Thursday, July 31, 2008

Redefining Champagne

More words on the proposed redefinition of the Champagne appellation, this time by Roger Cohen in today’s New York Times.

I’ve been fielding a lot of questions about this lately (almost exclusively from Americans, by the way — maybe we’re just the most cynical of the world’s wine drinkers). As regular readers of my blog will know, I am not disturbed at all by the expansion. I believe that the issue has been explored with thought and care, and that it has the possibility to relieve some pressure on grape pricing and supply without negatively impacting the overall quality of champagne (particularly the ones that you and I drink). I also prefer the word “redefinition” to “expansion”, as the latter is misleading: the outer boundaries of Champagne are not changing at all. It’s an exploration of the terroir within the current Champagne area to find out if there are suitable parcels of equal (or possibly even better) quality than what already exists.

Cohen makes a good point defending the project against those who scoff at this as merely cashing in by the greedy Champenois: this project was initiated back in 2003, and the first drop of champagne from any new parcels won’t be made until at least 2020, meaning that the entire process will take a minimum of 17 years. Hardly a timescale suitable for pandering to the masses, and in fact, it’s one that could possibly mean that the new plantings won’t even be ready until after the current boom cycle is over. So I think it’s clear that this isn’t simply an attempt to make a quick buck (which is impossible with champagne anyway).

The bizarre thing about Cohen’s article, however, is that he chooses to present the Champagne redefinition issue as an antithesis to globalization and the pressures of international taste, bemoaning the “Californization” of wines such as Chianti and Rioja as they embrace banal uniformity and praising Champagne for not succumbing to our “instant-gratification world”. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that point in and of itself — I agree with him that Champagne is to be lauded for its sense of restraint and commitment to quality regarding this issue. Yet I — and mind you, nobody loves champagne more than I do — even I might hesitate to promote Champagne as a champion of the resistance against globalization and consumer-driven bandwagons. Champagne can be as market-driven and manipulated as anything else, and it has certainly changed its appearance over the years in response to consumer demand. It started out as a still wine, after all, and in its sparkling form it was initially derided by wine connoisseurs much in the way that we might scoff at, say, wine coolers. Even when it became largely a sparkling wine, it was very sweet, catering to the tastes of the day (this is why the designations Sec and Extra Sec are actually sweeter than Brut), and the dry style only came to prominence in the 20th century, as the market began to prefer drier wines.

Today, one could argue that the style is in fact changing again to accommodate consumer demand, as dosage levels are dropping and a bone-dry or Extra Brut style is quickly becoming all the rage, whether or not the wines can harmoniously support that style. Of course, there are terrific examples of non-dosé champagne, and I’m an enormous fan of these wines. But as it was with Germany in the late 1990s (the effects of which linger to this day), I’m beginning to think that many people today insist on dryness at all cost, which can result in some pretty raspy and imbalanced wines. It will sort itself out, naturally, but my point is that champagne is as susceptible to market pressure as any other wine, even if this isn’t on full display regarding the expansion issue.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Birthdays & Riesling

I’ve spent the last couple of days here at the Riesling Rendezvous, a spectacular event hosted by Chateau Ste. Michelle and Dr. Loosen. It’s a gathering of some of the finest riesling producers from around the world, with the likes of Pierre Trimbach, Egon Müller, Helmut and Gabi Dönnhof, Johannes Leitz, Christine Saahs, Johannes Hirsch, Stephen and Prue Henschke and Judi Cullam all in attendance. Not to mention a number of eminent wine personalities, including Stuart Pigott, the master of ceremonies and spiritual guru of this event, seen here in his customary sartorial splendor as Stephen Brook looks on and Caroline Diel tries not to. Needless to say, we’ve been tasting some outstanding wines.

