These notes accompany our in-depth feature on Vintage Champagne.
Pol Roger is one of the best-loved names in Champagne. The house has had a long and particular association with the UK, perhaps immortalised by Sir Winston Churchill, who was a life-long devotee of the house.
I met with Pol Roger’s charming and welcoming Chief Executive Patrice Noyelle, who has steered this house since 1997 along with Christian Pol Roger and Hubert de Billy of the owning families. Patrice spent many years running the house of Mommessin in Burgundy, and he sees his job as blending the best of Pol Roger’s illustrious past, with a more modern thinking. This extends from a subtle but telling re-working of Pol Roger’s packaging, to the massive investment in technology in the cellars.
Pol Roger remains a family house, owned jointly by the Pol Roger and de Billy families, and is of a moderate size, producing around 1.5 million bottles annually. Their cellars in Epernay are a wonderful labyrinth of slumbering bottles stretching under the city streets, yet up above the 19th century buildings contain a gleaming array of purpose-built tanks and vinification technology that speaks of recent, and considerable investment.
Amongst other innovations is a brand new wine, Pol Roger zero dosage cuvée. From the annual production of 1.5 million bottles, 300,000 are vintage wines: Pol Roger Vintage, Chardonnay Vintage, Rosé Vintage and Cuvée Winston Churchill.
Patrice Noyelle says they plan to double production of the latter wine if, but only if, quality can be maintained. I’m sure it is not only Patrice’s Burgundian sensibilities that make this house so committed to vintage wines, nor so committed to terroir, the house owning 50% of its vineyard requirements. These wines – and perhaps particularly the Chardonnay Blanc des Blancs – are clearly conceived as fine wines, to be laid down until ready, and it was on these wines that my tasting was concentrated.
Pol Roger Vintage Blanc de Blanc 1998
Lovely streaming bubbles. Lovely pale lemon colour tinged with light gold and emerald. Hugely aromatic, fragrant nose, with plenty of sherbetty lemon aromas at this stage, but also a fine biscuity creaminess and an underlying herbal, lightly nettly note. On the palate the mousse is opulent yet racy, and the mouth is filled with a lovely weight of broad, generous, almost peachy fruit that is very sweet and full, yet the thrust and precision of the lemony fruit really cuts and supports, giving this terrific length. Beautiful shimmering quality. 92
Pol Roger Vintage Blanc de Blanc 1996
Very bright, distinctive yellow/green. Lovely stream of very steady, miniscule bubbles. Fantastically mineral, almost flinty nose, with A Pouilly-Fuissé quality, lots of herbal notes and plenty of crunchy orchard fruits. A little toasty quality emerging. On the palate the mousse is fine and racy, and a streak of fine, zesty, lemony fruit races across the tongue. It broadens on the mid palate, with an orangey quality. Fabulous wine, tingling with nervosity and with wonderful structure into an elegant, endless finish. 95
Pol Roger Vintage Blanc de Blanc 1995
A rich yellow colour, verging on gold, but still with a tinge of emerald. Fine streaming bubbles, and a nose that his some of the 1996’s minerality and almost flinty notes, but more closed, showing less fruit than the 1996 and a tighter, very sinewy personality. The palate by contrast seems quite broad. The mousse is generous and quite opulent – though still racy and tongue-tingling – and the fat, lemony fruit floods across the palate. There are nutty, quite toasty notes emerging here, but it is a baby, with that tightly structured acidity giving a lemon and grapefruit tang into a long, beautifully poised finish. 94
Pol Roger Vintage Blanc de Blanc 1993
Quite a deep buttercup yellow, but with a distinctly emerald hue. Very tiny bubbles, rising gently and evenly. Plenty of flinty, slightly smoky and schisty qualities, with a little more honey coming through and a little more fat about it. There’s a bruised pear fruit quality showing just the beginnings of maturity, but this is a baby still. On the palate the mousse is quite full and generous, with a huge sweep of fat lemony and lemon-balm fruit, with a creamy background to it, and little complex suggestions of basil and herbs. Terrific acidity here, in a fabulous wine that is decisive without being aggressive and has lovely balance. 94
Pol Roger Vintage Blanc de Blanc 1990
The 1990 still has a distinct emerald hue to rich buttercup yellow. A big, fast stream of miniscule bubbles rises at the centre. The flinty, smoky character that typifies these wines is still there, but it is softened by a rich, Burgundian ripe fruit quality, with nettles and a vegetal quality and a backbone of fine lemon and white fruit. The palate hits with an initially sweet rush of really ripe Chardonnay, with a softening gently persistent mousse. There’s a broadening effect on the mid-palate, with nuances of peach and nectarine, but then waxy lemon and kaffir lime leaf notes add such complexity and tension. The smokiness is there too, and fabulous lemony acidity that cajoles and caresses this wine into a terrifically long finish. 96
Pol Roger Vintage Blanc de Blanc 1988
Still has a brilliant green tinge to its yellow colour. Still a steady but small stream of miniscule bubbles. Very nicely maturing nose, with a lovely toffeed note beginning to emerge. Very fine apple and pear fruit here, with plenty of ripeness and a herbal tinge to the fruit. Gorgeous palate, with plenty of fruit that is sample and generous, but as is characteristic here, all constrained and made elegant by pinpoint acidity that runs like a steel core through this wine. Perhaps lacks the ultimate complexity of the 1990, but delightful and has more time yet. 93/94.
Pol Roger Vintage Blanc de Blanc 1986
Still a green colour to a deepening yellow/gold. Very small bubbles, gently effervescing. An almost Riesling like waxy lime leaf and lemon rind quality, and a mineral smoky note. A little caramel and nutty note comes through. On the palate again there is a little suggestion of Riesling, with that waxiness coming through. The mousse is very gentle, with a seamless quality, leading to a plump, full, fantastically opulent and rich wine that is extraordinarily vinous. 94.
Pol Roger Vintage 1914
What an extraordinary opportunity this was, to taste a wine that, according to Patrice was “Harvested to the sound of cannon fire, but drunk to the sound of victory trumpets.” This is not a Blanc des Blancs, but a 50/50 blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Deep, rich golden colour, slightly hazy, with perhaps a tiny effervescent still discernable. The nose has a fabulously rich opulence, with honey and buttery mint aromas, and a sherried background showing some toffee and nuttiness and touch of wild mushroom. On the palate it is oily and buttery in texture, with plenty of sweetness (this may well have been a rich style), with little notes of Cognac and nuts, and a lovely freshness still. There is still harmony here, with really quite a pure character into the finish, perhaps just showing a little oxidised edge. What a brilliant experience to taste this wine. 95.
Return to our in-depth feature on Vintage Champagne.