Large tastings are completely pointless and waste fine wine

If you want to know where I sourced this bottle of fizz from or if you do not know what a Special Club Champagne is, head to the end of this article. Otherwise, my rant and note(s) continue right after this paragraph.

Large tastings are utterly pointless (when I say this I ignore getting sozzled as a potential aim of a trade tasting). The same goes for wine shows, trade tastings, magazine panel affairs, competitions and any other occasion at which there are massed ranks of bottles one has to slog through.

That is the problem: massed ranks of bottles. I have been a judge at an Australian wine show, been in panel tastings for magazines, turned up to countless en primeur and portfolio tastings; drinking this bottle of Champagne threw into sharp relief how little I learned about all those thousands of wines I have tasted.

Let me take a magazine panel tasting as an example. At a typical event like this I would normally have to try about 40 different wines in about an hour. If we use those numbers, it means you have about 90 seconds to spend with each wine. During this time you have to go through the somewhat involved process of sniffing, slurping and spitting the wine, condensing your thoughts into a note, write down the most interesting technical and flowery parts of the massive, sprawling note you have constructed in your mind and (no idea how I managed this part but, I am ashamed to admit, I did it loads of times) attach a number to the wine that is somehow a coherent quality assessment of all the characteristics of the wine you smelled and tasted (madness).

Of course, there is the issue of palate fatigue. In the Australian wine competition I had to taste just over 100 booze infused fruit-bombs with tannins added to them in the fermentation vats (I bet all the bastards bloody did that!). Hell’s bells, my tongue was like leather after that and sniffing so many extremely alcoholic wines made me understand why glue sniffers can die instantly – the concentrated solvent fumes make them want to.

Even if we ignore that, smelling, tasting and recording the qualities of a wine in a few minutes is simply not a reasonable method of judging any fine wine. It is an utterly laughable abstraction of how one should enjoy a bottle of quality wine. It may give the appearance of being objective and scientific but, firstly, taste and smell are not things that one can objectively measure and record, no matter how white the walls are painted or the degree of natural light illumination in the room.

Secondly, in your minute or few you are only really seeing a snapshot of that wine as it is during that minute when you have a tiny dribble in your glass. If you only have a dribble in your glass that you are having when a bottle is popped and you have a minute or two to drink it either too many people have been invited to the party or your host is being a mean philistine.

The Editor and I drank this bottle over half an hour before dinner was ready. I would have loved to spend longer with it and come back to it after our stew, but we had drank it all a few minutes before the oven timer pinged – magnums are a deeply under-rated format. Why longer? Let me give you the note!

Gimonnet Special Club 2012Champagne Special Club 2012, Pierre Gimonnet et Fils

Right, I will start off by giving you the magazine 90 second assessment and review:

Nice toasty, bready, nutty nose. Seems to have some power to it but a bit tight. Lemon fruit on the palate with a fine mousse and good grip on the finish. All very tight and wound up, needs 5+ years age to show well.

All very clear and precisely summarised, no? Allow me to give you the full half hour with The Editor and my half of the bottle:

It does seem to have a lot of density and power tightly wound up in a core of lemon and stone aromas. It seems like a very young but very flash Chablis in aspect – a Dauvissat or serious Fevre Cru that needs time for the obvious acidity to resolve and the power behind it all to develop and express itself more clearly.

There are loads of autolytic, bready, toasty aromas on the nose and palate, the characters of young Champagne that has been kept on lees for a long time in bottle.

At this stage I am thinking my two bottles of 2010, a better vintage, will need at least five more years before I dare touch them, right now this is so closed and tight… Ah… But is it so closed and tight?

Over the ten minutes we have been discussing that this is a young tight wine of high acidity and focussed precision it has rather blossomed in the glass and become more open and powerful.

There is now a limestone creaminess to it and the acidity seems much less dominant on the palate, even seeming relatively low for a Champagne. It has relocated itself from Chablis to the Cote de Beaune. I have often found Chassagne-Montrachet wines to smell a bit of flat Champagne, and this smells a bit like fizzy Chassagne. Rather good Chassagne at that!

The density and power are still a little reserved, but this no longer seems a wine for the long haul. Some ageing required, but not much as it has developed to be quite giving and rather charming. What a lovely, complex, engaging drink!

The autolytic characters also seem reduced, it is not a young Champagne anymore, it is opening up and getting ready for you to dive in and have a good time.

Indeed, as we have been talking about this the autolytic characters have almost disappeared and all that power and density that were shying away 25 minutes ago are now dominating the wine.

It really does not seem very acidic for a Champagne, although the acidity is in perfect balance with the hugely powerful lemony, nutty, limestone-y characteristics.

It is an enormous wine of huge depth, great complexity and really serious weight. It is very stylish and simply oozes grandeur and class. In our progression through Burgundy we are now using words normally reserved for the greatest Crus in the Cote de Beaune!

