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Francis Boulard et Fille June 5

June 5 Francis Boulard

After a day of trekking as far west as we could, today we went north to the Massif Saint-Theirry to visit Francis Boulard.  I expect you’ll see more champagnes from this region in the coming years. The leadership of Boulard and Chartogne-Taillet in the area will help encourage others to show what this diverse area has to offer. The Massif itself is a large hill that creates lots of microclimates and protection for the vines with the hill and forest. The Vesle river also runs just to the east of the area also adding to the climate. The soils are mostly sandy, but you can certainly find chalk, clay, marl, and more depending on the parcel. Vignerons have planted all three grapes here due to the varied nature of microclimates and soils.

Unlike some wineries we visited, Boulard’s was not nestled in the vines. Instead, it was on the D944, which is a stretch of road that everyone, including truckers, haul ass coming and going from Reims. The turn into Boulard definitely feels like a death trap. Once our pulses returned to normal, we exited our blue car and had a look around. Boulard is not one for lots of fancy trinkets or ornate anything, he and his daughter Delphine are clearly, and proudly, farmers. It always makes me happy to see the farmer side of a vigneron rather than the pomp and circumstance.

Just out in the vineyards

Just out in the vineyards

After a quick introduction, Francis took us up to the vineyards and gave a great tour and background on the area. Along the way, he had to stop and chat with the folks in the village including one of the first coopers in Champagne, plus some other farmers. Francis reminded me greatly of a fun uncle or grandfather that shoots the breeze with everyone and is a pretty jovial guy. We started the vineyard tour at the Rechais parcel, which makes some of Boulard’s best wine.

While we looked at the vines, and very alive soils, Francis told us about the region. It was abandoned about 100 years ago due to phylloxera and lack of producers buying fruit. It wasn’t until the 1960’s and 70’s that it was replanted, partly by Francis’ family. Francis began experimenting with organic and biodynamic farming the late 1990’s and Rechais was certified organic in 2001. Round this time Francis broke off from the family and took his share of the vines because he wanted to convert all of them to organic and biodynamic practices but the family wanted to make more money by staying conventional and using less labor. It’s a shame because Francis only has some of all the great old vines his father planted in the 1960’s.  It’s a double shame because most Champagne vines are replanted after 25 years for maximum yield rather than longer age that brings depth of flavor, so finding old vine Champagne is rare.

Boulard's vines on the right with loose, healthy soils. Neighbor on the left with hard packed, dead soils

Boulard's vines on the right with loose, healthy soils. Neighbor on the left with hard packed, dead soils

As we walked around the parcels, including the ones for Petraea and Pinot for the Rechais Rosé, Francis gave us his thoughts on the vines, their age, many of which dated back to the 1960’s and more were planted in the 1980’s. He feels that the grapes from Rechais are more complex and full bodied than his vines in the Grand Cru of Mailly. Certainly this flies in the face of traditional Champagne wisdom, but during the tasting his point was certainly proved. He also told us about his love of still wines, particularly white Burgundy, which for him is heaven. Francis showed himself to be one of a handful of producers that actually would prefer to make still wine, but they are bound by the tradition of the region to make sparkling. Pretty funny how the grass is always greener even if you have grand cru and old vine fruit in Champagne.

On the way back to town, we discussed his conversion to organic and biodynamic practices. He decided to go that direction after seeing a chemical analysis of one of his wines. The chemicals he sprayed in the vines were present in the wines, some of which are possible carcinogens. He has found that after the conversion his soils are healthier, its better for the environment, and the wines have greater depth and complexity. While we were driving and talking, he pointed a big truck driving through his village, he said these trucks come through a couple times a week delivering wine to wineries. The trucks come from Nicolas Feuillatte, which is the largest cooperative in Champagne. Many of the “winemakers” in this area just send their fruit to Feuillatte, who makes the wine and labels it with that “winemakers” label. Crazy, sad, and frustrating. Hopefully more of the next generation will strike out on their own.

Back at the winery, we went on a tour of what was former dairy farmer that was converted to a winery. Boulard showed us a nice collection of various size barrels and foudre including traditional Champagne barrels which are 205 liters instead of the more common 225 liter from Bordeaux. He also showed us the new foudre for Petraea, purchased with money that he raised from crowd sourcing! Fun to hear that things like Kickstarter really do work.

Francis and I with the kickstarter foudre

Francis and I with the kickstarter foudre

Tasting with Boulard was a bunch of fun, because he has fruit from the Massif, Mailly, and the Marne so you get a good sense of different areas and what they offer. He wines are full of energy, and delightful to taste or drink. I was stoked that we were able to taste the 2008 Rechais, which is being released after the 2009 that’s in the market now. I highly recommend picking some up if you see it. I find his wine s to be rascally and compelling, which certainly reflects the man, but I think both the wines and the man just want to be liked because of the quirks rather than in spite of them.

Just another day at the office

Just another day at the office

Christophe Mignon June 4

We continued our march through the Rive Gauche by turning south and a bit west, and driving for 10 minutes to visit Christophe Mignon in the village of Festigny. Mignon was one of the visits we were most looking forward to because his wines are compelling, delicious, and full of character.

Christophe is the embodiment of tranquility. I often wonder whether biodynamics make the farmer more peaceful and relaxed, or if this personality type is drawn to biodynamics. Regardless, Christophe clearly is a man of biodynamics despite lacking the certification. He is a man who is calmly confident about his place in this world and what he’s supposed to be doing here, namely making compelling champagne.

As with Tarlant, we immediately went out to the vines, where Christophe shared his philosophies and background on the vines. He owns 3HA of vines in Festigny and another 3HA in Le Breuil, almost all of which are Meunier. The vineyards are south and southwest facing, illustrating diversity of microclimates and expositions that are available in the Rive Gauche. The soils are clay and calcareous on the top then after about 20cm becomes all chalk.

Mignon's Meunier in Festigny

Mignon's Meunier in Festigny

Mignon believes that Meunier is best grape to express these two villages. Its harder to work than Pinot or Chard, but he feels its beautiful and worth the effort. When I asked about the differences between the two villages he thought that Festigny is more mineral driven while Le Breuil is more fruit focused. He did give me the caveat that terroir really isn’t a big deal if you’re not farming biodynamically with vines that have deep roots. Christophe is very peaceful, and his vines reflect this attitude, however he puts a lot of work into his vines. He wants everything to be as natural as possible including cover crops, biodynamic treatments, following the lunar calendar and more. Not only does he work biodynamically, he also makes many of the teas and infusions and sells them to other producers.

Like Marguet, Mignon had lots of thoughts about energy and engaged in many practices to promote good energy in his winery. He works with the lunar calendar in the winery as well, consulting it for each stage of the wine making process. He uses crystals, and has ceramics to defuse the electric in the space. He feels that, “energy is like a Rubik’s  Cube, one side may look good, but the whole thing needs to be complete to be truly great.”

Kristin and I in front of Mignon's core values sign.

Kristin and I in front of Mignon's core values sign.

Tasting with Mignon was fascinating. I’ve had many opportunities to enjoy his wines, and I find they regularly change, transform, and show different sides of themselves. This day was no exception. We started with a side by side of the Brut Nature, one disgorged and opened a couple days prior to the tasting, the other freshly opened but disgorged in Dec 2014. The wines were clearly the same base but each showed a different side of themselves. The recently disgorged was rich and dense with lots of blueberry notes, while being smooth on the palate. The older disgorgement was more lively and had more floral notes. It was more assertive on the palate, but a bit more playful as well. So much of my experience with Mignon’s wines were summed up in this tasting, its like a conversation with a complex and fascinating individual. You know the conversation will be compelling, but you can’t predict the paths that it will wander down.

After the Brut Natures, we tasted the Millésime 2008, which was awesome, followed by the Coup de Foudre, which is the only wine he makes with all three grapes. It was delicious and fantastic, but I could tell his heart truly lies with Meunier. We finished on the pair of rosés, assemblage and saignée. Both compelling, but also young, brash, exuberant, and with an obvious long life ahead of them.

This was a wonderful way to end the day of tasting. So much to think about and compare. I’m glad we spent a day touring through Vallée, it gave me so many insights about this side of Champagne. We finished our day meeting a friend for dinner in Epernay at Cook In, which is a fantastic Thai restaurant that is well worth the trip.

Tarlant June 4

Tarlant June 4

 

After our longer than expected detour at Chaumont, we met up with Benoît Tarlant. Right off the bat he took out in the vineyards next to the winery, on what was turning into a rather hot day. This helped illustrate that north facing vines in the Vallée still get plenty of sun and can achieve high ripeness. Benoît, amazingly is a 12th generation winemaker, so he’s got an fantastic knowledge of his vines, and the surrounding areas.

Tarlant's vines with the Rive Droit in the distance.

Tarlant's vines with the Rive Droit in the distance.

As we toured the vines he explained that most of his fruit comes from Œuilly but he gets a bit from the neighboring Boursault, and some from Celles-les-Condé a bit south and west of the winery. Œuilly and Boursault are both north facing, but as I noticed it gets plenty of sun. The river is a major part of the terroir here because it brings humidity which is a frost risk, but it also helps cool the grapes helping them achieve phenolic ripeness. Interestingly, this stretch of the Marne is fairly straight and narrow because the soils between Œuilly and Madeuil are extremely hard and the river couldn’t break them down as is the case with the Grand Vallée. In the vines, the soil is a mixed bag, a lot of sand with limestone, clay, marl, and a bit of chalk. Œuilly is the last village heading west where you’ll find any chalk in the soils.

Benoît showing off the sandy subsoils

Benoît showing off the sandy subsoils

The vines we toured were super interesting because along with the expected Meunier and Chard vines, there were Petit Meslier, Arbanne, and Pinot Blanc vines! The differences were quite apparent once Benoît pointed them out, different leaf color and shapes between them all. This are the vines that go into BAM – (Pinot)Blanc, Arbanne, and (Petit)Meslier.

We had a fascinating discussion about these grapes, apparently of the roughly 35,000HA of vines in Champagne, there’s only about 100HA of these grapes planted. Petit Meslier is a pretty worthless grape economically, in 5 vintages there will be one good vintage, one that’s okay, and three that producer little to no fruit. Its also low yielding, Chardonnay produces three times as much fruit. Arbanne is only slightly better, while it doesn’t have the production issues, its late ripening and very high in acid, which isn’t a great combination in Champagne. Benoît is still learning these grapes, but in the future he may make a 100% Petit Meslier, crazy town

After the heat in the vines, it was a treat to move into the cool cellars where we learned about Benoît’s winemaking philosophies. In the vines he doesn’t add anything but some sulfur, copper, and 20 different plants and herbs instead of just the 7 biodynamics prescribes.  In the winery nothing is added to the wines except a bit of sulfur, barrels, and climate control. He has been experimenting with amphorae, but he’s not satisfied with the texture. He let us taste a side by side of the same wine from barrel and amphorae. The barrel was creamy and juicy while the amphorae was unpleasant at the end with a raspy feel.

Kristin was excited to be in the cool, dark cellar after the heat outside.

Kristin was excited to be in the cool, dark cellar after the heat outside.

We proceeded to the tasting room, which could hold 100 people, and tasted through the whole line up. Benoît explained that the Brut Zero is their flagship wine, and the most important. He’ll sacrifice any other wine in the line up to make sure this one is good. Much like Krug with the Grande Cuvée, but harder because there’s no dosage so the fruit must be very ripe. We tasted 4 base years of this wine, 07 and 08 followed by 95 and 96. The younger wines were intense with lots of fruit and floral notes. The 08 was easier to enjoy while the 07 was sharper. The 95 vs 96 was compelling. The 95 was showing its age with more burnt sugar, graham cracker, and funk. The 96 on the other hand was much fresher with lots of complexity, it was still showing some age, but wasn’t old.

