Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Champagne Blogs

It’s fine to read the drivel written by hacks like me, but to hear from people who really know what they’re talking about, check out some of the blogs written by the Champenois themselves.

Alexandre Chartogne, of Champagne Chartogne-Taillet, blogs in English. Alexandre recently finished a stage with Anselme Selosse, and has returned home to the family estate in Merfy. Constantly inquisitive, he’s seeking to take this already excellent estate to the next level, experimenting with ideas such as biodynamic viticulture and aging in barrique.

Jean-Baptiste Cristini, export manager for Champagne Salon and Champagne Delamotte, might not really be Champenois (he’s originally from South Africa), but he certainly knows the region. He’s particularly interested in wine and food pairing, and on his blog (posted in a mix of English and French) you’ll find comments on wonderful things that he gets to eat with his Salon, along with news about Salon and Delamotte.

Benoît Tarlant, of Champagne Tarlant, posts in both French and English. Tarlant is a family-run estate in the Vallée de la Marne west of Epernay, crafting rich, terroir-driven wines aged in oak barrels. Benoît posts some good photos and videos of happenings in the vineyard throughout the year.

Franck Pascal, of Champagne Franck Pascal, is a biodynamic grower in the Vallée de la Marne, and his champagnes are dry, intensely vinous and utterly superb. On his blog (entirely in French) he provides regular commentary on the growing season, as well as discussions on some of the technical elements of viticulture and vinification.

Last but not least, Francis Boulard, of Champagne Raymond Boulard, is yet another grower pursuing natural viticulture, and a portion of the estate is farmed biodynamically. His blog is the one updated the most frequently out of all of these, and here you’ll find regular discussion—exclusively in French—on all things Champenois.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Marc Hébrart Spécial Club and, well, something else...

I’ve gotten a sneak preview of a pair of future releases from Champagne Marc Hébrart—they won’t be on the market until sometime in 2009, but they’re interesting to compare anyway.

The 2004 Spécial Club is, as usual, 60 percent pinot noir from Mareuil-sur-Aÿ and 40 percent chardonnay from Chouilly and Oiry, all made in stainless steel. Jean-Paul Hébrart notes that it’s lighter in body than the 2002, due to the 2004 vintage’s higher yields and lighter concentration of fruit. It’s certainly much more open than the 2002 was at the same stage, with a forward, friendly fruitiness and broad richness of aroma, pinned down by zesty acidity. Succulently, invitingly delicious, it shows a fine and harmonious structure, and promises to develop well in the mid-term.

The second wine is a new cuvée from the 2004 vintage that will be released sometime next year, but Jean-Paul hasn’t found a name for it yet. (It’s surprising how difficult it can be to release a new cuvée in Champagne, amidst copyrights and litigation and people trademarking the color yellow and all.) This wine comes from the same parcels as the Club, the same old vines (averaging about 40 years or so) and it’s blended in the same proportion (60 pinot noir and 40 chardonnay), only it’s fermented entirely in wood. It’s very enlightening to taste the two alongside each other—this wine is not necessarily larger in body, but it’s deeper in tone, finer in texture and more complex, enlivened and enriched by the oak though not at all dominated by it. It’s at once more detailed in aroma and more tightly restrained, needing some air to demonstrate its real depth. I expect it will be more forthcoming after another year or so of age, and I’m looking forward to seeing the final results.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

What’s In a Name?

Champagne is full of curious names. I live in the village of Dizy, the name of which might also describe the result of drinking too much of its wines. Bouzy certainly indicates a condition of too much champagne; Mutigny is what occurs when the champagne runs out. Moussy seems like an appropriate name for a champagne-producing village, while Billy-le-Grand, on the other hand, sounds more like the protagonist of a Western film, riding off into the sunset.

There’s a village named Ludes, although even there the drug of choice is generally champagne. Merfy could be the remnants of a forgotten attempt at colonization by the Irish. And driving along the N3 west of Epernay takes you through the little hamlet of La Pierre Qui Tourne, which is none other than “Rolling Rock”. I wonder if they’ll consider putting their champagne in pony bottles.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Champagne and Terroir: Jacques Selosse

There was a recent debate on Wine Therapy (link here, but you’ll need a password to access it) about, among other things, whether or not sparkling wine is intrinsically less terroir-expressive than still wine because of its process: i.e. does the méthode champenoise, as we used to call it, remove the wine farther from its terroir?

I was visiting Anselme Selosse yesterday afternoon with some folks from the Franciacorta winery of Uberti (Silvia Uberti, pictured in this photo, was a stagière here in 2003), and this same question was posed regarding still and sparkling wines. Selosse’s response was more or less identical to mine in Wine Therapy. “There is no answer to that question,” he said. “The minerality is clearly present in champagne; the terroir is obviously expressed. You can see it.”

Later, I thought about this idea again as we were tasting various wines. We had tasted a recently disgorged (3rd of March) version of Substance, which was forceful and almost severe in its soil expression, possessing a fierce, naked intensity of terroir that few wines made anywhere, of any type, can achieve. Substance comes from two vineyards in Avize—the shallow, clay-rich Chantereines and the steep, chalky Marvillannes—and the tremendous accomplishment of this wine was that both soil types were clearly and distinctly expressed, harmoniously intertwining yet not at all blurring each other.

Afterwards, Selosse poured me a sample of the solera that Substance is made from, which currently contains wines from 1986 through 2007 (the finished wine that we tasted was 1986-2001), and the curious thing was that as vin clair, this was so much quieter and less expressive than in bottle. The components were all present, but there was clearly something about the “champagnization” that amplified and completed the wine, expanding the aromas and bringing the elements into focus. Obviously I shouldn’t have been surprised, as vin clair is always less aromatic and less forthcoming than finished champagne, but to see the two together side by side was a striking comparison.

