Saturday, May 31, 2008

The First Day of VieVinum

It seems rather non sequitur, but I’m now in Vienna. It’s been a strange day — first, my friend wound up in hospital (he’ll be fine, but it was a good thing that he got there when he did), and second, it’s become apparent that I am increasingly unlikely to ever see my suitcase again, which was lost by the airlines — multiple times, in fact — between Jerez, Madrid, Paris and Vienna. I suppose it serves me right for checking in my baggage (always a foolish and perilous decision), but it’s mightily perturbing all the same, as that particular piece of luggage contains many things that are extremely valuable to me, not the least of which are my favorite pair of Crockett & Jones handgrade monkstraps.

As a sort of consolation, I tasted a number of phenomenally outstanding wines today at VieVinum, the grand, bi-annual Austrian wine fair. The 2007 vintage is right up my alley — less dramatic and less alcoholic than 2006, and perhaps less consistent, yet the best wines are equally as fine, with the terroir signatures very clearly and keenly expressed. If I had to pick a wine of the day, it might have to be Hirtzberger’s 2007 Riesling Singerriedel, although F.X. Pichler’s 2007 Riesling Kellerberg and Undendlich provided stiff competition, as did Nikolaihof’s 2004 Riesling Steiner Hund. But then, these are all incredibly blue-chip wines — you don’t need me to tell you that they’re great. The collection of the vintage so far for me, however, at least in the Wachau, is Alzinger.

The other collection that struck me today was that of Johannes Hirsch. I’m already a huge fan of Hirsch’s wines — he makes it easy, with great vineyard sites and pure, natural and conscientious winemaking. Not to mention that the prices are very kind for the quality, plus you get wonderfully goofy labels like this Trinkvergnügen. Since 2006, Hirsch has begun converting the estate entirely to biodynamic viticulture, and he couldn’t be more pleased with the results. Even after only two years, he already notices a markedly different character in his vineyards: “The great thing about the biodynamic wines is that they are physiologically ripe earlier, with less alcohol and an extra layer of minerality,” he says.

Everything he poured me today was utterly fantastic. I would happily drink the 2007 Trinkvergnügen #6 as my house wine, and the “village” wines, Kammerner Heiligenstein Grüner Veltliner and Zöbinger Riesling, were both disarmingly fragrant, focused and pure. Gaisberg Riesling was deliciously vivid and refined, and Heiligenstein Riesling perhaps even more so, with both of them clearly and poignantly demonstrating the personalities of their respective sites. The 2007 is as good a Lamm Grüner Veltliner as I’ve ever seen from Hirsch, feeling extremely expressive and soil-driven, and what’s more, it’s only 12.7 percent alcohol. The Heiligenstein, by the way, is only 12.3 percent, and the Gaisberg is 12.2 percent. Do I like biodynamics? Yes!!!

Friday, May 30, 2008

Wine of the Week: Equipo Navazos La Bota de Manzanilla Pasada #10

My Wines of the Week are intended to be exclusively champagne, but unfortunately I haven’t had a single drop of champagne this whole week. Anyway, as I said before, sherry is the champagne of fortified wines, so this will do.

If sherry parallels champagne, manzanilla could relate to a Côte des Blancs chardonnay, and Equipo Navazos would be equivalent to the wines of Champagne’s hipster growers. However, Equipo Navazos, the brainchild of Jesús Barquín and Eduardo Ojeda, isn’t actually a winery. Essentially, they look for top-quality soleras of sherry that show particularly distinctive characters, and bottle these separately as small, limited-production lots, generally consisting of only 2,000 to 2,500 bottles.

What differentiates these wines from other sherries, even from sherries that are produced out of the same soleras, is that they usually select a smaller range of barrels from the solera, looking for wines that have a strong personality and distinct character, and then bottle these unfiltered, which is very rare. The vast majority of sherry undergoes a heavy filtration that dampens much of its flavor and aroma, and it can be downright startling to compare an unfiltered version of a similar wine. It reminds me very much of the relationship between namazake and regular sake — you might prefer one or the other, but there’s no question that they have very different characters.

In addition to their limited production, these wines are even harder to find due to the fact that this was originally conceived as a private operation, almost a sort of wine club. “This didn’t start as a commercial venture,” says Barquín. “We found some excellent wines that were not on the market, and we just wanted to bottle them for ourselves.” Today, however, a small quantity is being sold in selected markets.

You’ll notice that the above photo is actually of La Bota de Manzanilla #8, a spectacular single-vineyard manzanilla bottled in October of 2007, because I simply forgot to take a photo of the manzanilla pasada #10. The label looks the same, however. Unfortunately the #8 is completely sold out, so I chose to talk about the newer release instead.

La Bota de Manzanilla Pasada #10 was bottled in January of 2008, drawn from a solera of Hijos de Rainera Pérez Marín, producers of the famous manzanilla La Guita. This solera is composed of only 15 barrels, containing aged manzanilla averaging around 12 to 14 years old that was set aside for private consumption by the family, due to its exceptional quality. It is not used for La Guita, and in fact, it hasn’t been touched for two decades, except to draw off a little bit of wine every once in a while and refresh it with new wine from La Guita’s top soleras to prevent it from becoming an amontillado.

This is a wine of intense personality, and I had to taste it several times before I felt that I really understood what was going on. “The nose is very peculiar, even a bit heavy,” says Barquín. “You can only understand it when you put it in your mouth. The freshness comes out on the palate — it’s very, very long, and it grows a lot.” It’s remarkably rich in texture, although the balance and structure are classic for manzanilla, and the flavors on the palate are unusually fragrant, even forceful. The finish feels extremely detailed and nuanced, backed by racy, pungent salinity. Barquín notes that this wine needs a lot of air to fully express itself, and suggests serving it in a Riedel Bordeaux glass, never a sherry copita.

The wines of Equipo Navazos are imported into the United States by Eric Solomon Selections/European Cellars, Charlotte, NC. They tell me that they will be receiving La Bota de Manzanilla Pasada #10 sometime this summer, as well as two other wines from Equipo Navazos: the Pedro Ximénez de Jerez #11 and Pedro Ximénez de Montilla #12. Pricing is not yet available.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

A Week of Sherry Tastings

I’ve tasted close to 300 sherries in the past week, in all possible styles, and many of my favorites were so good I had to taste them multiple times. As with champagne, I never tire of tasting sherry. Here are just a few of the standouts:

Most Exciting Fino from Jerez: La Bota de Fino #15 Macharnudo Alto
From the Equipo Navazos, the hottest label in sherry right now, this outstanding fino is a special selection drawn from the solera used for Valdespino’s Inocente. Like the Inocente, it comes exclusively from the Macharnudo vineyard and was fermented in wood, but unlike Valdespino’s version this is bottled unfiltered. It’s sleek and fragrant, with a seamless harmony from nose to finish, and shows an incredible depth of aroma on the palate, both from the particularly strong character of the selected barrels and from the absence of filtering. This was a preview, as the actual bottling won’t take place for another few weeks, and the wine will be released in September. Only 2,900 bottles will be produced.