We continued to taste the various wines including three from 2003, Benoît made a comment that helped illustrate the Bedel’s love of 03. He thought that if you tried classic winemaking techniques in 03 the results were poor, but if you experimented and thought outside the box, the wines turned out well. By far the best wine of the line up was the Cuvée Louis with a 1999 base. It was creamy, vibrant, nutty, yeasty, and overall a fascinating wine.  While we were wrapping up and discussing terroir a bit, Benoît mentioned that there were very few negociants in Œuilly, and the Rive Gauche in general. The 1911 revolution was a breaking point for many of the growers here. Since the negociants had been buying fruit and wine from other parts of France, the growers didn’t want to work with the negociants and made them feel unwelcome in the area. I wonder if the lack of negoc owned vines, and the chilly reception is part of the reason that this area is considered to be lower value than other areas.

Benoît’s wines certainly reflect his personality – sturdy and while wanting to be friendly, they’re actually a bit brash.

A Quick Detour June 4

A Quick Detour June 4

After our appointment with Bedel, we pointed our blue car west and started trekking back toward Reims, with some fun along the way.  Since we had a bit of extra time, we decided to have a lovely lunch in Dormans at  Restaurant S. Suty. Its in the town square and well marked by bright orange umbrellas and decor. Its pretty standard French fair, but done well and they had a nice list of champagne from the Vallée. We ended having a half bottle of H. Blin Brut Tradtion. I’ve heard about this cooperative for a while, and the wine was pleasant but not amazing.

After our leisurely lunch, we made our way to Œuilly, primarily to visit Tarlant, which I’ll discuss in the next post, but we had a quick stop at François Chaumont. Chaumont is a bit of a unicorn in Champagne, he’s the only producer to make champagne using only fruit from the Grand Cru of Puisieulx.  Here’s a link to hear how this tongue twister of a village is actually pronounced - Puisielx

Puisieulx, along with Oiry, Sillery, Beaumont-sur-Vesle, and Tours-sur-Marne, are all part of the club of “forgotten” Grand Crus. These five villages are classified as Grand Cru, but its exceptionally rare to find a wine made exclusively from their grapes. Each of these villages only has a bit of land under vine, tend to be in the flatter area next to a “better” Grand Cru, and most people say snarky things about them just being used by the big houses to pump up their percentage of Grand Cru fruit. I won’t deny these opinions, but I also wanted to form my own opinions, so during this trip I made a point to track down as many of  these crus as I could and taste wines made from their fruit.

Oiry, I covered with Suenen. Tour-sur-Marne wasn’t part of this trip but Lamiable makes outstanding wine from this village, and you can often find it on the list at Ambonnay. Sillery, unfortunately I didn’t taste the wine, but François Secondé makes one and I’ll taste it soon enough. Beaumont-sur-Vesle, I still haven’t found a single example of, but during my trip to Louis Roederer I learned that about 1/3 of the Pinot for Cristal comes from this village, pretty nice recommendation.

Me with a langoustine at Le Bocal in Reims, absolutely nothing to do with this post.

Me with a langoustine at Le Bocal in Reims, absolutely nothing to do with this post.

During one of my outings, I drove through Puisieulx, Sillery, and Beaumont-sur-Vesle, which are all next to each other in the low lands beneath Verzenay and Verzy. Seeing these vines, and tasting some of the wines from them helps confirm the theory I mentioned in the Suenen post. Namely that mid to low slope is actually a great place for vines in Champagne. The grapes achieve more ripeness and the soils benefit from the erosion of the top of the hill bringing extra good soil to the bottle of the hill. Fun to think about and research, though admittedly a bit nerdy.

Those of you that are up on your geography might be questioning why I went to the Rive Gauche of the Vallée to taste wine from a Grand Cru located in the northeastern corner of the Montagne de Reims. François’ wife and her family own a winery in Œuilly, their facilities were bigger the Francois’, so he moved there and makes his wine in their winery.

François was delightful, and excited that I tracked him down. I’m sorry that I didn’t budget more time to spend with him. Instead of just buying his wines and moving along, we ended up tasting through the line with him and learning more about his village. Puisieulx has only 15HA of vines, and François owns a third of that. He’s farming conventionally, but hopefully he’ll take inspiration from his friend and former wine school classmate, Vincent Laval and move to a biodynamic, or at least organic approach. The soils there are pure chalk, and the erosion effect does take place here, which seemed to give François a good deal of pleasure. I suppose if everyone said bad things about my village, I’d be happy to take the good top soil from my stuck up neighbors too. François feels that his village is all about freshness due to the high chalk and mineral content in the soils, and after tasting his wines, I have to agree. Across the line of wines I found lots of chalk and spicy notes. Fascinating wines, fingers crossed  in the future they may come to Portland.

So interesting to dig around in “lesser” areas, both Grand Crus and other villages and discover the cool stuff that people are doing rather than staying just with the accepted mainstream, whether maison or grower.

Françoise Bedel June 4

Françoise Bedel June 4

June 4th was the day we focused on the Vallée de la Marne, and not the sweet spot Grande Vallée, but rather the Rive Gauche, and as far out as we could go. Our morning started with a hefty drive to the village of Crouttes-sur-Marne, which is the farthest western village of Champagne. To put it in perspective, its equally far from Reims and Paris, roughly an hour drive. Its only about a 40 minute drive to Disneyland Paris, which was tempting to skip awesome champagne for some Euro mouse ears. Anyway, we fought off temptations and stuck with the plan of visiting Françoise Bedel. When we arrived we met Christelle, the wife of Vincent Bedel, who is now running the winery.

I couldn't resist.

I couldn't resist.

We started with a tour of the winery and learned about the Bedels. Françoise’s  parents started the estate in the 1950’s and she took over in the 1970’s. When Vincent was young, he suffered from bad health that traditional medicine wasn’t able to cure. Françoise began exploring other options and during her investigations she learned about how harmful chemicals were, and took steps to remove them from the vines. As she continued down this rabbit hole, she learned about biodynamics and slowly converted all of her vineyards to this practice. In 1998 she became certified, and is one of the oldest certified biodynamic practitioner in Champagne.

As we toured the winery we learned more about their winemaking, which attempts to find the balance between what the land gives and the winemaker’s hand. Christelle told us the western end of the Marne valley is more oceanic in climate rather than continental, like the rest of Champagne. I had some trouble believing the because despite being farther west, the area is still quite inland. Regardless, the climate was certainly different than in the heart of Champagne. The soils were different too, here there’s a lot more clay, marl, and silt with limestone underneath. It helps explain the break down of grapes planted in their 11HA of vines – 80% Meunier, 11% Chardonnay, and 9% Pinot Noir.

To capture the terroir, Bedel makes 3 primary wines, with a few more higher end wines joining the mix in great years. The first wine is Originelle, which is a Meunier dominate wine and a blend of soils, essentially their entry level designed to show the year more than the soil. Dis, Vin Secret shows off the silt soils, where as the Entre Ciel et Terre is for the clay soils. It was compelling to taste these side by side, as the differences were apparent. Dis was lighter and fresher, while Entre was dense and complex.

Yup, a long drive and quick visit means I managed to take only 1 crappy picture at Bedel. Sorry.

Yup, a long drive and quick visit means I managed to take only 1 crappy picture at Bedel. Sorry.

Despite the differences, I feel like the winemaking simultaneously enhances and detracts from the terroir. The Bedels use enameled steel along with some old burgundy barrels, and a few new ones for the top wines. Its not the oak that gets in the way, but rather the long bottle aging in the cellar. The youngest of the wines we tasted was a base year of 2011, which was relatively fresh.  After this, we quickly went to wines with more age. The current vintage of both Dis, Vin Secret and Entre Ciel et Terre is 2006! The vintage wine, L’Ame de la Terre just moved from 2003 to 2004 and the Comme Autrefois, the prestige wine, is 2003. The long age, while creating delicious, full bodied champagnes, does cloud the perception of terroir. Unfortunately, we were unable to taste any vin clairs, which may have given more insight to the soils rather than the age of the wines.

We wrapped up the tasting on a delicious odd ball. In the fashion of the other wines, this one was a play on words – Vin Cent Bulles 2011 this is a Coteaux Champagnois Blanc made from Meunier. The name is a play on Vincent, and Vin(wine) Sant(without) Bulles(bubbles). The wine was bright with lots of peach and floral tones and a lot of acidity.

One of the other fascinating aspects of the visit was hearing about which vintages they thought were great. It wasn’t the typical 02, 08, and 12. Rather, they prefer 03, 05, and 09, which were all quite hot years. Their bold style certainly benefits from the extra ripeness these years provide, and I didn’t hear the word fresh being tossed around like in the Cote des Blancs. Power is the key word at chez Bedel, but joined by lighter tones of citrus and flowers. The wines were fascinating, and rather delicious but certainly a distinct voice amongst the producers we visited. We would later realize, the day would be full of distinct voices.

Overall, I like Bedel’s wines, but I can’t say how reflective of the winemaker’s personality they are because we didn’t meet Vincent or Françoise.  I do wish we could have met them, and visited the vineyards, but it was a quick stop. A bit of a bummer considering how far we drove. C’est la vie. Also, they are in the middle of changing their labels, which used to be ornate and feminine and are moving to a more modern art, masculine theme.

Suenen June 3

After the encyclopedic conversation with Gimmonet, I drove 5 minutes down the road to Cramant to visit Aurélien Suenen. The contrast between Aurélien and Gimmonet or Hébrart was substantial. The prior visits were with men with years of experience in the vines and winery, Aurélien is still cutting his teeth. It was refreshing to end the day with someone who’s excited, learning, and humble about the wines he’s making. Prior to this visit, I had tasted Suenen’s wines a few times, and I thought they were alright but not amazing. I visited him at the insistence of my importer, and I’m glad I did! Aurélien’s wines are in the midst of a transformation, and beginning with the next shipment, the wines will start to show serious merit.

Aurélien’s path to wine is unusual, and sad. He was a basketball player, an alternate for the French Olympic team, and a coach for kids. Then his dad came down with a serious disease so Aurélien decided to come back to the family winery. He worked along side his father for a couple vintages, and in 2009 his father passed away so this became Aurélien’s first vintage. He’s very humble about his winemaking, and feels that he’s still in the learning stage of his career. In 2009 and 2010 he focused on learning the vineyards and kept the wines the same as his dad’s program other than a bit more lees aging and a lower dosage. 2011 was his first vintage where he started changing the wines, but unfortunately this was a difficult vintage and Aurélien wasn’t happy with the results of what he made so he sold all the wine off sur latte to a négociant.

Suenen's tasting room

Suenen's tasting room

2012 marks the true beginning of Suenen under the guidance of Aurélien. He is slowly moving toward organic and biodynamic, but this is a labor intensive process, so its going slowly. At this point he’s almost entirely organic, but he’s beginning to realize that despite the extra labor, going biodynamic is easier. Biodynamic farming strengthens the vines because he’s adding good stuff to them, whereas organic just weakens them. Organic simply takes away all of the manmade protections for the vines, but doesn’t replace them with anything so its harder on the vines.

Our conversation naturally flowed from farming to the villages. Suenen owns 3HA of vines, half in Oiry and the other half split between Cramant and Chouilly. He also owns some vines in the Massif St. Theirry, but is selling off that fruit because its too far away to farm the way he wants. Considering all of the talk of these villages with Hébrart and Gimmonet, I was interested for Suenen’s take on what’s going with each of them. Aurélien feels that Oiry actually grows some great fruit, it’s a balance between tension, minerality, and fruit. The fruit is often the apple/pear variety but sometimes leans tropical like Vertus. The soils here are pure chalk, and he feels his parcels in Oiry are similar to Cramant and the good part of Chouilly.

The discussion moved to Chouilly, which Aurélien owns parcels that face north, which doesn’t think are as good as his south facing vines in the Montaigu parcel. He doesn’t feel like Chouilly has as much long term aging potential as Cramant or Oiry. Interestingly, he didn’t talk much about Cramant, I think there’s just an assumption amongst growers that Cramant is great so there’s no need to talk about it. He does feel like the fruit here is the balance between the concentrated fruit of Chouilly and the minerality and tension of Oiry. I’m really excited because in 2016 he’ll be releasing a single cru from Oiry, which to his and my knowledge will be the only one available from any producer. He’ll also be releasing a blend called C+C, which is Chouilly and Cramant.

