Friday, October 31, 2008

Wine of the Week: Larmandier-Bernier Rosé de Saignée Extra Brut Premier Cru

It’s been an action-packed week, with little time for blogging. My friends from Triage Wines in Seattle, Washington, have been here in Champagne, and we’ve been tasting many good things together. Triage distributes an amazing selection of grower champagne in Washington and Oregon, and in fact, I can’t think of any single company anywhere that has a greater portfolio of champagne estates. Some of it is brokered, such as the Terry Theise collection or Louis/Dressner, and some of it is directly imported, but the fact that they have all of these growers collected together in one book makes for an all-star lineup. It’s like the Justice League — a massive array of heroes, each with a different superpower.

A couple of days ago, we tasted through the brand-new lineup of Larmandier-Bernier’s wines, which were outstanding as always, and, as always, extremely and awkwardly youthful. Larmandier’s wines are so highly in demand worldwide that they’re forced to release them unusually early, and here in France, both the Brut Tradition and Brut Blanc de Blancs are already on the 2007 tirage (meaning that they’re based on the 2006 harvest). While I would happily purchase any of Pierre Larmandier’s wines (and believe me, I do), I would stash them away in the cellar for at least another year after disgorgement, and even longer for Terre de Vertus (currently on 2005) and Vieille Vigne de Cramant (2004).

The one wine that might actually benefit from its youthfulness is the Rosé de Saignée, one of the most original champagnes in Champagne. Made from pinot noir grown in the southern portion of Vertus, where the soil is richer and deeper than on the Mesnil side, this is macerated for two days to extract a deep, dark red color and then fermented in enameled steel. It comes out looking and feeling more like a red wine than traditional champagne, with concentrated, vinous notes of red cherry and huckleberry and a spicy, earthy depth of flavor. Although there are other producers who are making super-dark, macerated rosés, Larmandier’s is different in that while it’s powerful in aroma, it’s not at all heavy or weighed down by its intensity. It’s dosed at a mere two grams, which further accentuates the intrinsic vinosity of the wine without adding any additional weight from sugar, and thanks to the taut, energetic character of Vertus, this maintains a deft balance all the way through the long and fragrant finish. The bottle of 2006 that we tasted was only disgorged last month, and yet it’s already showing well, with deliciously fresh fruit and a vibrant, lively personality. I think it would be ideal with a plate of artisanal charcuterie at L’Epicerie au Bon Manger in Reims.

Larmandier-Bernier is imported into the United States by Louis/Dressner Selections, New York, NY (and if you live in Washington or Oregon, distributed by Triage Wines).

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Les Années Chaudes

With its powerful body and roasted fruit character, 2003 isn’t my favorite year, but I found De Sousa’s 2003 Cuvée des Caudalies to be quite interesting when I tasted it earlier this week. In the context of the vintage I find it to be well-balanced, expressing richness and depth without feeling overblown. I liked it better than 2003 by Bollinger, for example, but not as much as, say, 2003 Jacques Lassaigne. People often compare 2003 to other famously warm vintages of the past in Champagne, which doesn’t really feel right to me. But I wouldn’t really know, as I didn’t taste the ’47s, ’59s or ’76s at the same stage. It’s always enlightening to talk to those who did.

On a visit to José Michel yesterday, one of the many wines that he generously opened for us to taste was a 1976 Spécial Club. Back then, his Club champagne was made of 70 percent chardonnay and 30 percent meunier, and this wine was fantastic — full and fragrant, it showed warm flavors of mature wine from a ripe vintage, with a toasty, almondy complexity and rich notes of dried apricot and apple, yet it was also surprisingly lively and vivacious. In contrast, Michel doesn’t think that 2003 is of the same quality, and in fact, he didn’t make any vintage wines in that year. “They weren’t the same type of vintages,” he says. “In ’76 we had a normal yield — there was a lot of ripeness, but there was also a lot of quantity. In ’03 we had a small quantity of grapes because of the frost, and so they ended up being too concentrated. The wines are too imbalanced to be really great.”

Michel also opened a 1959, made of pure meunier. True to the vintage, this was big, bold and full in body, with long, deeply resonant aromas of dried fruit, chestnut honey, roasted coffee and cocoa powder. The ’59 vintage was of course very warm, and in fact, this wine was harvested at 13 degrees of natural alcohol. “In ’59, there was a lot of alcohol and very little acidity,” says Michel, “yet this is still fresh, with a good balance.” He doesn’t think that the 2003s are capable of the same sort of harmony, and notes that some of them are already losing freshness.

