Thursday, April 23, 2009

London, Sherry and More Sherry

I spent the day tasting wine at the Decanter World Wine Awards in London—not exactly grueling, as there were some good wines, but it's always tiring nevertheless to taste close to 100 wines in one day. Let's just say that the post-dégustation beer at the pub across the street was particularly satisfying.

Out with friends tonight, I drank sherry for the first time on this London trip. (Two whole days in London without sherry! Almost unthinkable.) Both the Fino and Antique Oloroso from Bodegas Rey Fernando de Castilla, now owned by Norwegian Jan Pettersen, were quite good, if not exactly my style. Very rich, it seems, which isn't necessarily what I'm looking for. But they were both highly satisfying.

Speaking of sherry, the Sherry Council of America just conducted an online chat with César Saldaña, Director General of the Consejo Regulador of Jerez. The first question posed was mine—I am quoting the transcript of that section:
Moderator: The first question comes from Peter in France. Peter asks, "Why is Sherry filtered so heavily? Equipo Navazos has proven with their La Bota wines the Sherry can be shipped even without a heavy filtration. So why don’t more companies offer en rama Sherries or try to filter less heavily?"

César Saldaña: The main reason why many houses tend to filter their Finos and Manzanillas is because they try to enlarge as much as possible the shelf life of the wine.

But you are right, Peter. Heavy filtering is something that improves the shelf life but also has an impact on the wine's intrinsic characteristics.

This is why more and more companies are offering "en rama" wines with very little filtering. Obviously, this requires a much better control of the distribution system so that the wine gets to the consumer within a much more limited shelf time.

OK, decent answer, especially considering that it's politically sensitive and that he has to be diplomatic about it. But this is curious: "This is why more and more companies are offering 'en rama' wines with very little filtering." Really? Other than Barbadillo, of course, do you know of any other bodegas that are currently offering en rama wines in commercial distribution?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Terres et Vins de Champagne


It all started innocuously enough. "Yeah, a bunch of us are having a tasting in Aÿ on the 20th of April," Raphaël Bérèche told me several months ago. "You ought to come." That, repeated to others in France and around the world, was about the full extent of the event's publicity. But not even the tasting's organizers were prepared for the overwhelming public response.

Terres et Vins de Champagne, the brainchild of Bérèche and his friend Aurélien Laherte of Laherte Frères, is a loose collection of Champagne growers, generally young, hip and highly talented, with strong leanings towards natural viticulture. Yesterday, they held the first of what is planned to be an annual spring tasting, featuring both champagnes and vins clairs, or still wines.

Unlike other wine regions, Champagne doesn't have a tradition of public tastings. In most places, there are usually organizations that host tastings, or else groups of producers that band together to create tasting events for the public. Perhaps because Champagne has been so brand-driven, with each house focusing intently on its own internal marketing, the idea of a large tasting involving many different producers has just never caught on. It's only logical that grower champagne would be the catalyst.

The inaugural edition of the Terres et Vins de Champagne tasting featured 17 winegrowers: Pascal Agrapart, Françoise Bedel, Raphaël Bérèche, Francis Boulard (Raymond Boulard), Alexandre Chartogne (Chartogne-Taillet), Vincent Couche, Pascal Doquet, Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy (René Geoffroy), Etienne Goutorbe (Henri Goutorbe), Cyril Jeaunaux (Jeaunaux-Robin), Benoît Lahaye, Aurélien Laherte, David Léclapart, Franck Pascal, Olivier Paulet (Hubert Paulet), Fabrice Pouillon and Benoît Tarlant. Laherte and Bérèche (pictured) had the idea of not only getting together growers of high quality, but also a representation from all different areas of Champagne, in order to highlight the region's diversity of terroir—Chartogne and Boulard in the north, Bedel from the far west, Couche from the Aube's Côte des Bar, Jeaunaux-Robin in the Sézanne, and others from virtually every corner of the central Marne.

