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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.

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

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.

Beyond Pinot and Chard

In Champagne, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the darlings of producers large and small, and for good reason. That being said, there’s a few other grapes don’t get as much attention or respect as these two.

Pinot Meunier, or this days just Meunier, is by far the largest and most important of the other grapes. There are plenty of fantastic examples of this wine made on its own or in blends. While I could write tons about just grape alone, for the purpose of this blog post I’m going to limit myself to just discussing Laherte Frères and 3 of the 100% Meunier wines they make as this line up inspired this post.

Aurelien Laherte is committed to this grape and has created and interesting set of wines all made from old vines in his home village of Chavot and neighboring villages of Mancy and Vaudancourt. The compelling part of this trio of wines is that each is a different color: Vignes d’Autrefois is white, Les Beaudiers is rosé, and La Troisième Vie is still red wine. Tasting them side by side is a fascinating experience because there are certainly commonalities between the wines due the winemaker, but Meunier certainly shows its true character as well.  If you have the opportunity, I highly recommend it.

Rather than go through each wine and the various notes, I’ll share my thoughts on what I often find with this grape in general. For me, one of the most delightful flavors of Meunier is blueberries. Sometimes the blueberry note is subtle, other times it flies out of the glass. Sometimes its fresh but at others its more like the canned blueberry concoction packed with blueberry muffin mix. Its always blueberry though, anytime I get raspberries, cherries, or blackberries I know there’s Pinot Noir in the blend.

Beyond the fruit, other flavors I associate with Meunier are floral tones(usually white floral), gamey notes, earthiness, sometimes an herbal or savory tone comes through. In a great example of Meunier, these aromas are fantastic and in harmony. Unfortunately, at other times one of these flavors can stick out, marring what would otherwise be a delicious wine. This is particularly true of the gamey and herbal notes.

Along with this collection of flavors, Meunier often has a certain rusticity to it. Some in Champagne find this to be beneath their wines and avoid this grape. Others embrace it, realizing that it adds lots of character. Like the flavors above, sometimes it’s a charming component, but at other times it makes a clunky wine that shows its country bumpkin roots.  At their core I think Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are city dwellers who like dressing up and going to fancy galas. Whereas Meunier is more comfortable in the country. When its does go to the ball, it’s more like a Southern gentleman, obviously well dressed and sophisticated while retaining a sense of self in dress and manner.

Meunier based champagnes are well worth seeking out, and are regularly featured at Ambonnay, so get in here!

Grand Marque Rodeo

Grand Marque tasting

Recently, I hosted a fantastic evening where my guests and I tasted 8 of the most well known champagnes in 2 flights. It was fascinating to revisit these wines in a relaxed setting and side by side. I don’t think I’ve ever had all of these side by side ever. It was fun to see which wines actually lived up to their reputation both in terms of quality, but more importantly house style.

Here are the wines with my thoughts. A quick technical note, I did open all of the wines 1 hour before the tasting began, so they all had plenty of time to breath.

Flight 1

1.Perrier-Jouët Grand Brut NV – This was probably the biggest surprise of the night for me. I always thought of PJ as a lighter, more delicate style with floral tones. This wine however was much bigger than expected leaning toward the yeast, almond, brioche side of the house. I certainly wouldn’t have put this wine in the starting position had I realized how off my palate memory was, or how much the house has been tinkering with their style.

2. Taittinger La Francaise Brut NV – I was pleased with how this wine tasted, it showed its higher percentage of Chardonnay with bright lemon and mineral tones. The wine had a more pronounced acidity and lacked the rounder tones that arise with age. Overall, I feel that the continue to achieve their goal of making a fresh, light champagne that’s ideal for pairing with lighter foods.

3.Billecart-Salmon Brut Réserve NV – Certainly one of the highlights of the night. Despite not owning a significant portion of their vines, Billecart manages to reach impressive heights. The wine showed a spectrum of flavors both on the light citrus and mineral end, as well as a the bolder more pinot dominate notes. Balanced and easy drinking while showing its aristocratic roots.