Champagne generally lasts much longer than we expect it to, but of the 2003s that I’ve tasted, even among the ones that I’ve liked, I can’t imagine any of them capable of living for 50 years. Maybe some of them will, who knows. At any rate, I’m not interested enough to stock my cellar full of them. I’d rather buy 2002s.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Cuvée Discobitch

Why should big houses corner the market on bling?

Krug Rosé and Dom Pérignon Rosé are supposed to be the new Cristal, but they don’t seem to have taken off in the same manner. Or maybe they have. How would I know? (And what rhymes with Pérignon, anyway?) Perhaps more interesting (I’m searching for the proper adjective, but I’ll settle for that one) is the Armand de Brignac, which certainly takes the bling up a notch. But anyway those are all passé, apparently. Enter the Cuvée Discobitch.

Discobitch, the brainchild of Parisian DJs Laurent Konrad and Kylian Mash, is perhaps best known for their hit single, C’est beau la bourgeoisie. For some reason that nobody really knows, they approached Benoît Tarlant about making a special cuvée for them, which, tongue firmly in cheek, he agreed to do.

“So this is what I did with my summer vacation,” he says drolly. “It wasn’t like a proper order or anything. They were just these kids looking for some champagne, and I thought it would be funny to make this.” The packaging is extraordinary, and unfortunately my poor photo doesn’t really do it justice. It probably needs some spotlights or strobes or something to show better. The wine itself ought to be pretty darn good — I haven’t tasted it myself, but it’s an early disgorgement of the next release of Cuvée Louis, made entirely from the 1998 vintage. Not that, you know, anybody will really notice.

What’s even funnier is that somebody at Moët felt sufficiently threatened to actually call Benoit and ask him if he was planning to expand his sales in the discothèque market. Moët makes 30 million bottles of champagne a year. Tarlant’s total production, of all his cuvées together, is 110,000 bottles. Umm....

Saturday, October 25, 2008

A Retrospective Tasting at the Domaine de l’Arlot

I don’t live all that far away from Burgundy’s Côte d’Or, but it’s far enough that you might question my sanity if I told you that I drove down for an evening tasting and then drove back to Champagne to make a 10 o’clock appointment the next morning. I didn’t have much of a choice, however, as the tasting in question was at the Domaine de l’Arlot, the estate where I worked the harvest back in 1998, and it involved a retrospective of its entire history, back to 1987 when it was purchased by AXA Millésimes.


So I drove down early to get in a tasty and satisfying lunch at Ma Cuisine in Beaune, just to fortify myself for the onslaught of burgundy, and wound up in Nuits-St-Georges in the afternoon. The tasting was hosted by Olivier Leriche, the winemaker and technical director of the domaine, and Christian Seely, the managing director, and while the real theme was a vertical of Clos des Forêts Saint Georges from 2006 to 1987, they also included eight different vintages of Clos de l’Arlot alongside their respective Clos des Forêts counterparts, just to compare. I had tasted all of these wines before at one point or another, but this was the first time that I’ve ever gotten to taste an entire vertical of Arlot wines all together, which was an extremely compelling and educational experience.

The Clos des Forêts and Clos de l’Arlot are both on the southern side of Nuits-St-Georges, but they couldn’t be more different in character. The Clos des Fôrets lies close to Les Saint-Georges, and shows the firm, dark, slightly gamy richness typical of this sector, with a powerful structure and prominent minerality. The vines average 40 years of age here, planted between 1953 and 1982. The Clos de l’Arlot, from the two hectares surrounding the estate itself in Prémeaux-Prissey, is made exclusively from vines planted between 1941 and 1956, and typically shows a more delicate body and higher-toned aromas of red fruit. I often find a pronounced note of exotic spice here, which complements the wine’s silky finesse. In 2000, Jean-Pierre de Smet, who ran the domaine from 1987 until his retirement in 2006, began trials with biodynamics, and since 2003 the entire estate has been cultivated biodynamically. Olivier Leriche first started at the domaine as a stagière in the 1998 vintage, and worked together with Jean-Pierre until 2004, when he took over the winemaking. Since the beginning of 2007, Leriche (pictured here, on the right) and Seely (on the left) have been in charge of the domaine.

