Friday, February 29, 2008

Training Vines in Champagne: Pinot Noir

Champagne, as you know, is largely made from three different grape varieties. Each variety tends to prefer a slightly different terroir, and each gets trained in a different way to adapt to the needs of the variety and to best take advantage of the local environment. Right now, in the wintertime when the vines are pruned back and there isn’t any foliage, it’s easy to see the structures of the different training systems. This week I asked Nicolas Chiquet of Champagne Gaston Chiquet to take me out into the vines. (He’s the guy in the photo, as you might have guessed.)

The photo below shows a pinot noir vine in the vineyard of Vauzelle in Aÿ, which is a particularly excellent plot of land. Pinot noir likes south-facing slopes with plenty of sun, and thrives in dry, chalky soils (it hates humid, clay-rich soils, such as those in the western Vallée de la Marne). Aÿ fits both of these conditions perfectly, which is why it’s potentially the greatest pinot village in all of Champagne.

Pinot noir in Champagne is always trained in the cordon du Royat, involving a long, horizontal charpente, or branch, at a maximum height of 60 centimeters above the ground, with several spurs that produces fruit-bearing canes. The canes, or coursons, must be spaced at least 15 centimeters apart to provide sufficient aeration, and each is allowed to have two buds, while on the prolongement (the short cane that you can see on the very end of the cordon—I don’t know what we call this in English, but maybe you do) there are four buds allowed. The main branch can be renewed by a second one that you can see clearly in this example—as it grows it will be trained along the same wire as the old wood, and can eventually replace it. Comparatively speaking, pinot noir is of relatively low vigor, but the yields must be carefully managed in order to produce high quality wine, and the cordon du Royat helps maximize ripeness while keeping yields under control.

Chardonnay, on the other hand, gets treated in a completely different manner—I’ll tell you about it tomorrow.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Champagne Veuve Fourny & Fils, Vertus

Emmanuel Fourny (pictured) and his brother Charles-Henry are fifth-generation vignerons, and have been at the helm of this Côte des Blancs property since 1993. The house was created as Albert Fourny by their grandfather in the 1930s, and changed its name to Veuve A. Fourny in the 1950s following Albert’s death. Today it is known simply as Veuve Fourny & Fils.

I consider Veuve Fourny to be grower champagne, even though they’ve been registered as an NM since 1979, which allows them to buy grapes from other family members and friends. An important thing to note is that all of their parcels, whether estate or négoce, are treated with the same care in viticulture and vinification: the Fournys work closely with their friends and family to ensure that their viticulture is of the same high standard as the house, advising on such things as pruning, cover crops and yields, and all parcels are vinified separately to preserve their identity of terroir. In addition, they buy only from Vertus—it’s important to the Fournys that every bottle of Veuve Fourny champagne is pure, single-cru wine. “We want to be specialists of Vertus,” says Emmanuel Fourny. Today they own 8.5 hectares of vines spread over 40 parcels in the village, which account for about 70 percent of their needs; their purchased parcels total another four hectares or so.

Half of the estate’s vines are located in the lieu-dit of Monts Ferrés, on the Mesnil side of the village, and this forms the backbone for the Brut Blanc de Blancs. Blended from three vintages and dosed at just five grams per liter, this brut’s lively, racy energy and prominent minerality give away its origins close to Le Mesnil. The same wine is released without dosage as the Brut Nature—I like the pronounced, saline expression of minerality and the zesty crispness here, and it would be a terrific accompaniment to oysters or other raw shellfish, but it’s a less complex wine than the Brut.

Vertus is unusual in the Côte des Blancs in that there is some pinot noir grown here, and in fact, in the past it was more famous for pinot noir than for chardonnay. Fourny’s Grande Réserve is blended from 80 percent chardonnay and 20 percent pinot noir, and while it is also blended from three vintages, there is a higher proportion (40%) of reserve wine here. In addition, about 10 percent of the wines for this cuvée are aged in oak barriques. It’s a richer, more ample wine than the Blanc de Blancs, sourced primarily from areas in Vertus with more clay. The Cuvée R Extra Brut is named for the Fournys’ father Roger, who preferred to use a little pinot in his blends—it’s a blend of 90 percent chardonnay and 10 percent pinot noir, as his wines often were. Fermented and aged entirely in barrique, it’s always a blend of two vintages, and spends four years in the cellars before release. The backbone of the Cuvée R is the fruit from old vines in a lieu-dit called Les Barillées, on the heart of the mid-slope of Vertus, which gives dense, sleekly powerful chardonnay. If you see a bottle now it will probably be the blend of equal parts 2000 and 2002, dosed at 3 g./l., which balances a rich depth of fruit with floral, complex fragrance and softly spicy, harmoniously integrated notes of wood. The next release, which is 60 percent 2004 and 40 percent 2002, is more nervy and brisk, buoyed by the crisp acidity of the 2004 vintage, and shows complex, vividly fragrant aromas of tangerine, white peach and apple. Not to be missed is Veuve Fourny’s Millésimé 2002 Blanc de Blancs, sourced exclusively from parcels in Les Barillées and Les Monts Ferrés in the heart of the slope (the same terroir, incidentally, as Larmandier-Bernier’s outstanding Terre de Vertus). It’s labeled as brut but dosed at a mere 3 g./l., and there was no malolactic fermentation. Fresh, lively and fragrant, it’s an energetic and complete wine, showing a fine subtlety and balance that keeps it vibrant through the long, citrus-dominated finish. It’s still adolescent now but extremely promising, and worth laying down in the cellar.