4. Moët & Chandon Impérial Brut NV  - What to say about the most produced champagne in the world? The wine delivered what I expected, it was easy and enjoyable. I would be glad if this was what most people associated with champagne rather than Cook’s or some other garbage. It was also the wine that made the least impact on all of us. I suppose that’s the trade off, to produce that much wine, it’ll be a bit less complex.

Flight 2

5. Veuve Clicquot Carte Jaune NV – I had been hearing rumors that Clicquot was actively working on improving the quality of the Yellow Label, which had been sinking toward a very boring wine for a while now. I am happy to report that the quality of this wine has significantly improved. Possibly due to a good base year, but I’m guessing the work in the winery and vineyards is starting to show.  It wasn’t my favorite wine of the night, but it did make an impression. I will happy accept a glass of this in the future.

6. Louis Roederer Brut Premier NV – I was very happy with this wine, and I feel the additional time being open helped the wine considerably. The last few times I’ve had this wine I thought it showed more reductive qualities that I’d like, but it certainly had blown off at this tasting. The wine showed what I expected of the house and this wine – brioche and yeasty tones mingled with red apples, and minerality with an underlying grace. The ML played a wonderful role in making this wine very drinkable while remaining complex.

7. Pol Roger Cuvée de Réserve NV Brut – This was certainly the favorite of the group. It showed elegance and sophistication. A fantastic blend of almonds, brioche, red apples, and minerality. Well balanced and very drinkable. More or less what I expected from this noble house.

8. Bollinger Special Cuvée NV Brut – Bolli has been in the middle of a rough patch with their former Chef du Cave leaving, however I thought this wine showed very well. It was very much what I expected and enjoy about Bollinger – robust, full bodied champagne with a focus on brioche and nutty tones and the weight and flavor of Pinot Noir. If you enjoy bolder champagnes, this will treat you very well. I can’t help but wonder if some of this is due to their new bottle, which is designed to mimic the air to wine ratio of a magnum.

Overall, this was a fantastic tasting that confirmed that many of the houses are staying true to the perception of their house style. It was also a pleasant change to focus solely on larger producers. I get so wrapped up with the growers and focus on terrior and vintage character. I truly enjoyed tasting the crafted wines. I think in the excitement of wanting new and interesting, we forget that the established houses do truly make delicious wines.

Terroir of Vrigny

On Wednesday night, I opened a flight of wines from the Premier Cru village of Vrigny in the Petite Montagne. This village is planted with all three of the major grapes and has a collage of soils including clay, chalk, and sand. This was the first time that I’ve ever lined up wines from 3 different producers from this village to explore the question of terroir. Here are the wines I opened: Egly-Ouriet Les Vignes de Vrigny Brut NV, Lelarge-Pugeot Meuniers de Clémence Brut NV, and Roger Coulon l’Esprit de Vrigny Brut Nature NV.

Through this tasting, I definitely learned new things about Vrigny and terroir, but it wasn’t necessarily what I was hoping to learn. First this tasting reminded me terroir is partly dependent on the people that planted the vineyard, the decisions about which grapes to plant, where to plant them, spacing, etc. these all impact the final wine. I bring this up because comparing two wines that are 100% Meunier with one that is a blend of all three grapes is more difficult.

The other big illustration was how much a winemaker can coax out terroir in the wine or completely obliterate it. All three of these wines were top notch and I would happily drink any of them,  however the Coulon showed so much of the work in the winery rather than the work in the vineyard. The wine had at least 5 years on the lees, plus additional time post disgorgement. Essentially this wine was well into all the secondary and tertiary flavors of roasted hazelnuts, coffee, toffee, caramel, honey, and a bit of vanilla. I’m not saying this a bad wine, or that I don’t like these flavors. I enjoy them a great deal, but I am saying its hard to sort through them to taste for terroir.