What I’ve found over the years is that the best wines at the Domaine de l’Arlot don’t necessarily correspond to conventional Burgundy vintage charts. I prefer the 1998s to the 1996s, for example, and the 2002s to the 2001s. I’m beginning to think that I like the 2006s more than the 2005s as well. Both the 2006 Clos des Forêts and Clos de l’Arlot are very alluring wines, and the terroir character is so clearly distinct in this vintage, with each wine expressing its site in nearly caricatured detail. They are more transparently terroir-expressive than the 2005s, which are strongly marked by the vintage character (as most 2005s are). This is not to say that the 2005s don’t express their terroirs — they do, very markedly, but this expression has to compete with the strong personality of the vintage. I prefer the Forêts in ’05 for its completeness and complexity, but in truth both of these wines show a lot of promise, and need many years to develop.

Clive Coates (who was also present at this tasting) proclaimed the 2002s to be the best wines ever made at the estate. This may eventually be proven true, but I’ve long thought, and still think, that 1998 is the best vintage ever at the Domaine de l’Arlot. (This is not because of my participation, mind you, but rather in spite of it.) The 1998 Clos des Forêts is beautiful, with a seamless, complete harmony and complex depth, and it was my favorite wine of the evening. The 2002 was a close second, however, showing a lovely silkiness and long, sappy fruit flavors backed by stony minerality. The two 1999s were developing well, reflecting the round, velvety ripeness of the vintage and still feeling youthful and a little closed. For drinking now, though, the 2000 Clos des Forêts is simply delicious, possessing a fresh, inviting depth of fruit and a smoky complexity.

The 1996s are excellent wines but still quite austere and reticent. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the 1995 Clos des Forêts. This wine has always been a little hard and shy, but it’s starting to resolve itself now and reveal its rich, spicy depth on the palate, with a fantastically long and soil-driven finish. The 1993 seems to combine the austerity of 1996 with the concentrated depth of 1995, and it promises to continue its fine evolution far into the future. I’ve always liked the 1992 Clos des Forêts — it opened quickly and has provided delicious drinking all of its life, and yet even 16 years later it still appears youthful and fresh, with a fragrant complexity and spicy stoniness. The 1991 is also drinking superbly well, and shows a deeper, darker richness than the 1992, although it doesn’t have quite as much finesse.

I don’t like the 1990 vintage in Champagne, and over the years I’ve questioned whether or not I really like it in Burgundy. I prefer the 1990 Clos de l’Arlot over the Clos des Forêts, as it balances its ripe depth better. The 1989 Clos des Forêts is distinctly finer than its 1990 counterpart, still feeling surprisingly fresh and vital for the vintage and developing a wonderfully expressive complexity. The 1988 is even better, with a silky poise and deep, intense expression of place — it’s the old-school counterpart to contemporary vintages such as 2006 or 2002. The 1987 Clos des Forêts, de Smet’s first vintage, was delicious in earlier days but is starting to show a little age, although it seems even more minerally than ever now that the fruit is beginning to fade.

I would have sat there all night revisiting these wines, but I had a long drive the next morning and decided to retire shortly after dinner (which involved five vintages of Arlot blanc back to 1996, the 1991 Romanée St-Vivant, which was the first one ever at Arlot, and a 1964 Colheita from the Quinta do Noval, another AXA property). I’ve had the same room at the Domaine for the last ten years, but that night it went to Clive Coates, the bum. Next time I’ll have to thumb-wrestle him or something. But it really doesn’t matter when you’re drunk on wines like these.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Wine of the Week: Pierre Moncuit Cuvée Pierre Moncuit-Delos Brut Blanc de Blancs

I haven’t always been a big fan of Pierre Moncuit’s wines, but I’m very impressed with the current releases. The bottle of Cuvée Pierre Moncuit-Delos that I tasted this week is entirely from 2005, and as always, it’s 100-percent Le Mesnil-sur-Oger as well. The Mesnil character is immediately evident, with an intense chalkiness shaping and defining the flavors of citrus and green apple. It’s pure and harmonious on the palate, and I like that it’s stern without being overly austere — it demonstrates the linear, racy character of the cru but you can still drink it without hurting yourself.