In the winery, he’s a big fan of letting nature do some of the work for him. He racks later than most wineries, and much of the bottling happening in the summer rather than spring. To preserve the wines, he keeps them on the lees which decreases the need for sulfur. By waiting a few more months to bottle, he’s able to use the cold weather to cold stabilize the wines instead of using a machine or temperature controlled tanks. He uses older burgundy barrels, so temperature controlled tanks aren’t interesting to him. This being said, he is moving away from the burg barrels in favor of Stockinger barrels from Austria. I can’t say I’m surprised by this as all of the cool producers in Champagne are moving in this direction.

I always love when I see bottles from other producers and regions at a winery. It tells me the winemaker is studying and interested in how to make better wine.

I always love when I see bottles from other producers and regions at a winery. It tells me the winemaker is studying and interested in how to make better wine.

As we were discussing all of this, we were also tasting, both vin clair and finished wines. I was able to taste the 2014 vin clair of Oiry, which is going to be a cool wine. Unfortunately tasting his finished wines is difficult because I know all of them are being phased out, so I’m trying not to get attached. The 2012 base blanc de blancs was great, but the fruit this wine used is being redirected toward the Oiry and C+C. Interestingly, 2014 marked the first year that Aurélien was able to keep back any reserve wine, so prior to this its all single vintage even if its not stated on the label. He feels that little to no reserve wine really helps you feel the terroir. However, he doesn’t like the term terroir because he feels its not specific enough, he wants more precision in how he talks about his wines. Finally he gave me one last tidbit about tasting, chalky soils bring out the salinity in the wines while sandy soils bring out pepper notes. I’m still playing with this to see if its true, but its compelling.

I feel like Aurélien has a long and bright future ahead of him. I’m excited for all of his new wines to come out and experience what he’s actually capable of producing. I think his wines are reflective of his personality. They’re friendly but not completely sure of themselves. I think as the man become more confident, his wines will too.

Overall, this was an amazing day of tasting and learning about the terroir of the northern Cote des Blancs! Incredible that I packed it all into one day.

Pierre Gimmonet June 3

After my relaxing nap, I was already to go and have an amazing experience at Chez Gimmonet. When I arrived, I found out there had been a scheduling mix up and it was going to be a while before Didier Gimmonet would be able to see me. Fortunately the view from the reception/tasting room was pretty great and one of the staff started pulling corks. After tasting through the first few wines, Didier finished his appointment and was able to guide me through the rest of the tasting.

View from Gimmonet's tasting room looking at the Coteaux Sud and Vallée de la Marne

View from Gimmonet's tasting room looking at the Coteaux Sud and Vallée de la Marne

As we tasted we had an exceptional conversation about the Crus of the Cote de Blancs. Gimmonet owns vines in Cuis, Cramant, Chouilly, Oger, and Vertus. We didn’t talk much about Vertus because his holding there are small, the others we really dug into, which was very helpful for me.

The tasting began with Didier’s philosophy that , “you want to have a clean palate after you take sip. Freshness is the most important quality of champagne.”  We started with  Cuis 1er Brut NV, which embodies this ideal. When Didier joined us we circled back and talked about Cuis, which is rarely discussed, but its Gimmonet’s home village and the foundation of many of his wines.  Cuis is a premier cru village that is the northernmost village on the slope of the Cotes de Blancs, its partially east facing like the rest of the villages, but also north facing. Cuis is the most acidic cru in the Cote de Blancs, hence its low profile, but Gimmonet looks at this as an asset. He wants freshness in his wine, and if you haven’t figured it out yet, freshness is a code word for acid in Champagne. His wines are always bright, fresh, and full of acidity. I often prefer them at the table than as an aperitif. Didier also feels that Cuis helps his wines age. Recently he had done a tasting of his wines of most vintages back to the 1960s, and the best ones were the ones with the highest percentage of Cuis fruit.

A panorama from the top of Cuis before my visit with Gimmonet.

A panorama from the top of Cuis before my visit with Gimmonet.

Later in the tasting he poured me some of his 1966, disgorged in 1975. The wine was 25% Cramant, 50% Chouilly from the Montaigu parcel, and 25% Cuis. On the nose it showed burnt sugar, graham cracker, umami, lamb fat, walnuts, mint, and obvious loads of complexity.  The palate was the surprise though, the wine was light and delicate with minerality backed by almonds, vanilla, and honey. The wine was fantastically fresh and still seemed young. Mind blown. He feels that the wines made in the 1960-80s had less power due to a lack of phenolic ripeness, but they had more freshness than the wines of today. Clearly that freshness helps with long life.

As the tasting continued we came to the other single village wine that Gimmonet makes, the Oger Grand Cru Brut NV. It was interesting to hear Didier’s thoughts on this wine, why he makes it, and Oger as a village. Originally the fruit for this wine was added to the Fleuron, but no longer because the wine lost freshness. He feels that Oger adds power to blends but the wine ages more rapidly.  Since he wanted to retain freshness in his other wines, he decided to bottle this fruit on its own. I’m glad he did it was fascinating to taste on its own. Oger is always bigger and rounder than its neighbors, and Gimmonet’s wine was no exception. A tasty wine, but not my favorite of his line up.

This wine also brought up a lot of conversation about Didier’s thoughts on winemaking, blending and aging. He doesn’t like taking the best grapes for single parcel/village wines because you’re stealing from the blend. He feels that blended wines are better than single village because you get more complexity and the wine is more complete. That being said in great years he’s not afraid to make single village in wines. For example, in 2012 there will be the normal Special Club bottling, but there will also be three single cru  Special Clubs from Avize, Cramant, and Chouilly. He made these wines because there was enough great fruit to make the blend he wanted, and enough left over to make some special fun wines. Sounds a bit like Krug.

Since we were talking about the crus, we started talking about Chouilly. In hindsight I realize that I didn’t really talk about Cramant, which is bummer because I’m sure Didier has plenty of thoughts on it. So Chouilly, Didier is the one that pointed out how big Chouilly is and how far north the vines extend. Most of the vines he owns here on in the sweet spot on the eastern side near Cramant and Oiry. He feels the eastern side of Chouilly is like Cramant, and this is the reason the village has Grand Crus status. He thinks that despite some good parcels in Chouilly and Oger, there’s really only three Grand Crus in the Cote de Blancs, Avize, Cramant, and Mesnil-sur-Oger. This was the original designation in Champagne, but in 1982 the rules were changed, and Chouilly, Oger, and Oiry were added as Grand Crus. Certainly influence from large houses helped with this decision, but there is basis for this change considering the caliber of some of the parcels in each village. Essentially, this is the argument against entire villages being classified. In most villages there are great parcels, good parcels, and parcels for generic champagne. Yet, the system only bothers to classify villages rather than get into the nitty gritty of classifying parcels. That being said, the growers know which parcels are great, and the ones that own land in those parcels are happy to tell you about the parcels. The rest are happy to rest on the reputation of the village.

Following the blending conversation Didier gave me his thoughts on the amount of age until maturity of his main crus. As mentioned above, Oger ages rapidly and only takes 5 or 6 years to reach maturity. Chouilly is a bit longer at 8 to 10 years, and Cramant is the longest at 15+ years until the wine is mature. Please note these guidelines are for the wines to reach maturity, where all the elements are in harmony, not the long life the wines will have. Think of it like adolescence, you’re done growing by your late teens, but you still have a long life ahead of you.

A random photo of the Cathedral of Reims, the Gimmonet visit was light on pictures, but this post needed to be broken up a bit.

A random photo of the Cathedral of Reims, the Gimmonet visit was light on pictures, but this post needed to be broken up a bit.

Our conversation next turned toward vineyard practices and winemaking, which is a bit backwards relative to most of my visits, but that’s the way the conversation rolled.  He isn’t organic, but is sustainable. He doesn’t use chemical fertilizer or insecticides but he doesn’t rule out some chemicals for use in bad years. The most interesting vineyard practice he discussed was with new plantings.  With the new vines he and his staff cut the roots of the vines that are growing horizontally. He trains the vines to send their roots deep into the ground rather than growing outward. Deep roots tap more types of soil, have better access to water, and are generally stronger than those with shallow roots.

In the winery, Didier has plenty of opinions, beyond his thoughts on blending. He believes that growers should show terroir expression in their wines.  He likes to harvest his grapes with at least eleven degrees of potential alcohol so there is phenolic ripeness, not just raw acid to later correct with sugar. To accomplish his goal of showing terroir, he only uses stainless steel in the winery.  He feels that, “winemakers use oak, but farmers use stainless steel.” He thinks that concentration in wine is easy, but retaining freshness and elegance is difficult. At the same time, he doesn’t want reductive notes in his wines, so he is walking a fine line in achieving his goals.

At the end of the conversation he told me about his expansion plans and the his winery’s annual production and the amount of wine aging in the cellars. It was a staggering amount for a grower. Annually, Gimmonet makes about 250,000 bottles. In the cellars he has about one million bottles aging, with another 185,000 bottles of reserve wines for blending. While I’m certainly not against success and larger wineries, I was a bit shocked to hear these numbers. Often growers are painted as small operations making less than 10,000 bottles annually.

This brings me back to a comparison I’ve been thinking about with beer. In the beer world there are the major breweries like Anheuser-Busch and Miller, and in Champagne there’s Moët, Veuve, and the other big houses. After the large players in Champagne everyone seems to be a grower, whether they make 3000 bottles or 250,000 bottles annually. The differences here are huge in terms of vineyards, facilities, and staff. In the beer world they had to tackle what happens to a micro brewery when it becomes big, but not so big as to be a “big guy”. The term craft brewery came about, think Sierra Nevada or Deschutes. These breweries are certainly not Miller sized but they’re not tiny operations with one or two guys doing everything. I think Champagne would benefit from a classification like this. Gimmonet would be a craft producer, while Christophe Mignon would be a mirco. I suppose I’m just looking for some fairness or transparency in labeling, but I don’t see much changing anytime soon considering the Champagnois are a secretive bunch.

Overall, I thought that Gimonnet’s wines are intellectual, direct, and pleasant, much like the man behind them.

Field Trip – Nothern end of the Cote de Blancs June 3

Field Trip – Nothern end of the Cote de Blancs June 3

After my trek to the top of Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, I hopped in the cute blue car and realized I that I still had hours until my next appointment at Pierre Gimmonet. I decided to do what any serious Champagne scholar would do with hours to burn, I drove around the vineyards, ate a light lunch and took a nap(in the vineyards).  I say this in only partial jest, I really did take a nap, but before that I drove around Chouilly, Cramant, Oiry, and Cuis. These four villages are the ones I didn’t spend much time in during my 2014 trip, and I’ve had lots of questions about them. Along with my you’ll find links to Google maps showing the villages, make sure to toggle to Google earth as well to actually see the vines versus the other crops.

Oiry, as it turns out is rather flat, and is a bit of an agricultural industrial area with lots of farm supply stores, one producer of bulk champagne – probably what Costco uses for their Kirkland label, and a really super fancy Moët tank farm. As I would later learn, Oiry actually produces some good fruit, most of it is just snapped up by the big guys so it never sees the light of day. It shares a border with Cramant to the south and west, and with Chouilly to the north and west. Keeping in line with a theory that I’m barrowing from Terry Theise, Oiry makes some sense as a Grand Cru. Its not the choice upper/mid slope that is sought after in Burgundy. Rather, it’s the mid to lower slope that producers a bit riper fruit in Champagne that producers really want. For example both Krug Clos du Mesnil and Clos du Ambonnay are lower slope, and are considered to be some of the best wines in the world.

Google Map of Oiry

Moët's super fancy tank farm in Oiry

Moët's super fancy tank farm in Oiry

Cramant is  a village that, despite visiting and tasting with a producer, I still don’t feel like I have a great grasp of it. Its certainly worthy of its Grand Cru status, but I also feel like it’s a split personality. The village sits on two hills, one is the start of the east facing hill of the Cote de Blancs. The other is the Butte de Saran, which is home to Chouilly and Oiry as well. The Cramant section of the Butte is the southern end wrapping around to the eastern side of the hill. Different micro climates and exposures make me want to taste more single parcel wines from Cramant to compare, but interestingly of the Grand Crus of the Cote de Blancs, I find Cramant has few single parcel wines. Clearly more investigation(drinking) is necessary.

