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.


wino said...

Thanks for the notes on the club tasting. I'm envious! It's so interesting to learn how the older vintages are aging. I must confess, I haven't given Champagne the attention it deserves lately. I just discovered your blog and look forward to being one its regular readers.

Brooklynguy said...

sounds like an incredible experience. were you rotating around the room tasting, served wine in many flights, drinking together at a table while eating did you do this?

can any vintage wine be a special club wine, or is there something else that must be true for a special club wine?

Peter Liem said...

Thank you for your comments, and thanks for reading! With a name like that, you are always welcome here.

It was a walk-around tasting at first, with all the bottles out on tables, and then we moved to dinner, with random bottles from the tasting being brought around throughout the evening.

To qualify for a Spécial Club, a wine must go through two tastings: the first is as vin clair, to qualify for permission to be bottled in the unique, fat Club bottle; and the second is three years after bottling, to qualify for release as a Club wine, and therefore the right to use the Club's distinctive label. The idea of a Spécial Club is that it's the estate's prestige cuvée -- most estates will have another vintage wine, but the Club wine is usually distinctive in some way, whether it's old vines, longer aging, etc., and it's supposed to be the top wine.

spume said...


You know how I feel about the Special Club bottlings. Man, if I could only rap, I'd totally bust out a tune here. Oh well.

Oh, on a totally different subject, I caught a really cool exhibit curated and/or inspired by Sonic Youth at the new contemporary art museum in Bolzano last week. Great stuff. There was a room of disembodied Kim Gordon vocals mashed together from over the years that made me think of you.

- wolfgang

Anonymous said...

Peter, great blog! I'm fascinated to read that the Club has elected to disgorge all stocks and store them "under capsule"... could this be a sly and subtle move by the champenois away from that great killer of old wines, the cork? I'd be very interested to hear your thoughts.

Peter Liem said...

Actually, no, it would have nothing to do with cork taint, if that's what you're referring to. If a wine were tainted by cork, it would already be too late at this point. It has to do with the rate of further aging -- putting it in capsule would presumably allow it to continue developing at a slower and less oxidative rate. It's a controversial move in a way, because one could also argue that disgorging it this late in its life is a big oxidative shock, and could cause it to deteriorate even faster than if they simply left it alone, even if it's under capsule now. But they've probably thought about that already, and anyway, it's their wine, so they can do what they want.

Peter Liem said...

By the way, you do realize from my post that I'm talking only about the small portion of old wines in the official Club library, right? It isn't that the entire Club is disgorging all of their old wines and putting them in capsule or anything like that.

mwmw said...

Hi Peter,

Thanks, I was indeed referring to the aging capacity of Champagne under crown cap as opposed to cork, not the issue of taint. I may have misunderstood, but I'd expect late disgorging and sealing with crown cap would mean there's no contact with cork at all (assuming the 99+% use of crown cap for champagnes en tirage)..?

Anyway, I guess what I'm most interested in is the superior retention of carbon dioxide by crown seals over extended periods of aging (both before and after disgorgement), as well as avoiding the actual contribution of cork to the oxidative process, by leaching of phenolics, absorption of sulphur dioxide, or whatever mechanism(s), let alone allowing oxygen to pass through/alongside the cork.

I gather one or two significant sparkling wine producers elsewhere in the world have started to use crown caps for their commercial releases, and I was interested to see that, even if behind the scenes, some champenois might be considering the merits of alternative closures for champagne.

Who knows, we may be enjoying pristine 100-year-old champagnes with much more regularity in future if the wild-card element of cork is removed... or maybe not...

Best regards,
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