It’s more difficult than you might think to find pure Mesnil champagne that’s both good and affordable, and Pierre Moncuit’s wines fit both criteria. Pierre Moncuit is imported into the United States by Vintage ’59, Washington, DC.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Sushi Guide From Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch

I’m not sure that there’s any food that I enjoy more than sushi and sashimi. As quintessential expressions of the Japanese cultural sensibility, these are foods that stimulate both intellectually and viscerally, that engage multiple senses in a manner that few other eating experiences do, and that also keenly align with my personal aesthetic sensibilities. And besides, they are fantastic partners to champagne.

Yet even as my body revels in the experience, my brain knows for a fact that some species of fish aren’t the best thing to eat if you’re concerned about environmental and ecological responsibility. This isn’t restricted to sushi, of course, but concerns the sea in general. I refuse to eat Chilean sea bass, even if you revert to calling it Patagonian toothfish. As much as I love caviar, I’ve stopped eating it entirely, due to the rampant poaching that threatens to drive the Caspian Sea sturgeon extinct. I felt unbelievably guilty consuming large quantities of bluefin tuna in Andalucía (although, you might rightly point out, not quite guilty enough to not do it, which admittedly is a blot on my character). Intellectually, I know I need to say no to o-toro. But it’s a severe test of gastronomic willpower. There are a number of other things I ought to give up as well.

Today the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch has released its guide to sushi, which ought to be mandatory reading for everyone (regardless of whether you follow their advice or not). If you’re not familiar with the Seafood Watch, it’s an excellent and highly laudable resource for anyone who cares about ecologically-responsible eating. The Seafood Watch publishes a constantly updated list of fish and seafood, rating a variety of both fished and farmed species on their sustainability. There are also downloadable regional pocket guides for various areas of the United States, and there’s even a mobile phone-friendly version at mobile.seafoodwatch.org. The website contains an assortment of other useful and interesting information, as you would expect from one of the world’s finest aquariums, and it’s been thoroughly updated as of today to include the new sushi guide. At first glance, the list seems punishing. No ankimo? No unagi? No hamachi? But whether you choose to eat these things or not, I think it’s important to be aware of how they are farmed or caught. It’s important to know where your food comes from, and will only become more so as time goes on.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Not Your Typical Jacques Selosse Wine


I decided to post this photo that I took yesterday, as I love the dramatic natural light. This is Anselme Selosse disgorging a bottle of Ambonnay rosé, as my reward for being cheeky enough to ask to taste rosé. Selosse’s “normal” rose (as if anything here could be called remotely normal) is a rosé d’assemblage, made of Oger chardonnay blended with a small percentage of Ambonnay pinot noir, but this particular bottle is of something entirely different.

This is pure Ambonnay pinot noir, all from 2004, macerated for about eight hours before pressing. It was sulfured only once, at the beginning, so the color is a little “gris” rather than brightly pink, but the fruit remains deliciously fresh, with a silky texture and long, complex, spicy aromas. There’s a bold depth of flavor here, but overall this emphasizes the finesse of Ambonnay rather than the power, and the finish is gorgeous, going on and on in elegant, detailed length. This is one of the three best rosés I’ve drunk all year (and for whatever reason, I’ve been drinking a lot of rosé this year). God only knows when he’s going to ever release it (it is Selosse, after all), but I highly doubt that it will be either inexpensive or widely available. Nevertheless, something to look forward to.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Champagne Sans Soufre

While there are many producers in Champagne who seek to decrease the amount of sulfur that they use in their wines, I’ve never heard of a champagne made entirely without sulfur, from start to finish. At Champagne Drappier a few days ago, Michel Drappier allowed me to compare his excellent Brut Nature, a non-dosé, 100-percent Urville pinot noir based on 2004, with a version of the same wine made without sulfur.

Drappier notes that this came from the same vineyards and the same lots as the other wine, but it was made in different tanks, as the “regular” Brut Nature saw a minimal amount of sulfur at the beginning, while this had none. None during the entire vinification, none at bottling, and none at disgorgement. Of course, there is a miniscule amount of naturally-occurring sulfites (just to allow us to harass and ridicule all of those people who say that they’re allergic to sulfites but really aren’t), but that doesn’t count.