Veuve Fourny is imported into the United States by Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants in Berkeley, CA, and into the United Kingdom by Thorman Hunt & Co. in London.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Exercises Designed to Confound and Amaze Both Brain and Palate

I’ve been put through some Champenois calisthenics over the past couple of days. This morning I tasted through barrels of 2007 vins clairs with Emmanuel Fourny of Champagne Veuve Fourny in Vertus, not only parcel by parcel across the village, but also the same parcel put into different barrels. Just like in Burgundy, only with Vertus chardonnay: medium toast vs. medium plus; steam-bent vs. flame; toasted heads vs. non-toasted; Alliers vs. Vosges; François Frères vs. Radoux; etc. etc. Very, very interesting. Yesterday I was at Champagne Mumm, where chef de cave Didier Mariotti (pictured) began with a dosage tasting (the same wine with multiple levels of dosage). He then moved to a series of wines comparing different blends of Mumm de Cramant and Cordon Rouge 2007, including the final cuvées after being blended and pumped, to show how much they change compared to the initial sample. (They change much, much more than one would think, mostly due to oxygenation from pumping. I’ve never experienced that before, and it was tremendously interesting and instructive.) As if that wasn’t enough to think about, Didier finished with a massive “quality control” retrospective of various champagnes from the cellar, disgorged on the spot, including secret previews of multiple vintages of their superb new prestige cuvée, R. Lalou, and multiple comparisons of identical wines in both magnum and bottle. This is why I live in Champagne: these are the sorts of things you don’t get to see anywhere outside of the region.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Retailers: Les Caves du Forum, Reims

Les Caves du Forum is my favorite wine shop in Reims, and if you come to Champagne you ought to stop in. I was introduced to this store by my friend Jon-David Headrick — tucked away in an underground cellar off of the Place du Forum, it’s a treasure trove of artisanal, authentic wines from all over France. Naturally I gravitate towards the Champagne section, which, although it does contain some well-chosen big brands and famous houses, is always full of small, high-quality grower-producers. Proprietor Fabrice Parisot is scrupulous and attentive in his selection — if I see a new champagne there that I don’t know, I will generally buy it without question. In both champagnes and wines from elsewhere, Parisot has a strong preference for natural viticulture, and he stocks some of Champagne’s best organic growers, including Franck Pascal, Agrapart, Benoît Lahaye and Françoise Bedel. Beyond bubbles, you’ll encounter such things as François Cotat Sancerre, Emmanuel Houillon Arbois Pupillin, Lafarge Volnay, Roulot Meursault, Domaine du Vissoux Moulin-à-Vent and many other delectable wines from like-minded growers. Today he poured me a chardonnay from Domaine Labet that makes me think that the Jura should be added to the list of the Great Homes of Chardonnay, along with Champagne, Chablis and the Côte d’Or. But that’s a story for another day....

Les Caves du Forum, 10, rue Courmeaux, 51100 Reims

Monday, February 25, 2008

Monday Morning at J.-L. Vergnon

I’m still in a state of shock over the horrific injury suffered by Arsenal’s Eduardo this weekend. It’s a huge blow to my team, but honestly it doesn’t matter what side you support—a potentially career-threatening injury like that is devastating for the game of football as a whole. Beyond any illusions of him recovering anytime soon, I just hope that he can even play football again.

On a more positive note, I tasted a terrific non-dosé champagne this morning in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, among a number of other wines tasted with Christophe Constant of Champagne J.-L. Vergnon. At first glance a description of the Cuvée Confidence Brut Nature Blanc de Blancs 2002 makes it seem like a prop from a dental horror movie: besides not having any dosage, it comes entirely from Le Mesnil and didn’t go through any malolactic fermentation at all. “Some people say that in Le Mesnil, with no malo, if you don’t dose these young wines with 10 or 11 grams of sugar they’re undrinkable,” says Constant. “But it’s not true—you just have to harvest ripe grapes.” This wine was harvested at 11.5 degrees of potential alcohol, and it’s impeccably balanced, feeling long, expressive and complete. There’s really nothing severe about it at all.

So the bad news is, you can’t buy it. Vergnon used to be imported to the U.S. by Kip & Nancy Wine Marketing in Lagunitas, CA, but Constant isn’t working with them anymore. While you might find this wine at a few select restaurants here in France, there were only 1200 bottles made, so it’s not plentiful. The good news is that Constant is doing exciting things with this small, five-hectare estate. He’s only been making wine here since 2002, so it’ll take some time to get the estate to where he wants it to be, but his practices of ripe harvesting, little to no chaptalisation, no malolactic and long aging on the fine lees before bottling all add up to wine worth searching for. Hopefully he’ll find a new U.S. importer soon.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Santorini in the Snow

My friend Konstantina Hatzidakis sent me some photos last week of snow in their vineyards on the island of Santorini. Wow! I didn’t even realize that this was possible.

My mental image of Santorini runs more along these lines:

And no, that white stuff over there definitely isn’t snow — those are whitewashed buildings in the town of Fira, gleaming in the summer sun.