Held at Goutorbe's Castel Jeanson hotel in Aÿ, the tasting filled up rapidly, and at some points in the morning it was a little difficult to maneuver. "We didn't publicize it at all," said Bérèche. "It was all word-of-mouth. But there were over 200 people who pre-registered." Even more significant, perhaps, was that it attracted the sorts of people that you'd expect a group of hip, cool winegrowers to attract. The boys from Aux Crieurs de Vin, one of the best wine bars in all of France, strolled in with Cyril Bordarier, proprietor of Le Verre Volé in Paris. Someone told me that the people from Rouge et Blanc were there, and I ran into other journalists from various countries, as well as importers from around the world. The Japanese contingent was especially strong. "I was impressed that we had top Japanese importers and journalists here," said Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy, as we were sitting around drinking, rather than tasting, later that evening. "Of course they made other appointments in Champagne and are doing other things while they're here, but many of them told me that the primary reason they came was for this event. That's impressive. It's not like this is Vinitaly or anything."

Considering the level of quality of the producers involved, it's difficult to pick highlights. It seemed that there was great wine flowing wherever you looked—in one corner, David Léclapart was pouring his magnificently regal 2004 L'Apôtre and L'Artiste, while across the room, Alexandre Chartogne was unveiling various secret single-vineyard champagnes that he's been experimenting with. Pascal Agrapart was disgorging his outstanding 2004 vintage collection à la volée, from Minéral to L'Avizoise to Vénus, even though they won't be released until early next year; Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy brought his 2004 Rosé de Saignée that he made with 40 percent chardonnay (a completely different rosé from the 2004 that you know, made from pure pinot noir), which I'm pretty sure is the first time he's publicly opened that wine. Pascal Doquet gave us a sneak preview of his 2004 Le Mesnil, from a single parcel that he won't divulge the name of—we won't see this wine on the market for many years, as Doquet's current release of Le Mesnil is still the 1996, but it was fascinating to taste, especially alongside his 2004 Vertus. The list continues: Francis Boulard's 2004 Les Rachais, Tarlant's 1998 Cuvée Louis, Benoît Lahaye's 2004 Millésime, Françoise Bedel's 2001 (yes, 2001) Entre Ciel et Terre, Raphaël Bérèche's superb and as yet unreleased L'Instant Rosé, and so on and so forth.

What made the event even more unique was that each grower also brought three different vins clairs. It's always instructive to taste vin clair, especially from those who practice conscientious viticulture, but it's particularly intriguing to be able to taste vins clairs of different producers side by side. In addition, many growers brought vins clairs that corresponded to the champagnes they chose to pour, meaning that you could taste the same cuvée as still wine from 2008 and then as finished champagne. In this regard, there were two that were particularly educational yesterday. The first was Boulard's Petraea: the vin clair was the future XCVII-MMVIII, as it's made from 25 percent of 2008 blended with a perpetual cuvée dating back to 1997, and tasting it alongside the current release of XCVII-MMV brought out the unusual and distinctive oak signature of this wine, which I find to be somewhat less pronounced after going through the second fermentation. The second was Doquet's Mont-Aimé, which is unusual for being grown on silex soils rather than pure chalk—the flinty silex minerality is immediately obvious in the finished champagne (currently from 2002), but I have never tasted such an intensely pronounced silex character in Champagne as is found in Doquet's 2008 Mont-Aimé vin clair.

Next year's event should also be in April, as this is a good time of the year for tasting vins clairs. Laherte promises that the group will have a website in the future, and admits that they learned many things from this first event that will help them make the next one even better. I'm sure that the next tasting will be a little better publicized, although even if it isn't, you'll hear about it either here on my blog or on Francis Boulard's blog (as with this post that he put up this year). It's likely that there will be even more growers involved in future years as well. Overall, it appears that Terres et Vins de Champagne is poised to become one of the most significant champagne events of the year, and it will be a pleasure to see how Laherte and Bérèche develop it in the years to come. For the time being, if you're interested in learning more, you can write Laherte and Bérèche at terres.et.vins.champagne@gmail.com.

