Traditionally, Champagne is seen as a celebratory drink.
Instinctively I disregarded this cliché long before getting to know one of Napoleon’s famous quotes: “In victory, you deserve Champagne, in defeat, you need it.”
Seriously, when you have got your reasons to be celebrate, does it matter that much with what exactly you’re going to do it? The taste of victory doesn’t get worse even with a can of Red Bull. Which is not the case when you need to console yourself – this task requires care, effort and often a considerable investment. Life is full of not-always-pleasant surprises – which is one of the reasons I always have a bottle of decent Champagne chilled and ready to go.
One of those bottles used recently was Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill 1999.
It’s always interesting for me to compare impressions of the same wine tasted in different circumstances, in different mood and with different people. This year I drank this Champagne first around Christmas time. It struck me – even if you know nothing about the link between the producer and Winston Churchill, the most loyal client of the Champagne house – the nose of this wine is enough to pause a vivid conversation.
To say it’s intense is to offend it. If I could, I’d capture these aromas in a tiny magic bottle – it could be added to one of those “Le Nez Du Vin” wine tasting kits – to showcase some archetypical aromas of vintage Champagne. Brioche, yeast, toast, hazelnuts, ginger and spice – they are all welcomed and expected in your vintage Champagnes from other respectable houses. But here they are, found in abundance, in such a concentrated form that may well make some people who expect Champagne to be an easy aperitif put their glasses away.
I wasn’t taken aback by the nose but was genuinely surprised with the quality of mousse. The bubbles in Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill 1999 were big and prickly. This is not something you expect from a wine of this level and provenance – and even if the finish is long and lovely, this aggressiveness contrasts with all the rest and stays on your mind. Being a bit puzzled, I tried to dismiss my initial impressions. I tried to persuade myself that it’s just my taste buds being too sensitive – it was the first wine of the day, and it was still before midday. After all, when we’re happy, don’t we tend to retouch everything?
I re-tasted this wine much later and being much more sad. Two things came to my mind. Firstly, I remembered that Churchill was a smoker (I love this moment in his memoirs when he allows himself a twitch of satisfaction that as a prime minister he could at last with impunity smoke cigars through cabinet meetings – a habit that had annoyed his predecessor). My hectic experience of being a smoker confirms a theory that a smoker’s taste buds need more stimulation for a taste of wine to be appreciated. I thought that Churchill’s palate was one of the reasons he preferred Pol Roger’s intense, concentrated style.
Another thought had nothing to do with physiological considerations. I thought that Pol Roger Champagne accompanied Churchill through the darkest periods of the Second World War (he even had a case of Champagne on a plane when travelling to war zones.) At times like that would you have a bottle of flat, flimsy stuff? The prime minister used to link France with the notion of “civilisation” and this wine can fully contribute to the connection. 1999, dominated by Pinot Noir, was the first vintage vinified by Dominique Petit, who previously worked for Krug, so Krug fans can recognise their favourite house’s intensity and concentration.
Traditional ways of describing your Champagne can be boring here. This wine reminded me of Sir Alexander Cadogan’s impressions after attending one of the war cabinet meetings. After spending a half an hour there he wrote about Churchill that he was “too rambling and romantic and sentimental and temperamental”. All of these adjectives can be applied to the liquid in your Champagne glass – the wine which is weighty, complex, temperamental and not completely fulfilling as every true consolation.
Available from the Whisky Exchange, priced £109.