If you don’t know the wines of Santorini, you ought to. I love many of the wines of Greece, but Santorini is my favorite. The island is an old volcano, so the wines are as minerally as can be, and the fierce acidity of the assyrtiko grape makes you forget that it’s grown in such a southerly latitude. All the vines are ungrafted, as there’s no phylloxera, and vine age is ridiculously old here—supposedly the average age is over 70 years. The traditional viticultural system is, well... unique, as you can see in this photo. Due to the island's rugged environment, the vines are coiled into basket shapes close to the ground, in order to protect the grapes from both the strong sunlight and the gusty winds. Here’s a better view of what this looks like, held up at a 90-degree angle:

And the wines? Racy, saline and intense, with flavors ranging from citrus and lemon zest to savory notes of lentil and white pepper. The wines often need several years to show their best—at the Sigalas estate last summer I tasted a barrel-fermented 2001 that was at a perfect point of drinking, with a rich, creamy depth and smoky complexity. Hatzidakis and Sigalas are two of the island’s best producers, along with Argyros and Gaia Estate. All of those are exported, and chances are that they’re much easier to find in your part of the world than in mine. But on my next trip into Paris I might have to pick up a bottle....

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Club Trésors 2007 Vin Clair Tasting

There were few surprises at the Club Trésors de Champagne tasting yesterday, held in the cellars of Champagne Vazart-Coquart in Chouilly. Most of the wines showed very well, and overall the tasting served to reinforce my impressions of the 2007 vintage rather than open any new windows. It’s a vintage that feels a little lighter in body than recent ones, although this feeling is also accentuated by the high acidity levels. The acidity of 2007 is lovely, with a crisp, snappy zestiness reminiscent of vintages such as 2004, 1998 and 1995, if not quite as forceful as 1996. (One taster, Laurent Panigai of the CIVC, compared the 2007 vins clairs to those of the 1988 vintage.) “Classic” is a word that is perhaps used a bit too often in the wine world, but the 2007 vintage does feel classic in its balance and fruit character. While there are some excellent examples of pinot noir, I continue to think that chardonnay is the standout of the vintage, and especially in the Côte des Blancs.

I’ve written a separate page of notes on the tasting. Unfortunately, they are much more useful for me than for you, as most of these wines will be blended with others before bottling. It might be boring. But if you’re interested in what the nuts and bolts of champagne look like, you can read my thoughts here.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Spécial Club

I’ve been invited to a 2007 vins clairs tasting tomorrow, hosted by the Club Trésors de Champagne, the organization of growers responsible for the Spécial Club bottlings. It occurred to me that while Spécial Club wines are widely available in export markets, there are still some questions among consumers as to what the Club is and what these wines are all about.

The Club began in 1971, under the name Club de Viticulteurs Champenois, when a group of about a dozen growers banded together to create, in effect, a prestige cuvée of grower champagne. Being small houses in the shadow of huge and powerful négociant firms, they reasoned that the marketing power of the collective would be greater than that of any individual member, and so decided to create an exclusive label and bottle that would be used only by Club members, and only for their top wines. Quality, of course, was of paramount concern to the founding members, and it still remains at the core of the Club philosophy today. In order for a wine to be released under the Club label, it must be estate-grown and must adhere to strict rules of viticulture and vinification, as well as undergo blind taste tests by a panel of Club members—once as vin clair, or still wine, and again after three years of aging on its lees in bottle. (And since I know you will ask, yes, I have been assured that wines have failed these tests in the past.)

A Spécial Club wine is intended to be the prestige cuvée of the house, and its quality should reflect that premise. Club wines are often produced from a house’s oldest vines and best vineyards, and are usually aged longer on the lees than the house’s other vintage wines. Although they come from diverse villages and are made of different blends of grape varieties, Club wines tend to share a certain sense of richness, concentration and complexity. Some of the Club’s growers are better than others, of course, but in general, I do consider the Club label to be an indication of exceptional quality.

The original bottle selected by the Club was a tall, vase-like form that you can see in the photo to the right. It was discontinued in 1988 for two reasons: first, the shape has curiously proven to be less than ideal for long-term aging; and second, it was drawing unflattering comparisons to a Perrier bottle! Since then, the Club has created a rather handsome bottle based on an old, traditional design, which you can see in the photo below, together with a distinctive label that is somehow both ornate and discreet at the same time. The label is both a mark of distinction and a source of confusion: while it ties the Club members together and promotes the Club as a unified organization, it unfortunately also happens in the marketplace that different Spécial Club bottles are often mistaken for the same wine. Greater education among consumers will hopefully alleviate this problem, but it has been persistent enough that the Club now allows for the label to be produced in three different color schemes. The green one, as in the below photo, remains by far the most common, although occasionally you might see purple or orange versions.

While the Club has grown since its inception, producers have come and gone over the years, and former members include such excellent houses as Larmandier-Bernier, Gosset-Brabant, Leclerc-Briant and Pierre Peters. In 1999 the Club changed its name to Club Trésors de Champagne, and today there are 26 members. The president of the Club is Didier Gimonnet, of Champagne Pierre Gimonnet et Fils. The current Club members are, in alphabetical order: Paul Bara (Bouzy), Roland Champion (Chouilly), Charlier et Fils (Montigny-sous-Châtillon), Marc Chauvet (Rilly-la-Montagne), Gaston Chiquet (Dizy), Forget-Chemin (Ludes), Fresnet-Juillet (Verzy), Pierre Gimonnet et Fils (Cuis), Henri Goutorbe (Aÿ), Grongnet (Etoges), Bernard Hatté et Fils (Verzenay), Marc Hébrart (Mareuil-sur-Aÿ), Hervieux-Dumez (Sacy), Janisson-Baradon et Fils (Epernay), Vincent Joudart (Fèrebrianges), Juillet-Lallement (Verzy), Lamiable (Tours-sur-Marne), Larmandier Père et Fils (Cramant), J. Lassalle (Chigny-lès-Roses), Launois Père et Fils (Le Mesnil-sur-Oger), A. Margaine (Villers-Marmery), José Michel et Fils (Moussy), Moussé Fils (Cuisles), Nominé-Renard (Villevenard), Vazart-Coquart (Chouilly) and Voirin-Desmoulins (Chouilly).