Today happens to be my birthday, and to kick it off this morning I attended a tasting of older rieslings. When your first wine of the day, at 9:00am, is 1988 Nikolaihof Steiner Hund, you know you’re in for a good day. Unbelievable purity and finesse, with a silky intensity and haunting clarity of fragrance — this wine demonstrates why Nikolaihof Steiner Hund is one of my favorite rieslings in the world. The wine immediately following that was Trimbach’s 1995 Frédéric Émile, and while this showed its typical class and expression, it wasn’t quite in the league of the Steiner Hund. Not to take anything away from the Frédéric Émile — the wine was terrific — but it just showed how special the first wine was. A collection of other wines followed, including a lovely 1998 Steingarten from Orlando Wines, which seemed to me at a perfect point of drinking; a delicious Dr. Loosen Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spätlese from 1983, which showed classic, old-school elegance and grace; a terrifically impressive 1989 Semi-Dry Riesling from Dr. Konstantin Frank; and a trio of heavy hitters to close the tasting — Dönnhoff Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle Spätlese 1998, Egon Müller Scharzhofberger Auslese 1988 and Robert Weil Kiedrich Gräfenberg Auslese Goldkapsel (auction) 2001.

As I’m hooking up with my friend Brian later on today, it’s guaranteed that many more quality beverages are going to be appearing in my near future. I can’t wait.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Weekend Carnage

I’ve spent a lovely and thoroughly inebriating weekend with friends in Seattle, which was well worth the physical toll it might have exacted upon my body. The above photo was taken as the sun was coming up on Sunday morning, just before we finally got around to turning in for bed....

There were far too many great wines to detail, but some of the highlights included the new vintage of Clos des Goisses rosé, which was just as profound as the first one; a severe, almost punishing (but glorious) bottle of 1996 Krug; and a creamy, complex 1973 Dom Ruinart. One very strange bottle: 1997 Lafon Montrachet, which was brown, oxidative and very mature. It wasn’t a storage issue, either. Brown white burgundy is no fun. Brown wines are much better when they’re like this absolutely thrilling bottle of Valdespino Rare Oloroso from their Signature Series:

Friday, July 25, 2008

Wine of the Week: A. Margaine Brut Rosé

I like rosés that contain a lot of chardonnay. Don’t get me wrong, I like 100 percent pinot noir saignée rosés too. But every time I taste Margaine’s rosé I just want to drink the whole bottle by myself.

This week’s Wine of the Week is a bit unfair, as Arnaud Margaine just let me taste his new release of rosé, based on the 2006 vintage, and all of you guys in the rest of the world still have the 2005. But whatever. It’s always good, every year. (By the way, I know that's a strange photo, as the bottle had no label, but the color was so nice and Margaine's wallpaper is so cool that I took it anyway. You can see the actual label below.) As usual, this rosé is all from the village of Villers-Marmery (because all of his vines are there), and it contains about 12 percent of red wine. Sometimes he makes it with only chardonnay vinified en blanc, but this year it’s 80 percent chardonnay and eight percent pinot noir (Margaine is always very precise with his percentages). It’s never just the regular Brut with some red wine added, but a completely different blend, selected to demonstrate “more finesse and more vivacity,” as Margaine says.

The color is beautifully pale and inviting, and the aromas open on the nose with fresh, lively notes of strawberry, green apple and green pear. On the palate it’s silky and graceful, driven by the peculiarly earthy minerality of the eastern Montagne de Reims — more than anything else, this is a wine that clearly expresses a very specific place on the planet. It’s still very youthful, of course, yet the components are already so harmonious, finishing with lots of red fruit fragrance and vividly refreshing acidity.

Back when I lived in Portland, Oregon, my friends and I opened a wine bar with a wildly extravagant and extensive list of champagnes. At that time, the Terry Theise champagne portfolio had not yet been distributed in the Oregon market, and we worked out a killer deal with our distributor friends who were going to pick it up. We got to buy whatever we wanted from the portfolio (come to think of it, what didn’t we want from the portfolio?) at prices that today would make you cry, and it allowed us to pour (and drink) all sorts of fun things by the glass. One of the crazy things we managed to do was contract an exclusivity on Margaine’s rosé in Oregon, just because I loved that wine so much. The production is so tiny and the wine so obscure, I figured it wouldn’t really hurt anyone if I just quietly took it all for myself. (Hey, knowledge is power, right?) Well, whaddya know. Pretty soon, everybody else was clamoring to have it too, just because we did. They hadn’t the foggiest idea in the world who Arnaud Margaine was, and there were plenty of other rosés available to choose from, but damn it if they would let us pour Margaine Rosé without getting in on a piece of the action. Now, of course, the bar is closed and lots of people carry Margaine. But if you happen to drink Margaine Rosé in Portland, think of me.

