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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.

José Michel

1/31/14 Josė Michel 

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

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.  

Georges Laval

1/28/14 George Laval 

Ironically I spent much of the day being lost finding my hotel in Epernay because my gps couldn't find it and I didn't have a map of the city.  However, one of the hardest producers to find was no problem.  The entrance really is poorly marked, but knowing that going in made it easy.  Also google street view has been a life saver, I know exactly what to look for.

Anyway, visiting Vincent as my first appointment was perfect.  He spoke little English, so it forced me to immediately work on my French.  His winery is tiny, and he truly only makes a small bit of wine, 6000-7000 bottles annually.  Frankly I'm amazed that I get any, and talking to him and the guys at 520, a serious wine shop in Epernay, I think I get more than most!  For such a small winery he really has a impressive network of caves under his building.  It was a perfect first visit because Vincent is a delightful man that truly is interested in making world class wine, but is down to earth and approachable.  None of the champagne marketing machine here, just honest and amazing wine.

His wines, between the vin clair and ones in bottle really showed a sense of place for Cumieres. Through all 10 wines I tasted in various states of their life, I truly noticed a thread that seemed more terrior driven than winemaker, but maybe vincent is just that good.  Through all the wines, including all 3 grapes and 4 vintages, Cumieres showed something fine.  I'm still trying to put my finger on it, but it was a classiness that was unexpected and I think often overlooked because Cumieres isn't grand cru.  The wines all sang in a voice that wasn't present in any of the cotes de blancs villages today.  Vincent planted the word fine in my mind, because the wines weren't quite elegant, but had a hidden majesty about them, particularly once I acclimated to the high acid.   One of my favorite quotes of the visits was when we were discussing acid, sugar, and balance and how he doesn't like to use much if any sugar. His thought is that if they don't add sugar to Corton Charlemagne than he doesn't need to add it to his wine either.  High sights indeed!  Vincent was also one of the few people that I've heard actively talk about the vineyards in terms of where on the slope they're located - top, mid , bottom, as well as the different soils.  It was very obvious talking to him that the folks in champagne are quite aware of whats going on with their land, it's just rarely discussed with the trade or consumers.  Tasting his wines opened my eyes about the quality and potential of Cumieres. It also showed me that 2013 is going to be a stellar year for champagne.