Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Smelling the Mousse

It was Christophe Constant, winemaker and oenologist at Champagne J.-L. Vergnon, who first told me to smell the mousse just after pouring a glass of his champagne. Bubbling up in the flute as mousse is prone to do, it was all frothy and white—I was patiently waiting for it to die down, but he said, “Smell it. Usually the mousse smells green and neutral, but if the fruit is truly ripe, you will get the aroma here.” I’d never really thought about this before, but it turned out to be quite revealing. Constant harvests his grapes very ripe, generally over 11 degrees of natural potential alcohol, and in his champagnes the mousse is as fruity and aromatic as the actual wine is.

This holds true for other champagnes that are made from genuinely ripe fruit. The Ulysse Collin Extra Brut 2004 that I drank the other day has a deliciously fragrant mousse, with notes of white flowers and sweet tropical citrus that quickly turn to deeper, more autolytic aromas as the bubbles die down. A similar experience is found in Jérôme Prévost’s new 2006 Les Béguines, where the mousse smells sweet and floral, like pear candy; as it dies down, the yeastiness of the wine emerges and the fruit aromas of the wine completely change. David Léclapart’s 2005 L’Amateur, another naturally ripe, unchaptalized champagne, is youthful and awkward right now, revealing little of the depth that it surely conceals, yet the mousse is fragrant and fruity: whatever this wine is suffering from at the moment, it isn’t lack of ripeness.

Other champagnes, as you can well imagine, have a mousse that smells distinctly less appealing. What’s curious is that the nose itself is quite generously forgiving—even in a champagne that’s not terribly ripe, the fruit aromas can be forthcoming enough on the nose to make up for it, and I imagine that a high degree of chaptalization probably helps to amplify this as well. The long lees aging gives richness and substance to what is otherwise rather neutral fruit, deemphasizing the green, herbaceous aromas that would be present if it were merely a still white wine. But one place where the true character of the fruit can be found is in the mousse.


Henri Vasnier said...

We're not on the way to riper equals better, are we? "Sweet and floral, like pear candy" would not be a compliment in one of my tasting notes.

I certainly agree that the mousse may smell different from the wine, however. I routinely smell the mousse because I find corkiness more immediately detectable there.

Peter Liem said...

No, riper is not necessarily better, by any means. There is such a thing as overripe champagne, contrary to what cynics might think, and we're likely to see many more examples in the years ahead. However, it is also not true that the best champagnes are made from the most neutral grapes possible, which is a lie that many houses seek to perpetuate, and which is used as an excuse for accepting seriously underripe grapes. A balanced, judiciously harmonious ripeness is nothing to be afraid of in champagne, and is indeed highly desirable, as it is with any wine. My comments about sweetness are applicable only in the context of the mousse, which as I have pointed out, often smells nothing like the wine. Prévost's 2006 smells nothing like pear candy -- only its mousse does, and as the mousse dies down, the aromas change completely. I wouldn't include comments about the aromas of the mousse in a tasting note, because I find it pointless and subject to misinterpretation. I observe these things for myself solely because I find them interesting.

Thomas said...

Hi Peter,

I brought home the 2004 and 2005 L’Amateur from Leclapart the other day and will soon test-drive them, but I may think twice about the 2005 after reading this.

The Danish importer of Leclapart told me that the 2005 was made a little bit different – with natural yeast in the bottle fermentation (as Leclapart keeps and ads wine from the first fermentation). I was a bit puzzled by this when I first heard it – maybe you could comment as you are far more experience than I when it comes to general technique in the cellar.

Thank you.


work from home said...

We're not on the way to riper equals better, are we?

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