Margaine is imported into the United States by Terry Theise Selections/Michael Skurnik Wines, Syosset, NY. The suggested retail price for the Brut Rosé is $58.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Thinking of Brooklynguy

A few weeks ago on his excellent blog, brooklynguy wrote about decanting a bottle of Francis Boulard’s Mailly Grand Cru. I thought about him this morning at Champagne Henriot, when export director Bertrand Verduzier decanted a bottle of the Blanc Souverain. It certainly worked to its benefit, as that wine has such a bold, ample richness that it needs some air to reveal its full range of aromas.

Certainly I’m not just some guy that walked in off of the street, but I did think that it was admirably bold of Verduzier to decant a champagne in front of some journalist that he just met. But apparently he does it all the time, and not just with the Blanc Souverain. “We also carafe wines that are mature — not old, but a bit tight,” says Verduzier. “For example, the 1996 is a good wine to carafe, as it’s still a little bit tight, and putting it in a carafe opens up the aromas a little bit.”

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Janisson-Baradon Ratafia Single Cask 2005

I had a terrific visit yesterday with Cyril Janisson of Champagne Janisson-Baradon et Fils in Epernay, and after tasting a delicious array of champagnes, we finished with his rare, vintage-dated, single-cask ratafia.

Ratafia is grape must that is blended with distilled alcohol, and it’s a very traditional beverage here in Champagne, used largely as an apéritif. The problem is, most of it is completely industrial, made by large, factory-like firms and tasting highly processed and thoroughly commercial. There are a few high-quality examples to be found from small growers, however, such as this fine version by Janisson-Baradon.

The must for this ratafia comes from the rebèche, the final pressing of champagne grapes after the cuvée (the first 2,050 liters) and the taille (the next 500 liters), but it’s made only with the first 100 liters pressed directly after the taille, which Janisson says is the remaining portion that contains the highest amount of sugar. It’s made exclusively of pinot noir and contains no added sugar, just the pressed juice and neutral alcohol. While some producers use marc (alcohol distilled from the pomace, like grappa) or fine (alcohol distilled from wine, like brandy) to make their ratafia, Janisson says, “I want an alcohol as neutral as possible so that it doesn’t mark the taste.” This spends 18 months in a three-year old, 225-liter barrique from Burgundy, and the selection of the “single cask” is something of a jest: “Tom Stevenson asked me, ‘Why did you choose this particular cask of ratafia?’” says Janisson. “I replied, ‘Because it was my only one!’”

This shows exuberant aromas of milk chocolate, dried Chinese plums, Demerara sugar and roasted coffee beans on the nose. The sweetness on the palate balances well against the alcohol and acidity, and the rich texture and depth of fragrance combine to give this a satisfying resonance and grip, finishing with floral, chocolatey length. It would make an excellent alternative to Banyuls or port.

Unfortunately it’s virtually impossible to obtain, as Janisson only made 300 bottles of it, but in 2006 he tripled his production to three whole barrels, so perhaps the next vintage will be a little more commercially viable. Janisson does sell his ratafia at the estate, however, so if you happen to be in Epernay you ought to drop by and buy a bottle.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The World’s Most Exclusive Camping Site

From the Department of Obscure Things: Quick, what’s the coolest little-known fact about Krug’s Clos du Mesnil?

It’s the source of Krug’s original single vineyard wine, first bottled in 1979? Yeah, everybody knows that. It’s in the middle of the village, surrounded by walls that create a special microclimate? Yawn. You probably read that in a book somewhere.

No, the coolest thing about Clos du Mesnil is the yurt. Yurts, actually, since there’s a big one for lounging in and a couple of smaller ones that serve as “bedrooms” of a sort.

They’re perched under a grove of trees at the edge of the vineyard itself, within those famous walls, and if you’re a really lucky friend of the house you might get to spend an evening out there, fixing up some barbecue and camping out in one of the world’s most famous vineyard sites. (Don’t feel bad, I haven’t done it either.)

