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Spirit of the 1998 GH Mumm Cuvée R. Lalou

Around the world, bottles of Champagne are labelled as ‘Methode Champenoise’ as though there is something precise and calculable in the production methods of great Champagne. To some extent, there is. Every detail of true Champagne is rigorously regulated from the date of harvest and provenance of the grapes to the length of bottle ageing. But, like any fermented product, it is the appetites of yeast and, with time, their decomposing bodies which give a champagne its bouquet. Beyond the scientific understanding that necessarily sits behind the workings of yeast on sugar, there is the art of blending (or assemblage) of different vineyards, vintages and varieties and the almost clairvoyant skill needed to anticipate the qualities that will emerge in a wine five or ten years down the track.

In this sense, Champagne is somewhat capricious and alchemic, which is why creating an excellent bottle of bubbles is so tricky. Regardless of the house style of a particular Champagne—that is, its genotype—the phenotype of a Champagne is largely dependent on its interactions with the environment in which it is served: the shape of the glass, particles within the interior of the glass and the temperature at which it is served. Together, these interact to influence our experience of aromas, texture and the dance of bubbles on the nose and tongue. G.H. Mumm generously presented to students of the Institut des Hautes Etudes du Goût, which I had the good fortune to attend recently, a forensic understanding of how a good Champagne is always more than the sum of its parts. It was a rare occasion to get to know its flagship cuvée R Lalou 1998 more intimately, starting not with the final product but the vin clair in its nascent state of development. This deconstructed tasting of the cuvée gave us insights into how the ‘methode Champenoise’ is not, in fact, just a method but indeed a series of informed decisions and sometimes unanticipated outcomes.

The cuvée’s namesake, Réne Lalou, reigned over fifty years as chairman of G.H. Mumm and is credited with restoring the vineyards of the champagne house after the war. He wisely purchased several grand cru parcels—or areas of defined terroir—in Ay, Bouzy, Cramant, Avize and elsewhere which comprise the cuvée today. Only the best years and parcels spend the required nine to ten years on the lees to develop maturity and depth.

The first tasting began with the vin clair—just after the malo-lactic fermentation—which is not clear, as the name suggests, but cloudy due to the lack of filtration. With 11% alcohol, no residual sugar remains after the first fermentation. It is after this first fermentation the various crus are tasted and evaluated in order to determine whether, and how, to produce a vintage R. Lalou. When individual parcels within particular crus from exceptional years show promise, they are then reserved for blending. The 2013 Chardonnay from Cramant, a premier cru in the G.H. Mumm holdings, revealed citrus with white flowers, passionfruit and pineapple; retaining sharpness, it also showed signs of emerging complexity and volume. With a lovely pink blush, the 2013 Pinot Noir from the grand cru of Bouzy was still lean but showed potential to evolve. Though the Pinot was more chemically acidic than the Chardonnay, it gave the impression of being rounder and more generous with hints of mango, cantaloupe, gooseberries and lemon curd.

The second tasting was of two reserve wines which are kept for 6 years in stainless steel vats and tested regularly by oenologists at G.H. Mumm to monitor their development. The 2011 Chardonnay from the Cramant cru, still in development, and the 2008 Pinot Noir from Ay had clarified due to the sedimentation process. The Chardonnay expressed acacia flower, unripe peach, quince and candied lemon but also had some minerality. A vegetal quality was particular to 2011, producing a tense wine with a layer of bitterness. The 2008 Pinot noir showed more ageing potential than the Chardonnay, suggesting dried fruit and developing the light spiciness of gingerbread.

After the wine is blended, sugar and yeast is added for the prise de mousse, the second fermentation in which bubbles develop and the wine is aged to develop its full potential and complexity. Once the Champagne is aged, the dead yeast cells are disgorged and the liqueur de dosage is added, making up 1% of the magnum R Lalou 1998. The base blend of the dosage is normally a closely guarded secret. For our third tasting, we were lucky to experience this blend—50% pinot noir from the Bouzy cru and 50% Chardonnay from the Cramant cru, both from the 2008 harvest—before and after the sugar is added. The Chardonnay specificity came through strongly, attacking the nose with oily and woody notes but also presenting the creaminess of caramel and conserves such as apricot marmalade and quince jelly. The maturity of the thick, unctuous liqueur de dosage, which is stored in stainless steel tanks for years, brings to the cuvée a complexity of vanilla and ripe fruit and the richness of buttery brioche and pastry cream.

