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A Champagne Christmas: a tale of two Houses

There’s nothing quite like Champagne for raising festive cheer and bringing in the New Year, and there’s plenty of fine stuff that reflects the breadth and depth of the world’s most highly prized sparkling wine filtering its way through to the Hungarian capital. The two houses featured here offer contrasting but equally mouth-watering takes on Champagne, which is made by the traditional method, whereby the second fermentation takes place in the bottle. The developing wine is left to pick up complexity from the yeasty lees with the yeasty plug later disgorged after a long period of ageing.

Late harvesting the Pinot Noir.

Despite being the oldest Champagne house of all, dating back to 1729 and replete with UNESCO-listed cavernous crayères dug out of the chalk by the Romans, Ruinart is thoroughly modern in its winemaking methods. Winemaker Frédéric Panaiotis totally eschews the use of oak barrels for carrying out the first fermentation. Despite barrel fermentation becoming increasingly popular, or rather coming back into fashion, he totally rules it out in future as his aim is to make Champagne of “aromatic freshness in a gently reductive style” and steel tanks will forever remain his vessel of choice. Ruinart is famous for its Blanc de Blancs style of Champagne, which is only made from Chardonnay grapes that also give probably the zestiest and crispiest Champagne – before 1946 the red grapes of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier dominated the house blend. Like most big houses, Ruinart buys in most of its grapes – 90% in Ruinart’s case. 

The making of non-vintage (NV) Champagne involves adding a certain percentage of so-called reserve wines for the sake of consistency in house style, which is rendered necessary in such an extreme northern climate as Champagne. To further emphasize the freshness of the wine, Panaiotis uses young reserve wines that are used up within two years – so a finished Ruinart NV is effectively a blend of three vintages. Ruinart Blanc de Blancs is suitably vibrant with aromas and flavors of lemon curd, lemon, pineapple, peach and a touch of struck match. It has dosage of 8g/l, which is the sugar added to counterbalance the high acidity of the cool-climate Champagne region. It is just the stuff to kick-start Christmas and to pick you up from a festive lull. It costs HUF 19,900 at Bortársaság, which stocks a robust range of Champagnes from a number of the leading houses. This is the same price at Ruinart rosé, which is a style I don’t really care for due to having tasted too many flat wines, but Ruinart’s one strikes a fine balance between fruitiness, freshness and depth.

A smaller fish in the sea of Champagne, but one of the most exciting I’ve tried lately that can be found here is Jacquesson. It has been 28 years since Jean-Hervé Chiquet and his brother Laurent received the green light from their father to take Dizy-based Jacquesson in a more quality-oriented direction, which centers around the concept of yielding less fruit, but riper. Jacquesson was one of a small number of growers with grapes still out at the beginning of October and the risk of leaving some Pinot Noir out on the vine paid off as the weather obliged and the Pinot managed to get that extra ripeness in the Indian summer of this otherwise troublesome vintage.

The brothers sold five hectares as they restructured and now own 28 hectares and buy in from an additional seven. Jacquesson owns vineyards in two main areas: the Grande Vallée de la Marne and in the Côte des Blancs. Its production of around 260,000 bottles today is some 40% lower than in 1988. Jacquesson cultivates grapes and makes the wine in an “almost organic” manner, according to Jean-Hervé, who says they remain wary of “replacing a few chemicals with heavy metals, such a copper sulfate”. Nevertheless, one-third of the domain is organically certified. In the vineyard there are devices attached to the vines to cause “sexual confusion” to prevent butterflies mating. “It sure is frustrating for the butterflies,” he quipped. (For full on biodynamic wines check out the structured waxy Champagnes of Fleury which comes from the Côtes de Bars in the southern part of the Champagne region and is available in Budapest from the Terroir Club). Jacquesson favors vertical pressing in a Coquard press due to there being less movement of fruit. “We don’t want to spoil the fruit and the stems are never ripe,” explained Jean-Hervé.

In the cellar, the first fermentation is carried out in used oak casks, allowing the wine to breathe. Jean-Hervé and Laurent disagree with the notion that wine will age better if malolactic fermentation is inhibited, which prevents the conversion of the razor sharp malic acid (for some a trademark quality of Champagne) to softer, milky lactic acid. “We favor malolactic fermentation most of the time, it depends on the wine. This is my 39th vintage and I’m still waiting for a non-acid vintage,” said Jean-Hervé. Jacquesson neither fines nor filters, instead allowing clarification to happen naturally.

A selection of some of Jacquesson’s Champagne vintages.

The great attention to detail comes across in Jacquesson’s Champagnes that strike an impressive balance between freshness and complexity with very low dosage that makes the wine taught and focused. Each bottling of Jacquesson’s main Champagne has a number that changes every year with the vintage mentioned on the back label. Cuvée 738, for example, is predominantly based on the 2010 vintage, while Cuvée 739 is mainly from 2011. A certain amount of each cuvée is kept on the lees and held back from the market and re-released years later as Degorgement Tardif i.e. late disgorged – which refers to the process of ejecting the lees from the bottle. Jacquesson Champagnes are available at the recently opened Carpe Diem wine bar at Zoltán u. 9, in District V and from Finewines.hu. Carpe Diem has a tasting of Jacquesson wines on December 14 for HUF 19,900, featuring nine wines.

Somló sparkler continues to shine

While Hungary has a long tradition of sparkling winemaking, Hungarian traditional method sparkling is still very much a work in progress. While so many sparkling wines seek to impersonate Champagne, few get anywhere close but Kreinbacher’s traditional method offerings at least conjure up the Champagne experience, with the local Furmint providing that über crispy, structure-building acidity you’d expect from Champagne and indeed all high quality sparkling wine, but also local Somló flavor, for the reasonable prices of HUF 4,100 for the focused Brut Classic and HUF 5,300 for the fuller Prestige Brut. They are made with the help of consultant Christian Forget, who is the cellar master of noted Champagne house Paul Bara, with the technology such as the Coquard presses and yeast also coming from Champagne.