I did, however, enjoy having coffee in the grand yurt last week with my friend Kurt after being treated to a splendid lunch involving plenty of Krug. Not to mention being able to drink the new vintage of Krug Clos du Mesnil while standing in the vineyard itself. As it won’t be released until this fall, my lips are sealed until then....

Monday, July 21, 2008

Dosage: Liqueur vs. MCR

The subject of dosage is a sensitive one, not only in terms of quantity, but even what sort of substance is used to dose a champagne. The standard practice of dosage is to make a liqueur d’expédition, dissolving either cane sugar or beet sugar in a quantity of wine and adding this to the bottle after disgorgement. Recently, however, many producers have switched to a product called MCR, which has sparked a bit of a controversy.

MCR stands for moût concentré rectifié, or concentrated and rectified grape must. The majority of MCR comes from the Languedoc, and sometimes from even farther away, but it’s processed to such a highly neutral state that I doubt that the region or even the grape variety makes a difference at all. Its neutrality, in fact, is the primary reason for using it, and many top growers are preferring it over traditional liqueur, including Larmandier-Bernier, Diebolt-Vallois and René Geoffroy. Geoffroy switched completely to MCR about four years ago, after extensive series of comparative blind tastings, and Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy is very pleased with the results, citing not only its neutrality but its superior freshness as primary factors. “The traditional liqueur has a tendency to oxidize more quickly,” says Geoffroy. “MCR is better at preserving the character of the original wine.”

Not everyone is convinced, however. To begin with, for some people the liqueur d’expédition is an important part of the “finishing” of a wine, especially for major houses such as Billecart-Salmon or Louis Roederer, both of whom put a great deal of care into aging the reserve wines used for their dosage. Also, some people contest the idea of MCR’s neutrality, saying that it contributes an unwelcome character. “MCR is a little syrupy,” says Raphael Bérèche, of Bérèche et Fils. “It’s [the European Union] that tells us to use MCR, in order to absorb all the excess wine.” An additional argument used by many partisans of liqueur is that employing wine from the Languedoc or elsewhere, even in a neutral and concentrated form, is contrary to the idea of terroir. On the other hand, those who favor MCR can point to the fact that the sugar in liqueur is even more foreign, as it doesn’t even come from grapes!

My verdict? I used to think that you couldn’t taste the difference one way or another, but I’ve found that you sometimes can, especially if the dosage is above extra brut levels. If the wine doesn’t have enough body, MCR does feel slightly syrupy on the palate, which is starting to bother me more and more. On the other hand, if the wine has depth and richness of fruit (think Diebolt or Geoffroy), or if the dosage is very low (think Larmandier-Bernier), MCR works out perfectly fine. I do think that it integrates with the wine in time, and the differences are usually pronounced only at the beginning, right after disgorgement. In fact, if you live overseas, by the time the wine gets sent to you across the ocean you probably won’t be able to tell one way or the other. But it’s an interesting argument nevertheless.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

1976 Marc Hébrart

At the end of a tasting with Jean-Paul Hébrart of Champagne Marc Hébrart yesterday, he pulled out an old bottle for us to drink, which is always a pleasure. The burnished color of the wine indicated that it had some age, yet it was still bright and lively, both in its appearance and in the fragrant, expansive aroma on the nose. I was thinking that perhaps the wine could be around 25 to 30 years old, but the prominent acidity on the palate was keeping me puzzled as to the exact vintage. There was too much flesh for it to be from a vintage like 1980 or 1981, but it didn’t quite fit the opulent profile of 1982. The acidity was high, but not high enough to be 1979. 1975? Maybe. It had a harmony and balance more typical of 1985, but most ’85s are much more youthful, especially stored in the original cellars. I thought perhaps it could be 1983, with its combination of acidity and its mature aromas of exotic spice, preserved ginger, butter caramel and candied orange peel.

Needless to say, I was surprised when it turned out to be from 1976. One of the warmest years on record, ’76s are notable for their low acidity, high alcohol and ample, fat character. This wine had none of those things. Although there were creamy, rich flavors of toffee, mocha and dried Turkish apricot on the palate, they were kept in sharply kinetic focus by the firm structure, and the overall picture was one of finesse and harmony. It continued to develop more complexity and depth in the glass, with a subtle chalkiness growing increasingly more prominent on the finish.