Monday, April 20, 2009

1977 Cristal

At lunch with Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon of Champagne Louis Roederer this weekend, he pulled out, amongst other things, a bottle of 1977 Cristal from the house's library. I've never even seen a bottle of 1977 champagne before. I didn't know it existed. Together with 1972, 1984 and 2001, it is one of the vintages of the last forty years that the Champenois would most like to forget. Yet this wine was utterly lovely.

There's a theory in Champagne that lesser vintages age more harmoniously and more consistently than great ones. This 1977 didn't have the power of the 1976 Cristal, nor the complexity of the 1979. But it felt terrifically balanced and impeccably refined, showing classic flavors of mature Cristal ranging from cocoa and roasted coffee beans to toffee, poached pear and fresh cream. It was intense in flavor without being rich, and I would bet that this intensity would fool many blind tasters into thinking it was from a more heralded year, such as 1975 or 1979. Naturally this bottle had the advantage of being stored in the same cellars where it was made, ensuring that it was in optimum condition—you would think that a lousy vintage like '77 would be long past its best, but this remained vibrant and lively, with no indication whatsoever of declining. In fact, it continued to gain in texture, complexity and dimension over the two hours that we were at the table.

It made me think about other champagnes from lesser vintages that I've drunk in their maturity, with notable standouts being the 1980 and 1951 Clos des Goisses, 1978 Cristal and 1956 José Michel. Perhaps there's something to this theory after all.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Features to Look For When Buying Real Estate


Lots of people find stuff in old houses. Maybe some old magazines buried in a wall, or coins stuck in floorboards. Not many people stumble upon a treasure like the one my friends Eric and Sylvie found. Eric and Sylvie run a series of fantastic B&Bs in Avize and Cramant—if you're ever visiting the Côte des Blancs, you definitely ought to consider staying with them. Last night while I was over at their house for a visit, they told me this wonderful story.

They already have a property in Avize, but they recently just purchased another house, following the passing away of the previous owner, an old winegrower. They've been busy renovating it, and it will eventually become another guesthouse, or chambre d'hôte. One day their electrician needed to get down into a storage area underneath the house. There are two large tanks sunk into the ground down there, and upon opening one of them, Eric was dismayed to find it full of water. In the process of removing this water, he happened upon a large cache of old champagne bottles, closed with crown capsules and still on their lees.

Eric pulled these out and has had them sitting sur pointe in his cellar for the last few months, and he disgorged one last night for us to drink. Of course, it's impossible to know what's in it, where it's from, or when it was made. The old man's wine estate was in St-Martin d'Ablois, not Avize, so it's likely that at least some of the grapes were from the Coteaux Sud d'Epernay. It's clearly a champagne of some age, although its mature flavors of mocha, praline, butter cream and quince are combined with a remarkable freshness, held in taut suspension by a prominent but harmoniously integrated acidity. It's surprisingly fine in texture and tone, finishing with astounding length—this ain't no farmer's moonshine here. This is serious champagne. Its obvious finesse suggests that chardonnay makes up a portion of the blend, although there's a breadth and generosity about the palate that makes me imagine that meunier is present as well.

Eric thinks, conservatively, that this wine might be 20 to 25 years old. Sylvie thinks it's older, perhaps as old as 50 years. To me, it seems like a champagne from the '70s, maybe 1975, although with that acidity it could be 1979. But honestly, it could be anything. The old man was 103 when he passed away, and he had been making estate-bottled champagne since the 1950s. Who knows what he decided to tuck away, or why he stashed a bunch of bottles in a tank full of water? All we know is that the wine is delicious, still terrifically vibrant and fresh for a mature champagne, and at a perfect point of drinking as it is, disgorged à la volée, with no dosage. It makes you wonder what other undiscovered treasures are lying about in perfectly mundane locations.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Clos des Goisses: Future and Past


Driving back home this morning from the Côte des Blancs, I stopped at the Clos des Goisses in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ to have a look at the vines. The steep, south-facing Clos is a notoriously warm site, and it's no surprise that the vegetation is a little more advanced here than in other places, as you can see from this photo of pinot noir in the parcel of Le Châlet, in the heart of the Clos. Here, then, are the beginnings of the 2009 Clos des Goisses, which won't be released for nearly another decade. But just seeing the budding vines is enough to whet the appetite.

