Friday, November 28, 2008

Wine of the Week: Billecart-Salmon Cuvée Nicolas François Billecart Brut 1996

It’s not every day that one enjoys a champagne as extravagant as this, but drinking Billecart-Salmon’s prestige cuvée at Le Grand Cerf in Montchenot this week gave me plenty to think about. First off, the wine itself is absolutely brilliant, still as lively and fresh as it was the day that it was released. We often speak about champagne being fine in texture, but few champagnes possess such a silky and pinpoint texture as this one. It emphasizes the purity and finesse of the vintage rather than the power, and in fact, it feels distinctly more delicate than the 1998 version, although I’m sure that if you compared the analytical statistics the 1996 would reveal as much or even more sugar ripeness. Perhaps most striking of all, although hardly surprising to those who know François Domi’s wines, is the sheer harmony of components here. This exceptional balance is not only responsible for that sense of delicacy, but also allows the nuanced and complex details of the wine to fully express themselves even at this wine’s youthful stage, with many miles to go before maturity.

Harmony is not something that can be taken for granted in this vintage. Twelve years on, the 1996 vintage continues to be controversial: some consider it to be one of the all-time greats, while others think that the high acidity is so out of balance that the wines will never resolve themselves properly. The truth, of course, encompasses both of these poles. There are indeed wines that feel screechy and awkward in their acidity. There are wines that show alarming signs of early oxidation, which is perhaps even more troubling. There are wines that simply feel too powerful and aggressive for classic champagne, due to that unusual one-two punch of extremely high ripeness and extremely high acidity. Yet when a winemaker gets everything right in 1996, as Domi did with the Nicolas François, the results can be breathtaking. It’s wines like these that have created the vintage’s exalted reputation, even though in the end, not all 1996s will truly be great. Here is one that you can count on, at least.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Portlandian vs. Kimmeridgian Soils

I like this photo, taken in Buxières-sur-Arce along the little road between the vineyards of Vouette, which lies on Kimmeridgian, and Sorbée, which is on Portlandian. Portlandian is the pink stuff at the top — it’s jumbled up and mixed with a lot of decomposed rock and clay. Kimmeridgian is the stuff at the bottom — it’s arranged in rather neat, rectilinear fashion, although it’s still more of a marl than real chalk, with thick layers of clay that run through it. Bertrand Gautherot says that Portlandian suits pinot noir very well, and the one-hectare Sorbée is planted entirely with pinot noir (used to make Gautherot’s Saignée de Sorbée). Kimmeridgian is well-suited to chardonnay, as it’s the same soil type found in Chablis. And yet, ironically, the vast majority of the Aube’s Côte des Bar, which lies on Kimmeridgian, is planted with pinot noir....

Saturday, November 22, 2008

On Pressing

Yesterday I went to Le Grand Tasting, the giant event organized in Paris by Michel Bettane and Thierry Desseauve. 350 wine producers. 2,350 wines. Multiple rooms full of great things from all over France, Italy and Spain. Yet what did I end up spending most of the day tasting? Champagne. I’m getting a little too predictable. I did get a sip of Henry Marionnet’s Provignage and a mouthful of the 2001 Château d’Arlay Vin Jaune—I tried to branch out further, but ultimately the pull of champagne is simply too strong.

I hooked up with my friends Sharon Bowman and David Rayer, and by chance, we happened to run into Olivier Collin of Champagne Ulysse Collin as well, so it made for a merry day of tasting. As Olivier and I were sampling the excellent Veuve Fourny Blanc de Blancs, he commented, not as a criticism but as an observation, that it smelled like it was made in a membrane press. We asked Emmanuel Fourny and he confirmed that he does indeed use a pneumatic press, which was quite interesting. The reason Olivier is so keenly aware of the differences in pressing is because for his first vintage, the 2004, he used a traditional Coquard vertical press, while for the 2005 he pressed the grapes in a friend’s pneumatic membrane press. He notes that in the Coquard the aromas are a little wilder (“plus sauvage”), expressing perhaps more overt minerality, while the pneumatic press tends to produce a finer, more polished tone to the fruit. I’m not sure that I could pick this out blind in a tasting, and obviously there are many other variables that can interfere with such a judgment, but if you taste Collin’s 2004 and 2005 next to each other, this distinction is indeed present, even beyond the differences in vintage character. Personally I prefer the 2004 (and the 2006, which was also pressed in a traditional Coquard) to the 2005, but it’s true that his 2005 has a finer texture and a more pronounced elegance.

