Our first taste of the fruits of 2018s labour came at Palmer & Co. This most famous of Champagne cooperatives had made their initial assumptions about the vintage clear, with a captivating and suggestively titled video shot during the harvest in August and September: “Exceptional” Champagne Harvest 2018.
With our appetites sufficiently whet, the Palmer & Co team – which included Managing Director, Rémi Vervier; Chef de Cave, Xavier Berdin; Export Director, Raymond Ringeval; and Export Area Manager, Arthur Camut – showcased a range of vins clairs to give us a flavour of the similarities and differences between the region’s principal localities.
2018 Vins Clairs
“We are expecting a lot from 2018 because of the spring and the summer,” Vervier began. Describing 2018 as “a good year” without rain or frost and a huge quantity of grapes, “similar to 2004”, he was cautious not to make any early conclusions. “We need to wait some more to see the final outcome.”
That said, Palmer & Co were quick to acknowledge its superiority over 2017 – a year in which it was difficult to retain the signature characteristics of each village because of the rain and hail. “In 2018, there was lots of ripeness,” we were told. Because of this, it was essential to choose the correct picking dates and maintain the desirable balance between ripeness and freshness. “We don’t want to wait for 11 degrees of ripeness and risk losing the freshness,” Vervier explained.
We tasted a selection of vins clairs, all blends of multiple villages within each primary region of Champagne. Each blend contained wine from the same category of villages; Grand Cru, Premier Cru, etc.
|CHARDONNAY | Montagne de Reims | Premier Crus: Trépail, Villers-Marmery, Vaudemange
Lovely freshness with ripe lemons and hints of spice and grapefruit. Great texture, balance of acids and fruit. Loads of ripe juicy pear and hints of salinity on the end. This wine will go into the vintage blend.
|CHARDONNAY | Sézannais | Autre Crus: Barbonnes Fayel, Fontaine Denis, Bethon, Montgenost
More banana and tropical edge with loads of ripe red apples, lemons and grapefruit. Seems to be less fruit on the mid-palate.
|PINOT NOIR | Montagne de Reims | Grand Crus: Mailly-Champagne, Verzenay
Richness of raspberry and some hints of plums, ripe peaches and apples. Great freshness, acidity and balance on the palate. Some hints of spice and a lift of salinity on the end. ++
|PINOT NOIR | Barséquanais | Autre Crus: Les Riceys, Balnot-sur-Laignes
Lots of raspberry, peaches and freshness. Very clean and pure. Great balance of power, weight and a cinnamon finish.
|PINOT NOIR AND MEUNIER | Montagne de Reims | Premier Crus: Ludes, Rilly-la-Montagne, Chigny-les-Roses
Bundles of ripe fruits! Peaches come forward on the nose and then some layers of apples with good weight of fruit and lots of roundness.
|PINOT MEUNIER | Vallée de la Marne | Autre Crus: Dormans, Verneuil, Trélou-sur-Marne
Much more meaty and concentrated fruit with good balance. Very generous red fruits – the plum and strawberry characteristics are really forward.
Immediately striking was the variance in characteristics between each region. In the absence of vineyard destroying factors – such as hail, frost, rot and disease – the soil in each area was afforded near-perfect conditions allowing each terroir to express its own individual style.
Also notable: none of them were bad, not even close. Although some were undeniably superior to others – the Pinot Noir from the Montagne de Reims particularly stood out, though it was the only Grand Cru blend we tasted – it seems there were no bad wines in 2018, just good wines and excellent wines.
The vintage champagne, which has already been blended, contains approximately 50% Premier Cru Chardonnay from the Montagne de Reims (the first wine tasted above) and 50% Grand Cru Pinot Noir from the Montagne de Reims (the third wine tasted above).
To highlight the significant effect that base vintage can have on a house Brut Réserve NV – champagne that is blended to match a closely consistent style year on year, remember – we tasted the still wine blends from the previous four vintages.
