I was first introduced to Pol Roger champagnes at Rust en Vrede a number of years ago, poured by then sommelier Neil Grant, at the insistence of a guest house friend who had invited us to dinner. Yesterday I was lucky enough to be part of a small group of twelve (mainly wine) writers to celebrate the launch of the latest Pol Roger vintages at Burrata, of which Neil is now the co-owner. As Burrata is one of my (few) special restaurants, and the champagne brand impressed me then, I needed no encouragement to accept the invitation!
I had met the charming Johannesburg-based Derek Kilpin (right), General Manager and co-owner of Great Domaines, the importers of mainly French wines, at a French-themed evening last year at Wild Peacock in Stellenbosch, and was lucky enough to sit next to him then. He introduced each of the five Pol Roger champagnes which we tasted, but encouraged everyone to relax and to enjoy the champagnes and lunch, superbly prepared by Chef Annemarie Steenkamp and her team. A surprise was meeting Barry Engelbrecht (left), a very reclusive Burrata co-owner and pizza master chef, who was at the pizza oven. I am unable to resist the prosciutto and fig pizza at Burrata.
We received a glass of Pol Roger Non Vintage Brut on arrival, Derek introducing the Pol Roger range to us, and sharing that Great Domaines has been distributing the brand for the past six years. He praised Neil for his knowledge of and loyalty to Pol Roger, a brand which was first launched in 1849, and of which 1,5 million bottles are produced annually (compared to 35 million bottles of Möet et Chandon, for example). A Non Vintage champagne is hardest to make, he explained, in that it has to be consistent with that of previous years, given that three different grape varieties (equal portions of Pinot Noir for structure, Pinot Meunier for the fruit taste, and Chardonnay for the elegance) from 140 different vineyards are used to make this champagne, which costs around R550. The vintage champagnes cost about R750. Derek shared that even year vintages since 2000 have been particularly excellent. The champagne house only makes vintage champagnes if the grape quality is good enough, and therefore has skipped all the uneven years in the past twelve years. Derek shared that Pol Roger employs four of only ten certified riddlers left in Champagne, who turn about 60000 bottles per day in the 7km of caves below the winery.
I enjoyed speaking to Tracy van Maaren, an independent distributor in the Cape, also representing the Great Domaines brands, and she told me that she focuses on small specialist retailers such as Caroline’s and Vaughn Johnson, and that Pol Roger is served in restaurants such as Burrata, Rust en Vrede (serving it by the glass too), Terroir, Tokara, The Test Kitchen, and Aubergine. An increasing number of champagne brands are being made available in our country, she said, making it a very competitive market.
The Pol Roger Brut 2002 is made from 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay, and was on the lees for nine years (the minimum requirement in Champagne is three years), fermentation having taken place in stainless steel tanks, giving it a clean and precise character, and was described as ‘spectacular’ by Derek. It was paired with a starter with a name that was mouthwatering in itself, being a rich and creamy Tokai Forest porcini mushroom risotto. The mushrooms were foraged for Chef Annemarie by Ross. This was followed by a perfectly pan-seared kingklip, which was served with saffron potatoes, fennel, capers, and sultanas, and was paired with the Pol Roger Blanc de Blanc 2002, made from 100% Chardonnay, one of the more popular champagnes, in part due to 2002 being such a good year.
The third course of a delicate duck breast, with toasted almonds, cavatelli (a non-egg pasta made from semolina, Chef Annemarie explained), chestnut crema, maize, and roast Jerusalem artichokes, was paired with Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill 2000. It spent eleven years on the lees and is predominantly made from Pinot Noir. It was released (initially in magnum size) in 1975 in honour of the British Prime Minister, seventeen years after his death. Sir Winston became a close friend of Odette Pol-Roger and was a passionate drinker of a bottle of Pol Roger a day, loving the tipple so much that he named one of his racehorses after the brand! The friendship was so close that all Pol Roger labels had a black border around them when the statesman passed away. The dessert was a colourful sour cherry spuma, served with poached rhubarb, pomegranate, marshmallow, and vanilla ice cream, which was paired with the Pol Roger Rosé 2004, made from 65% Pinot Noir and 35% Chardonnay, to which still wine was added to give it colour, Derek explained.
The superb lunch paired with the superb Pol Roger champagnes proved how effectively each course of a meal can be paired with champagnes.
Disclosure: We received a gift pack of two champagne glasses and a 375ml bottle of Pol Roger Réserve Brut.
Burrata, The Old Biscuit Mill, 373 Albert Road, Woodstock, Cape Town. Tel (021) 447-6505. www.burrata.co.za Twitter: @BurrataSA Monday – Saturday, Lunch and Dinner.
Great Domaines, Tel (011) 778-9355. www.greatdomaines.co.za Twitter: @GreatDomaines @Pol_Roger
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @WhaleCottage