Hébrart doesn’t have very many old bottles in his cellar, which made this even more of a special occasion. The ones that he does have, however, are stored sur pointe, on their original lees, and he’s wondering whether or not they ought to be disgorged. This one was disgorged back in February as an experiment — I’m glad he did it, of course, as that meant we could drink it!

Friday, July 18, 2008

Wine of the Week: Camille Savès Brut Rosé Grand Cru

The small, family-run estate of Camille Savès in Bouzy has been bottling estate champagnes for nearly 100 years. While they have vines in several villages in the area, their rosé is 100 percent Bouzy grand cru, even though the majority of it is actually chardonnay.

The current release is based on the 2004 vintage, with some reserve wine from 2003, and the final blend is 60 percent chardonnay, 28 percent pinot noir and 12 percent red wine, which is also pinot noir from the 2004 harvest. It’s very aromatic on the nose, with a burst of pungent, extroverted strawberry and redcurrant fruit. “Bouzy is a strong, vinous, full-bodied terroir,” says Hervé Savès, the fourth generation of his family to run the estate, and while this character is apparent here in the boldness of fruit on both nose and palate, this wine also demonstrates plenty of finesse as well, with a silky texture and subtle, finely-drawn finish.

Camille Savès is represented by champagne brokers Champagne et Villages, and imported into the United States by various distributors, including Polaner Selections, Mt. Kisco, NY, and Triage Wines, Seattle, WA. Polaner’s suggested retail price for the Brut Rosé is $68.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Disgorging Big Bottles

This morning at Champagne Gosset in Aÿ they were disgorging jeroboams. These are all disgorged in the traditional way, employing a process not all that different from how it’s been done for over a hundred years. The corks are loosened with a special machine (it looks like something out of Guantanamo, but it’s really just a giant corkscrew), then disgorged by hand, which requires considerable strength and skill. They’re topped up with the same wine, then the cork and cage are both affixed by hand as well. These guys have 2,000 of these things to do, which is no small feat: “The demand for big bottles has never been so high,” says Philippe Manfredini, export director for Gosset. “In the last three years, it’s been crazy.” Here are some photos of the process:

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

L’Epicerie au Bon Manger, Reims

After an appointment in Reims this morning, I stopped by my favorite wine shop, Les Caves du Forum. It’s always a joy to browse through proprietor Fabrice Parisot’s sublime selection of wines, but what was even more exciting today was that it was my first opportunity to visit his new épicerie across the street, opened last month with business partner Aline Serva.

Parisot and Serva have collected a vast assortment of gastronomical delights, selected with the same high standards of quality and appreciation for artisanality that Parisot demonstrates in his wine shop. There are cheeses from Philippe Olivier, jams from Christine Ferber, Basque hams from Montauzet and foie gras and confits from Maison Barthouil. There’s a selection of teas from La Maison des Trois Thés, the finest source of Chinese tea in the Western world, and butter from Bordier, widely considered by elite chefs to be the best butter in all of France. Beyond that you’ll find all sorts of other delectable treats, from charcuterie to andouillette to oils to honeys to vintage-dated sardines, all of the finest quality.

A selection of sandwiches is available, as well as charcuterie and cheese plates and a small selection of wines by the glass. Needing sustenance before a round of wine shopping, not to mention being thoroughly entranced by the array of wonders surrounding me, I chose a sandwich of smoked salmon “de l’Adour”, made with a rustic country bread by Christophe Zunic of Four à Bois. Zunic is easily the best baker in the Champagne region, and his crusty, nutty brown bread provided the perfect counterpoint to the gloriously fatty, full-flavored salmon. On my next visit I’m going to have to confront that glistening jamón ibérico de bellota staring at me from behind the counter.

The Epicerie au Bon Manger is a welcome and badly needed addition to the Champenois gastronomic landscape, which in general is less than thrilling. There certainly isn’t anything else like it in the region. “It’s like a little bit of Paris,” says Parisot, but I’m not completely sure. It might be even better.

