Wine articles

This champagne smells of custard.

Yesterday my father came over to celebrate the birth of our baby. One of the things I share with my father which I hope to pass on to my daughter is a certain curmudgeonliness when it comes to champagne. Our attitude is that for the price of a reasonable non-vintage one could get a superb Rhone. Some occasions, however, demand champagne. I had been saving a bottle of Billecart-Salmon Sous Bois for when the little one arrived. I’m very fond of this house. A bottle of their 1990 opened my eyes to how champagne could be so much more than fizzy acidic stuff that makes your breath smell. This one, as its name suggests, is fermented and matured in wood just as Krug and Bollinger are.

It certainly smells very special. It brought to mind a passage from Adam Gopnick’s The Table Comes First. He sees tasting notes as entirely subjective and open to suggestion:

‘Wine writing is. . . a series of elaborate plausible compliments paid to wines. When the French wine writer Eric Glatre declares, say, that the aromas of a bottle of Krug “intense empyreumatic fragrances of toasted milk, bread, fresh butter, cafe au lait., and aftethoughts of linden join in a harmonious chorus with generous notes of acacia honey, mocha and vanilla,” he is suggesting that, of all the analogies out there out there, there might be one that expands our minds, opens our horizons, delights imaginations. He is offering a metaphor, not an account book.’

There is a poetic element to Gatre’s writing but he is also describing flavours as precisely as he can (I had to look up empyreumatic in the dictionary – something to do with burnt aromas.) If you read his description without knowing what the wine was, most people with a little tasting experience would recognise that he was talking about a luxurious champagne or perhaps a mature white burgundy. These are evocative descriptions not just because of convention but because the aromas really are there. Back to the Billecart-Salmon, on the nose it smelt of custard – there’s the milk and vanilla that Gatre mentioned. On the palate it tasted of walnuts and fresh coffee. It was not dissimilar to Krug Grande Cuvée, which I was fortunate enough to try a couple of weeks ago, but much lighter, fruitier (don’t ask me which fruits) and more fun. The Sous Bois is a serious wine as it should be for £65 a bottle but it has a gaity that suited the occasion. The Krug would have been too demanding.

My father took a sip and said ‘that’s good’ and then went back to looking adoringly at his granddaughter.

By Henry

I worked in the wine trade and publishing before becoming a freelance writer and broadcaster. My work has appeared in the Spectator, the Guardian, the Oldie and Food & Wine magazine. I now works as features editor on the Master of Malt blog. Ihave been on BBC Radio 4, Radio 5 and Monocle Radio, and a judge for the BBC Radio 4’s Food & Farming Awards and for the Fortnum & Mason food and drink awards 2018. My book Empire of Booze: British History through the Bottom of a Glass won Fortnum & Mason debut drink book 2017. My second, The Home Bar, was published in October 2018.

6 replies on “This champagne smells of custard.”

wow henry congrats on the wee bairn!!! Enjoy these first weeks as they are very special. Hopefully Mrs Henry got to have plenty of champagne too (first thing my wife did when we got home from hospital was ransack the fridge for a bottle of Gavi)

Sounds like it might also be the perfect wine to celebrate my daughter becoming an adult on 7th Jan….will Majestic have it, do you think?

Hi Henry,
mi name is Simona, I am Italian and I am the export manager of a new born Agricultural Cooperative formed by 6 wine producers in the north-west of Italy.
I was surfing the web in search of magazines specialized in wine when I “bumped into” your last post, I started to read it, then I read another, then another…. I couldn’t stop. I also read your post about the “Natural Wine”… which interested me very much: after 3 years of experiments the members of the cooperative were able to produce a very good wine ABSOLUTELY FREE OF CHEMICAL RESIDUES… Our Visus, a Barbera d’Asti D.O.C.G. is a real natural wine and it does not cost a fortune!
What is difficult now is finding importers abroad who can appreciate it……Never mind, I’ll do my best to succeed.
And…. from now on I’ll be a frequent reader of this blog!

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