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I arrived at the door of 67 Pall Mall, on Prince Charles’s London doorstep, to find a cloud of dust and three builders. One directed me down the front steps by the old coal holes into the basement. There, a particularly smart tasting room was laid out classroom-style, with bright overhead light designed to simulate daylight, and a bevy of highly qualified sommeliers getting ready to serve 750 glasses of champagne at the first tasting event to be held in London’s new wine-minded club.
I had last seen this basement of the former Hambros bank with 67 Pall Mall’s founder, former hedge fund manager Grant Ashton, when it was little more than a rundown warren of windowless offices and a strongroom.
But the bottom three floors of this Edwin Lutyens building are being transformed into a members’ club with smart hotel decor, a restaurant and a chance for people to sip wines at lower-than-restaurant prices — or their own wines kept in the club’s cellars. The official opening is projected, somewhat warily, for the middle of next month.
Our tasting, following a choice of superior champagne aperitifs, had the bold theme of comparing magnums and bottles of six of the most luxurious champagnes blind, to see whether we could work out which had been poured from a bottle and which from a larger container supposedly likely to age wine more slowly and for longer. This arcane exercise had been dreamt up by Nick Baker, proprietor of another fledgling enterprise, The Finest Bubble. Baker is a wine trade veteran who claims to have identified a gap in the market for a company that offers same-day delivery of top-quality champagne.
He certainly couldn’t be accused of a lack of engagement. The day before this ambitious tasting for 56 paying guests, he invited me to a blind tasting at his home of all five unusually consecutive Dom Pérignons released from the 2002 to 2006 vintages. As soon as we finished, he insisted on opening a bottle of the 1999 — for calibration purposes — and after I had left, disappointed by the relatively advanced state of the first bottle of his beloved 2002 Dom Pérignon, I’m told he opened a second (he sells it for £146.95 a bottle).
The first thing to say about the results of this delicious bottle v magnum tasting (which would have been a treat even if we’d tasted only from bottle sizes) is that they were inconclusive. Only one of the 47 tasters who registered to vote on their iPhones correctly identified which were the bottles and which the larger sizes. However, the majority of the crowd overall correctly identified which was the magnum in all cases except for the off-putting first pair. This duo of Taittinger, Comtes de Champagne 2002s, of which one had clearly the more developed bouquet, led most of us to guess it was the bottle when, in fact, it was the magnum. A disconcerting start.
As specialist champagne taster Simon Stockton pointed out from the back row, there are just so many variables other than bottle size that are likely to affect the results. Fortunately, Nick Baker had eliminated one of the most important — storage conditions — for all but one pair, having bought most of the wines direct from their UK importer. The only pair in which provenance varied considerably was the Pol Roger, Winston Churchill 1998, one of the most robust, cigar-smoking champagnes, of which the bottle was the only champagne to have been bought on the secondary market and which displayed a level of evolution that to me bordered on oxidation — although, to my surprise, it was preferred overall to the magnificently tense magnum bought straight from importers Pol Roger UK.
But the other variables include the quality of the corks, and the amount of dosage — the mix of champagne and sugar with which most champagnes are topped up just before the final cork is inserted. For some of these wines such as Cristal, magnums are dosed six months later than bottles, with less sugar than regular bottles. And then there’s the date of disgorgement, when the sediment from the second, fizz-inducing fermentation in bottle is frozen and expelled, and the dosage added. In theory, the more recent the disgorgement date, the tighter and less evolved the wine should be.
For some of these pairs, the disgorgement date (disclosed along with provenance once the bottles and larger sizes had been voted on and their identities revealed) was very similar for bottle and magnum, but there were puzzling phenomena. The magnum of Dom Ruinart 1998, for instance, had been disgorged a full year after the bottle, in March 2011 rather than March 2010. But, counter-intuitively, the magnums were mellower, rounder, even sweeter — and one of them suffered from a poor quality cork, which probably dragged down the group score.
I take my chapeau off to anyone who correctly identified the three (not the usual two) different sizes from which Krug 1998 was poured: bottle disgorged way back in October 2007, magnum in spring 2010, and jeroboam (twice as big as a magnum) in autumn 2013. They were all very fine wines of which I liked the one that turned out to be the magnum best, taking it for the jeroboam on account of its tautness.
As for which format the tasters preferred: in all cases except one, the oldest wine Cristal 1996, they preferred the bottle, thereby perhaps demonstrating that there is no point buying magnums unless you are going to hang on to them for a very, very long time — although, as I have explained, most of the tasters took the bottle of Comtes de Champagne 2002 for a magnum. And we all acknowledged what a treat it was to taste such a mature vintage of Cristal when so much of this popular wine has traditionally been necked in an infant state — the wine not the drinker.
Nick Baker and his team were also able to demonstrate how we all, particularly the women, tended to become more generous with our scores as the evening wore on. Funny that.
Tasting notes on Purple Pages of JancisRobinson.com
Illustration by Graham Roumieu
Favourite prestige champagnes
Group scores out of 20 for the six wines were in this order for the more common bottle format but I think the tasting order (from young to old) may well have played a part. My personal scores for the bottle size of these wines are in brackets. Prices below are The Finest Bubble’s for single bottles. For other stockists see Winesearcher.com
• Louis Roederer, Cristal 1996 17.4 (19), £499.95
• Krug 1998 16.9 (18.5), £255
• Pol Roger, Sir Winston Churchill 1998 16.7 (17.5), £285
• Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs 1998 16.1 (18.5), £149
• Taittinger, Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs 2002 15.9 (19), £165
• Bollinger RD 2002 15.4 (18), £169.95