Most Exciting Fino from El Puerto de Santa Maria: Lustau Puerto Fino Solera Reserva
El Puerto, being located near the sea, is closer in character to manzanilla than to Jerez fino. Lustau’s Solera Reserva is a classic example, showing a delicately complex fragrance and a long, elegantly balanced finish. Lustau’s almacenista bottling, the Fino del Puerto from Jose Luis Gonzalez Obregon, is more intense and austere, and even more complex — a wine for true sherry connoisseurs. I love them both, but would recommend starting with the more accessible Solera Reserva.

Most Exciting Manzanilla (i.e. Fino from Sanlúcar de Barrameda): Barbadillo Manzanilla en Rama Saca de Primavera 2008
I could have picked Equipo Navazos’s La Bota de Manzanilla #8, a single-vineyard manzanilla from Las Cañas in Balbaína, but just to spread the love around I’ll choose the spring 2008 bottling of Barbadillo’s unfiltered manzanilla. Honestly, I find Barbadillo’s standard manzanilla, called Solear, rather indifferent and innocuous. It’s striking to compare it with the En Rama, which is drawn from the best barrels of the same solera and bottled unfiltered, giving it a much fuller, livelier and more complex character. Barbadillo bottles a small amount of this wine four times a year, and the character changes each season due to the waxing and waning in growth of the flor. The only problem is that you really have to be in Andalucia to have any hope of buying a bottle.

Classiest Manzanilla Pasada: Lustau Almacenista Manuel Cuevas Jurado Manzanilla Pasada de Sanlúcar
Manuel Cuevas Jurado is one of my favorite Lustau almacenistas. This manzanilla pasada shows such striking purity and complexity, shifting kaleidoscopically on the palate with breathtaking grace and finesse. I tasted this several times directly alongside Hidalgo’s Pastrana, another manzanilla pasada that I adore: while the Pastrana shows more ample depth and body on the mid-palate, the Lustau is consistently finer, longer and more complex on the finish.

Greatest Rare and Old Amontillado: Gonzalez Byass 4 Palmas
I think there are more great amontillados than any other category of sherry. While there were many, many amontillados that I absolutely loved, it was the 4 Palmas from Gonzalez Byass that nearly brought me to tears. From a small and highly prized solera founded in 1871, this contains old finos of the highest quality, with an average age of 50 years, and its combination of balance, complexity, purity and elegance is simply stunning. This is the amontillado of my dreams.

Most Memorable Palo Cortado: Reliquia Barbadillo Palo Cortado
Barbadillo’s Reliquias are some of the most extraordinary wines of the region, drawn from soleras so old that nobody knows exactly when they were founded. The Palo Cortado is an absolute classic, with a richly concentrated array of aromas from coffee to tobacco to wood spice and black walnuts, all pinned down by an amontillado-like steeliness on the palate. The finish is unbelievably long and fine, simply oozing class.

Finest Old Oloroso: Gonzalez Byass Millennium Oloroso
There were a lot of great old olorosos offered for tasting, and some of my favorites included Hidalgo’s single-vintage, single-vineyard (El Cuadrado, in Balbaína) oloroso from 1986; the Oloroso VORS of Bodegas Tradición; Osborne’s BC 200, from their Rare Sherry collection; and of course Barbadillo’s extraordinary Reliquia. I even tasted an astounding 1959 vintage oloroso by Williams & Humbert, which I’m pretty sure I will never be able to again. However, I was particularly taken by Gonzalez Byass’s Millennium bottling, sourced from the finest butts in the bodega’s legendary array of soleras. This extraordinary wine encapsulates a century of winemaking, blending vintage wines from 1902, 1917, 1923, 1935, 1946, 1957, 1962, 1977, 1983 and 1992. The darkly caramelly, walnutty complexity of the old wines is superbly balanced by the fresh structure and vivacity of the “younger” wines, and the blend feels effortlessly harmonious and expressive.

Most Drinkable Pedro Ximénez: Pérez Barquero La Cañada PX
I’ll freely admit I really don’t like PX. It can be impressive to taste, but it’s generally too plush, too pruny, too viscous and too sticky for me to enjoy the experience. Pérez Barquero, in Montilla-Moriles, makes powerful, decadent wines that are greatly admired by Robert Parker, who gave Pérez Barquero’s 1905 PX Soleras Fundacionales something like 110 points. The 1905 is impressive, but I slightly preferred La Cañada, a single-vineyard PX averaging 25 years of age, as it felt more “balanced” (if you can use that word in the context of PX), allowing more complexity to emerge and feeling more buoyant and lively on the palate.

Best Respite from a Day of Tasting Sherry: A small vertical of Château d’Yquem
Only at Vinobile could you drink rare, old and expensive sherry all day and then take a break to taste a vertical of Château d’Yquem. It’s beyond ridiculous. Pierre Lurton and Sandrine Garbay were on hand to guide us through four vintages of the fabled stuff, in a tasting held in the beautiful old mosque of the Jerez Alcázar. I loved the 2004, with its elegantly refined build and clean, pure botrytis; the 2003 was plush and warm but had much more acidity than I expected, and it promises to develop superbly. The 1998 was still closed and awkward, showing a slight lack of acidity that troubled me, although the concentrated flavors were very pretty. And I’ve always loved the 1988: it still needs plenty of time, but it’s terrifically silky and seamless, just beginning to develop real complexity.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Sherry Is The Champagne Of Fortified Wines

I often think that Porto bears a resemblance to Bordeaux: they’re both quintessentially English, they’re both generally marketed by house or estate rather than by vineyard, and both wines are relatively easy to understand. Madeira could be equated to Burgundy, with its greater complexity and its more exclusive nature — in the case of each, one needs to be initiated into its mysteries. Sherry, however, is the champagne of the fortified wine world.

There are many parallels to be drawn between sherry and champagne. Both are heavily influenced by chalky soils, and both involve elaborate processes of production that rely heavily on long periods of lees aging. Both are made in a wide array of styles — a blanc de blancs champagne and saignée rosé are as different from one another as a manzanilla is from an oloroso. A fino or a manzanilla, like a blanc de blancs, makes for a perfect and refreshing apéritif, and yet, both sherry and champagne are also much better companions at the table than most people suspect. Both wines age marvelously well, and in fact, both wines really need time to show their best.