Now, I realize that this actually says nothing about whether a still or sparkling wine is more terroir-expressive. I do think, however, that in this region the champagne process makes a more complete wine, which is why it continues to be used, and in becoming more complete I believe that the wine has the potential to become more expressive. Champagne, at any rate, is obviously a terroir-expressive wine. All you have to do is taste.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Wine of the Week: Diebolt-Vallois Brut Blanc de Blancs Cuvée Prestige

While I love traveling, there's no denying that the first glass of champagne upon returning home again is extremely satisfying. Diebolt-Vallois is a producer that I am particularly fond of, and when I want to treat myself really well, it's often a Diebolt wine that I reach for in the cellar. This bottle of Cuvée Prestige is sheer joy, with rich aromas of ripe summer fruit and tropical citrus pinned down by the incisive chalkiness so typical of Cramant. It feels concentrated, harmonious and complete, its sense of minerality intensifying as it moves back on the palate. Although it's delicious now, I think I'll put away a few bottles of this tirage (LP05) to watch it develop more complexity and maturity—as the fruit settles down and the minerality emerges even more into the foreground, this should be very exciting.

The Cuvée Prestige is usually blended from three vintages, although very rarely it's two, and Diebolt has said that it can be up to four, although I don't ever remember a recent blend containing four years. (By the way, while this is a "non-vintage" wine, it shouldn't be mistaken for the basic brut sans année: the Cuvée Prestige is, along with the vintage-dated Fleur de Passion, one of the top wines of the cellar.) There is a lot number on the label indicating the mise en bouteille, so the current release, LP05, was bottled in 2005, meaning that it's based on the 2004 harvest, with reserves from 2003 and 2002. The base wine is fermented in cuve, while the reserve wines are aged in 40-hectoliter foudres: the proportion of reserve wine varies according to the base year, and can be anywhere from one-third to two-thirds of the blend.

Historically the Cuvée Prestige has been pure Cramant, and the heart of the blend is a selection of old vines in the lieu-dit of Les Pimonts, located in the sunny, east-facing amphitheater of prime vineyard land just south of the village itself. Future releases, however, will include a tiny drop of Chouilly (it's only a 20-are parcel just over the border), and, although I suppose this is still a secret and I shouldn't tell you, the LP07 will contain a splash of Le Mesnil for the first time ever. We won't see that for a couple more years, but I'm quite curious to taste it—the pairing of Jacques Diebolt and Le Mesnil sounds like a winner to me.

Diebolt-Vallois is imported into the United States by Martine's Wines, Novato, CA, and Petit Pois Corp./Sussex Wine Merchants, Moorestown, NJ. For the Cuvée Prestige, Martine's Wines suggests a retail price of $66.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Moving Away from Stainless Steel

Nearly ten years ago when he was first starting out, David Leclapart told me that he didn’t want any stainless steel in his cellar because the process of its manufacture creates a negative electromagnetic energy that affects the wines. (Leclapart ferments his champagnes in used barrels from Domaine Leflaive and blends them in an old steel tank that looks like a relic from World War I.)

This week in the Loire, I thought about this while visiting several cellars where growers expressed an aversion to stainless steel. (Admittedly, this has a lot to do with the sort of producers I choose to visit.) Fabrice Gasnier, in Cravant-les-Coteaux, makes pure and delicious Chinon from biodynamically-grown vines, fermented in large, unlined cement vats that his father built in the early 1970s. Gasnier doesn’t like stainless as it’s too reductive, noting that the porosity of cement allows for a slow, controlled oxygenation.

Bernard Baudry, arguably Chinon’s finest producer, also praises the virtues of cement. In 2005 he installed some unlined cement vats for fermentation, and has been so pleased with the results that he is now in the process of replacing all of his stainless steel with cement. Currently, his Chinon Les Granges is still vinified in stainless steel, although he ages it in cement for four to five months, and the other cuvées are all fermented in cement before being put into barrel for aging.

But perhaps Leclapart is right: beyond tradition, beyond character, beyond technical reasons for preferring other materials, there could be a property of stainless steel that inspires a negative reaction, however subtle. In Bourgueil, Yannick Amirault has recently built a new cellar where one wall is lined with stainless steel vats, which he uses to ferment his St-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil La Source and Bourgueil La Coudraye, and the other with a few cement tanks and large, conical wooden vats for fermenting the other wines. The cellar is very spacious, with plenty of room to maneuver, but Amirault admits to a subconscious gravitational tendency. “I always walk on this side of the room,” he says, indicating the side with the wooden vats, “and I never really want to walk on the other side. There’s something about the stainless steel tanks that feels very cold.”

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Expression and Comprehension

I apologize for my absence—after leaving Spain I've spent the last few days in the wilds of the Loire Valley, roaming in Chinon and Bourgueil with my friend Patricio. While there are many fine things to eat and drink in the Loire, there is little opportunity to connect to the internet, alas.

I was sitting on a TGV a couple days ago reading Michael Schuster’s article on terroir in issue 18 of The World of Fine Wine. One of the ideas that he discusses is the method by which one gains an understanding of terroir, concluding that it is impossible to achieve unless one is able to taste and compare terroir-expressive wines in the company of someone who already knows and can articulate their qualities. “In this sense,” he says, “terroir is an oral tradition, one that needs to be passed on by people who have understood it, to be handed down from one generation to another.”

This made me think, a little obliquely, about an issue that Michel Bettane brought up last weekend at the WineCreator conference in Ronda, where much of the discussion revolved around ideas of authenticity, distinction and expression of character. At one point in the debate, Bettane drew a contrast between distinction of quality and distinction of character—that is, wines that are of high quality due to perfection in technical attributes (and in fact, “technical quality” might be a better descriptor) as opposed to wines that are of high quality due to an expression of an individuality and character of place. Naturally, the two are not mutually exclusive—a wine can be both expressive of character while being technically outstanding. However, one often tastes wines that, though smoothly harmonious, immaculately proportioned and luscious in their fruit flavors, lack any real distinction of character or sense of place. Some of these wines score very highly in the press, and some sell for a great deal of money, both of which naturally encourage and perpetuate their existence.

