Archive for the ‘Champagne’ Category

Vintage Champagnes: Not Your Average Pleasure

December 26, 2016

As most sparkling wine fanciers know, blends of several grape varieties (Chardonnay, Pinot meunier, Pinot noir) and the reserve wines of several harvests constitute the norm for Champagne, and the reputation of the great Champagne houses stands or falls on the consistency of style and quality they can achieve in their non-vintage product. Vintage Champagnes are an aberration, made only when the quality and distinctiveness of a particular harvest justifies separating it from the house’s norm.

So vintage Champagnes are produced only in the best years – and not all Champagne houses may agree on which those are, so this is the class of Champagnes where the greatest differences from house to house show themselves. For Champagne lovers, this class of wines presents some of Champagne’s greatest pleasures and greatest distinctions.

The New York Wine Press kicked off Christmas week this year with its annual Champagne luncheon, as it has done every year for the past 13. Wine doyenne Harriet Lembeck and Champagne guru Ed McCarthy organized a presentation of vintage Champagnes from 12 great houses, covering 5 different vintages. These were all excellent wines, some of them great, and all had their partisans. Here is the slate of wines and the menu they accompanied.

2016-menu

There isn’t a wine there that I would rate lower than very good; several were excellent, and a few I thought outstanding – but (my usual caveat) that’s my palate and my preferences on one particular day with one particular array of foods. Others thought differently, and every wine had its partisans. With that forewarning, here are my reactions to each wine.
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Apéritif

dehoursDomaine Dehours Brut Rosé “Oeil de Perdrix” 2009
The day’s only rosé wine, and a handsome one: 55% Pinot meunier, 45% old-vine Chardonnay. Lovely color and perlage, distinctive floral/mineral notes on nose and palate. A great start to the day’s “work.”
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First Flight

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Moet & Chandon Grand Vintage 2008
A nice, wheaty Champagne with good vintage character. Ed McCarthy thinks 2008, 2002, and 1996 constitute the greatest Champagne vintages of the past 25 years. Most 2008s have not yet reached the US.

Piper-Heidsieck Vintage Brut 2006
Not as big or distinctive as the preceding Moet – that’s the difference of the vintages – but still fine, in the classic mid-weight Heidsieck style

Henriot Millésimé 2006
Robust and fine, with a lot of character – very much the Henriot approach to Champagne.

Louis Roederer et Philippe Starck Brut Nature 2009
This is a lean and muscular wine, not as big as any of the preceding but polished, with a lot of power behind its smiling face. Roederer consistently performs well, and this special bottling is no exception.

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Second Flight

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Perrier-Jouet Belle Epoque Brut 2008

Light and bright on the palate, showing clearly the superior character of the ’08 vintage.

Veuve Cliquot 2006 La Grande Dame Brut
Like some other 2006s here, this one showed a little lean (especially in comparison to 2008), but very elegant and fresh.

Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs 2006
A goodly number of luncheon attendees thought this the wine of the day. Taittinger’s Comtes is certainly one of the pinnacles of Champagne art, and I thought this example – elegant and big for an ’06 – was excellent.

André Jacquart Le Mesnil Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs 2006
Another blanc de blancs, another ’06, and by the evidence of these two wines I’d have to say that 2006 must have been a great year for Chardonnay. This one was lovely: elegant, distinctive, and very long-finishing. Another great wine.

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Third Flight

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Pol Roger Brut 2006

A great house, and always consistent in style and quality. This example was huge and classic, with typical initial austerity followed by a rush of flavors.

Moet & Chandon Dom Perignon Brut 2006
Like Taitinger’s Comtes, Moet’s Dom represents a pinnacle of Champagne achievement. For the majority of tasters, this was the favorite wine of the day. I too thought it wonderful, though a trifle leaner than the Pol Roger – not a defect, but a difference.

Alfred Gratien Brut Millésimé 2000
By far the oldest wine of the day and proof of how well Champagne ages, if any was needed. A big, excellent wine, high-toned and elegant, from a great house not well enough known in the US.

Bollinger La Grande Année Brut 2005
Bollinger is always big – not huge, but solid – and always lovely. This one, the day’s sole example of the 2005 vintage, was rounded and mouth-filling, with the usual Bollinger richness – yet another exceptionally fine wine.

