Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The New Rosé

As I was drinking Aubry’s 2000 Sablé Rosé on Sunday morning for breakfast (eggs over-easy, thick-cut bacon, fried potatoes, homemade biscuits—after all, I am in America), I thought about how much the world of rosé champagne is changing. In the past, rosé used to be almost an afterthought for many houses, involving a blend of some red wine into the basic non-vintage brut without much real creativity about it. Sure, a few houses made some serious, ageworthy rosés with a great deal of personality (such as the lovely 1981 Cristal Rosé I had the privilege of drinking on Christmas), but by and large, rosé champagne became treated as a fruity, easygoing wine, often with an excessively high dosage, made mostly for the export market. Today, rosé has the capacity to be much, much more than that.

The Sablé Rosé is a fine example of a wine that is expanding the definition of what rosé champagne can be. Made by a very light maceration of pinot noir, its color is adjusted with one or two percent of red wine before it’s blended with chardonnay, usually around 40 percent. It’s made with a very low pressure, only four bars instead of six, which seems to accentuate its intense vinosity of fruit, and it’s released with an extremely low dosage, giving it an austere and penetrating intensity. This is certainly not a wine for everyone, and in fact many wine drinkers might not like it at all, but it’s an exceptionally well-made champagne, one that pushes boundaries, explores possibilities and asks questions. Also, even though it contains 40 percent of chardonnay vinified en blanc, it’s a highly original wine that operates firmly within the world of rosé champagne, and it really has nothing to do with its white counterpart. The 2000, at eight years of age, seems to have reached its apogee, and I don’t see any advantage in aging it further. The color has dropped out a little, appearing slightly more coppery in tone than it was when this wine was released, but the fruit is still fresh and lively, showing a full, confident depth of aroma and balancing a taut core of strawberry and redcurrant flavors with more mature notes of wood smoke and exotic spice. It’s delicious and intriguing, and if you’ve still got any bottles hanging around in your cellar, I would drink them up, with pleasure.

Aubry’s Sablé has a personality all its own, but there are a number of other rosé champagnes that demonstrate a similarly unbridled originality, vinosity and depth of character. Cedric Bouchard’s Le Creux d’Enfer and Bertrand Gautherot’s Saignée de Sorbée are two of my favorite rosés in all of Champagne, and they are both single-vineyard, vintage-dated, macerated rosés of rare expression and conviction. What’s additionally interesting is that while they each come from very different aesthetics, they are both arguably the finest, most complex and most emblematic wines of their respective estates, and regarded as such by their creators. Selosse’s rosé can also be appreciated within a similar context of originality, as could the as yet unreleased rosés from Olivier Collin and Jérôme Prévost. Larmandier-Bernier’s Rosé de Saignée is certainly one of the most original rosés in the region, feeling more like a light red wine in its intensity and depth, while Laherte’s Les Beaudiers is a fascinating, single-vineyard saignée that’s less widely known now but sure to attract more attention in the future.

Wines like these definitely represent an extreme end of the category, and even if some of these are a little too weird and wild for you, the world of rosé champagne has a great deal to offer. Among more approachable wines, René Geoffroy’s saignée rosé is an unabashed celebration of Cumières pinot noir, with its bold fruitiness and extroverted flavors, while across the mountain in Ambonnay, Paul Déthune’s offers an equally poignant expression of terroir. Vilmart’s vintage-dated Grand Cellier Rubis possesses a rare elegance and aristocratic finesse, and in the category of what could be called “blanc de blanc” rosés—those that are made by adding red wine to pure chardonnay—Agrapart’s Les Demoiselles demonstrates an exemplary balance and purity. Moving into the mainstream, even négociant houses are upping the ante with high-quality offerings of rosé, and so far I’ve been impressed with the non-vintage rosés from both Bollinger and Charles Heidsieck. Rosé champagne is a category of wine that’s definitely on its way up, and no longer a second-class citizen of the region—there are many wines that are worthy of serious attention, and rosé champagne still has new territory to continue to explore.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Buddy System

There’s something to be said for opening a single bottle of wine and savoring it by itself over an entire evening, appreciating it for its individuality of character. At the same time, when I drink a really great bottle of wine, I often find that I enjoy it most when it’s drunk alongside another wine that relates in some way. This is not to qualitatively compare the two, as most people mistakenly believe when I say this. I’m not really interested in which wine is “better”. Rather, I find that it gives me a greater understanding of each wine, by establishing a wider context in which to place it. It might not sound like much, having a sampling of only two wines, but it’s surprising how often the conjunction of two wines will trigger an idea or a memory that might not have occurred if they were experienced alone.

Dinner at Castagna in Portland, Oregon, last night with a small group of friends is probably not a good example of this, as we were perhaps a bit decadently excessive, but I did think about this idea throughout the course of the evening. Our selected theme was nebbiolo, as it’s one of our favorite things in the whole world, and no further stipulations were given, so between the six of us, a rather haphazard and intriguing assembly of ten wines appeared on the table. In attempting to arrange some sort of reasonable approach to attacking all of these, we decided that it would be interesting to pair up a number of wines.

Getting directly down to business, we opened with two Barbarescos from 1964: a lovely, perfumed Franco Fiorina, which showed an amazing expansion of aroma on the palate and an intensely floral, rosy fragrance; and a Francesco Rinaldi, which was much more corpulent and meaty, possessing rich aromas of dried porcini and hung game. The 1964 vintage was outstanding in Barbaresco, with some producers considering it to be the finest of the decade, and I’ve always thought of it as having a somewhat generous and aromatic character, which was certainly expressed in these two examples. (A third Barbaresco, the 1961 Pio Cesare, seemed to be lonely and all alone without a partner, but it turned out to be terrible anyway, very pruny and stewed, with unpleasant volatility.)

We moved on to an unlikely pairing of Barolo, resulting from two stellar wines that didn’t have immediately obvious relationships to any others, yet this turned out to be one of my favorite periods of the evening. The 1978 Teobaldo Cappellano Barolo was superb, still youthful and far from optimal maturity, but showing a subtly graceful refinement and a kaleidoscopic, tar- and truffle-infused complexity. Even more viscerally alluring was the 1964 Marcarini Barolo Brunate Riserva di Famiglia, which, if I were tied down and forced to choose, would be my candidate for wine of the night. Utterly gorgeous in its silky, elegantly floral perfume, it finished with an amazing sense of dimension, complexity and completeness, a wine that seemingly takes over your whole body with its subtle grip and profound aroma. I was very surprised to see the alcohol listed on the label as 14.2 percent, as its perfect balance and harmony made it feel more like 12—in fact, it seemed distinctly lighter and more delicate than my memories of the “regular” Marcarini Brunate from 1964. At first glance, these two wines, while both delightfully thrilling to drink, might have seemed too completely different from each other to create any sort of dialogue between them, but as we savored them over the course of the evening, I realized that the relationship here was one of terroir—the Cappellano was likely all from the Serralunga side of the appellation, with its Helvetian soils of limestone and sand, while Brunate is on the Barolo side of the valley, where the soils are Tortonian limestone and marls. Even taking into account the wildly different personalities of the vintages involved, tasting these two wines together emphasized the somewhereness of place in each, highlighting the perfumed Brunate finesse in the Marcarini and pointing out the firm, rigid demeanor of the Cappellano, part of which was indicative of 1978, but another part of which seemed very Serralunga in character. I could be mistaken about the Cappellano’s origins, as I believe that he was purchasing grapes at this time, but as far as I remember the Barolo of the late ’70s should have come largely from Gabutti. Feel free to correct me if I am wrong. The wine certainly tasted like a Serralunga Barolo.

I could have spent all night with those two bottles, but we did have more wine to drink, after all, beginning with a pair of wines from 1958, my favorite Piemontese vintage of all that I have ever tasted. Nothing against other great years such as 1947, 1971, 1978, 1985 or 1989, but the wines from 1958 have a particular resonance, completeness and dimension that always makes my heart beat just a little faster. The 1958 Franco Fiorina Barolo demonstrated the character of the vintage perfectly, with its lithe, fragrant finesse and its seamless harmony, feeling like a perfect sphere in its balance of components. This was another of my favorites of the night, a magical, otherworldly wine. The next 1958 was a Gaja Barbaresco, which was missing its label—had the label been present we might have put it with the other Barbarescos, but having forgotten about it, I was happy to see it here alongside the Franco Fiorina. Silky, floral and elegant, it also clearly demonstrated the character of the vintage, especially in its perfumed and expansive aromas on the finish.