View from my nap spot at the intersection of Cramant, Chouilly, and Oiry

View from my nap spot at the intersection of Cramant, Chouilly, and Oiry

Google Map of Cramant

Chouilly is huge village with about 500HA under vine. I didn’t really get a sense of what was going on there until I spoke with Didier Gimmonet, who like pretty much all producers had opinions on Chouilly. Most producers that have vines in Chouilly feel its too big, and there are a few great areas and a lot of good but not Grand Cru areas. Looking on a map, the best part is the eastern facing side on the Butte de Saran where Chouilly intersects Oiry and Cramant. The vines continue around the Butte to the north, and a bit on the west. The also continue off the Butte far to the northwest, which is pretty much the Coteaux Sud d’Epernay. Understanding the size and various expositions of Chouilly helps me understand why the quality of the wines from here are variable, and why the wines are often perfectly enjoyable but rarely exceptional. I wouldn’t write off Chouilly entirely, but if you’re looking for a fantastic bottle of champers, I might look toward another address.

Google Map of Chouilly

I’ll save my discuss of Cuis for the Gimmonet write up as its their home village and Didier insights are what helped for my thoughts rather than just seeing the vines.

Google Map of Cuis

I hope this quick discussion of the places helped you with Champagne geography!

 

Marc Hébrart June 3, 2015

Day two in Champagne took me from the Montagne to the Vallée and the northern end of the Cotes de Blancs. It was a fantastic day full with three outstanding winemakers. I started my day with Jean-Paul Hébrart of Marc Hébrart in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ. There was a bit of a mix up about what time the appointment started, so I had a few minutes to cool my jets and take in the décor at Chez Hébrart. Unlike the bachelor pad and the temple I visited the day before, this was classic French winemaker digs. Stuff from decades(or centuries) ago that simultaneously feels well loved and dated. In an odd way I felt at home, I suppose because many of my visits in 2014 were like this.

Yup, I totally forgot to take pictures at Hébrart, this is it. :(

Yup, I totally forgot to take pictures at Hébrart, this is it. :(

Due to the mix up, Jean-Paul only had time to taste with me rather than the full winery and vineyard tour, a bummer but it worked out alright. During the tasting we did have an interesting discussion of vintages and the terroir of the villages he works with. This conversation was also a “welcome home” to visits where my French is better than his English, so French and hand gestures ruled the tasting.

We started the tasting with a vin clair of a new cuvee that is similar to Rive Gauche/Rive Droit, but its 70% Pinot from Mareuil-sur-Aÿ and Aÿ blended with 30% Chard from Avize, Chouilly, and Oiry all from 2014.  The wine was fascinating with lots of floral notes, cherry tones, power, and a friendly tension. The discussion the wine prompted was even more interesting than the wine itself. We dove into a brief discussion of Oiry, which JP thought is good but not great, and Chouilly which is too big to be great. Coupled with the terroir thoughts was a long discussion about vintages and the CIVC, which is the governing body of Champagne and among other things, sets the dates for harvest in Champagne.

JP showed me a detailed chart (I’m talking a small town phonebook) of each village broken down into parcels, grapes planted in each parcel, and when growers could start to harvest the grapes. This made me think a lot about the how much growers know about terroir, or maybe the CIVC is just good at determining ripeness and record keeping without worries so much about the terroir aspect of the grapes.

As the tasting progressed, we continued to discuss the character of recent vintages. Hébrart talked about how difficult its been to adapt to the heat, particularly in 12, 13, and 14. He feels like 14 is a good year for chard, but rough for the black grapes. Whereas 12 was a great vintage for Pinot, so he made a new blanc de noir just to show off the vintage. Some of the wines we tasted were from 2011, which is a vintage with a bad reputation, so I was curious on his thoughts. He felt it was a paradox, the heat allowed the grapes to achieve physiological ripeness but not phenolic ripeness. He’s holding out hope that the wines will come around, we’ll see, but between the 2010 and 2011 Special Club, I’d take the 2010 everyday and twice on Sundays.

As we continued to taste and talk he brought up the difficulties he’s been facing with the varied years and creating new blends and maintaining current ones. He also has had the good fortune to acquire new plots, which bring their own challenges regarding whether to add them to existing wines, bottle them individually, or create new blends. This was a compelling conversation because there aren’t many growers that have access to a lot of fruit from distinct areas and all three grapes. Hearing his thoughts on blending was outstanding because usually this is a conversation reserved for the large houses. Its also a lesson in patience for me, when winemakers talk about their wines, the earliest they’ll be released is in 15 months, but usually its much longer than that. Imagine working super hard on a project for a few months and then not knowing how it will turn out for five years!

Our conversation and tasting was winding down, and we finished on the 2010 Rive Gauche/Rive Droit. This wine is awesome. Its not available yet, but I highly recommend picking it up when its released. In the meantime, buy the 08 because its incredible and worthy of any serious cellar.

We finished earlier than expected, so I ended up wandering around Mareuil-sur-Aÿ. I walked up to the top of the vineyards, and sniffed out Clos des Goisses, which is a single vineyard from Philipponnat. Its south facing, right on the river, and very steep, absolutely fantastic to see it in person. While I was on my hike, I thought more about Jean-Paul and his wines, and whether the wines reflect the man.

Le Chalet parcel within the Clos des Goisess. The vineyard is big enough to have multiple parcels!

Le Chalet parcel within the Clos des Goisess. The vineyard is big enough to have multiple parcels!

Some sweet vines and a fantastically dangerous flight of stairs in Clos des Goisses.

Some sweet vines and a fantastically dangerous flight of stairs in Clos des Goisses.

The not so sexy, but rather reassuring safety rail in the middle of Clos des Goisses. Yeah its that steep.

The not so sexy, but rather reassuring safety rail in the middle of Clos des Goisses. Yeah its that steep.

Over the years, I’ve found more and more depth and complexity in Hébrart’s wines. Part of this is, I believe, him attaining additional skills and knowledge gained through years of experience. The other part comes from my continuing education in champagne. I believe that JP’s wines have many layers. They can be understated and subtle, all while being easily enjoyed on the surface. You need never dig deep for a pleasurable experience, but if you do dig, there’s all sorts of complexity and thought put into the wine. I think Jean Paul is reflected in his wines, reserved and understated with layers of complexity hidden underneath a pleasant surface. I feel like you have to spend a good amount of time with the wines, and probably the man to truly get the full experience.

Marguet June 2, 2015

A 15 minute drive on the D26 took us from Verzenay to Ambonnay to visit Benoît Marguet, but despite the proximity, the two producers couldn’t have been more different. If Pehu is learning his parcels and the wines they make employing conventional farming methods, Marguet is a man dedicated to all things natural in his vines. Shortly after we arrived he was telling us about his commitment to a low/no sulfur regime and how, “wine should be positive for the body.” He was ready to give us the standard dog and pony tour, but when we expressed interest in his natural techniques and biodynamic practices he offered to take us to the “dirty area” where he makes his teas, infusions, biodynamic preparations, and quite literally where the magic happens.

I’ve been to enough biodynamic wineries to have seen a variety of setups and commitment to the practice, but his “dirty area” was impressive and substantial, including a walk in cooler for all herbs, spices, extracts, and god knows what else to help him farm in natural and biodynamic means. He uses these practices to raise the vines natural immune systems rather than consistently spraying chemicals to protect them. To continue the journey into the more woo-woo side of biodynamics he is a proponent of crystals both in the vineyards and the winery to promote positive energy and help direct the vines to grow tall and not too many leaves. He does all of this extra work because he feels, “wine isn’t just for parties, but also to feed people elements they need, and for spirituality.”

Benîot in the vines

Benîot in the vines

I am painting Benîot as a bit of a nutter, which he is, but this isn’t entirely fair, he greeted us in an Aston Martin racing shirt and seemed like a normal guy. In many ways he is, but our conversation went back and forth between mundane areas of wine and life to the crunchy, woo-woo topics without getting bogged down by too much culty preaching on high that many spiritual folks can easily fall into.

Benîot is fortunate to have access to a lot of vines both that he owns as well as those of his friends from whom he purchases fruit.  He has 10 HA of vines in Ambonnay and Bouzy, eight for himself and two he sells to Krug, all of his land is farmed biodynamically and plowed by his two horses. He purchased/s fruit from Aÿ, Avize, Bouzy, Chouilly, Cramant, Cumières Mesnil-sur-Oger, and Trepail. He knows how hard it is to convert vines to organic and biodynamic practices, so he’s willing to purchase fruit from growers who are in the process of converting rather than only those that are already certified.

The horses responsible for Marguet's vines  

The horses responsible for Marguet's vines

 

In the cellar, Benîot is a big proponent of oak, he has about 300 barrels. The barrel room, whether because of the crystals, his personality, or some other factor, is a peaceful and reverent place. More like a temple or church than part of a wine. Amidst this calm, was the fascinating fact that his wines in barrel is sulfur free, yet doesn’t show signs of oxidation. He has a large range of wines which I’ll discuss below which includes a few blends. He thinks blending wines is like people meeting, sometimes they don’t like each other. With all of the blending, and the range of wines, he tries not to worry and just lets the wines do their thing because they change all the time. Whereas he feels, “industrial wines are fixed in taste.”

A small portion of the 300 barrels Marguet uses

A small portion of the 300 barrels Marguet uses

Before and during bottling, Benîot does a few things that I found very interesting. First, like most biodynamic producers he works by moon cycle, which in his case includes disgorging. When the time is right, the night before he makes a new liqueur d’expédition from organic cane sugar and reserve wine aged in jeroboams. The other interesting technic he uses is jetting, which I hadn’t heard of before this visit. Immediately before the cork is put in the bottle, a micro drop of water is added so the champagne foams up to the top of the bottle with pushes out the air in the bottle thereby reducing the amount of sulfur that is added to the wine.

Marguet’s range of wines is substantial and has been changing over the last few years. The Elements wines are now his flagship wines in both white and rosé versions. He’s still making the blanc de noirs which he labels as premier cru even though its now exclusively from Ambonnay. Its just the younger vines and lesser fruit so he doesn’t think it deserves the grand cru moniker. After these wines is where it becomes interesting, if not overblown. Benîot makes two terroir specific ranges. First is the Cru series, where much of the purchased fruit goes, in the near future you’ll be able to find single crus from Aÿ, Ambonnay, Avize/Cramant, Bouzy, Chouilly, and Mesnil-sur-Oger. The other terroir line focuses on single parcels of vines he owns in Ambonnay, Les Bermonts, Les Crayères, Ruelle, and Le Parc. Unfortunately many of these wines were between vintages so we didn’t get to taste them all. That being said we did taste the Mesnil-sur-Oger, as we did with David Pehu. I think producers who are accustomed to Pinot end up making Chardonnay in a bigger, rounder style with less minerality and not so lean as the Cotes de Blancs producers. Interesting to see the same grapes made with a different accent.

The single parcel range along with the soils

The single parcel range along with the soils

His final wine is Sapience, which is an evolving project focusing on biodynamic grapes originally purchased from Benîot Lahaye, Vincent Laval, and David Leclapart. The fruit sources have been changing over the years to include Marguet’s grapes when they became certified biodynamic. This wine isn’t cheap, but its an incredible wine. Its not a powerhouse that will wow everyone that tastes it, but rather it’s a wine for contemplation and meditation. I believe it exemplifies Benîot’s philosophies and biodynamic practices. It’s a journey for the body, and well worth seeking out but only to drink in a calm environment when you can focus on the wine and how it moves in your body.

Overall, I think Marguet’s personality carries through to his wines. There’s lots of good energy in the wines. However, he is pulled in lots of directions and this shows in his wines. The wines(and the man) are constantly changing and showing different sides of themselves. These wines are not static, nor is the man who makes them. This is exciting, but also hard to predict what you’re going to get when you pull a cork, and where the wine will go over the course of a bottle.