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And there you have it: quite an extraordinary collection of wonderful wines, any one of which could be the centerpiece of the most important celebration. My New Year’s wish for you all is that you have the chance, in 2017, to taste them all!

It’s the Champagne Time of Year

December 14, 2016

The Wine Media Guild’s annual Champagne luncheon signals to me the true start of the holiday season. It always falls on the first Wednesday of December, and it always spotlights between 15 and 20 excellent true Champagnes; this year, all Blanc de blancs. Curated again this year by colleague and friend Ed McCarthy – author of Champagne for Dummies, among several other books – this event for me is the surest sign that whatever winter and the world may do to us, consolation and pleasure are still within reach.

edAs Ed reminded us, Blanc de blancs are the most popular kind of France’s festive bubblies in the United States, even though not all Champagne houses make one. Not because they don’t want to, but because they can’t: Not every house has enough Chardonnay to supply its basic cuvée and make a Blanc de blancs. Chardonnay is the backbone of all Champagnes (except Blanc de noirs, of course) and there just isn’t enough of it within the Champagne zone.

That stretch of chalky ridges and hills probably constitutes the northernmost outpost of Chardonnay, and Ed believes that, as a northern extension of the Côte de Beaune and Chablis, it produces some of the finest and sturdiest Chardonnay in the world – but not a lot of it. The best lots, from Grand Cru sites like Mesnil, are especially scarce and very expensive, so a good Blanc de blancs is costly from the get-go. Rising demand for Blanc de blancs Champagnes will not make them any cheaper in the future, because there just isn’t much, if any, land available for new plantings within the Champagne appellation. So enjoy what we’ve got while we’ve got it – which is never bad advice, about anything.

Here, in the order in which they were presented, is the slate of wines Ed and the Media Guild gathered for this occasion, along with their suggested retail prices and selected comments – mostly Ed’s, but a few of mine – about each.

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roths-to-mumm

Barons de Rothschild (magnum) NV ($207 for magnum, $99 for 750ml)  An ideal apéritif Champagne, Ed says: My palate agrees.

Collet NV ($55)  New to the New York market: a small house, a cooperative, and not very familiar to Ed or any of the attendees. The wine is made from the top 10%, all Grands Crus, of the co-op’s hectares.

Mumm de Cramant NV ($64)  Once upon a time, Mumm de Cramant was one of my favorite Champagnes, but I was disappointed in this bottle, which I thought distinctly short on charm. Ed liked it better than I did.

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henriot-to-gosset

Henriot NV ($55)  This house is one of my current favorites, and I like almost everything it makes. Today’s Blanc de blancs was no exception. Ed didn’t think it was showing well, but the bottle I tasted was absolutely fine.

Ruinart NV ($72)  Always fine, Ed says, even though this isn’t Dom Ruinart, the house’s top-of-the-line Blanc de blancs. I thought it was lovely.

Gosset Grand Blanc NV ($77)  A great Champagne house that people in the US don’t know enough about, Ed rightly says. For me, Gosset is right up with Henriot among my favorite Champagnes. I thought this Blanc de blancs was excellent.

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ayala-to-dehours

Ayala 2008 ($85)  Another house much more esteemed in France than known in the US: our loss. This was the first vintage Champagne of the lineup. Ed says the three great Champagne vintages of the past 20 years are 1996, 2002, and 2008, and this is one of the best Ayalas he’s had in quite a while.

Philippe Gonet Bellemnita Grand Cru 2005 ($300)  A Blanc de blanc specialist located in Mesnil. This rare bottle, from a single site of old vines, was big and powerful but a little inelegant.

Dehours 2005 ($55)  A Marne Valley grower and passionate Champagne maker: This wine is from a 1.3 hectare site – that’s about three acres – so there isn’t a lot of it.

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roderer-to-paillard

Louis Roederer Brut Nature 2009 ($85)  Another great Champagne house that does everything well, even in California. Brut Nature is relatively new to its line. Big and forceful, it’s a huge wine for a Blanc de blancs.

A.R. Lenoble 2008 ($64)  A small producer in a grand cru village and a great vintage. Ed thinks it a great value.

Bruno Paillard 2006 ($90) Not in New York right now, but coming. Ed thinks it an outstanding wine from a fine house. Its proprietor considers 2006 a Chardonnay year par excellence.

