Champagne and Brandies left Me Disappointed
CAPE WINE ACADEMY – DIPLOMA COURSE – MODULE 1 – DAY 3
Saturday 14 October 2017
I was excited to return to Morgenhof wine estate for the third and last session of Module 1 of the Diploma Course. It seemed more than a month since the last time and I was eager to see how I had done on my assignment. This time, at least, I had not left it until the night before to complete. I achieved 85% which was good but left me disappointed. Many had scored higher and I had lost marks on 2 questions that were ambiguous. I felt slightly cheated too as I had used my own experience and wider reading rather than copied the notes – as we were advised not to do – and could have gained a higher mark if I had done so. Dave March was our lecturer again and it was reassuring to hear him say that the assignment was ambiguous and one of the hardest to do well on.
The topics for today were Champagne and then Cognac and Armagnac. It was hard to get into study mode at 8.30am and with the thought of tasting champagne so early. We started with the basics of the definition of champagne – ‘a sparkling wine made from grapes grown within a legally defined area in Northern France AND which undergoes secondary fermentation in the bottle in which it is sold’. Dave was full of interesting facts. I did know though that sparkling wine from outside the Champagne region in France is called Crémant.
Dave was keen to taste a sparkling Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley and so it was not long before we started our first flight for tasting. Alongside was a Brut Rosé that I had tasted before and not rated that highly. It was little better the second time, weak and with little flavour. The Triple Zéro had more flavour but it too was lightweight and short. Meanwhile, Dave was explaining about the 5 production zones. He brought back memories of May last year when I drove through Reims and Epernay en route to Chablis and eventually Bordeaux.
Champagne really is worthy of a master class at branding. The region punches far above its weight, being just 4% of French vineyard area and 1/3 value in wine exports. The romantic image of the Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon from Epernay as the ‘man who invented champagne’ in the 1670s is a fairly tale. He was nonetheless a master blender and produced still wines from black grapes that he sold for twice as much as the wines made by neighbouring abbeys. It is probable that champagne, or at least a sparkling wine, was produced by accident earlier in England. Records go back to 1520 but it was in 1652 that physicist Christopher Merret published a paper for the Royal Society about adding sugar and molasses to make wines that were brisk and sparkling. Winemaking was not as clean then as nowadays and so it is likely that secondary fermentation accidentally began in bottles after the cold winter.
The second flight contained 2 non-vintage champagnes: a Demi-Sec and a Grand Cru Extra Brut. Champagne is heavily blended – I remember being told at Lanson that their champagnes contain grapes from over 100 vineyards – with 80% of wines being non-vintage. This, Dave explained, is because only in exceptional years are wines made from the same vintage. It means too that many NV wines are excellent too. I preferred the Extra Brut made by Mailly. It had fine bubbles and some weight and richness from contact with the lees.
Dave bombarded us with a host of facts and figures on the size of the champagne market. The UK is the biggest export market and the same size as the next 2 biggest countries combined: the USA and Germany. The market varies according to major world sporting events such as the Olympics or World Cup, though I would have thought that – for a luxury consumer product – the state of the local and world economy would have majority impact. This is why the large champagne houses (there are over 300 houses that fall into 7 major holding groups) keep vast reserves so they can dip into older stocks when demand is high.
I learned – as we tasted the next flight – that the Grand Crus/Premiers Crus classification (17 and 44 villages, respectively) is based on a points scoring system according to the terroir, aspect and age of the vines. Pinot Noir is most widely grown in the Champagne region (38%) followed closely by Pinot Noir (32%) and Chardonnay (30%). 34,000 growers own 33,000 hectares of vines and so each producer is small scale and heavily reliant on their contract with one of the big champagne houses. Surprisingly, the big houses own little more than 10% of the vineyard area, something that would seem unthinkable to the South African wine estates.
Next for tasting was a crisp Blanc de Blancs (literally a white wine made with white or light skinned grapes, usually Chardonnay for sparkling wines) and an earthy Brut Champagne. Dave explained how best to identify a champagne from a sparkling wine. A champagne is marked out by a longevity of bubbles (glass characteristics, notably imperfections, have a major affect here); bubble size (the champagne method produces small, fine bubbles); biscuit flavours on the nose due to extended time on the lees; and persistence of flavour. New World sparkling wines are not always easy to determine from Old World wines but tend to be fruitier.
We returned to a reminder, in even more detail, of the champagne producing method. As ever in French wine-making, much is prescribed, including vine density, trellis type, maximum yield, the harvesting date and minimum potential alcohol content. Yet, in typically French custom, exceptions are permitted too: Champagne is the only region in the world where it is legal to blend white with red wine.