On the other hand, both wines suffer from being largely misunderstood by the general public, and in general, people don’t drink enough of either one. Both are dominated by big houses that blend vast quantities of wine together from all over their respective regions, and as a result both downplay the importance of vineyard site, even though each region has sites of great historical renown (Macharnudo, Balbaína or Miraflores in the sherry country can inspire the same feelings of passion in a sherry aficionado as Aÿ, Verzenay or Le Mesnil-sur-Oger does in a connoisseur of champagne). Because each wine is made in such large quantity, the prevailing paradigm in each region would like you to believe that the base wine must necessarily be very neutral in character, and that it’s solely the process of winemaking that gives the wine its personality. In an acceptance of this neutrality, both regions suffer from indifferent vineyard practices and overly high yields (although in each region there are conscientious producers who do not follow the trends — Hidalgo’s vineyards in Balbaína, pictured in the above photo, are all organically grown). Curiously, each wine undergoes a final practice that can radically alter its character: champagne will usually see a dosage in the form of either sugar or concentrated grape must, while in an even more injurious practice, the majority of sherries undergo a harsh filtration that strips them of color, aroma and flavor. In short, both sherry and champagne are highly individual wines, even unique, and both can be counted among the great wines of the world, yet both could also be significantly improved.

On a different note, both regions also offer opportunities to make a fool of yourself in the cellar. Here is a slightly blurry photo of me spilling La Gitana manzanilla all over myself while attempting to wield a venencia in Hidalgo’s bodegas in Sanlúcar de Barrameda.

Fortunately for my reputation, I haven’t got a similar photo of me trying to disgorge a bottle of champagne!

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Feasting on Tuna on the Andalucian Coast

Besides being famous for wine, flamenco and spectacular Moorish architecture, Andalucia is also renowned for its bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus), being located on the migratory route between the cold Atlantic Ocean and the warmer waters where the fish breed, in the Mediterranean Sea. Tuna fishing has been a tradition here since ancient times, demonstrated by the discovery of Phoenician coins in Cádiz with pictures of tuna engraved on them. Today the vast majority of these huge, majestic fish are sold to the Japanese market, but a few still make their way into the local ports. In the town of Barbate, on the Atlantic coast south of Cádiz, a restaurant called El Campero is considered by many to be the finest place to sample this delicious fish, especially after the first full moon of May and through the month of June, when the tuna are in full migration.

A visit to El Campero last night with a group of friends proved that first of all, one doesn’t have to be in Japan to enjoy top-quality preparations of bluefin, and second, I have a great deal to learn about the edible anatomy of a tuna fish. Putting ourselves unhesitatingly in the chef’s capable hands, we were treated to fifteen different preparations of various parts of the fish, from well-known sections such as the ventresca (belly) and morrillo (collar) to more unusual ones such as the heart (meaty and dense, marinated in vinegar and served cold) and the galete, or throat (prepared as if it were rabo de toro, which in fact it closely resembles in texture). A specialty of the region is the pungent, saline mojama, sections of muscle along the spine that are salted and air-dried; even more intense are huevos de grano, tuna roe that has been salted, pressed and dried in a similar fashion (pictured below on the left). Served with a splash of fresh, grassy olive oil, both of these proved to be splendid partners to manzanilla pasada.

Mormo, the area directly behind the neck, wasn’t quite as buttery-rich as the grilled morrillo, but still very rich and succulent, prepared as a quintessential Andalucian stew with onions, garlic and oregano. Ventresca appeared throughout the meal in several different incarnations: my favorite was from a piece marinated in olive oil and then sliced paper-thin, giving it a silky texture, although it was difficult to argue with another plate of marvelously fresh tuna belly served simply as toro sashimi (“toro sin cuernos”, as our waiter joked).

The only problem with bluefin tuna is that it is declining in population due to overfishing. Although not endangered, it is listed as a species to avoid in Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, which does make me feel guilty enough that I eat it only very rarely (I do realize that as a responsible human being, I shouldn’t be eating it at all). I know I'm being hypocritical, but nevertheless I’m still very pleased that I was able to make it to El Campero at least once in my life.

Restaurante El Campero, Avenida de la Constitución, Local 5C, 11160 Barbate, 956.432.300

Monday, May 26, 2008

Finding Paradise at Vinobile

I was honored to be profiled a few weeks ago on Tom Wark’s excellent blog, Fermentation. One of the questions he asked me was, “What is Heaven like?” Not having actually been there until today, I didn’t really know at the time.

But here at Vinobile in Jerez, I’ve found something deliciously close to paradise. The whole point of the show is that many of the greatest sweet wines from all over the world are available to taste, but even more compelling for me is that there’s an entire room completely devoted to sherry. It’s divided up by style, and just about everything you can possibly think of is being poured, from La Gitana Manzanilla to Tradicion Oloroso to Barbadillo Amontillado Reliquia. I must have tasted around 25 finos and 20 manzanillas this morning, before settling in to an equally grand tasting this afternoon of amontillado, palo cortado and oloroso VOS and VORS. Tomorrow I’m going back for more oloroso and old amontillado and palo cortado. If you’re a fan of sherry, it’s difficult to imagine a tasting any better than this.

Sunday, May 25, 2008


So the real reason that I was in Sevilla was not to stuff my gullet full of tapas (although I did endeavor to do my best in that department), but rather to attend Topwinespain, a tasting involving a number of highly-regarded winemakers from all over the country. Held at the beautiful Hacienda Benazuza, in nearby Sanlúcar la Mayor, it was an all-day extravaganza of gluttony and inebriation.

Some random thoughts that came to mind while I was tasting (plus some photos courtesy of Patricio Tapia):

- Alejandro Fernandez is utterly cool, his wines are great, and his cheese (made from his own sheep) is really, really superb. He kept handing more to me and I couldn’t stop eating it.

- I usually find Toro a bit too heavy and alcoholic, but Vetus is surprisingly elegant and deliciously lively.

- The 1995 La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 904 smells like the best pipe tobacco ever. (But I stopped smoking 12 years ago.)

- Pago de los Capellanes continues to impress me, vintage after vintage. Both the 2004 Reserva and the 2004 El Nogal are so pure and vivid.

- Contino seems to be undergoing a shift: winemaker Jésus Madrazo Real de Asúa says that he’s increasing the percentage of garnacha and viura in the wines in order to gain more structure and longevity, and the 2005 Vino del Olivo feels much more delicate and balanced than the last few vintages (to me anyway).

- René Barbier is a hoot — once we figured out what language to speak (French, since my Spanish is pathetic), I had a wonderful time with him, and the Clos Mogador 2005 is brilliant as usual.