I’ve written before about older Barolo from Giacomo Borgogno, and I was very much looking forward to our next pair of wines, Borgogno’s 1958 and 1947. Unfortunately, this bottle of 1958 was flawed, showing an unpleasantly varnish-like volatility that rendered it undrinkable. It was a great pity, needless to say, as I’ve loved this wine in the past. While I thoroughly enjoyed the bottle of 1947, it was a good example of this wine rather than a great one—it showed finesse, youthfulness and grace, but not the complexity and profundity of aroma that I’ve experienced in previous tastings of this. But that’s just being nitpicky.

We closed the evening with a 1952 Monfortino from Giacomo Conterno, which was a lovely way to finish up. It was classic Monfortino in character, still primary and youthful, with a broodingly rigid build and a long, vividly intense finish. Yet while it was a fantastic wine, and thoroughly, insanely pleasurable to drink, it served to emphasize my point about drinking wine in pairs. It was a wine of obvious class, but I felt that it didn’t show quite the complexity or the multi-dimensional aroma that I remember in the 1955 or 1958 Monfortinos, and I feel that I would have had a more complete understanding of this wine if we could have tasted it alongside another vintage of the era. That’s just the purely selfish greed of my inquisitive curiosity talking, however, and as old vintages of Monfortino have become extremely rare and costly, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to taste it at all. Great wines are great all by themselves too, after all.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Finally


I’ve arrived in wintry Portland, after three days of waiting, and I can finally relax with a glass of champagne, courtesy of my friend Pete. Hope all of you are having a merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Santoka Ramen

I’m supposed to be in Portland, Oregon, at the moment, seeing friends and drinking amazing wines. Unfortunately, nature isn’t cooperating (nor is Delta Airlines, for that matter), so I’m marooned in NYC for a few days. Fortunately, there is plenty of ramen here to keep me occupied.

I finally made it out to the Mitsuwa Marketplace in Edgewater, New Jersey, on Sunday. The idea of a real Japanese market (something larger than, say, Sunrise) was in itself alluring enough, but the true goal of my journey was Santoka, the ramen shop inside the market. Now, we’re not in Tokyo, mind you, but ramen here in New York City inspires fairly heated debate nevertheless. (Unfortunately, the debate is not always very well-informed, but that’s another story.) With the arrival of first Setagaya and then Ippudo, the idea of NYC ramen has become exponentially more intriguing. There are some people, however, who maintain that Santoka is still the finest ramen in the NYC area, and I was keenly interested in putting this opinion to the test.

While Santoka serves shoyu ramen and miso ramen, the specialty here is shio ramen, flavored with salt rather than soy sauce. (Apologies for the poor photography, taken with my iPhone as I didn’t have my camera with me.) My bowl of shio ramen was slightly on the smallish side, although still acceptable for $7.89, and came adorned with fairly standard accompaniments of chashu pork, bamboo shoots, black mushrooms, scallions and a slice of pink-and-white fish cake. (Plus a little umeboshi in the middle, which, quite frankly, I could do without.) The chashu was very good, but rather on the lean side—perhaps better to bring out the chashu flavor, but somewhat less satisfying in the pure porky goodness department. Still, it was delicious, and the next time I go, I will definitely take the option of super-sizing the porky portion for a few cents more. The shio broth was satisfying, lighter in body and distinctly less complex in flavor than that of Setagaya, but with a pleasing balance and harmony. The noodles themselves, though, seemed out of place in the overall context of the bowl, as they were disappointingly industrial and very ordinary in character.

Overall, Santoka is better than anything in Manhattan that starts with an “M”, but the finest ramen in the NYC area? I can’t see it. Granted, an assessment based on one bowl of ramen is hardly fair, and I would certainly go back to Santoka for further exploration. But the lackluster quality of the noodles alone should disqualify it from contention as the greatest ramen in the area. The broth doesn’t reach the heights of either Setagaya or Ippudo (those are two very different things, but they each attain a higher level within their respective styles than Santoka does), and the chashu is a bit lean, although you might like that if you are averse to pork fat (in that case I might question why you were eating ramen in the first place). I would certainly go to Santoka if I were shopping at Mitsuwa—I might consider it mandatory, in fact—but it’s not worth a special trip from the city.

On a completely random note, I managed to get a photo of my four year-old nephew Luca (who has not yet been initiated into the glories of ramen), polishing off a bowl of natto (fermented soybeans) and rice, a bold maneuver that makes him braver than many people ten times his age. Makes an uncle proud.


Santoka, Mitsuwa Marketplace, 595 River Road, Edgewater, NJ

Friday, December 19, 2008

Wine of the Week: Inflorescence La Parcelle Brut Blanc de Noirs 2001

This week, I’m very proud to have a guest posting on my blog for the first time ever. Naturally, I wouldn’t trust just anyone to write on my blog. But brooklynguy, who writes one of my favorite wine blogs, always has astute things to say, and I welcome his contribution. We had dinner together in NYC this week, and among the many wines we drank together was this wonderful La Parcelle by Cédric Bouchard, which I have asked him to write up as my Wine of the Week. The current release of La Parcelle is the 2001, although this is not stated on the label, and curiously, the entire 2,000-bottle production was released exclusively in Japan and the United States, so if you live outside of those countries you won’t be able to find this wine, unfortunately. Cédric Bouchard’s Inflorescence and Roses de Jeanne champagnes are imported into the United States by Polaner Selections, Mt. Kisco, NY; Triage Wines, Seattle, WA; and Vintner Select, Mason, OH.

The following is brooklynguy’s review of this wine, presented entirely as he sent it to me, without edits or amendments:



I’m quite proud to write as a guest here on Besotted Ramblings and Other Drivel. A bit intimidated—this is, after all, the finest source of Champagne information on the internet. But I will do my best to share with you the Wine of the Week: Cédric Bouchard Champagne Inflorescence La Parcelle.

Even within the group of hipster grower/producers, Bouchard is doing some unusual things in Champagne. First of all, his wines are always based on a single vintage—no reserve wines are used. Even when the label says NV, the grapes used all come from the same summer. And even more mavericky, Bouchard makes only single vineyard wines. Yes, this is common everywhere else. No one talks about the Burgundy producer who makes wines individually for each vintage, and from individual vineyards. They all do that in Burgundy, and most everywhere else. Not in Champagne. Only a few producers offer even one single vineyard wine, although that number is rising.

This is not to say that single vintage, single vineyard Champagne is intrinsically better than other wines. Cédric Bouchard’s wines would most likely be fantastic and compelling if he were to blend vintages and parcels. It’s Bouchard and his good land, his great farming and vinification that makes these wines excellent. And in the end, there is something special about drinking the wines and knowing that you drink one specific time and place in the Aube’s Côte des Bar. My friend who drank this wine with us the other night said exactly that: “I’ve never tasted a Champagne like this one.”

Bouchard makes a Blanc de Blancs and several Blanc de Noirs. The wine we drank is a Blanc de Noirs from a vineyard called La Parcelle, all 2001 grapes, and it was just fantastic. The texture is immediately striking, very silky and fine with incredibly tiny bubbles. The nose is so delicate, so refined, and so vinous, with fragrant purple fruit resting on top of mushroomy earth. There is a definitely umami sense to the nose. The wine is richly expressive and broad, yet somehow completely contained and elegant. There is delicious dark fruit that is subtly infused with chalk, great clarity and focus, and a ridiculously long finish of dark fruit and flowers. This wine is delicate enough that I wouldn’t want to risk it with food—this is one to savor on its own.

