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.

BRIEFS (OK, maybe not quite so brief this time)

*If you’ll recall some of our ranting a few months back about how spectacular the 2016 vintage was in the southern Rhone, and our subsequent sellout of one of the first examples to hits the market in the Pere Caboche Cotes du Rhone, here’s another early warning release.  The Delas Cotes du Rhone Saint Esprit has been a reliable go-to in solid vintage for a long time, but the 2016 version just pulled a 95 from Decanter Magazine and some rather enthusiastic prose for a wine that will set you back a mere $10 a bottle.  They said, “95 Points!  60% Syrah, 40% Grenache. Lovely rich opulent and floral, black berry and plum nose, the palate is big with well layered fruit, attractively firm but soft tannin and hints of oak, a big wine with a lovely finish.” (July, 2017) We say that’s a lot of Rhone for the d’argent.

One would be well advised to start stocking up on the ‘little’ wines as those will be the first to come and go from this very special vintage. Also in-house, as well as later restocks of the afore-mentioned Pere Caboche and Saint Prefert Cotes Du Rhone Clos Beatus Ille 2016, are notable efforts from serious ‘players’ like  Domaine de MarcouxDomaine Giraud Cotes du Rhone Les Sables d’Arene 2016and Mordoree Cotes Du Rhone La Dame Rousse 2016, all under $20.  The press hasn’t hit most of these yet, but they will.  Early bird and all of that…

*We had been warned ahead of time that a group of newer producers from the ancient region of Tierra de Castillo y Leon around Madrid were going to be the next big thing.  We’ve tasted several examples from this emerging, highly touted group in the past and had been left a little cold by wines that were perhaps a bit too introspective and frankly at times reduced and standoffish.  We kind of wondered what the fuss was.  But recently, maybe it was a ‘special day’, maybe this band of iconoclasts have turned the corner, or maybe it was just that whole 2015 vintage thing, but we found religion in a number of uniquely expressive Grenache-based wines we tasted.  You will be hearing about Daniel Landi’s Las Iruelas 2014, Commando G’s La Bruja de Rozas 2015, and, in particular, the Bodega Marañones 30.000 Maravedíes 2015.   Like we said, Grenache (Garnacha if you will) plays the starring role in each of these wines but in a way that is unique from anything else we have ever tasted.  The flavors lean a little more mulberry than your traditional kirsch profile of the southern Rhone, but they also have a purity, lift, and freshness that is indescribable within most people’s context of the varietal.  This is exciting, breakthrough stuff!

*Yeah, we know it’s January but the trio of delightful Gosset Champagnes arrived literally at the last minutes of the holiday and they deserve a word.  The  Gosset Grand Reserve Brut NV (WA 90, JS 92) is a ‘biscuity’ charmer when the lines are clean as they are in this cuvee and the Gosset Grand Rose Brut NV (WA 93) is consistent winner and one we usually grab whenever we see it.  The  Gosset Extra Brut Celebris 2002  (WA 95, VM 96) is not only a remarkable example of the top tier ‘extra brut’ genre but one of the few 2002s left in the marketplace.  Champagne ‘season’ lasts 365 days around here.

MORE CHAMPAGNE

LOUISE NICAISE BRUT RESERVE PREMIER CRUThis is really something out-of-the-ordinary, a grower Champagne that we can sell for under $30?!  Not only that but it is in what we’d call crowd pleasing style.  In a world where growers are focusing more on low-dosage cuvees that focus on the terroir that are best served while reading existential prose or financial reports, this young turk’s effort encourages one to don one’s party chapeau. A lot of people will remember this story because it comes from the village of Hautvillers, the village that was the home base of a guy called Dom Perignon way back when.  These folks have only been at it for four generations.  The most significant event in their history, their daughter Laure marrying Clement Preaux, a serious talent who subsequently kicked up the quality at this estate.  He was 25 at the time (in 2007) and had apprenticed with Selosse as well as worked at a Champagne co-op and is now seriously making magic by reducing dosages and kicking up the fruit quality.  He still makes a user-friendly style with this blend of 40% Chardonnay and 30% each of the Pinots.  A late comer to the lineup, this is one of the best deals of the season thus far.