As expected, the sans soufre version is more evolved and more oxidative in tone, with a gently burnished, biscuity richness. The sulfured version still shows a lot of bold, primary cherry and berry fruit, whereas this has a nuttier, more developed and assimilated set of flavors. It’s not unlike the experience of tasting a wine by Claude Courtois or Emmanuel Houillon, where the wine feels softer, more visceral, with a more physical sensuality. I thought it was delicious.

This bottle was disgorged in November of 2007, and Drappier says that “it’s at the end of its life.” He intends it for drinking within the first year of release, and he’s about to release the next version in a few weeks. Although the house has been experimenting with un-sulfured champagnes since 2000, they didn’t release a commercial version until last year, as it took them a while to get it right. Drappier notes that they’ve learned a lot in the process as well. “We don’t want to make all of our wines without sulfur,” he says, “but at the same time, this experiment has helped us to lower the level of sulfur across the range and understand better how it affects the wine.”

It reminded me of tasting at Marcel Lapierre, who also has an un-sulfured version of Morgon that’s fascinating to compare with the “regular” version, but I didn’t have quite the same experience there. With Lapierre, I found the un-sulfured version to actually be more fruity, more nuanced, more pungent, as if you were looking through glass while drinking the regular version and then had the window opened. I’m interested to return to Drappier shortly to taste a recently disgorged sample of the un-sulfured wine, to see if I might have a similar experience. It might be different with champagnization, I don’t know. But there’s only one way to find out.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The DizyCam


After a spell of post-harvest rain, we’re finally seeing some sunshine again here in Champagne. It remains crisp and chilly, in true fall fashion, and everywhere the colors are vividly seasonal, which can be particularly striking to see out in the vineyards. This is a photo of my backyard, with the vineyards of Dizy in the background. It doesn’t quite capture the true glory of the view, but you get the idea.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Wine of the Week: Pierre Brigandat Brut NV

I’ve been down in the Aube for the past couple of days, finishing up some research for a new champagne project that I will soon be unleashing on you. Overall, it was a very enjoyable trip: I drank a bottle of the new 2006 Les Ursules with Cédric Bouchard, talked with Jean-Pierre Fleury about biodynamic viticulture and saw how François Moutard makes organic compost. And of course I did a bunch of other things.

This morning I tasted with Bertrand Brigandat of Pierre Brigandat, a small, family-run estate in the village of Channes. Brigandat has 7.5 hectares of vines in the area, but makes only about 55,000 bottles of wine a year, as a portion of his grapes are sold to the négoce. I’ll admit that I’ve been disappointed with some bottles of Brigandat’s non-vintage brut that I’ve bought in the past, but his sensibilities are in the right place and he works well in the vineyard and the cellar, enough so that it makes me want to keep returning to his wines. Today I tasted the new release, composed largely of 2005, which is a year that I’ve found outstanding as a base for non-vintage cuvées. (We got too busy tasting and I forgot to take a photo of the bottle, so you get a photo of Bertrand instead.) This is 100-percent pinot noir as always, with about 25 percent reserve wine, and made entirely in enameled steel tanks. Packed with round, rich fruit, it’s wonderfully expressive of the Bar-sur-Seine, showing a ripe depth and earthy undertone. It’s not a wine to contemplate or deeply analyze, although it would stand up to whatever scrutiny it was subjected to — I enjoy the fact that it speaks of place and that it has a character that holds my interest intellectually, but I enjoy even more the fact that it’s simply delicious to drink. As Rudi Pichler, Jr. would say, it’s “a wine for living.”

Pierre Brigandat is imported into the United States by Bonhomie Wine Imports, South Orange, NJ.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Where You Taste

There’s no question that environment affects your experience of a wine. Tasting a particular champagne at home, in a restaurant or in a discothèque is likely to produce quite different results. (Not that I know so much about discothèques.) At the same time, tasting can sometimes be an unpredictable thing.

