After taking part in one of the hardest wine competitions, this year's Taittinger Sommelier of the Year finalists enjoyed a trip to the Champagne house's base to learn all about the process. James Stagg went along
Having come through some of the hardest challenges to face any front of house professional, a group of Taittinger Sommelier of the Year finalists were treated to a trip to the Champagne house's base to see just what it takes to create the celebrated wine.
All of those present had been taken to task by the cream of sommelierie back in July when competing for the Taittinger Sommelier of the Year 2019, with their efforts culminating in a live final at the Savoy hotel in London, where they attempted to stay calm and focused while 200 industry dignitaries watched on. This trip was a chance to enjoy the fruit of their labours as they learned the craft and creativity that goes into the creation of fine Champagne.
The journey started where the wine begins – in the vineyard. The sommeliers visited the heart of the Champagne area near Épernay, where Benedictine monks first planted vines in alternating squares of Pinot and Chardonnay grapes, the backbone of Champagne.
Tasting the 2008 was interesting as it's always good to see where a Champagne house is going
Taittinger brand ambassador Jean-Pierre Redont explains that at harvest time, the dark and light patches of vines produce a checkered effect that looks like marquetry, which is why Taittinger's estate in Pierry is named Château de la Marquetterie.
"Over the years it was necessary to expand and introduce variety, and other vineyards in the region were added," he says. "We've just had our harvest for 2019 and during it we employ 800 people. Taittinger is the third-largest private vineyard in Champagne, owning close to 300 hectares."
The Champagne house grows 50% of the grapes it needs. The rest is bought from small producers with whom they have long-term contracts. Taittinger is known as the house of Chardonnay. Its philosophy is to concentrate on light, accurate wines with plenty of freshness. The non-vintage includes more than 40% Chardonnay – with grapes from Grand Cru villages featuring in at least 20% of the blend – while its vintage Comtes de Champagne is a Blanc de Blancs (made solely with Grand Cru Chardonnay grapes from only the most exceptional harvest).
It was the Comtes de Champagne that the sommelier's experienced in a tasting that spanned several vintages: 2006, 2007 and 2008. "2006 is an important vintage for us as it was the first one brought to market by Pierre Emmanuel Taittinger," explains Redont, referring to the family's re-acquisition of the brand after a year under the stewardship of Starwood Capital.
"To be considered vintage, Champagne must be aged at least three years, but the Taittinger Comtes de Champagne is aged 10 years and Comtes Rosé is now aged 12 years," adds Redont.
Its current release is the 2007, but the sommeliers were also offered a preview of Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs 2008. Though the three years were concurrent, which in itself is unusual, Redont says that they were all exceptional.
"We adapt to what nature gives us," he adds. "We don't have to do Comtes de Champagne every year. It depends on the harvest. So 2017 was a difficult year in Champagne, but mainly for the Pinot Noir. Grand Cru Chardonnay was fantastic, and we did create Comtes de Champagne. In the years we don't do Comtes we may do more Brut Réserve."
For 2007 the harvest started in late August. Among the sommeliers it was agreed that it was a wine that had great potential for ageing. "It's very pure, very crystalline. Lots of finesse. It looks shy, it's still very young, but there's huge ageing potential. It's already fantastic but, given time, it will be a great wine," declares Emmanuel Cadieu from 67 Pall Mall in London's St James's. "The 2006 Comtes de Champagne is richer and riper, but 2007 is more mineral in style. The difference is good as you can suggest different wines with different dishes."
Hamphire's Lime Wood head sommelier Christopher Parker adds: "I don't stock the 2006 rosé at the moment, but I think it's a unique product. Whether you're in the industry or not, it's a wine you can pick up and see that it's very special. It is full of flavour, full of aromatics, it loves food and it drinks well on its own. For me, that's the standout product and has really showcased how good the winemaking is at Taittinger."
"You can really see the value in the wines and the craft that goes into them.
Like his peers, current Sommelier of the Year title holder Romain Bourger, head sommelier at the Vineyard at Stockcross, near Newbury, was struck by the richness and complexity of the 2006 Comtes de Champagne Rosé. "Drinking the 2006 rosé was wonderful," he says. "You don't get to taste much vintage rosé. It's not so easy to sell to the consumer, though, as they don't understand the style so well, so this tasting gives us the chance to pass on the complexity and understanding."
Bourger says that he can see huge potential with 2007 and 2008, too. "Seeing forward is helpful as 2008 is considered a great year so, even though this vintage isn't released yet, it's useful to be able to understand what to expect, even though it's still very much in its youth," he adds. "Right now 2006 is a bit more complete and approachable."
Experiencing all current available vintages in one tasting, including the yet to be released 2008, allowed the sommeliers to appreciate the characteristics of each year and better identify their individual expressions.
"Tasting the 2008 was interesting as it's always good to see where a Champagne house is going," says Parker. "Vintage is an expression of a year so you expect a difference, but it feels very classy with great acidity and some of the richness of 2006. It was great to experience it.
"Vintage variance is lost when it's tasted independently. So having the comparison is interesting. The 2006 is instantly expressive and you don't have to understand acidity. But with the later wines you need to understand the acidity and the fact that the wines are understated to see that they have great potential."
For first-time competitor Toru Takamatsu from Hide in London, it was an inspirational trip. "Looking at the three vintages is something that is really interesting," he says.
"I like 2008 in general in Champagne, but the better the vintages, the more time you need. 2007 is still approachable, but 2008 certainly needs more time. That said, like all the other vintages, it will be superb."
Taittinger is one of the few Champagne houses to be owned and actively managed by the family named on the label.
Its origins date to 1734, when the original house was founded by Jacques Fourneaux. Pierre Taittinger acquired the house in 1931, after having spent time in the Champagne region while serving in the First World War. Stationed at the Château de la Marquetterie, he fell in love with the property and its vineyards and purchased the company.
Just this month Pierre's grandson, Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger, who has run the company for the past 13 years, gave control of the business to his daughter Vitalie.
She will be supported by Damien le Sueur and her brother Clovis Taittinger, both general managers with responsibility for operations and sales and marketing respectively, along with the current management committee and all house employees.
Vitalie said: "Thanks to Pierre-Emmanuel and to the work of all concerned, Taittinger has grown considerably with an ever-increasing attention to the quality of our wines, the preservation of our environment, the respect of our partners and customers... with always a touch of impertinence and audacity, just like the one that led us to plant vines at Domaine Evremond in Kent! With the support of Damien, my brother Clovis and all our teams, we will carry on down this path."
What the sommeliers said
"Especially in England it's not always easy to taste all these great vintages. You can really see the value in the wines and the craft that goes into them." Romain Bourger, head sommelier, the Vineyard, Stockcross, and UK Sommelier of the Year 2019
"It's great to see such a family institution working so hard on promoting the region correctly and focusing on quality and small volume." Christopher Parker, head sommelier, Lime Wood, Lyndhurst, Hampshire
"I'm really impressed with the 2006 Comtes de Champagne. It's useful to taste the other vintages too, so that you're able to think which dishes might pair well. I've a good dish to pair with the 2006 rosé – a lobster dish with a bouillabaisse sauce." Rupert Crick, junior assistant head sommelier, Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, Great Milton, Oxford
"You might taste some of the wine in the restaurant but, for me, opening something like the 2006 Comtes de Champagne Rosé is a fantastic opportunity. It's a privilege." Emmanuel Cadieu, deputy head sommelier, 67 Pall Mall, St James's, London
"You know the style of the house and the style of the wine, but when you look at three vintages, it's very instructive." Toru Takamatsu, sommelier, Hide, Mayfair, London
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