My head was spinning from all the concentrated information, more so than the champagne, and so coffee made a welcome break and a chance to catch up with friends and fellow students again. It was all too short-lived though as Dave was on a mission to continue. Indeed, he started the second lecture on Cognac and Armagnac whilst we were sampling the final flight of sparkling wines, 3 MCCs from South Africa.
The lecture on Cognac and Armagnac had the potential to confuse even more, so much so that I had to ask the ‘stupid’ question as to whether they were a subset of brandy or not – they are both brandies. Cognac and Armagnac are defined by their geography: Cognac is in the Charente to the North-East of Bordeaux in Western France, whilst Armagnac is some 160 kilometres to the South-East of Bordeaux. This brings different climates: a maritime climate that is evenly temperate across the year with hot humid summers and sufficient year-round rain in Cognac; and a hotter continental climate with cooling sea breezes from the Bay of Biscay and mild winters in Armagnac.
There are other differences too, notably in the grape varieties used and the distillation method. Both use mostly the Ugni Blanc grape (Trebbiano) as well as Colombard, but Armagnac is allowed to use up to 10 grape cultivars compared with 3 for Cognac. In contrast, South African brandy is typically made from 6 varieties, including Chenin Blanc and Cinsault. Cognac, like South African potstill brandy, is double distilled. Armagnac is made using a continuous still that produces a harsher and potentially richer spirit, as fewer impurities are removed. Armagnac is aged more than Cognac for this reason. Cognac has marginally higher alcohol content and more of a house style. In contrast, Armagnac has more small producers and consequently with more individual styles.
We sampled many different Cognac and Armagnac from a rage of producers. I learned that the tasting technique is different to that for wine. Transparency, colour and viscosity (the ‘legs’ or ‘tears’ that can show a good age) are first observed. Brandy is not swirled in the glass. Instead, the glass is brought gently to the nose to detect the delicate, subtle and very volatile first scents. Gentle stirring releases the less volatile aromatic compounds for new discovery. Tasting is done in very small amounts and each sip is held at the front of the mouth to assess the ‘taste’ (balance between softness, acidity and bitterness) and the ‘touch’ (feeling of roundness, warmth, strength, astringency, body and volume). A second, longer sip brings more flavours and the less volatile compounds into the mouth.
I learned too that brandy is stored and aged in bottles to prevent oxidation. Consequently, brandy does not improve with keeping in the bottle.
Sadly, the session was rushed, particularly the Cognac and Armagnac lecture and the tastings. We finished half an hour early and it showed. I learned after that it was as Karl, Dave’s pouring assistant, needed to leave early. Frankly, that should not have impinged on student time. The session was the weakest one I have encountered with the Cape Wine Academy. I do not doubt Dave’s immense knowledge, far from it, but there were missed opportunities. It was confusing to be tasting the last flight of champagne (albeit South African) whilst Dave was starting the lecture on the brandies. I wanted more explanation and time to taste and to assess the different flights, particularly the Cognac and Armagnac that I was unfamiliar with, and to appreciate and learn more about them. I expect the reason for glossing over much of the tasting teaching is that neither champagnes nor brandies form part of the blind tasting exams. That is fair comment but for those who wish to progress to Cape Wine Master (as I do) where they are included in tasting exams, more teaching to gain a better understanding now would have been worthwhile.
So, I left a little disappointed as I had been at the start when I received my first marked assignment. The session could and should have been so much better. There is a break now until the next Module so time to re-evaluate and re-assess.
2010 La Taille Aux Loops Triple Zéro (Chenin Blanc) (France)
NV Champagne Tribaut Brut Rosé (France)
NV Champagne Georges Lacombe Demi-Sec (France)
NV Mailly Grand Cru Extra Brut (France)
1999 Champagne Delamotte Brut Blanc de Blancs (France)
2008 Champagne Follet Brut (France)
2013 Deetlefs MCC Brut (South Africa)
2009 JC Le Roux MCC Vintage Reserve Scintilla (South Africa)
2003 Pongrácz MCC Desiderius (South Africa)
Poli Grappaiaoli Trebbiano (Italy)
Bisquit Cognac Classique VS (France)
Nederburg Solera Natural Potstill Brandy (South Africa)
Lafontan Armagnac VSOP (France)
Legacy XO Cognac (France)
Martell VSOP Old Fine Cognac (France)
Antiqua VSOP Brandy (Portugal)
Gran Duque D’Alba Brandy (Spain)
Uitkyk Estate Brandy Grand Reserve (South Africa)