With these lessons in mind, I still was searching for what this village expresses in its grapes that distinguish them other villages in Champagne. Through all of the wines I noticed a distinct set of flavors involving honey and wheat. Unfortunately these flavors can come from winemaking techniques as much, if not more than, terroir. That being said, I thought it telling that I noticed the trait across all of the wines despite of the significant differences in winemaking and aging.

Beyond the flavors, I definitely noticed a pronounced creaminess across all three wines. It was a very delightful creaminess that felt more like home than something elegant and luxurious. Think a perfect bowl of oatmeal rather than a very expensive lotion. Again, some of this could be from the winery rather than the earth, but still interesting to experience it in all three wines. Overall, I was a bit disappointed because I didn’t find a lot of similarities between these wines that could be obviously attributed to the terroir. Clearly more research is in order. Hopefully next time I’m in Champagne I’ll be able to taste younger versions of some of these wines.

Vilmart

I had a bit of time between appointments so I skipped lunch and sat in a nice little park over looking the vines in Rilly-la-Montagne writing about and contemplating all I've learned on the trip.  

I arrived at Vilmart to find a larger than expected operation, and a greeting from a receptionist who was rather stern.  I'm guessing someone who suffers fools regularly that want to taste the wines at Vilmart. Anyway Laurent was running a bit behind, so I hung out in this waiting room/ function extra space for harvest time.  Like many places I waited, I admired the odd French aesthetic of decorating with a mix of time periods, quality, and attention to upkeep. 

When he arrived, Laurent seemed a bit rushed, like he other things to do.  He briefly told me about the family history dating back to the 1890's and he's the fifth generation at the helm.  He also discussed the interesting break down of Rilly-la-Montagne's vines which are 40% chard, 20% Pinot, and 20% muenier, whereas Vilmart is 60% Chard and 40% Pinot.  He showed me the large casks he uses for the younger vines, 30 years old, as well as the barrique which are the for vines that are 45+ years old.  

As we talked, and began tasting, Laurent asked me about my bar and which of his wines I serve, and I ran through the list of pretty much everything he makes including a vertical of coeur de Cuvėe. Once he heard all this he went back to the fridge to get more wine.  This was not the first time this happened on the trip, it seems many of the winemakers underestimated how much I knew about their wines.  

Anyway, we started on the Grande Resėrve NV which is not really available in the US, shame because it's delicious.  Beyond this tease, I tasted a few other wines, include the Grande Cellier 2009, which hasn't been released in the the States yet, but was awesome.  Not quite as amazing as the 2008 though  Interestingly Laurent compared 07 and 09 feeling they have similarities.  We progressed the to the Coeur de Cuvėe 2005, which is a weaker vintages, but after retasting it, I'm happy to have it on my menu.  A cool wine that suffers from poor association with the vintage.  I also found out that the 06 is quick on it's heels, and will be released in March.   This was a quick visit, but good to see what's going on.  Laurent is a reserved guy who clearly is very thoughtful.  Seems like he'd be fun with a few glasses in him.  

Aubry

This was one of the visits that I was least sure about what to expect.  When I told many of the other producers I was coming here, they made a face or told me how grumpy the brothers are.  Interesting, considering they're in to sustainable farming, odd grapes, interesting production methods, and generally pushing the boundaries.  I think it's more a generational thing.  Most of the producers I met with were younger, between 30-45, where as the Aubry twins were older.  Regardless this turned out to be a great visit.  

When I arrived I met Philippe, who was on first appearance a funny little frenchman, he was very proper and helped me with my French.  He spoke almost no English, so another good opportunity to practice.  That being said, I'm really glad this wasn't my first visit,  that would have been rough. We jumped right into the tasting, no tour, no vineyards, which I was okay with.  You can only see so many wineries before your eyes glaze.  He gave me a brief break down of where the grapes come from - Jouy-les-Reims, Villedommagne, Pargny-les-Reims, and Coulommes-la-Montagne, all in the heart of  western part of the Montagne de Reims, also known as the Petite Montagne. The expositions vary between south and west, with soils primarily being chalk and clay.  

