The 13 Champagnes we tasted in blind pairs were:
Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 2002: Bottle & Magnum
Bollinger R.D. 2002: Bottle & Magnum
Dom Ruinart 1998: Bottle & Magnum
Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill 1998: Bottle & Magnum
Krug 1998: Bottle, Magnum & Jeroboam
Louis Roederer Cristal 1996: Bottle & Magnum
What a treat tasting thirteen prestige cuvee’s and being able to compare the bottle vs magnum and doing it all blind. Quite early in the evening Jancis gave us a tip; look out for signs of maturity and use that as a way to identify which is the more mature, since that is most likely to be the bottle. Guests were especially keen since I had offered up as a prize, a magnum of Krug Grande Cuvee, to the person who correctly guessed the most number of magnums.
We started off with the Comtes 2002 bottle and magnum pair and I thought the difference was relatively subtle; you could just pick out in the magnum that the fruit was very youthful and creamy and the bottle had some more development. We were using a live voting system on people’s smart-phones, so people were able to rate each champagne and pick which they thought was the magnum. As Jancis announced which was the magnum, there were a lot of groans in the room as out of the 46 who voted 25 had picked the wrong one! The scores out of 20, for the bottle and magnum of Comtes 2002 was nearly identical at 15.96 for the bottle and 15.84 for the bottle; though the men were more generous with their scoring than the females who scored the first two champagnes 2 points less than males. The ladies were tough on Comtes, the men lapped it up! Champagne two turned out to be the magnum and both had similar disgorgement dates, bottle in March 2012 and magnum three months later.
The second pair, Bollinger R.D. 2002 bottle and magnum were still a tough spot, as the differences with relatively young champagnes are more subtle. I got this one wrong, but when you know the answer, what turned out to be the bottle did show hints of more mature style and the magnum had more of its youthful fruit. The bottle was starting to show some of the mushroom character you so often get in Bollinger as it ages, but this was less developed in the magnum. These were bone dry, real low dosage of 5 g/l and more people guessed the magnum correctly with 26 of the 47 people voting identifying the magnum. The men were tougher on the scoring and the ladies were starting to become more generous with their votes, though overall the Bollinger pair received the lowest score of the six pairs. I wonder if this is to do with its style when young; it’s very obvious almost too upfront when young and definitely needs many more years to mellow and develop secondary flavours. The 1st of the two, champagne 3 was the magnum and both were disgorged in October 2014.
So we are racing through the tasting and Dom Ruinart 1998 is next, I love Blanc de Blancs champagne and after the Comtes showed so well earlier I was looking forward to tasting this pair. The bottle was easy to pick, since it has so much less youthful fruit and more mature flavours; where- as the magnum has youthful fruits and a dollop of brûlée character. Many more people guessed the magnum correct at 29 of the 45 who voted on this pair and the bottle received a slightly higher score than the magnum, though this was the females least favourite of the night with overall getting their lowest score. There was an extra factor in play here as a corked magnum was served, only about 10 people spotted it and asked for a fresh samples, so probably about 18 people still tasted a corked sample; which might explain why the Dom Ruinart 98 magnum didn’t rate well. The second of the two was the magnum which was champagne six of the evening and the bottle was disgorged in 2010 and the magnum a year later.
At this point we are starting to see a trend; people are scoring the bottle sizes and awarding them very slightly higher marks. So onto the 4th pair, Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill 1998 and with this pair 36 of the 45 who voted guessed the magnum and it ended up being the third favourite. The interesting point here is I had purchased the bottle size 1998 from the secondary market as it was not available from Pol Roger, where as the magnums came directly from Pol Roger, so this might account for why the bottle were way more mature than the magnum’s. In my mind the magnum was completely delicious, after all was developed to represent Churchill’s passion for full and rich champagne; and that it certainly is. Both were disgorged in summer 2007 and champagne 7 the first of the pair was the magnum.