The problem is that not enough tasters, whether professional or amateur, are equipped to recognize distinction of character. One of the difficulties is that it’s far easier to identify technical quality than quality of character, and often I feel that many people are too easily satisfied with the former. Even the way that we taste is oriented largely towards the identification of technical quality: blind comparisons, sterile conditions, numerical scoring. On the other hand, we have not yet developed a system for identifying character, which is far more difficult. One could even say that the idea of character, while ultimately identifiable, defies the whole concept of systemization.

In another portion of Schuster’s article he talks about man as a key component in the expression of terroir: the winemaker, first of all, as the conduit, but also the consumer, who in order to receive the message must have the experience and capability to understand it. Unfortunately, unless we as tasters have properly cultivated ourselves, our tasting is blind in more ways than we imagine.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Wine of the Week: Moutard Père & Fils Brut Cuvée des 6 Cépages 2002

Ask most people how many grape varieties grow in Champagne and the knee-jerk response is likely to be three: pinot noir, chardonnay and meunier. There are, however, several more to be found, even if only in miniscule quantities.

One of the houses still growing some of the old, obscure varieties is Moutard-Diligent, located in the village of Buxeuil in the Aube. (Moutard Père & Fils is the main label under which they sell their champagne.) While they do make perfectly traditional champagnes, they’ve gained particular notoriety for two unusual wines: a champagne made entirely from old vines of arbanne, a white grape that produces rich, honeyed flavors (unusually, Moutard spells it “arbane”); and the Cuvée des 6 Cépages, which blends arbanne, petit meslier and pinot blanc with the three more familiar grapes of Champagne.

The Cuvée des 6 Cépages is vintage-dated, and the current release is the 2002. Aged on its lees for four years, it’s full in body but not weighty, supported by a fine streak of acidity. It’s unusually pungent in fragrance on both the nose and the palate, and while its texture and body make it feel obviously champenois, the array of flavors is anything but classic, ranging from exotic citrus and beeswax to apple jelly and quince marmalade. It’s delicious and quirky, offering a completely different perspective on the idea of champagne. Moutard Père & Fils is imported into the United States by Polaner Selections, Mount Kisco, NY, and the suggested retail price for the Cuvée des 6 Cépages is $56.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Eating in Ronda

This afternoon I left cold, sunny Paris and came to cold, sunny Ronda, in the south of Spain. Over the next couple of days I’ll be attending a conference called WineCreator, but in the meantime, since I’ve arrived I’ve been trying to eat as much as I possibly can.

I wanted to go to Tragabuches, where chef Sergio Lopez is creating quite a buzz, but I didn’t have a reservation, which of course made it impossible. They do have a small, modern tapas bar nearby called Traga Tapas, which I thoroughly enjoyed, especially for the patatas aliñadas, an elegant and tasty treatment of potatos, and superbly delicious setas con cebolla, a bowlful of umami if I’ve ever seen one. At La Leyenda around the corner, little slices of lomo on crusty wheat bread, topped with a sunnyside-up quail’s egg, proved a satisfying match with multiple glasses of cold fino. Across the beautiful and iconic bridge that highlights the geological wonder that is Ronda, I stopped at the Taberna de Santo Domingo for a hearty and pungent bowl of sopa de ajo and a plate of spicy rabo de toro, which has pretty much done me in for the night.

Andalucia is an amazing place. When I’m back out in the rest of the world I sometimes forget how amazing this place is, yet every time I come back, I wonder why I ever left.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

In Praise of Cork?

Last week, my neighbors Nicolas and Antoine Chiquet of Champagne Gaston Chiquet invited me over for a very intriguing tasting: a comparison of the same wine, from the same disgorgement, bottled under three different closures. As you may know, the Chiquets have chosen to bottle all of their wines with Cortex, a cork fitted with a silicone plug in an effort to prevent cork taint. They hardly consider the matter closed, however. (Unfortunately that pun was intended!) Back in 2005, they disgorged and set aside a number of bottles of the 2001 Brut Tradition, bottled with traditional cork, Cortex and crown capsule. Since then, they’ve done a comparative tasting every six months to judge how each stopper has affected the wine over time.

We tasted the three wines blind, of course. The first one was absolutely perfect, with a rich texture and honeyed aromas of baked apple and plum tart, feeling generous and expansive on the palate. It showed everything you would expect from a Chiquet Tradition three years after disgorgement. The second showed a similar set of aromas as the first bottle, but with less complexity and without the same sense of dimension. While it was delicious, it didn't have quite the impact of the first bottle, and seemed slightly more developed on the palate. The third bottle was the least aromatic and the least developed. On the nose there was a slight oxidation, but the palate showed fresh, primary notes of ripe summer fruits, although again without the complexity of the first bottle. It almost surprised me that this was the same wine and from the same disgorgement as the others.

All of us preferred the first bottle out of the three. I suspected that the first would be cork, the second Cortex and the third capsule, and in fact that’s exactly what they were. So did this prove that traditional cork was in fact the superior stopper? Maybe. “The problem with cork is that sometimes it’s very good and sometimes it’s not good at all,” said Antoine. Nicolas noted that these results were very different from previous tastings (saying that the cork was showing particularly well and that the capsule showed more oxidation than usual), and proposed that we taste another round of bottles.

In the second round the three bottles were much closer together in character, although differences were still discernable. I liked the first one the best, with its balanced richness and full, creamy fragrance, backed by hints of autumnal spice. The second one was less forthcoming and less aromatic, and I found it less harmonious; the third was strangely reductive on the nose yet ample and fragrantly stone-fruity on the palate. Here, none of us agreed: my bottle turned out to be Cortex; Nicolas preferred the second, which was capsule; and Antoine picked the third, in traditional cork. At least Antoine was consistent.

