The Big Book of Bubbles: 2018

NO1 FAMILY ESTATE CUVEE NO1 BRUT BLANC DE BLANCS MARLBOROUGH NV We figured the perfect place to start our bubbly piece was with No1.  It was only logical.  Actually it might seem a little audacious to call themselves that, but then Daniel Le Brun is from Champagne where the Le Brun family can trace its roots back to the mid-1700s.  The knowledge came with Daniel, instilled in him by his father in Champagne.  It was simply a matter of finding the fruit.  The Wairau Valley in Marlborough was where they found Chardonnay grapes they could turn into a world class sparkler, and they use only their own estate fruit.   By controlling the viticulture, like a grower Champagne in France, they get the fruit exactly the way they want it.

To be honest, we were a little skeptical going in but the wine speaks for itself and can hold its own with ‘real’ Champagne.  The Wine Advocate comments make the point, “The NV Cuvee No 1 is 100% Chardonnay and stays on the lees for two years prior to disgorgement. It’s light-bodied and delicate, with toasty, biscuity and faintly nutty notes over lemon-lime fruit. It would be great with oysters on the half shell now, but you might also hold it for a few years to let it develop richer, nuttier nuances. Dosage is seven grams per liter, so the wine finishes crisp and quite dry… 91 Points.”

Made in the methode champenoise (fermented in bottle) it is super clean, with a fresh, insistent, surprisingly fine bead and creamy-yet bright-texture.  If you are going to step outside the box, this one delivers, and that’s from folks (us) that are ‘Champagne first’. ($29.98)

LUCIEN ALBRECHT BRUT BLANC DE BLANCS CREMANT D’ALSACE NVFor years this was a go-to for us in the value sparkling arena.  Then there was a period of, um, financial unrest where the wines really weren’t delivering the way they had previously.  We kind of forgot about Albrecht for a while, but a recent tasting showed they had found their mojo again.  They were one of the pioneers of this genre here, beginning production in 1971.  Pinot Auxerrois, Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay are the workhorses here with the grapes harvested by hand early in the vintage mainly from the Orschwihr area.

Fine bead, creamy mouth feel, a little more weight to the mid-palate than most probably as a function of the grape blend, this plays big with citrus, apple and pear notes highlighted with notes of terroir. It was kind of our little secret as the press didn’t talk much about it.  But the Brits know a good buy when they see it and this one got some kudos from the prestigious Decanter Magazine.  Their panel, made up of a number of MWs, said, “Clean, light but aromatic nose – lemon, grapefruit, with a slight yeasty character. Vigorous ripe fruit flavours mingle within a gently creamy texture, balanced by crisp acidity and fine bubbles on the long, citrusy finish…92 points.”

At about half the price (or less) of most Champagnes, this will fill the bill nicely.  ($15.98)

LASSALLE BRUT CACHET D’OR NVThe ladies of Lassalle have been a part of our program in various capacities for a long time.  Lately it has been their Cachet d’Or that has been a winner in our tastings.  Made from roughly one-third each Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay, all from estate vineyards, this is a brisk, yeastier, more citrus-focused flavor profile with some volume to the mid-palate and pleasing lift to the finish.  The vines here average 50 years old situated in limestone and clay, and there’s a sneaky depth to the fruit probably as a result of those older vines.

There is a verve to this bubbly and florality to the nose.  Wine Spectator had some positive notes, “There’s an open-knit, almost airy feel to this vibrant Champagne, which carries a concentrated range of juicy pear and black raspberry fruit, with hints of crystallized honey. Shows gingersnap biscuit and verbena flavors on the chalky texture, gaining momentum on the racy, zesty finish. Drink now through 2022…92 points.” While this is fine on its own, it definitely elevates with some nibbles and again, offers excellent value for the genre. ($34.98)

HENRI BILLIOT BRUT RESERVE GRAND CRU- This house is one of those where our lasting impression is that, if you don’t like Billiot, you probably don’t like puppies or rainbows either.  There were a couple of turbulent years but this is the first front to back vintage for Laetitia Billiot who spent a few years cleaning up the cellars after dad pretty much coasted into retirement.  In its normal mode, this is a round, mouthfilling, creamy offering that highlights broad engaging apple and pear fruit, with flecks of spice and toast.