The strength of individual harvests is perhaps clear from the percentage of reserve wines in each blend: base vintage 2018 has just 22% wine from previous years – suggesting it needed little assistance for the winemaking team to create a fresh, powerful and well-balanced blend – whereas the, comparatively much weaker, 2017 base vintage has a whopping 39% reserve wine.
|Brut Réserve NV | Base Vintage: 2018 | Reserve Wine: 22%
Initially seems Chardonnay dominant as you get the very pineapple, white flowers, apples and yellow plum flavour. Has a lot of spicy character and hints of cinnamon. Great freshness, richness and complexity. Only 22% reserve.
|Brut Réserve NV | Base Vintage: 2017 | Reserve Wine: 39%
More smoky and hints of vegetable; represents the year so not very generous and a bit lean.
|Brut Réserve NV | Base Vintage: 2016 | Reserve Wine: 34%
Very distinctive nose, some reductive qualities and lots of lemons, apples and some tropical fruits. Good lift of salinity on the end. Good texture.
|Brut Réserve NV | Base Vintage: 2015 | Reserve Wine: 38%
Lots of ripe fruits and great freshness with loads of apples and some tropical hints.
The red wines we tasted at Palmer all originate from Les Riceys, the largest village (in terms of vineyard area) in Champagne, located in the south of the region. Some of the red wine stays in stainless steel tanks and some in older oak barrels (we tasted examples of both) for around 6-8 months, before being added to the solera. Around 8-10% red wine is eventually added to the rosé blend.
The solera itself is technically more than 40 years old, although Vervier noted that it has only officially been operating as a solera blend for around 15 years. Asked if more red wine will be added to the solera in 2018 – on account of the strength of the Pinot Noir grapes this year – he explained that actually much less than typical might be added, as the power of the black grapes this year could shift the characteristics of the solera too much.
|Vin Rouge 2018 | Stainless Steel
So much juicy and spicy fruit, loads of blackberry and redcurrant and great texture. Lots of ripeness.
|Vin Rouge 2018 | Oak Barrels Since November 2018
Juicy and fruity with that oak spice. Has some tannins and juiciness.
|Solera Vin Rouge | ~40 Years
This is the solera, lacks some of the power seen in the 2018 red wines above.
To conclude our tasting, we sampled some bubbles. Blanc de Blancs NV – which, although released as a non-vintage, contains wine from just one year – is transitioning vintage in both bottle and magnum this year. The bottles are moving from 2013 to 2014, and the magnums from 2005 to 2007, and we tasted both side by side.
Paired with a delectable lunch provided by the notorious Restaurant Le Foch in Reims, we also tasted a magnum of Palmer & Co Collection Blanc de Blancs 1996, in celebration of what is sure to be a fantastic year ahead for Palmer & Co. They began operating out of their shiny new 21,000hl capacity and beautifully modern eco-friendly winery at the start of the year and, thanks to what truly was an “exceptional” champagne harvest 2018, it is now packed full of fresh, ripe, concentrated and balanced wines.
|Palmer & Co Blanc de Blancs NV Bottle | Vintage: 2014 | 16.5/20
100% CH | Lees Ageing: 3 Years | Disgorged: October 2018 | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 5 Months
Quite tight on the nose, lots of clean apples and plums and some hints of grapefruit.
|Palmer & Co Blanc de Blancs NV Bottle | Vintage: 2013 | 17/20
100% CH | Lees Ageing: 4 Years | Disgorged: April 2018 | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 11 Months
Much more giving on the nose and really rich on the palate. Has a nice balance of freshness, power of fruit and tropical edges. Great finish and length.
|Palmer & Co Blanc de Blancs NV Magnum| Vintage: 2007 | 17.5/20
100% CH | Lees Ageing: 10 Years | Disgorged: March 2018 | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 1 Year
Shows a lot of richness on the nose, some of those pastry shop characteristics with some soft red fruits and lees character on the palate.
|Palmer & Co Blanc de Blancs NV Magnum | Vintage: 2005 | 16.5/20
100% CH | Lees Ageing: 11 Years | Disgorged: March 2017 | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 2 Years
Now 2 years post-disgorgement, this is showing generous ripe red and yellow fruits like raspberry and pineapple. The roundness from the lees ageing adds to the texture, very generous and lifts up fresh at the end.
|Palmer & Co Collection Blanc de Blancs 1996 Magnum | 18.5+/20
Has a great nose right after opening, lots of complexities of fruit, lees and bottle aged character. The freshness of the vintage is right there; dried fruits, loads of apricots and dried pineapple, hints of lime and roasted cashews. Lovely hint of salinity on the finish. This is very good.