MARIE COURTIN EXTRA BRUT EFFLORESCENCE (2012)-Named after Dominique Moreau’s grandmother, Marie-Courtin is a small vineyard in the Aube, on a hillside of the Cote des Bars, which seems to be quite the breeding ground these days for a new movement in Champagne. The vision here is to produce single-vineyard, single varietal, single vintage champagnes from biodynamically grown grapes, using native yeasts and no dosage while employing a minimalist intervention philosophy. This area is particularly prized for its Pinot Noir grapes grown on Kimmeridgian/limestone sub soils. The Champagnes retain a freshness similar to Chablis, which is actually physically closer to here than is Reims! The grapes for this cuvee were harvested from the bottom of the hill because there is more clay, a favorite soil for Pinot Noir. The wine manages to maintain a Pinot-y vibe yet remain thrillingly light on its feet. A 94 point score from Galloni who called it, “A complete and wonderfully nuanced wine…fabulous…bright and sculpted.”

DE SAINT GALL GRAND CRU BLANC DE BLANCS CUVEE ORPALE 2002-Great old Champagne is something of a luxury and it’s pretty special when we can find something that shows a true picture of older bubbly yet still has a reasonably broad appeal. Some folks have a little trouble with older bubbles because of expectations. People like the idea of aged Champagne, but also expect it will have the same aggressive fizz and nervy brightness of a younger bottling. Instead there will be a much lower pace to the bubbles, a creamier palate feel, and a slightly more caramelly/doughy bent to the flavors. Still the 2002 vintage leans a bit more delicate and this one has a freshness that sets it apart from a lot of older bottlings. A Suckling 96 on this tete de cuvee from a cooperative, the $59 fare is definitely a bonus, and loose comparisons were made to Taittinger Comte de Champagne in another piece we read. Fresh, vibrant, yet chock full of the classic toasty, doughy aromas that mark older cuvees, this wine captures the dense fruit character of this outstanding vintage.

PHILIPPONNAT BRUT ROYALE RESERVE-It’s hard to verbalize something like Philipponnat. Not the first name most people think of for Champagne because they don’t do a lot of the mass market stuff other more visible Champagne houses do, though their signature Clos de Goisses has an ardent following. They have an excellent reputation as a solid go-to and we’ve had their Brut Royale and rose a number of times and it always pleases. As it has been with so many others, however, the juice from the 2012 vintage moved many a really good guy up a couple more notches in quality. So it is here. The blend is 65% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay, and 5% Pinot Meunier, made from first press juice of mainly Grand and Premier Crus (label). Not to beat the proverbial cheval, but here again the 2012 vintage elevates and expands creating the best example of this in years. The style here is certainly more ‘vinous’ but not in a zero dosage type of way.  That sense of lower atmospheres gives the wine a rounder palate feel, enriched further by the density of the fruit of the vintage. However, the wine still remains light on its feet, delivering a clean, vibrant yet full-bodied bubbly.

WARIS-HUBERT GRAND CRU CHARDONNAY AVIZE-Yeah this one is something of an indulgence of ours from a commercial standpoint, and definitely off the radar. This label, which looks loosely like some sort of custom bottling for a wedding, is actually that of a husband and wife team that merged their family properties with their marriage back in 1997. They definitely owned dirt in the high rent district in the Cote des Blancs, possessing vines in both Avize and Cramant. Vines are over 20-years-old here, and this is strictly from the first press of Grand Cru Chardonnay grapes. As is seemingly more the fashion these days, these folks produce no-dosage cuvees. Avize is home to such luminaries as Selosse and this wine follows in that path though more classically ‘bubbly’ in its presentation. Certainly more ‘culinary’ in style, this fizz shines with a near-Teutonic white rock minerality and white chocolate essence to the Chardonnay fruit, with a broad-yet-focused mid-palate.