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Cutting Back on Dosage

There’s no question that champagnes are getting drier, especially those of the top growers and houses. There are three primary reasons for this, at least when talking about young champagne. The first is that people are harvesting riper fruit, due to better vineyard practices. Riper fruit gives more stuffing to a wine, and also higher sugar generally results in lower acidity, meaning that you need less dosage to balance the whole. The second reason is that people are harvesting riper fruit due to warmer weather. Whether or not you believe that global warming actually exists, the fact is that champagne grapes are now maturing faster, earlier and to a higher degree of potential alcohol. The third is simply that dry champagne, especially extra brut or, increasingly, non-dosé champagne, is very fashionable right now.

I like extra brut champagne as much as anyone (as you can see from this photo of some recent things I’ve been drinking), and yet I’m not in the camp that believes drier is automatically better. The issue is not that I prefer sugar or don’t prefer sugar. To me, each wine finds its own particular balance – sometimes that’s at a dosage of three grams per liter of sugar, sometimes eight. Sometimes it’s even (gasp!) at ten or eleven, and yes, sometimes – only sometimes – it’s none at all. To say that drier is unequivocally better reminds me of the German riesling trocken craze around the late 1990s. There is a certain segment of champagne that is moving in the same direction. And yet, there are some absolutely brilliant extra brut and non-dosé champagnes. What are your thoughts?

Sunday, February 17, 2008


I was looking through some of my recent photos today and particularly enjoyed this one of Marc Ollivier, at the Domaine de la Pepière. It’s not a particularly high-quality photograph, snapped quickly in low light with my little Canon PowerShot SD870 that I don’t even quite know how to use properly yet, but I like the way that it seems to capture the conviviality of the moment—a winter’s afternoon spent in front of a crackling fire, surrounded by friends, food and plenty of bottles. This is what wine is really about.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Benoît Lahaye, Bouzy

I learned a lot about the village of Bouzy this week, tasting parcels of vin clair in barrel with one of my favorite vignerons of the area, Benoît Lahaye. A passionate advocate of natural winegrowing, Lahaye took over the family estate in 1993 and has been making wine under his own label since 1996. He completely stopped using systemic herbicides in 1994, and in 1996, inspired by Patrick Meyer in Alsace, Lahaye began to work organically, in addition to using cover crops in the vineyards and experimenting with biodynamic treatments. The estate was fully converted to organic viticulture by 2003, and is certified organic as of 2007. Lahaye has noticed a pronounced difference in his wines after the transition to organic farming. “It’s not really a question of being better,” he says, “but my wines attain higher levels of ripeness now, while retaining the same level of acidity.”

Lahaye owns 4.6 hectares, three of which are in Bouzy, and the rest just over the respective borders of Ambonnay and Tauxières. As is typical for Bouzy, most of his parcels are planted with pinot noir — 88 percent, to be exact. As Lahaye vinifies each of his parcels separately, it’s possible to compare various sectors of Bouzy and observe how the terroir changes across the face of the slope. Just as we can acknowledge, for example, that Les Amoureuses and Bonnes-Mares have dramatically different profiles yet still describe an identifiable and coherent character of wines from Chambolle-Musigny, so it is with villages in Champagne. Overall, one could say that Bouzy’s sunny, south-facing slopes tend to produce an ample and full-bodied pinot noir with red-fruit notes of strawberry and raspberry. Yet the wines from Les Juliennes, on the border with Tauxières where the topsoil is shallow and the chalk closer to the surface, feel racy and tense, encasing their red fruit in a sleekly elongated structure; whereas wines from Les Cloches, on the mid-slope closer to Ambonnay where the chalk is covered by 1.5 to two meters of calcareous clay, are more round and voluptuous, with a rich body and bolder fragrance. As with most people, Lahaye’s finished champagnes are usually blended from different parcels to create a more complete wine, such as his deliciously exuberant Brut Nature, one of my favorite non-dosé champagnes. His rosé, however, is a pure saignée from Les Juliennes, and his fresh, fragrant Bouzy rouge is grown in three parcels on the mid-slope, or coeur du terroir, that are close to each other and share similar soils: Les Cloches, La Priorée and Les Cercets.

