Sunday, March 29, 2009

ChampagneGuide.net

I am pleased to finally be able to tell you that my new website, champagneguide.net, is now live. It is the product of countless hours of interviews, tastings, vineyard wanderings, cellar visits, analysis and writing over the past year, drawing as well upon over ten years of previous experiences in the Champagne region, and while my labor has by no means been lacking in pleasure, I am happy to be able to unveil the results nevertheless.


The site features profiles of over 100 champagne producers, along with tasting notes for nearly 600 champagnes currently on the market. While the Champagne region boasts over 5,000 registered brands, I have made a selection of those houses and estates that I feel to be the most significant and the most interesting in terms of quality. In addition, I wish to highlight the vast diversity of champagne, and in these pages you will find comments on large négociant houses, tiny grower estates and everything else in between—Dom Pérignon and Veuve Clicquot are represented, but at the other end of the spectrum, so are Cédric Bouchard, Jérôme Prévost and Marie-Noëlle Ledru, and many others besides.

In general, the site is arranged by producer—unlike most wine guides, which focus heavily on tasting notes and point scores, offering abbreviated information (and oftentimes none at all) on the producers themselves, my champagne guide focuses on profiling these houses and estates in detail, in the belief that the more informed you are about where the wine comes from and how it is grown and made, the better you will understand and appreciate what it is you are drinking. The profiles are each divided into two sections: the first is a general overview of the producer, and the second is a personal analysis of the house and its wines, based on my experiences over the years. Together with the profiles of each producer are, of course, individual tasting notes on each of their champagnes, and the notes themselves are also separately searchable.

Naturally, I will be adding more champagne producers to the site as time goes on, as well as continually updating both profiles and tasting notes throughout the course of the year. The purpose of ChampagneGuide.net is to be a living, breathing organism, not a static piece of text, and as a foreign wine critic living full-time in the Champagne region, I am uniquely positioned to be able to develop its content in a dynamic and time-sensitive manner: first, the fact that I live here allows me to taste more widely, and much more frequently, than my champagne-writing colleagues do who live elsewhere in the world; and second, the fact that I am a foreigner and an independent wine writer, without ties to any kind of production or business of champagne, allows me to move freely between various houses and estates in a way that not everyone who lives here is necessarily able to do. I taste constantly, visiting most of the featured producers multiple times a year, and I have tasted most of the wines for this guide multiple times, watching them progress over time. As I continue to taste newly-released wines or revisit wines already on the market, I will keep you informed about them through this site.

My tasting notes are not intended to be a historical reference, and you will not find notes on older vintages here, unless they have been recently re-released by the house and are currently available for sale. (For tasting notes on older champagnes, I suggest that you read Richard Juhlin’s book, 4000 Champagnes.) The practical purpose of my tasting notes is to inform you of wines currently on release and available for purchase, and the website format of my guide allows for the publication of up-to-date information in a way that no conventional book or other printed material is able to keep up with.

A subscription is required to enter the site: it is currently priced at US$89 for an entire year of access (approximately the price of a single bottle of vintage champagne in many markets). For subscribers in countries other than the United States, this is approximately the equivalent of €67, £62, ¥8700 or $128AUD as of today, 29 March. ChampagneGuide.net is currently written only in English, although future translation into other languages remains a possibility.

Enjoy the site, and as always, any comments that you have are welcome. Santé!

Click here to visit ChampagneGuide.net

Friday, March 27, 2009

2008 Delamotte Vins Clairs

Tasting vins clairs, or the still wines resulting from the first fermentation, is becoming more and more of a widespread activity here in Champagne. When I first started doing it ten years ago it was still a bit of an oddity, but today it has become quite a commonplace event for many people.

There are vins clairs that one never, ever tastes, however, and among these are the wines of the various houses in the Laurent-Perrier group. They simply don’t allow anyone else to taste them. (And believe me, I’ve pestered them.) So when my friend Jean-Baptiste Cristini, export director for Salon and Delamotte, e-mailed me to say that he had gotten hold of some Delamotte samples from 2008, I was a bit surprised.

We tasted five wines in Le Mesnil this afternoon, all chardonnay, all Côte des Blancs grand cru. A Chouilly from purchased grapes was impressive, with a forward, highly fragrant aroma and round body typical of the village. It was outclassed by a Cramant, which is often the case—Delamotte has excellent holdings in this cru just under the Butte de Saran, but as these samples came from lots that were already pre-assembled in preparation for the final blending, it’s likely that this wine was made up of a number of different parcels. Nevertheless, it showed a classic Cramant character, feeling more closed than the Chouilly but possessing noticeably more finesse and complexity, and appearing firmly driven by its tense undertones of acidity and chalky minerality.

An Oger was intriguing to taste alongside the Chouilly, as I’ve always thought that these two villages relate to each other, with their warm, ripe fruit tones and ample bodies. The difference between the two is one of northern vs. southern minerality, and that was clearly on display here: while the Chouilly felt round and forward, showing a broad girth derived from close proximity to the Marne, the Oger was strongly marked by the pure, saline chalkiness typical of the southern Côte des Blancs. This wine wasn’t quite as overtly fleshy as usual for Oger chardonnay, but it could be because Delamotte’s vines in this village are located in the lieu-dit of Les Tartelettes, very close to the border with Le Mesnil-sur-Oger.