Interestingly, the Aubry brothers have all 7 of the grapes of Champagne planted, which is awesome, and even better that I was able to taste these wines with recent experience with the other grapes during other appointments like Bereche and Laherte.   We started with the brut classique which is always an easy and playful wine, followed by the rosė classique. As we tasted, Philippe realized I actually had a pretty good palate, and brought out his book of flavors that I've heard about and for the rest of the tasting we played name that flavor ranging from tangerines, hazelnut cookies, red currants pineapple, tonic, earl grey tea, and lots more fun.  

At some point Philippe's twin brother Pierre came down stairs and kind of grunted a hello before moving along.  Maybe the other winemakers had a point.  Regardless, we tasted through the line, and it was one of the most fun tasting I did during my trip.  Between the complexity of the wines and playing name that flavor I really enjoyed myself.  We moved on the the 2008 of both the Le Nombre d'Or Companie VV and Blanc de Blancs both of which were fascinating and complex.  

We then started moving into some of my favorite wines of the trip:  Ivorie et Ebene 09 which is 70% chard, 25 meunier, and 5 Pinot.  It was loaded with flavor, lots of dark fruits, honeycomb, floral tones, cider notes, overall a delightful wine with lots of complexity but very friendly at the same time.  Sablė Rosė 2008 - without a doubt one of the wines of the trip.  Made with 45% vin tache from pinot and muenier.  Vin tache is the slightly pink juice from the start of the pressing that is usually blended with enough white to remove the color.  The rest of the blend is 15% chard, 20% arbanne, 29% petit meslier, and 5% rouge.  So much complexity here.  Peaches, bark, floral notes, gummy bears, loads of depth, complexity, great acid, and only fermented to 4 bars of pressure instead of the regular 6.   We finished on the Aubry de Humbert, named after the first stone placed in the cathedral of Reims. 1/3 each of the three main grapes with long aging.  This wine was fascinating with lots of aged and oxidative notes - coffee, bark, chocolate, hazelnut, honey, orange, mature wine that was delicious with a long finish and pleasant acidity. 

It would have been great to do a vin clair tasting here, just experience these components on their own.  It would also have been great to have better glassware.  The stems were the awful little flutes that don't do anything good for the wine.  Can't wait to revisit these wines are home with good glasses!  

Jacques Selosse and Les Avizés

Selosse is one of those producers that has so much hype built up around him, it's inevitable to wonder whether he and his wines truly live up to the legend.  I decided to splurge and stay at Les Avizés, his hotel and eat at his restaurant to experience it all for myself.   The hotel is gorgeous, well designed but with plenty of quirks that will prevent it from becoming a tired but very luxurious hotel.  It was a fascinating mix of traditional and modern design elements that was inspiring and made me want to stay longer.

 I had the entire hotel to myself, I was the only guest, which is unfortunate because it would have been nice to see some life there.  I also had the whole restaurant to myself, which was a bit sad but I got over it.  It did make me feel a bit better about my slow days at Ambonnay, even one of the most well known places in Champagne still has slow nights.     The restaurant was smaller than I expected and very integrated into the hotel.

 The husband wife duo of Stephanė and Natalie that run the restaurant are delightful and certainly made the best meal I had in champagne. One of my favorite courses was a veal dish, but it was the accompanying vegetables that truly impressed me.  The dish combined shitake mushrooms, roasted turnips, and mashed sweet potatoes in a soy reduction that was very flavorful and showed me new things to do with winter veggies.  In fact all the courses had a fantastic vegetable component, which I rarely found in France. The cheese course is not to be missed, without a doubt the best cheeses I had in France.  