At any rate, Nicolas says that they’ve got enough wines to repeat this tasting every six months for another twenty years, so I suppose we can continue to debate this for quite a while. I’m looking forward to the next round.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Krug Clos d’Ambonnay

This month, Champagne Krug is officially releasing the 1995 Clos d’Ambonnay, the first new wine from Krug since the Rosé was created in 1983. Intended to be a pinot noir counterpart to their single-vineyard blanc de blancs from the Clos du Mesnil, the Clos d’Ambonnay comes from a small, entirely walled vineyard located on the edge of the village itself, just off of the road to Bouzy. Krug has owned the vineyard since the end of 1994, although prior to that they had been purchasing its fruit and including it in their blends.

Today I was invited by Krug to visit the Clos and taste its exclusive wine, which, needless to say, was a tremendously exciting opportunity. The first thing that strikes you about the Clos is, indeed, how small it is. At only 0.685 hectares, it’s only about a third of the size of Clos du Mesnil (or to put it in a different perspective, it’s also just over a third of the size of Romanée-Conti), making the Clos d’Ambonnay the rarest of Krug’s wines by far.

I’ll have more to say about the Clos in the future, but for now, I’ll describe the 1995 Krug Clos d’Ambonnay as a wine possessing both richness and subtlety. It’s a wine of terroir, but at the same time it’s impossible to separate the signature of terroir from the signature of the house: from the first aromas of the nose it’s immediately evident that this is a Krug wine. While it has the amplitude and depth expected of Ambonnay, it also demonstrates a startling finesse and elegance for a wine made from pure pinot noir, building unhurriedly on the palate with a nuanced and aristocratic presence. There’s a quiet but intense core of concentrated fruit flavor, hinting at fresh, primary notes of blackberry and cassis under a veil of lightly toasty, autolytic nuttiness. With air, the fruit aromas turn darker and become more pronounced on the nose, while the finish expands with regal presence and dimension, staining the palate in its firm and impeccably refined depth of flavor. Compared to the 1995 Krug Vintage, this is a less complex wine yet it shows a similar sense of grip and intensity on the palate, and I daresay that the Clos d’Ambonnay possesses an even greater finesse, despite the Vintage’s sizable proportion of chardonnay.

There are only 3,000 bottles of Krug Clos d’Ambonnay available for the world, and unfortunately its price (as of yet unreleased) will certainly make it prohibitive to the majority of champagne consumers. I consider myself very fortunate indeed to be among the few to have tasted it.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Quotations: Victory & Defeat

“In victory, you deserve champagne; in defeat, you need it.”

Napoléon Bonaparte

Sunday, April 13, 2008

On Tea and Teapots

What better way to spend a rainy spring Sunday than drinking tea? (Okay, there’s champagne, but that can happen later, after the Arsenal-Manchester United match.) I picked up a new Yixing clay teapot when I was in Hong Kong about six months ago, but until now I haven’t had time to take care of it properly.

Conventional wisdom holds that one “seasons” a clay pot with tea, and then the same tea (and only that tea) is used afterwards, which imparts its character to the pot and eventually enhances the tea-drinking experience after extended usage. It sounds perfectly reasonable, but in my experience it hasn’t really been true. While it works well for some pots, other pots remain sullen and stubborn, never improving even after twenty uses or more. I thought that they were just bad pots, until I read the theories of Singaporean tea master Lim Kean Siew, one of the world’s great collectors of Yixing teaware.

According to Lim, each pot has an affinity for a specific tea. When the proper tea is used, both tea and teapot are immeasurably enhanced, but if the tea is the wrong one for the pot, there will never be a harmonious accord between the two. I’ll admit that it sounds implausible, but I’ll never forget the first time I experienced this for myself. My friend Eric got married several years ago, and as a gift I chose for him a geometric, yellow clay pot called Water Chestnut Flower made by Zhang Shun Fa, a contemporary potter and certified Yixing craftsman. The pot was beautiful, but I had to accompany it with tea as well. I spent weeks, perhaps even months, experimenting with dozens of teas, and was on the verge of despair when I tried infusing a Fenghuang Dancong, purchased from the Imperial Tea Court in San Francisco.

The effect was immediate, astonishing and profound. As soon as I poured the water into the pot, the clay began to take on a noticeably deeper, more lustrous shine, its color shifting from its normal pale ochre to a more vibrant, slightly reddish glow. The tea itself was remarkable, with a deep presence and rich aroma, prominently displaying the length and complexity on the finish referred to by tea connoisseurs as yun. It was drastically unlike my control of the same tea in a porcelain gaiwan, which seemed much shorter and simpler on the palate, with far less aroma. I tried this several more times and achieved the same results, and since then I have had similar experiences with other pots that I own.

Today my teapot is a far more modest one, simple and rather industrial, for everyday use. But that hardly means that one should drink poor tea. Feeling unusually decadent, I started off with an authentic Da Hong Pao, a rare and legendary tea from China’s Wuyi mountains, purchased at La Maison des Trois Thés in Paris (the finest source for tea in the Western world). It’s a splendid tea, but it showed poorly in this pot, feeling flat and subdued. A Rou Gui, from another fabled Wuyi cru (if Da Hong Pao is Romanée-Conti, Rou Gui could be Richebourg), fared a little better, showing characteristic richness and depth of aroma but not revealing anything out of the ordinary. Switching gears, I tried a Monkey-Picked Tieguanyin from the Imperial Tea Court. It’s not nearly on the same level of quality as the previous teas, but you never know what a teapot will like. (And anyway, monkeys are in possession of magical powers, as vlm would say.) Unfortunately it wasn’t all that impressive, although with this tea the pot took on a better appearance, showing a slightly richer color. A 1995 vintage Pu-erh, from Camellia Sinensis in Montreal, gave the pot an even brighter sheen (though the difference was subtle) and this tea showed fairly well, enough so that I would like to try more Pu-erh in this pot.