Epicerie au Bon Manger, 7 rue Courmeaux, 51100 Reims

Monday, July 14, 2008

Happy Quatorze Juillet

I’ve been spending a quiet holiday weekend largely indoors, working on writing and more writing, which is a pity as the weather is surprisingly gorgeous right now here in Champagne. (Imagine that! Sun! In the summertime!)

Perhaps later this afternoon I’ll sit out in the garden with a glass of the Henri Goutorbe Rosé I have chilling in the fridge....

Friday, July 11, 2008

Wine of the Week: Ulysse Collin Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut 2004

Champagne is full of rising stars. One of the newest is Olivier Collin, in the village of Congy in the Sézannais, south of the Côte des Blancs. A gregarious, hospitable and inquisitive winegrower, Collin gives credit to Anselme Selosse for inspiring him to become a Champenois vigneron. He did a stage with Selosse in 2001, which he describes as “one of those encounters that changes your life,” and in 2003 he was able to take back a portion of his family’s vines that had been rented to the négoce, allowing him to make his own wines. Nature wasn’t immediately in the mood to cooperate, however, as the 2003 crop was severely hit by frost, and Collin had to sell off the entire harvest.

He made his first wine in 2004, from a 1.2-hectare parcel in a vineyard called Les Perrières, in the nearby village of La Gravelle. The chalk in this area is very close to the surface, with little topsoil, and it’s mixed with chunks of black silex, which is highly unusual in Champagne (see the bizarre-looking evidence to the right). Les Perrières faces roughly southeast, and Collin’s vines here are about 30 years old. Winemaking as a rule here is as natural and non-interventionist as possible, and the indigenous yeasts took an alarmingly long time to ferment, which has turned out to be a normal occurrence for Collin: this week I tasted vins clairs from 2007 that still hadn’t completed fermentation in mid-July! Fermentation and malolactic are all in old (three- to six-year) barrique, and the wine is neither fined nor filtered.

The 2004 was released in the fall of 2007, and while it was of obviously high quality, I felt that it was still a little bit angular and nervously adolescent at the time. Today, with a few months to settle down (and nearly a year of post-disgorgement aging, as it was disgorged on 27 July 2007), it’s filled out in aroma and has integrated its components in superb fashion. When I first tasted it back in October, I had a slight hesitation as to whether or not it would find a balance as a non-dosé, but now I have no doubt whatsoever. (Apparently Olivier had the same hesitation: he made 500 bottles of a so-called Brut version, dosed at two grams per liter. But it was sold only here in France.) It’s achieved a wonderful harmony, showing warm, fragrant notes of apple, quince, cashew and brown spice, along with a sleekly supple texture and resonant depth of fruit. It’s enlivened and enriched by its vinification in wood yet not at all subservient to it, and I love the snappy, brisk minerality on the back end, which combines with the racy acidity to give this a feeling of vitality and kinetic energy. While it feels harmonious and finely-knit, it does pack a subtly gripping density, and in homage to Brooklynguy’s Friday Night Bubbles post last week, I would say that this is a good candidate for decanting. (I’ll admit that I didn’t decant this bottle, because I’m too busy drinking it. But I’m enjoying it more out of a tulip glass than a flute, as I find that it brings out more vinosity and depth in the wine. So I ask you to give me style points there.) By the way, this doesn’t show the vintage on the label, but it’s printed as a lot number on the back, at least on the French back label.

Collin made only 5,500 bottles of the 2004, but in 2005 he increased this to 9,000, and in 2006 he made 10,000 bottles of this wine and 5,000 bottles of a pinot noir from a vineyard called Les Maillons. However, despite the higher production the wine isn’t necessarily going to be any easier to obtain. Collin wants very much to increase the amount of aging on the lees, so he will only release half of the 2005 this fall, and the other half in 2009. It’s a financially difficult move for him, but he’s committed to it for qualitative reasons, which I find highly admirable.

As an aside, here’s a photo that I love, even if it’s probably not Olivier’s favorite. This was him disgorging the 2006 for a sneak preview — it’s an absolutely terrific wine, but it won’t be for sale until September 2010, so you’ll have to wait to hear about it.

