I have a bit of a thing for Bruno Paillard Champagne. I may spend a lot of my time drinking the Growers these days, but what I am looking for, always, is wine with a soul, wine which reflects its maker, and wine which even more importantly reflects where it comes from. This can very much be a blended wine from different locations because those locations are still perfectly capable of making their mark in a cuvée.
I had the opportunity on Wednesday to attend the launch of the new 2009 “Assemblage” at Hedonism Wines in London’s Mayfair. Assemblage is a beautiful portrait of the vintages which this small house decides to bottle (it’s not made every year). The icing on the cake was that Alice Paillard was not only showing the 2009, but had brought along the 1999 and 1989 vintages (in magnum) to show alongside it.
Champagne Bruno Paillard has been around since it was founded by Bruno in 1981, after he had been working as a Champagne broker previously. He has since become one of the most highly regarded individuals in, and servants of, the Champagne region, and I sometimes wonder whether his de Gaulle-like height has been a distinct advantage in establishing himself as a natural Leader among his fellow producers.
There are certain aspects of the house which don’t tally with normal preconceptions of a Maison de Champagne. There are bought in grapes, but yet at least 70% of the wine is from vineyards they own. Where the grapes are purchased, they are via a large number of contracts where quality can be easily monitored. A particular obsession here is the desire to have deep rooting vines, vines which can seek the nutrients in the soils, vines which can express their terroir.
Also, production across all the Bruno Paillard wines is not high. I know that a decade ago, total production stood at a few hundred thousand bottles, and I doubt it has increased significantly.
The point of all this is quality. We expect a Marque to have prestige bottlings, and, in many cases, more run-of-the-mill cuvées. At Bruno Paillard the focus is on quality, and for Assemblage that focus is rigorous, which is the reason it isn’t released every vintage.
I think most people would agree that after the beautiful 2008 vintage, 2009 had its challenges. A wet spring and early summer was followed by what some thought at the time was vintage-saving hot weather in August. But the heat continued and so growers risked surmaturité if they didn’t get picking just right.
Paillard harvested early, beginning on 10 September with the Chardonnays on the Côte des Blancs, working north to Mailly at the top of the Montagne, where Pinot Noir was harvested ten days later. They also have some vines down at Les Riceys, in the Aube, but I’m not sure whether any of these grapes went into this “ten village” blend. The fruit was certainly more mature than in many vintages, but acidities were wholly in line with the past ten years.
There is no set blend for Assemblage, but for 2009 equal parts Chardonnay and Pinot Noir were used, with no Meunier. Around 20% of the grapes were fermented in barrel, and Paillard only uses the first pressing. This vintage saw ten years ageing before release this week. Seven of these years were on lees, the wine being disgorged in September 2017 (date always stated on the back label), with 5g/litre dosage, making it, as usual, an Extra Brut.
The 2009 was served from 75cl bottle, for reasons I hope would be self-evident for a brand new release. The wine is a lovely bright gold. At first the bouquet hits with freshness, and it shows a characteristic elegant bead. As it opens, the red fruits of the Pinot Noir show first, then some lemon citrus, developing honey after a few minutes. Finally, within the time frame one gets at a tasting, a savoury/umami note appears, which with my limited experience is a trait found in Assemblage, probably in part the result of the long cellar ageing it receives (you might merely find this takes longer to develop from magnum and/or in a cooler vintage).
As a reflection of the vintage, and of the long ageing this wine has had before release, one would expect that the majority of people who will consume it immediately will be very happy. That will certainly be the case. But this is a wine that should retail at around £70, £150 for a magnum. What happens when you age it?
Well, before we have a look, I should just mention the label art. Assemblage has a commissioned artist label each release. Indeed, the 1996 was illustrated by one of my favourite contemporary artists, Sandro Chia, who also happens to own Castello di Romitorio, producing Brunello di Montalcino with his son.
The 2009 vintage label was created by Swedish artist, Anna-Lisa Unkuri. She worked on the theme of “Invitation au Voyage” (the label always has a phrase or sentence which reflects the vintage too). The result seems to fit the feel of a wine which is perhaps a little exotic and invites the senses to travel to the East. For the artist, travel is both a physical experience, and an experience enacted through memory, which fits nicely with the way we can continue to enjoy a wine we feel has a profound impact long after the last drop has been swallowed (or mostly deposited in the crachoir in this case).