By this stage, we were eagerly awaiting our fourth and final tasting: a magnum of the R Lalou 1998. Here we could finally see how the various elements of the 1998 Cuvée R Lalou come together. The Pinot Noir contributed characters of quince and candied fruit, suggested during the earlier tastings, and caramel notes continued to bring a depth of creamy richness. Vanilla and wood aromas came from the liqueur de dosage, candied citrus from the Chardonnay and the roundness of spiciness, dried fruit and baked goods from the Pinot Noir. However, poised between this balance of crispness and sweetness was a new savoury dimension, a suggestion of chestnuts and mushrooms that gave the cuvée a sublime earthiness to balance its subtle sweetness and acidity.

Lunch in the cellars of G.H. Mumm was four courses, each partnered with 1998 Cuvée R Lalou served in a different glass and at four temperatures, revealing different dimensions with every course. Seared scallops with candied citrus fruit and grapefruit were accompanied by a narrow flute served at 6ºC. Here the white grapes dominated, expressing the elegance of white flowers, crispy and spicy aromas and youthful characteristics. We expressed surprise when our Champagne for the main course—veal filet and sweetbreads with truffled mashed potatoes and quinces—was served in a Jamesse balloon glass at 15ºC. The warmer temperature causes the dissolved carbon dioxide to become more volatile, a no-no for many because it doesn’t showcase the cuvée’s fine bubble structure. However, this was not the intent of the tasting. At a warmer temperature and with more breathing room, a more mature and full-bodied wine emerged, revealing savoury autumnal aromas of mushroom and soil that stood up to the weightiness of the truffle and were brightened by notes of quince and ripe yellow fruit. The wine had warmed to around 16-17ºC at the table when the cheese course was brought out. Again, this was considerably warmer than would normally be considered suitable for Champagne but perfect with the complex nutty, caramel qualities of a finely aged Compté cheese. For dessert, a fricassée of apples roasted in honey along with candied orange was paired with a tulip especially designed for Lalou, this time at 12ºC, to harmonise with its aromas of honey, dried fruit and crumble.

This tasting challenged many assumptions often held by many amateur champagne drinkers such as myself. Not only is Champagne brilliantly suited to food pairings that go far beyond oysters and canapés, but it is possible to produce multiple pairings with the same bottle by changing the temperature and glass in which it is served. A very cold sparkling wine served in a flute will not reveal all of its secrets, or might be better suited to a course that is lighter and slightly sharp. A narrow, refrigerator-cold flute of bubbly may be elegant and well suited to toasting a celebration, but a serving temperature of 6-10ºC will allow more aroma and character to emerge and is better suited to food pairings. To further bring out the complexity of an aged Champagne or sparkling wine, a wine glass rather than a flute may be a better option to open up the possibility for pairings with mushrooms, white meat and game birds. Finally, the washing and drying of the glass also matters. Gerard Liger-Belair, whose research on champagne bubble dynamics, has used high-speed video cameras to capture the birth of Champagne bubbles which, surprisingly, are necessitated by cellulose fibres of cloth or paper left on the glass. Regardless of the quality of a Champagne, a perfectly clean glass is detrimental to the effervescent qualities we expect, and sparkling wines served in a sterile environment will fail to produce any bubbles at all. So wash and dry your glasses with a clean cloth, and never in the dishwasher. Lipsticks and fatty foods can also stifle good bubbles which are easily suffocated at the surface by a thin layer of oil.

Part of Champagne’s charm is that it evolves as we do, and no one glass of this effervescent elixir is identical to another, or even to itself, from one moment to the next. Once poured, its sparkle is released, the stream of bubbles changing in size and vigour as dissolved carbon dioxide gradually escapes from its watery confines. As we sip, the wine goes to our heads, and our attitude towards the glass changes as much as its contents. We become a little more lively as we are opened to its intoxicating effects. Halfway through a bottle between friends, the mood shifts and lightens, becoming more convivial and perhaps less attentive to the Champagne itself. Champagne would surely not begrudge us this distraction for the solemnity of the connoisseur deadens the frivolity and dizzying pleasure that even the greatest of Champagne pedigrees demands.


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