- I’d rather buy two bottles (or maybe even three, depending on where you’re buying them) of Cune Imperial Reserva 2001 than Real de Asúa 2001.

- The terroir signature between Cune wines (iron and clay in Rioja Alta) and Viña Real wines (calcareous clay in Rioja Alavesa) is strikingly different when you compare the two side by side.

- Some Spanish girls are really hot.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Tapas in Sevilla

I’ve taken a little break from champagne to come down to Sevilla, where I've been eating loads of tapas and attempting to drink my body weight in sherry. These are photos of a few of my favorite things.

Jamón ibérico de bellota from Guadiala, at La Alacena de San Eloy

Gazpacho and tortilla de patata at Las Columnas

Blanco Cerillo, home to the most incredible bocquerones fritos ever

Bodeguita A. Romero

Menudo at Casa Cuesta

Friday, May 23, 2008

Wine of the Week: Jacquesson Brut Cuvée No. 732

Some friends and I recently enjoyed a bottle of Jacquesson’s excellent Cuvée 732, based on the 2004 harvest. If you haven’t been following the wines of Jacquesson lately, they’ve recently discontinued their Brut Perfection, which was a non-vintage wine much in the same spirit of any other, in favor of a numbered, vintage-specific cuvée. The idea of the new cuvée is to not only express the style of the house, but also to frame that expression within the context of a specific base year.

Now wait a minute, you say. All non-vintage wines are based on a given year, and so by definition express the character of that harvest. Yet there’s a difference here: most non-vintage wines are blended in an effort to suppress the character of the base year, whereas Jacquesson is blending only in an attempt to make a more complete wine, while actively embracing and highlighting the character of the base year. It’s a subtle distinction, but an important one. It also results in different styles of wine.

The Cuvée 732 is a perfect example of the Jacquesson aesthetic, combining richness and complexity in a harmonious package. Graceful and vibrant, it demonstrates a wonderful sense of clarity and energy on the palate, its aromas of Meyer lemon, red apple and young ginger feeling fragrant and inviting. In fact, it might be my favorite of Jacquesson’s new numbered cuvées so far, although I also recall having a particular fondness for the 730.

Yet besides the 732’s merits as a wine, I also realize how much I appreciate Jacquesson’s back labels. Not only do they happily give you the base year of the cuvée and the varietal composition (39 percent chardonnay, 36 percent meunier and 25 percent pinot noir in the 732), but they also print the disgorgement date and amount of dosage. It’s a remarkably forthcoming and candid approach considering that many champagne producers are jealously secretive about this sort of information. Admittedly, I don’t really need any of this information to enjoy the wine. I can happily drink the contents without knowing any of that stuff. But as someone who has an active interest in champagne beyond simply imbibing it as a beverage, my enjoyment of it is enhanced if I am better informed about what I am drinking. It’s simply a matter of establishing a context.

Jacquesson is imported into the United States by Vintage ’59, Washington, DC, and Estate Wines, San Rafael, CA. Vintage ’59’s suggested retail price for the Cuvée 732 is $65.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Aux Crieurs de Vin, Troyes

When thinking of Champagne, the cities that most often come to mind are Reims and Epernay, yet the city of Troyes must surely be counted as equally important. Troyes has a long and illustrious history, dating back at least to the 1st century BCE, when Pliny the Elder mentioned it by the name of Augustobona Tricassium. It flourished as a cultural and literary center during the Middle Ages, and in 1118 the Order of the Templars was founded here by Hugues de Payns. During the Renaissance, Troyes was renowned for its glassmaking, sculpture and painting, and also functioned as one of the most important trade centers of the region — the term “troy weight”, a measurement for silversmiths and jewelers, is derived from the standards implemented here at that time.

In terms of wine and gastronomy, Troyes is certainly important for its proximity to the Aube, an important production region of Champagne, and the city is also famous for its andouillette, protected by the Association Amicale des Amateurs d’Andouillette Authentique (AAAAA). Yet perhaps the greatest thing about Troyes, to my mind, is that it’s home to one of France’s most magnificent wine bars, Aux Crieurs de Vin.

There are many wine bars of this type today in France, which function as both retail shops and bistros with a focus on natural wines, and in fact, on authentic and artisanal products in general. (Think La Cremerie, Le Verre Volé, Le Baratin or Racines in Paris and you get the idea.) Aux Crieurs de Vin is larger than most, probably because they’re spared from having to pay Parisian real estate prices, and the array of wines is, if you’re a fan of natural winemaking, a veritable candy store of delights.

The champagne selection alone tells you what this place is about, with wines from Jacques Selosse, Vouette et Sorbée, Jérôme Prévost, Jacques Lassaigne, Ulysse Collin, Fleury and Larmandier-Bernier, among others. Among other wines of France the pickings are no less impressive, from Courtois and Breton to Derain and Pacalet; Lapierre and Métras to Puzelat and Le Briseau; Ostertag and Overnoy to Arena and Plageoles. Prices are kind as well, on average two or three euros less than what you might pay for the same wine in Paris.

Aux Crieurs de Vin serves food for lunch and dinner from Tuesdays to Saturdays, and while they have a superb selection of wines by the glass, you can also choose any bottle of wine from the shelves and open it for only a five-euro corkage fee. The cuisine is heavily influenced by Spain and the Mediterranean: I loved the paper-thin, lusciously creamy slices of lomo de bellota, pictured above, while another stand-out was the arugula salad with a soft Corsican cheese, topped by the most pungent, in-your-face, ridiculously porky bacon ever.

Troyes is a little over an hour away from Epernay, on the way to Chablis, and I don’t get there nearly as often as I would like. Aux Crieurs du Vin, however, is definitely a mandatory stop if you’re anywhere close to the city.

Aux Crieurs de Vin, 4 place Jean Jaurès, 10000 Troyes,

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Champagne Dosnon & Lepage, Avirey-Lingey

Dosnon & Lepage is a relative newcomer on the champagne scene, but the two proprietors, Davy Dosnon and Simon-Charles Lepage, both have roots in wine country. Dosnon studied viticulture and winemaking, working at champagne houses such as Serge Mathieu and Moutard Père et Fils, as well as at Rossignol-Trapet in Burgundy. He eventually inherited some vineyards from his grandfather in their hometown of Avirey-Lingey, in the Aube’s Barséquanais, and in 2005 he was joined by Simon-Charles Lepage, who while also being a native of Avirey-Lingey, had previously been living in Paris acquiring a doctorate in criminal law. The two decided to put their minds together to create a new champagne house, intended to express the terroirs of their native region.