This afternoon I was tasting with François Domi, the chef de cave of Billecart-Salmon, who is an exceptionally intelligent and sensitive taster. We were tasting through the current range, and I had an extremely intriguing experience with the Brut Rosé. The bottle that we were tasting was perfectly correct, but while we were both smelling it, Domi asked me if I was satisfied with the nose. I said that it was fine, but as he knows the wine infinitely better than I do (he did make it, after all), I chose to defer to his opinion. He took me outside to the little courtyard in front of the house, and we smelled it again. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced so profound a difference in the way a wine smells from one environment to another: in the tasting room, which is a perfectly neutral and controlled “tasting” environment, the wine smelled correspondingly neutral. Outside, however, the wine gained a smoky complexity, and the fruit was much more vinous and pungent, with intense aromas of blueberry and strawberry. I’m quite accustomed to wines smelling different in different contexts, but this was surprising to me nevertheless, especially as conventional wisdom dictates that outside is a terrible place to taste wine. The nose was so much more expressive and fragrant when we were standing outside that it seemed like a completely different champagne. As soon as we returned inside I smelled the wine again, and it was like a switch had been turned off: the nose returned again to a relatively neutral, pleasant but innocuous state.

Honestly, there is no perfect tasting environment. Cellars are full of cellar smells, outside environments are often disastrous due to the caprice of nature, and as my experience today demonstrates, neutral environments are often simply too neutral. Restaurants are generally too full of external odors, and anyway, I’m usually more focused on my dining companion than on my wine (indicating that my priorities are indeed in the right place). Perhaps the very best tasting environment is at one’s own home, simply because it’s the place that one is most accustomed to, and there is always a consistency in stemware as well. But it just goes to show once again that wine is a far more elusive creature than we generally give it credit for, and that the variables involved in tasting are myriad and complex.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The First of the 2008s at Champagne Jacquesson

Some people think it’s masochistic to taste wine at ten o’clock in the morning. All that acidity, they say (and they’re probably talking about California zinfandel or Maipo Valley merlot). You guys have no idea. All I can say is, all y’all are pussies. You want real punishment, try a morning of tasting young vins clairs in Champagne that are still in mid-fermentation and that haven’t yet gone through malo.

Yesterday at 10am I was at Jacquesson, here in Dizy, tasting a range of 2008s with Jean-Hervé and Laurent Chiquet. The Chiquets are extremely enthusiastic about the vintage, and Jean-Hervé (shown in this photo with Laurent’s assistant Marie-Pascale,) notes that the average maturity for the house was above 10.5 degrees of potential alcohol, with acidity above eight grams per liter and pHs as low as 2.95. “It’s the closest vintage ever to 1996,” he says, “but with even more malic acidity.” That high degree of malic acidity will soften after the malolactic, but in the meantime it makes for some oral calisthenics.

We tasted about 15 still wines, all from the large oak foudres that contribute to Jacquesson’s style. They were all in different stages of fermentation, of course, but overall it seems that all three varieties were very successful. I loved the chardonnay from Avize Champ Caïn, which will almost certainly be bottled as a single-vineyard wine (it’s likely that with the high quality of this vintage, Jacquesson will produce all four of their single-vineyard bottlings this year) — rich in body and already subtly complex, it showed a detailed depth and fragrant length that surpassed the other chardonnays we tasted. Meuniers from two different parcels in Dizy were firm and pleasingly ripe, while a pinot noir from Dizy Mocque Bouteille was lively and bracing, with a delicate interplay of stone and red fruits (I was particularly keen on tasting this wine, as it comes from the slope just behind my house). Pinot noir from Aÿ Le Léon was vividly fragrant and downright severe in its razor-like structure — it’s the same vineyard that forms the base for Philipponnat’s racy and minerally Cuvée 1522 — while the saignée pinot noir for the Dizy Terres Rouges rosé showed a surprisingly luscious fruitiness and delicious layers of tense, lively fragrance.

I imagine it will be slightly easier to taste the 2008s at the proper time, in February or March of next year. But not by much. It’s thrilling to see the birth of a great vintage, but I’m afraid that I won’t have much left in the way of teeth and gums after we’re done with it.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Old-Timers


People used to do a lot of things differently in the past. Sometimes they didn’t know why they did what they did, but it worked. Sometimes they didn’t know why and it didn’t work. And sometimes they did know why, and it’s we who have forgotten in modern times.

I liked this conversation I had with Alexandre Chartogne of Chartogne-Taillet while we were out in the vineyard of Les Couarres in the village of Merfy, pictured above. It’s considered to be a very good site, but Alexandre is frustrated that it’s one of the only parcels that he can’t plow, because the sand and clay soils here are often waterlogged.