Sharon, David and I drank the 2004 later that evening at Le Verre Volé, in the rare Brut form (most of Olivier’s 2004 was sold as a non-dosé Extra Brut, but he made 500 bottles of a so-called “brut”, with two grams of dosage). Unfortunately Olivier wasn’t there, as he had to get home to his girlfriend and their month-old baby, so he missed out on a gloriously drunken evening of unbelievably great champagnes. The resulting hangover today is a small price to pay, no matter how painful it might feel right now.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Wine of the Week: Paul Bara Brut Millésime 2000

One of the finest grower estates in the Montagne de Reims, Paul Bara is well-known both in France and abroad, having been exported to the United States by Kermit Lynch since 1975. Today Paul’s daughter Chantale Bara is in charge of the 11-hectare domaine, whose vineyard holdings are entirely in the grand cru village of Bouzy.

Bara’s vintage wine is typically composed of 90 percent pinot noir and ten percent chardonnay, and the 2000 seems to exemplify the best of what this vintage has to offer. It’s broad and rich, with a honeyed generosity, yet it doesn’t lose focus or precision, tethered by a fine structure and a firm but not aggressive acidity. It’s just beginning to develop some notes of nut oils and toast on the finish, while the fruit remains strongly primary in tone, and although this is showing perfectly well right now, it should continue to develop more complexity with additional time in the cellar.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Grey, Somber Characters

Yesterday I was tasting with Richard Geoffroy, chef de cave of Dom Pérignon, at the Abbaye d’Hautvillers, the old Benedictine monastery where Dom Pérignon himself worked and made wine between 1670 and 1715. It’s a beautiful and secluded place, up on the hill above the village, and what I like most about the abbey is its austerity: you taste in a plain, unadorned hall that must have been the old refectory or some kind of meeting area, and its spartan drabness is refreshing somehow, the antithesis of the modern tasting room. Yesterday morning was cold and foggy, which only served to increase the sense of atmosphere and stillness about the abbey grounds.

Geoffroy is a fount of information, possessing a keen intelligence and a wealth of knowledge that he is happily willing to share. It’s a pleasure to discuss the finer points of winemaking, champagne culture, history and philosophy with him (and sitting around drinking Dom Pérignon at 11 in the morning is okay, too).

As we were tasting a couple of Oenothèque vintages, he drew an intriguing distinction between grey and brown aromas, the former which he finds desirable and the latter which he seeks to avoid. “I like very much these grey, somber characters,” he said. “Smoke, peat, coffee, these are reductive characters. Oxidative characters are brown—raisin, spice, dried fruits, these kinds of things.” Dom Pérignon is made in a deliberately reductive manner, and Geoffroy credits this as a major factor in the wine’s longevity, balance and grace. It’s true that when tasting an older Dom Pérignon, the flavors remain very fresh, and the wines often acquire these grey tones of smoke, oyster shells, peat, cocoa, toasted bread and the like. They rarely show brown characters of spice, honey, toffee or raisin, and only in very unusual vintages. I think that this reductive character is also the reason that Dom Pérignon rosé is able to age well while some other rosés aren’t. Oxidative winemaking helps a wine to show better in its youth, but for the long haul, grey might be where it’s at.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Fooled by Dosage for the Umpteenth Time

Last week I received a call from Agnès Corbon of Champagne Claude Corbon, inviting me to an intriguing tasting. One of Corbon’s importers wants to have a special cuvée made for them, and the Corbons are attempting to figure out the final dosage for the wine. To help facilitate this, they invited a number of people to participate in a dosage tasting, with all of the wines served blind, of course.

