written in my kitchen

June 18, 2021


Some serious wines are named in this piece. We are not rich, but we do spend quite a lot of time in the champagne region and visit lots of champagne growers, particularly the smaller but highly prestigious ones. Even buying direct from the vigneron it is a very expensive hobby and causes great damage to the health of your wallet. However we go along with Mme Lilly Bollinger, who famously said “I drink champagne when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it – unless I’m thirsty”.

OK then.

The reason we’ve found it so easy to spend a lot of time in Champagne is the Marne and the Canal Latéral à la Marne. We don’t often go to Epernay, as the Grandes Maisons there tend to be rather touristy and we prefer searching out the smaller vignerons. That’s not to say they don’t produce superb wines along with the more mundane of course, and one vineyard generally rated as among the best is the Clos des Goisses which just happens to be a very steep slope right next to Maroilles lock on the canal.

Any list of top rated champagnes will include Philipponnat’s Clos des Goisses and Salon Le Mesnil. I wrote some while ago about our bad luck with a Clos des Goisses which turned out to be corked, and opened far too long after our purchase (and in a different country) to be able to persuade the seller to do anything about it.

I subsequently spent a whole year’s pocket money buying a 1995 Salon Le Mesnil. Salon is only made in great years, and the grapes are otherwise used for Delamotte’s Blanc de Blancs – itself no mean bottle for all that. So the Salon lay quietly in the dark in our bilges on Friesland for several years, until eventually I could not contain myself any longer and took it to our house in Twickenham in readiness for a ceremonial opening and quaffing.

Di had had a succession of health problems in the latter half of 2013, and they finally seemed to be at an end. So I though that the Salon would serve as a treat for her birthday in March. I got the bottle out quietly when she was not looking, untwisted the wire holding the muselet the standard six twists to release it, held the cork in one hand and twisted from the bottom of the bottle with the other – and nearly broke my wrist with the effort involved! I put my serious face on and tried again. It moved a fraction, so I twisted the opposite way and it moved back again. But the cork had not shown any indication of leaving the bottle.

After several unsuccessful attempts which had drained the strength of my wristhold I gave up and got a pair of grips from my toolbox. I’ll teach it, I thought. I kept to the same technique of holding the cork firm and twisting the bottle, and there was a little movement. It had not actually come any further out of the bottle, but there was definitely movement. So I tried again – and the top of the cork sheared off!

I have often found Selosse’s corks hard to remove, but I’ve always got there in the end; Salon and Philipponnat seemed to have conspired to refuse my desires to drink their nectar. Just to show them I couldn’t care less I opened a bottle of Diebolt-Valois’ 1998 Fleur de Passion from neighbouring Cramant instead. I’d hate to choose between them, but the real experts do generally give Salon a slight lead and I’d have to believe them. In fact for these particular millésimes champagne expert Richard Juhlin awards 1995 Salon and 1998 Diebolt Fleur de Passion 95/100 each. Certainly Di had no complaints.

How did we get to compare? I did consider the flamboyant trick of taking the top off the bottle with a sabre, but I’ve not got one. So the following week I tried a more prosaic standard corkscrew in the remnants still embedded in the neck of the bottle. I didn’t go in too deep as I didn’t want to go through into the wine, but after a moment when it seemed as if the corkscrew was stretching it was the cork itself that started to tear. I carefully dusted off the cork pieces and put the corkscrew in a bit more firmly – and the cork dropped down into the bottle!! So we got to drink the Salon, and very nice it was indeed. There weren’t actually any small pieces in the wine, and as far as I know the part-cork that did go in did not affect the taste detrimentally. So do I give up on wines of such repute now, or should I amass another ton of pennies and try again?

Perhaps I might see if I can get the cork out of a Krug next time.