It wasn’t always that way, however. “This vineyard dips a little, and there used to be a little road there in the middle,” says Alexandre. “The reason the road was there was because when it rained, the water would run onto this road and drain out. Later, people wanted to expand their vineyards and they planted vines over the road. Now the water has no place to go. It just collects in the vines.”

Alexandre and his father Philippe are passionate about history, and you can learn all sorts of fascinating things about Champagne, its land and its people when you talk to them. If only more growers would be so aware of the past.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Wine of the Week: 1996 Pascal Doquet Le Mesnil-sur-Oger Grand Cru Brut Blanc de Blancs

I’ve had little time for blogging, as work of various sorts has been keeping me busy for virtually every minute of my waking life (and is slowly beginning to invade my non-waking life as well, which is never a good sign). In terms of champagne, however, I hardly have cause for complaint, as this week has been full of magnificent things.

I had a wonderful visit with Pascal Doquet yesterday in Vertus — every time I drink Doquet’s wines, I wonder why I don’t do so more often. Doquet farms his vines strictly organically, although this 1996 Le Mesnil was still under the “old regime”, as Doquet only took over the estate the year before, in 1995. This wine shows a pronounced character of the vintage, with its sleek refinement and vividly pointed acidity. At the same time it isn’t overly aggressive, as some ’96s can be, nor is it prematurely oxidative, as some other ’96s can be. It has a terrific depth and ripeness, backed by intense, nearly spicy minerality, and it feels tense and resonant throughout the long finish. I kept it in the glass for about half an hour, and it continued to grow in depth and complexity, driven by that poignant expression of chalk. It made me think, though, that as great as this wine is, the wines that Doquet is making today ought to be even better, as he’s refined his viticulture to the point where he wants it to be, and that can’t help but be reflected in the resulting wine. I look forward to tasting his 2008 (this decade’s equivalent to 1996) in another ten years or so.

Pascal Doquet is imported into the United States by Robert Kacher Selections, Washington, DC, and while they’ve recently moved on to the 1998 vintage, the 1996 Le Mesnil can still be found for around $99.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Old Bottles Sitting In the Fridge

Yesterday at Champagne Philipponnat, we were finishing up tasting a few wines when Vianney Gravereaux, Philipponnat’s export director, pulled out an old, unmarked bottle from the fridge. It was obviously a Clos des Goisses, from the bottle shape, and obviously made before 1990, as that’s when they changed the bottle. It had already been open for about a week, disgorged by hand last Wednesday, and there was only about a quarter of the bottle remaining.

Conventional wisdom would dictate that this wine ought to be completely oxidized and undrinkable. I mean, come on—a week! I wouldn’t expect any champagne to be alive under such conditions. Yet Charles Philipponnat, insatiably curious as always, poured some into his glass and encouraged me to do the same. (That’s Charles in the background, by the way, making sure that this particular bottle of 1998 Clos des Goisses is fit for our consumption.)

Astoundingly, the wine was not only still alive, but actually really, really good. I’m sure it was better a week ago, and it of course didn’t have any bubbles left, but the flavors were still remarkably lively and focused, rather reminiscent of an old Chablis in its fragrantly waxy, secondary fruit and pungent minerality. It wasn’t overly oxidized at all, which I could hardly believe, and if I weren’t trying so hard to behave in a polite and civilized manner, I would happily have drained the rest of the bottle. Charles invited me to guess the vintage, which of course isn’t easy with a bottle that’s been open for a week, but due to its relatively light body and intense minerality, I thought 1980. Before I could say it, though, he blurted it out, and it was indeed 1980, although I get no credit. (It doesn’t count if you don’t say anything.)

Curiously, Charles said that with a proper dosage, the wines become fatigued after two or three days of being opened, whereas kept on its lees and disgorged à la volée, as this bottle was, the wines stay fresher much longer after opening them. “I think it has to do with the oxygen introduced with the dosage,” he says. It all sounds counterintuitive to me, but it’s hard to argue with the proof in the glass. It's also not something you get to experiment with every day. But it's interesting.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Wine of the Week: Pierre Péters Cuvée de Réserve Brut Blanc de Blancs

Ironically (and unfortunately), I drink much less Pierre Péters here in France than I do in the United States. It’s true that I am in the fortunate position of being able to drive down to the estate to buy wine, but due to Péters’s rabid cult of European clientele, the wines sell out very quickly, and there is very little domestic distribution—a few restaurants, maybe, but not a single retailer that I can think of. Happily, it’s everywhere in the States, and I drink it frequently whenever I am there.