I’ve done many tastings like this before, comparing different levels of dosage in the same wine, and what surprises me nearly every time is how different the perception of sweetness is versus the actual sugar levels of the wines. Consumers are often numerically-obsessed in many more ways than one, and it’s largely assumed, not without logical reason, that a champagne dosed at four grams of sugar per liter will taste drier than one dosed at six grams, which will in turn taste drier than one dosed at eight grams. But champagne, or maybe taste in general, doesn’t work that way. It’s not a linear progression from one digit to the next.

I’ve always maintained that every champagne has its own individual point of balance, a fulcrum that when found, allows the wine to express itself to its fullest ability. Sometimes it might be at seven grams of dosage, other times three. Sometimes it might be at ten or eleven, as un-hip as that sounds. And yes, for all of you fashionistas, sometimes—but very infrequently—it is indeed none at all.

This principle was proven to me yet again in Corbon’s tasting. Three different versions of the same wine were served together in black glasses, (actually, we weren’t told that they were all the same wine, but I correctly assumed that they were), and we were instructed to taste them, without any prior clues or commentary. The first was the most oxidative, showing some caramelly, creamy aromas, although I did find the nose to be very attractive. On the palate, however, it seemed a bit confectionary, its nougat and rum-raisin sweetness feeling a bit cloying—I liked the complexity and the maturity of flavor, but I found the sugar to be imbalanced and overly prominent. The third sample (I know, I’m not being linear either, but bear with me here) was the freshest in aroma, the most streamlined, the most vivid. The flavors were much less developed than in the first wine, not showing as much complexity for now, and in fact perhaps showing the least complexity of the three. But the balance in the intertwining of fruit, acidity and sugar here was the most agreeable out of the three wines, with the dosage completely unnoticeable and the finish dry, minerally and long. The middle wine was less oxidative and less perceptibly sweet than the first, and richer in texture, more developed and more complex in flavor than the third. You would think that, in Goldilocks fashion, it might be just right. Yet the balance of sugar here wasn’t nearly as precise as in the third wine, even though there was more depth of fruit and more material showing. The dosage still felt a little sweet and prominent, like a radio that’s just slightly too loud.

We were told to rank the wines in order of preference, and I picked the third sample as my favorite, simply for its impeccable balance. I liked the expression of the middle wine, and would have ranked it first if it had tasted slightly less sweet. I liked the nose of the first wine, but found the palate to be overly sweet, and ranked it last. I was fairly confident that this was also the order of sweetness, from lowest to highest, although that had nothing to do with why I ranked them that way.

In fact, when the results were unveiled, the first wine, which I had found to be oppressively sweet, had only six grams per liter of dosage, as did the middle wine. The third wine, which tasted the driest to me, and which I found to have the most balance, was dosed at eight grams per liter—two grams higher than the other wines! To be fair, the dosage in each was not the same—the third wine, dosed at eight grams, was done with a traditional liqueur d’expédition of cane sugar, while the six-gram dosage in the first wine was MCR (concentrated and rectified grape must), which usually seems to give a higher perception of sweetness than the equivalent amount of sugar does. (The middle wine was half liqueur and half MCR.) But still, it demonstrated to me once again that numbers are a poor indicator of the balance of a wine. There are people who would turn up their noses at a champagne with an eight-gram dosage, preferring a six-gram wine purely on principle. In the case of a wine such as this one, they would be foolish.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

A Tasting of Old Spécial Club Wines

While I am fortunate to be able to taste a fair amount of old champagne, it’s not often that one gets to taste a large number of old champagnes all together at the same time. Of course, this is just as well—it’s far better to enjoy old bottles one at a time, savoring each one slowly over the course of an evening, preferably in the company of people that you really like. However, it’s intriguing to be able to compare different wines as well.