Since I ordered bottle of Champagne, which I'll discuss in a moment, Natalie was kind enough to share a bit of red wine with the veal course.  Apparently Francis Egly of Egly-Ouriet had been in for lunch and brought a bunch of interesting wines with him.  Natalie gave me a glass of his 2004 Coteaux Champagnois Rouge.  It was an interesting wine that reminded me of an aged Oregon or California Pinot more than a burgundy.  Pretty cool to experience it and it was fun with the food.  The wine list was truly impressive with great names from across France and prices that ranged from reasonable to expensive.

As I was at his house I decided to treat myself to a birthday present of one of Selosse's lieu-dit or single vineyard champagnes.  It was a tough choice, but ultimately I decided on the Bout de Clos from Ambonnay, and I'm glad I did because I learned a lot from this wine.   In typical Selosse fashion the wine was bold, intense, packed with flavor, a bit oxidized, and very fascinating. Throughout the evening it changed and evolved giving me a broad range of flavors always complimented by great acidity.  More important than the flavors though was the experience of the wine.  

The more of the world's top wines that I drink, the more I convinced that to truly appreciate many of them you have to sit with them over the course of an evening. Much like getting to know someone, a long conversation up front helps cement the bond that can be revisited in the future.  Had I enjoyed this wine with a group, I would have missed out on many important pieces of the wine that took a while to truly express themselves.  Due to this wine, I was able to understand that Ambonnay has a core of elegance in the same way Mesnil has a core of precision.  This realization was confirmed during my time in Ambonnay tasting through those wines.  

In addition to the pleasure and new understand of Ambonnay, I gained a better understanding of Selosse's wines.  As you move up his ladder of pricing, I feel that his wine become very much like Miles Davis during the late 60's.  As I drank the Bout de Clos I couldn't help thinking of the times I've listened to the Complete Bitches Brew, it's obviously amazing, but I'm not sure that I am truly understanding it, or at least not getting as much as others might get out of it.   I feel this way about Selosse's wines, which is saying something because my champagne knowledge is far great than my knowledge of jazz. I think it best to view his wines as an experience, or a journey rather than a destination.  All of this being said, this wine exhibited the one true trait of an amazing wine, after the last sip I still wanted more.

The next morning I was fortunate enough to meet Anselme and spend a bit of time with him.  We talked about the Bout de Clos, he first got access to the grapes in 02, but didn't make the lieu-dit until 2004 which is the one I enjoyed the previous night. The vineyard is mid slope and at the foot of one of the walls in the vineyards. It butts up to Bouzy on the western side of Ambonnay, but still showed the grace and elegance of Ambonnay but maybe some of the power of Bouzy.   He then took me on a tour, via maps, of where all 6 of the lieu-dits are located and told me about the 7th in Oger which won't be out for another 7 years. We both had things to do so we said out good byes and I went and ate breakfast, which was an awesome spread, totally worth €20, and then grabbed my bags and went to the car.  When I got to the car, I discovered Anselme out scrapping the ice off my windshield.  It was a bit odd to have a world class winemaker scrap my car, but it also showed me the humility of a man that has not been overcome by his fame.   If you are in Champagne I highly recommend staying at Les Avizės! 

Chartogne-Taillet

It was quite a start to my birthday to hang out with Anselme Selosse, and the day continued to get better after a 50 minute drive to Merfy for my visit with Alexandre Chartogne.  Fortunately for me Alexandre is a winemaker who believes in drinking.  I was nursing a hang over from the previous night, so a glass of Cuvėe Ste Anne was a welcome way to start this appointment.  

Alexandre was a fascinating and passionate guy.  I enjoyed my time learning about him, his winery, his village, and champagne.  We started by talking about the history of Merfy, which is long and compelling. Long ago it was a Grand Cru, but due to wars, politics, and many growers giving up, the village didn't retain it's standing in the classifications.  Chartogne feels history is very important, but "history doesn't make wine" so we moved on to discuss the soils, terrior and farming methods. 