At Royal Champagne with friends last night, we drank the 1995 Clos des Goisses, which continues to not only be the wine of the vintage for me, but also my favorite Clos des Goisses of the 1990s. A seamless blend of complexity, richness and finesse, it's still youthful and tightly wound, needing the better part of an hour to reveal its true core of depth, yet it feels so effortless in its graceful harmony and aristocratic elegance. For all of its pure, succulently detailed fruit, it thrives on clarity and balance rather than power, anchored vividly by a signature minerality that will surely become more smoky and pungent with time. Time, of course, is the only element needed to complete this wine—Clos des Goisses is renowned for its extraordinary longevity, and there's no reason why this wine shouldn't continue to develop for at least another decade or two. I would love to be able to drink it in 2029.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Buds


As I was out for a walk yesterday in the vineyards of Dizy, attempting to replenish some vitamin D in a rare burst of Champenois sunshine, I took some photos of the emerging buds on the vines. They've grown quite a bit in just the past few days—this is a pinot noir vine in the vineyard of Souchienne, near my house. At least I think it's pinot noir. It's on a cordon, anyway.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Resistance is Futile

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I've never had in interest in the technological tools of social networking. Sure, I remember when MySpace came out, before it exploded into the cultural ubiquity that it is today. But I didn't really have a use for it. I already live a relatively public existence, or at least a portion of me does. I also write a blog, which allows me to mumble about whatever I feel like mumbling about, and I now have a website, in which I enunciate rather more clearly. I am very easy to locate, and highly Googleable. That, I figure, ought to be enough.

Unfortunately, in the modern world this stuff tends to creep up on you. First it was LinkedIn—at least that's obviously professionally-oriented. Later, it was Twitter. Yesterday, I made my dormant Facebook account public for the first time ever, and I woke up this morning to a bunch of new friends. And somehow that made me happy. Sigh. I suppose it's time to finally admit that I have indeed been assimilated.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Ruinart and Yves Ruffin at ChampagneGuide.net

I've added two new profiles on ChampagneGuide.net: Ruinart and Yves Ruffin. Two very different producers, I know, but perhaps this serves to once again illustrate how diverse the region of Champagne really is.

Ruinart has a long and illustrated history dating back to 1729, and is experiencing something of a reinvention, with a talented new chef de cave and a realigning of its portfolio. Dom Ruinart always seems to me to be vastly underappreciated as a prestige cuvée, but selfishly speaking, that just means I get to drink more of it.

Yves Ruffin, on the other hand, is a tiny grower estate of just three hectares, located in Avenay Val d'Or. The estate has been certified organic since 1971, which is astounding for the Champagne region. Only 20,000 bottles produced each year.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Planting Ungrafted Vines


It's been a crazy week for me, with little time for blogging. Thank you for all of your e-mails and comments regarding ChampagneGuide.net, and thanks to everyone who's subscribed. I'm looking forward to developing this site.

In the meantime, I've been working on a project with my friend Dave, which involved many visits and tastings here in Champagne over the past week. Among the people we saw was Alexandre Chartogne, who showed us this collection of cuttings that he's preparing for planting—it's chardonnay from a sélection massale of 50-year old vines in the vineyard of Chemin de Reims, Merfy's most renowned site (and one of the sources for Chartogne-Taillet's prestige cuvée, Cuvée Fiacre). Chartogne is going to plant these on their own rootstocks, without grafting, but not only that: he's planting them en foule, in the old system of layering that was practiced in Champagne before phylloxera. Could this be the beginnings of a chardonnay counterpart to Bollinger's Vieilles Vignes Françaises? We'll see. Obviously, planting ungrafted vines here in Champagne is a risky and potentially costly proposition, so wish him luck!