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Pehu-Simmonet and MCR

After some discussions with people I care about, I’ve realized that much of what I’ve shared on the blog, while personal and or helpful, hasn’t really given you a sense of how I think about Champagne, wine, food, etc. So with this post, as well as future ones, I hope to give you a window into how I build my thoughts and perceptions about Champagne. I hope you enjoy it!

This week I poured a flight of wines from Pehu-Simmonet. Lately, I’ve been more impressed with David’s champagnes than I have be in the past. I feel that he’s committed to making  higher quality wines than he has in the past. Not to say that previous his wines were bad, but rather that he wants to make great wines rather than just good ones. On another positive side, starting with the 2011 base Brut Sélection, he’s updating his labels away from the god awful neon labels to a new style of label.

David is quite fortunate to source grapes from six of the 17 Grand Cru Villages – Verzenay, Verzy, Sillery, Mailly, Bouzy, and Mesnil-sur-Oger.  I’ve heard that he’s creating a series of terroir focus wines based on parcels from some of these villages so we can all get a better look at what’s actually going on in Champagne. He’s even leaving his snobbish position of only using Grand Cru fruit, and he’s going to make a single village wine from Villers-Marmery, which is only premier cru. Interestingly this is where Margaine is located, so it’ll be fun to compare their wines when Pehu’s is released.

With the flight I poured, I was excited because it featured a blanc de noir from Verzenay, Verzy, and Sillery in the northeastern corner of the Montagne de Reims next to a Blanc de Blancs from Mesnil-sur-Oger. I think its always a treat to compare how one producer treats different grapes. Most of the time I encounter a producer based in the Côte de Blancs that dabbles with Pinot or Meunier. That usually means the Pinot is a bit odd, either they try to make it like Chardonnay so its light and minerally but not truly showing the character of the grape. On the other hand, I’ve tasted pinots that are clunky because the Chardonnay focused winemaker gives the Pinot an inch and it takes a mile.  I think the producer with the most deft hand at showing the character of each grape is Eric Rodez, who captures the personality of each grape through the prism of Ambonnay.

Anyway, in this case, Pehu is based in the Montagne de Reims, so his default setting is Pinot. He’s obviously comfortable with Pinot, particularly intense, fruit driven pinots of the Verzenay and Verzy. Interestingly he applied this mentality to Chardonnay from Mesnil, which was fascinating and unexpected. Mesnil is often associated with lean wines with lots of minerality, citrus, and a sharp quality, often described as razor blades. David didn’t let this reputation get in the way of the wine he wanted to make. His Blanc de Blancs is full of ripe apple and pear notes complimented by chalk, but not overpowered by it. The razor blade effect wasn’t there either, sure there was plenty of acid, but it wasn’t painful as it can be with some Mesnils.

I kept rolling this around in my head, how did David tame Mesnil? The wine isn’t significantly aged, its 2009 base with a bit of reserve wine. He doesn’t believe in malolactic fermentation because he wants his wines to keep their edge. The wine is fermented and aged in stainless, no wood at all. He didn’t use too much sugar in the dosage only around 8 g/l . Then it hit me, its not the amount of dosage, it’s the type of dosage. David uses MCR rather than sugar for his dosage. This realization applied not just to his Blanc de Blancs, but all of his wines. One of the things I’m constantly impressed by in David’s champagnes is the distinct fruit tones he’s able to coax out of the wines. In the flight, the Brut Sélection is 2011 base, yet shows lots of ripe fruit and avoids the vegetal tones of the vintage. The Blanc de Noirs has been one of my favorites for an opulent, tropical fruit driven wine that still has great acid.

If you read back through my previous post, you’ll see that MCR dosed wines show a lot more fruit that the wines that use cane sugar. Clearly I experienced MCR dosed wines from Geoffroy, as well as other like Selosse, yet none of them so clearly marry MCR with their winemaking style as David Pehu. I love it when I discover a prime example of a style of technique that I can point toward. If you want a compelling side by side regarding MCR vs cane sugar, try any of the Pehu-Simmonet wines next to a champagne from Bérêche & Fils. Raphaël Bérêche doesn’t like MCR, and uses cane sugar for his dosage. He does manage to create fruit driven champagnes in spite of this, yet his wines don’t have the same intense fruit that David’s wines have. Sure you could point to different terroirs, but I think it has just as much to do with the dosage material. Plus the textures of their wines are different, David’s wines are opulent with acid backing them up. Where as Raphaël’s wines are more mineral driven and lighter, expressing more integrated fruit tones. Both wines are delicious, but Bérêche’s wines make me think more while Pehu’s just make me want to drink more.

Dosage!

I realize its been a while since my last post, please forgive me making it through the holidays, starting a new business, moving, and a pile of other boring stuff. Anyway, here's a post that I finally completed about Dosage level as well as the type of sugar used. Enjoy!

Dosage  MCR vs Cane

Fair warning this post gets pretty technical, focusing on a small but very important part of the process of making champagne.