In the end, out of today’s teas I preferred a Yu Lan Xiang from La Maison des Trois Thés. Yu Lan Xiang is a variety of Dancong from Guangdong province, with a floral aroma and delicate body. This tea seemed to give the pot the healthiest and most vibrant luster (I haven’t got the photographic equipment to demonstrate the way the clay changes in appearance, so you’ll just have to take my word for it), and compared to the same tea infused in porcelain, it showed more length and more pronounced aroma. I’m not sure it’s the One True Tea for this pot, but I enjoyed drinking it all the same. I’ll continue to experiment.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Shape of a Bottle

Last night at dinner with my friends Jean-Paul and Isabelle, we were talking about how some liquids can change in taste when drunk from different containers—tea from different teapots, wine from different glasses, things like that. Jean-Paul asked, “Do you think that the bottle shape has an impact on how a wine ages?”

I have absolutely no empirical evidence to support an opinion one way or the other, having never had the opportunity to compare the same wine stored in different bottles. I know that one of the reasons cited for abandoning the old Spécial Club bottle (the one that made people think of either Perrier or bowling pins) was that the wine matured more quickly in that shape. It seems plausible to me, not necessarily in a rational or scientifically explainable sense, but in the way that, for example, a thirty year-old Barolo smells completely different when poured in a Riedel Sommelier Burgundy glass and a Vinum one.

Anyhow, it seems that Jean-Paul has been thinking about this issue quite a bit. He’s even bottled a recent vintage of his Spécial Club in both the Club bottle and a regular bottle, in order to compare their evolution in the future. I’m looking forward to seeing the results.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Wine of the Week: Larmandier-Bernier Extra Brut Vieille Vigne de Cramant 2004

Larmandier-Bernier is one of the finest estates in Champagne, producing wines of rare depth, purity and soil expression. Since 1990, Pierre and Sophie Larmandier have made a cuvée exclusively from two plots of old vines in Cramant, one 45 years old, the other over 70 years. Located in the vineyard of Bourrons, on the magnificent, southeast-facing hillside of the Butte de Saran, these parcels yield a rich, densely knit wine of intense minerality and sophisticated complexity of character, and today this is one of the most sought-after wines of the Côte des Blancs.

Earlier this week, I tasted the 2004 Vieille Vigne de Cramant at the estate in Vertus. Marked by the vivid, lively character of the vintage, it’s still an extremely youthful wine, and I might consider decanting this if I opened another bottle anytime soon. The nose shows a taut, compact richness, touched by light aromas of honey, while on the palate this expands with a sappy depth and mouthfilling fragrance, its fruit character almost indistinguishably intertwined with an insistent and powerfully chalky minerality. The dosage in this wine is always very low (here it’s two grams per liter, while in 2002 it was four, and in 2003 none at all), yet it’s impeccably balanced, remaining harmonious and expressive all the way through the long finish. Indeed, the finish is the most striking element of this wine, demonstrating a complex, finely detailed elegance and incredible persistence of aroma, infused by that piercing sense of chalk.

The 2004 Cramant won’t officially be released until May, but since the 2003 vintage was such a short crop, Larmandier sold a few bottles of 2004 early. As of yet it cannot bear the vintage date on the label (since a champagne must spend three years on its lees to qualify as a vintage wine), but it will be vintage-dated beginning in May.

So if you see a bottle of Cramant without a vintage date, it will be the 2004, but if you need reassurance, check the computer code printed on the bottle. Larmandier has been using this system for a couple of years now—I’m not really sure why they don’t just print the information on the label, but it’s all here, anyway, and it’s not at all cryptic. Close to the base of the bottle, on the glass itself, you’ll find a tiny code that looks like this: LCT4DG0507. LCT stands for Cramant (LTDV, as another example, stands for Terre de Vertus); 4 is the vintage date (2004); DG0507 means that it was disgorged in May of 2007 (like the bottle that I just tasted from). Very useful stuff. Larmandier-Bernier is imported into the United States by Louis/Dressner Selections in New York, NY, and the suggested retail price for the Vieille Vigne de Cramant is $99.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

François Domi on the 2007 Vintage

I spent the afternoon yesterday with François Domi, chef de cave of Champagne Billecart-Salmon, tasting wines and talking about the 2007 vintage. “[The 2007s] are very aromatic, focused more on delicacy and finesse than on structure,” says Domi. “In 2005 and 2006 we had wines that were very powerful in structure, but sometimes they miss something in the fruit. This year we’ve found the fruit again, but it’s in a light and delicate package.”

Among the three varieties, he notes a strong preference for pinot noir. “The chardonnay turned out well after the fermentations, but they’re a little light. They’re very straightforward and correct, there aren’t any defaults at all, but the chardonnay suffers from just a little bit of dilution. There are very good pinot noirs, though, particularly from Verzenay, and also Mareuil and Aÿ. We’re definitely going to make a millésime, because we have very beautiful pinot. For the chardonnay, I don’t know. We may make a vintage blanc de blancs although I haven’t decided yet. But Nicolas François and Elisabeth Salmon will definitely both be made.”

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The First Chardonnay Buds

Chardonnay is always the first to bud here in Champagne, and we’re starting to see it push out now, as you can see from this vine in the Terre de Noël vineyard in Oger. Unfortunately, chardonnay’s precocious growth means that it’s always particularly susceptible to spring frosts. We’ve had some cold weather this week, and in fact there were some light snow flurries a couple of days ago, which has some people feeling a bit nervous. Let’s hope the weather gets warmer soon.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Helicopters and Root Days

I went down to Vertus this afternoon to taste vins clairs at Larmandier-Bernier. Having failed to check my biodynamic calendar (I actually do keep one on my desk), I was unaware that after 4pm, today is a root day, meaning that it’s prime time for treatment of the vines. As I arrived, Pierre Larmandier was finishing up the preparation of a tank of 501 (horn silica, used to strengthen a plant’s resistance to pests and help it to better assimilate nutrients and light), and was on his way to spray it onto his vineyards by helicopter.