Now, what if I told you that 2001 was one of the worst Champagne vintages in recent history? Can you imagine how good the 2002 version of this wine will be, for example? This wine is not cheap at $100 retail, but if you love Champagne it’s worth every penny. Production is small—usually a few hundred cases of each wine, and people are catching on quickly. There is a good chance that Bouchard’s wines will become much more expensive in the next 10 years, and even more difficult to find. If you haven’t done so already, it might be worth trying one now while it’s relatively easy.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Cellar Issues

I’ve been miserably ill with the flu, and haven’t had a drop of champagne since Friday, which has only served to compound my misery. As I lay dying in bed over the weekend (on a completely different continent from the one where I originally got sick), I thought about a couple of things that Tom Stevenson said last week at his Christie’s Masterclass champagne tasting, both relating to the cellaring of champagne.

The first concerned temperature. Tom states that the ideal temperature of a wine cellar is a constant 12.5°C (54.5°F), and that with a cellar such as this, one should be able to store a good champagne for ten or twenty years without a problem. At higher temperatures, the potential longevity decreases dramatically. The major issue, however, is to keep the temperature constant, with as little fluctuation as possible. But Steven Spurrier, who was also at the tasting, offered an alternate viewpoint. He said that his cellar, which is underground and passively cooled, can drop as low as 5°C (41°F) in the winter, and can climb as high as 16 or 17°C (61-63°F) in the summer. This doesn’t disturb him in the least, as the changes in temperature occur extremely gradually over the course of the year, and he views this as part of a natural cycle—as wine is itself a living organism, it’s only fitting that it should exist in an organic environment. He even went so far as to say that he can’t stand the American penchant for artificially controlling their cellars at a rigidly constant temperature, as this imprisons the wine, holding it in this unnatural stasis where it can’t behave normally. I found this contrast of viewpoints very interesting. I’m not inclined to disagree with either of them—both of them are renowned experts in the field of wine, and I find merit in both of their arguments. Tom’s is certainly the conventional viewpoint, or at least the one that seems to currently be in the hegemony, and it describes the cellar that I would love to have. If only I could have my own crayère, like at Champagne Ruinart in the above photo. But I don’t. My modest cellar functions much more like Steven’s—it gets very cold in the wintertime (no need at all to chill champagne bottles before drinking) and a little warm in the summer, since it’s not all that deep underground. (A cynic might remark that a Champenois summer is hardly cause for concern, especially those of the last couple of years.) But as my bottles are largely for drinking, not for long-term aging, I don’t get all that bent out of shape about it. And anyway, I’m betting that they’ll age perfectly fine, for my purposes.

The second thing was even more curious to me, as I had never heard it before. Tom said, “It’s been shown that a champagne bottle stored at room temperature for one year develops 70 times the level of mercaptans as the same wine stored in a proper cellar.” Seventy times. That sounds alarming. Alarming enough to make you paranoid. Mercaptans, by the way, are volatile sulfur compounds that can smell like strong flint stone or burnt rubber (or, some people say, cabbage). Once these mercaptans develop in a bottle, they can’t be eradicated. Now, just so we’re clear on this, I really know nothing about this subject. I studied intaglio printmaking, comparative literature and the I-Ching, not chemistry. I’m just telling you what I heard Tom say, because I thought it was interesting. Perhaps someone like SFJoe or the Chief Executive Researcher can comment further. But it made me think of experiences I had as the tasting director of Wine & Spirits, where the incidence of faulty bottles of champagne is generally much higher than any other wine, and more often than not, these faults are related to volatile sulfur compounds. That makes me curious.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Drinking Sherry

I’ve been spoiled here in London—my friend Neil, who knows how much I love the wines of Equipo Navazos, has been treating me to a parade of La Bota sherries, punctuated occasionally by Burgundy and champagne. The first night it was the La Bota de Oloroso #14 Bota “NO”, drawn from a very old solera of 12 butts at Valdespino. It’s customary to mark “NO” on selected barrels of exceptional quality, indicating that they are not to be used in the regular blend, and at Valdespino, these 12 barrels have apparently been left undisturbed for several decades, with no wine bottled from them. For the #14, Equipo Navazos selected a particular cask from this legendary solera, bottling just 600 half-bottles (375-ml). This is undoubtedly one of the finest olorosos available on the market—pure and vivid in character, it shows a complex depth of black walnut and dark chocolate aromas that are intense without being at all heavy or weighed down. It has an unbelievable balance, feeling lithe and gently steely under the rich flavors, and its completeness and depth of perfume are so completely arresting. Many people talk about wines being “wines of meditation”, but this is one that truly fits the description—it demands your full attention, requiring you to savor it slowly and carefully, sip by sip. Just smelling it is enough to make your heart skip a beat.

Last night, although we took a detour with wines such as the 2004 Saignée de Sorbée, 2000 Rousseau Clos de la Roche and 2000 Rousseau Clos St-Jacques, Neil opened two finos to compare: the #15 and #7. Both are from a fino solera at Valdespino that is composed exclusively of wines from Macharnudo Alto, the most privileged portion of the famed Pago Macharnudo. They are both taken from a scrupulously restricted selection of barrels, only 18 to 20 out of the 69 that comprise this particular solera, and bottled unfiltered. The difference between them is the age of bottling: the #15 was just bottled in June of 2008, while the #7 was bottled in April of 2007. (The #15 is actually the third bottling from this solera, as there were also 800 bottles of a #2 Macharnudo Alto, bottled in June of 2006. Sadly, this wine is practically nonexistent now.) While the two wines do share a common intensity and fineness of character, it was surprising to see how different they were. The #15 is salty and brisk, feeling as saline as a manzanilla yet showing more body and richness. It’s exceptionally fine in tone, with a pungent fragrance and a lovely clarity of flavor, finishing with taut, elegantly controlled aromas of almond skins and fresh Breton butter. Later that evening I wrote in my notes, “Does fino get better than this? I’m really not sure.”

The #7 is equally as striking, but it feels burnished, old-fashioned, like stumbling upon an artifact from a bygone age. I wasn’t around a hundred years ago, obviously, but this is how I imagine that old finos were made, with more intensity and complexity of flavor and less of the sheen and cleanly immaculate polish that characterizes so many examples today. It’s a wine of deep visceral pleasure, seeming to affect you more in a corporeal rather than an intellectual way, infusing your whole body with its presence and heady perfume. It feels somehow rich and weightless at the same time, forceful in its personality yet still inviting you to drink more of it. When I was in Jerez earlier this year, Jesús Barquín, one of the people behind Equipo Navazos, told me that contrary to popular belief, the best finos need several years in bottle to show their best, and it’s easy to imagine this #7 continuing to develop more complexity and character with further time in the cellar. This wine has long been sold out around the world, but I’m eager to put away some bottles of the #15 and see what happens to it with age.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Pie, Mash & Champagne (unfortunately not all at once)

I’ve used the excuse of Tom Stevenson’s annual Christie’s Masterclass tasting of champagne to come to London for a few days. Wandering around on a sunny and frigid morning reminded me how much I actually like this city, even if it’s cold. I was able to warm myself with a lunch of pie and mash at Manze on Tower Bridge Road—that might sound banal to many of you, but hey, I’m from California and I live in Champagne. Pie and mash is practically ethnic food. And besides, green liquor is awesome. It makes you feel like a kid. Next time I’ll have to do the eels.

On my way back to my friend Neil’s house I stopped in at an intriguing wine store called The Sampler, on Upper Street in Islington. They’ve got an excellent selection of wines from all over the world—I was there to buy sherry, taking advantage of being in the UK, but naturally I had to take a peek at their champagne section. Of course you can buy Krug, Bollinger and Cristal if you want, but you can also get Varnier-Fannière’s Cuvée St-Denis, R.H. Coutier’s Cuvée Henri III or Raymond Boulard’s Petraea, too. And if you feel flush, you can buy Selosse Substance or Roses de Jeanne Le Creux d’Enfer....

If you want to taste wines, they’ve got a massive Cruvinet system with about 80 wines offered on any given day—at the moment they’ve sort of gone crazy and are pouring 1983 Yquem, 1999 Screaming Eagle, 1993 DRC Romanée St-Vivant and 1976 Bosconia by López de Heredia, among a whole bunch of other things. Some of these will set you back a few pounds, of course, but there are plenty of other reasonably priced wines to taste as well. This is definitely a good address to stop into if you’re in the neighborhood. And now I know that they stock the sherries I want, so I’ll be back for sure.