Pehu-Simonet June 2, 2015

Pehu-Simonet

We arrived at Charles de Gaulle first thing in the morning, and after meeting our adorable light blue Renault Twingo, we hit the road for Champagne. We checked into a rad Airbnb in the center of Reims, had a quick bite and then set off for Verzenay to visit David Pehu.

Easy to find in parking lots!

Easy to find in parking lots!

Pehu-Simonet was a fantastic first stop. David is friendly and easy going, his wines are a pleasure, and Verzenay is one of the prettiest areas in Champagne. Prior to the visit, I thought David’s wines were bold and easy drinking. They are also a reference point for MCR as the base for the dosage, the slight tropical notes are an indicator for me.

Pehu's tasting room, a bit of a bachelor pad with Champagne crates made into furniture

Pehu's tasting room, a bit of a bachelor pad with Champagne crates made into furniture

Tasting with David, confirmed my impressions, but I also saw a producer in the midst of a change. During the tasting and subsequent vineyard tour I saw a man who is becoming more interested in expressing terroir, not just making enjoyable wines. In the coming years he will release a series of single parcel wines to show off his holdings in Verzenay, Verzy, Mesnil-sur-Oger, Mailly, and Villers-Marmery. He also has vines in Sillery, but these will continue to be blended as David doesn’t feel that Sillery as much complexity as some of his other parcels.

Unlike other producers that I met with, David was still learning how his parcels express themselves and their terroir when made individually rather than in a blend. He feels, “vignerons must now create terroir to tell the story of Champagne instead of the negociants telling the story with blending and history.” I think part of his learning curve and struggles come from the fact that negociants own or buy a lot of the grapes coming from his villages and he hasn’t gotten a chance to taste many other single parcel wines from Verzenay and Verzy. He referenced Godme, who is also making single parcels as one of the few other producers trying to show terroir. David is excited that his villages are breaking away from the blends and starting to show their true character.  Despite not having tasted a lot of other people’s parcels, he was keenly aware of the differences in his plots depending on where in Verzenay they were located, closer to the lighthouse or the windmill which stand on opposing hilltops. Talking with him highlighted the struggles that vignerons are going through when they decide to breakaway from the norm of either selling the grapes or making perfectly fine, generic champagne. Its hard to get a feel for what’s going on around you, and so you have to be a bit of a trail blazer. It also was heartening for me because I’ve had plenty of difficult figuring out terroir of the villages of Champagne.

Windmill of Verzenay

Windmill of Verzenay

Lighthouse of Verzenay on the opposite hill as the windmill, still not sure why they need a lighthouse in this landlocked area.

Lighthouse of Verzenay on the opposite hill as the windmill, still not sure why they need a lighthouse in this landlocked area.

As we tasted, I learned a few more useful things about David’s wines. Unfortunately the black label Blanc de Noirs is going away as the fruit that made this wine will be separated into the Fin Lieux single parcel champagnes, of which the Les Perthois, Verzenay 2010 is the first and is awesome!  The neon labels that Pehu is so controversially known for, are going away in favor of a cross cut of a vine that are still eye catching but not as painful. Finally, along with the next visit at Marguet, I had some interesting thoughts on winemakers in the Montagne de Reims who are used to Pinot Noir, making Chardonnay from the Cotes de Blancs. I’ll discuss this in the next post.

Overall, I think Pehu’s wines are big and delicious now, and will continue to add depth and character as he gets his footing with terroir.

Intention

With this trip to France, I had a lot of intention around what I wanted to see, learn, taste, and experience. Before I get into the descriptions of the producers and what I learned from them, I thought I should give a bit of back ground on what I was hoping to gain from these experiences.

A view from the top of Cuis looking at the Coteaux Sud d'Epernay and the Vallée de la Marne

A view from the top of Cuis looking at the Coteaux Sud d'Epernay and the Vallée de la Marne

My journey with champagne has focused on me trying to learn more about what I think of as the secrets of Champagne. I’m searching for all of those tidbits and morsels that most champagne producers don’t want to share because they, “don’t want to confuse customers”, don’t think its important, or in my opinion, don’t often know themselves. The information I wanted focuses on philosophies, terroir, plot selection, farming practices including biodynamics , potential ripeness at harvest, whether to use oak,  blending, dosage levels, use of MCR vs cane sugar, sulfur use and more.

I wanted this information because it helps me get a sense of the vignerons, their wines, where Champagne came from, where its at, and where its going. This knowledge helps me tell their stories at Ambonnay, and if all goes according to plan, much of it will be the incorporated into the book I’m writing.  I didn’t go into each appointment with a set list of questions, but rather I wanted to have a conversation with the person. I wanted to get a feel for their personalities, and how that is expressed in their wines. I wanted to see what they would volunteer and what they were excited to discuss. I often played more of an observer role with the occasional question rather than trying to direct them into a preconceived idea of what I want to hear from them. The results were as unique as the wines, each vigneron had their own ideas and personality. There were some common themes, but not as many as I would have expected. Using this trip as a gauge, plus all of my other research, I feel that Champagne is one of the most compelling wine regions in the world right now. There are lots of points of view and ideas about where Champagne should be going. Some are well documented, others are more under the radar. Regardless, my love for Champagne was deepened on this visit because of what I learned as well as all of the contradictions.

Beyond just the visits with the producers, I also spent a good deal of time in the car and on foot seeing the region for myself, the slopes, expositions, soils, feeling the temperatures, creating my own impressions rather than relying solely on others.

A glass of Mumm de Cramant at Le Jardin bar at Les Crayères

A glass of Mumm de Cramant at Le Jardin bar at Les Crayères

Over the next week or so as I write up my thoughts on each of the producers I visited, I’ll share some of my insights about the region and the wines as a whole. Trends I’m seeing, and practices and producers that are exciting to me. I hope you think this is enjoyable and interesting as I do.

P.S. A small note on grammar and Champagne, when discussing the region Le Champagne, the word is capitalized. When writing about the wine, la champagne, the word is lower case.

France!

France!

Tasting at Louis Roederer including 02 and 06 Cristal with Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon

Tasting at Louis Roederer including 02 and 06 Cristal with Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon

After an incredible tour of France(and Iceland), I’m back in the States. Over the coming days, I will be writing up my experiences with the winemakers I met with as well as other great experiences. I’ll kick things off with a few fun facts about the trip:

We drove over 1500 miles in 14 days

We visited 4 wine regions and met with 19 winemakers

We tasted over 150 wines

The oldest wine tasted was from 1966

We completed a high ropes course

We had a picnic at the top of Hermitage

We paid homage to Paul Bocuse at his namesake restaurant – 2 words, Truffle Soup

Overall it was an amazing experience and I’m looking forward to sharing lots of stories in the future!

Enjoying a picnic on top of Hermitage with a bottle of Hermitage

Enjoying a picnic on top of Hermitage with a bottle of Hermitage

Iceland!

Iceland thoughts

Blue galciers in Glacier Lagoon near Höf  

Blue galciers in Glacier Lagoon near Höf

 

Iceland is an amazing place to see some of the most beautiful landscapes on earth. The Gullfoss waterfall is truly epic. Hiking the mini canyons of Þingvellir National Park was a bunch of fun. The blue glaciers at the glacier lagoon are incredible and worth the long drive out of Reykjavik. If you like nature and outdoor adventures, Iceland is incredible.  Dress warm, and prepare for a lot of wind.

Gullfoss Waterfall on the Golden Circle

Gullfoss Waterfall on the Golden Circle

Beyond the nature, I thought Iceland had a vibrant food scene. We had an incredible meal at Dill in Reykjavik, which focuses on new Nordic cuisine. The amuse of pickled carrots with sour cream and caraway was eye opening given the simplicity and commonality of the ingredients. The herbed lamb fat instead of butter served with the bread was delicious.  All 7 seven courses plus 6 “snacks” were complex, fascinating, at points slightly challenging, but overall delicious. Sticking with the Champagne theme, we did enjoy some of Christophe Mignon’s delicious Brut Nature, along with 7 more natural wines paired with the food. I highly recommend it.

Herbed lamb fat and bread at Dill Restaurant in Reykjavic

Herbed lamb fat and bread at Dill Restaurant in Reykjavic

After we visited the blue glaciers we went to the village of Höf and found a delightful, and some what touristy, langoustine restaurant called Humarhofnin. Piles of langoustine served with a local beer that has artic thyme in it. Well worth the stop, just skip the langoustine pizza. Back in Reykjavik, we also managed to track down some of the native meats of Iceland, puffin and minke whale. I’m glad I tried them, but I can’t say as I’d rush back for more, and given the scarcity of them on Icelandic menus I’d say the Icelanders feel the same. Puffin was a bit like duck, but gamier while minke whale was like ahi tuna crossed with duck.

We did make it to Bæjarins beztu, the famous hot dog stand of Reykjavik. The dogs were pretty tasty, all lamb meat served with a nice collection of sides including fried onions which gave great texture. We enjoyed the hot dogs sober, but I have a feeling they’d be better late night food with some booze on board.  For morning time, and pre-driving trip stop at Sandholt Bakery in Reykjavik, fantastic pastry, bread, and sandwiches.

The soaking pools and hot springs in Iceland are not to be missed! We went to a variety pack from neighborhood ones to fancy tourist ones. All were great and really helped make me feel better after long hours in a plane or car. The neighborhood ones were very affordable, just a few bucks to soak and steam with towels available for rent. The touristy ones were nicer, but didn’t give me the same feel as hanging out with all the natives and realizing that soaking is part of everyday life for them. Makes me wish we had a lot more of this in the states. The other nice thing was there was little to no body shame, people of all ages and sizes were all soaking and not feeling self confident about it.

Mini canyons at Þingvellir National Park on the Golden Circle.

Mini canyons at Þingvellir National Park on the Golden Circle.

A few other observations, Icelandic wool is not soft. The Reykjavik Cathedral is amazing for its stark simplicity rather than the stain glass and carving of the ones in continental Europe. During summer hours it never gets dark, sunset is around 11:30pm, but its still light until sunrise. You really can burn the midnight oil there. We were out playing and doing things until we were too exhausted to do anymore.

I would highly recommend Iceland, particularly as a stop over to Europe. Iceland air is perfectly fine, and its nice to have a shorter flight and a layover of a couple days rather than one long haul flight.

1996 Prestige Tasting

Prestige 1996 tasting

This is a fairly long and in depth post with lots of information, so buckle up.

Recently I had the privilege of joining a group of wine lovers to taste a magnificent collection of prestige champagnes from 1996. Obviously many of these wines were delicious, but the comparisons between them was what was truly compelling about the event. There were a few main areas of comparison  that I found to be particularly striking. First, the difference between crafted champagnes versus single vineyard/village and small producers. Next, how disgorgement and winery cellaring impacted the wines along with dosage levels. Finally, and unfortunately, storage issues. After my thoughts on these subjects, I’ll also give some of my notes on all 21 we tasted. I also have to say a big thank you to everyone who opened their cellars to help make this tasting happen!

Crafted vs. Specific Area

For years the debate about large vs. small producers has been circling the wine community. Bashing big guys for making generic wine, bashing the little guys for getting to much credit for good but not great wines, and so on. I don’t really care about this debate because I’ve had fantastic wines from large and small producers. What I do care about is the difference between the champagnes that are crafted from parcels throughout Champagne, next to those that come from a specific area. This tasting illustrated this discussion at the highest levels. On the crafted side we enjoyed Cristal, Dom Pérignon, Dom Pérginon Oenothèque, Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill, Bollinger Grande Année, Bollinger RD, and Henriot Enchanteleurs. On specific area we enjoyed Krug Clos du Mesnil, Philipponant Clos de Goisses, Salon, Chartogne-Taillet Fiacré, Vilmart Coeur de Cuvée, Vilmart Création, and Jean Laurent Blanc de Noirs.