Larmandier-Bernier is the only biodynamic producer in Champagne to spray by helicopter, although there are many other producers who use helicopters for chemical treatments. The Larmandiers have been using helicopters since 2003, and have been very pleased with the results. “For conventional viticulture a helicopter isn’t nearly as good, because it’s not very precise,” explains Sophie Larmandier. “But for biodynamic viticulture it works very well. It spreads the preparation very evenly over the parcel, in a sort of cloud. You don’t need a high concentration of the tisane in the vines, so this treatment works perfectly.”

She notes that another advantage of using a helicopter is that it gets the job done much more quickly and efficiently, which is an important issue with biodynamic treatments since they are time-sensitive. “There are only so many root days on the calendar, and with 16 hectares of vines, we couldn’t get to all of them in time,” she says. “It wasn’t until we started spraying by helicopter that we were able to work the entire domaine biodynamically. The helicopter covers the whole estate in one and a half hours, whereas by tractor it would take us two full days to cover the same area. Also, the less we have to use the tractors the better, to avoid compacting the soil. It’s expensive to rent a helicopter, but if you consider the cost of two days of labor, plus gas for the tractors and whatnot, it’s not really that much more. And it’s an improvement in quality.”

Monday, April 7, 2008

100% Grapes

I spent the morning with Pascal Agrapart, tasting his outstanding 2007 vins clairs as well as the current range of champagnes, including the superb 2002s. Towards the end of our tasting, Agrapart disappeared into the cellar to fetch a bottle that was sur pointe and agrafé (stoppered by a cork that’s held in place with a big staple), and proceeded to disgorge it. (This photo is actually of a different wine that he disgorged afterwards, but you get the idea. It was an action-packed morning.)

The wine was wild—ripe and vibrant, it showed intense, nearly severe richness on the palate, with a laser-like structure and curiously umami flavors on the finish. While it was delicious, it certainly didn't taste like classic champagne. It turns out that this is part of an experiment that he tried for several vintages, attempting to make as natural a champagne as possible. “In 99 percent of champagnes, four to seven percent of the bottle isn’t from grapes,” he says. “There’s sugar, water, stabilization agents, all sorts of other things that are added. I wanted to make a bottling that was 100 percent grapes.” Harvested in 2003 at 11 degrees of natural alcohol, this was fermented with natural yeasts during the first fermentation, as all of Agrapart’s wines are, but the difference here is that the second fermentation was also done with natural yeasts. After the initial wine was finished, he bottled it together with must from another wine that was still fermenting, thus producing effervescence in the bottle.

Pierre Larmandier told me once that he had tried to do this and it didn’t work—the wine was too variable and sometimes it failed to finish fermentation in the bottle. I asked Pascal if he had ever had any problems and he said no, it always went smoothly, and he tried it in four different vintages. The only problem is that it’s illegal, as you aren’t allowed to bottle wines during the harvest, and I don’t think you’re allowed to use indigenous yeasts for the second fermentation, either. So you can’t buy it. But it’s incredibly interesting, nevertheless.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Edward Green Churchill, Black Calf, 82 Last, 8/8.5E

I’ve taken possession, finally, of a pair of Edward Green punched-cap oxfords that I had ordered a few months back. I have an unnatural and almost pathological aversion to black shoes, but a friend of mine is getting married, and I figured that if I’m obligated to wear black shoes I might as well do it right.

I won’t go quite as far as Beau Brummell, the 19th-century dandy who polished his boots with champagne. There are, however, those who would. The Swann Club (named after the Proust character) is an exclusive gathering of particularly rabid devotees of Berluti, the fabled Parisian shoemaker. Now, if anyone knows about polishing shoes, it’s Berluti. In my opinion Berluti’s designs can be pretty grotesque, but the quality and character of the polishing is undeniably stunning, regardless of what you might think of their shoes, and if I’m walking down Boulevard Saint-Germain or Madison Avenue I’m always compelled to stop for a look in the window. Anyway, the Swann Club, whose members meet “to take care of their shoes, talk about novelties or just have a pleasant moment with people sharing a very strong passion, the love of their shoes,” is notorious for its shoe-polishing sessions in which its members' shoes are lovingly treated with Venetian linens, the finest wax polish and... drops of Dom Pérignon.

Obviously the reason the Swann Club uses champagne is to project an air of decadence, dandification and extravagance, and it’s clearly foolish to overthink the matter. But if you’re a shoe dork like me, it does make you wonder. Could it be that the slight amount of alcohol contributes a character to the polish? Alcohol is sometimes used to strip away old polish, but perhaps a small amount could alter the composition for the better in some way? Do the bubbles in champagne make a difference? Why Dom Pé and not Montrachet, for example? And what about the dosage? I don’t much relish the idea of 10 grams per liter of sugar being plastered onto fine calf leather—perhaps a non-dosé champagne would be a better choice?

Anyway, I’m a bit too protective of my footwear to actively pursue such speculations. For now at least, my champagne will stay in the glass, and it’ll be Saphir Medaille d’Or for my new Edward Greens.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Tasting Vins Clairs at Louis Roederer

I was expecting a lot from my visit to Louis Roederer, since I had already formed a rather high opinion of the 2007 vintage, and I was eager to see the wines from Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, one of the very best chefs de cave in all of Champagne. I love tasting with Lecaillon: first of all, he’s incredibly intelligent and knowledgeable, and I learn more from him in one day than I do in a month on my own; and second, the wines are simply damn good, year after year. Interestingly, Lecaillon has developed a policy of always showing vins clairs in the mid-range of quality—not the best of the cellar, and not the worst. He’s not interested in impressing you with the top wines of the vintage, but rather seeks to show you the average level of quality that the house has achieved that year. In 2007, the level of quality is very, very high.

Lecaillon is justifiably satisfied with the results of 2007, comparing it to 1988 (one of my favorite Roederer vintages of all time). “At first I was a little bit concerned,” he says. “I liked the pinot noir but the chardonnay was lacking a little in concentration.” He notes that the chardonnays stayed very firm and closed after the harvest, and it wasn’t until around January that they began to show their real potential. “In the end I’m very happy. The terroir is very much respected in the wines, and it’s become a very classic vintage, with great purity.”