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jacquart-to-taittinger

André Jacquart Mesnil Brut Nature NV ($70)  An NV Champagne placed among the vintage Champagnes because of its heft. I found it indeed big and fine, classic Blanc de blancs.

Pol Roger 2008 ($110 to $125)  A famous and consistently fine Champagne house, showing a great vintage – “a stellar Champagne,” Ed says.

Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 2006, ($199)  Taittinger largely launched Blanc de blancs in modern times, and this bottle showed the house’s expertise. Consistently classic.

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perrier-to-heidsieck

Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque Blanc de Blancs 2002 ($300 to $350)  There was some controversy about this wine, because one or two of the bottles were seriously off. Ed thought it excellent (he got one of the good bottles), though he thinks the 2002s are far from their peak. But oh, that price!

Charles Heidsieck Blanc de Millénaires 1995 ($190 to $199)  A great, long-lived wine, long-finishing and elegant. Some people thought this the best wine of the day.

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And there you have it: a delightful slate of Blanc de blancs Champagnes, ranging in heft from apéritif style to substantial dinner wines. For me, a perfect kick-off for the holidays. For you, I hope, a dossier of useful information. Joyeux Noël et Bonne Année !

Endings, and Maybe Some Beginnings

January 8, 2016

2016 snuck in on little cat’s feet in my neighborhood, shrouded by soft mist and a rising fog from the Hudson that, along with some pain pills for my outraged hip, had me asleep well before the canonical New Year’s Eve moment of rooting and tooting. This holiday season has been an ambivalent one for me, with unanticipated post-operative pain vying with the unnaturally warm weather to keep most thoughts of seasonally appropriate celebration at a distance. Plus – a side effect of my medications – my appetite and capacity have fallen to next to nothing. So there have been no big, year-end whoop-di-dos here, though Diane and I have managed a few low-key relishings of our survival and mutual company – probably the best way of all to mark the holidays in any event.

For you, o faithful reader, the consequence of all that is that there will be no connected narrative to hold this post together – just a series of musings, prompted by a few of the bottles with which we measured the end of 2015. Milestones, of a vinous and vital sort.

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champagneAndre Clouet Champagne Brut Rose Numero 5 nv. This year, this lovely bubbly has become my go-to Champagne for serving to guests who drink Champagne and not labels. It has body, it has elegance, it has compatibility with all sorts of canapés and more substantial dishes, and most of all it has the kind of palate-caressing flavor that makes you stop mid-sip and just enjoy. I am usually a fan of rosé Champagne primarily as a dinner companion, but I like this one everywhere. Something about the complexity of its flavor, the paradoxical lightness and weight of its body, reminds me each time I drink it of the excitement I used to feel decades ago when I first seriously began exploring Champagne and discovering, with some naïve amazement, the variety of its pleasures beyond just bubbles. Snows of yesteryear, eh?  A very appropriate sensation for the end of one year and the start of another.

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villa bucciVilla Bucci Verdicchio riserva 2006. No point beating around the bush here: This is flat-out a great white wine and a textbook example of how white wines can age. I am constantly amazed that Verdicchio hasn’t really caught on in this country. It is an excellent grape variety, and the best examples from its homeland, Italy’s Adriatic-facing Appenine slopes in the Marche, show not only the variety’s intriguing flavors but also the land’s distinctive minerality. This bottle partnered brilliantly with Diane’s sea scallops Nantais to create one of the best wine and food matches of our holiday season. Ampelio Bucci, the genial and devoted caretaker of his family’s ancestral properties, consistently produces what is always one of the best (very often, the best) Verdicchio of them all. His wines have been constantly reliable over years and years, always big, elegant, and distinctive. One of the New Year’s resolutions that I know I’m going to keep is that our home will never be without some.

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ormes de pezChateau Les Ormes de Pez 1989. What memories this wine evokes!  This was one of the first small chateaux I tasted back when I first began learning there was more to Bordeaux than shippers’ Medocs and out-of-my-financial-league premiers crus. Les Ormes de Pez was and remains a classic, even though only a cru bourgeois. Every time I drink it, it reminds me why I love St. Estephe. It has all the elegance and balance that the great wines of Bordeaux specialize in, and on top of that the lovely little rasp of the (to my mind and palate) utterly distinctive St. Estephe terroir. I still don’t understand why no St. Estephe wine was ever named a premier cru. What are Cos d’Estournel and Montrose – chopped liver? They cost, of course, many times what Les Ormes de Pez does, which is still a bargain in current releases. We used to buy the ‘66 for $3 a bottle; now that’s around $100 if you can find it – and if I could find it, I’d happily pay the fee. $100 is cheap these days for Bordeaux. Pity what’s happened to Bordeaux prices.