A while back I was fortunate to host a tasting with Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy of Champagne Geoffroy and Galaxy Wine Company. This tasting was very special because we were comparing dosage levels and base ingredient of the liqueur d’expédition for the dosage.  JB brought 6 bottles of the same base wine, his Expression Brut NV, all 6 were disgorge in September 2013. The difference between the 6 wines was two fold.

First, half of the wines had liqueur made from cane sugar, the other three wines the liqueur was from MCR. MCR stands for moût concentré rectifié or concentrated and rectified grape must. Beyond the difference in the liqueur, the wines were dosed at 3 different sweetness levels – 3g/L, 5 g/L, and 8 g/L. There was an example of each sweetness level with both types of liqueur, making for six wines total and a fascinating experience.

The purpose of these of tastings is to determine the best balance for the wine. The sugar and acid should be in harmony, meaning that the acid isn’t too sharp and the sugar not too overpowering to the natural flavors in the wine. Some producers don’t bother with this and just use the same dosage level every year. The committed producers on the other hand think this is very important to do every year since every vintage is different. That being said, few producers will test both MCR and cane. Most producers have their preference between the two and stick with it, tinkering only with the amount of sugar.

Base Ingredient of the Dosage

MCR versus cane sugar is a divisive topic, with both sides presenting solid arguments. Proponents of MCR argue that sugar is foreign to wine and alters the champagne too much. They feel that MCR is the better choice since its made from grapes it keeps in line with the champagne. Some also feel that cane sugar dosed wines oxidize more quickly.

Those that favor the cane sugar often feel that the MCR is heavy or syrupy, making for a less refined experience in the final wine. Additionally they argue that the MCR is foreign as well since its coming from grapes grown in the Languedoc or North Africa. Both sides have fair points and I’ve had fantastic examples of each style.

Additionally, JB thinks that the vintage must be taken into consideration.  In riper vintages the MCR works better because it respects the grapes. In leaner vintages, the cane sugar is better because it adds balance and harmony to the wine. Geoffroy discovered this in 1996 because the vintage was very ripe and had high acid so the cane sugar didn’t work. This was the first time he tried MCR and was very happy with the results because it allowed the wine to shine.

Since we’re already here, I’ll give you my two cents on base of the dosage before talking about the level.  After tasting all 6 wines, first blind then again knowing which was which, I found that the MCR wines smelled grapy-er while the cane had a sweeter smell. My actual thoughts were formed on the second day the wines were open, when I find many champagnes show better. With the additional time open, I found the cane wines showed a bit more of a honeyed or caramel tone. The MCR wines on the other hand showed a bit more fruit, and the MCR seemed to be more integrated. I felt there was a better harmony between the wine and dosage, meaning the MCR didn’t stand out as much as the cane sugar, so I got a purer picture of the wine as JB intended it.

Level of Dosage

Equally as interesting as the base ingredient, was the amount of sugar added to the wine. I’ve read about these tastings, so I was thrilled to finally do it myself. The MCR vs cane sugar was really just a bonus for me. The biggest surprise of this style of tasting, for myself and others,  is the fact that it is not a linear progression. More sugar doesn’t make the wine seem sweeter and vice versa, lower sugar doesn’t necessarily mean the perception of the wine is drier.  The need for these tastings is instantly justified as each year the grapes give the producers something different, so the dosage must be adjusted.

As above, I found the wines were much more expressive on the second day, making my thoughts on the subject clearer.

At the 3g/L level, I thought the wine showed the most purity and cohesiveness. However, it came with a lot of sharp edges and was the least pleasurable to drink. This speaks highly to the whole debate on expressing purity and terroir versus wine that most people will actually enjoy drinking. Intellect or hedonism?

The 8g/L wines were possibly the most compelling for what they illustrated. As the sugar level increased, the wine also seemed drier. Essentially too much sugar was creating a small version of the orange juice and toothpaste effect where the sugar brings out such a contrast with the acid that both become noticeable. I found the sugar seemed to sit around the acid, but never integrated with it. I found two distinct sensations in my mouth rather than one harmonious experience.

Finally the 5g/L gave the best of both worlds by creating harmony and balance. The sugar and acid integrated giving me a delightful wine. The sharp edges were sanded down by the sugar, but the sugar didn’t interfere with the wine itself. I thought there was still plenty of terroir and purity expressed but in a more enjoyable way than the 3g/L. 5g/L was the favorite of the group, but it was divided between MCR and cane with a few more people choosing MCR. The actual Geoffroy Expression available on shelves is 5g/L with MCR.

Overall this was an amazing experience that answered many questions, but also gave me much more to think about. I hope to participate in more tastings like this but with other producers so I can experience what its like to do this with pure Chardonnay or a blend from another area in Champagne. One other thing that my friend Eugenia Keegan pointed out that I didn’t specifically notice was the fact that these wines have a noticeable level of tannin! I was trained to think that there aren’t tannins in champagne, but there are and it clearly makes a difference with food pairing – light blanc de blancs with oysters because there’s no tannin versus blanc de noirs with steak because of the tannin and intensity. Fascinating stuff. 

I hope that you too can participate in this type of tasting some time, as it was truly enlightening. Thanks to Jean Baptiste, Terry Thiese and Skurnik imports, and Galaxy Wine Company for making all of this happen.