Champagne, Part Two: Our Holiday Picks

Previously we broached the subject of what is happening in the wine world regarding Champagne in the ‘macro’ sense.  As we have said tirelessly, we don’t believe Champagne is festivity specific.  One can and should open a great bubbly any time for any reason.  But we have come to accept that, since the industry acts like Champagne is a holiday thing and presents it accordingly, this is the time of year when people have been trained to listen.  To restate our case, our muse is smaller production and preferably grower generated Champagnes.  There are plenty of big houses telling their story via slick marketing displays in stores and restaurants, magazine ads and even T.V. spots.  We choose to highlight the unique and, we think, more compelling choices.

Hey, we aren’t against large production, good bubbles.  They serve their purpose, and are an easy grab for a lot of folks who want to serve something their guests have heard of or give a gift where the label has a certain, albeit media-created cachet.  We’ll drink Bollinger, Pol Roger, or the like any time someone is pouring, as long as we aren’t buying.  There are two things that are relevant there, presuming it is a style we like.  First, a lot of ‘corporate’ type bubblies have raised prices in recent years because they’re committed to creating a ‘prestige’ image for their brands.  In short, they want to charge you more so you can feel better about yourself and your purchase.  Isn’t that kind of them.

Second, and painfully obvious to us but most people don’t see it, is that these big house Champagnes have more marketing layers as a rule.  Typically there’s not only an in-house marketing infrastructure but an importer bringing it in (and putting his markup on it) and selling it to a wholesaler (who puts his margin on it). This can add another bump (or two) to the prices and push those wines into another marketing strata altogether where what you get in the bottle may not be the best choice for the elevated price vis-a-vis what else is out there.  While it will sound crazy, besides that fact that we feel we get more nuance in grower bubbles thanks to the terroir specificity, they often turn out to be a much better deal in a direct comparison of what is in the bottle.

Some of the names here you may recognize if you have been following us or other hardcore Champagne lovers over the years, others may not be familiar as we find new things all the time.     What adds a little more ‘juice’ to this particular round of Champagnes, both the non-vintage and vintage bottling, is the vintage.  The vintage matters in Champagne for a couple of reasons.  First, of course, is that vintage Champagnes are only made in better years and occasionally one turns out to be really special like 1996, 2002, and 2008.  Well the 2012 vintage is one of those top flight vintages and the vintage dated stuff has been generally fabulous.

As to the non-vintage cuvees, sure they are a blend of vintages.  Blending is how all of the champenoise large and small keep their regular cuvees consistent (as much as they can) year in and year out.  The addition of juice from a great vintage like 2012 (and 2013 was no slouch either) kicks the whole blend up a few notches.  The explosive fruit and superb balance of 2012 has had a rather dramatic effect on a number of these non-vintage efforts.  Without sounding like those pizza ads commonly seen during televised sporting events…’better ingredients, better bubbles’.

We will admit that, even though we don’t necessarily like the trend to deliberately drier Champagnes and lower dosages as too many of the wines come off as ‘angry’, this lineup runs drier across the board that any list we have presented before.  It is a hard style to do well.   But these practitioners, with a bit of help from a generous vintage, have done some impressive work.  In summation, it’s a great time for Champagne, and here are a few things we particularly like this time around.

HENRI BILLIOT BRUT RESERVE GRAND CRUWe’ll start right here with one of the consistent players in our lineup through the years has been a frequent player here.  There were a couple of vintages that were perhaps a bit less precise and pleasing as the last generation kind of wound down.  But it is back to being an engaging drink in a fruit driven, possibly even robust style as they rebound nicely under daughter Letitia Billiot’s watch.  All Grand Cru fruit from their holdings in Ambonnay and Montagne de Reims, we couldn’t run down the exact cepage here (older notes show about 80%Pinot ) but the flavors clearly suggest Pinot Noir is the lead player here.  Big, creamy and mouth-filling with apple and pear flavors with some toasty dough and a whiff of citrus, and maybe a touch of chewiness, it is broad yet lifted, outgoing bubbly.

