Pol Roger Extra Cuvée de Réserve NV
Non-vintage Champagnes are perhaps the wines I find most frustrating when I am trying to get to grips with what I am drinking. There is a lot of spin and psychobabble surrounding some of the wines. We are told that they are multi-vintage, but not of the vintage (which has an obvious effect on quality) on which they are based. After all, the base vintage makes up typically between 60% and 80% of the finished product, and thus dominates the wine. To know the base vintage would also be a guide to how long the wine had been in bottle, a fact which is impossible to deduce when looking at a mix of non-vintage bottles on the shelf. And it would obviously guide us as to how we might expect the wine to taste, although naturally any base vintage characteristics will be tempered by the addition of reserve wines. These are the wines held back each vintage for blending into the non-vintage cuvée, and although they will account for a certain proportion of the finished wine, in most cases 20% to 40%, we are not always told what the proportion is, and information on which wines have been blended in is almost never forthcoming.
Add in the uncertainty on the blending from across the Champagne region, the exact proportions of the three common grape varieties used, the material from which the fermentation vessels have been constructed and where the wines have been stored thereafter, date of disgorgement (which obviously guides us as to how long the wine has spent on its lees), dosage and so on, and it is clear that the elevation of a non-vintage blend is so involved that trying to interpret the wine in light of the vineyard of origin – any effect of which is likely to have been smothered by all these processes – is close to impossible. And so we are back to the spin. Perhaps we should just believe that the wine has been blended to maintain the ‘house style’, that the blender knew his job, and that is all that matters? Perhaps, but it is not my natural reaction to a wine. I like to have an understanding of how it was made, and the processes that take place in the vineyard usually strike me as being the most significant in determining quality – whether the vineyards are farmed organically or along the lines of lutte raisonnée, was it a manual harvest (appellation regulations stipulate this for Champagne, so this is one factor that may be removed from the equation), to what level have the yields been controlled, and so on. With a non-vintage Champagne, what happens in the cellar – the blender’s skill and what is, essentially, a manufacturing process – is presented as more important. Sometimes it seems as though non-vintage Champagne is as detached from the vineyard as it is possible for a wine to be, and naturally this is played down by the Champagne PR machine.
This week’s wine is an old favourite, a non-vintage cuvée from one of the best of the grande marques, Pol Roger. It has frequently played an important role as an aperitif for me, and I recently stocked up once again with a couple of cases of half bottles, purchased alongside a selection of wines from Charles Heidsieck, Pierre Gimonnet and Egly-Ouriet (to reassure you that I am maintaining some variety, including wines from small growers as well as the more widely known names). Although the wine is today always labelled as Pol Roger Extra Cuvée de Réserve, it is frequently also referred to as the Brut Réserve, sometimes simply the Brut non-vintage, and sometimes as the ‘White Foil’ non-vintage, for obvious reasons. My research reveals that the wine is blended from thirty vins clairs (the still base wines) from all three of the common Champagne varieties, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. The first of these three provides structure and depth and comes from the villages to the southeast of Reims, including Verzy, Verzenay, Mailly, Ambonnay, Mardeuil and Louvois, their vineyards mostly clustered together around the eastern slope of the Montagne de Reims. The Pinot Meunier supplies body and floral aromatics to the wine and is harvested from the slopes of the Vallée d’Epernay, in particular around the villages of Vincelles, Venteuil, Troissy, Damery, Vandières, Brugny, Chavot, Monthelon and Pierry. Lastly, Chardonnay provides freshness and light, and is harvested around Epernay itself, and the villages of the Côte des Blancs, notably Cuis, Oiry, Oger, Vertus, Moussy and Chouilly. I suppose with so many sources of fruit, though, viewing the wine in the context of the vineyard is impossible.
The fruit is pressed, allowed to settle, and then fermented in temperature-controlled stainless steel, following which it rests over winter before assemblage the following spring. Once blended, with the norm for this cuvée being one third of each of the three common varieties, the wine is refermented in bottle, then brought to a dosage of 12 g/l of sugar (brut regulations stipulate between 0 and 15 g/l) with the addition of a little sweet wine, before post-disgorgement ageing with release of the wine onto the market at three years of age, with an extra six months for the UK market. These bottles were purchased in France in August 2007, and so this has to be taken into account. None of this gives us any certain information as to the vintages in the blend, though, and in order to ascertain this I contacted Pol Roger, but they remained mute. The PR machine just doesn’t work that way I suppose. Never mind, onto the wine. In the glass, it has a pale, straw coloured hue, with a sparse but moderately fat bead which corresponds with the wine’s youthfulness. The nose is similarly adolescent, showing a little bready-yeasty character, but also with the characteristics of Pinot Noir which in a young wine gives, as it does here, lots of fresh apples and notes of biscuit. The palate has a good style, a gentle and creamy nature, still a little angular and foamy in character though, but one has to remember that this wine has only just been released. It is attractive, flavoursome, but a touch forceful and obvious, and the profile is very youthful like that found on the nose. It rounds off with a nice, appealingly bitter finish. Here is a wine that is entertaining to drink now, and serves its purpose as a refreshing agent and a lifter of spirits well, but it will undoubtedly benefit from a year or two in the cellar, and I will certainly enjoy watching how it develops over that time period. During that time I would expect the Pinot characteristics to change and mature to a deeper, more meaty character, and while it retains its aromatics it should be fine. Tom Stevenson, who has an opinion I respect greatly, writes that it is not a long-lived non-vintage cuvée. With two cases to get through, however, it looks as though I may find out for myself. 16.5+/20 (3/9/07)