Last night, the Club Trésors de Champagne hosted an official tasting and dinner for its members, and Jean-Paul Hébrart was kind enough to invite me along. The theme of the annual tasting is normally a first look at the new Spécial Club vintage, at five years of age—last year, for example, it was a comprehensive tasting of 2002 Club wines, which was spectacular. The Club didn’t make any 2003s, however, so this year Club president Didier Gimonnet decided to present a retrospective range of champagnes from the Club’s library, going back to the 1976 vintage.

The Club keeps an official collection of wines in a cellar in Cuis, and each member contributes a number of bottles of their Spécial Club champagne in vintages when they are produced. Over the years these have all been stored sur pointe, resting in this deep cellar undisturbed at a constant temperature of 9°C, but in April of 2008, the decision was made to disgorge all of the bottles and store them under capsule. These wines will never be sold, and they don’t exist in great quantity—they are there solely to provide a record of the Club’s activity, and to be enjoyed at functions like this one.

For this tasting, about 25 Spécial Club champagnes were selected from this collection, largely between the vintages of 1976 and 1988, although there were a few wines from the 1990s as well. One of my favorite wines of the night was the 1979 Gaston Chiquet, from a vintage that I adore. The richly aromatic Chiquet was more complex and detailed than the racy, tense 1979 A. Margaine, and distinctly fresher and livelier than the 1979 Charlier & Fils. José Michel, that great master of unheralded vintage years, made a lovely Spécial Club in 1980: mouthfilling in aroma, with nutty, biscuity richness, it’s fully mature but so delicious to drink. It crushed the 1980 Launois, sadly, which I found to be strangely and unpleasantly reminiscent of pickled vegetables.

Old wines from Henri Goutorbe can always be counted on to give tremendous pleasure, and the 1981 Spécial Club was no exception, feeling confident and gregarious in its bold, vivid fragrance and classic aromas of Aÿ pinot noir. I was thrilled to see the 1982 Edmond Bonville, from an estate that has long since ceased to produce champagne, but whose old wines are always worth seeking out. It didn’t disappoint, and while it wasn’t as complex as it could have been, it showed a wonderful combination of acidity and minerality to buttress the almondy, honeycomb-like flavors, demonstrating classic Bonville elegance and poise. Among the 1982s here it was clearly my favorite, although I was surprised by the 1982 Roland Champion—I am typically not so enamored of Champion’s fluffy, cream-puffy style, but here it seemed to work somehow, complementing the creamy richness of the vintage. Of the four 1983s at the tasting, I loved the Lamiable, with its full, expansive fragrance and sleek finesse. The 1983 Gimonnet was not far behind, showing the same sense of freshness and finely-drawn chalkiness still found in the wines today.

Speaking of fresh, J. Lassalle’s 1985 was surprisingly youthful and primary, with flowery elegance and a lively tension. I was eagerly looking forward to the 1985 Paul Bara, yet it turned out to be strangely disappointing, feeling slightly hollow and lactic, and unusually unexpressive for this great estate. However, Bara more than redeemed themselves with the magnificent 1976 Spécial Club, my pick for wine of the night. Champagnes from ’76 can sometimes be a little fat and overly plush, and many are fully mature and a bit oxidative now, but this ’76 Bara was none of these things. Subtle, nuanced, complete, showing both sleekly sculpted power and a silky finesse, it seems to still have room to grow, possessing the complexity of bottle-age yet still feeling vivid and energetic in its vitality. What will today’s Club wines look like in 30 years? I can’t wait to find out.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Wine of the Week: Lilbert-Fils Brut Blanc de Blancs

I hinted at this wine in Monday’s post, and it is indeed a non-vintage brut based on 2005. The young Bertrand Lilbert is one of the superstars of Cramant, but remains largely unknown except to a select group of champagne devotees. Part of the reason for this is that Lilbert produces only 30,000 bottles of champagne a year, from a mere 3.5 hectares of vines, and even at the estate the wines often sell out quickly.

