By Celia Strong
New Year’s Eve, bar none, is one of the few days (oops, nights) we all want a good bottle to celebrate with.
Being New Year’s Eve, most of us upgrade to our level of “special.” Over the years, we’ve been lucky and found really special bubbles at better than normal prices. This year we have some luck, again. As usual, it is not easy to narrow our choices down to just one bottle. And, individually, we can make personalized choices. But, as a group, we are kind of stuck with looking at one winning choice. And it is one of the very, very best! This year, we have a Champagne. Since we’ve been talking about Champagne and sparkling wines lately, we can be quick with some of our basic information.
We can even learn some more tidbits about the region that, as a whole, produces the most expensive sparkling wines in the world. We know there are three grapes allowed in Champagne — Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. One white and two red grapes. (Not to get off track, but, the official 2010 Champagne AC list of allowed grapes was seven. Some on there just for tradition and not used any more in practice.) Most Champagne houses do not own all grapes that they use. They have contracts with many growers, throughout the region, who’s grapes they use to augment their own. Most of the larges firms could not come close to making enough wine, especially their basic non-vintage wine, without outside sources for more grapes. Also, having more sources lets them have larger reserves which, in turn, lets them blend better wines. You may remember how the non-vintage finished Champagne of different producers can be made up of still wines from multiple vineyards and vintages. While bigger reserves costs a bit more, they also result in better wines. (All of this is different with grower Champagnes. If I remember right, we did have a great grower Champagne last year.) The reputations of Champagne producers are based primarily on the quality of their non-vintage wine. It is the most affordable and most available.
But, back to Champagne houses and their vineyards. The vineyards in the northern part of the Champagne region, around the city of Reims and in the Vallée of the Marne, are better suited to Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes. Those to the south, around the city of Épernay, are getter for Chardonnay. As it works out, producers based in Reims own more Pinot Noir grapes. And those in Épernay own more Chardonnay. Hence, their house style is partially determined by their location. Pinot Noir gives a finished Champagne body, depth of character and tannins for extending its life. Pinot Meunier brings a youthful freshness and plump fruit character to the Champagne, and Chardonnay brings lightness, elegance and finesse. If you join me in practicing drinking as many Champagnes as we can, we will notice the stylistic differences varying percentages of each grape can make. It will be fun.
Our house for our Champagne is Pol Roger. This firm was founded in 1849, and is still owed and run by descendants of Pol himself. Pol was born in 1831, in Aÿ, and started working as a wine wholesaler. When he father became ill and couldn’t continue working as a notary, Pol went into his own business. He moved to Épernay in 1851 and released his first growths in 1853. In 1855, Pol began to favor making brut Champagne. Somehow, he knew the brut was favored by his customers in England. When Pol died, in 1899, his Champagne was already successful. In 1900, a collapse in the company cellars in Épernay resulted in one and a half million bottles being destroyed. Pol’s sons, Maurice and Georges Roger guided the firm through the devastation and it continued to grow. By the time World War I started, Pol Roger Champagne was served in all the top quality restaurants on the Champs-Elysées in Paris. Also, in 1900, the two sons got permission from the French government to change their family name to Pol Roger. Not just Roger. That meant the name on their bottles would always be Pol Roger. Sons and nephews of Maurice and Georges continued with their family firm. Over time, they developed other styles of Champagne, including their prestige Champagne Winston Churchill. Named for one of its biggest fans. Even today, Champagne Pol Roger has a contract with the British royal family to produce Champagne for them. (It was served at William and Katherine’s wedding.)
Our non-vintage is their Brut Reserve. Also known, simply, as White Foil. For the white foil that covers the top of each bottle. There are about 30 reserve wines that go into the blend to make each batch of White Foil, a way larger number than many houses use. Pol Roger actually owns 50 percent of the grapes they use. A spectacular amount. The grapes are usually one third each — Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. While Champagne law requires 15 month aging, Pol Roger ages until the youngest wine in their blend is 3 years old. Reserve vintage wines are also always included in the non-vintage. At least two different vintages, but often three or four. A great way to make sure the White Foil maintains the firm’s reputation. Consistency and quality! In your glass, this Champagne is a pale golden color, with tiny, tiny bubbles. Beads as they are also known. There are toast flavors, with honey notes, a creamy texture and a great effervescence. Just like your mouth can tell the difference between a bite of filet and a bite of cube steak, your mouth knows this is great Champagne. First sip and all the way through a glass and a bottle.
But, with all the tidbits we’ve just learned about Pol Roger’s White Foil, we already should know that it has to come with a price. Better grape sources, longer aging, more vintage reserves — this all goes into the price. But, I did mention something about a deal. For the first time in 20 years, that I know, we have this wine at a new lower price. $50.99. A superb Champagne at a lower price? Yes! Happy Holidays and Happy New Year and happy White Foil!
This Champagne can be found at Bill’s Liquor on Lady’s Island.