Dosnon and Lepage own two hectares of vines in Avirey-Lingey and purchase fruit from about five additional hectares in the surrounding area, making for a total production of around 50,000 bottles a year. At the moment they have three different cuvées, although another two are in the works. The Recolte Brute contains 70 percent pinot noir and 30 percent chardonnay, which are blended together because this is sold as an extra brut, at four grams per liter of dosage, and they feel that a blend results in more harmony. The current release is based on 2004, and like all of their wines, it’s fermented entirely in barrique, giving it a warm, slightly smoky richness. “The barrels give roundness and complexity, without sacrificing structure, purity and finesse,” says Lepage. “But to work successfully with barrels, you’ve got to be a super-maniac. Like him,” he laughs, pointing at Dosnon.

The Récolte Noire is pure pinot noir, all from Avirey-Lingey, and is also currently based on 2004, with reserves from 2002 and 2001. This is a sterner, more particular wine than the Récolte Brute, showing the bold, spicy richness characteristic of pinot from the area. Like the previous wine, however, it quickly turns to mineral aromas on the back end, finishing with a much greater presence of soil character than fruit.

The third cuvée is the Récolte Rose, which is pure pinot noir but made by blending rather than by saignée, which they find to produce overly heavy wines. “We’re looking for a rosé of freshness and purity, not a ‘bodybuilding’ rosé,” says Lepage. Fragrant and plummy, this balances deep fruit flavors with an elegant structure, feeling delicate and lively on the palate. The wines of Dosnon & Lepage are neither fined nor filtered, and the expression of fruit seems particularly pure in the rosé.

Care for the environment is of primary concern to Dosnon and Lepage, and in fact, respect for the environment is built into their mission statement: “The fundamental philosophy of la Maison Dosnon & Lepage is one of harmony: harmony of mankind, of terroirs, and of wines in their environment. Though young producers of champagne, we are nonetheless highly aware of the environmental impact we have on this harmony, and we feel that we are therefore obliged to minimize the effects of our actions.” This attitude is manifested in their insistence on sustainable viticulture, as well as in their support of 1% For the Planet, an organization whose members donate at least one percent of their annual sales to environmental groups around the world. Imagine if all champagne houses did that.

This is a house that’s doing everything right, from their work in the vineyards and the cellar to their ecologically-aware business practices. Their wines have impressed me so far, and I look forward to tasting many more of them in the future. Dosnon & Lepage is imported into the United States by Jon-David Headrick Selections, in Chapel Hill, NC.

(I apologize profusely for not including any photos. Actually, since it isn’t my fault, I apologize profusely on Blogger’s behalf for not including any photos. I am still having the most miserable problems uploading photos to Blogger, and I am completely at my wit’s end – had I actually any hair to pull out, I would have done so long ago. I will endeavor to post photos as soon as I can figure out what Blogger’s problem is.)

Edit 22 May: Photos are added. I've made some technical changes to my blog and I'm hoping that this works now.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The French and Their Moonshine

I meant to write a real post tonight, but then my friend Sylvain pulled out all these old, homemade eaux-de-vie that his father distilled in Lorraine. The star of the night was a 1985 mirabelle, which was marvelously fragrant and delicious. Gotta love France.

I took a great photo of Sylvain and his bottles, but I couldn't post it on my blog. Honestly, if you ever think of starting a blog, do NOT use Blogger. I have literally been trying for six hours to post this photo and it hasn't worked. I hate Blogger.

Monday, May 19, 2008

La Roseraie, Essoyes

Last week I took a short trip down to the Côte des Bar, in the Aube, to visit a few winegrowers. On the recommendation of a friend, I spent the night at a beautiful chambre d’hôte, or bed and breakfast, called La Roseraie, which I would wholeheartedly recommend to you.

La Roseraie lies on the banks of the Ource River, in the small, quiet village of Essoyes. The village’s main claim to fame is that it was the summer home of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and the great painter is also buried here, together with his family. In terms of wine, Essoyes is located in the Barséquanais, in convenient proximity to such champagne producers as Dosnon & Lépage, Drappier, Serge Mathieu, Cédric Bouchard and Moutard Père et Fils. It’s also very close to Les Riceys, home of the famous Rosé des Riceys.

La Roseraie’s two buildings date from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and are surrounded by an idyllic and verdant garden. The four guest rooms, ranging from 95 to 105 euros per night, are spacious and well-appointed, offering peaceful and welcome repose after long days of winetasting! Before purchasing the property, Marie-Claude and Pierre, La Roseraie’s hospitable and charming proprietors, used to own a restaurant in Paris, and if you request ahead it’s possible to dine with the couple on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Marie-Claude is a superb cook, and it’s a joy to partake of her generous and hearty French country cuisine, sourced from fresh and local produce. Be sure to ask her ahead of time to make her outstanding gougères. In addition, the couple have relationships with several champagne producers in the area, and love to introduce their guests to the local wines.

La Roseraie, 6 quai de l’Ource, 10360 Essoyes

Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Old Vintages of Guy Vallois

Over the last few years, Diebolt-Vallois has put several old vintage wines onto the market: 1976, 1979 and 1985, which wear the gold vintage label, as well as a pure 1982 in a green label that is labeled Mise en Cave en 1983. They can be terrific wines, even if the package is a little misleading: these wines weren’t made by Jacques Diebolt, but rather by his father-in-law Guy Vallois, in the village of Cuis.

I’ve tasted all of the above wines on multiple occasions, but one that I’ve never seen is the 1973, which Richard Juhlin mentions in his book 4000 Champagnes. I’m particularly keen on champagnes from this year not only because it was a relatively decent vintage in the region, but also because it’s the year of my birth. On a visit to Diebolt this week, we were enjoying a bottle of 1997 Fleur de Passion and talking about all sorts of topics, from increased sulfur in non-malolactic wines to 17th-century tapestries (antiques are Jacques Diebolt’s grand passion), when the conversation turned to old champagne. Since I’ve been wanting to ask him for a while, I cheekily ventured the question of whether or not there were any more bottles of 1973 available. He admitted that there were a few left in the cellar, but warned that they are extremely variable, which is why he doesn’t sell them. “Perhaps one in six or eight is any good,” said Diebolt. “The problem is that they were stored sur pointe in a dirt cellar, not on cement, so many of the corks were attacked by mold.”

Nevertheless, after drinking the better part of that fabulous bottle of 1997 (which, by the way, is just beginning to come out of its shell and develop some real complexity), Diebolt asked, “Do you want to taste the ’73?” We returned to the cellar and fetched one of the 21 bottles remaining, bottled with a cork rather than with capsule for the secondary fermentation. He proceeded to disgorge it, and upon pouring a glass for himself to taste, he smiled and said, “You are very lucky. This is one of the best bottles of this wine that I have ever tasted.” We spent the next hour drinking the rest of the bottle, which continued to expand and develop with air, revealing crisp, energetic notes of citrus and almond under more mature aromas of praline, honeycomb, roasted coffee and black truffle. While it was clearly a mature wine, it was still astonishingly fresh and vibrant, much more so than any of the other Guy Vallois bottles that I had ever tasted.