As importer Terry Theise correctly stated, “This calling-card wine is 50% 2015 (and without grassiness) and 25% each ’14 and ’13, … mostly Pinot Noir, and it’s 98% of the (quality of) Billiot some of us remember (so fondly); lively, animated, fruit-driven and spicy. Essentially this is Laetitia’s first wine—that is, the first wine she controlled entirely from harvest to vinification to tirage to disgorgement.” Billiot, as it should be, is a lovely thing…a full flavored, expressive bubbly that will grab your attention. ($44.98)

HENRIOT BRUT SOUVERAIN NVIf there is anything that can serve as an example of how wine is constantly in motion, it is Champagne.   The whole idea of a non-vintage cuvee is to have something that tastes virtually the same every year.  It’s a great concept but with the variation of vintages in the blend and how those blends interact and develop over time make it near impossible to have it come across exactly the same. Some wines vary year to year more than others. Henriot’s Brut Souverain is one of those Champagnes.  Sometimes it’s a near miss, other years it is pandering and pleasing mouthful.  This is one of those exceptional years where it makes for a rather joyous beverage.

The mix here is 50% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot Noir, and 5% Pinot Meunier, and 2/3 of the blend comes from Grand and Premier Cru sites.  It is on the lees for a minimum of three years and the dosage is on the drier side at 8 g/l.  To illustrate our point here’s the description from the 90-point Spectator review from a couple years ago, “A firm Champagne, with a lively bead and a minerally undertow, this offers flavors of fresh-cut apple, lemon pith, spring blossom and smoke.”  This version is much more outgoing but still has a serious side.  Their verbiage is much more appealing, too, “A finely balanced and creamy Champagne. Smoky mineral and toast notes on the nose lead to flavors of crunchy white peach and lemon curd, with a green waft of spring blossom on the fresh palate…91 points.”  The difference on the ‘scoreboard’ is only a point, but in the glass is another matter.  Delicious fizz. ($39.98)

SANGER BRUT GRAND CRU NV BLANC DE BLANCS TERROIR NATALIt’s not often you get to tell a story like this one and it’s also important to understand that this probably couldn’t happen here.  True we don’t have Champagne vineyards close by like the high school that is the center of this story does.  But, honestly, high school students being allowed to get involved with the production of alcoholic beverages simply wouldn’t play in America.  Anyway, in 1919, the war and phylloxera had pretty much trashed many wine producing areas in France.  The Puisards, a successful merchant couple with no heirs, decided to donate their lands to the government on the condition that there would be a winemaking school created in Avise.   That school, Avize Viti Campus, was officially founded in 1927 and, in 1952, the students and teachers along with local cellarmasters and winemakers, collaborated to produce a Champagne at the school.

Champagne Sanger is that Champagne, and it is a nod to the success of the school and the collaborative process.  Sanger is 100% Chardonnay, coming exclusively from the Grand Cru vineyards belonging to the school and from the areas of Cramant, Oger and Avize, some owned by the school and some from local growers who are alumni.  It sees 60 months en triage (the minimum is only 15 months for the appellation) and is finished to a dosage of 6g/l.

It is extra brut without being overly aggressive, comes off as bone dry yet shows plenty of fruit (so many low dosage efforts are painfully dry) and plays sensationally with both food and by itself.    This is truly Champagne made by Champenois and we recommend it highly for its price performance (all Grand Cru fruit for under $45!) and distinctive styling.  It also has some unique character points as, along with the typical brioche, citrus and apple elements one typically finds from the area, there is also and engaging spice nuance and notes that remind one of red berries.  Very cool bubbles from a very unique source. ($44.98)

DELAMOTTE BRUT BLANC DE BLANCS LE MESNIL 2008Since we got the early word that the 2008 vintage was something special, wee have been patiently waiting (OK, maybe not that patiently) for the single harvest bubbles to come along.  Here we have this rather marvelous vintage, some of the best dirt in all of Champagne in the esteemed Grand Cru Le Mesnil, and at the helm the Delamotte team who also dabble in another project called Salon.  We and others have always promoted the low-keyed Delamotte as ‘the best Champagne you never heard of”.  Given it’s exceptional vineyards, the winery sticks to a very simple formula of reflecting the site in the wine.  That means that instead of the rather fat, ripe styled bubbly that seems to be more broadly popular in the marketplace, Delamotte by contrast is sleek, racy and refined.  It isn’t necessarily for everyone, but for true Champagne aficionados it is a very special choice.

