Old reputations die hard, especially in the world of Champagne. Take Moët & Chandon, the giant of the industry, whose image is down-market in the eyes of some wine snobs.
"Too many years of racing drivers gaily spraying the stuff over all and sundry has hopelessly devalued it," wrote Andrew Jefford in the Evening Standard.
But change is in the air at Moët, which is determined to show the Champagne drinker that big can be beautiful. The quiet reality is that since at least the mid-1980s Moët, with its huge resources, has been a leader in the research of new techniques to improve Champagne-making and it has generously shared the results with the whole industry.
A driving force in the Moët renaissance is Richard Geoffroy, the wine-maker of Dom Pérignon and chief oenologist for the house. From a family of Champagne growers, Geoffroy qualified as a medical doctor before the pull of the grape proved too strong.
"In Champagne, like other French vineyards, we are facing quite a problem with viruses such as fan leaf (infectious degeneration of the vine) and botrytis (grey rot). After 10 years of research, we can now inject the basic rootstocks against fan leaf - and we are close to doing the same thing with Chardonnay, which will be quite a breakthrough," he says.
An impressive research project at Moët has been the study of the bubbles (foam) in Champagne.
"So far we know so little, but with European Community funding and working in partnership with Heineken, we have come up with a computerised camera which, shot by shot, shows the process of the foam - what's involved, what's positive and what's negative - our aim being to achieve a more stable foam. We've found for instance that fining (clarifying) agents have a negative effect on the foam. We've come a long way, but we've got a way to go still."
The other impressive Moët project has been the study of ageing Champagne on the yeasts. Autolysis (the decomposing of yeast sediments) is essential in developing the flavour style of Champagne and makes it unique, adding extra complexity to the wine or, for want of a better word, its "biscuity" flavours. Of course, it is related to the quality of the raw material - the grapes.
Moët now knows that Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (unlike, for example, the Cabernet family) combine well with that autolytic character because these grape varieties are subtle enough to leave room for the complex yeast-aged taste to develop in the finished Champagne.
Another discovery is that cheap Champagnes, made from the last pressings, are so coarse and develop so fast that they can never make it because autolysis is a very slow process. And by the time you have autolytic character, the wine has completely blown out, which may be the best explanation as to why good Champagne is expensive.
Yet in the past Moët & Chandon, especially the best-selling Brut Impérial non-vintage, has been criticised for the irregularity in the quality of the wine.
Geoffroy thinks a major element in this was the unevenness of the time when the Champagne was disgorged of its sediment before sale - hardly surprising considering the huge quantities of Champagne Moët produces (about 25 million bottles a year). "The difference between a Champagne aged on the cork for three months and one with two years' cork age makes totally different wines. It is a key issue for the consumer. We wine-makers can get remote from the consumer. Cork ageing is really essential," concludes Geoffroy.
It shows in the new release of Brut Impérial non-vintage, which will be available in the UK soon. The quality of this cuvée, made predominantly from grapes of the 1990 vintage, has been greatly improved.
It has a lovely concentration of ripe dried fruits, with notes of spice and vanilla that come not from oak (all Moët Champagnes are vinified in stainless steel) but from the 17% of reserve wines from older vintages in the blend.
The most encouraging thing, and a great reassurance to the consumer, is that a new back label contains information about the grape mix and date of bottling. It is interesting to see that as much as 39% of the grapes are Pinot Meunier, the third grape of Champagne, which the more snobbish houses rarely talk about, but which contributes a round, easy appeal to the wine with no hint of austerity.
Moët has shrewdly grasped the point that a maximum amount of product information is as important to the modern marketing of Champagne as it is to a can of beans.
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