It’s an experience that I am likely never to repeat, even if I am fortunate enough to partake of one of the 20 bottles that are left. However, other vintages are commercially available, and they are worth seeking out. As I write this I am drinking a bottle of the 1979, which is deliciously opulent, feeling creamy and rich even while demonstrating the forceful acidity of both the vintage and the village (like all of these old Vallois wines, this is 100 percent Cuis). I’ve had other bottles of this that have shown even more complexity, and overall this is my favorite (non-’73!) of these. The 1976 is even more luscious, although I’ve experienced greater bottle variation in that wine than in the ’79. When the ’76 is good, though, it’s very, very good, with an expansive complexity and surprising acidity for the vintage, thanks to being grown in Cuis. The 1985, like its siblings, is unusually rich for a Cuis wine, although it shows a more forceful structure, with the minerality very prominent, and doesn’t possess quite as much complexity. However, like all of these it also shows a higher than average amount of bottle variation, so it largely depends on your luck. As the famous quote goes, “There are no good wines, only good bottles.” Still, you’ll never know unless you give it a try. There are far worse things to gamble on than old Vallois wines.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Wine of the Week: H. Billiot Fils Brut Rosé

I am a huge fan of the Henri Billiot estate in Ambonnay, and I find all of their wines to be well worth buying, from the richly expressive Brut Réserve to the vivid and complex Cuvée Laetitia. I have a particular fondness, however, for Billiot’s Brut Rosé, one of my favorite rosés in all of Champagne.

Billiot’s rosé is based on their Brut Réserve, although it’s released one year earlier. The Brut Réserve is usually about 75 to 80 percent pinot noir, with the rest chardonnay, and like all of Billiot’s wines, it’s 100 percent Ambonnay grand cru. To make the rosé, Billiot adds a small percentage of older red wine, aged in barrique: the exact proportion will vary from vintage to vintage, depending on the wine. “It’s a function of color,” explains Laetitia Billiot. “We usually add between four and eight percent of red wine, depending on how strong the color of the wine is in barrel.”

The most recent release of the rosé is based on 2004, with reserve wines from 2003 and 2002, and contains six percent of red wine from 1999. Everything about this wine is immediately alluring, from its delicate, pale salmon color to the fragrantly perfumed aromas of spiced plum, red cherry and fresh pear. On the palate it’s creamy and rich in texture, showing a concentrated burst of red fruit aroma that lingers through the long and ample finish. Its sleekly balanced acidity serves to both elongate and expand the flavors, and the overall feel is one of finesse, refinement and detail. My only complaint about this wine is that it really ought to be bottled in magnum only, as 750 milliliters disappears entirely too quickly!

By the way, you’ll find a lot number on the bottle (L 02, for example), but unlike with some other estates, this has nothing to do with vintages or bottling: it’s simply an indicator of the cuvée (Brut Réserve is L 01, Rosé is L 02, et cetera). Thus it’s not easy to predict what vintages are contained within the particular bottle that you’re drinking, although the bottles in the United States usually have a disgorgement date printed on them, which helps.

Henri Billiot is imported into the United States by Terry Theise Selections/Michael Skurnik Wines, Syosset, NY, and the suggested retail price for the Brut Rosé is $70.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Champagne Stoppers

I’ve noticed that one reason people don’t buy more champagne or sparkling wine is that they often feel obligated to drink the entire bottle. With a still wine, you can just put the cork back in, but with sparkling wines, there are the bubbles to worry about.

There’s actually nothing to fear — all you need is a good champagne stopper. At home (alone, alas), I typically drink half a bottle of champagne a day (I’m not nearly as big a lush as some people believe), and save the other half for the next day. This is partly to moderate my consumption, but more importantly, I find that many young champagnes are actually more interesting after being opened for a day. Even when I owned a wine bar, I was never afraid to pour champagnes by the glass, as I found that young champagnes could easily last two or sometimes even three days if properly stoppered (although between the guests and the staff, they rarely lasted that long!)

There are several different types of inexpensive stoppers available. In the photo above, the big blue one at the top is the simplest model: you push it down and little teeth inside grasp the edge of the bottle. Going clockwise, the next one is slightly more sophisticated: you push it down and screw it shut, ensuring a better seal. Less aesthetically attractive but perhaps even more efficacious is the clamp model, with a hinged clip that grabs the neck of the bottle, keeping the whole thing firmly in place. (By the way, this is the only one that works on certain irregularly shaped bottles, such as Dom Pérignon or Comtes de Champagne. Not that, you know, we’re putting stoppers on those every day.) Then there’s the bright blue thing that looks like a UFO — it has two arms that swing down to grasp the bottle. My favorite one, however, and the one that I use most often, is the last, which has a tight, spring-loaded rubber seal and two little flanges on the hinged portions that grip the lip of the bottle. Plus it’s made of shiny metal and it’s pretty. You can find these at most wine stores or order them easily online.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad

Last week I was speaking with Caroline Milan, of Champagne Jean Milan, about her relatively new négociant status. While in the past this six-hectare estate was registered as an RM, or récoltant-manipulant, they made the decision several years ago to become an NM, or négociant-manipulant. The reason for this was that they wanted to grow in production, but also wanted their wines to remain exclusively from Oger. Vineyard land in a Côte des Blancs grand cru is simply not available for purchase, and even if it were, it would be incredibly expensive. (People in Champagne often estimate a price of between 1.2 and 1.5 million euros per hectare, although in today’s financial climate that seems suspiciously low to me.) The Milans had some family friends who owned very good land in Oger but who were selling their grapes to a co-operative, and a logical solution seemed to be to purchase those grapes for Milan champagne instead.

The change has worked out very well for the Milans, and the wine they’re making today is better than ever, but Caroline admits to having had some concerns in the beginning. The NM designation can be a sort of stigma, both here in the region and abroad, and the new designation meant that Milan had to leave the Syndicat Général des Vignerons, a major trade organization here in Champagne. Naturally the last thing the Milans wanted was to damage their reputation as an artisanal, family-run estate. “It made people talk,” she says. “Our friends would ask us, ‘Aren’t you afraid about your image?’” It did raise questions among some clients, although the overwhelming majority are satisfied with the explanations and continue to support the estate. And why not? It’s difficult to imagine Milan being any more artisanal than it already is. Caroline takes care of the business side of things, while her brother Jean-Charles works the cellar and vineyards. They have a few employees to help them with the estate’s operations, and while their parents are officially retired, they are still involved with the winery and continue to live on the property. Nothing has changed in the Milans’ outlook or their pursuit of quality simply because they buy a few hectares’ worth of grapes from their friends.

