Buongiorno, bonjour and “g’day”! (don't you like how they're all the same thing? ~ who knew Australian vernacular was so cosmopolitan???).

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It’s your old pal Kit (Christof) Fennessy here. I've been writing this blog with your help for ten years, and there's over a hundred and fifty recipes, restaurant reviews of Australia and around the world, and general gourmet articles in these pages for you to fritter away your idle hours on.

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Now, what's on the bill of fare today?

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Champagne Charlie is My Name!

University House Champagne Expo 2016

The University of Melbourne - November

Well, you can imagine the scene.  I’m meeting one of my favourite clients at the University of Melbourne who tells me she’s attending a champagne tasting at the University Club in two weeks time.  Nine champagne houses will be in attendance, with smoked salmon tastings to boot.

‘Can I come too?’ I asked timidly.

Thirty dollars later, I was in.

The following article is a longish one, but if you’d like to improve "votre" education on all things authentically bubbly, click below to read more.  Meanwhile, for those of you who just turned up to hear the song Champagne Charlie (which we discuss the origins of below), here's a link!

Champagne Charlie - the song.

First up, here’s some background information on champagne.


Champagne is a sparkling wine ("der") that is made from grapes grown exclusively in Champagne region following the appellation recognition legal push of the early twentieth century which went on a world wide rampage and stopped other countries using the term as a generic term for bubbles in the late eighties or so.

There are more than a hundred "Champagne Houses" in Champagne, and four different regions in champagne, being:
  • Vallée de la Marne (the valley of the Marne river)
  • Montagne de Reims (the Mountains of Reims)
  • Côtes de Blancs (the sides of whites, assumedly along a river’s shores where they grow white wines)
  • Côtes de Sézanne (the sides of Sézanne, possibly on the sides of the famous painter Cezanne)


“Blanc de blancs” (or “white of whites”)

This is a champagne made of all chardonnay grapes, though you might usually have a blend of chardonnay with pinot noir and meunier grapes).  One nice older lady patron, who is an acolyte of these champagne tastings, said to me of them:

“Blanc des blancs?  Chardonnay was only made to put in champagne, but if there’s no meunier it’s not champagne as far as I’m concerned.”


A "vintage" means that all of the grapes come from the same year (hence 'Bollinger 57"). NV stands for non-vintage.  This means that whatever year wine they made it "mostly" with, they have blended it with previous years of wines from their cellars to get the balance right.  Vintage champagnes are more limited releases, and tend to be only released during “exceptional” years, when everything has gone just right with the weather (rain at the right times, etc.).  You’ll note below Pol Roger are not releasing a “Winston Churchill” label this year because they had rain too early, not enough in the middle, and then rain again too late.
They’re very fussy these vintners…

“Accreditation”: Grand Cru and Premier Cru

The meaning of a wine's classification varies from wine region to wine region in France, and are under strict governmental control, as is the way en France.
Champagne’s differ from Burgundy and Bordeaux in that a Grand Cru comes from a lower rated village area exclusively (whereas the other regions would say Grand Cru come from a specific accredited vineyard – and would call such wine “Villages”), while the Premier Cru comes from a slightly higher rated village (whereas the others would have a specific parcel of land within a vineyard)… I think.  I’m prepared to be corrected here, but here’s what Wikipedia has to say on the subject:
While the Échelle des Crus system was originally conceived as a 1-100 point scale, in practice, the lowest rated villages are rated at 80%. Premier crus villages are rated between 90 and 99 percent while the highest rated villages, with 100% ratings are Grand crus.[2]

I heard recently that some of the wine houses don’t bother getting their accreditation, because it is too fussy and expensive, and if they're famous enough and make good wine, they'll sell to the cognoscente anyway.

German “house” names in Champagne

I was surprised (though I shouldn’t have been, since I’ve heard of Moët – pronounced “mo-et” with a hard “t”) to find so many German names among the champagne houses.  I was advised that about half of the houses were thusly named, since a bunch of German wine makers moved there centuries ago to get involved in the fizzy biz, and was also told that the Champagne region is close to Germany (really?  I would have thought Alsace Lorraine was close… but honestly, as if I would know.  I guess the Nazis got to Paris in pretty quick time).