Merfy is in the Massif St. Thierry, which I hadn't realized, I always thought it was part of the Petit Montagne, but this isn't the case.  The vines are south facing, planted north to south with all three grapes growing in the village.  Alexandre believes in organic farming because it encourages the roots to grow deep and hit the variety of subsoils in Merfy rather than growing horizontally.  Horizontal roots are harder on the plants during summer and winter because accessing water and nutrients becomes much harder.  He uses horses to plow and sheep in the vineyard to maintain the cover crops.  Like many of the other winemakers I met with, Chartogne talked a lot about how he doesn't like tractors because they compress the soil which prevents water from draining and encourages erosion. It was interesting to see his plots vs his neighbors.  His were well drained, flourishing, and green. While his neighbors' plots were brown, compacted and had pools of water between the vines.  Finally he believes in low yields for his plants, 2-3 clusters rather than 10+ per plant. He feels too many clusters for too many years burns out the plants, just like too much work burns out people.  

We tasted though his wines which was a fascinating experience to taste the terrior of Merfy.  He told me more about the single vineyard wines he makes, and how rare they are.  I didn't realize that so little is available, only 250 bottles come to the US of many of these wines so I feel lucky to get them.  He was impressed that I had already enjoyed all 4 previously. It was interesting to taste some of these in barrel or bottle and examine the differences between clay which brings power, sand which brings ripe fruit and acid but is less integrated, and the chalk which brings mineralogy and precision.

 The 2013 Les Barres from barrel was a particular revelation. I've had the wine in bottle and thought it was good, but in barrel I understood more about it bold, dense, lots of blueberry fruit, intense acid a powerful wine coming from ungrafted rootstocks!

After the tasting we walked the vineyards where I saw the pools of water between his neighbors rows.  We talked more about the history of the village which dates back to the 800's.  During WWII the village was heavily bombed, driving away many growers.  However, it had much less phylloxera than other areas due to the sandy soils.  These facts combined with the difficulty of using tractors in the area meant that Merfy was much different than many other villages. They had to charge more for the their grapes, making the negociants were less interested in the fruit.  The Chartogne family managed to capitalize on this and bought plenty of vineyards in Merfy over the years that others no longer wanted.  They now own 10 of the 45 ha in Merfy. As the conversation and walk continued we reached a cemetery in the middle of the vineyards. I thought this odd, but Alexandre was. He is looking forward to eventually being buried amongst his vines and watching future generations care for them.  What an interesting worldview knowing where you'll be buried.   Very fascinating visit. 

René Geoffroy

2/1/14 Going from Prevost to Geoffroy was quite a culture shock, possibly greater than Krug to Bereche. I've enjoyed Jean-Baptiste's wines for years, and he's sharp guy who's doing quite well.  He recently purchased a huge, aristocratic building in Aÿ that used to be the home to the cooperative winery of the village. The co-op out grew the building, and JB our grew his family space in Cumieres, so it worked out well.  That being said, he doesn't have any vines in Aÿ, but plenty in Cumieres, Hautvillers, Damery,and more.  

JB is definitely more of a winemaker than a farmer.  He talks about minimal winemaking, no ML, using traditional presses because pneumatic don't allow you to truly know whats going on. All sorts of vessels - stainless, enamel, various size oak because he likes to keep his 45 parcels separate until blending.  He doesn't like to fine or filter.  He actually had a lab, which was one of the few I saw.  

Interestingly he didn't talk much about the vines, just that he didn't like all the rain they're getting because it makes it hard to work with tractors and washes away the fertilizer.  Quite the contrast with Prevost. 

After the quick tour of the sprawling 3 story winery, we went and tasted his wines.  It was interesting to taste some Vallėe de la Marne wines after so many from the other main regions. They were easier and a bit more friendly.  Less demanding, but very enjoyable. I'm sure that's partly JB's hand as well, but I did notice the "fine" note that Laval talked about in more than one of JB's wines.  

