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!


David McDuff said...

Sounds like a great bottle, Peter. I thoroughly enjoyed Hébrart's NV "Cuvée de Réserve" at a new restaurant in Philly a couple of weeks ago. And by odd coincidence, I was just reading about his '02 Club, written up in less than glowing terms at Rockss and Fruit, all the more surprising as I found it among the highlights of a Theise Champagne portfolio tasting back in February. In any event, your post makes me want to explore Hébrart's wines a little more deeply.

A question for your expertise: after 30 years sur-pointe, wouldn't the wines be safer/more durable if left on the lees until ready to be served? Or in other words, wouldn't they begin to mature much more rapidly if disgorged and resealed after all these years?


Peter Liem said...

The ’02 Special Club is an absolutely terrific wine, one of the best I’ve ever tasted from Hebrart. I’m a little embarrassed to say that I’ve had it twice in the last two days! The only thing is that compared to, say, 12-24 months ago, it’s starting to shut down quite a bit (as many other ’02s are), and I’d recommend putting it in the cellar for another five years or so. The ’04 is more forward and approachable right now, even though it’s also a very young wine, with good cellaring potential.

Regarding disgorgement of old wines, what you describe is exactly the prevailing conventional wisdom here in Champagne, and it seems very plausible to me. However, I asked Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, chef de cave of Louis Roederer and one of the greatest champagne experts that I know, this exact same question the other day. He describes the issue as being slightly more complicated: “If your wine as a raw material is already oxidative,” he says, “you will have more trouble keeping them [after disgorgement].” In other words, if you have an oxidative style of winemaking, the wine will evolve all the more quickly when disgorged as an old wine, which explains why Bollinger RDs often go toasty and creamy relatively quickly. But with a non-malo style like Roederer, he says the wines last longer when late-disgorged. As an example, he pulled out a 1990 Blanc de Blancs that was disgorged in 2006. Admittedly, 1990 isn’t all that old in Champagne time, but it did spend 15 years on the lees, and it’s been a couple years since disgorgement. I’m not a fan of the 1990 vintage, and I find many champagnes from that vintage to be very evolved and strangely volatile. This Blanc de Blancs was the freshest and most youthful 1990 I’ve had in a long time, lively, detailed and vibrant. It was everything that people say 1990s are, but that you almost never find in the bottle. Anyway, back to Hebrart: I think it would probably be wiser (and certainly safer) at this point to keep the wines on the lees, as you say. This wine was perfectly lovely, but I wonder if it would mature more rapidly in another year, two years or five years vs. its brethren still left sur pointe.

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