Apologies for the terrible photos — Lahaye has exceptionally beautiful and atmospheric cellars, but my poor camera struggled to do them justice, especially while I was juggling glass, pen and camera all at the same time.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Charles Heidsieck Blanc de Blancs 1982

Last night I had the pleasure of drinking one of the best champagnes I’ve had in a long time, enjoyed with friends in the splendid crayères of Charles Heidsieck. Champagne, unlike humans, is always the better for not having traveled, and it is rarely possible to encounter a finer example of a given wine than in a house’s oenothéque. Made by legendary chef de cave Daniel Thibault, the 1982 was the last of Heidsieck’s blancs de blancs before the wine was redesigned as Blanc des Millénaires in 1983, and was composed of fruit exclusively from Cramant, Avize, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger and Oger. This bottle was impeccably fresh and vibrant—my friend Christian, who is the communications director for Heidsieck, noted that it was probably disgorged within the last couple of years. Balancing the rich, voluptuous depth of the vintage with creamy notes of maturity, it showed impeccable balance and grace, with an alluringly silky texture and long, seamlessly fragrant finish. Wines like these remind you that champagne is, indeed, the greatest wine of all.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Champagne Lamiable, Tours-sur-Marne

Back in Champagne now, I made a trip to Champagne Lamiable in Tours-sur-Marne yesterday. Lamiable is a small and excellent estate, and what’s even more interesting is that all of their 5.5 hectares of vines lie in Tours-sur-Marne, making them the only source I know of for tasting pure Tours-sur-Marne champagne. (They do have 10 ares just across the border in Bouzy, but that’s used to make Coteaux Champenois and red wine for rosé.)

Lamiable’s vines lie in just two parcels: 1.25 hectares in La Vigne Goësse, all planted with chardonnay; and 4.35 hectares in Les Meslaines, of which all but 65 ares are planted with pinot noir. The vineyards are on a little hill adjacent to Bouzy, but I find the gôut de terroir very different: the wines here feel more influenced by the Marne, with a broad, earthy richness, whereas the wines of Bouzy seem more “mountain” wines, firmer and more minerally than earthy in feel. I always find a spiciness in Lamiable’s wines that makes me think of oak, even though all of the wines are made in either stainless or enamel tanks. Ophélie Lamiable, who has been in charge of the cellars since 2004, notes that the pinot noir from Tours-sur-Marne “has much more freshness than the pinot from Bouzy,” while her father, Jean-Pierre Lamiable, says that the wines of Tours-sur-Marne have a little lower acidity and mature earlier than those of their more famous neighbor, adding that “the people in Bouzy don’t like my wine because they find it too light.”

I find their wines delicious. The Brut NV, made of 60 percent pinot noir and 40 percent chardonnay, is concentrated and rich, with a spicy earthiness and lively structure. There’s an extra brut version, which is the same wine with only five grams of dosage: it’s less complex but shows an even more prominent soil signature. For terroir geeks, there’s a single-vineyard, vintage-dated blanc de noirs from 40-year old vines in Les Meslaines, which is tremendously intriguing. It sells out very quickly: the 2003 is already gone, but Ophélie generously sold me a few bottles from a secret stash, and of course I had to open one as soon as I got home. It’s broad and intense, showing the dark, baritone girth that I associate with the village, and while there’s a lot of ripeness, it seems to translate into deeper intensity rather than excess fruitiness, with a pungent, powerful core of richness and spicy, exotic notes of sandalwood and cinnamon. I drank the 2000 Les Meslaines in Portland over the holidays: as with many 2000s it’s showing well now, with generous, expansive aromas and pleasantly biscuity undertones. Even more impressive, though, is the 2002. I missed out completely on purchasing this, as it sold out entirely too quickly, but Jean-Pierre shared a bottle with me last year – utterly profound in its expression of site, it shows a vinous, sappy depth and vivid, vibrant intensity. If you ever see it for sale, buy it without question.

Monday, February 11, 2008

François Chidaine, Montlouis-sur-Loire

François Chidaine is one of my favorite winemakers in the world. There are times when I can imagine drinking only his wines for the rest of my life. But then I suppose I need Champagne.

I managed to taste the 2007 barrel samples twice in the past week: once at the Salon and once at the estate. Many of them are still in fermentation, but it promises to be an excellent collection for Chidaine, more consistent and higher in acidity than the tricky 2006 vintage (although I like his ’06s very much, especially the Clos du Breuil, Clos Baudoin and Le Bouchet) and more classically balanced than the rich, ripe 2005s (as magnificent as those are).

Sometimes people get confused by the large array of wines, especially as Chidaine doesn’t use the designations of sec and demi-sec on the labels. However, they are actually quite consistent in character from year to year, so it’s easy to keep track of them. Here is a breakdown of Chidaine’s portfolio of wines, in the order that he generally prefers to serve them.

Vouvray Brut Pétillant non-dosé
Chidaine makes this wine by stopping the primary fermentation at 14 g/l of sugar, then bottling it with a little added yeast and fermenting it to dryness to produce a light sparkle. It’s usually a little lighter in body than the Montlouis Brut, with a strongly chalky intensity.

Montlouis Brut non-dosé
Chidaine picks his grapes for sparkling wine at about 11.5 to 12.5 degrees of potential alcohol. Like the Vouvray, he makes this wine by arresting the primary fermentation, but here it’s between 17 and 18 g/l of residual sugar, creating a slightly stronger mousse. It’s a dry, austere, intensely soil-expressive wine that never fails to excite me.

Montlouis Les Bournais
Les Bournais is a newly planted site overlooking the Loire river. It had been abandoned for some time, but Chidaine believes that this is one of the very best sites in Montlouis, and planted vines here in 1999. Unlike most of Montlouis, which is on clay and silex, or flint, Bournais lies on clay and limestone, and the name Bournais refers to the particular type of limestone found here. Chidaine’s goal is to vinify this dry, barring the occasional aberration such as 2005, and the result is a rich, full-bodied wine, probably the closest to Vouvray in profile of all Chidaine’s Montlouis wines.