With 214 hectares of vines at their disposal, Roederer often behaves more like a huge grower than a typical négociant. Their work in the vineyards is equally as impressive as the work in the cellar, and no effort is spared in the quest for quality. As an example of how far they will go, Roederer has even been attempting trials with biodynamic viticulture for the last two years, which has prompted the likes of Taittinger and Moët & Chandon to consider following suit. (So far, Lecaillon has preferred the conventional parcels over the biodynamic ones, but acknowledges that biodynamics takes time, and is committed enough to the idea to expand the original two hectare experiment to five.)

Even with such vast holdings of land, vinification is done parcel by parcel, which gives Roederer maximum flexibility in choosing wines for blending. It also makes it an absolute joy to taste vins clairs here. Many négociants deal with purchased wines, and beyond knowing the name of the village, often have no idea where they really came from or how they were grown. Tasting at Roederer, Lecaillon can tell you the name of the parcel, describe the terroir, detail the viticulture and give you the exact statistics of harvest.

As always, nearly all of the 20 wines that we tasted were from estate-owned vines. The chardonnays were precise and detailed in their expression of terroir, from a firmly structured Avize Le Bourg to a vivid, laser-like Le Mesnil from the sector of Monts Ferrés, a taut and graceful Vertus Les Amandiers to a rich, full-bodied Cramant from the outstanding vineyard of Les Bionnes. One surprising element of the Cramant was that it actually went through malo, which I wouldn’t have suspected if I had tasted it blind. Roederer’s style is based on the absence of malolactic, yet about half of the wines in the 2007 Brut Premier went through malo due to the intense acidity of the vintage—“the highest percentage ever,” says Lecaillon.

Among the pinot noirs, I loved the Verzenay from Les Potences Rochelles, vinified in oak—firm, dense and seamlessly harmonious, it showed how a judicious touch of wood can amplify the depth and complexity of a great cru such as Verzenay, especially in direct comparison with a stainless steel-fermented wine from Les Pisse-Renards, the vineyard just next door to the east. Another wood vs. tank comparison from Verzy demonstrated how different terroirs are treated accordingly: the cooler, north-facing Les Grands Montants was fermented in stainless, showing brisk but subtle red fruit aroma with a classic tension and nervy length. The southeast-facing Les Bayons, on the other hand, was fermented in oak, complementing the naturally richer body of the site and accentuating the spicy, complex minerality characteristic of this sector. With wines like these, it’s no wonder that Lecaillon says, “For me, the Montagne de Reims is the great area of 2007,” a sentiment that I have not heard expressed until now.

Of course, we don’t get to see any of these wines as finished champagne, and a house will ultimately be judged by its blends. I can’t remember ever tasting a Brut Premier blend as vin clair that was as seamlessly elegant and harmonious as this one. The 2007 vintage blend, containing 25 percent oak-fermented wines, already shows a fragrant dimension and aristocratic refinement, while the vintage rosé, based as usual on pinot noir from Cumières, is sleek and lithe, carrying itself like a catwalk model. Naturally it was the Cristal, though, that stole the show—silky, refined and energetic, with complex, subtly layered length, it made me want to drink it as is, even though I know it will be even better as a finished champagne. I can’t wait to see this in bottle.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Wine of the Week: Gaston Chiquet Blanc de Blancs d’Aÿ

Some people still refuse to accept the idea of terroir in Champagne, or of terroir being expressed in the wines of Champagne. Most often this results from a lack of experience and understanding of the region. Tasting here in Champagne, I see terroir being expressed every day, whether I’m looking for it or not.

The village of Aÿ has been renowned for its wines since the 15th century, when it was the favored wine of the court of France. Today it’s regarded as one of the greatest villages for pinot noir in the region (some people, myself included, believe that Aÿ is capable of producing the very greatest pinot noir in Champagne). Its wines are often the most complete of Champagne's pinots, showing a marvelous complexity and dimension of fruit allied with striking purity and elegance—if Aÿ were in Burgundy, it might be Vosne-Romanée.

And yet, as much as I love the pinots of Aÿ, one of the wines that has taught me the most about the commune’s terroir over the years is Gaston Chiquet’s Blanc de Blancs d’Aÿ, made from pure chardonnay. A selection from five parcels on the western side of the village planted largely with old vines, it isn’t a single-vineyard wine, but that doesn’t make it any less expressive of place. In fact, the imprint of terroir is much stronger in this wine than that of variety—often when I taste this I feel that it relates more to Aÿ pinots than it does to chardonnay from other villages. In addition, I’ve found that this chardonnay helps me to understand Aÿ’s pinots better, through a commonality of character and personality. As importer Terry Thiese puts it, this wine “isn’t so much a variant on chardonnay as it is another dialect of Aÿ.”

The Blanc de Blancs d’Aÿ is generally from a single vintage, although it doesn’t carry the vintage date on the label. (Chiquet holds back magnums for late release, which are labeled as vintage.) The current release is the 2004, which combines a broad, Marne-influenced richness with the characteristic focus and precision of the vintage. Compared to wines from the Côte des Blancs, this is rounder and more ample, reflecting Aÿ’s calcareous clay soils and south-facing exposition. While it carries a strong mineral signature, especially on the long and fragrant finish, it isn’t the pure, brilliant chalkiness of the Côte des Blancs, but rather a softer, earthier stoniness. It’s not unlike comparing the minerality of the Nahe to the intense slate of the Mosel. And like chardonnay from anywhere in Champagne, this ages superbly well—if you can find the 1998 in magnum currently on the market, it’s just beginning to reveal an intense complexity and depth, its soil character even more amplified and incisive than it was in its youth. It should continue to develop for another decade at least. Gaston Chiquet is imported into the United States by Terry Theise Selections/Michael Skurnik Wines, Syosset, NY.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Champagne Ayala, Aÿ

At the Bollinger vin clair tasting a couple of days ago, I ran into Hervé Augustin, general manager of Champagne Ayala, and he invited me over for a visit. I’ll admit to not having tasted Ayala’s wines for quite some time—I last visited the house in 1998. As the brand has recently been re-launched with a new aesthetic following its purchase by Bollinger, it seemed like a perfect time to make a reacquaintance.