HENRI BILLIOT BRUT GRAND CRU 2012 This blend of 70% Pinot and 30% Chardonnay is from the older parcels.  Deep color, even bolder flavors, apple cobbler, toast and that open, broad palate style, this one shows more of an underlying chalky minerality as a counter-balance to the gregarious fruit notes.  Again outgoing is the operative word  that takes the style of the house to an elite level on the back of the gushing fruit that defines the vintage.  This is, again, a ‘bigger’ Champagne, perhaps a little drier than their typical impression but with plenty of fruit to give you that Billiot experience.  A Galloni 91 with the suggestion of a little bottle age, this is an intense Champagne with a dry, but not too dry (6gl) bent that’s for Champagne hardcores.

GASTON CHIQUET BRUT TRADITIONGaston Chiquet’s style is finely tuned and precise, which depends a lot on the vintage to make everything work.  Some years are a near miss but this time around the wines impressed like we haven’t experienced in a long time.  We’ll use some of importer Terry Theise’s insider, albeit quirky descriptors.  “In essence this wine combines the pumpernickel-sweetness of Meunier with a walnutty richness typical of this part of the Marne, and what makes it most wonderful is that it’s both extremely articulate and openly friendly.” It is a classy, defined, and really together Champagne with a slightly more savory bent, but sleek and elegant front t back.  Citrus, apple, toast, fine bead, the mix is   40% Pinot Meunier, 35% Chardonnay  and 20% Pinot Noir.  Theise calls it, ‘otherwise…saltier than usual, with somewhat more power and length.’ Our take is that you can’t pull off this style without really good fruit and, while we don’t buy Chiquet every year, when we like it, we really like it.   Antonio Galloni’s notes, “ (2012 base wine) The NV Brut Tradition is creamy, supple and inviting, all qualities that make it an excellent choice for drinking now and over the next few years. Dried flowers, chamomile, mint, pastry and orchard fruit, along with more exotic overtones, give the Tradition its distinctive personality.”  We think the 90 point score is kind of conservative.

GASTON CHIQUET BLANC DE BLANCS D’AY GRAND CRUDefinitely a dramatic step up and well as a distinctly different profile here from the powerful Chardonnay grapes grown in Ay. The cuvee is all 2012 which elevates the richness of the mid-palate while  still keeping in tune with the toasty, doughy profile.  Theise compares it to Bollinger stylistically which is fine as far as giving you a reasonable idea of what to expect, but we think that the somewhat richer fruit component gives it more dimension.  It delivers the impression of terroir while  still giving pleasure, something a lot of the ‘artisans’ seem to have forgotten. Creamy and fruit driven but not sweet.

DRAPPIER BRUT CARTE D’OR NVWe can barely remember the first time we sold Drapppier’s Champagne as it was back in the original location some time in the late 1980s.  But this Pinot Noir centric Champagne has always been a favorite when it’s available (like a lot of smaller Champagne houses, they aren’t always distributed on the market) and the price is right.  Fresh apples, pears, a moderate bead, and fine, round palate feel, we have often referred to this tongue-in-cheek as a junior, junior Crystal because of the Pinot flavor profile.  Certainly one of the more broadly appealing styles, this is a particularly savvy buy at its current price.  It’s in a style of which we say,  “if you don’t like this, you don’t like Champagne…and probably not puppies or rainbows either.”