Montlouis Clos du Breuil
Chidaine’s holdings here include several plots spread over 3.5 hectares, each varying slightly on a typical Montlouis theme of clay and silex over chalk. The vines average about 40 years of age, although the oldest ones are 80 years old, and this is always made as a dry wine (normally 2-4 g/l of sugar). It’s racy and extremely minerally, one of the classiest dry chenins of the area.

Montlouis Les Choisilles
Les Choisilles is a cuvée, usually blended from old vines in the vineyards of Les Epinais, La Taille aux Loups and Clos au Renard. It’s named after a type of black flint called (you guessed it) choisille, which you can see in Chidaine’s left hand in this photo (in his right hand is a different type of flint, called pierre à fusil). Les Choisilles is a concentrated, powerful dry wine that often needs several years to develop.

Vouvray Les Argiles
This is a blend of various plots surrounding the Clos Baudoin, including L’Espagnole, Le Haut Lieu, La Chatterie, L’Homme and La Reugnières. The clay here is deeper than in the Clos, giving a broad, rich girth to the wine. Chidaine vinifies this dry, usually around 4 g/l of residual sugar.

Vouvray Clos Baudoin
The 2.7-hectare Clos Baudoin is one of Vouvray’s legendary sites. It had previously belonged to the Prince Poniatowski, but Chidaine had rented the vines since 2002, and has owned the plot outright since the end of 2006. There are vines up to 60 years old here, but unfortunately the entire vineyard will have to be replanted due to a virus in the soil, and Chidaine has already pulled up one hectare of vines. The small amount of wine that he does make from the rest of the Clos Baudoin is sleek and fine, with noticeably more complexity and dimension than his other Vouvrays. It’s always a dry wine, as he thinks this vineyard excels at classic Vouvray sec.

Montlouis Clos Habert
The Clos Habert lies adjacent to the Clos du Breuil, on clay and a type of silex called perruches. Part of the vineyard is about 25 years old, with the rest 60-80 years old, and Chidaine uses these vines to make a tendre style of Montlouis with a lovely balance and minerality, usually around 20 g/l of residual sugar.

Montlouis Les Tuffeaux
Les Tuffeaux is a cuvée blended from 30- to 70-year old vines from various vineyards on clay and silex, including the Clos du Volagray and Saint-Martin. Like the Clos Habert, this is intended to be around 15-20 g/l of residual sugar, but it’s usually slightly richer and larger in body.

Fifty-year old vines in the Clos du Volagray

Vouvray Le Bouchet
Le Bouchet is a vineyard adjacent to the Clos Baudoin, on the same clay and chalk terroir as its other neighbor, the Clos du Bourg of Domaine Huet (in fact, the Clos du Bourg was supposedly a part of Le Bouchet many years ago). Of Chidaine’s two hectares here, half of the vines are young, with the rest 70-80 years old. The resulting wine is a rich, dense and voluptuously textured demi-sec, and Chidaine notes that aromas of white truffle and iodine are typical of Le Bouchet.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

A Selection of Loire Wines (that are actually exported)

After my post about tasting sparkling wines at the Salon des Vins de Loire, brooklynguy brought to my attention the fact that none of these wines are actually available in the United States. So here are a few of my favorite wines of the past week that Americans can actually buy. (I’m not including any barrel samples or other unfinished wines. Also, if these specific vintages aren’t there yet, they will be soon.)

Particularly Superb and Delicious Wines Under $15
Jean-François Mérieau Touraine Gamay Le Bois Jacou 2006
This is one of my very favorite Loire gamays. Bright, crisp and fragrant, it just makes you want to drink more. A solid ten on the slurpability scale.

Luneau-Papin Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Clos des Allées VV 2006
I’m not a huge fan of 2006 Muscadet, but the Clos des Allées stands out for its pure fruit and crystalline minerality. As in every vintage, its soil expression is simply gorgeous.

Henry Marionnet Touraine Sauvignon 2007
Marionnet is better known for his powerful (and excellent) wines from old, ungrafted vines, but his entry-level sauvignon blanc is delicious, full of flinty, grapefruity, sweetly herbal aromas.

Wines That I Absolutely Loved, Irrespective of Price
François Chidaine Montlouis Brut non-dosé 2005
I always love Chidaine’s sparkling wines, but they can be too austere for some people. The 2005 combines a rich, full ripeness with mineral intensity, feeling rounder and more complex than usual.

Thomas-Labaille Sancerre Les Monts Damnés 2006
The ’06 vintage was a great one for sauvignon, and this is classic Monts Damnés in its sleekly racy structure and smoky, stony fragrance. Its pure expression of soil makes the fruit seem almost incidental.

Vincent Carême Vouvray Le Peu Morier 2006
Carême’s wines always feel so balanced and effortless. This demi-sec, or perhaps sec tendre, is full of sweetly ripe apricot and pear flavors, showing harmonious depth and subtle, fragrant length.

The Very Best: Utterly World-Class Wines
Damien Laureau Savennières Le Bel Ouvrage 2005
This is the greatest ’05 Savennières I have tasted (and I’ve tasted many, including those from You Know Who). It’s rich and concentrated yet thrives on a marvelous clarity and finesse, feeling energetic and tense under the ripe fruit. The finish is absolutely regal.