Ulysse Collin is imported into the United States by Louis/Dressner Selections, New York, NY, and the suggested retail price for the 2004 Extra Brut is $82.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

On Pressure

Today, we automatically assume that a champagne bottle has six atmospheres of pressure, created by adding exactly 24 grams of sugar to the bottle for the second fermentation. However, according to Yannick Doyard, who has a keen interest in all things historical in Champagne, this was not always the case.

“In the old days,” Doyard told me this morning, “the bottles were fermented on cork, which was not as inert a seal. Twenty-four grams of sugar would create only about four and a half to five atmospheres of pressure in the bottle. It wasn’t until people started using crown capsules for fermentation that champagne reached six atmospheres. Today everybody still uses 24 grams of sugar because that’s the traditional recipe, but in fact the pressure in champagne was traditionally lower.”

In Doyard’s champagnes (which, by the way, are uniformly outstanding), he seeks to capture a traditional feel by adding only 19 to 21 grams of sugar for the fermentation, creating a mousse of between 4.5 to five atmospheres. “I don’t want the bubbles to attack you on the palate,” he says. “They should be harmonious and well-integrated with the wine.” The result is a silkier, creamier texture, which works well with Doyard’s intensely vinous style of champagne.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Something Old...

I was visiting Olivier Bonville of Champagne Franck Bonville in Avize this morning, and he generously pulled out an old bottle for us to taste. It was a wine his grandfather had made (his grandfather began bottling wine in 1959) — there was lots of skank on the cork, and the wire cage was rusty and corroded, breaking apart as soon as it was touched. It was the sort of bottle that makes you wonder whether or not your tetanus shots are up to date.

So the wine turned out to be a 1963. Now, 1963 isn’t exactly the sort of vintage that you read about in wine books. It’s not the sort of vintage that people like to remember. The French, being French, will never say that a vintage is downright bad, but 1963 is the sort of vintage that they might call “très moyenne”.

The wine was beautiful, with a bright color that was still more in the straw spectrum than golden, and a vibrant, lively nose of mocha, fresh caramel, orange peel, brown butter and lightly roasted coffee beans. The aromatic presence intensified on the palate, with smoky notes of chalk and a surprising depth of fruit character, showing flavors of dried apricot and citrus peel. I drank my glass with great pleasure. Olivier, however, called it “a bit short.” He thought it was good on the nose, but wasn’t so impressed with the palate. “Next time you come,” he said, “we’ll open something better.”

Monday, July 7, 2008

René Geoffroy Pureté

Sorry I haven’t been blogging much. I’ve been buried in work of various sorts, and haven’t had much time on my hands. However, I did go see Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy this afternoon to taste the current lineup, which is terrifically strong — anything that says 2004 and Geoffroy on the label should be a mandatory purchase, including the Empreinte, Volupté and the as-yet-unbottled Cumières rouge. I can’t wait to see the 2004 Millésime in a few years.

Geoffroy introduced me to a new wine of his, which unfortunately you can’t buy unless you live somewhere like Norway or Japan. (Ironically, you can’t even buy it in France, although I’m sure he’d sell some out of the cellar if you asked nicely.) It’s called Pureté, and it’s exactly the same wine as Expression (Geoffroy’s non-vintage brut) except that it has zero dosage.

Normally I’m not such a big fan of such a practice, as my reasoning is that if a blend shows balance at nine grams of sugar per liter, how can it be balanced with zero? My favorite non-dosé wines are usually those that have been intended to be non-dosé from the start, and I’m often disappointed when I taste a non-dosé version of someone’s regular brut. Yet with enough richness and depth of fruit, a few people are able to pull it off. Benoît Lahaye and Marie-Noëlle Ledru are two names that spring to mind, and now I'm adding René Geoffroy to the list.

The 2004/2005 Pureté smells terrific, with an intensely minerally nose and sleekly lively notes of cherry skins, red apple and blanched almond. It isn’t necessarily a better wine than the Expression: it has greater nuance and detail, as well as more pronounced chalkiness, but the Expression has a more complete finish and it’s certainly the more user-friendly wine. Yet I do think that both wines are successful in their respective ways, which surprises even me. (By the way, that's obviously not the real packaging in the above photo, although it would be a great idea.)

