The launch of the latest vintage, 2012 Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill, had an elegiac air on Tuesday. The release always honours our great statesman but, coming just hours after the death of wine legend Steven Spurrier, the official tasting was a time for reflection as well as celebration. It was more than just one great man we were remembering. As for Pol’s top cuvée, made in the style that Churchill favoured, the good news is that this 19th vintage is an astounding wine – up there with the very best this House has ever produced. Peter Dean reports and provides full tasting notes.
“Sir Winston Churchill would have loved this vintage if he was still alive and would have asked us to put aside the whole production for himself.” Hubert de Billy.
It was fitting that, with the news just having broken about Steven Spurrier’s death, the launch of 2012 Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill was prefaced by a moving tribute to Spurrier by James Simpson MW, head of Pol Roger Portfolio. Glasses of the new stupendous cuvée were dutifully raised by the 60-plus attendees of the virtual tasting including, from Epernay, our hosts Hubert de Billy, great-great-grandson of Pol Roger, and its president Laurent d’Harcourt who both counted Spurrier as a great friend of the House.
A ‘connected’ family business
Family and relationships are central to the Sir Winston Churchill cuvée, of course, in particular the friendship between Odette Pol-Roger and Sir Winston Churchill, although by the time the two actually met in 1945, Churchill had already cemented his love of Pol Roger Champagne. The uniqueness and significance of this family connection has been replayed on many an occasion and is well summed up here in this feature by David Kermode.
The Sir Winston Churchill cuvée is only made in the best vintages with the best Grand Crus grapes in the style Churchill favoured – “robust, a full-bodied character and relative maturity”. The exact proportions of grape varieties used is a closely-guarded family secret although it is made almost entirely with Pinot Noir, with a small proportion of Chardonnay, which brings “acidity and a strong backbone” to the expression that’s important for “long ageing”, according to Pol Roger president, Laurent d’Harcourt.
The first vintage made of Sir Winston Churchill was from the 1975 harvest and the cuvée was launched at Churchill’s birthplace, Blenheim Palace in 1984 in magnums only.
In a touching bow to tradition, the kind that the wine industry does so well, Pol Roger never releases the latest cuvée of Sir Winston Churchill, this being the 19th, until the Churchill family has given the wine its blessing.
Pol Roger’s style has changed since Churchill’s day, and also part of its provenance – with Hubert de Billy explaining that the House has recently expanded its network of growers, albeit not quite enough to satiate the growing international demand for the wine.
This new release is also the first Sir Winston Churchill to be made entirely in Pol Roger’s new facilities and the last vintage under the stewardship of retired chef de caves Dominique Petit. De Billy explained that with a greater number of smaller tanks, smaller plots can be kept separate during vinification which gives a greater level of choice come the blending. He also says that it brings greater levels of precision to the winemaking, although with less charm – the previous winery he described as being like a kitchen.
“When I arrived in 1988 we only had 10 vats in steel and now we have 100 – it’s clear (the facilities) has less charm …but when you taste the base wines you can see the quality. Now with 100% cool decanting we have wine that is cleaner, finer and more elegant and we can play more. We are also much more strict than we used to be – in terms of selection.”
2012 as a vintage
As for 2012 as a vintage, it is noted for its warm summer that saved a turbulent growing season that started with one of the coldest winters in recent memory (down to -20C), followed by Spring frosts and hail. The summer saved the day with Pol Roger starting the harvest on September 10th and ending on the 26th.
As for the wines themselves, 2002 is a comparison that is drawn – the 2012s having a similar combination of strength/ power and finesse and approachability on release.
“Tasting the 2012 it is a mix between 2002 and 2008,” says de Billy, “you have the intensity and vivacity of 2002 and at the opposite end you have the spicy aspect of the 2008.”
The wine was bottled in 2013 and disgorged in July 2020, slightly earlier than normal, a decision taken “so that the wine would be enjoyable at its launch” explains d’Harcourt.
The 2012 comes a year after the launch of Sir Winston Churchill 2009, there were two years when conditions were not right for the cuvée – 2010 and 2011 – and d’Harcourt is anticipating the 2013 to come out in Spring 2022, following that the next vintages will be 2015, 2018, 2019 and 2020 “if we have the blessing of the Churchill family,” he adds.
In terms of sales, 2020 is described as an amazing year sales-wise by d’Harcourt with volume and value down just 5% and 4% respectively from 2019, which was spectacular for Pol Roger in terms of US shipments. One factor cited by him for buoyant 2020 sales was “we were not exposed to Duty Free sales, airlines and big restaurant group contracts.” Pol Roger is currently selling 1.8m bottles per annum “replacing what we are selling.”
The new facilities does give the House increased capacity but for that yields need to increase beyond the current 9,000 kilos per hectare. This will enable the House to bring in new markets in South America and Asia without taking allocation off the existing market.
“Sir Winston Churchill would have loved this vintage if he was still alive and would have asked us to put aside the whole production for himself,” de Billy laughed, only half in jest.
So how was the wine tasting?
Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill 2012
Rarely have I tried a top Champagne cuvée that has been showing so well and approachable on release – a wine that combines both opulence and freshness, thrilling acidity and balance, maturity and youth.
Medium to deep gold; vigorous mousse; an opulent nose that starts with a Golden Delicious note but quickly unwinds into something altogether richer and more complex – salted buttery shortbread, tarte aux pommes, pastry cream, grilled nuts. On the palate the wine is bracing, bright, with taut acidity that then develops in the mouth to reveal a structure that has a broad and generous side. There are layers and layers of flavour, detailed and pixilated, with flavours of red apples, pink grapefruit flesh, salted pie crust, caramel creaminess and a twist of buttered Viennoiserie with acacia honey. There is a chalky, saline note on the finish.
Up there with the very best Sir Winston Churchill – getting hold of it and keeping it cellared for 10 years are the only issues, although this is drinking magnificently now. Dosage is 7 gms/ litre, the wine will retail at £200 per bottle.
The Champagne is imported into the UK by Pol Roger Portfolio, which is a supplier partner of The Buyer. To discover more about them click here.