The 1999 hails from another warm vintage, and not one to have been regarded as remotely classic in most quarters. It was disgorged in November 2011, so it has had more than seven-and-a-half years of post disgorgement ageing (and as stated, served from magnum, which is the format for all of the Maison BP private reserves). It also had the same 5g/l dosage.
First of all you notice the freshness, which might perhaps be a little surprising if you were merely thinking of the vintage by way of generalisation. In fact that initial freshness (I got there early and tasted the wines very soon after opening) is suggestive of the care that goes into these blends. There’s quite a bit of texture here. It’s chalky texture, but hard chalk. There’s also a touch more structure overall from the magnum. There is a savoury element which develops in this wine too, but I’d characterise it more as minerality, and perhaps a bit of salinity, rather than pure umami.
Interestingly, the blend of varieties in this 1999 is quite different to the new release, and we have a wine dominated by Chardonnay (42%) with equal parts Pinot Noir and Meunier (29%).
This is an impressive wine. A lot of people would drink this now. It has everything that you would generally want from a prestige cuvée of twice the price, yet the next wine opens a new dimension, and a window into the possible.
Another varietal mix entirely, the 1989 (yet another warm vintage) was made up from 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay. It was disgorged in 2008 (October, I think), so it has had a long old time ageing in bottle. This showed in its darker gold colour, yet it remains beautifully bright.
The first thing we noticed was a whiff of oxidation. This caused a discussion…I am not at all averse to a bit of oxidation on Champagne so long as two things follow. First, it must not be oxidative to the exclusion of all else, and second, there must also be other elements which can at least match those oxidative notes. In time these other qualities ought to come to the fore.
Actually, other qualities appeared swiftly, and most interesting they were. I got a touch of fresh apple, and then something a little deeper resembling delicious sweet caramel. It wasn’t the full tatin, but a very tiny hint of butter was there as well. Then, as it opened further there were red fruits, honey and beeswax.
For me this extremely complex, and indeed vinous, Assemblage is a wine for the table, and I’d like to try it with partridge or quail, or something like that. I’d also like to see how it unfurls further. It’s certainly a mature wine, but the possibility of discovering how this wine tails off would be rather like the chance to witness a dying star out there in the Galaxy…just think. Not that I’m ever going to sit down around a table with a magnum of this, I don’t suppose, but then what are dreams for? And as with Anna-Lisa Unkuri’s painting for the 2009, I can travel through my memory of it.
So this was a lovely tasting, and it also provided an opportunity to chat with Alice again. I don’t know what she makes of the particular way I assess and look at the wines, which is not at all focused on some finite number of points to express quality, rather looking at whether the wine has soul and personality. In any event, I like Alice. How could I not, she drinks Rosé des Riceys.
It also afforded the opportunity to have a little look around Hedonism, which is as much a wine museum as a wine shop to enthusiasts, not least those of us who like to find difficult to source and obscure wines. They also have a very good selection of Bruno Paillard in the sparkling wine section to the right as you enter the store.
Champagne Bruno Paillard is imported into the UK by Bibendum. They are represented here by Relish PR/Sally Bishop (firstname.lastname@example.org) .
Hedonism Wines is at 3-7 Davies Street, Mayfair, London W1.
I also had the chance to make my first visit to the upstairs wine shop at Antidote Wine Bar near Carnaby Street that same afternoon. The shop has been open for about three months but I hadn’t yet had time to go to take a look. I grabbed a couple of wines.
Gut Oggau fans will be especially pleased to see they have the new Maskerade cuvées from this favourite Burgenland producer. There’s a red and a white blend, both bottled as litres, and priced at £35. For those aware of the story, they wear masks on the label hiding their identity (we are not told the varieties in the blends). The reason – these are young vineyards which are yet to reveal their true personalities.
These wines have just arrived and are exclusively available at Antidote, at least for now. Don’t hang about.
Antidote is at 12A Newburgh Street, London W1.