The non-vintage blanc de blancs is blended from the grand cru villages of Cramant, Chouilly and Oiry, and is generally composed of equal parts of two different vintages, in this case 2005 and 2004. It’s lively and brisk, with a classic Côte de Blancs finesse and chalky perfume. Lilbert’s wines are always racy and elegant, but this one exhibits a particularly delicious combination of ripe complexity and kinetic, soil-driven tension, making it feel both accessible and expressive at the same time.

Lilbert-Fils is imported into the United States by Vintage ’59, Washington, DC.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

How Roses de Jeanne Got Its Name

Cédric Bouchard makes some of my favorite wines in Champagne. A passionate and dedicated perfectionist, Bouchard bottles wine under two different labels: Inflorescence, which is a blanc de noirs from the vineyard of Val Vilaine in Polisy; and Roses de Jeanne, the primary label of the estate.

The unusual name of Roses de Jeanne is actually a tribute to Cédric’s Polish grandmother, who was named Janika (Jeanne in French). The rose part comes from the vineyard of Les Ursules — in the past, this 90.51-are parcel in Celles-sur-Ource used to be surrounded by rosebushes, although those have long since disappeared. Cédric says that he was looking for something distinctive, something different from the rest of the sea of names in Champagne, which is hardly surprising, considering the originality of his wines. “I like that it sounds elegant and feminine,” he says. “And it’s not just a first and last name, as is usually the case in Champagne. I mean, Champagne Cédric Bouchard, c’est super-nul, quoi. I didn’t want that at all.”

Honestly, I would happily drink his wines no matter what he called them, but I do think that Roses de Jeanne sounds rather attractive. Combined with the fact that he has the most beautiful labels in all of Champagne, it only adds to the pleasure of the experience.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

While We’re Talking About NVs...

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

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

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

Monday, November 10, 2008

2005 NVs

Paradoxical, I know. But I strongly dislike the myth perpetuated by many Champagne houses that a non-vintage wine is the same from year to year. It might share a family resemblance each year, perpetuating a character that’s typical of the house, but it’s not the same wine. Even the hallowed Krug Grande Cuvée is not identical from year to year, no matter what anyone says.

I don’t know what the average percentage of reserve wine is in non-vintage champagne, but it’s not a lot. Some of the best houses use reserves up to 30 percent or so, and a few growers who work on a smaller scale can even go as high as 50 percent, but this is extremely rare. Generally speaking, a non-vintage blend is dominated by a single year, and while you can use reserve wine to amplify or suppress the character of that year to varying degrees, it can’t help but set the overall tone for the wine, as it forms the foundation of the blend.

Tasting large quantities of champagne at the moment, I am often encountering non-vintage champagnes based on the 2005 harvest, which feels to me particularly exceptional as a base for a blend. The 2005 vintage produced ripe, full-bodied wines: tasting them as vins clairs back in 2006, I consistently noted a forward, fruity charm combined with a certain density of flavor — not necessarily weight, but intensity. The acidity was good, well-balanced, but not painful to taste (like 2008, for example, or even 2004, for that matter, which was more “classic” in profile, whatever that means nowadays). Now, as finished wines, the NVs based on 2005 demonstrate that same forward charm and voluptuousness of fruit, and combined with the acidity of 2004, these champagnes are extremely compelling. I’m wondering if I will like 2005 as a blending year even more than as a vintage year, in fact. Although it’s too early to know, and I should reserve judgment until the vintage wines are actually released.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Wine of the Week: Jacques Selosse Initiale Brut Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru

I am, as is undoubtedly known, a great admirer of both Anselme Selosse and his wines. Much has been written about Selosse, and there is little left to contribute to either side of the debate—I’m sure that many of you have read Eric Asimov’s most recent piece on Selosse in the NY Times, and that some of you have also read Tom Stevenson’s review of Jacques Selosse in issue 21 of The World of Fine Wine (not available online).