We have to keep in mind all of these champagnes are stunning, we just start to get ultra picky when we are able to taste them all at the same time! So the fifth set is a triple, with bottle, magnum and jeroboam of Krug 1998. This turned out to be the second favourite set of the night for both men and women and the guesses for which was the magnum were all over the place! Though 20 of the 41 who voted did get it correct and champagne nine the first of the trio. I thought the bottle stood out because of maturity indicators, the jeroboam too, since it really was young, with pineapple dominating its very broad flavours. The only champagne of the evening to be rated higher by the women than the men was the Krug 1998 bottle and this was the ladies second favourite of the night and the men’s 4th favourite. The disgorgement dates are really varied here; bottles in October 2007, magnums in Spring 2010 and jeroboams in Autumn 2013. So it’s no wonder the bottle was showing some bottle maturation and hence why the jero seemed to be real primary fruits.
As we headed into the last pair of champagnes, we had 6 people in the room of 60 who had so far correctly guessed all the magnums, though only a maximum of 46 were actively voting, so it looked likely we might be in a draw for the winner! So to the last pair, before the tasting a few people commented to me that we should have put the Cristal before the Krug, thinking it would be over shadowed by the massive style of the Krug. We didn’t need to worry, this is Cristal at its very best; it was sublime, especially in magnum. The chance to drink Cristal that is ready to drink often means you really need to wait 10 years after Louis Roederer release it, though it’s not readily available at that point and if you can find it for sale it will be very expensive! The twelfth Champagne turned out to be the magnum and it was disgorged in 2003 a year after the bottle. If you are lucky enough to own any of this, there is no rush to be drinking it, we still have one magnum for sale and I’d predict it’s going to have a couple more decades ahead, if any can be left along that long!
The favourite of the evening was the Louis Roederer Cristal 1996 from magnum for both men and women and that is no great surprise, since it was layer upon layer of flavour, very refreshing acidity with a high dosage of around 9 g/l and yet perfectly balanced. I wish we had a little more of this! Curiously, the six people who had so far guessed all the other magnums, most now had a wobble and we ended up with just one winner, well done Michele! Though I understand post event from Olly Smith that he got them all correct, he just couldn’t login to the Wi-Fi!
So some of the things we learnt from the evening is guests preferred the bottle size over the magnums; though the margin of difference is less than 0.5% and I would guess the reason is the bottles all showed maturity so had secondary flavours, since development happens faster in bottle. What we can definitely say is the magnums mature at a much slower pace and all the 1998’s and 1996’s magnums still showed youthful fruit characteristics. We also seem to have discovered that females are much harder to please and at this tasting they scored 7% lower than men and we had 20 women voting out of 47 total, so a good female proportion at the event. A couple of the champagnes like Comtes 2002 and Dom Ruinart 1998 (both blanc de blancs) were both scored 14% lower by the women. The ladies at our tasting seemed to like the more masculine champagnes.
I set out to discover if champagnes from magnum taste better than from bottle and I believe what we have found out they do, since two magnums, the Louis Roederer Cristal 1996 and Krug 1998 were the highest voted on the evening. You just have to wait a chunk more time, since the magnums we tasted proved that the three from the vintages of 1996 and 1998 were barely mature. If you like those more youthful fruit and brûlée characters the magnums have them in spades, if you like secondary more mature flavours you need to drink bottles unless you are more patient and wait for the magnums to come around ready for drinking. The Cristal magnum showed it is still very young with a life of probably 25 or more years ahead and the Jeroboam of 1998 Krug, well who knows, it was incredibly youthful and was delicious now but is likely going to taste like the bottle, not for another 20 years and with an extra 6 years on the lees it surely going to end up a more complex champagne than the bottle or magnum. I guess we will just have to taste it again in 25 years and test that idea!
Thank you to Jancis for guiding us through the tasting, you shared your knowledge with us generously and delivered it in such an engaging and informal way. The team at 67 Pall Mall you helped make our first keynote champagne tasting something to remember and I hope it’s set a benchmark that is hard to beat at your brand new club for wine lovers. Each of the six champagne houses, thank you for also adding a little sparkle and sharing your wise words; thank you Philip Tuck, MW from Taittinger; Carol Batten from Bollinger, Alex Gamble from Moet Hennessey, George Prideaux from Pol Roger and Mark Bingley, MW from Louis Roederer.
So what do we do at our next champagne event?
Photography by Matt Martin