The Empriente continues to be the sweet spot for me in terms of price and quality, and the 07 is just as good as the 06 which I've had on the list since day one, but its expressive of 2007 so a bit leaner and higher acid than the 06.  When it arrives in Portland, it will return to my list.  A newer wine for JB, and one I've never tasted is the blanc de rose, which is an exceptional and serious wine.  Unfortunately it comes with an appropriate price tag for the quality, but worth it.  It's base year 2011, 50 chard 50 Pinot, co-macerated  with 3 g/L.  The wine is more elegant and complex than the rose de saignee, and has more nuanced flavors including pink grapefruit.  Awesome wine.   The other wine really impressed me was his Millėsime 2004.  I've never tried his vintage wines, mostly because of the price tag, about $150.  I'm glad that I finally got to try this wine, it is worthy of the cost.  It's cork finished, see Bereche for a discussion of this, and shows plenty of the "fine" Cumieres note along with loads of complexity, elegance, fruit, coffee, and earth tones while retaining fantastic freshness.  A wonderful end to the tasting.  

Penet-Chardonnet

2/1/14 Bonus - When I had a free moment earlier in the trip I visited a wine shop called 520 in Epernay, this place is outstanding and focuses on champagne, with one of the best selections I've seen.  The owner invited me back on Saturday to the tasting they were hosting with Alexandre Penet of Penet-Chardonnet, I had a bit of time, so I did.  And, I'm glad I did! 

The PC wines were impressive, their vineyard holdings are in Verzy and Verzenay. It was a treat to taste these wines for a couple reasons, first they were well made and delicious.  Beyond that, on this trip I didn't have anyone on the itinerary that were based on the eastern edge of the Montagne de Reims which has a distinct terroir.  Finally, I've only tasted a couple produces that exclusively use one of these two villages. Penet's wines matched what I expected flavor wise from the region, with plenty of intense dark fruit, however they were fascinating because they all had very low dosage.  This high acid helped balance the big fruit of the wine to create a compelling experience.  It was also great to experience the fruit tones of blackberries and cherries combined the with chalk flavors and precision.  I had tasted so much green apple and lemon mixed with chalk, that it was a welcome change.   I'm hoping I can convince someone to import these wines to Portland as this is an unrepresented region in our city.  

Savart

2/1/14  The third scheduled appointment of the day was just as compelling as the first two, and just as different.  Of all the vignerons I met, Fred Savart was the one that the most into wine.  I mean really into wine, we spent half the appointment talking about other wines, burgundy, Rhone, Oregon, Champagne, it was a blast.  It was also a refreshing change since so few people in champagne seem to have a clue about the rest of France let alone the rest of the world.  

Fred's winery was going through a remodel and expansion, so clearly what he's doing is working.  We did a quick tour and then went to the barrel room where he showed me his collection of various sized oak barrels including some from Stockinger.  Like Peters and Bereche, Savart swears these are the best barrels.

We tasted through a number of vin clair which were compelling.  I asked Fred what he thought was typical for Ecueil, the village he's based in at the northwestern end of the Montagne de Reims or the Petite Montagne. He, in his humble way, thinks the Pinot from his village is like Rayas from Chateauneuf du Pape, subtle but very complex,  the vines here get lots of sun and variety of expositions. 

After tasting through the barrels, we went down to taste the wine, and on the way we admired his extensive collection of really great empty wine bottles.  We compared notes, bragged, an just had a good time.  As I tasted through Fred's wines, I realized that I just wanted to drink them.  I took lots of notes and there's plenty of intellectual components there, but honestly they're just delicious. I wanted to drink them and hang out,  essentially that's what we did, it wasn't studious like Prevost, or business minded like Geoffroy, it was just two guys hanging out drinking and shooting the shit.  Pretty perfect.   That being said, I'm hoping to get the 2009 Expression because that wine is sexy! Overall Fred's wines are hedonistic and help you remember why you enjoy wine in the first place, assuming you like high acid wines with lots of fruit and a bit of oak.  