The Sampler, 266 Upper Street, Islington, London

Monday, December 8, 2008

Gaston Chiquet 1982 Spécial Club

There are good wines, and then there are transcendent wines. On Friday afternoon, I paid a visit to my neighbors down the street in Dizy, partly just to say hi, and also to taste some 2008s in tank. To be perfectly honest, though, the primary reason for my visit was to remind Antoine Chiquet of a conversation that we had several weeks ago at a tasting of old Spécial Club wines. Chiquet had brought the 1979 Spécial Club, which I loved—I have a weakness for the ’79 vintage anyway, but this wine was remarkably delicious, with a lively freshness and a shapely, fragrant fuselage of flavor. As we were tasting it, Antoine acknowledged that it was a fine wine, but he said, “Yeah, well, it’s not as good as the 1982.”

You can’t put out statements like that without proving them. On Friday, Antoine generously backed up his assertions by pulling out a bottle of 1982 Spécial Club for us to drink. The wine was absolutely perfect, seamlessly balancing mature notes of mocha, wood smoke and roasted nori with lingering and complex aromas of primary fruit, showing a silky elegance along with the confident breadth and depth typical of this corner of the Grande Vallée de la Marne. Antoine said that this bottle was probably disgorged around 1989, which seemed perfect to me—I’m beginning to think that I prefer bottles to be disgorged when they’re ready and aged with a little bit of dosage, rather than be stored on their lees sur pointe for their whole lives. This bottle was certainly showing in peak condition. Antoine said, “You know, sometimes I taste great champagnes like Krug and Bollinger, but then I taste wines like this one and I think to myself, maybe we’re doing okay too.” I couldn’t possibly disagree.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Jérôme Prévost


I took this photo of Jérôme Prévost yesterday morning, in his cellars in Gueux. I love how dramatic it is—there wasn’t a lot of light, but my little pocket Canon point-and-shoot can sometimes do surprising things. Among the many wines that we tasted was the 2007 rosé, the first that he’s ever made. It’s a blend of the 2007 Les Béguines and a small percentage of red wine from the same vineyard, and even though it was only just bottled in July and won’t be properly disgorged for another year, it already promises to be amazing. Naturally, it inspired me to take another dramatic photo.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Wine of the Week: Diebolt-Vallois Fleur de Passion Brut Blanc de Blancs 1999

Upon arriving home from Burgundy yesterday, I stopped by at Diebolt-Vallois to say hello. I had originally made an appointment with Diebolt for Thursday afternoon with the sole purpose of bringing brooklynguy to the estate, and as I was now suddenly all by myself, I was on the verge of canceling. But I quickly came to my senses—it’s Diebolt, after all. What could I possibly have been thinking?

The last time I saw Jacques Diebolt, at dinner several weeks ago, he had mentioned that the 2008s in barrel were starting to show unusually well for such a young, high-acid vintage. It’s still a bit early to taste vin clair—January or February would be more ideal—but that wasn’t going to stop me from allowing him to take me on a tour of the different Cramant parcels that will eventually make up the 2008 Fleur de Passion. The wines are indeed stunning, with a crystalline purity and clarity of expression that is sure to promise amazing things for the future. Afterwards, he and his daughter Isabelle asked me what I would like to taste, and attempting to be polite, I feebly protested (not very convincingly, I admit). In the end, I requested the 1999 Fleur de Passion.

I’ve long been wrestling with the issue of which vintage of Fleur de Passion is the most ready to drink at the moment. My first inclination, which I believe is a very reasonable one, is to say that none of them are—he only began making it in the 1995 vintage, after all, and having tasted that wine twice recently, I can confirm that even that vintage is far from maturity. I can also vouch that the 1996 is as painful as it sounds at the moment, and the 1998 is not far behind, coming from a vintage that is also highly structured. Both the 1997 and 2000 have always been much more backwards than their overall vintage characters might indicate, which is curious, and of course the 2002 is a mere adolescent. So by this quick and dirty process of deduction, the only possibility is 1999.

Isabelle was a bit skeptical, as last week in Stockholm she had opened the 1999 for a Swedish journalist who found it completely backwards and unyielding. But Jacques, being Jacques, insisted that it would be fine. He turned out to be right—the wine was absolutely gorgeous, showing a creamy, marzipan-like richness on the nose and feeling open and generous on the palate. It’s by no means mature, but it’s surprisingly accessible, combining a tense freshness of fruit with a mocha and praline complexity. It has an unusually taut character for the vintage, thanks in part to its absence of malolactic, and while the fruit feels rich and ripe, it remains impeccably focused and controlled. It’s delicious to drink now, but I can’t see why it wouldn’t also be so in ten years, or even twenty. I only hope that I will have the chance to verify that.

I would have happily kept drinking the rest of the bottle, but Jacques had other ideas: we ended up comparing the Fleur with the standard 1999 millésime (released only in the Swedish market, unfortunately), and then that made him think about how the 1996 millésime might contrast with it, then we had to also open the 1997 just to be decadent. Of course, after tasting all of these, he pointed out that they would all be showing better the next day, so he insisted that I take them all home, which is why I ended up sitting at my kitchen table last night, Riedel Sommelier glass in hand, staring at a veritable assault of Diebolt-Vallois. But it goes without saying that I am up to the challenge.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Nightcaps


Another full day of tasting yesterday was brought to a close with a visit to Domaine Dujac in Morey St-Denis. The wines were stunning as usual, especially the subtly detailed 2007 Échézeaux and the fragrant, expressive Clos St-Denis. Dinner with Jeremy Seysses and his wife Diana later that evening gave us the chance to witness Jeremy’s fireplace-grilling prowess—a set of beautiful veal chops was paired with a terrific array of wines, the quality of which was surpassed only by Jeremy and Diana’s gracious hospitality. The sole damper on the evening was the unexpected news that brooklynguy would be leaving us prematurely, due to unforeseen circumstances. After some telephone consultation, it was decided that he would take the 6:30 train from Dijon to Charles de Gaulle in the morning, and so rather than attempting anything as inherently pointless as sleep, we went back to our lodgings at the Domaine de l’Arlot and celebrated brooklynguy’s last night (or morning, rather, by this time) in France with the two 2006s represented in the above photo, which Jeremy had generously donated to our liver-degradation program. Both of these wines were absolutely, gorgeously seductive, but I must say that I was particularly taken by the Vosne-Romanée Malconsorts, only the second vintage of this wine for Dujac (and for me, an even greater wine than in the previous year). Needless to say, a fine pair of nightcaps.

Today was marked first and foremost by the hangover perniciously drilling its way into the sides of my skull. Somehow, though, that didn’t prevent me from downing my fair share of a bottle of Vincent Dauvissat’s Irancy for lunch in (guess where?) Irancy, on the way back to Champagne. As fate would have it, the day would prove to hold further adventures in store, ultimately resulting in me sitting alone at home this evening facing four open bottles of vintage Diebolt-Vallois, from 1996 to 1999, as I type this. But that’s a story for tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Burgundy, Day Two

Some weeks are better than others. This week has started off exceptionally well. I’ve got a shiny new MacBook Pro to blog with. Arsenal went to Stamford Bridge and beat Chelsea 2-1. And I spent the day yesterday tasting wines at the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, J-F Mugnier and Georges Roumier, followed by a lovely dinner with David Croix and Mary Taylor at the Domaine des Croix.

I’m here in Burgundy with my friends Jean-Baptiste and brooklynguy, which should immediately raise all sorts of alarms. It’s always a pleasure to come to the Côte d’Or, and it’s certainly a pleasure to taste Grand Things. Burgundy, after all, is full of them. But it’s equally as delightful to be surprised a little.

I suppose one of the biggest surprises is how well the 2007s are tasting, close to the end of their élevage in barrel. It’s a vintage that isn’t likely to get much attention among either consumers or the press, but it’s one that aligns very much with my personal aesthetic sensibilities. If Burgundy vintages such as 2005, 1999 or 1990 are what turn you on, you’ll likely pass over the 2007s. However, if you value elegance, clarity and a precisely detailed expression of terroir, the best 2007s will be wines to seek out. I love the clear, crystalline distinctions between different crus in this vintage, and I also love the clean, unencumbered purity of fruit. They aren’t rich wines, and I don’t want them to be. The fruit is ripe but not flamboyant, and rather than being overly concerned with itself, it seems to constantly refer back to elements of soil. It’s a perfect vintage for the terroir-obsessed.