Friday, July 4, 2008

Wine of the Week: Roses de Jeanne Blanc de Noirs Les Ursules

I’m back home in Champagne, after a whirlwind tour of Portugal’s Vinho Verde region. It was a blast, as you can imagine, but there’s also something to be said for being back in Champagne.

One of the hottest young champagne producers today is Cédric Bouchard, in the village of Celles-sur-Ource in the Aube’s Côte des Bar. Although he’s only been making wine since 2000, he’s been attracting a great deal of attention for his richly flavored, intensely soil-expressive champagnes, and in fact, he was just named Champagne Vigneron of the Year in the 2008 Gault-Millau.

Bouchard has a strict “single variety, single parcel, single vintage” policy: each of the parcels in his 1.37 hectares of vines is planted with only one variety, and each is used to make a single-vineyard wine every year. Obviously the quantities of each cuvée are very small, but it’s a tremendously intriguing idea: this is as Burgundian as it gets in Champagne.

The estate wines, of which there are now four, are bottled under the label Roses de Jeanne; there is another label, called Inflorescence, which comes from an additional 1.49 hectares of vines owned by his father, but which Bouchard works himself and bottles separately. Les Ursules is his original parcel of vines, located on a relatively flat piece of land close to the estate itself. The majority of the vines here were planted in 1974, and they are worked organically, although without certification.

The current release of Les Ursules is the 2004, which is rich and vinous, redolent of blackberry and blackcurrant fruit. Like all of Bouchard’s wines it’s non-dosé, yet thanks to the impeccable work in both the vineyard and winery this feels entirely harmonious and complete, with a finely silky texture, an insistently chalky undertone and a staining, saturating sense of length on the finish. It needs quite a bit of time to open up, and while I didn’t decant this bottle, I would definitely consider decanting my next one, as it has plenty of depth, vinosity and richness to be able to do so. Yet what impresses me about this wine is not its concentration, but its finesse, its balance and above all, its expression of terroir.

Cédric Bouchard’s wines are imported into the United States by Polaner Selections, Mt. Kisco, NY, and Triage Wines, Seattle, WA, although beware: the quantities are miniscule.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Happily, You Can Find Sparkling Wine Everywhere

I’ve been drinking loads of Vinho Verde in the past few days, in all sorts of incarnations. The majority has been white, of course, although I’ve also had several reds, a couple of rosés, and even some aguardente, the local brandy made from Vinho Verde, which can be dangerously good from the right producers. And there’s espumante, the sparkling version of Vinho Verde that I can’t help but be fascinated by.

On the face of it, Vinho Verde should be an excellent region for sparkling wine. It’s cool (sort of) and rainy, and the wines tend to be naturally low in alcohol, which is important. Sparkling wine is a relatively new concept in the region, however, and they probably need a little more time to figure it all out.

I feel that the choice of grape variety is of paramount importance. So far, I haven’t been all that impressed with sparkling alvarinho — it’s just too aromatic (which I tend to hate in sparkling wine), and it’s prone to high alcohol levels (which I also hate in sparkling wine). Loureiro is clearly out of the question, as it’s the most floral and aromatic variety in the region, and besides it hasn’t enough acidity. Trajadura would be a disaster, as it’s really low in acidity. Avesso is a good idea, with its high acidity and crisp flavors. I’m still looking for a sparkler made from azal, which is citrusy, acidic and prone to neutrality unless you ripen it well in the vineyard (at least in still wines, anyway). Sounds like a good candidate for sparkling wine to me.

The best sparkling Vinho Verde I’ve tasted so far has been the Espumante Bruto from the Quinta do Tamariz, made from 100 percent arinto, a grape that is known for its firm acidic structure and promising longevity (relatively speaking). Aged for 10 months on its lees and topping out at 12 percent alcohol, this is appley, minerally and brisk, showing superb finesse on the palate and finishing with a refreshing bite of sweet herbal notes and granitic stoniness. It’s surprisingly long on the palate and quite dry, dosed at 5.4 grams per liter, and while I enjoyed it on its own, I’d love to see it with sashimi or crudo, or else with tempura. For now, this is my new standard against which I’m comparing all sparkling Vinho Verde.