On 18 November 2021, OWC member Graham Harding launched his book on the history of champagne – the first for over a hundred years: Champagne in Britain 1800-1914: how the British transformed a French luxury (Bloomsbury Academic).
Thanks to the generosity of Vranken Pommery, Pol Roger and Michael Palij, the well-attended event was well provided with serious champagnes.
Graham started the evening by highlighting a few of the key points of interest in his book. Amongst these – and the following is not a complete transcript of what was a fascinating talk – we gained an insight into the world of the new Victorian middle classes, their wealth, their aspirations and their desire to have ‘the best of everything’. Champagne, as the most expensive wine on the market, was highly attractive to those who wished to display their wealth and rapidly replaced sherry as the ‘dinner wine’ of choice.
But to take the centre of the table – and thus get the maximum impact on the guests – it needed to change from a sweet to a dry wine. Sweet wine with roast meat was not a great taste!
Champagne’s other advantage was its ability to get into the bloodstream quickly and loosen those strict Victorian social inhibitions. If you wanted to get your dinner party going with a swing, champagne was the thing.
The explosion in the demand for champagne was also driven by the activities of the entrepreneurial London agents of the French ‘houses’. Foremost among them was Adolphe Hubinet, the Pommery agent in London.
To him we owe the idea of the ‘house style”, and the creation of vintage dated champagne as an exclusive branded product. Uncannily anticipating the maxims of modern luxury marketers his practices included constant pressure to increase the price, to insist pressure on controlling distribution’ and that key maxim of modern luxury marketers: ‘create an illusion of scarcity’.
Champagne was widely marketed in the mass distribution newspapers of the day – akin to today’s social media – and was supported by lavish marketing expenditure and promotion via celebrity endorsement.
He and his fellows were the drivers in turning the famous ‘names’ of the champagne houses into some of the very earliest ‘brands’, conceived and managed as such.
Until recently, these branded champagnes ruled the market entirely. Recently, there’s been a shift towards ‘grower power’ and a rise in the awareness of and consumption of grower champagnes.
Richard Bampfield MW and Sarah Hicks of Vranken Pommery along with the good-natured audience ‘interviewed’ Graham, on topics such as the importance (or not) of the shape of the glass, the appeal of champagne to both sexes (if one can refer to only two these days) and the snobbery associated with the drinking of dry wines.
Moving on the wines of the evening, Richard first presented the two wines donated by Pol Roger: the Brut Reserve NV and the 2013 vintage of their Brut wine.
The Brut Reserve is a classic blend of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier with a generous 25% of reserve wines. Pale medium lemon colour (lighter than the 2013 vintage wine) with a persistent, fine mousse. On the nose, zesty citrus, some creamy confectionery notes and a hint of biscuit and herbs (liquorice?). Lots of flavour and a fresh and pleasingly balanced finish.
The Brut 2013 is the product of a tricky year but Pol Roger only release a vintage when they consider the grapes have outstanding ripeness and this was a wine that, in Richard’s opinion, had aged very well. No Pinot Meunier in this blend – only 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay which perhaps contributed to its deeper colour and finer mousse than the NV wine. On the nose, this had riper, sweeter fruit with some subtle apple and pear notes. In the mouth, the wine was fuller than the NV with concentrated, intense sweet citrus and more brioche/biscuit character. Overall, there was – as one would expect – greater length, elegance and intensity than the Reserve NV.
Sara Hicks, Director of Vranken Pommery UK, then spoke compellingly about the Pommery heritage (picking up one of the themes of Graham’s brief presentation). Since its success in the nineteenth century Pommery has had a rather chequered ownership but is now in the long-term hands of the Vranken family who have a range of interests in wine, including their 100 acres near Alresford in Kent where they are already producing their ‘Louis Pommery Brut’, the first French house to launch an English sparkling wine.
The Brut Apanage (40-45% Chardonnay, 35% Pinot Noir and 20% Pinot Meunier) takes as its template the great – even legendary – 1921 vintage. The ‘Apanage’ has more of the reserve wine than the standard Brut Royal and this gives greater character and flavour. The keynotes of the Pommery style – as in the 19th century – may be summed as freshness, vivacity and elegance and this wine has had a minimum of four years’ cellaring before disgorgement then 6 months more ageing. Whilst it’s fine for drinking now it can undoubtedly mature for two or three years yet.
Persistent effervescence and deep colour with acacia, white flowers and honey on the nose plus citrus and slightly spicy notes. A smooth and rich palate with hints of apricot, vanilla and hazelnuts before a long finish with a lemony kick.
The second of the two Pommery wines was the fabled Cuvée Louise 2004 (named after Madame Pommery’s daughter). This is only made in exceptional years – and 2004 was one of the greatest – from grapes grown on three Grand Cru sites: 65% Chardonnay from Avise and Cramant and 35% Pinot Noir from Ay and benefits from twelve years’ ageing before release.
Slightly deeper in colour than the Brut Reserve with a hint of green and noticeably finer bubbles (the result, said Sara, of long ageing and more Chardonnay). Dry with balanced acidity and medium body the wine showed intense mix of citrus-like fruit with a ripe grapefruit character, and complex biscuit character. Strong notes of creamy melted butter on the nose and all in all, round, rich and complex with red fruit notes, a nice brioche character on the finish and very good length… finishing fresh but creamy. Very good indeed! Cuvee Louise has a longer-necked brown glass bottle – the longer neck adds aeration and the brown glass helps with ageing.
As the opening and closing wine (the latter served with some delicious cheeses), we enjoyed the Maurice Vesselle Grand Cru rosé from Winetraders. This had deep colour with powerful red fruit on the nose and palate, slightly off-dry but with some refreshing acidity, persistent mousse, medium bubbles.
Graham closed the evening by tantalising those present with the thought of another book, perhaps a prequel to ‘Champagne in Britain’.
The Club owes heartfelt thanks to Pommery, Pol Roger and Winetraders for their generosity and for giving us the opportunity to taste some superlative wines.
The Club also wishes Graham ‘bon chance’ in his enterprises and we look forward to the next book launch – with or without the physical product!