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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.

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!

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.

Sunday in Champagne

Sundays in Champagne are pretty boring, so I ended up driving around and looking at many of the villages and vineyards I wasn't specifically visiting.  Its obvious why many of the grand crus and important 1ers are classified more highly than their neighbors.  

Just some observations:

Hautvillers gentile slopes, mostly south and SE exposure.  The abbey was impressive as well. 

Verzy and Verzenay where very steep and hilly with east facing vines. There's also a facinating park in Verzy with a high ropes corse and a champagne bar, odd...

Ambonnay and Bouzy have a gorgeous SE facing slope that's quite gentle.

Trepail, a 1er next to Ambonnay is clearly inferior to it's neighbor, with less elevation and shallow slopes and more south and north facing vines. 

Tours-sur-Marne, maybe I missed something or didn't see the right area, but for the life of me I couldn't figure out why this was grand cru.  For that matter there weren't even many vineyards,  

Oiry - same deal as Tours sur Marne

Chouilly had one impressive hill with all the right stuff and then a bunch of valley floor, who cares vineyards.  

Cuis is to Cramant, as Trepail is to Ambonnay. Cramant is a steep amphitheater that is quite impressive and obvious as to why it's grand cru.  

Both the cotes de blanc and the montagne de Reims, at the southern end, look very much like the cote d'or in burgundy.  

The Vallėe de la Marne is less uniform, with steeper slopes and a variety of directions in which the vines face.   After seeing all these areas I'm hoping and looking forward to more growers taking an interest in showing off their terroirs. 

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. 

Veuve Fourny

1/31/14 Veuve Fourny

In 2013 Charles Fourny came to Portland and did an event at Red Slate.  Due to the odd day of schedule shuffling, I had a some time at the end of the day and got lucky that Charles could see me.  It was interesting to visit another producer in Vertus, they're quite proud of their village, and definitely feel like they have something to prove since it's next to many famed grand crus, but is only premier cru itself.  

Charles took me out to the vineyards as well, but unlike my visit with Doquet, we toured the village's vineyards  as a whole rather than going in depth on a couple parcels.  Vertus has 3 distinct areas:  1.  Southern end which is more of a bowl or amphitheater with most southern exposure, this area is home to Les Rougemonts, Fourny's single vineyard rosė, as well as Doquet's parcels. Clay soils.  2. The midsection which is SE facing and parallels the southern end of the Montagne de Reims villages of Ambonnay and Bouzy.  Chalk based soils.  3. The northern end which borders Mesnil sur Oger.  East facing with lots of chalk.    Charles feels Vertus has lots of possibility due to these distinct areas and is underrated. Within all three of the sub zones, there were a lot of different. Hills and exposures, adding to the complexity and the need carefully select parcels.  That being said, Charles was quite proud of his parcels lower on the slope, whereas, Doquet thought this area to be lesser.   The final vineyard stop was at the Clos du Notre Dame, which is adjacent to the winery, it's one of the few Clos in champagne, and is planted with 70 chard, 30 Pinot.  Its plowed by horse, the same horse that plows Clos du Ambonnay, Clos du Mesnil, and Clos de Goisses, pretty serious group.  

After running around the vineyards, which have been organic since 1992, we went back to the winery which was quite modern and larger than I expected.  We tasted a bunch of vin clairs, both from the Cuvėe and the taillet the difference between the clay and chalk parcels were obvious the first being richer and more exotic, the later being more precise and salty.   Charles obviously had plenty of thoughts on winemaking but was less interesting in digging around in the details and just rattled of the facts that he thinks oxidization in bad, and likes a minimal approach with no lees stirring, racking, fining or filtering, and a low sulfur regime. ML happens for all rouge, but the other wines are on a year by year basis. As we talked and tasted, Charles thinks that most people under 35 in France are excited about the idea of terrior, etc whereas the parents just don't care much and want an easy champagne with a name they know.  

We moved on to the finished wines, and I was impressed.  Possibly because of the tour and barrel tasting, or possibly because of all of the visits but I found I really appreciated Fourny's wines this trip, particularly the basic wines.  The house style of fresh wines with high acid also became more obvious. A couple highlights:  Millėsime 2007 - the fruit comes from the northern end of Vertus and really showed the grey tones Roldophe Peters discussed in relation to Mesnil.   Millėsime 2008 - the 07 is good, and interesting, the 2008 was awesome! I can't wait for this wine to come to the states. Delicious, great acid, wow! Cuvėe R 08/07 base.  Impressive and compelling wine.  Another one I'm looking forward to seeing back home.  All oak barrels for 18 months but only 2-3 g/L dose so it was dense, creamy, and delicious but retained fantastic acid.   Unfortunately he was out of the Clos du Notre Dame, so I didn't get to taste it, but the visit was fantastic with lots of information on the terrior of Vertus. 