François Chidaine Montlouis Moelleux 2005
You’d predict this wine to be great, but this exceeded all my expectations. It’s wines like these that account for the high reputation of the ’05 vintage. Made mostly by passerillage, with only a little botrytis, this shows such subtle, layered complexity of flavor, filling the palate with seamless harmony and astonishing grace.

Dard et Ribo Crozes-Hermitage 2006
OK, I know it’s not from the Loire, but this was one of the finest wines I drank all week, so it gets included here. It’s one of those rare wines that feel truly alive, like a living organism, and its sense of purity and dimension on the palate are breathtaking. Plus, it smells like the greatest bacon you’ve ever tasted.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Happy Year of the Rat!

In all the drunken gluttony of my travels, I completely forgot about Chinese New Year. Here are some hilarious photos of my absolutely silly nephew, Luca, embracing his Chinese heritage.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Clos Rougeard, Saumur-Champigny

Visiting the Foucault cellars in the village of Chacé is always one of the highlights of my year. Nady Foucault is regarded by many as the greatest producer of red wine in the Loire Valley (as well as the bearer of one of the two greatest mustaches in the wine world), and his graceful, complex Saumur-Champignys have achieved cult status among those few consumers worldwide who are fortunate enough to receive an allocation. I was in Chacé yesterday on my annual pilgrimage to the Clos Rougeard estate, and as usual, Foucault pulled out a stunning assortment of wines from his vineyards of Poyeux, a historically famous site on the limestone and clay slopes, and Bourg, the vineyard behind the estate planted with 70-year old vines.

In barrel, the 2007s are lighter in body than the last few vintages but certainly no less fine. Foucault compares them to his 2002s, and that seems apt: I loved the ’07 Poyeux, with its fragrant, energetic fruit, and the ’07 Bourg was astounding for its sense of balance and poise. In fact, I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced tannins so refined and silky. The Poyeux 2006 is richer and more luscious, showing a long and expansive finish; while the 2005 Bourg, still in barrel, combines the muscular grip of the vintage with a sleek, suave finesse, already demonstrating considerable complexity and refinement.

I had previously underrated the 2004s: tasting them again, I was surprised at how rich they felt. The ’04 Poyeux is firm yet graceful, with a luscious core of sweet black fruit, while the ’04 Bourg is dense and brooding, wound up in a dark, almost forceful structure that will take at least a decade to unwind. Both the 2003 Poyeux and Bourg are showing relatively well as young wines, with their ample depth and spicy, warm fragrance, although I would actually wait longer for these – with other vintages the acidity can make the wines freshly appealing in their youth, but I’d rather drink the ’03s when the fruit is mature. Foucault opened a 1997 to give us a glimpse of another warm vintage, and this was in a terrific place, with soft, silky tannins and a savory complexity under the brambly cassis and black cherry fruit. Even better was a magnum of Bourg 1993 that he opened at lunch, its fragrant aromas of exotic spice and saddle leather feeling resolved and inviting.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Unusual Sparklers

I’ve spent the last two days at the Salon des Vins de Loire, tasting many terrific wines. Although I didn’t come here with the intention of seeking out sparkling wines, several intriguing examples have crossed my path. Sparkling Savennières from the Domaine du Closel? Jean-François Mérieau’s pétillant naturel made from chenin blanc, chardonnay and pineau d’aunis, aged for 36 months on the lees? How about a gamay rosé pétillant from François Chidaine with 80 grams/litre of residual sugar? Toto, we’re not in Champagne anymore.

Those wines were all excellent, as were other, less uncommon wines. Perhaps the finest sparkler I’ve tasted in the last few days has been Vincent Carême’s chalky, racy 2006 Vouvray Brut, although coming close was Huet's 2001 Vouvray Pétillant. Another delicious wine was Domaine des Baumard’s new Brut Rosé (pictured), which possesses a rare elegance and delicacy for a sparkling wine made entirely from cabernet franc. These are never going to take the place of champagne (nor should they), but they are entirely compelling in their own right, and very, very tasty.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

2007 Vins Clairs, Round One

I’ve been both busy with work and incapacitatingly ill during the last two weeks, but I’ve managed to visit a handful of producers in the meantime to taste the results of the 2007 harvest. It was a strange year here in Champagne: March and April were warm and summer-like, resulting in early flowering (and consequently an early harvest), yet throughout the summer it was grey and damp, and sometimes July and August felt more like April should have. Mildew was a constant problem due to the wet weather, necessitating much more treatment than usual, and there was severe hail in several areas (such as Mareuil-sur-Aÿ and the Vallée de Surmelin) that reduced the crop considerably. Thankfully, sunny weather and a drying north wind in late August helped to boost maturity and limit the spread of rot, and most people began picking at the end of August. “If we didn’t have good weather on the 25th [of August], the vintage would have been catastrophic,” says Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy of Champagne René Geoffroy. “We would have had another 1984.” As it is, people are pleased, and somewhat relieved: the quality appears much higher than what was forecasted, and while it won’t be a widely declared vintage year, the higher acidities will help to fill a need for reserve wines after two warm, ripe vintages. Incidentally, this is already the second time this decade that harvest has begun in August, in a region that was more accustomed to October picking just a generation ago.