Considering the whole great vintage, great vineyard and great producer we posed, it certainly will encourage great expectations.  In that rather demanding spot, it succeeds admirably.  A pair of 93 point scores from Vinous Media and Wine Enthusiast (very good scores for non Grand Marques), the words tell the real story.  From Antonio Galloni, “The 2008 Delamotte is a deep, resonant Champagne endowed with stunning lays of depth. In 2008 Delamotte has all of the kaleidoscopic, multi-dimensional personality of the vintage, but the full malolactic fermentation softens some of the natural angularity of the year. Pastry, vanillin, baked apple, dried flowers and chamomile are all beautifully sculpted in the glass. This is one of the most accessible young 2008 Champagnes readers will come across, but there is real staying power and more than enough depth to support many years of fine drinking. Dosage is 6.5 grams per liter.”  ($79.98)

ROEDERER BRUT BLANC DE BLANCS 2010In truth, sometimes we wonder why we do things like this.  For most of the world Roederer is about their broad market offering, Brut Premier, and the iconic Cristal.  It’s actually a common problem in Champagne where some pretty fantastic work in between the entry-level and the ultra-premium simply gets ignored.  Maybe it is the pricing that people don’t reconcile, perhaps the fact that these specialty efforts reflect a different style and expression than the mainstream offerings, but it is certain that getting people to pay attention to wines like this represents something of a challenge.  Undaunted, however, we will continue to try.

People don’t typically think about Roederer as a Blanc de Blancs producer, and this represents somewhat of a step away from what people think is a typical Roederer profile that relies heavily on Pinot Noir.  The 2010 was not a cachet vintage either.  But Champagne is a big place and the Cote des Blancs is a unique spot, so you can’t presume you know without tasting and this sleek gem really caught our attention not only for its exceptional ‘performance’ but for its well-executed departure from the house style.  A delicious surprise, one could make the point that Champagne types are artists too and like to work different canvases and there wouldn’t be much point in making several different bottlings if they all tasted the same.  Antonio Galloni seems to have found a lot to like here as well, but touches on the same subject, “An overachiever in this range, the 2010 Brut Blanc de Blancs is terrific. Green apple, mint, white flowers and mineral-driven notes give the 2010 freshness vivacity and lift. The Blanc de Blancs is one of the hidden gems in the Roederer lineup and does not seem to get much attention. That is a shame, as it is a first class wine all the way.”

By the way, no Cristal was produced in 2010 so the Chardonnay used for that cuvee found its way into this little gem…($74.98)

HUET PETILLANT RESERVE 2009We have repeatedly stated our love for outstanding sparkling wines.  We would also not be afraid to put forth the statement that there are few people on the planet that are bigger fans of Vouvray Huet than we are.  But those have always been separate issues.  Huet’s ‘petillant’ has been on our shelf on a few occasions simply as one of the best versions of the eclectic category sparkling Vouvray.  But prior examples have been just that, good examples of the genre but not necessarily transcendent.  So given that, no one was more surprised than we were when this version caused our jaws to drop.  We kept going back and retasting it to see if we had just had a moment or the wine was really that amazing.  The wine performed every time.

We have never had a sparkling Chenin Blanc this good.  Not even close. These wines are usually serviceable and clean, if a bit on the lean side and not overly expressive.  The Huet 2009 simply had more of everything.  It was vigorous and zesty as one would expect from the category. But the expression of the varietal aspects of Chenin here were extraordinary.  Peach, lemon drop, apple skin, hints of honey and cinnamon, a pure and clear expression of the varietal which created a lot of interesting nuance and a rounder palate feel.  Not sure what elevated this particular version above the previous renditions, but the 2009 Petillant Reserve is at a level far above anything we have ever had from this category in general or even Huet in particular.  Based on our tastings, we’d go so far as to say this is a consideration even against Champagne.  That is a rare statement for us.

The grapes for this sparkler in 2009 came from the younger vines of all three of their storied parcels; Le Mont, Clos du Bourgand Haut Lieu.  The largest portion came from Haut Lieu where the average vine age was younger overall in 2009. The grapes were then sorted on the table to separate bunches destined for the vintage pétillant and for the reserve.  Their petillant spends a minimum of 6 years on lees.   Bear in mind it says ‘minimum’ as the wines are disgorged as orders come in.  So the later into the release period, the longer that bottle has on its lees. This applies to all pétillant, and is often a reason why there is such a vast difference between the prior vintage and the new release.