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brunelloBarbi Brunello Riserva 1977. This part of this post, alas, is a funeral service. This bottle was dead, deeply, profoundly dead, though remembered with great fondness. The bottle had been recorked at the winery several decades ago, but it couldn’t survive in my less-than optimal storage. Or perhaps it had just reached the end of its natural span. It’s always hard to tell with a wine of this age.

This was the last bottle of a case of Barbi 1977 Riserva that I received somewhere back in the mid-to-late ‘80s as part of my winning the Barbi Prize for journalism about Brunello di Montalcino. It was a great honor and a grand occasion: Francesca Colombini Cinelli herself, the grande dame of Montalcino winemaking, travelled to New York to make the presentation. 

barbi prize 1

The wines drank wonderfully for years, with all the paradoxical muscle and grace, smoothness and asperity of classic Brunello. I guess I kept this one just a bit too long. They will all be remembered – and missed.

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Les ClosI had a similar experience a few days earlier with a 2002 Moreau Chablis Grand Cru Les Clos, a wine that by all rights should have been splendid. But no: this bottle was as oxidized as a wine can get. A lesson to me for 2016: Drink my older wines while they and I both survive.

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Let me finish up this hail-and-farewell with two producers whose wines will be around for a long time to come, Vallana and Produttori di Barbaresco. Both are Piedmont producers who have long been important in their zones and increasingly so on the American market. Both are some of the finest bargains in the entire wine field, offering top-flight examples of their denominations at what are very affordable prices.

spannaFirst up: we drank a Vallana Spanna 2011, a mostly Nebbiolo wine from the northern Piedmont, still in its youth. Back when Vallana made its first entry in the US market, in the 1960s and 70s, its Spannas were famous for their ageability, and many 10- to 20-year-old bottles were available. Such is not the case now, but the wine still shows all the capacity to age that it ever had. And if palatal memory doesn’t deceive me, the Vallana fruit, as cultivated by the Vallana grandchildren, Francis and Marina, now is even more ample and more refined, with a mouth-flooding juiciness that makes the wines supremely drinkable at any age. This particular bottle of Spanna was the last I had on hand, but my top New Year’s resolution is to fix that ASAP.

barbarescoFinally, a bottle of Produttori di Barbaresco Barbaresco Riserva Montestefano 1999 rounded off our holidays – in a literal sense, since it was the wine that we drank with a New Year’s Day dinner. By now, everybody who knows Piedmont wine should know that the Produttori di Barbaresco consistently offers the unquestioned best value in the Alba zone. Its many cooperating growers between them control huge swathes of Barbaresco’s best vineyards and crus, and under the direction of Aldo Vaca, as knowledgable and understated a winemaker as any in Piedmont, the results are always worth drinking – in difficult years, sound and durable, in great years, off-the-charts wonderful.

Most wine journalists would agree with that assessment, just as most wine journalists have a kind of mental reservation that limits the praise they confer – maybe because it’s a co-op, and there is all the glamor of the single grower/artisan as opposed to the supposed “industrial” operation of a co-op. Let me start 2016 by saying that’s nonsense: The individual growers of Produttori di Barbaresco, and the winemaking skills of Aldo Vaca, between them make wines that stand on a par with any from the Barbaresco zone. These are simply great wines at great prices. My intention is to get more of them.

And so we turn the page from 2015 to 2016 – a look back, and a peek forward. Good luck and good wine to all of us! I have a feeling we’re going to need both.

No, I Haven’t Forgotten Champagne

December 24, 2015

The holidays were already upon us, and I hadn’t done any of my obligatory wine-journalist holiday Champagne stories. But there it was: The day of the New York Wine Press Holiday Champagne Luncheon had arrived. Sixteen prestige cuvée Champagnes were served. The Brasserie made special efforts this year to present a lunch even better and more elegant than usual, because this – our 13th such feast – was our last at this near-historic location: The Brasserie will close after Christmas.