Krug

1/30/14 Krug

I wasn't sure what to expect going to krug, but I figured it would be great, and the team at Krug put on quite a show for me.  They offered me wonderful hospitality, yet they weren't stuffy or overly formal.  It was a very pleasant day.   It started off with a reception and a glass of Grande Cuvėe, which was quite welcome as I was fighting off a minor hangover.  After a brief discussion, we hopped in the car and went to Ambonnay for a tour of Clos d'Ambonnay and the press facility there.  The whole team was excited about this because the don't get to go to this vineyard very often, so it was a treat for us all.  Along the way I learned some interesting facts about Krug and champagne as a whole that I didn't know: There are 275,000 different parcels of vines in Champagne!  There are 19,000 growers. For the Grande Cuvėe Krug makes 305 different wines, and ultimately uses 100-150 for the final blend.  Clos du Mesnil is only 1.8 ha, about the same size as Romanėe Conti in burgundy. Within this walled vineyard, they've isolated 5 distinct parcels, depending on proximity to the walls, air flow, etc.  Clos d' Ambonnay is 3 times smaller with only .6 ha, and only 2 distinct parcels. This translates to only 20 barrels of wine, or 3000-4000 bottles when they decide to make this wine.  This limited quantity is their reason for the high cost of this wine. 

The Clos d'Ambonnay was tiny, I've seen backyards that are bigger.  The vines arent super old, being planted in the 1980's but are certainly reaching the necessary maturity to produce wines of such a high caliber. It was pretty cool to see all 20 barrels of CdA in front of me in the press house, however if they decide to declare 2013 a CdA vintage, we won't see it until around 2025.  Crazy. 

Back at the main facility in Reims, we went for a quick tour seeing the library reserves as well as vault of all the old vintages of Krug.  Pretty cool, but a big tease as the same time.  Finally we headed to the elegant yet understated tasting room, where 3 empty glasses were ready for us.  They took me through the star to the galaxy tasting as they call it, but added a twist and wonderful birthday surprise of starting with the Clos d' Ambonnay 1998!   Clos d'Ambonnay 1998 - shame this wine was just opened, because it feels like so much more will be going on in 1-2 hours.  Regardless, this wine is pretty incredible.  It had a powerful and complex nose that continued to evolve, highlights included coffee, raisins, saline, minerality, along with lots freshness. The palate was also quite complex and a dichotomy between aged flavors and youthful ones. Very elegant, but still a baby.  This wine was meant to be a single point in the "Krug galaxy" one vineyard, one vintage. The hospitality team was quite excited to open this wine, and all of them could only remember having once or twice in the past.   Millėsime 1998 - More open that at my tasting in December lots of length with fascinating fruit tones - cherry, apricot, lemon, orange marmalade, along with coffee and roasted nuts.  Nice chalkiness too. This wine is the mid point in the galaxy showing just one vintage but many terriors.   Grande Cuvėe - the whole of the galaxy, and the absolute focus of the house, it's designed to show many terriors and many vintages uniting into one harmonious wine.  I am gaining a better understanding and appreciation that this wine is the most important wine to them and should represent the best of the house.  I'm still not entirely convinced it's their best wine, but it was great to understand their commitment to that goal and how the work towards it.  Rather inspiring to have a such a direction and to constantly work toward that.   Overall, Krug was an amazing experience. And I'm beginning to see that wineries, like collectors, enjoy bringing out the good stuff when there are guests that will truly appreciate it.  

Bereche & Fils

1/30/14 Bereche & fils

To go from Krug to Bereche was quite a contrast. The reserved and hospitable compared with Raphael Bereche who is quite passionate, but seeming more comfortable in the cellar than the tasting room.  Raphael is fascinating to speak and taste with as he is very knowledgeable about the terriors of champagne and at the same time is also quite opinionated.  The bombshell opinion of the whole trip is his thought that meunier is more complex than Chardonnay!  Let that sink in for a few minutes.  