But really, is there anything significant about the designation NM or RM? An NM can refer to a huge array of vastly different operations, from small houses like Milan, who makes 85,000 bottles a year, to giants like Moët & Chandon, who produces, ahem... considerably more. Many young growers, in fact, are turning to the NM option, often to be able to work vines belonging to other members of the family due to inheritance laws, or else simply because, as the Milans found, vineyard land is extremely difficult to purchase.

Also, it’s hardly a meaningful designation in terms of ideas such as artisanality, expression or quality. I am a rabid fan of artisanal, site-expressive, handcrafted champagne, and I supported grower champagne well before it was fashionable to do so. Yet just because a champagne is estate-grown and -bottled doesn’t mean that it’s automatically of higher quality (or, in fact, that it’s any good at all). Nor do RMs have a monopoly on artisanality, even if many of the greatest artisanal-minded producers in Champagne are, in fact, registered as RM.

Jacquesson, for example, is highly artisanal in its outlook, isolating and bottling individual vineyards, separating parcels for vinification, preserving vintage identity in their brut sans année rather than seeking to dominate or erase the character of the year. There are plenty of récoltant-manipulants who don’t work nearly as diligently or as thoughtfully, and in fact, among Champagne’s 3,000 or so growers who produce wine under their own labels, you’ll find much wine that is indifferently made and carelessly grown. It’s true that in the United States and some other export markets the selection of grower champagne is of particularly exceptional quality, thanks to the discriminating palates of outstanding importers such as Terry Theise, Jon-David Headrick or Martine Saunier. That makes it fun, and relatively safe, to buy grower champagne. But it’s important to remember that the quality of these RM wines is due to the commitment and excellence of those particular growers, not to a couple of letters on a label. It’s inane to say, “RM on the label is a sign of quality,” or to proclaim, “I only drink RMs.” Look for the name of a producer that you know and trust — that’s the surest sign of quality that there is.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Quotations: St-Evremond

“Do not spare any expense to get Champagne wines, even if you are at two hundred leagues from Paris. Those of Burgundy have lost their credit amongst men of taste, and barely retain a remnant of their former reputation amongst dealers. There is no province which furnishes excellent wines for all seasons but Champagne. It supplies us with the wines of Ay, Avenay, and Hautvillers, up to the spring; Taissy, Sillery, Verzenai, for the rest of the year.”

—St-Evremond, in a letter to his brother the Count d’Olonne in 1674

Monday, May 12, 2008

Bérèche et Fils, Craon de Ludes

As with any wine region, one of the most exciting things about Champagne is watching a new generation of winemakers emerge. In the village of Craon de Ludes, the 26 year-old Raphaël Bérèche has been working alongside his father at their nine-hectare estate of Bérèche et Fils since 2004, and is slowly but increasingly putting his personal stamp on the domaine.

Bérèche owns vines in three different sectors of Champagne: the area around Ludes and Craon de Ludes; the eastern Montagne de Reims, around Trépail; and Mareuil-le-Port, on the rive gauche of the Vallée de la Marne. The viticulture has been steadily improving — they completely stopped using chemical herbicides in 2004 and have planted cover crops in all of the vineyards, and since 2007 a portion of the vineyard is being converted to biodynamics.

The range begins with the Brut Réserve, composed of roughly equal parts chardonnay, pinot noir and meunier, along with about 30 percent reserve wine from the previous three vintages. It typically shows full, fruity notes of citrus, apple and quince, and as with all of the estate’s wines, malolactic fermentation is avoided. The same wine is released with an additional year of lees aging as the Extra Brut Réserve, with about 1.5 grams per liter of dosage (the Brut is between seven and nine grams); the current release, 2004, is particularly vibrant and energetic, with a lovely, saline minerality.

In 1902, Raphaël’s great-grandfather planted some chardonnay vines in the Ludes vineyard of Les Beaux Regards, and today these are used to make the cuvée of the same name. (These vines are also used as a sélection massale for replanting the rest of the domaine’s chardonnay.) Unfortunately, since the parcel is too small this is no longer a single-vineyard wine, normally including about 30 percent of chardonnay from Mareuil-le-Port. Nevertheless, the resulting wine is always very focused and precise, remaining sleek and racy while showing the bold girth of chardonnay from outside of the Côte des Blancs. While the domaine is sold out of this wine at the moment, the 2005 will be released in October, and it will be the first time that this cuvée is released as a brut nature, having previously been around four grams or so.

There is a tiny quantity of vintage wine made, and the current vintage, 2002, is 40 percent chardonnay, 40 percent pinot noir and 20 percent meunier. It’s a bold, ample wine, with luscious and complex notes of clover honey, quince and dried peach. The previous vintage, 2000, is even creamier in texture, balanced by bright, orange-citrus acidity; the higher proportion of chardonnay (60 percent) keeps it feeling lively and balanced.

The most unusual wine in the cellar is the Reflet d’Antan, made from a solera started in 1990, stored in 600-liter demi-muids and bottled with cork for the second fermentation. Composed of equal parts of all three grapes, this shows a burnished, honeyed richness, its aromas of dried apple and citrus peel complicated by notes of sandalwood incense and exotic spice. There’s a texture and luster about this that gives it a feeling of opulence — I often think that it tastes the way a Peter Greenaway movie looks. Raphaël suggests a pairing with tuna rossini, which would be suitably decadent.

Bérèche et Fils is imported into the United States by Petit Pois Corp./Sussex Wine Merchants, in Moorestown, NJ.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

A Tasting of 1998 Champagnes

Last night a friend of mine hosted a tasting of 1998s, an appropriate theme being that we’re now ten years on. The 1998 vintage is also one that I particularly like. Pundits have never been very keen on this vintage, coming after the utterly unique 1996 and the warm, accessible 1997, and forgotten in the shadow of 1999 and 2000, vintages that I think people have wanted very badly to like because of their numeric significance. Yet the vintage does have its supporters. Charles Philipponnat thinks that it could be the best Clos des Goisses of the decade, easily better than 1996; Terry Theise once wrote, “the sheer beauty of fruit of the [1998] chardonnays is nearly beyond belief.”