We finished with two wines from Le Mesnil, marked 1 and 2. Delamotte has holdings in two different sites here, Roses and Les Zalieux, and Jean-Baptiste speculated that perhaps these formed the basis for the respective blends. The #2 was closed and a little reduced, showing a flinty, smoky edginess, yet the #1 was surprisingly generous for a young Mesnil chardonnay, demonstrating a rich, floral fragrance and appearing nearly exotic in its citrus tones. This is not to say that it didn’t possess classic Mesnil character: underneath the ripe fruitiness there was a firm backbone of acidity and minerality, and the long, complex finish felt racy and sleek, marked by a strong salinity.

Overall, these were quite impressive, reconfirming my high opinion of the vintage. It seems to also be a vintage that suits the Delamotte style, with its high acidity and firm structure. Of course, we won’t see the results for at least another five years or so, but they should be well worth the wait.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

1989

I’m back home in France, after an action-packed trip to the United States. At a friend’s wedding on the Washington coast this weekend, one of the many, many wines that we drank was Bollinger’s Grande Année from 1989. Creamy and broad, it showed a velvety, honeyed nose and a yeasty, umami-dominated richness on the palate, accented by hints of saffron, sandalwood and dried exotic fruits. It was generous in character and deliciously pleasurable to drink, but I did think that this wine felt more focused and more expressive several years ago, and if I had any bottles in my cellar (which I don’t), I would drink them up.

Champagnes from 1989 have always been forward and quick to develop, and I’ve been of the opinion that they are now fully mature or even slightly past their best, especially if they’ve been shipped across the Atlantic. What have your recent experiences been with ’89s?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Breakfast of Champions


• White grits from The Old Mill of Guilford
• Pepper bacon from Gartner's Country Meats
• Two eggs, laid and gathered two days before
• Bollinger 1975 R.D. in magnum, disgorged 20 September 1984

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Champagne Exports in 2008

The CIVC has released worldwide sales figures of champagne for 2008. After 2007, which was a record-breaking year at 338.7 million bottles sold in all, total champagne sales were down nearly five percent in 2008 compared to the year before, with 322,453,852 bottles reported sold, 141,244,306 exported. All top ten export markets were down, with the US showing the greatest decrease, down 20.85 percent to 17,193,526 bottles. The US market had shrunk in 2007 as well, but only by 6.22 percent, largely due to an unfavorable exchange rate with the euro.

A table of 2008 figures for top ten champagne markets can be seen at Wine Industry Report. The UK remains the top export market by far, followed by the US, Germany, Belgium, Italy and Japan. While sales of champagne in France fell 3.59 percent, they still represented over 56 percent of total sales in 2008, at 181.2 million bottles.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Beach Party Tonight

I’ve spent the last few days in Manzanita, on the Oregon coast, engaging in behavior that would probably be labeled as both gluttony and alcoholism were I to reveal the full extent of it. Nine guys, close to a hundred wines. I’m not entirely sure that the human body is intended to consume alcohol for 16 or 17 hours straight on multiple consecutive days.

I took plenty of photos this weekend, but these are two of my favorites—a post-prandial bottle of Huet Le Haut Lieu and a few of the wines from an evening’s dinner.



Perhaps my favorite photo—my friend Eric braving the elements at 2am to shuck more oysters for us. That’s devotion to gastronomy.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Wood and Terroir

Tasting vins clairs with Vincent Laval of Champagne Georges Laval the other day, I was reminded about the debate over whether or not wood interferes with the expression of terroir. It’s not something that is confined to Champagne, although people here tend to talk about it quite passionately on both sides of the issue. Across the wine world in general, there are producers who prefer to vinify in tank because they say that the neutrality of stainless or enameled steel retains the purity of the terroir, and that oak masks or interferes with its expression. On the other hand, there are producers who say that oak helps to bring out the inner characters of the wine, and that wood actually helps to express the terroir better.

Among the many wines that I tasted with Laval that day was a 2008 meunier from 50-year old vines in the vineyard of Les Hautes-Chèvres, in Cumières. Hautes-Chèvres is a more or less south-facing site on the slope above the village of Cumières itself; a portion of it is dominated by clay, and Laval has meunier planted here, while the other side of the vineyard is a little chalkier, and is planted with pinot noir.

In 2008, this meunier parcel wasn’t harvested tremendously ripe, only at about 9.5 degrees or so of potential alcohol, yet in barrel it felt remarkably rich and virile, with a powerful expression of soil character. Clay often gives girth and breadth to a wine, making it feel ample in both body and texture, and that was certainly the case here. However, the soils seemed to lend flavor to this wine as well—this meunier was not at all about fruit aromas, but rather a deep, almost spicy earthiness that served to override any overt notions of fruitiness. To be sure, the vinification in wood probably contributed a bit of weight itself, but as it was a ten-year old barrique, it couldn’t have imparted a great deal of flavor.

