When the word ‘Champagne’ is uttered we normally think of it in broad terms as the ultimate celebratory wine to be brought out at weddings, Christenings, or at least at times of special achievement…. even as a blatant badge of total extravagance when shaken up and sprayed in a foamy stream over racing cars and their triumphant drivers. The Champenois themselves and not a few wine lovers elsewhere might consider this latter use of the wine a sacrilege. Even though wine consumption levels in France have gone into freefall across recent years the French have long accepted the wider concept of drinking Champagne as part and parcel of a meal as something perfectly natural. A tradition alien to our own culture, perhaps, although the expense of the wine might well be the determining factor within this country’s lingering climate of austerity.
The right of ‘Le Champagne’ to its own exclusive identity is firmly, nay, jealously protected in law although its classic method of production is much emulated worldwide. Although unique among sparkling wines, the range of styles that can be produced within the borders of the sprawling region that is ‘La Champagne’ is surprisingly varied and subtle – bubbles and finesse aside, perhaps, this is one of the wine’s key strengths.
Basic factors? An overarching cool climate befitting the northernmost vineyards of France, a mineral-rich permeable chalky bedrock underpinning the vineyards, the exclusive palette of classic grape varieties led by Chardonnay and the Pinots Noir and Meunier, and a time-honoured method of elaboration. Perfect vintage conditions may yield wines that can be heart-stoppingly fine and highly prized – less so, understandably, when leaden skies prevail and ripening is delayed across the growing season when excess acidity in the fruit can present a problem that has to be dealt with. Fortunately the Méthode Champenoise itself, i.e. yeast action during refermentation of the wine within its own bottle, may help mitigate any tendency to leanness to a degree – though sadly not always.
The wine I have chosen, Champagne Barnaut Grand Cru. NV, comes from the Aube, the southernmost and warmest of the four major Champagne sub-regions. It is a blanc de noirs, falling into the non-vintage category ‘BSA’, (Champenois for brut sans année, to distinguish it from vintage, millésimé ). No Chardonnay involved here, simply the clear-run juice of 100% Pinot noir from grand cru vineyards…and with great effect too. Stylistically this a ‘big’ wine with a hallmark Pinot weight on the palate to distinguish itself from the lighter, airier notes of the blanc de blancs made exclusively from Chardonnay. I find the wine’s well-developed bready nose an attractive precursor to what follows: though dry, there is plenty of real substance and fruit on the palate. The finish is satisfyingly long, round and rich, showing plenty of evidence of a gently completed yeast autolysis in bottle, the wine being perfectly balanced by a fresh edge that makes it a wonderful partner for food. Is a fine tranche of turbot or monkfish on the menu? Well, I could wish! A cream or mushroom sauce might be good served alongside too.
This thoroughbred Champagne from the Barnaut stable is produced from Grand Cru vineyards around Bouzy, an apt-sounding name for a wine village! (The distinctive still red Pinot Noir wine Bouzy Rouge AOP is produced here too.) While the Champagne from this producer has been my own house ‘bubbly’ for many years I believe a certain Mr Parker Jr. counts it rather good too: “better than Bolly!” or so he says…..but then I certainly wouldn’t dare to comment, save to reflect that M. Barnaut’s wine comes at a more slender price.
Country of Origin: France (Champagne)
Name of Wine: Champagne Blanc de Noirs Brut, Grand Cru, NV
Producer: Edmond Barnaud
Style: Rich, complex, Blanc de Noirs Champagne
Alcohol: 12.5% Vol.
Retailer: Lea & Sandeman
Price: £ 27.95 (bottle) £25.75 (case)
John Ducker – Member of the Circle of Wine Writers