We didn’t set out to compare the wines in this fashion, it was simply something I kept coming back to throughout the tasting. I continued to return to it because there were a number of wines from well known producers that were from a specific place, which is rare to be able to enjoy more than one of this at any given time, let alone compare them to their blended peers. I won’t say that one style was better than the other, its simply the conversation that surrounds a given wine and why it deserves praise. For me the Salon was quite possibly the wine of the tasting, and I loved it because of its complexity and singular focus on showing off what Mesnil-sur-Oger is capable of producing. In the same vein, the Krug Clos du Mesnil was superb because it showed off Krug’s style applied to a very small area. Conversely, the Cristal, Pol Roger, and Henriot were exceptional because they were the sum of their parts. With these wines, each time I came back to the glass, I was rewarded with new aromas and flavors that were the result of different grapes or areas within Champagne. These wines showed the talent of the individuals that created them. The talent and knowledge to know what resources they have to work with and how to coax out the most compelling wine they possibly could.

Many of us that love wine, are on the quest for terroir, and we forget that blended champagnes can be amazing. That being said, I don’t think the Champenoise don’t do themselves any favors by not sharing their thoughts on the various terroirs they work with to create these wines. This also leads to a nod to the small producers, I was extremely pleased that two of the four grower champagnes stood shoulder to shoulder with the best of the grande marques. Of the two that didn’t make the grade, one was a slightly flawed bottle, and the other was truly out of its league. Like the mono parcel/cru champagnes from the maisons, I think the growers should be enjoyed because of what they achieve from a specific area of Champagne.

Disgorgement/Cellaring

Without a doubt the most compelling flight of the evening was the Dom Pérignon flight. We enjoyed the regular release of Dom next to two versions of the Oenothèque, one disgorged in 2008 and the other in 2013. Echoing this flight, but with less dramatic results was the flight that included the Bollinger Grande Année next to the Bollinger RD. These side by sides were compelling because the base wines were the same, the differences came from when the wines were released along with the amount of dosage in the wines.

The regular release of Dom was certainly one of the best Dom’s I’ve ever had, with almost 20 years of age it was coming out of its shell and exhibiting a delight mix of flavors, yet it still held on to the reductive notes for which the wine is known. I also felt the dosage was much higher in this wine, I’m guessing around 10 g/l. The first of the Oeno’s was the 2008 disgorgement, which showed much more in the way of high tone flavors of citrus, floral, and minerals, the acidity was also much more prominent. I’m guessing the dosage was closer to 6 g/l. Finally the third wine was the 2013 disgorgement which showed a greater range of flavors including more dark fruits and earthy tones, I even noticed a bit of lobster shell. Again, the dosage felt noticeably lower than the regular release. The 2013 was the favorite of the group, but I was still fascinated by the 2008, and after rolling it around in my head, I realized what was going on with these two wines. I thought back to pinot, which the 2013 was showing many more of the flavors I associate with this grape, and I realized the 2008 was in a dumb phase for pinot, just like so many Burgundies go through a dumb phase. The 2008 was being carried by the Chardonnay, while the pinot slept. The 2013 showed the harmony between the two grapes. It was an incredible realization, yet rather obvious in hindsight, that Pinot acts the same in Champagne as in other areas of the world. It also explains why many wines I’ve expected great things from have disappointed me in the same way that Burgundy breaks my heart sometimes. At least the champagnes are still enjoyable enough to drink, whereas I can’t always say that about the Burgs.

The Bollingers were fascinating as well, but unlike the Doms, Bollinger specifically states the dosage differences. The Grande Année is Brut, while the RD is extra brut. Flavor-wise, I felt the Grande Année showed the bottle age, but overall it was a prettier wine with citrus, chalk, and floral tones accompanying they yeasty, bold style of Bollinger. The RD on the other hand was fresher and brighter but the flavors tended toward yeast, earth, and dark fruit notes and the wine felt rounder in the mouth, despite the lower dosage.  As I reread what I wrote, I’m seeing that the original release of Bolli and Dom both show more high tones while the late disgorged wines show a more complete flavor spectrum. I suppose the extra lees time allows the dark fruit to shine rather than being overwhelmed by bottle age. However, if I sat with a bottle of either of the original releases throughout a night I might feel different as more flavors are allowed to emerge.

Storage

I feel I have to mention this, because of the 21 wines tasted 4 were off or didn’t show everything they could. The Taittinger Comte de Champagne was corked, mildly so, but still corked. Two of the others were obviously beat up from storage – Veuve Clicquot Grande Dame and Vilmart Cuvée Création. Champagne, while hardy, likes to be stored well. Unfortunately I think too often champagne is forgiven flaws because we simply don’t taste enough of it to recognize them, or we don’t care because its still pretty tasty even when flawed. The final wine, and this is completely my opinion, was the Krug Clos du Mesnil. This wine was showing very well and was a delight to drink, but I think somewhere along the way the bottle may have been beat up a bit. The wine simply didn’t show all that I expected it to given its pedigree. The other bottles of 98 and 00 I’ve had in the past were exception and mind blowing, deserving of the prices they command. The 96 in this tasting was great, but not exceptional. Maybe storage, or maybe it just needed more time to come out of its shell. Hard to say. Either way, care for your champagne, and it will reward you!

The Wines

Flight 1

Salon 1996 – Profound and exceptional, possibly the best of the tasting. It showed very well right out of the gate, bucking the usual trend of needing to wait for Salon to really sing.  A few of my favorite words from my notes – meyer lemon, apricot, insane, gorgeous, and long. ***

 

Taittinger Comte de Champagne 1996 – slight corked, oddly this wine showed a lot of yeast, brioche and a bit of barrel, which is totally different from all of the pretty high tones I had in this wine a couple months ago when I enjoyed it.

 

Krug Clos du Mesnil 1996 – One of my fellow taster hit the nail on the head when he said this wine is like drinking sparkling Batard Montrachet. It was more vinous and white wine-like than I expected. Some great words from my notes – honeycomb, chocolate, menthol, marshmallow, fantastic acid and minutes of length.  **

 

Flight 2

Cristal 1996 – I’ve been waiting for a long time to have a bottle of Cristal that showed me why people I respect love this wine. This was that bottle. Cristal lived up to its praise with this wine. I loved moving from blanc de blancs into this wine because the Pinot showed so well. This wine also furthered my thought that Cristal is striving to create a perfect wine, free of a specific house style or other characters that give a personality. I think this is why Cristal is often overlooked, without edges it can get lost. ***

 

Vilmart Cuvée Création  1996 – This wine was off.  That being said it still showed vibrant acidity and great structure. I’d love to taste a sound bottle.

 

Vilmart Coeur de Cuvée 1996 – This wine deserved its place in this tasting, it was a remarkable wine. The nose was a bit closed, but the palate was “fucking incredible” with great acid, and impressive length.  *

 

Flight 3

Dom Pérignon 1996 – Bright, pretty, smoky, bottle age, and some reductive notes. Surprisingly high dosage, but understandable considering when/how this wine is often drunk. Certainly one of the best Dom’s I’ve ever had.

 

Dom Pérginon Oenothèque 1996 Dis 2008 – Delightful, but chardonnay focused with lots of citrus, floral, mineral tones. Pinot seemed closed. Delightful, but the 2013 disgorgement was better. *

 

Dom Pérginon Oenothèque 1996 dis 2013 – Incredible, showing why Dom isn’t just some luxury product, but truly one of the top wines in the world. Chard and Pinot were in harmony with this wine. Lots of dark fruit – plums and cherries, floral notes, some yeast, lobster shell, minerality. Excellent. **

 

Flight 4

Krug Millésime 1996 – Dense and complex, but took time to open, and would better enjoyed on its own. Some of my favorite descriptors here – custard, orange peel, hedonistic, regal, and masculine. I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying this wine a number of times, and its always amazing. Splurge sometime and enjoy it for yourself. **

 

Philipponant Clos de Goisses 1996- The other single vineyard wine in the line up. I thought this wine was a bit overshadowed, maybe by its flight mates or maybe just the tasting as a whole. It showed its pedigree, but I wanted more. I also didn’t get as much of the feral/gamey tone that I’ve come to associate with Mareuil-sur-Aÿ and Clos de Goisses as I expected. That being said, it was pretty delicious with fantastic acid, length, and intensity. It also should a grassy, floral note that was unexpected. *

 

Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill 1996 – I’ll show biased here, this is always one of my favorite prestige wines regardless of vintage, so it was a treat to revisit the 96. The wine showed the balance of richness and finesse and a surprising amount of citrus and cherry fruit while the brioche and almond tones were a bit more muted. Not the best in the line up, but an exceptional wine. **

 

Flight 5

Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame 1996 – off due to poor storage

 

Chartogne-Taillet Cuvée Fiacre 1996 – Without a doubt the most overlooked wine of the 21 we tasted. It certainly deserved to be in this line up and showed why Alexandre Chartogne is becoming one of the most sought after young winemakers in Champagne. The wine was a balance of light and dark flavors showing complexity, yet a fantastic drinkability. I didn’t notice this drinkability trait in the other wines, they all had an air of aristocracy about them, while as this wine felt like it worked its way into the group rather than being born into it. *

 

Henriot Cuvée des Enchanteleurs 1996 –One of the surprises of the night. This wine was almost an after thought, but turned out to be one of the hits of the night for most tasters. It showed the range of fruit sources, being a model of a crafted champagne. Spice, cherries, blackberries, floral notes, green apples, a delightful wine that would make anyone happy. *

 

Flight 6

Bollinger Grande Année Brut 1996 – A compelling comparison with the RD. This wine showed more high tones, floral and chalk along with very enjoyable bottle aged toasty notes. It might have been a bit out classed given the company of many of the other wines, but certainly deserved a seat at the table.

 

Bollinger RD Extra Brut 1996 – Much fresher than the Grande Année, yet it expressed more dark flavors  - cherries, earth, lees. The wine was round and elegant with a distinct masculine edge. *

 

Jean Laurent Blanc de Noirs 1996 – This wine was outshined both by the Bollingers and the whole tasting. It was the only wine from the Aube, and was compelling to enjoy a wine with limestone soils relative to all the chalk in the others. I would happily drink this wine on its own or with its peers, but it was clearly the odd man out.

 

Flight 7

Dom Pérignon Rosé 1996 – Exceptional, further confirming that this may be their best wine. Light, elegant, complex with lots of cherry blossom tones joined by delightful yeasty notes. Don’t hesitate if you see this wine, it’s a winner. **


Dom Ruinart Rosé 1996 – Much broader and denser than the Dom Pérignon. Earth and mushroom accompanied the apple and cherry notes. The wine was tasty, just not amazing. Maybe it was a bit off, but frankly I’ve yet to have an example of this wine that’s truly wowed me.


Deutz Cuvée William Rosé 1996 – Another surprise of the evening, and a great way to finish. The Chardonnay from Villers-Marmery distinguished itself providing great structure and acid for a wine filled with bright beautiful flavors. A gorgeous wine with a great palate. *



Savory

Last night I had a new taste experience. I was drinking Varnier-Fannière Cuvée Jean Fannière 09 base, and I experienced saffron for the first time in a champagne. Rodolphe Péters told me he notices this notes in wines from Avize, along with other “orange” aromas like tangerine. Over the last year, I’ve gotten a lot of these “orange” tones, but never saffron. It was compelling to finally taste that.

This minor taste experience brings me to a broader concept that I’ve been wrestling with in the bar and with my conversations with guests, that of savory flavors in wine. I think people are conditioned to think about wines in terms of fruit flavors and sometime earth and minerality. When I move past these descriptors I lose people. Obviously I lose people when I talk about a wine smelling like hay, but I don’t understand why others turn off when I talk about herbal notes, meaty flavors, and other aromas on the savory end of the spectrum. Lately I’ve found the champagnes that exhibit these flavors to be very compelling. They tend to be delicious, sometimes hedonistic, and the make you think a bit. If I convince a guest to enjoy one of these wines, they really get into it, but savory is a harder sell. Sometimes I just take the easy way out and talk about the fruit/nut/floral tones that come along with the savory as to not challenge them and sell a wine that I am confident will make them happy. Whenever I do this, it feels a bit like I’m cheating the guest out of discovering more depth in their wine.