VILMART & CIE GRAND CELLIER D’OR 2012-Simply put, if Vilmart was a little cheaper, it would be dangerous.  By that we mean if this was in the $40-50 range, it would be hard to drink anything else.  It costs a little more because they seem to be working on a different plane than most houses. It is one of the best examples of a precise, delicate, yet engaging bubbly.  Fine bubbles, refined texture, plenty of nuance with floral, pear and yellow stone fruit, citrus, brioche/pastry, and some nuttiness all nicely played against each other.  This one doesn’t club you, it invites your attention with the volume ‘just so’ and exhibits class at every turn.  The 2012 vintage, as it has in so many cases, adds a little amplitude to the wine without changing the style.  Among the more restrained stylistically but with a lot going on, this has been a favorite particularly over the last few vintages.  Said Antonio Galloni, ‘Vilmart’s 2012 Grand Cellier d’Or is bold, racy and seductive, with all of the radiance of the vintage very much in evidence. ” ‘Bigger’ Champagnes might pull down bigger scores in a tasteoff (though the 2007, 2009, and 2010 all got 94’s from Spectator and we think this one is better), but one-on-one this is a winner.

PIERRE PAILLARD LES PARCELLES GRAND CRU EXTRA-BRUT NV-We’ve gone out of our way to try as many Champagnes as we can for a long time.  But very few made the immediate impression on us that Pierre Paillard did when he first came to market here some 5 years ago.  The name is familiar because Pierre’s cousin Bruno has been in and out of the market for quite some time but the styles show no familial resemblance.  Plus Pierre is a grower with holdings in Bouzy, one of the elite Grand Crus for  Pinot Noir in particular.  This is 60% Pinot and 40% Chardonnay but Pinot from this part of Chamapgne is both distinctive and powerful with insistent, long flavors and aromas of toasted bread, pear nectar and a honeyed highlight, all done with a dosage that is slightly under 3gl (which is quite dry). To have something play this well at this low a dosage is a rare feat but, like we said, we knew this guy was special the first time around.  Two-thirds of this cuvee is 2012 vintage which creams out the mid-palate nicely.  Drier and more serious compared to price peers, this is a must and arguably one of the more important tasting cuvees in this price range.

PIERRE PAILLARD LES MAILLERETTES GRAND CRU EXTRA-BRUT BLANC DE NOIRS 2012Our problem with the two designated 2012 bottlings is a simple one.  We know very well from a marketing perspective it is always better to focus on a single selection from a particular price/style strata and a single producer.  Multiple choices from the same label causes confusion for buyers and often less is sold of the two combined than when one is presented solo.  Even knowing that, we still couldn’t decide.  At least one is Blanc de Noir and the other Blanc de Blanc.  This is a single varietal (Pinot) from a single parcel and a single vintage.  It has the classic apple turnover flavors with apple skin undercurrents here make beautiful music together, and there’s a great impression of fruit and roundness even without evident sweetness.  Very hard to do but Paillard has shown ‘mad skills’.

 PIERRE PAILLARD LES MOTTELETTES GRAND CRU EXTRA-BRUT BLANC DE BLANCS 2012This is 100% Chardonnay from a single vineyard planted in 1961 with a layer of solid chalk a few inches under the surface.  The dosage here is under 2gl yet the wine sports plenty of citrus and white peach fruit edged in toasty dough (croissant?), salinity, and minerality.  Very fine bubbles, this isn’t necessarily ‘big’ but very cohesive and long on the plate. Elegant but insistent, this has layers and intensity but also surprising harmony and refinement.  Given the performance, we dare say this paor of single parcel efforts are a bargain for something that could definitely run with ‘bigger dogs’.  We loved both of these and they are well priced for a ‘hot’ vintage.

More to come…

CHAMPAGNE, PART ONE: THE ROAD TO ZERO

As we have mentioned in a couple of other pieces, the holidays are considered Champagne season.  We love Champagne any time, but it difficult to get a lot of people’s attention for most of the year.  Usually at this time of year, because of the Q4 tradition, we have been through a number of serious tastings focused on Champagne.  Having completed that gauntlet, it seemed time to offer a few thoughts on what’s out there and the happenings in the wonderful world of Champagne.  For the most part all is well.  The big brands are the same as ever, there are more grower Champagnes appearing in this market all the time, and the selection is historically unparalleled.

