Six finalists from the UK Sommelier of the Year 2018 competition visited Taittinger's Reims headquarters for a taste not of the past but of what could be tomorrow's classic vintages. James Stagg reports
For a Champagne house, looking back at former glories in the form of past vintages is all part of the story. Vintages are typically stored in magical cellars in north-west France, to be opened only for special guests or released on the market for maximum impact.
But what does a grande marque Champagne do when it's not possible to look back? This was the conundrum for Taittinger, which for many years had a policy of selling almost every bottle it produced, save for a few rare vintages held under lock and key deep in the winemaker's fourth-century Unesco-listed cellars, once used by the Benedictine monks of the abbey of St Nicaise in Reims.
Forced to be creative, the Champagne house has come up with a novel way of showing guests not merely rare but never-before-released wines. It has devised what it describes as a "future tech tasting" of vintages that are still ageing. It was an experience shared with some of the UK's best sommeliers, who made the trip to Reims as finalists in the Taittinger UK Sommelier of the Year 2018 competition.
"The tastings came about because we don't have the capability of going backwards, so we can't present old vintages," explains Kevin McKee, UK director for Family Taittinger at wine merchant Hatch Mansfield. "But what I've never come across with any other house is viewing forward vintages. You're tasting something that isn't ready for sale, so you need the understanding of what a wine's potential future profile is to be."
Viewing forward like this is a complicated process. The wines can't simply be plucked from the cellar and opened. To provide those sampling them with an insight into how the wines have evolved, each chosen vintage is disgorged (the process of removing the yeast, typically by turning the bottle at an angle over a period of time so that the sediment collects in the neck of the bottle before being frozen and removed as a pellet) and the dosage (sugar to adjust the sweetness) is added.
"It's not simple to pull off this kind of tasting," McKee says. "These wines have been disgorged, dosage has been added back to current release levels, then they're returned to the cellars for six months as you need the wine to recuperate. The preparation for this tasting began at least six months ago, so we don't do this kind of tasting often."
"I've never done a tasting like this, when they try to show how it would be," says Mikael Grou, assistant head sommelier at Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester. "I've been to a few growers that disgorge in front of you, but here they've really tried to show the wine as a finished product."
s the sommeliers taste, Champagne Taittinger general director Damien Le Sueur explains that Taittinger wants to be known as the house of Chardonnay. "From the beginning, the idea and philosophy was to concentrate on light, accurate wines with lots of freshness," he says. "That's why we work with Chardonnay and develop a finesse to the wines. In non-vintage we have more than 40% Chardonnay, and we have more than 20% grand cru villages in the blend in the non-vintage. It's all about the quality of the grapes."
The sommeliers agreed that it is possible to see the potential in all the vintages, but they were particularly taken by the Comtes de Champagne 2008.
The current Taittinger UK Sommelier of the Year, Alexandre Freguin, says you can tell that the 2011 needs more time. He adds: "There's a reason it's not on the market, and every vintage needs to be approached in a different way. You can see its potential, and it has a great backbone. At the same time, the purpose wasn't to drink it now.
"But when you taste the 2007, and especially the 2008, you see they are already really enjoyable - you could drink them right now."
Martin Jezek, senior sommelier at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, says it helps his education to understand the potential of the wine. "The 2011 was still very closed, but it needs time," he declares. "There's a reason they wait 10 years to release it, but this tasting helps when thinking about buying. Some of our guests are very knowledgeable about vintages, and they know that the 2008 was a good year, so they'll be keen to hear how it is. You can definitely see the potential in it."
Jezek says that understanding the style of the Champagne and being able to translate its many shades to the guest is helpful. "Even if you can't buy it immediately it's helpful to be able to explain what Taittinger is doing and the philosophy behind the wines. Every Champagne house has its own style and philosophy, so it's good to hear it from them directly."
Though they recognised that the Comtes de Champagne 2011 was far from the finished product, the sommeliers were excited by the potential it showed, particularly as the dosage - based on the 2007 vintage (which was 9g per litre) - was unlikely to be the final combination.
Le Sueur is certainly confident. "In 2011 we felt a lot of freshness on the Chardonnay, which is why we produced a Comte de Champagne, but not rosé or the vintage," he explains. "It all depends on the raw material available."