The 1998 vintage was a year of extreme weather, shocking at the time but sadly all too commonplace today. March temperatures fluctuated between -8 C and 23 C (18 to 73 F); in May, records show that it was 32 C on the 13th (90 F), yet there was frost on the 23rd! It’s almost a miracle that the fruit was able to set properly, without widespread incidence of either coulure or millerandage. The July sunshine, what little there was of it, was the lowest on record for that month since 1965, while in contrast, August was the hottest on record since 1961, with temperatures up to 40 C (104 F) across the region. September was wet, averaging 60 to 70 mm of rain (2.4 to 2.75 inches) over the first fifteen days. Despite all of this, the grapes were harvested in mid- to late September with a higher than average maturity, and the average yield of 12,926 kilograms per hectare was the largest since 1983 (15,012 kg/ha).

Of the dozen 1998s that we tasted, the wines of the night, for me, were Vilmart’s Cuvée Création, Pascal Doquet’s Le Mesnil Blanc de Blancs and Franck Pascal’s Equilibre Cuvée Prestige. Sometimes I think the 1998 might be the greatest Cuvée Création ever (although I can’t wait to see the 1999). Its subtle complexity and velvety texture make it feel sophisticated and elegant, a champagne for dinner jackets and evening gowns. Doquet’s Le Mesnil showed classic Mesnil chalkiness and the vivid, vibrant energy typical of 1998 chardonnay, while Franck Pascal’s Equilibre completely charmed me with its full-bodied yet finely harmonious aromas of persimmon, dried apple and spice.

Among the wines that disappointed me were the 1998s of Deutz and Taittinger, and surprisingly, Claude Cazals’s Clos Cazals. I had tasted the 1998 Clos Cazals once before and found it complex and expressive, but last night its floral perfume was almost overpowering, and its dosage awkwardly balanced. I expect it needs some time to sort itself out.

Additional time, in fact, seemed to be the theme across the board. Many of the wines seemed a little closed and reticent, and often I noted that fruit, alcohol and dosage were not currently well integrated. One of the things that struck me while tasting these was how ripe the fruit flavors actually were in many of the 1998s, which I don’t think of as being an overly ripe vintage. Having said that, however, in many wines the fruit was currently at an awkward midpoint, having shed the puppy fat of its youth but not yet having acquired the complexity and harmony of maturity. It’s a vintage I continue to have faith in, but I’m not going to open any more bottles for a while. I think I’ll go buy some more of that Vilmart while I still can, though.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Wine of the Week: Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve

Earlier this week I had the privilege of tasting a number of 2007 vins clairs with Thierry Roset, oenologist for Charles Heidsieck and Piper-Heidsieck. Naturally we broke open some bubbly wines afterwards, and as always I was particularly struck by the quality and character of the Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve.

This has always been one of my favorite NVs among the major houses, thanks to former chef de cave Daniel Thibault, who developed it into a richly complex, reserve-heavy non-vintage wine. In 1997 it was re-branded with a Mis en Cave date indicating the year that it was bottled—a laudable and remarkable gesture of transparency in an industry that is too often overly secretive. Thibault’s successor Régis Camus has kept the Mis en Cave date on the label, moving it to the back, and prints the year of disgorgement as well, which is rare on a négociant brut NV.

The current release is Mis en Cave 2004, meaning that it’s based on the 2003 harvest. Showing rich and harmonious aromas ranging from pear compote and caramelized apple to praline and vanilla, this feels full and expansive, finishing with a subtle complexity and ample fragrance. Roset describes the Charles Heidsieck style as “a balance between complexity and generosity,” an idea that is well illustrated by this wine, and one surprising element here is that its complexity and character could easily make you believe that it’s been fermented or aged in oak, even though it’s made entirely in stainless steel.

Regarding varietal composition, it’s a little bit like a math question on the SAT: the Brut Réserve typically contains 60 percent of wine from the base year’s harvest, composed of equal parts chardonnay, pinot noir and meunier. To this blend, a proportion of reserve wine is added, in equal parts chardonnay and pinot noir, but then a small quantity of the previous year’s base blend is also included, usually about six to ten percent.

The reserve wine is clearly one of the biggest reasons for the Brut Réserve’s high quality. Forty percent of reserve wine is remarkably huge—there aren’t many bruts sans année in Champagne that contain such a high proportion of reserve wine. Even Krug doesn’t typically go that high. In addition, Roset says that the reserves usually include wines between four and eight years old, which is also admirably impressive. Considering all of that, at this price the Brut Réserve must surely be one of the best value champagnes on the market.

Charles Heidsieck is imported into the United States by Rémy Cointreau, USA, in New York, NY, and the suggested retail price for the Brut Réserve is $55.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Vineyards of Rilly-la-Montagne, or, Vilmart & Cie., Redux

Yesterday afternoon I was in the neighborhood of Rilly-la-Montagne, and stopped in at Vilmart to buy a bottle of wine for an upcoming tasting. Ever the generous host, Laurent Champs offered me a glass of the 2001 Grand Cellier d’Or, a wine that continues to impress me—the vintage might have been a difficult one, but this wine is sleek, creamy and complex, showing all the sophistication and finesse expected from this cuvée.

As Laurent was headed out to inspect the vines, and as it was also a gorgeous day (26°C), he invited me to tag along. The best vineyards of Rilly face south and southeast, arrayed on the gently rolling slopes just behind the village, and in this idyllic, sun-soaked environment, it’s easy to see why Rilly has been renowned for its wine production since medieval times. As you leave the village and drive north, the first of three top-class vineyard sites that you encounter is Grèves, lying on a chalky subsoil underneath a mix of clay, sand and limestone. Vilmart’s healthy, happily tilled rows of chardonnay grow on the upper slope, with pinot noir below, and as the vines here are “young”, a mere 25 to 30 years old, they are generally made in foudre for use in the Grand Cellier or Grand Cellier d’Or. In the adjacent vineyard of La Haye Barbette there is also a good deal of chardonnay grown, although at the moment a swath of young vegetation is conspicuously prominent—these used to be the oldest vines of the domaine, but they have been pulled up and the plot replanted last year.

Across the road to the east one finds the crown jewel of Vilmart’s vineyard holdings: their five-hectare parcel of Blanches Voies (meaning “white roads”), a vineyard used primarily for Coeur de Cuvée and Cuvée Création. “It’s called Blanches Voies simply because the voies are blanches—the soil here is very chalky,” says Laurent. “It’s the very best part of Rilly.” Five hectares in a prime lieu-dit is an enormous asset for a grower, and in the case of Vilmart this accounts for nearly half of their total vineyard area. Many of the chardonnay vines here are over 50 years old, and although the magnificent vines in this photo are pruned in a Chablis system, I noticed that much of the chardonnay employs the Cordon du Royat, a system more commonly used for pinot noir. Curious to understand why, I asked Laurent about it, but he just shrugged and said, “That’s how the old-timers did it.” Oh well. Clearly those old guys knew what they were doing.