Tuesday, November 11, 2008

While We’re Talking About NVs...

As a follow-up to yesterday’s post, I realized how difficult (and sometimes impossible) it is to figure out what the base year of a non-vintage champagne is. It’s a little different as a consumer in France, if you patronize small, independent, high-quality cavistes, as one should. In this case, your shopkeeper should have a direct relationship with the grower or house, and ought to be able to tell you exactly what’s in the bottle. If he or she can’t, you’re clearly shopping at the wrong place. In export markets such as the United States, however, where the multi-tiered wine trade is much more anonymous and information not always reliable, it becomes more of a problem.

If I were benevolent dictator of all things Champagne (a prospect that ought to make you terrified indeed), I would insist that some sort of information be put on the back labels of all non-vintage champagnes to indicate the base year or base years of the blend. It doesn’t have to be nearly as detailed as Champagne Raymond Boulard, for example, who lists on their back label the base year, percentage and years of reserve wines, composition of the blend, bottling date, disgorgement date and amount of dosage, although I like having all of that information. It could be as simple as Charles Heidsieck, who writes Mise en Cave en 2003, letting you know that the base year of the blend is 2002. Simple and efficient. Or it could even be as minimalist as Bertrand Gautherot, who writes the code R05 on the label to indicate that it was harvested in 2005. Just something — anything — to let the consumer know. (In fact, most champagne bottles do have some sort of coding somewhere on them, but it’s so deliberately cryptic and concealed that only the winemaker can decipher it. I’m talking about a code that the consumer can read.)

Incidentally, one of the (many) things that I like so much about Champagne Jacquesson is that they’ve completely acknowledged the fact that consistency in a non-vintage wine is a mythical beast, and have created a unique system of numbered cuvées to celebrate, rather than repress, the changing character of the blend from year to year. Following the lines of yesterday’s post, it comes as no surprise that the Cuvée No. 733, based on 2005, is outstanding — along with the No. 730, which was based on the magnificent 2002 vintage, the 733 is my favorite so far of these numbered cuvées.


Chief Executive Researcher said...

I'm a big fan of transparency, but I do admit a certain thrill at learning the champagne codes (usually from you) and later deciphering them on my own. Makes me feel like an "insider".

And speaking of knowledgeable cavists... other than Les Papilles which you've written about in the past, where would you go to find a worthwhile selection of grower champagne in Paris?

Last time there, I looked around and was generally disappointed. A shop in the Mairas near our hotel had a single choice, a NV Brut from Jacques Copinet, who I'd never heard of. And in the big, upscale retail shop near the Madeleine (can never remember the name, but it's the Habitat equivalent for wine) I grabbed another bottle from a producer I'd never heard of... Jacques Beaufort. Haven't opened it yet, a vintage 1997 brut that I bought because the card said JB was biodynamic. But the selection was pretty thin.

cheers, dh

Peter Liem said...

There is no equivalent in Paris of an Astor Wines or Hi-Time, with an encyclopedic selection of grower champagnes. French wine retail just doesn't work that way. So you have to hunt and pick for things you want -- no one-stop shopping. Lavinia (I believe that's the Madeleine place you're referring to) is pricey and cavernous, but sometimes they do have very intriguing things for sale. I like going to Le Verre Volé, as the people are friendly and the wine is good. I often buy Gautherot, Selosse, Prevost and Doyard there. If I'm in the 6th, I stop by La Cremerie and La Dernière Goutte. I shop at Augé more for Loire and Jura wine, but every once in a while I'll buy a bottle of champagne from there. I can't say I like Legrand much -- I used to shop there a lot a decade ago, but something about it feels kind of cold now. They always have Selosse, though. Not much else in the way of champagne. The thing about France, though, is that you find things in the craziest places. Just around the corner from my friend's house in the 20th where I stay when I'm in the city, there's a little neighborhood store called La Campagne à Paris, which sells all sorts of random specialty items, from tins of foie gras to chocolates to tea. They also have a small selection of superbly chosen wines, and the champagnes that they offer are Agrapart, Pierre Gimonnet and RH Coutier. Not so bad.

Chief Executive Researcher said...

Thanks, Peter. I'll be noting these in my little red Carte de Paris. That's a very helpful list and very kind of you to share.

And btw, I found this list on wineterroirs a while back:


in case anyone here is interested.

I've oft wondered if the retail reality derives from a different cultural approach to wine? Not a small topic, I realize.


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