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 CRU–We’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 TRADITION– Gaston 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 CRU–Definitely 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 NV–We 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 2012–Our 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 2012–This 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…