Unfortunately, it’s not terribly easy for the average consumer to form their own opinion, as the wines are scarce, jealously guarded and costly. While Selosse has recently been reintroduced into the American market after a long hiatus, the wines are severely allocated and distributed only to restaurants, making them even more expensive and less accessible. Here in France, they are a little easier to obtain, if you know where to look. Admittedly, they are still not cheap, and whether or not they are worth the money is entirely up to you.

I am one of those consumers who will buy V.O. as often as I can, who will bend over backwards to procure Contraste, and who is delighted to pay the money for Substance or vintage champagne if I have sufficient cash in my pocket when it is offered to me. I like drinking Selosse’s wines. The only cuvée that I am slightly ambivalent about is the Initiale, which is, of course, the easiest one to find, as it represents over two-thirds of his production. Of the comments against Selosse’s wines—that they’re too oaky, over-oxidized, overly aldehydic—I find that these apply more often to the Initiale than to the other wines. I also find a significant variation in this wine, with some bottles feeling oaky and oxidative, and others feeling terrifically energetic and lively. (It’s not as bad as, say, Marc Angeli’s La Lune, but it’s enough that I’ve found each experience with this wine to be different.)

The most recent bottle I drank was excellent, here at a restaurant in Epernay. It was disgorged on 26 October 2007, meaning that it’s likely a blend of 2003, 2002 and 2001, as Selosse ages this wine for three years on its lees. While the oak was apparent on the nose, it was accompanied by a deeply vinous intensity, and the two were integrated together in a seamless and sophisticated manner, without the oak feeling at all intrusive. It’s this vinosity that is the key to Selosse’s style, as the depth and concentration are the result of careful and deliberate work in the vines, which allows Selosse to do what he does in the cellar. (Compare this, for example, to Selosse’s neighbor De Sousa, who for me acquires richness more from winemaking than from winegrowing.) This wasn’t a terribly complex wine, but it was certainly expressive, carrying Anselme Selosse’s distinctive signature, and for me, that is perhaps the most important element. In a region where wines are often too neutral, those that stand up and declare their originality are all the more valuable.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Ungrafted Vines: It’s Not Size That Matters

At lunch the other day with Bertrand Gautherot, we started talking about ungrafted vines. Gautherot had planted some vines on their own rootstocks in 2006, in the parcel of Les Biaunes (pictured), where the Blanc d’Argile comes from. As the name of the wine suggests, however, the soil here is Kimmeridgian marl with a high proportion of clay, and two years later the vines already show signs of phylloxera.

Needless to say, Gautherot is disappointed that it didn’t work out. As am I. Ungrafted Vouette et Sorbée? That would be amazing. It’s generally assumed that ungrafted wines give a bigger, richer wine, but in my experience this is rarely true. I think that in the case of richly powerful, ungrafted wines such as Bollinger’s Vieilles Vignes Françaises or Forstreiter’s Tabor Grüner Veltliner, there are other factors at work that are often overlooked, such as vine density, low yields and late harvesting. Ungrafted vines, in and of themselves, are not necessarily prone to making large, powerful wines.

Gautherot says that ungrafted vines generally tend to produce less alcohol, not more. “Much of the sugar produced by the leaves goes towards the root system of the plant,” he explains, “but when you graft the vines, it prevents the sugar from descending into the roots, so it stays in the upper part of the plant system.” The result of this is that the grapes grow larger in size and concentrate the sugars, causing the level of potential alcohol to rise. “This is why in the past, French wines were around 10.5 to 11.5 degrees alcohol, generally under 12,” he says. “After grafting, they’re now much higher.”