Conventional wisdom is that chardonnay fared the best and meunier the worst in ’07, and yield-wise chardonnay was certainly higher than the other two. I haven’t tasted enough yet to make intelligent comments about that, but I’ll give you a brief rundown of my impressions so far:

Diebolt-Vallois, Cramant
Pinots for the Tradition aren’t too bad: fresh, supple, nicely clean. Several tanks of racy, citrusy juice for the green label that are very impressive (I see that I actually wrote at one point, “Who’s talkin’ ‘bout a light vintage?”), and terrific Cramant wines for the Prestige that remind me more of 2004 than 2002 at this stage, more firm and vividly intense. As usual, a lovely selection of Cramant parcels in barrel for a potential Fleur de Passion, all showing outstanding structure and finesse. A barrel of pure Pimonts was my favorite and the most complete on its own, though a close second was a minerally, nervy blend of two-thirds Rouillées and one-third Buzons. Jacques Diebolt thinks that he might make vintage wines in 2007.

De Sousa, Avize
Many people blended early this year, due to the early harvest, and at De Sousa the Tradition and basic blanc de blancs are already completed, so I couldn’t do any tank tastings. I did taste from barrel, however. Avize La Fosse is outstanding as usual, less powerful than some past years but still showing lovely breeding and finesse – De Sousa won’t make vintage wine this year, so this will go into Caudelies NV. Even more impressive was a barrel of Le Mesnil that made me think of Pernot Puligny Folatières. Great elegance and length on all of these – should make for fantastic reserve wines.

Veuve Fourny, Vertus
“The wines of Vertus are a little rounder than those in the rest of the Côte des Blancs,” says Emmanuel Fourny, “and [because of the high acidity of] 2007 this resulted in a nice balance.” Half of Fourny’s vines are in the lieu-dit of Monts Ferrés, near Le Mesnil, and three different tanks, from vines of different ages, showed variations on a theme of lemony, racy energy, underlined by intense, nearly spicy minerality. Other samples from different sites around the village clearly illustrated how the terroir changes as you move from the Mesnil side to the Bergères side, combining vivid acidity with surprisingly rich depth. Most surprising, though, was a barrel of pungent, smoky Vertus pinot noir picked at 11.8˚ natural alcohol! There are lots of other parcels of chardonnay separated out in barrel but they’re all going through malo right now (several people told me that malos were very late this year), so I’ll return in a few weeks to taste those.

René Geoffroy, Cumières
Remember the words Les Hontrants! Someday, hopefully, we’ll see a Geoffroy wine from the parcel of that name, co-planted (à la Deiss) with five varieties (including petit meslier and arbanne). The wine is flowery, citrusy and umami all at the same time, and very Deiss-like in its supression of varietal character. Among “normal” wines, highlights included a lovely, aristocratic chardonnay from Le Chêne, destined for either Volupté or Empreinte; a steely, vivacious chardonnay from the steep and chalky Tourne-Midi, on the opposite side of Cumières; and a creamy, aromatic pinot noir from La Grange and two other parcels, stored in foudre.

Jacquesson, Dizy
There will probably be no vintage wines from Jacquesson this year, although the Corne Bautray is the most promising, with a subtle complexity and delicate body. The Avize Champ Caïn shows firm structure and definite Avize refinement, but Jean-Hervé Chiquet thinks it’s a little too lean to make a vintage wine. No Vauzelle Terme, as it’s blended in with other pinots. There are two barrels of potential Terres Rouges saignée rosé, but they were both badly reduced on my visit and difficult to taste. I did taste a pinot noir (vinified en blanc) from another part of the Terres Rouges that was fragrant and full of berryish aroma, with an earthiness and broad girth that shows how different this side of Dizy is from the Aÿ side.

Gosset, Aÿ
With Gosset’s policy of no malolactic, this is like old-school, tooth-rattling vin clair tasting (but it hurts so good). You know you’re in for it when the first wine of the morning is Cuis (high-acid village), 2007 (high-acid vintage), chardonnay (high-acid variety) from Gosset (sans malo)! That Cuis was lovely though, after recovery from the whiplash. It’s impressive how chef de cave Jean-Pierre Mareigner achieves balance in all of his various lots – we tasted samples from about ten different villages, nearly all of them showing clear, precise expressions of place. The Ambonnay filled the mouth like Chambertin – I would have taken a bottle of this home as a still wine if he had let me. Interestingly (and a little counter-intuitively, in this cool and damp year), Mareigner is a big fan of 2007 red wine (as in, red wine used to make rosé). “It was a good year for rouge. Lots of people said, ‘Oh, they have no color’, but look at this,” he said, holding up a glass of deeply scarlet pinot noir blended from Ambonnay, Bouzy and Cumières. “There’s plenty of color. 2003 was an excellent vintage for reds, but I think 2007 is even better.”

Pehu-Simonet, Verzenay
Unfortunately David Pehu had already blended nearly everything by the time I arrived. The blends were very promising, especially the sleek, velvety blanc de noirs, a selection of the best Verzenay pinots in the cellar, 30% of which was aged in wood. A portion of this wine will be bottled as pure 2007 (but not vintage-dated), while another part was left in barrel for reserve wine, slightly more closed yet still showing terrific class and subtle, long aromas. I also loved the delicate, floral rosé, which was blended with 40% of reserves from 2006 and 10% red wine from Les Poules in Mailly and Les Noues in Verzenay (which are basically right next to each other).

I’m off to the Loire today for the Salon des Vins de Loire, visits to lots of Louis/Dressner producers, a taste of new vintages of Damien Laureau’s awesome Savennières, and all the oysters and pork products I can possibly eat. I’ll return home in a week for another round of vin clair tasting....