Friday, April 4, 2008

Wine of the Week: Gaston Chiquet Blanc de Blancs d’Aÿ

Some people still refuse to accept the idea of terroir in Champagne, or of terroir being expressed in the wines of Champagne. Most often this results from a lack of experience and understanding of the region. Tasting here in Champagne, I see terroir being expressed every day, whether I’m looking for it or not.

The village of Aÿ has been renowned for its wines since the 15th century, when it was the favored wine of the court of France. Today it’s regarded as one of the greatest villages for pinot noir in the region (some people, myself included, believe that Aÿ is capable of producing the very greatest pinot noir in Champagne). Its wines are often the most complete of Champagne's pinots, showing a marvelous complexity and dimension of fruit allied with striking purity and elegance—if Aÿ were in Burgundy, it might be Vosne-Romanée.

And yet, as much as I love the pinots of Aÿ, one of the wines that has taught me the most about the commune’s terroir over the years is Gaston Chiquet’s Blanc de Blancs d’Aÿ, made from pure chardonnay. A selection from five parcels on the western side of the village planted largely with old vines, it isn’t a single-vineyard wine, but that doesn’t make it any less expressive of place. In fact, the imprint of terroir is much stronger in this wine than that of variety—often when I taste this I feel that it relates more to Aÿ pinots than it does to chardonnay from other villages. In addition, I’ve found that this chardonnay helps me to understand Aÿ’s pinots better, through a commonality of character and personality. As importer Terry Thiese puts it, this wine “isn’t so much a variant on chardonnay as it is another dialect of Aÿ.”

The Blanc de Blancs d’Aÿ is generally from a single vintage, although it doesn’t carry the vintage date on the label. (Chiquet holds back magnums for late release, which are labeled as vintage.) The current release is the 2004, which combines a broad, Marne-influenced richness with the characteristic focus and precision of the vintage. Compared to wines from the Côte des Blancs, this is rounder and more ample, reflecting Aÿ’s calcareous clay soils and south-facing exposition. While it carries a strong mineral signature, especially on the long and fragrant finish, it isn’t the pure, brilliant chalkiness of the Côte des Blancs, but rather a softer, earthier stoniness. It’s not unlike comparing the minerality of the Nahe to the intense slate of the Mosel. And like chardonnay from anywhere in Champagne, this ages superbly well—if you can find the 1998 in magnum currently on the market, it’s just beginning to reveal an intense complexity and depth, its soil character even more amplified and incisive than it was in its youth. It should continue to develop for another decade at least. Gaston Chiquet is imported into the United States by Terry Theise Selections/Michael Skurnik Wines, Syosset, NY.