This morning with Pierre Morey in Meursault, among the many, many wines that we tasted were two beautiful 2007 reds that perfectly illustrated the idea of terroir: a Meursault rouge from Les Durots and a Volnay Santenots. I loved the Meursault for its ample breadth and supple texture—you don’t often taste many red wines labeled as Meursault, and this seemed to echo the classic breadth and generosity of Meursault blanc, only translated into pinot noir. The Santenots, on the other hand, was typical Santenots: minerally, focused and racy, with a feeling of structure and tension. The two vineyards are actually right next to each other, but Morey says that the subsoil of Durots contains more clay, while Santenots is highly calcareous, which is clearly felt in the wine. Morey’s parcel of Santenots lies in the lieu-dit of Les Plures, and he told me that the Meursault Désirée of Comtes Lafon comes from the same vineyard—if it were a red wine, it would be called Volnay Santenots. He would know, after all, as he made the Lafon wines under a sharecropping agreement prior to 1988. I love these little tidbits of information.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Domaine de la Romanée-Conti






Friday, November 28, 2008

Wine of the Week: Billecart-Salmon Cuvée Nicolas François Billecart Brut 1996

It’s not every day that one enjoys a champagne as extravagant as this, but drinking Billecart-Salmon’s prestige cuvée at Le Grand Cerf in Montchenot this week gave me plenty to think about. First off, the wine itself is absolutely brilliant, still as lively and fresh as it was the day that it was released. We often speak about champagne being fine in texture, but few champagnes possess such a silky and pinpoint texture as this one. It emphasizes the purity and finesse of the vintage rather than the power, and in fact, it feels distinctly more delicate than the 1998 version, although I’m sure that if you compared the analytical statistics the 1996 would reveal as much or even more sugar ripeness. Perhaps most striking of all, although hardly surprising to those who know François Domi’s wines, is the sheer harmony of components here. This exceptional balance is not only responsible for that sense of delicacy, but also allows the nuanced and complex details of the wine to fully express themselves even at this wine’s youthful stage, with many miles to go before maturity.

Harmony is not something that can be taken for granted in this vintage. Twelve years on, the 1996 vintage continues to be controversial: some consider it to be one of the all-time greats, while others think that the high acidity is so out of balance that the wines will never resolve themselves properly. The truth, of course, encompasses both of these poles. There are indeed wines that feel screechy and awkward in their acidity. There are wines that show alarming signs of early oxidation, which is perhaps even more troubling. There are wines that simply feel too powerful and aggressive for classic champagne, due to that unusual one-two punch of extremely high ripeness and extremely high acidity. Yet when a winemaker gets everything right in 1996, as Domi did with the Nicolas François, the results can be breathtaking. It’s wines like these that have created the vintage’s exalted reputation, even though in the end, not all 1996s will truly be great. Here is one that you can count on, at least.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Portlandian vs. Kimmeridgian Soils


I like this photo, taken in Buxières-sur-Arce along the little road between the vineyards of Vouette, which lies on Kimmeridgian, and Sorbée, which is on Portlandian. Portlandian is the pink stuff at the top — it’s jumbled up and mixed with a lot of decomposed rock and clay. Kimmeridgian is the stuff at the bottom — it’s arranged in rather neat, rectilinear fashion, although it’s still more of a marl than real chalk, with thick layers of clay that run through it. Bertrand Gautherot says that Portlandian suits pinot noir very well, and the one-hectare Sorbée is planted entirely with pinot noir (used to make Gautherot’s Saignée de Sorbée). Kimmeridgian is well-suited to chardonnay, as it’s the same soil type found in Chablis. And yet, ironically, the vast majority of the Aube’s Côte des Bar, which lies on Kimmeridgian, is planted with pinot noir....

Saturday, November 22, 2008

On Pressing

Yesterday I went to Le Grand Tasting, the giant event organized in Paris by Michel Bettane and Thierry Desseauve. 350 wine producers. 2,350 wines. Multiple rooms full of great things from all over France, Italy and Spain. Yet what did I end up spending most of the day tasting? Champagne. I’m getting a little too predictable. I did get a sip of Henry Marionnet’s Provignage and a mouthful of the 2001 Château d’Arlay Vin Jaune—I tried to branch out further, but ultimately the pull of champagne is simply too strong.

I hooked up with my friends Sharon Bowman and David Rayer, and by chance, we happened to run into Olivier Collin of Champagne Ulysse Collin as well, so it made for a merry day of tasting. As Olivier and I were sampling the excellent Veuve Fourny Blanc de Blancs, he commented, not as a criticism but as an observation, that it smelled like it was made in a membrane press. We asked Emmanuel Fourny and he confirmed that he does indeed use a pneumatic press, which was quite interesting. The reason Olivier is so keenly aware of the differences in pressing is because for his first vintage, the 2004, he used a traditional Coquard vertical press, while for the 2005 he pressed the grapes in a friend’s pneumatic membrane press. He notes that in the Coquard the aromas are a little wilder (“plus sauvage”), expressing perhaps more overt minerality, while the pneumatic press tends to produce a finer, more polished tone to the fruit. I’m not sure that I could pick this out blind in a tasting, and obviously there are many other variables that can interfere with such a judgment, but if you taste Collin’s 2004 and 2005 next to each other, this distinction is indeed present, even beyond the differences in vintage character. Personally I prefer the 2004 (and the 2006, which was also pressed in a traditional Coquard) to the 2005, but it’s true that his 2005 has a finer texture and a more pronounced elegance.

Sharon, David and I drank the 2004 later that evening at Le Verre Volé, in the rare Brut form (most of Olivier’s 2004 was sold as a non-dosé Extra Brut, but he made 500 bottles of a so-called “brut”, with two grams of dosage). Unfortunately Olivier wasn’t there, as he had to get home to his girlfriend and their month-old baby, so he missed out on a gloriously drunken evening of unbelievably great champagnes. The resulting hangover today is a small price to pay, no matter how painful it might feel right now.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Wine of the Week: Paul Bara Brut Millésime 2000

One of the finest grower estates in the Montagne de Reims, Paul Bara is well-known both in France and abroad, having been exported to the United States by Kermit Lynch since 1975. Today Paul’s daughter Chantale Bara is in charge of the 11-hectare domaine, whose vineyard holdings are entirely in the grand cru village of Bouzy.

Bara’s vintage wine is typically composed of 90 percent pinot noir and ten percent chardonnay, and the 2000 seems to exemplify the best of what this vintage has to offer. It’s broad and rich, with a honeyed generosity, yet it doesn’t lose focus or precision, tethered by a fine structure and a firm but not aggressive acidity. It’s just beginning to develop some notes of nut oils and toast on the finish, while the fruit remains strongly primary in tone, and although this is showing perfectly well right now, it should continue to develop more complexity with additional time in the cellar.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Grey, Somber Characters

Yesterday I was tasting with Richard Geoffroy, chef de cave of Dom Pérignon, at the Abbaye d’Hautvillers, the old Benedictine monastery where Dom Pérignon himself worked and made wine between 1670 and 1715. It’s a beautiful and secluded place, up on the hill above the village, and what I like most about the abbey is its austerity: you taste in a plain, unadorned hall that must have been the old refectory or some kind of meeting area, and its spartan drabness is refreshing somehow, the antithesis of the modern tasting room. Yesterday morning was cold and foggy, which only served to increase the sense of atmosphere and stillness about the abbey grounds.

Geoffroy is a fount of information, possessing a keen intelligence and a wealth of knowledge that he is happily willing to share. It’s a pleasure to discuss the finer points of winemaking, champagne culture, history and philosophy with him (and sitting around drinking Dom Pérignon at 11 in the morning is okay, too).

