders in Champagne have embarked on a series of changes over the past 10 years in a bid to improve their wines, no doubt due to increasing competition from other sparkling producers, be they based in Italy or England.
Changes for the better in Champagne are, in part, due to viticultural improvements, which are yielding riper and cleaner grapes, but also, importantly, cellar practices: the big players have invested in extending lees ageing times and raising the amount of reserve wines in their Brut NVs.
Together, such developments have brought about more richness and a compensatory drop in dosage. Indeed, as one judge commented: “What was so nice about this year’s tasting was that there was no greenness.”This was in reference to Champagne disappointments of the past, when unripe grapes, with limited ageing either on or off the lees, produced tart results. While another observed: “It was good to see that the dosage in the wines was well managed, it was fully integrated.”
This comment alluded to both lower levels, but also longer postdisgorgement resting times – few famous names now release their wines with less than three months, and the quality minded houses over six. Among the entries that really pleased the judges palates were, once more, the wines from Charles Heidsieck, which took one of two Masters in the Brut NV category for its Brut Reserve.
This Champagne house has become a true bastion of quality at all levels and this year it also showed its skill with rosé, a category that often performs poorly in relation to the whites.
The other top scoring category in the Brut NV sector was Pommery Brut Royal, attesting to the skill of long-serving cellar master Thierry Gasco, who has looked after winemaking at the house for more than 23 years. Almost as high scoring were the Brut NVs from Lanson, Veuve-Clicquot and Laurent-Perrier, as well as Charles de Cazanove, part of the massive GH Martel group, all of which gained a gold.
Of course, the styles of these top performers were far from similar, ranging from the intensely citrus flavours of the Lanson to the mellow richness of the Clicquot.
Moving a touch down in scores, this year we saw a high number of Silver medals among the Brut NVs, proving that this category is home to a large quantity of very good Champagnes, alongside those few mentioned above that are outstanding.
Within the selection of Silvers was Moët’s Brut Imperial, and the judges expressed surprise when it was revealed after the tasting that their high scores were for the world’s biggest Champagne brand – presumably because they had wrongly assumed that a sparkling produced in such high volumes (almost 30 million bottles are produced annually) would not attain this level of quality.
The tasters were also impressed at the good results achieved, for the most part, by the co-ops – De Saint Gall, Jacquart, Nicolas Feuillatte, Palmer and Pannier were all awarded silvers – as well as the good showing from smaller houses such as Cattier and Comtes de Dampierre.
While NV is designed to reflect the character of the house, vintage is meant to mirror the conditions of the harvest, and as a result, there was a great range in scores, even among the same producers. However, considering the stricter quality rules for this style, and the fact that vintage Champagne is generally only produced in good years, the highest performers in this category were truly outstanding.
Furthermore, without the accoutrements that come with the prestige cuvées, vintage represents the best-value category for great Champagne.
This class of fizz should also offer something fuller than found in the Brut NV category and it is usually a style that can be enjoyed with meals, not just as an aperitif.
As one judge commented: “Really good vintage Champagne should have some affinity with food.” Master in this category in 2015 was Charles Heidsieck’s sister house, Piper Heidsieck, which took home the top accolade for its 2006 vintage, a relatively warm year producing opulent Champagnes.
Indeed, both Alfred Gratien and Chassenay d’Arce gained Golds for their 2006s, the former benefitting from added richness due to barrel maturation (offsetting to some extent this house’s decision to block malolactic fermentation).
Another great find in this flight was from Champagne de Castelnau, which is still offering drinkers a chance to enjoy the delights of the remarkable 2002 vintage in Champagne, and for under £40.
And it was both the 2006 and 2002 vintages that performed so well in the prestige cuvée category, in particular PiperHeidsieck’s Rare 2002 and Gosset Celebris 2002, and from 2006, Tattinger’s Comtes de Champagne rosé and blanc de blancs, along with the Amour de Deutz.
Usual star performer Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires 1995 gained a Master again this year, but when judged in the blanc de blancs category, achieving similar nearperfect scores to Champagne Palmer’s 2006 blanc de blancs, which is less than half the price, as well as the similarly good value 2002 pure Chardonnay from de Castelnau.
Indeed, the blanc de blancs category was home to some of Champagne’s very best performers, including some newcomers to the tasting, such as Champagne Sanger.
Finally, and pleasingly, this year we saw some delicious pink Champagnes, a category once deemed slightly frivolous and, judging by past tastings, poor value.
Charles Heidsieck, as mentioned above, gained the highest scores, but both Henriot and Lanson showed skill at producing outstanding rosé – with Henriot in particular proving its winemaking flair and excellent price-to-quality ratio.
Nevertheless, this category was still felt to be the most inconsistent in terms of style and quality.
Looking across the entire tasting, the judges did feel that Champagne’s mid-priced area performed best, with £40-50 a sweet spot for high-scoring fizz – although there were certain notable exceptions.
Moving beyond that price band, one judge remarked that it “seemed harder to justify a medal”, while another said: “Those in the mid-range seemed to be more classic, more Champagne.”
Nevertheless, 2015’s Champagne Masters showed that this sparkling wine region has nudged upwards, once more, in general quality.
“The standard was very good… We had lots of Golds, and they were all justifiable Golds – each one was well and truly worthy of it,” said one taster, who has judged in this competition since its inception in 2011.
Notably, this year, all the major brands were assessed and none of them disappointed. This is particularly important because, such is the strengthened competition outside Champagne, it’s no longer possible for this fizz to succeed on the basis of image alone.
|Brut NV brand||Reserve (%)||Lees (mths)||Dosage (g/l)||Medal|
|Moët & Chandon||25-29||23-26||8-8.9||Silver|
Click through to see this year’s medal-winning wines…