Here are a few wines with savory tones, without getting too funky, if you’re curious:

Varnier-Fannière Cuvée Jean Fannière

Marc Hebrart Brut Selection

March Hebrart Blanc de Blancs

Gaston Chiquet Blanc de Blancs de Aÿ

Marie Courtin Resonance

Jean Lallement Brut Rose(2011)

Pehu-Simmonet and MCR

After some discussions with people I care about, I’ve realized that much of what I’ve shared on the blog, while personal and or helpful, hasn’t really given you a sense of how I think about Champagne, wine, food, etc. So with this post, as well as future ones, I hope to give you a window into how I build my thoughts and perceptions about Champagne. I hope you enjoy it!

This week I poured a flight of wines from Pehu-Simmonet. Lately, I’ve been more impressed with David’s champagnes than I have be in the past. I feel that he’s committed to making  higher quality wines than he has in the past. Not to say that previous his wines were bad, but rather that he wants to make great wines rather than just good ones. On another positive side, starting with the 2011 base Brut Sélection, he’s updating his labels away from the god awful neon labels to a new style of label.

David is quite fortunate to source grapes from six of the 17 Grand Cru Villages – Verzenay, Verzy, Sillery, Mailly, Bouzy, and Mesnil-sur-Oger.  I’ve heard that he’s creating a series of terroir focus wines based on parcels from some of these villages so we can all get a better look at what’s actually going on in Champagne. He’s even leaving his snobbish position of only using Grand Cru fruit, and he’s going to make a single village wine from Villers-Marmery, which is only premier cru. Interestingly this is where Margaine is located, so it’ll be fun to compare their wines when Pehu’s is released.

With the flight I poured, I was excited because it featured a blanc de noir from Verzenay, Verzy, and Sillery in the northeastern corner of the Montagne de Reims next to a Blanc de Blancs from Mesnil-sur-Oger. I think its always a treat to compare how one producer treats different grapes. Most of the time I encounter a producer based in the Côte de Blancs that dabbles with Pinot or Meunier. That usually means the Pinot is a bit odd, either they try to make it like Chardonnay so its light and minerally but not truly showing the character of the grape. On the other hand, I’ve tasted pinots that are clunky because the Chardonnay focused winemaker gives the Pinot an inch and it takes a mile.  I think the producer with the most deft hand at showing the character of each grape is Eric Rodez, who captures the personality of each grape through the prism of Ambonnay.

Anyway, in this case, Pehu is based in the Montagne de Reims, so his default setting is Pinot. He’s obviously comfortable with Pinot, particularly intense, fruit driven pinots of the Verzenay and Verzy. Interestingly he applied this mentality to Chardonnay from Mesnil, which was fascinating and unexpected. Mesnil is often associated with lean wines with lots of minerality, citrus, and a sharp quality, often described as razor blades. David didn’t let this reputation get in the way of the wine he wanted to make. His Blanc de Blancs is full of ripe apple and pear notes complimented by chalk, but not overpowered by it. The razor blade effect wasn’t there either, sure there was plenty of acid, but it wasn’t painful as it can be with some Mesnils.

I kept rolling this around in my head, how did David tame Mesnil? The wine isn’t significantly aged, its 2009 base with a bit of reserve wine. He doesn’t believe in malolactic fermentation because he wants his wines to keep their edge. The wine is fermented and aged in stainless, no wood at all. He didn’t use too much sugar in the dosage only around 8 g/l . Then it hit me, its not the amount of dosage, it’s the type of dosage. David uses MCR rather than sugar for his dosage. This realization applied not just to his Blanc de Blancs, but all of his wines. One of the things I’m constantly impressed by in David’s champagnes is the distinct fruit tones he’s able to coax out of the wines. In the flight, the Brut Sélection is 2011 base, yet shows lots of ripe fruit and avoids the vegetal tones of the vintage. The Blanc de Noirs has been one of my favorites for an opulent, tropical fruit driven wine that still has great acid.

If you read back through my previous post, you’ll see that MCR dosed wines show a lot more fruit that the wines that use cane sugar. Clearly I experienced MCR dosed wines from Geoffroy, as well as other like Selosse, yet none of them so clearly marry MCR with their winemaking style as David Pehu. I love it when I discover a prime example of a style of technique that I can point toward. If you want a compelling side by side regarding MCR vs cane sugar, try any of the Pehu-Simmonet wines next to a champagne from Bérêche & Fils. Raphaël Bérêche doesn’t like MCR, and uses cane sugar for his dosage. He does manage to create fruit driven champagnes in spite of this, yet his wines don’t have the same intense fruit that David’s wines have. Sure you could point to different terroirs, but I think it has just as much to do with the dosage material. Plus the textures of their wines are different, David’s wines are opulent with acid backing them up. Where as Raphaël’s wines are more mineral driven and lighter, expressing more integrated fruit tones. Both wines are delicious, but Bérêche’s wines make me think more while Pehu’s just make me want to drink more.

Dosage!

I realize its been a while since my last post, please forgive me making it through the holidays, starting a new business, moving, and a pile of other boring stuff. Anyway, here's a post that I finally completed about Dosage level as well as the type of sugar used. Enjoy!

Dosage  MCR vs Cane

Fair warning this post gets pretty technical, focusing on a small but very important part of the process of making champagne.

A while back I was fortunate to host a tasting with Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy of Champagne Geoffroy and Galaxy Wine Company. This tasting was very special because we were comparing dosage levels and base ingredient of the liqueur d’expédition for the dosage.  JB brought 6 bottles of the same base wine, his Expression Brut NV, all 6 were disgorge in September 2013. The difference between the 6 wines was two fold.

First, half of the wines had liqueur made from cane sugar, the other three wines the liqueur was from MCR. MCR stands for moût concentré rectifié or concentrated and rectified grape must. Beyond the difference in the liqueur, the wines were dosed at 3 different sweetness levels – 3g/L, 5 g/L, and 8 g/L. There was an example of each sweetness level with both types of liqueur, making for six wines total and a fascinating experience.

The purpose of these of tastings is to determine the best balance for the wine. The sugar and acid should be in harmony, meaning that the acid isn’t too sharp and the sugar not too overpowering to the natural flavors in the wine. Some producers don’t bother with this and just use the same dosage level every year. The committed producers on the other hand think this is very important to do every year since every vintage is different. That being said, few producers will test both MCR and cane. Most producers have their preference between the two and stick with it, tinkering only with the amount of sugar.

Base Ingredient of the Dosage

MCR versus cane sugar is a divisive topic, with both sides presenting solid arguments. Proponents of MCR argue that sugar is foreign to wine and alters the champagne too much. They feel that MCR is the better choice since its made from grapes it keeps in line with the champagne. Some also feel that cane sugar dosed wines oxidize more quickly.

Those that favor the cane sugar often feel that the MCR is heavy or syrupy, making for a less refined experience in the final wine. Additionally they argue that the MCR is foreign as well since its coming from grapes grown in the Languedoc or North Africa. Both sides have fair points and I’ve had fantastic examples of each style.

Additionally, JB thinks that the vintage must be taken into consideration.  In riper vintages the MCR works better because it respects the grapes. In leaner vintages, the cane sugar is better because it adds balance and harmony to the wine. Geoffroy discovered this in 1996 because the vintage was very ripe and had high acid so the cane sugar didn’t work. This was the first time he tried MCR and was very happy with the results because it allowed the wine to shine.

Since we’re already here, I’ll give you my two cents on base of the dosage before talking about the level.  After tasting all 6 wines, first blind then again knowing which was which, I found that the MCR wines smelled grapy-er while the cane had a sweeter smell. My actual thoughts were formed on the second day the wines were open, when I find many champagnes show better. With the additional time open, I found the cane wines showed a bit more of a honeyed or caramel tone. The MCR wines on the other hand showed a bit more fruit, and the MCR seemed to be more integrated. I felt there was a better harmony between the wine and dosage, meaning the MCR didn’t stand out as much as the cane sugar, so I got a purer picture of the wine as JB intended it.

Level of Dosage

Equally as interesting as the base ingredient, was the amount of sugar added to the wine. I’ve read about these tastings, so I was thrilled to finally do it myself. The MCR vs cane sugar was really just a bonus for me. The biggest surprise of this style of tasting, for myself and others,  is the fact that it is not a linear progression. More sugar doesn’t make the wine seem sweeter and vice versa, lower sugar doesn’t necessarily mean the perception of the wine is drier.  The need for these tastings is instantly justified as each year the grapes give the producers something different, so the dosage must be adjusted.

As above, I found the wines were much more expressive on the second day, making my thoughts on the subject clearer.

At the 3g/L level, I thought the wine showed the most purity and cohesiveness. However, it came with a lot of sharp edges and was the least pleasurable to drink. This speaks highly to the whole debate on expressing purity and terroir versus wine that most people will actually enjoy drinking. Intellect or hedonism?

The 8g/L wines were possibly the most compelling for what they illustrated. As the sugar level increased, the wine also seemed drier. Essentially too much sugar was creating a small version of the orange juice and toothpaste effect where the sugar brings out such a contrast with the acid that both become noticeable. I found the sugar seemed to sit around the acid, but never integrated with it. I found two distinct sensations in my mouth rather than one harmonious experience.

Finally the 5g/L gave the best of both worlds by creating harmony and balance. The sugar and acid integrated giving me a delightful wine. The sharp edges were sanded down by the sugar, but the sugar didn’t interfere with the wine itself. I thought there was still plenty of terroir and purity expressed but in a more enjoyable way than the 3g/L. 5g/L was the favorite of the group, but it was divided between MCR and cane with a few more people choosing MCR. The actual Geoffroy Expression available on shelves is 5g/L with MCR.

Overall this was an amazing experience that answered many questions, but also gave me much more to think about. I hope to participate in more tastings like this but with other producers so I can experience what its like to do this with pure Chardonnay or a blend from another area in Champagne. One other thing that my friend Eugenia Keegan pointed out that I didn’t specifically notice was the fact that these wines have a noticeable level of tannin! I was trained to think that there aren’t tannins in champagne, but there are and it clearly makes a difference with food pairing – light blanc de blancs with oysters because there’s no tannin versus blanc de noirs with steak because of the tannin and intensity. Fascinating stuff. 

I hope that you too can participate in this type of tasting some time, as it was truly enlightening. Thanks to Jean Baptiste, Terry Thiese and Skurnik imports, and Galaxy Wine Company for making all of this happen.

Chicago - Alinea and more

Here's a recap of my eating and drinking tour of Chicago recently. Alinea, Pops, RM, Avec, Vera, and more!

Day 1

I got to the city after an unpleasant, big city reminder, of watch where you sit on public transit with a piece of gum somebody left on the sit. Oh Chicago, you really know how to treat people. After getting checked in to the hotel and cleaning off the gum, I went straight over to Pops for Champagne and met my friend Moriah who works for Hart Davis Hart.

 

Pops was a fantastic contrast to Ambonnay. Much bigger, full of people, noisy, and a bunch of bartenders who were efficient but not particularly friendly or interested in discussion. I don’t understand how you have a list like theirs and have servers that don’t want to engage the guests. Different philosophies I suppose. Their bottle list is great and covers a lot of styles and producers. Their glass pour list was good, but felt a bit safe. I ordered the wines I’ve never had and coupled with my knowledge of the other champagnes on their list, I was a bit disappointed. There was nothing that was really inspiring, just lots of good choices that would make most people happy. I get it, particularly since they’re in the touristy area of Chicago. Nevertheless, it was a bit of a bummer, although it did provide a nice contrast to Ambonnay. The one thing I did really enjoy was they offered 3 and 5 ounce pours, which made it easier to try a few different wines.  This might be a good one to add to the mix at Ambonnay.

 

After Pops we went up to Osteria Langhe in Wicker Park. It was a good neighborhood joint that felt like it could be in Portland. I was a bit saddened by this though. One of my favorite things about travelling is experiencing what other people are doing in their cities, I don’t want to visit my own city with a slightly different package. Moriah was kind enough to bring a bottle of Chevillon Vaucrains 05, which was great and we bought a bottle of Henriet-Bazin BdN, which was big and delicious, showing off its roots in Verznay/Verzy. The food was tasty, and reminded me that Portland is so spoiled with its great natural ingredients that we don’t cook as well as we should. We just let the ingredients take center stage, whereas in other places they have to be better cooks, and that was certainly the case here.

