Champagne Tarlant in the snow
I was in Champagne a few weeks ago when most of Europe was suffering through a bitterly cold “cold-snap”. How cold was it? In the vineyards of the Valle de Marne, in the Champagne region (where I happened to be), it was -18 Celcius, that’s O degrees Farenheit.
However, when you get invited to go out and taste the champagne with a member of the wine making family, how can you say no? Which is how I found myself sitting in the middle of one of Champagne Tarlant’s vineyards, going through a tasting of their range with one half of the brother and sister team that run Champagne Tarlant day to day, Melanie Tarlant.
Champagne Tarlant is unique in the region as they are one of the few champagne growers who make the majority of their wine with zero dosage. Zero dosage has a bit of a reputation in the wine world as being mouth puckeringly acidic and citric. Zero dosage means that no sugar is added after disgorgement. Champagne makers add a dosage to sweeten the wine, the reason being that the wines may still be a bit thin and acidic due to whatever reasons and so they add sugar to make it a bit more palatable, adding a sweetness to counteract the acidity.
Melanie doesn’t think that adding sugar is the answer. They began making zero dosage in the 1970’s when a client asked her father to make one for him and since then. Her brother Benoit, who is the family winemaker, has upped the production to 80% of their champagne being zero dosage. Her family believe that adding sugar is like adding make-up to an already beautiful woman, she doesn’t need it to be gorgeous. Zero dosage can be tricky because it all goes back to the beginning of the wine making process, they can’t or won’t add sugar later to cover up any mistakes or faults in the wine. That is another quality that makes them stand out, they make the wine first and then they make champagne. There is a distinction. They have to make the best possible base wine so that it can become a zero dosage champagne. Even when they do add a dosage, it is usually less then 6 gr/ltr which qualifies it as an extra brut.
In the snow, we had their zero dosage rosé, which was bursting with red currant and pink grapefruit, finely balanced and very refreshing. I had no idea it was a zero dosage champagne until Melanie told me. What a lovely surprise. We also sampled their NV brut which was again zero dosage. 1/3 chardonnay, 1/3 pinot noir and 1/3 pinot meunier, this wine was crisp and fresh, hints of apricot and nectarine and puff pastry on the nose and palate, mineral notes also peeking through on the finish. A light and crisp wine, this would be perfect with oysters, or as an aperitif.
By now the sun was setting and we moved indoors for the last two wines. The Tarlant L’vigne d’Or 2002. Made from 100% pinot meunier, this was a smashing champagne. Made from her grandfather’s favourite plot, he worked the vines well into his 80’s and even after he retired he would still advised Melanie’s father on how to treat the vines. The vines are over 50 years old but still yield grapes that reflect the “Sparnacien” soil. That is the term they use to refer to the land around Epernay which tends to be a combination of chalk and clay. The wine had been aged 7 years on the lees and showed a rich, complex nose of fresh baked brioche and ripe apricots and nectarines. On the palate, it was crisp yet stuffed full of tropical fruits, mangos and quince came to mind, rounded off by a long nutty finish. Who says champagne can’t be 100% pinot meunier and that it doesn’t age well? This champagne put that old saw to the lie. There is however, very little of it made, only 1500 bottles of the Vigne d’Or were produced in 2003.
The last champagne we tried was the Cuvee Louis, named after the first Tarlant to make the family Tarlant sparkling wine, Louis. This is their single vineyard cuvee, the vineyard being situated near the river and being comprised of chardonnay and pinot noir. The vines are over 60 years old. The Louis is a blend of 1998 base wines as well as a little 1996 and 1997 to round it out. The wine spent 11 years on the lees, not being disgorged until 2011. A grand champagne, rich and creamy, fine bubbles emanating from the glass. This wine was a pastry shop of flavours and aromas, apricot pastries, baked apple pie, and toasted hazelnuts all competing for my attention. An elegant champagne, it is still very fresh and vibrant and I predict it will last for quite a few more years to come.
I can think of worse ways to spend a bitterly cold winter’s afternoon. Champagne Tarlant may not have the market cornered when it comes to zero dosage but they are certainly one of the best around.
Afterwards, we all returned to Caro’s house where we polished off those leftover bottles of Tarlant that Melanie had kindly brought along to have with dinner.