This week I drank the Cuvée de Réserve at home in Dizy, having procured a bottle at the estate in Le Mesnil. This bottle still carries the old label, pictured on the right in the above photo, although Péters is about to change the label to something much more modern, on the left. The wine, thankfully, remains the same. It’s currently based on 2005, with about 30 percent of reserve wine, and it’s incredibly, dangerously delicious to drink: full of ripe tangerine and mandarin orange fruitiness, it feels perfectly balanced by its vivid acidity, simply inviting you to drink more. Perhaps it’s just because I’m currently in the midst of writing billions (okay, hundreds) of tasting notes on German wines for Wine & Spirits, but the balance and poise here feels akin to that of a Mosel Kabinett, even if this is at a lower level of sugar. The bottle, alas, disappeared far too quickly, proving yet again that champagne ought to be purchased in magnums.

Pierre Péters is imported by Terry Theise Selections/Michael Skurnik Wines, Syosset, NY, and the suggested retail price for the Cuvée de Réserve is $58.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

René Geoffroy Rosé de Saignée

René Geoffroy’s rosé is one of my favorite saignée rosés in Champagne. brooklynguy wrote an excellent Friday Night Bubbles post about it a few weeks back, which you ought to read, if you haven’t already.

On a recent visit to the estate I had a unique insight into this wine, as Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy revealed to me a secret project that he’d experimented with in 2004. (2004, it seems, was the year of experimentation chez Geoffroy: it was the first vintage in which Volupté was made as a blanc de blancs, and it was also the year that he made a Coteaux Champenois rouge out of pure meunier for the first time.) His rosé is normally 100-percent pinot noir (sometimes maybe a little meunier), macerated for roughly 60 hours or so, with the exact duration depending on the ripeness of the grapes and the conditions of the vintage. However, in 2004 he made a tiny quantity of another rosé, also a saignée, but made of two-thirds pinot noir and one-third chardonnay. He put all of the bottles away for aging, and in fact he has only tasted it once since he bottled it.

So this was the second time. He had saved some bottles of the regular 2004 rosé to compare it with, and he disgorged a bottle of each of them for us to taste. Geoffroy releases his rosé very young, after the minimum 15 months of lees aging (the current release is 2006), as he doesn’t like either the color or the flavors of old rosé: he prefers it when it’s youthful, fruity and fresh. Fruitiness, for him, is the whole point of rosé, which is why he makes it as a saignée to begin with. “A saignée emphasizes the fruit much more [than a blended rosé does],” he says. “It’s much more explosive.” Yet even he had to agree that the 100-percent pinot noir rosé was showing superbly well at four years of age, with vivid, fresh flavors of brambly red fruit and an unusually intense aroma of litchi on the palate. It was spicy and aromatic, kept lively by a firm bite of citrusy acidity on the finish, and at this stage in its life it was absolutely perfect as a non-dosé.

The “other” rosé was also delicious, but starkly different in character. The color, unsurprisingly, was much lighter, as there were far fewer red grapes in the mix, and while there were some recognizable red fruit aromas, this emphasized higher-toned notes of citrus, orange peel and white peach, along with a curiously smoky, flinty component. On the palate it was fuller and rounder in body, with a creamier and more voluptuous texture, finishing with pronounced aromas of grapefruit and grapefruit pith. Although there was a hint of exotic fruit here, it veered more towards mango, starfruit and passionfruit rather than the strong litchi of the other wine. It certainly didn’t feel like a pure pinot noir, yet there was an intensity and forcefulness about it that let you know it was a saignée and not a blended rosé.

The whole reason that Geoffroy wanted to include chardonnay was “to see if I could get something more elegant,” he says. “I didn’t want to do a blended rosé. I wanted a saignée, but I thought perhaps with a little chardonnay there could be a little more finesse.” Tasting it now, the idea is interesting enough to him that he wants to experiment further, perhaps even increasing the percentage of chardonnay. “It won’t ever be as elegant as a blended rosé,” he says, “but the chardonnay still gives a touch of something different.”