As the house is located in the village of Aÿ, many people believe that the name Ayala is somehow derived from that, but in fact it was the name of its founder, Edmond de Ayala, a Spanish aristocrat who married the niece of the Vicomte de Mareuil in 1860. As a wedding dowry, he received the Château d’Aÿ and its vineyards in Aÿ and Mareuil-sur-Aÿ. (Why can’t these things happen to me?) The house changed hands several times over the years, and in 2005 it was acquired by Bollinger, who has sought to reinvigorate the brand. “The idea is to create something different with Ayala, something that is of high quality but that isn’t in competition with Bollinger,” says Augustin. “At the same time, Ayala is not a second wine of Bollinger. We share some grape sources, but we have separate chefs de caves, separate cellars, separate operations.”

A key element of the new Ayala style is a reduced dosage, or even no dosage whatsoever. The entry-level brut, currently based on the 2004 harvest, is offered in two versions: the Brut Majeur, which is dosed at 8.5 grams per liter, and a Zéro Dosage Brut Nature. I like the balance of the Brut Nature, as it feels full and plush, with plenty of apple and apricot fruitiness, while retaining a zesty, salty vivacity. The Brut Majeur is less complex and less racy, but still feels harmonious and shapely. (Interesingly, Augustin says that a higher percentage of men tend to prefer the Brut Majeur, while women often favor the Brut Nature.) The 2000 Blanc de Blancs, made from Le Mesnil, Cramant and Chouilly, seems to exemplify the Ayala style—these aren’t wines that attack you with overt power, but rather they build slowly and quietly, increasing in depth and intensity of aroma as they move back on the palate. Ayala’s vintage-dated prestige cuvée is called Perle d’Ayala, and as of the 2002 vintage it’s offered in both dosé and non-dosé versions, which is rather unusual marketing strategy. It’s great for wine dorks like us, however, to be able to compare the two. While the brut nature is very sleek and fragrant, I prefer the classic version, dosed at seven grams per liter, as I find that the dosage here amplifies the complexity and depth of aroma, and provides a better overall balance. It will undoubtedly age better as well, and I would love to see it in another decade or so.

I was very impressed with both of Ayala’s rosés—unsurprisingly, one is dosed and one isn’t, but here they aren’t at all the same wines. Composed of half chardonnay, the Rosé Majeur has a wonderful elegance and finesse on the palate, showing floral, airy aromas of red cherry and cranberry and finishing with surprising length and depth of flavor. The Rosé Nature is 53 percent chardonnay and 47 percent pinot noir (the Majeur has a little meunier), and is held back longer in the cellar—the current release is 2002, though it’s not vintage-dated. It’s a grander wine than the Rosé Majeur, with more complexity and nuance on the palate, and like many of the other Ayala wines, the finish is the star of the show, with expansive aroma and long, subtle length. At the same time, I can see myself drinking more of the Majeur, with its fresh, inviting aroma and graceful balance. The Rosé Nature is a more severe wine, and would perhaps be better with food, or served as an apéritif with hors d’oeuvres. It’s certainly a bold move to release a non-dosé rosé champagne. (It’s not, however, the only non-dosé rosé, as the American press release claims it to be. The same press release states that “Ayala has created the trend for zero and low dosage champagne,” which is about as realistic as Hillary claiming to dodge bullets in Bosnia. Oh well. At least the wine is good.) It will be interesting to see how the style of this wine and of the other Ayala non-dosé wines are refined over the coming years, and how receptive the market will be to wines of zero dosage. So far, I believe the quality is promising.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Bollinger Vins Clairs 2007

This morning I attended the annual vin clair tasting at Champagne Bollinger, an event I always look forward to every year. Bollinger hosts a whole week of vin clair events for various sectors of the trade, and the highlight is a walk-around tasting of about 15 different still wines from premier and grand cru villages. As Bollinger vinifies some of their wines in wood and some in tank, it’s also interesting to compare the two methods side by side.

This year’s tasting began, as usual, with a comparison of Aÿ pinot noir made in both barrel and tank. The wine made in barrel was full and ample, with typical Aÿ notes of peach and strawberry, and while it seemed a little softer than in years past, it did exhibit classic village character. The Aÿ from tank had a similar sense of ripe, forward fruit, if not feeling quite as voluptuous, and the acidity was a bit more prominent and defined. Among the other pinot noirs, I particularly liked one from the premier cru of Avenay, which showed delightfully fresh, vibrant fruit and a firm backbone of acidity. A pinot from Louvois, vinified in barrel, was also compelling, with an earthy, broad richness that was amplified and harmoniously shaped by the wood. Strangely, I was disappointed in the Verzenay, normally one of my favorite wines of the tasting (and one of my favorite crus in general). While it showed typical notes of dark fruit and spicy minerality, it felt a little too easygoing and accessible, and I missed the customary structure and definition.

Tasting the Côte des Blancs chardonnays reaffirmed for me that chardonnay is truly the star of the vintage. A zesty, lemony Vertus was taut and vibrant, backed by saline chalkiness, echoed at the other end of the Côte by a terrifically snappy, chalky Cuis, vinified in tank. A Cramant, vinified in barrel, was full in body and aroma, with creamy, subtly complex notes of Meyer lemon and fresh apple; an Oger, from tank, was chewy and unusually phenolic, yet demonstrated even more length of aroma than the Cramant, with a fine underlying sense of soil. However, the wine of the tasting, for me, was a chardonnay from Avize, made in tank. Absolutely classic in its breeding and poise, it showed a subtle, layered dimension of flavor, tethered by vibrant acidity and the characteristic graphite minerality of the cru.