I found myself chatting with one academic, who opined: ‘The funny thing about the term “epicurean” is that most people think it means that you are an enjoyer of luxury things, but the original Epicurus – who the term was named after – was into denying yourself things, so that when you finally had a little bit of something nice, it was just so much better.”


A bottle of champagne is very expensive (the prices listed here are the suggested retail price, though club members were being offered a discount with orders of six wines or more), but once you stand and listen to how long they’ve been fermented, consider the small area they come from and the international competition for the bubbly stuff, you can appreciate why it costs so much.

So without further ado, find my reviews of the different houses and wines represented below.  If there are no notes, on the wines (you’ll see my jottings from my ordering sheet marked with “inverted commas” below the wine) I apologise.  I dotted around the stands, and after a while note taking became peripheral to the experience, my palate became extremely jaded, and all wines became one wine in the end.

My preferred picks are marked with two asterisks **.


Champagne Alfred Gratien

A smaller family owned champagne house since 1864, with a century old cellar, this was the only winery to have an actual French person behind the table.

Alfred Gratien Brut NV $89

As noted above, my tasting notes degenerated as I went along, but I made some impressive ones here.
“Cheese and chestnuts on the nose, 6 years matured on the lees.”

**Alfred Gratien Rosé NV $99

“55% chardonnay with pinot noir, skin matured rather than a blended rosé.  Apricots.”

Alfred Gratien Millesime Blanc de Blancs 2007            $135

“8 years on lees, a 2 parcel Grand Cru, very complex, the nose white cheese mould.”

Champagne Gosset

This is apparently the oldest wine house in champagne, having been established in 1584.  Their claim to fame is that they avoid malo-lactic fermentation (introducing a bacteria to produce a rounder tasting wine) so the wines keep their natural “fruitiness”.

Gosset Brut Excellence NV            $95

 Gosset Grande Reserve Brut NV            $115

No notes – sorry.


Canard means duck in France, and Canard-Duchêne was founded by Victor Duck and his pal Leonie (the Lion?) Duchêne, who were granted the use of the Russian Imperial crest in 1868; probably because they were supplying a whole lot to the Russian aristocracy… though they did not move with the times and replace that with a hammer and sickle in later years, I note.

**Canard-Duchêne Cuvee Leonie NV            $77

“Easy drinking, all in the aftertaste on this one.” (i.e. not much up front)

Canard-Duchêne Charles VII Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs NV            $126

“Not bad.”



Run by Carol "our Lady of Champagne" and her three sons (can she really be old enough to have had those three grown up men?), their website seems to position the different labels against each personality, and it looks a bit like a luxury car website.  I dunno.  "Le Roy" means the King in French, much as Fitzroy implicates the illegitimate issue of the King.

Edith Piaf  may have sung 'Je ne regrette riens', but of this house, I can honestly say that 'Je ne sais riens'...

Duval Leroy Brut Reserve NV            $69

“Again with the white cheese on the nose, bubbles fine.”

Duval Leroy Brut Rosé Prestige            $139

The same sales rep represented both the above Duck and King labels... enough said.

Champagne Piper Heidsieck

The sales rep for this label was by far and away the most outstanding sales person on the day, with an excellent memory and some personal charm – I would hire him for my wine label in a snap if I had one.

He also had one of the easier jobs selling this label, since Charles Heidsieck (one of their labels) is the famous “Champagne Charlie”; who introduced champagne into England and America at a time when the majority of champagne sales were heading off to Russia (following the Napoleonic wars, where they opened champagne with a sabre – also known as “sabrage”).

Anyway, they’ve made a movie on his life, and there’s a famous song titled Champagne Charlie  which is sung by Edward Woodwood (“why are there so many “d’s” in Edward Woodwood’s name?  Because otherwise he would be called Ewar Woowoo”).  I couldn’t find the song from Ewarwian Woowoo, but the above version is by Tommy Trinder.

Piper Heidisieck Brut NV            $73

One of the cheaper champagnes on offer that day, and my notes say it's “OK”.