This is actually quite evident if you taste grafted and ungrafted versions of a similar wine. If you compare a wine like Bernard Baudry’s Chinon Franc de Pied against its grafted counterpart in the Clos Guillot, the grafted wine always feels larger in body and more obviously rich and dense. What I love so much about the Franc de Pied is not its girth, but its purity, clarity and detail. The same could be said about comparing Teobaldo Cappellano’s Barolo Piè Franco with the Rupestris—the Piè Franco has an inner resonance, a feeling of energy that cannot be duplicated in the other wine. Even at Quinta do Noval, the Nacional is not a great wine because it’s bigger or more powerful than the vintage Noval, but because it exhibits such a stunning sense of purity and expression, with a remarkable elegance of texture.

Are ungrafted vines better? It depends on how you define the term. I think that they produce a more interesting wine because they accentuate the qualities that I appreciate in wine: purity, finesse and expression of place. If it is gobs that you seek, you may not always find them here.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Rise of the Other

I still can’t quite believe it. Not a lot of sleep for me last night. At around 5am French time (11pm ET), when the New York Times and Washington Post called the election for Barack Obama, I could finally rest peacefully. Even through all the hopes, expectations, polling and predictions, it still seems slightly unreal. A lot of the commentary today is about race, which is understandable. I am not black, although as a member of a so-called “minority”, the symbolism resonates with me as well. However, what strikes me about his election is not so much that he’s black (which frankly, I couldn’t care less about), but that he is really our first 21st-century president, cut from a completely different mold than any previous others. I find it ironic that throughout most of the election, much was made about the average American not being able to relate to Mr. Obama, and yet I identify much more with him by far than with any other candidate of my lifetime (and not just because we went to the same school). Apparently I’m not the average American, either.

Now that we can all breathe a little easier, I can get back to tasting champagne. This morning, I was happy to discover not only that Barack Obama had won the presidential election, but also that there is a new and superb 100-percent meunier champagne about to be released. (Speaking of the ascendance of marginalized races.) Made by Jean Moutardier, it’s called Pure Meunier Brut Nature, and it’s unusually fine for the variety, demonstrating the characteristic minerality of the Vallée du Surmelin and feeling delicate, lithe and extremely expressive. (It would be wonderful if it could be packaged as it is in the photo, but unfortunately that’s not the real label.) If you don’t know Moutardier’s wines, they represent one of the reference points for meunier here in Champagne, although up until now they’ve always contained a small percentage of chardonnay as well. This is an inspired addition to their portfolio, and I look forward to drinking it again in the future.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


One of my favorite Calvin and Hobbes cartoons of all time involves Calvin and Hobbes sitting under a tree pondering deep mysteries, as they are wont to do. Hobbes asks, “Do you think that love is the strongest force in the universe?” Calvin thinks for a moment, then replies, “No, I’d have to go with stupidity.”

Let’s hope that America doesn’t prove Calvin right today.

It’s undoubtedly important to cast your vote, and I firmly believe that if you don’t take the time to vote, you have no right to complain about the outcome. On the other hand, if you are American and you still think that your vote is 100-percent meaningful, take a look at this op-ed in the New York Times. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t vote — you should, and you must. But clearly the American brand of democracy is itself in need of some examination.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Robbing the Cradle

A few days ago I did something I’ve never done before: I tasted a champagne in the middle of its prise de mousse, or second fermentation (the one in bottle). I can’t say that it was a life-changing experience or anything. The wine tastes a little like it does in the middle of its first fermentation — yeasty, a little sweet, highly acidic and embryonically unformed. But it was interesting nevertheless.

The wine in question was the 2007 Ulysse Collin Blanc de Blancs, and Olivier Collin opened it just because, well, he’s a little crazy. It was bottled on the 14th of October and had already reached about four bars of pressure (it will finish around six), and it was of course cloudy as all hell, as you can see in this photo. Fortunately we also drank real champagne, including the deliciously sleek 2005, which is just being released right now, and also his unreleased 2006 pinot noir from Barbonne-Fayel. But I’m not supposed to tell you about that one yet....