 

After dinner we met up with Moriah’s boyfriend Greg, who works for Kermit Lynch and some French winemakers at a jazz bar. Despite a rude beginning it was a pleasant way to finish off the night.

 

Day 2

 

I woke up with a hangover, what a surprise. I bundled up and went over to Intelligencia for a bit of coffee to get my day going. Its funny to see the Chicago brand of coffee nerd/hipster. Seemed a bit more curated and twee than the Portland version. With a bit of caffeine and Advil on board I hopped on the train and went back to Wicker Park. I just walked around looking at shops and the neighborhood. It brought back a lot of memories of growing up in the Midwest, different architecture, ascetics, and building materials.

 

I tried to go to Cumin for some Nepalese food, but they only had a buffet and that was too much food for me. I wandered some more and ended up at Xoco, which is one of Rick Bayless’ joints. I had the 3 Floyds Zombie Dust IPA which was an awesome beer and sikil pak which is like pumpkin seed hummus that’s pretty spicy. They served it with jicama and cucumber sticks, and it was awesome and I definitely want to make it here.

 

After the snack I continued up Milwaukee Ave to Red and White, the wine shop. One of the owners came into Ambonnay a week or so before I went to Chicago so I went to check it out. It was a well thought out shop with plenty of good wines, but it showed me how sad the wine culture is in Chicago. Lots of people told me this was one of the best wine shops in the city, and while good, I guess I expected more considering the size of Chicago. I recognized most of the wines and they’re available across Portland in bars, shops, and even grocery stores. Again, I feel like Portland is ridiculously blessed. So this isn’t a knock on Red and White as much as a knock on Chicago, you guys need to get your act together and sell more great wine. From Red and White I wandered up to Logan Square, poked around and then headed back downtown for a nap.

 

After a refreshing nap, I got up and went to Avec, good on them for opening at 3:30. I was the first one in the door and by the time I left it was pretty full, impressive. I had the famous stuffed dates, and they’re really that good. Pretty incredible, particularly the sauce! Afterward I had a fantastic salmon dish that was cooked perfectly, meaning the salmon was actually rare. The food was well worth the trip and you should stop in if you can, the wine list on the other hand, left a bit to be desired. They tried really hard to make an affordable list with lots of interesting wine, but it was trying really hard, and the wines just weren’t that interesting.

 

After Avec, I went around the corner to Sepia. I went because they had one of the Illinois Sparkling Wine Co wines by the glass. It was the Franken, which was Chard grafted on to some crazy domestic rootstock. The wine was impressive texturally and clearly well made but not necessarily with best grapes for bubbles. Definitely worth having a glass if you can find it. After my quick one and done I went back to the hotel to meet my friend Kristin who flew into hang out with me.

 

After throwing her stuff at the hotel, we went over to RM Champagne Salon. Like Pops, RM was very different than Ambonnay. It was also crowded and loud, but it was darker and seemed to be focused on a hipper crowd where as Pops was slicker and focused on tourists and moneyed downtown people. I liked the look of RM a bit more, but it was hard to get a feel since it was crowded. Unfortunately their list was a bit lacking. For a place called RM, they only had 2, maybe 3, grower champagnes on the list. I don’t really care one way or the other, but it did strike me as odd given their name. Like Pops, the bartenders couldn’t seem to care about the champagne, they were just slinging drinks. A bit of a shame that both places are champagne focused, yet not really delivering as far as staff goes.

 

After RM we wandered around, looked at Girl and the Goat, packed, and then found Momotaro, which we were going to check out when we saw their “bar” sign, which looked way more inviting. We went down and found their izakaya, which was a ton of fun. Great atmosphere with bartenders who wanted to make conversation and tell you about all the cool stuff they serve. We had their tuna air toast, which air toast might be one of my new favorite names for food. Its just fun to say and gives so much possibility of what it could be. Say it out loud, air toast! See, fun! Afterward we enjoyed some fried squash that was sprinkled with bonito flakes. Because of the heat of the dish, the flakes moved, almost danced. It was fantastic and awesome! I’d go just for the dancing bonito flakes.

 

Moving through our bar hop, we ended up at Vera, which I had a few people recommend. They really do have a great by the glass sherry program. Well worth checking out. The staff was great and the feel of the place was welcoming.  Just skip the sherry on tap, its definitely a neutered version of sherry. I wish I had more room in my stomach to eat there, their menu looked cool. 

 

On the way back to the hotel we rolled the dice to get in to Aviary, but the wait was long, and in hindsight I’m glad we didn’t because we were already well into the booze.

 

Day 3

 

Slept in a bit, planned the day, and realized we might just get lucky and be able to get into Avec for brunch. I’m not one to do the same restaurant twice unless its great, and I wanted Kristen to experience the stuffed dates. The brunch was pretty great, but I must say the Avec folks recommend ordering too much food. I guess a lot of people that come there are big eaters. The papas bravas were awesome! The dates were awesome, again! The Moroccan pancake was great, the chicken wings were fine. The paella was good, but we probably could have skipped it. Overall it was delicious and gave us enough fuel that we only needed a small snack until our 9:30 reservation at Alinea.

 

Next we walked off some brunch and stopped at the Bean, neither of us had seen under a grey sky before, a totally different experience, and in many ways more compelling. Next, we went to the Art Institute to see one of the Penetrables of Jesus Rafeal Soto. It was amazing, playful and thought provoking all at once. We also stumbled upon the Ethel Stein, Master Weaver exhibit. Her work was incredible and well worth seeking out. I couldn’t believe that someone could create these pieces with a loom. Wow. 

After so much art goodness, we needed some liquid stimulation. Kristen wanted to see Pops after RM, so we headed in that direction. Along the way we found Eataly. Amazing, huge, almost too much to take in. We had a couple of the beers they brew on site, and they were delicious. We moved along to Pops, which was pretty much the same experience for me, except that it was much less crowded. Being less crowded didn’t make the bartenders anymore personable though.

 

After this we went back to the hotel to get ready for the big dinner.

 

I must say Alinea was an incredible experience, well worth the money. I’m not sure how much to share, because so much of it is an experience. Surprise, wonder, joy, playfulness, challenges to what fine dining should be. I absolutely recommend going They took fantastic care of us, and did it in a playful manner. If you want to see what I ate and drank, I have the menu at Ambonnay. Also we had both the meat and the vegetarian dishes, and they were pretty similar, each having a couple things I liked better than the compliment across the table from the other menu. I don’t feel like you’d lose out on doing one versus the other, in fact I might go with the veg menu if it wasn’t for the fish spine and fin in the meat menu. The rutabaga was way better than the pork belly.

 

They exemplified the service style I like best, extremely detail oriented while being warm and welcoming. I’m so glad the service wasn’t stuffy. I want great service to be both technically great while being warm and friendly. I strive for this at Ambonnay, and I feel like I achieve it to the degree I want for my place more often than not.

 

 

Day 4

We were pretty tired from a late night full of amazing, so we packed and got everything ready to leave then drug ourselves to Intelligencia. A bit of caffeine helped, but good god it was cold that day so we just wanted to stay inside. Unfortunately I didn’t read the hours on the David Bowie exhibit very well, and it was closed. We ended up going back to Wicker Park and wandering around. It was cold, cold, cold, and no fun to be out. We ultimately went to Piece and had a pizza and some good beer

 

Afterward we went back to the hotel and grabbed our stuff and went to the airport really early. A bit lame maybe, but we were tired and couldn’t think of much else to do. It was actually pretty fun bouncing around O’Hare and having time to appreciate the neon walkway many times, having drinks at a few different crappy airport bars, meeting people, laughing, and just enjoying the ridiculousness of hanging out at the airport. The Frontera Tortas food is actually great for airport food so make a stop if you’re there.

The Other Grapes

Recently, I’ve had opportunities to taste two of the other grapes of Champagne made all on their own, Pinot Blanc and Arbanne. Here are my thoughts on them as well as the other two lesser known grapes of Champagne.

Pinot Blanc

Blanc Vrai as its also referred to, is rare in Champagne, but not the rarest of the bunch. That being said, there isn’t much planted, and much of what is usually part of a blend. There are few examples of 100% Pinot Blanc though, Cedric Bouchard’s La Borolée is certainly the most sought after and expensive. Pierre Gerbais is the new comer, but made a cool wine, and François Diligent is making a pretty great example that’s reasonably priced.

Across all three of these wines, I’ve noticed significant fruit tones, including lemons, Meyer lemons, yellow apples, peaches, pineapple, and mango. Essentially, yellow fruits. The specific fruits vary by wine and vintage, but some combination is always present. The grape is also a good vehicle for expressing minerality.  The wines definitely tend have a creamy texture that I attribute more to the grape than the aging, but the aging certainly plays a part. Overall I find Pinot Blancs to be interesting and  they help show a different side of Champagne. However, I rarely want more than a glass at any given time. Certainly worth seeking out, but there’s a reason it’s a lesser grape of Champagne.

Arbanne

Arbanne is a grape that barely exists in Champagne anymore(or anywhere else). I finally got to taste the only 100% Arbanne that I’m aware of yesterday. It was the Moutard Cuvée Arbane VV 2008. Putting aside it’s a unicorn of wine, it was actually delicious, made that’s just a great year, but I was quite impressed with it.

On the nose I found a wide variety of flavors – sandalwood, musty notes, spicy tones, red fruits, and a bit of a green stemmy note. On the palate the spice and sandalwood carried through joined by some minerality, white raspberries and red fruits. I thought the acid was a major component of the wine, but it the best possible sense.

When I’ve talked to the people who use this grape I’ve heard these descriptors as well: exotic, pistachio, spicy, fruity, green, bell pepper, lean. Since there’s so little of it available I’ll have to take everyone’s word for it, but this one example I’ve had was definitely worth seeking out.

Petit Meslier and Pinot Gris

I put these two together because I’ve never tasted a single variety version of either from Champagne. Obviously Pinot Gris is fairly common and can be found made into sparkling versions in Alsace and Oregon. In Champagne its also called Fromenteau. Maybe one day I’ll have one made all on its own, but given my experience with Alsace and Oregon examples, I’m not going to rush out and spend a lot of money to do it.

Petit Meslier is a lean, green monster from my limited experience and everyone I’ve talked to about it. It has huge acidity which is great in hot vintages, but otherwise overwhelming. Flavor wise, the most common descriptor I hear is green bell pepper. When they’re trying to be nice and or sell the wine I hear green apple, citrus, and rhubarb.

When I visited Raphaël Bereche in February 2013, I tasted his blend of Petit Meslier and Arbanne from 2007. He’s not planning to release this commercially, but it was great to taste. It was lively and fresh, packed with minerality with definite green pepper and spicy tones. On the same trip I also tasted Laharte’s Le Clos or Les Sept depending on which label you see. This wine is a blend of all 7 grapes. I had it from barrel, and  it was young and figuring itself out, but the spicy and green pepper tones stood out. Aurelien said these integrate in creating the some of the complexity of this wine, but in its youth these tones standout almost to a fault.

Finally, I also recent drank a bottle of Benoît Lahaye Jardin de la Grosse Pierre, which in addition to having all 7 permitted grapes, it has some others including Gros Plant and some of Teinturier. Benoît’s grandfather planted this single vineyard in the 1920’s as a field blend, so no one knows exactly what’s in there. This wine was fantastically compelling full of complexity, intense flavors, and many spicy notes. I can’t say which grapes were contributing what aromas, but I will say this wine was bad with the oysters and amazing with the roasted lamb.

Overall, I think the other 4 grapes of  Champagne are interesting, but they have been diminished in quantity over the years for good reason. I think going forward we’ll see a small resurgence as the next generation of vignerons decide they want to play with them. That being said, I don’t expect that we’ll ever see any of the grapes raise to prominence in our lives.