In the end of course, it’s the product of some pretty outstanding fruit.  As Stephan Reinhardt of Wine Advocate calls it, “The golden-yellow colored 2009 Vouvray Pétillant Brut Réserve offers a beautifully pure, deep, rich, intense and refreshing mineral bouquet of perfectly ripe (tropical) fruits and chalky flavors. Full-bodied, highly complex and very long, this is a gorgeous sparkling wine from Vouvray. Dry, firmly structured, mouth-filling and finesse-full, with great elegance and a delicate mousse, the 2009 has a persistently intense and fruity finish with a stimulatingly salinity and grip in the aftertaste. This Réserve should have an excellent aging potential….93 points.”  As we said, this one caught us completely off guard, and, if you are going to step outside the box bubbly-wise, this is the direction to go first.

MICHEL GONET BRUT BLANC DE BLANCS GRAND CRU- This is something of a throwback in today’s world of ‘low’ and ‘no’ dosage, single vineyard, sometimes painful Champagnes.  This is a beautifully put together expression of Chardonnay from the finest terroirs in Champagne such as of Avize, Oger and Le Mesnil sur Oger.   Classic toasted brioche and citrus in the nose, the same through the palate with the addition of a little apple and pear and the expected subtle but insistent minerality.  Perhaps most important, there’s a nice lift to the finish which is definitely a plus as toasty styles don’t always end cleanly.  Simply put, even with our hard and fast rules, this one was too good to leave out.

Champagne Gonet was founded in 1802 and since then, six generations of family members have kept the project on an upward path. In 1973, Michel Gonet, whose Champagnes bear his name today, modernized and enlarged the cellars with the goal of further improving the quality of the wine making.  Today, the estate covers 40 hectares of the best champagne soil stretching from South of Epernay Grand Cru villages to the hillsides of Sezannes to Vindey.   Because the fruit is all from Grand Cru sites, this non-vintage Brut can carry the title Grand Cru and the Champagnes demeanor clearly demonstrates the pedigree of the fruit.

Even with the centuries of history, the family seems to be doing what it takes to get better and better.  Daughter Sophie is now at the helm and they have brought in Marco Pelletier, sommelier extraordinaire, Paris restaurateur, and a partner in the avant guard Bordeaux project Le Jardin de Galouchey (we did an offer on it some months back) to be involved in the assemblage.  A precise, racy, fresh, and very classy Champagne with a very low 3g/l dosage, this can play alone or with lighter dishes.  Given the pedigree, the price is another plus.

BUENA VISTA CHAMPAGNE BRUT LA VICTOIRE NV- Say what?  Isn’t Buena Vista a California wine and therefore unable to call itself Champagne?  Well the story here is anything but ordinary.  It starts with Agoston Haraszthy, most recognized as being the Father of California viticulture.  He was also the father of six children and his third son, Arpad, spent over two years studying in Champagne to learn the craft of sparkling wine.  He later became the first to introduce Méthode Traditionelle sparkling wine into California winemaking.  Arpad’s sparkling wine, Eclipse, was one of the most celebrated in the nineteenth century.

The wine itself is made up of 70% Pinot Noir, from Premier Cru vineyards from the Montagne de Reims, and 30% Chardonnay, mostly from Grand Cru in Le Mesnil sur Oger and Chouilly.  The wine received a dosage of 8.7 g/L and was aged for more than three years (the law in Champagne requires aging 15 months minimum for non-vintage wines). The nose here is fresh apple, stone fruits, and pear with a touch of honey and a whiff of brioche though far from ‘doughy’.  In the mouth, it is the freshness that impresses, all of the flavors bright and lively without being the least bit shrill.

This is, as one might expect from Buena Vista, something true to type but made to appeal to a broader audience.  If we were making a slogan, here it would be ‘you don’t have to think, you can just drink’.  Most of the new things we see coming out these days are zero or near-zero dosage focused on esoteric elements of terroir.  They are often angry and aggressive, the small dosage a clear attempt to avoid ‘masking’ those terroir notes.  Mean-spirited wine ‘gurus’ aside, Jean-Claude Boisset, like us, sees Champagne as a beverage of pleasure.  He tailored this bubbly with that in mind.

As you can probably imagine, it wasn’t easy for an American company (albeit one owned by a French dude!) to be able market something as Champagne.  French ‘authorities’ weren’t particularly receptive at first even though it came from the appropriate dirt and was made in Champagne.  In the end, the bottle is here, Boisset won.  We imagine that’s what the term ‘la Victoire’ (the victory) on the label refers to.  It’s a fine choice for under $40.

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