Piper Heidseick Rosé Sauvage  $99

**Charles Heidseick Brut Reserve NV  $125

“7 years on lees, the story…”

Louis Roederer

Visiting the site, I see they’ve gotten into bed with Phillipe Stark, who has designed them a label and bottle, so you know they’re working at being hip and innovative – even if they're running about thirty years too late.  But they’ve also laid claim to being one of the last great independent and family-run champagne houses, who first realised it was “all about the soil”.

This reminds me of some story I heard about Paris using the Champagne region as a rubbish dump for years, and them having to go through and clean out all the dumped refuse of an industrialised city… but this could be hear-say (i.e. I heard it, and said it).

Louis Roederer Brut Premier NV   $99

“Mix 80% chardonnay, estate grown, grass.”

Louis Roederer Vintage Brut 2009   $149

“4 years on lees, six months in the bottle” (not as long as some, but at least it was “Vintage”)

Champagne Veuve Fourny

A fifth generation family run winery, it’s currently run by two Fourny brothers who pose for some truly daggy shots on their website..

Veuve Fourny et Fils Blanc de Blancs Vertus Premier Cru            $105

**Veuve Fournay et Fils Grand Reserve Brut Vertus Premier Cru            $105

This champagne came number 11, allegedly, in the world championships, and considering the wines it was up against run into the hundreds of dollars per bottle, I found this was a compelling enough argument to select one of these in the mix of bottles I bought after the “club discount”.

The next two houses did not send their own representative, however they were more than ably represented by a young man who was a philosophy graduate and now works at University House who knew more than a bit about the labels… though not everything.

Pierre Gimonnet "et" Fils

Hillariously, the site asks if I speak English (or am from the UK!), then proceeds to have their entire site written in French with the exception of the navigational menus.

If there’s one thing that can be said for Pierre and sons, however, they certainly know how to have long names for their brands – I got RSI typing out the following wine titles, and see the typesetter on the ordering sheet just wrote 1er, which I suspect means Premier Cru because they kept running out of room.

I couldn't use an "ampersand" in blogger text (it must have a programming implication), so in the titles below it reads "et" where an ampersand should be...

Pierre Gimonnet et Fils Cuvee Cuis 1er Cru Brut Blanc de Blancs       $85


Pierre Gimonnet et Fils Cuvee Rosé de Blancs 1er Cru Brut      $96

“Bright, thin fun, I suspect a blended rosé”

Pierre Gimonnet et Fils Cuvee Fleuron Brut 1er Cru Blanc de Blancs 2009            $105

No comment.

Pol Roger

According to legend, this was the champagne favoured by Winston Churchill – honestly that man could put it away – and they use a quote from him on their opening website page:

“My tastes are simple, I am easily satisfied with the best.”

I’ve heard of Churchill’s martinis, where he’d just look at the vermouth, and of his Scotch and cigars, and now I hear this was his breakfast tipple.  Curiously, Winnie lived into his nineties, though it’s little wonder he always had “the black dog” and his dying words were “I’m just so sick of it all…”

Pol Roger has subsequently brought out a Winston Churchill brand on this legacy, though they don’t produce it on every vintage as mentioned above – only on the good ones.

Pol Roger Reserve Brut NV            $115

“A dry with only 12 g of sugar per litre.”

**Pol Roger NV Pure            $145

“This one has no sugar per litre”
Considering its price tag and the fact that it was the last wine on the tables for tasting, I loitered for a second taste and it was by far my favourite, though a bit expensive for me, even after discount.

So there you have it.  Hardly comprehensive, but enough to get you started. If you would like to get involved in next year’s champagne expo, may I suggest getting in touch with University House at the University of Melbourne and make enquiries about membership or a special invitation?

Until then “à votre santé”, or “tchin-tchin” as they say in France (though never say chin chin in Japan as it has an entirely different meaning… i.e. “little boy’s penis”, as I was to find out to gales of laughter after proposing a toast in Tokyo).

Au bientôt!!

Votre cher

Christof (aka Kit)


Emma said...