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.