We started with a discussion of the terriors he works in the montagne de Reims and Vallėe de la Marne. He has 3 areas he works with, a trio of villages in the northern Montagne de Reims - Ludes, Chingy les Roses, and Mailly, for Pinot and chard.  Ormes which is west of Reims in the Petit Montagne, with all three grapes planted mid slope with southern exposure, and sandy soils. Finally the Vallėe de la Marne he has vines in Festigny, which is great for meunier, and Marueil-sur-Ay which has old vine Pinot and a bit of chard which he thinks is similar to the Macon due to it's richness.  The richness is because of the clay and sand.   In his line up of wines the Brut resrve and Reflet d'Antan have grapes from all 3 areas, while the rest are terrior specific.  Unfortunately Raphael has decided to discontinue the  extra brut reserve because he wants 1 cuvee with 1 dose per year, plus he didn't think the extra brut aged well as it doesn't have broad shoulders that the sugar helps provide.  

After the terrior discussion, we toured the winery, which included a lot of fascinating opinions about wine making.  One thing that had eluded me during all of my previous tours was the lack of sorting tables, they don't use them in champagne because they don't want to beat up the grapes and break the skins.  Obvious, yet after touring so many wineries in other regions they all had sorting tables, so I just assumed they did in champagne as well.  Without the sorting table it means the pickers have to be much more careful.   He has a modern Coquard press, which was the only one I saw in all of my visits, the updated version of the original champagne press.   Raphael doesn't like using old barrels, he thinks it's dangerous for the wine with too many potential bacteria and microbes. This being said he also doesn't use brand new barrels, prefers 2 year old, which he uses for 5-6 years.  He doesn't do any batonnage nor does he allow ML.  He believes the trend toward ML started in the 1980's by the larger houses because it helps reduce the amount of time they have to age their wine while still being drinkable. Additionally, he doesn't like stainless steel, preferring enamel. He thinks stainless has too much static electricity for the wine.  He stores his reserve wine as a perpetual blend in Demi-muid.  Finally we had a discussion about cork finished champagne, Raphael's father 20 years ago.  They believe it helps the wine develop more flavor, a creamier texture, and more balance.  They believe that they are a traditional winery and traditionally wines were finished with cork.  Metal caps are industrial, so can be used be industrial wineries.  Lots of opinions, but I've found passionate people with opinions often make much more interesting wines, Bereche included.  

The vin Clair tasted confirmed this, as did tasting his line up of finished wines.  A few highlights from the tasting:  Brut reserve 2011 base, was delicious, classic Bereche with loads of complexity.  I cant wait to glass pour this wine. Interestingly Raphael thought this was a harder year that 2010, but the 11 is much more compelling.  He thinks 2012 is going to be great,   La Cran 2006, showing beautifully with lots of complexity,  this wine is from the top of Ludes with chalky soils. I think I'm going to pour this from magnum on NYE.   Reflet d'Antan base 08 - serious and amazing wine. Amazing flavors but my notes focus more on the textures, this wine is superb.  Raphael feels champagne is refreshing due to it's texture not it's temperature.

Finally Raphael and his brother Vincent have started a negociant label, in which they buy finished wines from retiring winemakers and family friends that are very expressive of terrior.  It allows they to show terriors of the cotes de blanc and other areas where they lack vineyards.  At this point they have wines from Avize, Cremant, and Trepail.  All were delicious and I'm hoping to be selling them this year.   By the end of the tasting, Raphael seemed convinced that I was the real deal  and was more relaxed and laughing.  He was excited that I was so interested in learning about the terrior of champagne.  A great visit with yet another crazy man.  This theme continues through the entire trip.  

Pascal Doquet

1/29/14 Pascal Doquet

My first full day in champagne was dedicated to the Cotes des Blancs. Doquet was my first visit, and Pascal and his wife were fantastic.  Right off the bat Pascal took me out to the shed to see his tractors, which were clearly very important to him.  These tractors are much lighter and designed to have a much smaller impact on the ground in the vineyards than conventional tractors.

 After the tractors, we hopped in his van and went out to the vineyards in Vertus, which is just one of the villages he has vines.  Pascal's vines were impressive, he takes great care of them using organic and biodynamic practices.  When looking are his plots next to his neighbors' the results of his hard work were obvious. His vines have lots of vitality and plenty of ground crops growing between them.  everything looked fertile and green relative to the other plots which were grey and brown with  flecks of garbage from the poorly thought out 70's idea that trash could be used as fertilizer in the vineyards.  Most of these poorly cared for plots are owned by growers that are just interested in quantity, but even the large houses are taking better care of the vines they own.  

