You may have read my last roundup of the best wines I drank at home during August, under my usual hashtag #theglouthatbindsus, and you might recall that one of them was a Champagne that I readily admit surprised me by its quality. That was Bruno Paillard‘s Première Cuvée Extra Brut NV. As a result of what I wrote (I think) I was invited along earlier this week to the launch of the new cuvée from Bruno Paillard, Dosage:Zéro. All well and good, you think, but as luck would have it, tasting this wine provided not just an insight into a brand new wine from a Maison de Champagne, but also gave me a lot of food for thought on broader issues in Champagne, which actually make for a far more interesting article.
I would suggest that “dosage zero” is in some ways a red herring here. This cuvée is a bit of a departure for Paillard (though a non-dosed wine was made, briefly, some years ago), and is a very welcome addition to the debate about what Champagne is capable of being as we approach the third decade of our millennium. It will help if I get to it and give you some more detailed information about Dosage:Zéro, but for me there’s another angle, and that is more subjective, and has a lot to do with the people.
Alice, with Dosage:Zero
I’d never met any of the Paillard clan before Tuesday, although I know quite a lot about Bruno. He didn’t surprise me at all: tall, distinguished, only slightly reserved, and whatever his background he has a slightly patrician air (as perhaps one might expect from a man who founded a Champagne House at the age of just twenty-seven, back in 1981),…but extremely friendly, knowledgeable, thoughtful.
Alice, his daughter, who is now much more than just a major part of the team at Champagne Bruno Paillard, is slightly different in character. I’m sure she possesses the steely determination of her father, but in her eyes and in the way she expresses herself you really sense her passion for the wines. This is a House that thinks deeply about what they are doing and why.
I have a nuanced view about wine appreciation, and wine writing. Objectivity is naturally important when analysing the wines we taste, but I think a bit of subjectivity helps us to get deep into the soul of a wine (where a wine has soul, of course). Understanding a wine and what its maker is attempting to achieve cannot be ascertained by objective analysis alone. So here’s my take on Cuvée D:Z.
In a way I think its label is slightly irrelevant. Zero dosage, or Brut Zero as some choose to call a non-dosed cuvée, brings out heated debate among more geeky Champagne lovers. Despite climate change and riper grapes, there are many aficionados (I’m not one) who are philosophically opposed to zero dosage. “If only they’d added a little sugar (sic)” they say. And it is true that in the old days some of these undosed cuvées were rather angular and lacking balance. Some still are.
Where Bruno Paillard Dosage:Zéro differs is that I think it is a complete wine. It is also a bit of a red herring to tell you that this is a blend of thirty crus. What I think you do need to know is that it is a wine comprised of fifty percent reserve wines, wines which date back to 1985. You also need to know, perhaps just as importantly, that this wine is comprised of fifty percent Pinot Meunier.
This Meunier is sourced (they own around 35 hectares of their own vineyards) from the area around Cumières and surrounding villages, on the right bank of the Marne, with some coming from vineyards in the northern Montagne. Although when we think about Pinot Meunier the first wine that comes to mind might be Jérôme Prévost’s “Les Béguines“, that wine is made from grapes grown at Geux, on the Montagne. The soils are sand and limestone.
West of Cumières, along the Marne Valley, the Meunier-dominated vignoble is planted on clay-rich soils. Meunier around Cumières, however, is grown on a chalky bedrock (I thank Michael Edwards for this information), where the valley opens out and southerly-exposed slopes allow for a riper style of Meunier as well, especially when care is taken in the vineyard and overcropping is frowned on. Paillard’s vines are all organically farmed, with some parcels under biodynamic conversion.
There is clearly a realisation today that Meunier (or Pinot Meunier if you prefer) is capable of true greatness. When I began drinking Champagne in the 1980s there was a sense, fostered in the wine literature, that Meunier was the runt of the litter, a late budding grape that thereby avoided spring frosts (at least before recent vintages), and a grape which could resist the dampness and cold of this northerly wine region. The wine writers of that time suggested that maybe it was best for packing out cheap supermarket Champagnes and all those unknown labels we saw in the French hypermarkets. Oh how wrong the old scribes were.
I would not go quite so far as to assert that D:Z is therefore a terroir wine, a rather bland statement, but I would assert that it is marked by terroir. This terroir character is merely part of the whole package, which also bears the supporting role of the other varieties and of the exceptional reserve wines. Naturally four years on lees with a further six months post-disgorgement helps rather a lot. It is certainly a wine, though.
It is made just from the first pressing, giving very pure juice. Fermentation is mostly, but not exclusively, carried out in small oak barrels. Some of the reserves were also barrel-fermented, and then kept in stainless steel. The reserves add the lovely autolytic character which comes through as a savoury umami note on nose and palate. In fact the bouquet is toasty and nutty, but also has hints of red fruits, very complex. The palate is pleasantly rounded. Paillard describe it as “chiseled”, but I think it’s a broad chisel.
I was lucky to taste this wine (very correctly served in a slightly larger wine glass – this is one for your Riedel Riesling glass or Zalto Universal) fresh from a just opened bottle, and also from a bottle almost empty, and from which the bubbles had mostly dissipated by the time I’d finished talking and got round to taste it.
Fresh in the glass the bead was very fine, the mousse frothy. There’s nice definition but what it so obviously lacks is the angular and harsh acids that can spoil an undosed wine. Without bubbles the wine exhibits a unique (I chose that word carefully) personality, and genuine character. The facet of that character which stands out most is a very attractive salinity, which defines the wine as a Gourmande Champagne. Drink it with food, throughout a meal. Let it warm in the glass (don’t over-chill it in the first place) and see how it develops, both aromatically and on the palate.
Analyse D:Z by all means, but allow your senses to float inside the wine, to get a sense of something more than its component parts. Treat it as you would a fine white wine without bubbles, treat it as a wine enhanced by bubbles, but nevertheless as a wine like any other.
Bruno Paillard Dosage:Zero is, like all of Bruno’s wines, mostly available in restaurants. I think this is a shame, personally. As with the finest Grower Champagne, I like to see this as a wine that would demand my full focus and attention, in surroundings devoid of too many distractions. In any event, I wonder how many restaurant customers will be persuaded to drink this with food – something I would advocate, although I’ve no idea whether Alice and Bruno would agree with me.
Dosage:Zéro is available, as of this week, at one store, Hedonism Wines in London’s Mayfair. It can be had for a little under £50, which I don’t think is bad value at all. I’m quite sure that it is not a wine that will appeal in quite the same way to those who have a fear of gourmande, zero dosage, cuvées, but it is completely to my own taste, and I look forward at some point to grabbing myself a bottle.
I think Bruno and Alice have achieved here a Champagne that stands out as being a little different, a Champagne with its own individual personality, and a wine that is no mere box-ticking excercise in range building. They have, I think, produced something which for me is quite special because of this.
We also had the chance to taste Première Cuvée in its white and rosé versions. The tasting and launch took place at Comptoir Mayfair on Weighhouse Street, close to Bond Street Underground.