As we were tasting a couple of Oenothèque vintages, he drew an intriguing distinction between grey and brown aromas, the former which he finds desirable and the latter which he seeks to avoid. “I like very much these grey, somber characters,” he said. “Smoke, peat, coffee, these are reductive characters. Oxidative characters are brown—raisin, spice, dried fruits, these kinds of things.” Dom Pérignon is made in a deliberately reductive manner, and Geoffroy credits this as a major factor in the wine’s longevity, balance and grace. It’s true that when tasting an older Dom Pérignon, the flavors remain very fresh, and the wines often acquire these grey tones of smoke, oyster shells, peat, cocoa, toasted bread and the like. They rarely show brown characters of spice, honey, toffee or raisin, and only in very unusual vintages. I think that this reductive character is also the reason that Dom Pérignon rosé is able to age well while some other rosés aren’t. Oxidative winemaking helps a wine to show better in its youth, but for the long haul, grey might be where it’s at.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Fooled by Dosage for the Umpteenth Time

Last week I received a call from Agnès Corbon of Champagne Claude Corbon, inviting me to an intriguing tasting. One of Corbon’s importers wants to have a special cuvée made for them, and the Corbons are attempting to figure out the final dosage for the wine. To help facilitate this, they invited a number of people to participate in a dosage tasting, with all of the wines served blind, of course.

I’ve done many tastings like this before, comparing different levels of dosage in the same wine, and what surprises me nearly every time is how different the perception of sweetness is versus the actual sugar levels of the wines. Consumers are often numerically-obsessed in many more ways than one, and it’s largely assumed, not without logical reason, that a champagne dosed at four grams of sugar per liter will taste drier than one dosed at six grams, which will in turn taste drier than one dosed at eight grams. But champagne, or maybe taste in general, doesn’t work that way. It’s not a linear progression from one digit to the next.

I’ve always maintained that every champagne has its own individual point of balance, a fulcrum that when found, allows the wine to express itself to its fullest ability. Sometimes it might be at seven grams of dosage, other times three. Sometimes it might be at ten or eleven, as un-hip as that sounds. And yes, for all of you fashionistas, sometimes—but very infrequently—it is indeed none at all.

This principle was proven to me yet again in Corbon’s tasting. Three different versions of the same wine were served together in black glasses, (actually, we weren’t told that they were all the same wine, but I correctly assumed that they were), and we were instructed to taste them, without any prior clues or commentary. The first was the most oxidative, showing some caramelly, creamy aromas, although I did find the nose to be very attractive. On the palate, however, it seemed a bit confectionary, its nougat and rum-raisin sweetness feeling a bit cloying—I liked the complexity and the maturity of flavor, but I found the sugar to be imbalanced and overly prominent. The third sample (I know, I’m not being linear either, but bear with me here) was the freshest in aroma, the most streamlined, the most vivid. The flavors were much less developed than in the first wine, not showing as much complexity for now, and in fact perhaps showing the least complexity of the three. But the balance in the intertwining of fruit, acidity and sugar here was the most agreeable out of the three wines, with the dosage completely unnoticeable and the finish dry, minerally and long. The middle wine was less oxidative and less perceptibly sweet than the first, and richer in texture, more developed and more complex in flavor than the third. You would think that, in Goldilocks fashion, it might be just right. Yet the balance of sugar here wasn’t nearly as precise as in the third wine, even though there was more depth of fruit and more material showing. The dosage still felt a little sweet and prominent, like a radio that’s just slightly too loud.

We were told to rank the wines in order of preference, and I picked the third sample as my favorite, simply for its impeccable balance. I liked the expression of the middle wine, and would have ranked it first if it had tasted slightly less sweet. I liked the nose of the first wine, but found the palate to be overly sweet, and ranked it last. I was fairly confident that this was also the order of sweetness, from lowest to highest, although that had nothing to do with why I ranked them that way.

In fact, when the results were unveiled, the first wine, which I had found to be oppressively sweet, had only six grams per liter of dosage, as did the middle wine. The third wine, which tasted the driest to me, and which I found to have the most balance, was dosed at eight grams per liter—two grams higher than the other wines! To be fair, the dosage in each was not the same—the third wine, dosed at eight grams, was done with a traditional liqueur d’expédition of cane sugar, while the six-gram dosage in the first wine was MCR (concentrated and rectified grape must), which usually seems to give a higher perception of sweetness than the equivalent amount of sugar does. (The middle wine was half liqueur and half MCR.) But still, it demonstrated to me once again that numbers are a poor indicator of the balance of a wine. There are people who would turn up their noses at a champagne with an eight-gram dosage, preferring a six-gram wine purely on principle. In the case of a wine such as this one, they would be foolish.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

A Tasting of Old Spécial Club Wines

While I am fortunate to be able to taste a fair amount of old champagne, it’s not often that one gets to taste a large number of old champagnes all together at the same time. Of course, this is just as well—it’s far better to enjoy old bottles one at a time, savoring each one slowly over the course of an evening, preferably in the company of people that you really like. However, it’s intriguing to be able to compare different wines as well.

Last night, the Club Trésors de Champagne hosted an official tasting and dinner for its members, and Jean-Paul Hébrart was kind enough to invite me along. The theme of the annual tasting is normally a first look at the new Spécial Club vintage, at five years of age—last year, for example, it was a comprehensive tasting of 2002 Club wines, which was spectacular. The Club didn’t make any 2003s, however, so this year Club president Didier Gimonnet decided to present a retrospective range of champagnes from the Club’s library, going back to the 1976 vintage.

The Club keeps an official collection of wines in a cellar in Cuis, and each member contributes a number of bottles of their Spécial Club champagne in vintages when they are produced. Over the years these have all been stored sur pointe, resting in this deep cellar undisturbed at a constant temperature of 9°C, but in April of 2008, the decision was made to disgorge all of the bottles and store them under capsule. These wines will never be sold, and they don’t exist in great quantity—they are there solely to provide a record of the Club’s activity, and to be enjoyed at functions like this one.

For this tasting, about 25 Spécial Club champagnes were selected from this collection, largely between the vintages of 1976 and 1988, although there were a few wines from the 1990s as well. One of my favorite wines of the night was the 1979 Gaston Chiquet, from a vintage that I adore. The richly aromatic Chiquet was more complex and detailed than the racy, tense 1979 A. Margaine, and distinctly fresher and livelier than the 1979 Charlier & Fils. José Michel, that great master of unheralded vintage years, made a lovely Spécial Club in 1980: mouthfilling in aroma, with nutty, biscuity richness, it’s fully mature but so delicious to drink. It crushed the 1980 Launois, sadly, which I found to be strangely and unpleasantly reminiscent of pickled vegetables.

Old wines from Henri Goutorbe can always be counted on to give tremendous pleasure, and the 1981 Spécial Club was no exception, feeling confident and gregarious in its bold, vivid fragrance and classic aromas of Aÿ pinot noir. I was thrilled to see the 1982 Edmond Bonville, from an estate that has long since ceased to produce champagne, but whose old wines are always worth seeking out. It didn’t disappoint, and while it wasn’t as complex as it could have been, it showed a wonderful combination of acidity and minerality to buttress the almondy, honeycomb-like flavors, demonstrating classic Bonville elegance and poise. Among the 1982s here it was clearly my favorite, although I was surprised by the 1982 Roland Champion—I am typically not so enamored of Champion’s fluffy, cream-puffy style, but here it seemed to work somehow, complementing the creamy richness of the vintage. Of the four 1983s at the tasting, I loved the Lamiable, with its full, expansive fragrance and sleek finesse. The 1983 Gimonnet was not far behind, showing the same sense of freshness and finely-drawn chalkiness still found in the wines today.

Speaking of fresh, J. Lassalle’s 1985 was surprisingly youthful and primary, with flowery elegance and a lively tension. I was eagerly looking forward to the 1985 Paul Bara, yet it turned out to be strangely disappointing, feeling slightly hollow and lactic, and unusually unexpressive for this great estate. However, Bara more than redeemed themselves with the magnificent 1976 Spécial Club, my pick for wine of the night. Champagnes from ’76 can sometimes be a little fat and overly plush, and many are fully mature and a bit oxidative now, but this ’76 Bara was none of these things. Subtle, nuanced, complete, showing both sleekly sculpted power and a silky finesse, it seems to still have room to grow, possessing the complexity of bottle-age yet still feeling vivid and energetic in its vitality. What will today’s Club wines look like in 30 years? I can’t wait to find out.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Wine of the Week: Lilbert-Fils Brut Blanc de Blancs

I hinted at this wine in Monday’s post, and it is indeed a non-vintage brut based on 2005. The young Bertrand Lilbert is one of the superstars of Cramant, but remains largely unknown except to a select group of champagne devotees. Part of the reason for this is that Lilbert produces only 30,000 bottles of champagne a year, from a mere 3.5 hectares of vines, and even at the estate the wines often sell out quickly.