As ever, that raw material - the grapes - is at the mercy of the climate. And as the climate is changing, so are the rhythms of Champagne production: "The 2007 was harvested in August (which is early); it was a hot year and there are more and more hot years now," says Le Sueur. "In fact, we harvested early in 2003, but before then we hadn't harvested in August since 1893.
"In 2003 we had a heatwave and the harvest was one of discovery. Then in 2007, 2011, 2017 and 2018 we harvested in August."
In the past 15 years Taittinger has harvested in August five times, and though Le Sueur explains that it makes the maturation process "like a bomb", the business has learned a lot since 2007 and it expects an incredible product this year.
"This year was like a perfect year in Champagne," he enthuses. "It showed us that we can have an early harvest with more normal weather, with the freshness of winds during the night. You might have heard it was one of the best years for Champagne. Why? Because if a grower describes a perfect year they will say that grapes need a certain maturity, cool nights, freshness during the day with winds from the north, and healthy grapes. In terms of analysis, it's close to 2002, though it's difficult to compare."
The sommeliers agree that 2018 was believed to be an exceptional year. Like Taittinger, they are constantly looking forward.
A family business
Taittinger is one of the few Champagne houses to be owned and actively managed by the family named on the label.
Its origins date back to 1734 when the original house was founded by Jacques Fourneaux. The Taittinger link was established in 1931 when Pierre Taittinger acquired the business. He had spent time in the Champagne region when serving in the First World War as a young cavalry officer. Stationed at the ChÁ¢teau de la Marquetterie, he fell in love with the property and its vineyards and eventually purchased the company.
Today, the Reims-based business is headed up by Pierre's grandson, Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger, along with his son, Clovis, and daughter, Vitalie, both of whom are actively involved in the day-to-day running of the family Champagne house.
The sommeliers on tour
Pictured right, from left:
Head sommelier, the London Edition
Assistant head sommelier, Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester
Daniele Di Blasio
Sommelier, Trishna Restaurants
Senior sommelier, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal
Head sommelier, Moor Hall
The story behind the wine
As well as a future tech tasting, the sommeliers attend a lunch hosted by marketing director Vitalie Taittinger, who relates the history of the family-owned brand."I am very are happy to welcome you here as you represent the future of what we love to do. You are our messengers," she says. "We know it's a hard task for you - knowing every wine and choosing some that nobody knows about. But you have houses like Taittinger that are well known and not a surprise. "But for me it's not a competition. We all contribute to the value of Champagne. "For all our cuvée, the importance is not only the wine, but the story behind it. There is always a purpose that is served by the project of the wine." !dsc_5431
Domaine Evremond and the Kentish terroir Vitalie Taittinger describes Taittinger's project of planting vines in Kent as "the vintage of Brexit". This isn't due to any uncertainty about exports post-Brexit, but because of the windfall the business made through the fall in the value of sterling against the euro when buying the land shortly after the Brexit vote. !dsc_5007 But she adds that Domaine Evremond is an exciting project for the business. "We are very proud to have planted vines in the UK. It is really a question of friendship." The Domaine Evremond project is a partnership between Taittinger and its UK distributor Hatch Mansfield. "Patrick \[McGrath, managing director of Hatch Mansfield\] has always been very supportive of the brand," she says. "Six years ago he mentioned to us the huge interest in UK wine. He asked whether we would mind if he distributed a local sparkling wine, and we suggested he produce his own." Taittinger already has vineyards in California, run through a similar partnership arrangement, so it has a framework to draw from. !dsc_5237 "We really wanted to produce something excellent - not a huge domain, but an excellent one," Le Sueur adds. "We looked at many locations to find the best soil, and in Kent the soil is similar to Champagne - but not the same climate, as there is the influence of the Channel. There are great differences, but we decided to plant on a terroir we knew. "We know our expertise and are confident in our teams, but it's too early to say how the wine might be. We want to have a wine that has its own identity and be proud of it." Alexandre the Great: meet the 2018 Sommelier of the Year >> Get The Caterer every week on your smartphone, tablet, or even in good old-fashioned hard copy (or all three!).