Clearly up for drinking now, given over 25 minutes since popping, I have totally re-assessed my need to age my 2010s, they will be popped soon and slowly consumed to witness the incredible blossoming that this wine has shown. From closed and tight Chablis to (possibly) Cote de Beaune Grand Cru in half an hour! From needing 5+ years to being ripe and ready for plucking now! Such development and enhancement, just by spending a bit of time with the bottle.

Clearly a great, great Champagne of prodigious scale and exquisite balance, even though it is massively powerful. Angels that dance on the head of a pin must be muscly bleeders who drink Gimonnet Special Club given its balance between refined sophistication and deeply compelling power. Utterly delectable! Brilliant! Amazing! We would never have experienced this great evolution and development of the wine if we had just had 90 seconds with a tasting sample from a freshly opened bottle.

A true delight, I wish I could stay with it for longer and see if it reaches higher levels of complex harmony and strength, but my glass and the bottle are empty, and we must go and eat. At least now I will not ruin my 2010s by thinking they need to age for an age! They, too, will provide a lot of pleasure as we and our guests follow their development after popping, will we be able to be restrained enough to follow them to their zenith or will we swig with such delight only our stomachs will witness the final peak.

You would never have seen any of that greatness if you were tasting at one of those pointless, god-awful, large tastings.


What is a Special Club Champagne

Before I tell you what a Special Club Champagne is, I would like to thank The Champagne Company for their excellent service when I purchased a corked bottle from them. I had ordered the last three 2010 Gimonnet Champagne ‘Special Club’ they had in stock. The first bottle I popped was corked; alas this will happen until we all grow up and accept screwcaps on our wines.

I dropped them an email saying I wanted a replacement rather than my money back (who would take money in lieu of a Special Club Champagne?). They did not have any 2010 left but asked if I would wait a few days to see what they could organise. A few days later they admitted defeat in the search for another 2010 and asked if I would accept the next vintage. This was a 2012, and 2012 is a great Champagne vintage. I was told if I could live with a younger wine they would get to me the next day. I accepted the offer and the wine arrived the next day, so good service from The Champagne Company.

As soon as the wine arrived I asked if The Editor would fancy an aperitif and I stuck the bottle in the fridge before he even answered because what sort of loon would turn down a great vintage of a Special Club Champagne from a top producer? Why did I even ask? Tsk, Tsk… Silly me…

Now, let me explain what a Special Club Champagne is. Small growers in Champagne, like Pierre Gimonnet et Fils, may possess some excellent vineyards that produce wine of such a special character they deserve bottling as a Prestige Cuvee. However, making a pimpy bottle and box to put a tiny production of a Prestige Cuvee would be simply uneconomic for a small Champagne House.

Therefore a bunch of growers formed a club for promoting the highest qualities of Champagne vineyards and the wine they produce, without financially punishing each maker. They pay for the bottles as a group (all Special Club bottles are the same no matter the producer) and if a wine makes it through the rigorous tastings of the base wines and the finished fizz they are allowed to be sold in the Special Club bottles and represent the best wines that small growers can make.

Special Club Champagnes are almost always worth buying if you see them; they really are some of the best wines Champagne has to offer. They are coruscating demonstrations of how the best vines in the best vineyards produce serious kit. They will normally be better than all but the best Prestige Cuvees the Grand Marques have to offer, whilst selling at a fraction of the price. If you see a Special Club on a wine list, forget everything else and get that. You will not be disappointed.

So what makes this 2012 Gimonnet worthy of the exalted Special Club status?

For a start it has been made from some pretty flash vineyards. It is a pure Chardonnay from the Cote des Blancs with 60% of the grapes coming from the Grand Cru village of Cramant, 30% from the Grand Cru Chouilly and 10% from the Premier Cru of Gimonnet’s home village of Cuis. It would not be a Gimonnet wine without some Cuis in it.

Now, my chum Ian made the point in a comment on my last tasting note that the percentage system used to rank entire villages as Grand Cru, Premier Cru or lower is quite silly. Not even in Vosne-Romanee are all the vineyards worthy of Grand Cru status; there are definite qualitative differences in vineyards within a village.

However, if it is of any consolation, we are told that Gimonnet have some of the finest holdings of the oldest vines in these villages. I know their Cuis vineyards are certainly bloody good, but they are only ranked as Premier Cru along with every other vineyard in the village – honestly!

Another facet of this wine’s quality comes from the fact that it started its fermentation in bottle in April 2013 and was not disgorged until July 2017. That is a long time on yeast lees. Such treatment should result in pronounced autolytic, bready, toasty characteristics in the final wine. So serious grapes, treated unusually seriously and thus, a Special Club!

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