As we walked the vineyards and looked at different parcels, Pascal gave me a history of grape growing in Vertus and neighboring villages.  Vertus has a lot of clay soils, making it distinct from it's northern neighbors, which are mostly chalk.  Originally Vertus was a Pinot noir village, which Doquet feels that it should be still.  He thinks that clay is better for Pinot, and it makes the chardonnay too rich.  However, the maison and negociants liked the richness the clay gave the Chardonnay.  It makes it easier to blend with Mesnil and other chalk driven wines that are less friendly on the palate.  The governing body of champagne classified the Chardonnay of Vertus higher than the Pinot, so the grower received more money for the chard.  They ended replanting most of the village with Chardonnay and now only  about 10% of the village is pinot noir.  Pascal and a few other like minded producers are trying to change that by making Vertus Pinot noir champagnes. These won't be out for a while, but should be exciting to see.   From the vineyards, Pascal also pointed out his other vines in the neighboring Bergeres-Vertus, Mont Aime, Mesnil, and the lesser area of valley floor vines in Villeneuve.  

We returned to the winery for a tour, and it's always interesting to see wineries and their state of cleanness. Pascals was not the pristine lab that some wineries are, but it suited his personality.  He gave me a quick tour of his enamel tanks which he prefers over stainless and then we went to the barrel room which he uses for the better wines for fermentation and storage.  

We tasted a number of vin Clair from 2013, which already at this young point in there lives showed typicity.  Vertus was broad and round, Mesnil was chalky and lean, and Mont Aime was smoky and citrus driven.   After the vin clairs, we tasted through his line up, which was quite compelling, and most certainly showed his hand in the wine along with the oak.  However, this tasting was the most definitive tasting I've ever had to illustrate the quality between cru, premier cru, and grand cru in champagne.  The vintage Vertus, Mont Aime, and Mesnil all showed their terrior, and the Mesnil was significantly better.  All of them were good, but side by side was more compelling than any of them independently.  Overall a wonderful morning full of learning and delicious wine.  

Salon & Delamotte

1/29/14 Salon

After a hearty lunch, that actually included vegetables at  Le Bistro in Vertus, I took a quick trip up the Cotes des Blancs to Mesnil-sur-Oger. I had a bit of time to kill some I wandered around and found the park over looking Krug's Clos du Mesnil.  I didn't know what to expect, but I thought it to be rather small.   Apparently it's about the same size as Romanėe Conti in Burgundy.   A moment or two of awe, then up the hill for an equally awe inspiring viist with Salon.  

This is one of the storied producers in Champagne.  The started near the beginning of the 1900's, with their first official release being 1921.  Contrary to  popular belief they are not a single vineyard estate, rather they are a single village estate. Salon focuses solely on Mesnil-sur-Oger, certainly one of the best in all of Champagne.  Salon owes 2 ha and purchases fruit from another 6 ha to create 60,000 bottles when they decide to declare a vintage.  All of the parcels are mid slope, and in more or less a line starting from the wineries backyard,   2002 marks the release of the 38th vintage since the house began, and the next vintages will be 04, 06, 07, 08, and 12.  

In the other years the wine goes to their sister house, Delamotte, usually into the reserve library for blending, but sometimes in the vintage blanc de blanc.   The other big facts about the estate - generally no malolactic fermentation, 10 years minimum aging before release, and all bottles are hand riddled.  The hand riddling isn't for the luxury as with some estates, but rather due to the crest on the bottle being a trap for sediment and a person needs to make sure the yeast doesn't get stuck.  

It was interesting to visit Salon after two very passionate growers.  Salon is certainly more refined in terms of facilities and presentation, but couldn't match the enthusiasm of the growers.  I didn't expect them to, and the tour was very enjoyable with plenty of discussion of selling champagne and the world in general, but there was little discussion of the farming methods, etc.  Unfortunately, I wasn't offered the chance to taste vin clair, which would have been awesome.   However, after tasting through the Delamotte  wine, which continue to improve in recent years, my host brought out 2002 Salon!  I was expecting to taste the 1999, which is starting to show quite well after a dumb phase.  The 2002 was quite a treat, and apparently I'm about the 20th American to taste the wine, as it won't be released until April.   This is one of those sad and amazing wines that is from a well known vintage and is drinkable enough that too much of it will be drunk far too young.  The wine is built to last for decades. Already it was showing a more open and obvious side than any other young Salon I've had.  Tons of complexity, but quite tight.  Plenty of focus on chalk that is a texture as much as it is a flavor.  Other notes included a bit of peach, apricot skin, ginger without the burn, a touch of smoke.  Disgorged Q3 2013, 5 g/L, no wood, no malo.   I highly recommend buying this wine if you have the means.  It will treat you well, particularly if you allow it to spend some time in the cellar.