In simple English, if you want a great bottle of Champagne, you can find one at virtually any price you are willing to pay over $30.  Occasionally less.  Of course, the issue is what you are looking for.  If you are looking for classic, likeable fizz that anyone would enjoy, most of the bigger brands will deliver that.  They are formulated with a higher dosage (i.e. a little more sugar) to appeal to a broader range of palates.  Consistency works for the big houses and delivering a fruit driven wine has never proven to be bad business in the glass.  There’s a saying in the industry that “People talk ‘dry’, but they drink ‘sweet’. That is true the majority of the time…provided that no one actually says the word ‘sweet’.

We have been leaning towards individual grower Champagnes for a long time.  Our feeling is that the more specific terroirs of these smaller estates adds another dimension to the wine’s profile, and the lower (but not necessarily low) dosage tends to augment the visibility of the terroir elements.  These grower cuvees are made a little dryer stylistically to approach a more sophisticated audience.  Plus, because they are not necessarily aiming for the ‘broad market’, the individual growers can take a more personal approach to their wines which also, over the vast majority, leans a bit more to the dry side.

Any time we talk about ‘sweet’ and ‘dry’, there are invariably some misunderstandings about meaning.  Before we go on, we should make the point that there are definitely guidelines for the descriptors.  In the real world, sweetness is a perception.  What people say, how they describe things, are subjective, but not necessarily accurate.  One man’s sweet could be too dry for someone else.  So our references here are based on scientific fact.  A Champagne can be called ‘brut’ up to about 1.2% per cent residual sugar. A Champagne that is 0.9% residual sugar is drier, period.  As you can probably surmise, there is a significant difference in the profiles of something that has zero residual sugar and sitting at 1.2%.

One’s individual appreciation of a particular style or dosage is strictly personal.  In other words, it is not up to us to tell you what to like, merely give you data to help you determine what you might like.   Because of Champagne’s higher acidity, a higher level of sweetness will, in plain talk, not taste as sweet as it would in a lower-acid still wine.  Unlike a lot of people who think anything with any sweetness at all is for grandma, some wines need a bit of sweetness to offset certain levels of acidity.  It is particularly true with varietals that have higher natural acidities like Chenin Blanc and Riesling.  We see Champagne as falling into the same kind of requirement.  Don’t get us wrong, we don’t mind a little sweetness, or a complete dryness.  But no matter the profile, the individual wine has to be balanced. Most important, it has to be enjoyable.

That being said, we are seeing a strong trend towards more dryness, maybe a little too much.  A lot of folks we have followed for years seem to be lowering their dosages across the board, or at the very least introducing ‘brut zero’ or ‘no dosages’ options in their line.  Let us first point out that the industry does not ask the people what they want.  They merely decide what is best for all of us and proceed to make it (see also Syrah and Italian varietals in California).  One of our more frequent descriptors regarding a rather substantial number of Champagnes we have tasted this year is ‘angry’.

A somewhat drier entry is an indicator stylistically, but far too many examples cut away mid-palate exposing something soily, stoic and a sometimes little bitter.  The grower says he is ‘expressing the terroir’by keeping the sugars very low.  To that we say ‘yeah, but it isn’t very pleasing to drink.’

We are sure there are self-appointed gurus and twenty-something sommeliers who think the super dry cuvees are the ultimate food wines.  It seems that the brut-zero/orange wine/underripe-red set currently has a disproportionately larger voice among suppliers.  Maybe the next generation of producers like ‘angry’ wine better.   Who are we to question the pontifications of some self-appointed ‘trend setter’ who has moved on from skeletal trocken Riesling to embrace literally ‘bone dry’ Champagnes.

To be honest, we have had a few examples (Ruppert-Leroy, for one) of low dosage bubbly that we liked a lot.  But to pull it off is really, really difficult.  The fruit has to be near perfect, have enough flesh on it to give the impression of richness, and an extra lift at the finish.  Very few that we have tasted, a really small percentage in fact, can deliver that style in an engaging way.  We get it that there are a lot of folks that decry the mawkish nature of some of the most popular French bubblies (like Moet White Star).  But there’s a new wave in Champagne that seems to be taking it too far the other way.

