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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

Iceland!

Iceland thoughts

 Blue galciers in Glacier Lagoon near Höf   

Blue galciers in Glacier Lagoon near Höf

 

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

 Gullfoss Waterfall on the Golden Circle

Gullfoss Waterfall on the Golden Circle

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

 Herbed lamb fat and bread at Dill Restaurant in Reykjavic

Herbed lamb fat and bread at Dill Restaurant in Reykjavic

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

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

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

 Mini canyons at Þingvellir National Park on the Golden Circle.

Mini canyons at Þingvellir National Park on the Golden Circle.

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

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

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.

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. 

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.  

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.  

Reims vs Epernay

After the long days of tasting and driving, I went to Reims to find my hotel and see what the big city of Champagne had to offer.  Unfortunately it was Monday so all of the cool shops, restaurants, and everything  I wanted to see were closed leaving me in a bit of a lurch. I eventually found a place to eat that wasn't too touristy but still rather expensive. After dinner I walked around, saw the cathedral, which is quite impressive and then went to the hotel.  

A lot of people were surprised that I was staying Epernay for most of the trip rather than Reims. Reims is the bigger city and the capital of the region.  That being said, it wasn't big enough to really be cool, but it was big enough to be hectic and more expensive. Bad combination.  Epernay on the other hand  is closer to most of the vineyards , villages, and wineries, saving about 30-40 minutes of drive time to most areas.  Epernay is also was a lot cheaper, and I didn't get stuck with big parking costs, etc.  The restaurants in Epernay were  fine, if not very good in the case of Cook In a delight french/Thai joint. Epernay was also much easier to get around.  If you're heading to Champagne to visit small producers I recommend staying in Epernay over Reims.  That being said if you just want to visit the region, see a couple grande Marques and skip renting s car, Reims is probably the better choice.

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. 

General Observations

I've had a whirlwind couple days in champagne.  It feels like so much longer though.  The trip has been super intense in a very positive way, I'm improving my French, meeting and tasting with producers, and forming more educated opinions about champagne, and essentially really getting a feel for what it's all about here.  I'm also starting to see how I fit in to the dialogue, there's lots of space and not many people truly taking the reins.  I'm up at 3 in the morning typing because I can't seem to sleep so I'm hoping a brain dump will help.  

General thoughts - it's really interesting to be here where you see champagne written on everything, it desensitizes you to some of the magic, like insurance companies and funeral homes, not sexy. Moet really is important here, obviously the current big company, but I'm talking more historically.  It's clear how much the city of epernay has benefited from the Moet's patronage over the years, too many nice things for a city this small.  The cops really do random DUI checks here, I saw it happen, but it was at 10pm in epernay right by my hotel, makes me really glad I can walk at night. It's still surprising how small the distance is between everything.  I can literally walk to Dizy in 10 min from my hotel.  All the villages are clumped together. google street view has been a life saver, I know exactly what to look for with difficult to find wineries.   After 2 days here, I'm becoming more convinced that the French and tourists subsidize the "low prices" we get on champagne in America. With the exchange rate, I pay the same or only slightly less for the same wines back in the states! These wine travel all of 3km in some cases vs halfway around the world yet the cost the same amount.  A bit ridiculous, no? Even without the exchange rate many wines are the same price, and sometimes higher!

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.  

Pierre Peters

Pierre Peters 1/29/14

A couple blocks from Salon is Pierre Peters, helmed by the feisty Roldophe Peters, who is quite a troublemaker, and I'm guessing probably a compete shit-disturber if you really got him going.  This was my third and final visit for the day, and was equally compelling as the previous two visits, but for different reasons.  

When I arrived, Roldophe informed me it's a very busy time of year and this would have to be a short appointment. 2 hours later I left. Funny what happens when you put two troublemakers in the same room and add champagne.  We ran through the hyper clean winery with a gleaming set of presses.  Peters' operation was larger than I expected, and was impressive with enamel, stainless, concrete and wood including Stockinger from Austria which apparently is the best for Champagne.  

Due to the rushed visit, we didn't taste any vin clair, but Roldophe pulled out some rad wines to taste, and mostly things I can't get or get small allocations of, see troublemaker.  First up was the Extra brut, 2010 base.  He makes extra brut in cold years and l'esprit in warmer ones. Delicious! Terry theise please bring this wine to the US.  

As we were tasting he gave me his thoughts on the only crus that matter in the cotes de blanc - Mesnil, avize, cramant, and oger.  Probably because these are the ones he uses.  Regardless, it was fascinating and useful to hear his descriptions: Mesnil - grey, winter, coastal, minerality, seaside Oger - white, spring no citrus, white fruit, floral, sweeter tones Avize - orange, summer, lots of body, ripe citrus, developed.  Cramant - brown, fall, sweet spices - cinnamon, saffron, vanilla when young, roasted nuts

2008 reserve Oubilėe - created as a challenge to prove that you can have bold, nutty, slightly oxidative tones without using oak.  Incredible wine, and it tastes like it's been in oak.  The 07 was great too!  Side by side of 06 and 08 l'Esprit these two wines were the first time I've tasted saffron in Champagne,  fascinating.  Also Roldophe feels that l'Esprit goes one of two ways, chocolate or coffee,  the 06 was chocolate and the 08 was coffee.  It was quite clear the difference.   Next up was a side by side of Chetillons from 06 and 07. Roldophe, myself and many other top sommeliers agree that these wines are drunk far too young, hence my killing babies tweet.  To help combat this he's starting an oenethque line next year starting with the 2000, can't wait to experience that! Both of these wines were great, but showed quite differently.  A spot on flavor that Roldophe pointed out in the 06 was caramel with sea salt, crazy.  The 07 was painfully young, but has all the components to be great in the future.   We finished on a pair of rosės from 10 and 11, delightful and thought provoking.   This was and awesome way to finish an amazing day.