The non-vintage blanc de blancs is blended from the grand cru villages of Cramant, Chouilly and Oiry, and is generally composed of equal parts of two different vintages, in this case 2005 and 2004. It’s lively and brisk, with a classic Côte de Blancs finesse and chalky perfume. Lilbert’s wines are always racy and elegant, but this one exhibits a particularly delicious combination of ripe complexity and kinetic, soil-driven tension, making it feel both accessible and expressive at the same time.

Lilbert-Fils is imported into the United States by Vintage ’59, Washington, DC.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

How Roses de Jeanne Got Its Name

Cédric Bouchard makes some of my favorite wines in Champagne. A passionate and dedicated perfectionist, Bouchard bottles wine under two different labels: Inflorescence, which is a blanc de noirs from the vineyard of Val Vilaine in Polisy; and Roses de Jeanne, the primary label of the estate.

The unusual name of Roses de Jeanne is actually a tribute to Cédric’s Polish grandmother, who was named Janika (Jeanne in French). The rose part comes from the vineyard of Les Ursules — in the past, this 90.51-are parcel in Celles-sur-Ource used to be surrounded by rosebushes, although those have long since disappeared. Cédric says that he was looking for something distinctive, something different from the rest of the sea of names in Champagne, which is hardly surprising, considering the originality of his wines. “I like that it sounds elegant and feminine,” he says. “And it’s not just a first and last name, as is usually the case in Champagne. I mean, Champagne Cédric Bouchard, c’est super-nul, quoi. I didn’t want that at all.”

Honestly, I would happily drink his wines no matter what he called them, but I do think that Roses de Jeanne sounds rather attractive. Combined with the fact that he has the most beautiful labels in all of Champagne, it only adds to the pleasure of the experience.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

While We’re Talking About NVs...

As a follow-up to yesterday’s post, I realized how difficult (and sometimes impossible) it is to figure out what the base year of a non-vintage champagne is. It’s a little different as a consumer in France, if you patronize small, independent, high-quality cavistes, as one should. In this case, your shopkeeper should have a direct relationship with the grower or house, and ought to be able to tell you exactly what’s in the bottle. If he or she can’t, you’re clearly shopping at the wrong place. In export markets such as the United States, however, where the multi-tiered wine trade is much more anonymous and information not always reliable, it becomes more of a problem.

If I were benevolent dictator of all things Champagne (a prospect that ought to make you terrified indeed), I would insist that some sort of information be put on the back labels of all non-vintage champagnes to indicate the base year or base years of the blend. It doesn’t have to be nearly as detailed as Champagne Raymond Boulard, for example, who lists on their back label the base year, percentage and years of reserve wines, composition of the blend, bottling date, disgorgement date and amount of dosage, although I like having all of that information. It could be as simple as Charles Heidsieck, who writes Mise en Cave en 2003, letting you know that the base year of the blend is 2002. Simple and efficient. Or it could even be as minimalist as Bertrand Gautherot, who writes the code R05 on the label to indicate that it was harvested in 2005. Just something — anything — to let the consumer know. (In fact, most champagne bottles do have some sort of coding somewhere on them, but it’s so deliberately cryptic and concealed that only the winemaker can decipher it. I’m talking about a code that the consumer can read.)

Incidentally, one of the (many) things that I like so much about Champagne Jacquesson is that they’ve completely acknowledged the fact that consistency in a non-vintage wine is a mythical beast, and have created a unique system of numbered cuvées to celebrate, rather than repress, the changing character of the blend from year to year. Following the lines of yesterday’s post, it comes as no surprise that the Cuvée No. 733, based on 2005, is outstanding — along with the No. 730, which was based on the magnificent 2002 vintage, the 733 is my favorite so far of these numbered cuvées.

Monday, November 10, 2008

2005 NVs

Paradoxical, I know. But I strongly dislike the myth perpetuated by many Champagne houses that a non-vintage wine is the same from year to year. It might share a family resemblance each year, perpetuating a character that’s typical of the house, but it’s not the same wine. Even the hallowed Krug Grande Cuvée is not identical from year to year, no matter what anyone says.

I don’t know what the average percentage of reserve wine is in non-vintage champagne, but it’s not a lot. Some of the best houses use reserves up to 30 percent or so, and a few growers who work on a smaller scale can even go as high as 50 percent, but this is extremely rare. Generally speaking, a non-vintage blend is dominated by a single year, and while you can use reserve wine to amplify or suppress the character of that year to varying degrees, it can’t help but set the overall tone for the wine, as it forms the foundation of the blend.

Tasting large quantities of champagne at the moment, I am often encountering non-vintage champagnes based on the 2005 harvest, which feels to me particularly exceptional as a base for a blend. The 2005 vintage produced ripe, full-bodied wines: tasting them as vins clairs back in 2006, I consistently noted a forward, fruity charm combined with a certain density of flavor — not necessarily weight, but intensity. The acidity was good, well-balanced, but not painful to taste (like 2008, for example, or even 2004, for that matter, which was more “classic” in profile, whatever that means nowadays). Now, as finished wines, the NVs based on 2005 demonstrate that same forward charm and voluptuousness of fruit, and combined with the acidity of 2004, these champagnes are extremely compelling. I’m wondering if I will like 2005 as a blending year even more than as a vintage year, in fact. Although it’s too early to know, and I should reserve judgment until the vintage wines are actually released.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Wine of the Week: Jacques Selosse Initiale Brut Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru

I am, as is undoubtedly known, a great admirer of both Anselme Selosse and his wines. Much has been written about Selosse, and there is little left to contribute to either side of the debate—I’m sure that many of you have read Eric Asimov’s most recent piece on Selosse in the NY Times, and that some of you have also read Tom Stevenson’s review of Jacques Selosse in issue 21 of The World of Fine Wine (not available online).

Unfortunately, it’s not terribly easy for the average consumer to form their own opinion, as the wines are scarce, jealously guarded and costly. While Selosse has recently been reintroduced into the American market after a long hiatus, the wines are severely allocated and distributed only to restaurants, making them even more expensive and less accessible. Here in France, they are a little easier to obtain, if you know where to look. Admittedly, they are still not cheap, and whether or not they are worth the money is entirely up to you.

I am one of those consumers who will buy V.O. as often as I can, who will bend over backwards to procure Contraste, and who is delighted to pay the money for Substance or vintage champagne if I have sufficient cash in my pocket when it is offered to me. I like drinking Selosse’s wines. The only cuvée that I am slightly ambivalent about is the Initiale, which is, of course, the easiest one to find, as it represents over two-thirds of his production. Of the comments against Selosse’s wines—that they’re too oaky, over-oxidized, overly aldehydic—I find that these apply more often to the Initiale than to the other wines. I also find a significant variation in this wine, with some bottles feeling oaky and oxidative, and others feeling terrifically energetic and lively. (It’s not as bad as, say, Marc Angeli’s La Lune, but it’s enough that I’ve found each experience with this wine to be different.)

The most recent bottle I drank was excellent, here at a restaurant in Epernay. It was disgorged on 26 October 2007, meaning that it’s likely a blend of 2003, 2002 and 2001, as Selosse ages this wine for three years on its lees. While the oak was apparent on the nose, it was accompanied by a deeply vinous intensity, and the two were integrated together in a seamless and sophisticated manner, without the oak feeling at all intrusive. It’s this vinosity that is the key to Selosse’s style, as the depth and concentration are the result of careful and deliberate work in the vines, which allows Selosse to do what he does in the cellar. (Compare this, for example, to Selosse’s neighbor De Sousa, who for me acquires richness more from winemaking than from winegrowing.) This wasn’t a terribly complex wine, but it was certainly expressive, carrying Anselme Selosse’s distinctive signature, and for me, that is perhaps the most important element. In a region where wines are often too neutral, those that stand up and declare their originality are all the more valuable.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Ungrafted Vines: It’s Not Size That Matters

At lunch the other day with Bertrand Gautherot, we started talking about ungrafted vines. Gautherot had planted some vines on their own rootstocks in 2006, in the parcel of Les Biaunes (pictured), where the Blanc d’Argile comes from. As the name of the wine suggests, however, the soil here is Kimmeridgian marl with a high proportion of clay, and two years later the vines already show signs of phylloxera.