Not to sound like Mary Poppins, but a little bit of sugar does help the ‘medicine’ go down.  It makes it taste good, and ultimately that is the point.

Another trend that seems to be developing throughout the industry (though most folks may not see it for years, if ever) are ‘dirt’ cuvees (they don’t call them that, but the name fits).  We encountered more than a couple instances where some growers were not only bottling from their property, but subdividing parcels and making even more finite cuvees based on soil types, exposures, etc..  While they gave those cuvees individual names, the explanation was, ‘…this one comes from mainly chalky soil, and this other one comes from volcanic soils’.  In other words their base was rooted in some more finite aspect of site specifics.

There were also individual plot bottlings defined by vine-age, and still others that featured a specific varietal.  We love artisan Champagne, but many of the artisans are becoming a bit too artisan, and we have a hard time believing that a producer can (or should) make six, seven, eight different cuvees.  Sure, winemakers, being winemakers, love to tinker with new ideas.  But they sometimes get too involved in their own world.  We’re afraid things will go the way of California and Oregon Pinot Noir where too many individual bottlings from the same house confuse the consumer (and us), and don’t provide nearly as significant a varied profile to people out in the world as they might appear to a winemaker who tastes them repeatedly in a closed environment.

We understand trying to challenge the palate.  But even most Champagne dorks (and we count ourselves among them) would not  find a lot to get viscerally excited about with the slightly different nuances of these varied cuvees (which are noticeable in a side-by-side comparison but certainly less so otherwise), all done in a more austere style, at $60, $80, $100 per bottle.

Growers already have a challenge in that they only have their own dirt to work with, and can’t address problems that crop up in their own winemaking by blending juice from other areas.  We taste growers every year because they can vary quite a bit from year to year based on the base wines and reserves they have available.  There are some houses that we have loved almost every year (Vilmart, Billiot, Agrapart, Pierre Peters).  But most are off-and-on and can ‘sing’ one year and disappoint the next.

The overall quality level has been augmented by some exceptional vintages in the base wines (like 2012).  But the stylistic shift towards drier styles negates some of that because of the demands it puts on the individual cuvee.  If you expect the consumer to appreciate the terroir, the terroir has to perform. The lower the dosage, the more the base wine is exposed.

If we aren’t sounding like cheerleaders, it is due to our concern about the trend we see taking shape. It wouldn’t be our choice.  Somewhere in between those tart, no-dosage Champagnes and the sweetish broad market cuvees would seem to be the happy medium.  ‘Drier’ isn’t ‘better’ by definition as far as Champagne goes.  Still, as far as thrilling options, there are plenty of those.  We’ll get more specific about that next time.

 

PLOYEZ JACQUEMART-A DIFFERENT KIND OF PINK

Yeah, we are kind of weird about Champagne. We love the stuff and think it has purpose every day of the year, not just the holidays and Valentines Day. It’s great for celebrations, but also makes a fine aperitif and excellent foil for certain dishes as well. So we’re likely to spring a Champagne piece on you any time.

We were quite taken with the Ployez Jacquemart Extra Brut Rose for its sleek bead and ample, distinctive palate. We have talked about this family-run house before but this stylish pink is something new to us. This wine is only produced in years where the red grapes excel and the base cuvee here is primarily from 2013, made with first pressed Premir and Grand Cru fruit. The red juice for this primarily red cuvée sees some time in oak which gives it a bit more depth and muscle.

The toasty edge plays nicely off the surprisingly full midpalate, and the bead is fine and precise. You’d never guess from tasting it that the dosage in this bubbly is a low 3-4 grams per liter (standard bruts run 10-15 gpl, hence the ‘extra-brut‘ handle).  The lower dosage has a lot to do with the clarity of the fruit in this sparkler, but to do it this well in this style is not easy. We could say this is a food focused cuvée, but we think a lot of you will appreciate it on its own for its masculine style.