Laherte Freres

1/31/14 Laherte Freres

This was my first appointment of what turned out to be an odd day with a lot of schedule shuffling.  When I arrived at Laherte, I went to the wrong entrance which required phone calls, only to realize that Aurelian had forgotten I was coming, however it gave me ample opportunity to explain all of this in French with his mother as we waited for him.   As we waited for Aurelian, she started me off on the tasting of finished wines.

 It's always interesting to taste a broad line up of wines, and compare my thoughts this what my importer chooses to bring to Portland. In the case of the Laherte wines, I completely agree with the selections that Scott Paul brings in, while leaving a few off the order.  However, I'm hoping that we can get a bit of Aurelian's troisieme vie, which was the best coteaux champanois rouge I had on the trip.  The tasting was fascinating because the wines we great, but more importantly I'm gaining a better sense of how terrior impacts the wines in champagne.  Laherte is based in Chavot in the coteaux sud d'Epernay.  It's the intersection of the chalk of the cotes des blancs and the clay of the Vallėe de la Marne.  This was most apparent in the blanc de blanc brut nature which had all of the vibrancy of the chalk with the richness of the clay. There was also a very compelling tropical tone to the wine that I hadn't experienced on this trip prior to this wine.   The other highlight wine was Les Emprientes 2009, which in the past has showed well, but always been a bit overshadowed by it's siblings. This wine is all from Chavot and an equal blend of Pinot and chard.  Absolutely fascinating, complex, and totally drinkable.  I love it when intellectual and hedonistic traits are found in a single wine.  

After the tasting we went down to the barrel room for a huge tasting of vin Clair which was fantastically compelling, as were Aurelian's thoughts on winemaking.  He was just as opinionated as the other producers, but seemed happier about it rather than dogmatic.  He is very happy that there is a new generation coming up and being more open and helping each other, unlike during his parents time when everyone was secretive.   During the vin clair tasting he gave me both cuveė and taillet wines, or the first and second pressings of the fruit. Generally taillet is considered inferior and most producers sell it off.  Aurelian keeps it, he feels it has good fruit that works for the ultradition, but it lacks the soul for the more serious wines.  He also believes that new wines are like kids, if you only give attention to one of your kids the others suffer, so he tries to treat them all well including the taillet.  

The other really great part of the barrel tasting was the discussion about the other grapes of champagne, all of which Aurelian uses.  They are hard grapes, often ripening later than the last of his pinot, and they're really better blended than alone.  That being said he likes them and has planted more.  He feels the arbanne has a metallic note, Pinot blanc adds banana, and petit meslier adds green pepper.  None of the flavors is particularly great, but when blend with the main grapes can produce fascinating wines.  Aurelian has a demeanor that I truly liked and I would happily spend more time with him and his wines.  Definitely one of the biggest nuts I've met so far though,  biodynamics in Champagne is so hard, I applaud him and his results.  In the vineyards he practices biodynamics, and has found great results.  Interestingly he started not with his best parcels, but his hardest.  The good parcels will always make good fruit, but when give attention to the hard ones he found the quality went up dramatically. 

José Michel

1/31/14 Josė Michel 

This was a bonus visit due to rescheduling.  I've enjoyed these wines for years now, so it was great to meet the man and see Moussy also in the Coteaux sud d'Epernay,   Since I didn't have an appointment, I was only able to do a quick tasting.  Josė only stayed for minute and turned the reigns over to his son(apprentice?), clearly showing the estate is in transition, but hopefully the new generation will continue, or make it even better.   As we tasted and talked I found out they have some vines in Chateau Thierry at the far northwestern edge of Champagne The wines were delightful as always and the 2006 vintage is delicious.  I look forward to it arriving in Portland as the 05 is ok but not great.   A fun little bonus!