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Delhi Wine Club

Posted: Monday, January 18 2010. 17:52

Wine Tasting: Popping Pol Roger Champagne

Laurent d”Harcourt, Export Manager and Director of Pol Roger, one of the few remaining family owned Champagne Houses was in Delhi popping six labels including the well-known Winston Churchill Cuvee at the Orient Express Restaurant at the Taj Palace Hotel last Friday afternoon. Subhash Arora shares the experience.

Photos By:: Adil Arora

Tom Stevenson is to Champagne as Robert Parker is to Bordeaux wines. He is the best and most respected Champagne critic in the world, said Sanjay Menon, welcoming the full house, a majority seemingly from the hotel. My copy of The Wine Report 2009, a highly respected and unbiased annual almanac of the wine industry consistently rates Pol Roger at the number 2 spot as the quality Champagne- the top rated Krug being at a higher price point, emphasizes Sanjay.

Laurent briefly goes through the history of the winery and the lifetime love of Winston Churchill for the Champagne so profound that the winery decided to honour him a decade after his death in 1965 and bring out a Cuvee as a tribute to him, releasing the ’75 vintage  on his death anniversary on June 6, 1984. If he had been alive, he would have loved it, he said.

He went on to add that Pol Roger (pronounces as Ro- zhay please, and not Ro-jhuh or Rodger!) had taken the permission from the Churchill family to carry on using the name for this Cuvee and that’s how it had reached us as the piece de resistance Champagne of the afternoon, always a crowed puller.

Pol Roger is a very small estate owning 87-88 hA in about 50 villages, making only 1.5 million bottles in an appellation that disgorges around 300 million bottles every year. About 80% of its output is exported to 85 countries including India through Sonarys owned by Sanjay Menon.

But why suddenly the export push to India, I asked Sanjay innocently, and how are they going to beat the Goliath, the ubiquitous Moet Chandon with an international presence of over 40 million bottles. Earlier the Moet’s team was very strong in India. But of late, their grip seems to be loosening. I am sure we shall have a better chance of competing with then now.

Laurent has a lot of respect for the giants too. ‘Don’t forget they are the ones who created the market for small producers like us. Wherever the markets mature, producers like us have a shot at the market. So we are happy that they are there. Our production is so small and the quality so unique that we have no trouble in finding our market.

‘But we are still aiming higher and getting better,’ adds Laurent.

It is an interesting and relevant comment from a small, well established Champagne house that uses the must from first press only and sells that from the second press to outside bottlers in bulk, thus using the clearest juice. They also use grapes only from the Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards for fermentation (for the uninitiated, Champagne has the system of rating the vineyards as in Burgundy and the price of grapes is reflective of the vineyard classification). The 35m underground cellars keep the ambient temperature cold at 10-11° C which helps the bottles undergoing the second fermentation a lot of finesse to the final product.

The Champagne laws require the second fermentation and laying the bottles for 15 months whereas Pol Roger keeps it on the lees for 3 years to give a smoother texture and improve the quality, says Laurent. Riddling is done by machines in most champagne houses- but not at Pol Roger. It is one of the very few Houses still maintaining the manual procedure perhaps because of the belief that dead yeast can be brought down to the neck with better control due to the option of applying varying pressure by expert riddlers, four of whom have been employed for the job in the winery.

Tasting the Real thing

The Pol Roger Brut Nature NV was the first one to come to the stand. With zero dosage ( 0-15 gms of sugar known as dosage, is added before sealing the bottle) it was a clean, pure, light bodied Champagne that was well balanced and crisp, very dry but not steely dry and slightly coarse. As Laurent said, it would be great for Oysters but not a crowd pleaser. I won’t mind trying it with some fried Indian finger foods-like non spicy cheese pakoras or fish fingers which would surely match the next champagne tasted.

The trend was followed in the next label, a Brut Reserve NV, also made from the traditional mix of grapes. This one was sharper with fresh floral and elegant aromas, medium bodied wine a lot of finesse and charm. The millions of tiny bubbles tingled the tongue nicely.
The Blanc de Blanc ’99 was more elegant with more yeasty flavour and buttery texture, still not heavy on the palate. This was followed by the 2000, a ‘00 Rose and finally the 2000 Winston Churchill Cuvee which Late Mr. Churchill would have surely loved.

If the house style was any indicator, it was light and elegant and with a lot of finesse and a long impression on the palate. 

Mr. Winston Churchill was not known for his love for India. He was not even keen on independence for India which we finally got in 1947- he was twice the UK Prime Minister, the first time as the War PM only till 1945. My thoughts were about him when I took a refill in his memory and feeling he might turn in his grave thinking that the poor Indians were drinking Champagne made in his memory. It tasted even more delicious than the fist time.

I realized he would note with satisfaction that our government was still in the shackles of hypocrisy that made the Cuvee Winston Churchill beyond the reach of most Champagne lovers with the extremely high duties and that ought to give him the last laugh.

Subhash Arora


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