New Champagne proves ageing potential of hot vintages

At a London-based launch last night, a Champagne vintage expression was unveiled which proves that fresh, long-lived sparkling wines can hail from heatwave harvests.

Champagne Palmer MD Rémi Vervier with Grands Terroirs 2003 at its London launch event in La Dame de Pic restaurant

Shown to the UK trade and press for the first time yesterday was a delicious, toasty, lively, vintage expression from Champagne Palmer that hailed from the 2003 harvest.

It was significant, because the near-16 year-old sparkling wine was still fresh and fruity, and only just starting to show the honeyed characters that emerge as Champagne ages, and yet it came from a vintage that was so hot, it was written-off by commentators early-on as being unsuitable for producing long-lived wines.

Indeed, the 2003 vintage featured the highest summer temperatures ever recorded in Champagne, and produced wines with the lowest acidity levels and highest sugars of that decade – although it should be added that the grapes were exceptionally clean due to the dry conditions during the harvest.

For many, the 2003 vintage has been held up as an example of what Champagne could face weather-wise should some climate change projections come true – after all, it was a year not just of high temperatures, but extremes, beginning with two hard frosts in April that halved the potential crop, then summertime hail storms, which further reduced yields for the affected growers.

Consequently, fine and age-worthy expressions from this vintage – although rare – are an exciting and promising find, as they show Champagne can produce great results with its existing grape varieties when weather conditions are extreme.

Nevertheless, speaking to db last night, managing director at Champagne Palmer, Rémi Vervier, said that the 2003 release was the result of specific sites in the appellation, and had surprised him and his team for its youthful character.

Indeed, the expression has been named ‘Grands Terroirs’ to reflect the quality of the vineyards that yielded exceptional grapes in this challenging vintage.

It has also been made in magnums only, a format that tends to slow down the ageing process of Champagne due to the reduced potential of oxygen ingression relative to the quantity of wine held in the bottle.

“We had a harvest with a tiny crop and a lot of concentration, so we decided to produce a vintage in tiny quantities and focus on the magnum size,” Vervier told db at the launched event last night, adding that just 1,800 magnums were filled, with 1,703 being released to the market.

He then admitted that he had thought the Champagne would be ready to sell back in 2014, just over 10 years after the harvest date.

“Five years ago we tasted the wine, expecting an explosive wine, but we discovered that it was closed, it was not ready to drink, and we did not expect that,” he recorded.

Then, two years ago, the Champagne was sampled again, and, not only did Vervier find that it was “ready”, but also “a revelation”, such was the intensity and complexity of this single-harvest expression.

It was this experience that prompted Vervier to disgorge and then release this Champagne as a “special allocation” this year, under a new, and one-off name.

Explaining to db the choice of the tag, he said that the reason for the quality of the Champagne from this heatwave harvest was “obvious”, it was due to the “grands terroirs” that the grapes hailed from, which were mostly east-facing sloping vineyards in the Montagne de Reims: with 46% Chardonnay from the premier cru villages of Trépail and Villers-Marmery, and the other 54% being Pinot Noir, primarily from Mailly and Verzenay.

“The idea is that we have this wine today thanks to these grands terroirs,” he concluded.

The new cuvée has spent 12 years ageing on lees and was disgorged in November 2017 before receiving a dosage of 6.5g/l. It sells in magnums only, with an RRP of £300.

The Grands Terroirs from Palmer is not the first top-end vintage Champagne from the somewhat controversial 2003 vintage, with Bollinger being the first to release a single-harvest expression with its limited-release ‘2003 by Bollinger’, and more recently, 2003 vintages from famous prestige cuvées Krug and Dom Pérignon.

Roederer, meanwhile, chose not to make a 2003 vintage of its prestige cuvée, Cristal, although the maison’s cellarmaster, Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon has defended the reputation of this hot, frost-hit year, pointing out that Roederer has made blanc de blancs, rosé and brut vintage styles from 2003.

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