Laval vinified a portion of the same wine in stainless steel tank as well, and we tasted this after the barrel-fermented wine, just to compare the two. The tank-fermented meunier was definitely lighter in body, with more pronounced acidity. Its citrusy fruit flavors, as well as that rigid acidity, made it feel more linear, less ample, somehow more bony and angular. What was intriguing was that the powerful expression of soil character that I had experienced in the other wine was largely absent here, or at least greatly diminished. If Laval hadn’t told me that the two were from the same parcel, I would have assumed that they were completely different wines.

It’s hazardous to read too much into this comparison. Wines can change a great deal over the course of élevage, and furthermore, they can develop at different rates in tank and in barrel. In addition, while I was much more taken with the barrel-fermented wine in this particular tasting, I’ve certainly tasted plenty of wines in which wood seemed to blur and obscure other characteristics, and I’m not advocating one side of the debate or the other. This tasting just made me think about the issue.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Vessels

As I was having tea in Paris the other day, I thought again about how different types of vessels affect the way that we experience something as complex as tea or wine. We were tasting a couple of teas in the gongfu style: Gilles, of La Maison des Trois Thés, is to tea what an MW is to wine, and besides being a man of impeccable and exacting tastes, he is also a veritable fount of knowledge, making it always a pleasure to stop in here and talk tea with him.

On this occasion he had selected for my companion a lao jin mei, an oolong from Fujian province that was full of delightfully complex aromas of torrefaction and honey, and since I had requested a puer, he very much wanted me to try a 1978 loose-leaf puer sheng cha, which turned out to be absolutely, stunningly gorgeous, one of the greatest puers that I have ever tasted (and they have not been few).

The oolong had been brought out first, and rather than giving us the standard (and perfectly acceptable) type of clay teapot that is normally used here, Gilles allowed us to use the rare and expensive oolong pot that you can see in the photo above, made of an old type of Yixing clay that is no longer available. As he brought out my puer, he noticed me admiring this lovely pot, and graciously went into the back to fetch a suitably similar complement for my tea as well, which is in this photo to the right. (Sorry for the mediocre quality of the iPhone photos.)

High-quality teapots undoubtedly enhance the experience of tea, if you know how to use them properly (it isn’t called gongfu, or “with skill”, for nothing). Not only are they aesthetically pleasing to look at and to touch, but the interaction of the pot and the tea brings an added dimension to the experience, not dissimilar to (but even more critical than) choosing an appropriate glass for a specific type of wine.

What I was thinking about, however, was not teapots but rather teacups. Tea, if you are not accustomed to thinking about it in terms of connoisseurship, is highly similar to wine in its complexity, nuance and expression of terroir. Tea in a bag is like wine in a box; a five-dollar tea is more or less the equivalent quality of a five-dollar wine. The appreciation of fine tea parallels that of fine wine, but one of the ways in which they differ is that tea involves the additional variable of having to prepare it, which requires more expertise from the end user. It also places an increased importance on the vessels that are utilized.

In the Chinese tradition, fine tea is appreciated in two types of cups: the smelling cup, which is tall and narrow, focusing the aromas; and the tasting cup, which is wider, bringing more harmony of flavor on the palate. The two serve these very specific functions, and if you taste the tea from the smelling cup or smell the tea from the tasting cup, the experience is significantly different. This should come as no surprise, as wine also changes its character when experienced in different glasses (and if you don’t think so, then I’m sorry but you’re just wrong, and there is no need for you to read any further).

One major difference between tea and wine, however, is that tea always behaves in this predictable manner. It always smells fuller and more complex in the smelling cup, and always tastes more harmonious and more complete in the tasting cup, no matter what type, what age or what variety of tea it is. Wine, on the other hand, is more erratic in its behavior. Tall and narrow doesn’t always focus the aroma so well—the other night at the Café de la Nouvelle Mairie we drank Emmanuel Lassaigne’s excellent Les Vignes de Montgueux out of narrow flutes, and it wasn’t nearly as aromatically forthcoming on the nose as it is when served in a tulip glass. Yet wide isn’t always the ideal either: I’ve had multiple experiences where a particular German or Austrian riesling smelled finer and more complex in a Riedel Sommelier Rheingau glass (4400/1) than in the more ample Sommelier Riesling Grand Cru glass (4400/15).

Curiously, I’ve noticed that some wines smell better in a particular glass and taste better from a different one, just as it is with tea. In Chinese gongfu tea service, it’s customary to smell the tea from the smelling cup and then pour it into the tasting cup to drink it. Try doing this with wine, though, and you’re likely to raise some eyebrows around the room. I’m not suggesting that you practice this (after all, I don’t), but if you think about it, why couldn’t it make sense? It may be a variable that you choose to ignore, or perhaps you simply wish to avoid the humiliating mockery and condescension that will undoubtedly be rained upon you by your dining companions. But I think that the idea is intriguing nevertheless.