Needless to say, Gautherot is disappointed that it didn’t work out. As am I. Ungrafted Vouette et Sorbée? That would be amazing. It’s generally assumed that ungrafted wines give a bigger, richer wine, but in my experience this is rarely true. I think that in the case of richly powerful, ungrafted wines such as Bollinger’s Vieilles Vignes Françaises or Forstreiter’s Tabor Grüner Veltliner, there are other factors at work that are often overlooked, such as vine density, low yields and late harvesting. Ungrafted vines, in and of themselves, are not necessarily prone to making large, powerful wines.

Gautherot says that ungrafted vines generally tend to produce less alcohol, not more. “Much of the sugar produced by the leaves goes towards the root system of the plant,” he explains, “but when you graft the vines, it prevents the sugar from descending into the roots, so it stays in the upper part of the plant system.” The result of this is that the grapes grow larger in size and concentrate the sugars, causing the level of potential alcohol to rise. “This is why in the past, French wines were around 10.5 to 11.5 degrees alcohol, generally under 12,” he says. “After grafting, they’re now much higher.”

This is actually quite evident if you taste grafted and ungrafted versions of a similar wine. If you compare a wine like Bernard Baudry’s Chinon Franc de Pied against its grafted counterpart in the Clos Guillot, the grafted wine always feels larger in body and more obviously rich and dense. What I love so much about the Franc de Pied is not its girth, but its purity, clarity and detail. The same could be said about comparing Teobaldo Cappellano’s Barolo Piè Franco with the Rupestris—the Piè Franco has an inner resonance, a feeling of energy that cannot be duplicated in the other wine. Even at Quinta do Noval, the Nacional is not a great wine because it’s bigger or more powerful than the vintage Noval, but because it exhibits such a stunning sense of purity and expression, with a remarkable elegance of texture.

Are ungrafted vines better? It depends on how you define the term. I think that they produce a more interesting wine because they accentuate the qualities that I appreciate in wine: purity, finesse and expression of place. If it is gobs that you seek, you may not always find them here.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Rise of the Other

I still can’t quite believe it. Not a lot of sleep for me last night. At around 5am French time (11pm ET), when the New York Times and Washington Post called the election for Barack Obama, I could finally rest peacefully. Even through all the hopes, expectations, polling and predictions, it still seems slightly unreal. A lot of the commentary today is about race, which is understandable. I am not black, although as a member of a so-called “minority”, the symbolism resonates with me as well. However, what strikes me about his election is not so much that he’s black (which frankly, I couldn’t care less about), but that he is really our first 21st-century president, cut from a completely different mold than any previous others. I find it ironic that throughout most of the election, much was made about the average American not being able to relate to Mr. Obama, and yet I identify much more with him by far than with any other candidate of my lifetime (and not just because we went to the same school). Apparently I’m not the average American, either.

Now that we can all breathe a little easier, I can get back to tasting champagne. This morning, I was happy to discover not only that Barack Obama had won the presidential election, but also that there is a new and superb 100-percent meunier champagne about to be released. (Speaking of the ascendance of marginalized races.) Made by Jean Moutardier, it’s called Pure Meunier Brut Nature, and it’s unusually fine for the variety, demonstrating the characteristic minerality of the Vallée du Surmelin and feeling delicate, lithe and extremely expressive. (It would be wonderful if it could be packaged as it is in the photo, but unfortunately that’s not the real label.) If you don’t know Moutardier’s wines, they represent one of the reference points for meunier here in Champagne, although up until now they’ve always contained a small percentage of chardonnay as well. This is an inspired addition to their portfolio, and I look forward to drinking it again in the future.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Vote


One of my favorite Calvin and Hobbes cartoons of all time involves Calvin and Hobbes sitting under a tree pondering deep mysteries, as they are wont to do. Hobbes asks, “Do you think that love is the strongest force in the universe?” Calvin thinks for a moment, then replies, “No, I’d have to go with stupidity.”

Let’s hope that America doesn’t prove Calvin right today.

It’s undoubtedly important to cast your vote, and I firmly believe that if you don’t take the time to vote, you have no right to complain about the outcome. On the other hand, if you are American and you still think that your vote is 100-percent meaningful, take a look at this op-ed in the New York Times. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t vote — you should, and you must. But clearly the American brand of democracy is itself in need of some examination.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Robbing the Cradle


A few days ago I did something I’ve never done before: I tasted a champagne in the middle of its prise de mousse, or second fermentation (the one in bottle). I can’t say that it was a life-changing experience or anything. The wine tastes a little like it does in the middle of its first fermentation — yeasty, a little sweet, highly acidic and embryonically unformed. But it was interesting nevertheless.

The wine in question was the 2007 Ulysse Collin Blanc de Blancs, and Olivier Collin opened it just because, well, he’s a little crazy. It was bottled on the 14th of October and had already reached about four bars of pressure (it will finish around six), and it was of course cloudy as all hell, as you can see in this photo. Fortunately we also drank real champagne, including the deliciously sleek 2005, which is just being released right now, and also his unreleased 2006 pinot noir from Barbonne-Fayel. But I’m not supposed to tell you about that one yet....

Friday, October 31, 2008

Wine of the Week: Larmandier-Bernier Rosé de Saignée Extra Brut Premier Cru

It’s been an action-packed week, with little time for blogging. My friends from Triage Wines in Seattle, Washington, have been here in Champagne, and we’ve been tasting many good things together. Triage distributes an amazing selection of grower champagne in Washington and Oregon, and in fact, I can’t think of any single company anywhere that has a greater portfolio of champagne estates. Some of it is brokered, such as the Terry Theise collection or Louis/Dressner, and some of it is directly imported, but the fact that they have all of these growers collected together in one book makes for an all-star lineup. It’s like the Justice League — a massive array of heroes, each with a different superpower.

A couple of days ago, we tasted through the brand-new lineup of Larmandier-Bernier’s wines, which were outstanding as always, and, as always, extremely and awkwardly youthful. Larmandier’s wines are so highly in demand worldwide that they’re forced to release them unusually early, and here in France, both the Brut Tradition and Brut Blanc de Blancs are already on the 2007 tirage (meaning that they’re based on the 2006 harvest). While I would happily purchase any of Pierre Larmandier’s wines (and believe me, I do), I would stash them away in the cellar for at least another year after disgorgement, and even longer for Terre de Vertus (currently on 2005) and Vieille Vigne de Cramant (2004).

The one wine that might actually benefit from its youthfulness is the Rosé de Saignée, one of the most original champagnes in Champagne. Made from pinot noir grown in the southern portion of Vertus, where the soil is richer and deeper than on the Mesnil side, this is macerated for two days to extract a deep, dark red color and then fermented in enameled steel. It comes out looking and feeling more like a red wine than traditional champagne, with concentrated, vinous notes of red cherry and huckleberry and a spicy, earthy depth of flavor. Although there are other producers who are making super-dark, macerated rosés, Larmandier’s is different in that while it’s powerful in aroma, it’s not at all heavy or weighed down by its intensity. It’s dosed at a mere two grams, which further accentuates the intrinsic vinosity of the wine without adding any additional weight from sugar, and thanks to the taut, energetic character of Vertus, this maintains a deft balance all the way through the long and fragrant finish. The bottle of 2006 that we tasted was only disgorged last month, and yet it’s already showing well, with deliciously fresh fruit and a vibrant, lively personality. I think it would be ideal with a plate of artisanal charcuterie at L’Epicerie au Bon Manger in Reims.

Larmandier-Bernier is imported into the United States by Louis/Dressner Selections, New York, NY (and if you live in Washington or Oregon, distributed by Triage Wines).