It’s hard to exaggerate just how extraordinary an event this was, with so many examples of such high-caliber Champagnes over several courses of dishes chosen to show them at their best. And I – poor I – had had hip replacement surgery just 2½ weeks previously, and at that moment was taking strong painkillers as well as antibiotics, with which I had been strictly cautioned not to drink alcohol. So what did I do?

Sip and spit, my friends. Sip and spit. And occasionally swallow, when I just couldn’t stand abstinence any longer.

So here I am, keyboard in hand once again, heroically beating down my post-operative pain so as to altruistically – I do it all for you, my loyal readers, all for you – and conscientiously report on the best of these best bottles. Believe me, this was hard work. I didn’t enjoy it at all. Honest.

Wine Press Menu

A lovely menu, as you can see, and an imposing array of wines. Bargain hunters might as well stop reading now: All these wines are expensive, some almost prohibitively so. The Perrier-Jouet Belle Epoque Blanc de Blancs 2002 – a brilliant wine from a superb vintage – topped the scale at a suggested retail price of $367 a bottle, and the Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill was next at $250. Clearly, these are not quaffing or clambake wines, but the most special bottles for the most special occasions.

To a certain extent, tasting wines of this caliber becomes an exercise in looking for flaws, so you can find a reason, after allowing for the differences of vintage and house style, to prefer one wine to another. I can’t say these were all flawless wines, but I couldn’t find one that I didn’t like. Most were big, but their heft was uniformly worn gracefully, so all seemed supple and live on the palate. In fact, the oldest wine in the set – the Henriot Cuvee des Enchanteleurs Brut 2000 – seemed among the freshest of them all, a big, elegant, complex wine, with years of life seemingly left in it. Henriot has long been among my favorite producers, and this particular wine was probably my favorite of the day.

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Flight One

Flight 1-a

In the first flight, I ever so slightly preferred the Lamiable Les Meslaines Grand Cru 2008, though Ed McCarthy, who selected the wines for the occasion and commented on all of them, thought it a bit too young – which it no doubt is.

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Flight Two

Flight 2-a

The second flight was more challenging. These wines were all a touch fuller and more complex than the first flight. I couldn’t name a clear favorite and dithered back and forth between the exhilarating Piper-Heidsieck Rare Brut 2002 and the forceful Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame 2006.

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Flight Three

Flight 3-a

The next course and flight again ratcheted the heft and complexity stakes up a bit higher, each of these four wines being so distinct from the others as to make comparisons pretty pointless. I found the Cristal surprisingly light (for Cristal), the Comtes de Champagnes funky in the nose though lovely on the palate, the Belle Epoque complex and intriguing but not as full as I would have wished for, and the Mesnil sur Oger marked by very unusual – and a little unsettling – fresh hay and wheat scents. I’d love to have another go at this flight on a medication-free day.

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Flight Four

Flight 4-a

Of the final five wines, there is very little I can say. They are all great Champagnes, all classic, and all showed superbly with the rare duck breast. Bollinger, Pol Roger, and Krug are the heaviest hitters of a line-up of heavy hitters, while the Dom Perignon and the Cuvee des Enchanteleurs showed overwhelming elegance and complexity. As I said before, my palate tilts toward the Henriot house style, but there isn’t a one of these wines that I wouldn’t happily drink at any opportunity. Maybe to celebrate when I finally finish rehab . . .

I would be seriously remiss if I didn’t acknowledge here the splendid work done this year, as every preceding year, by Harriet Lembeck, chair of the New York Wine Press, and Ed McCarthy, its “Champagne Procurer General,” and Sharon Colabello, the Brasserie’s Director of Catering. That team did a wonderful job in putting together this seamless, informative, enjoyable, and thoroughly impressive occasion.

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“Happy Christmas to All, and to All a Good Night!”

Riders of the Purple Prose

October 15, 2015

I plead guilty to terminal naiveté. I keep thinking that wine writing is getting better, that the now decades-old campaign to de-mystify wine drinking and de-snobbify wine writing is actually taking hold. And then I read something like what follows, appearing originally in a prestigious wine review publication and forwarded to me by an appalled colleague and friend:

Featured New Arrival
Jacques Lassaigne Millesime Brut Nature 2006 750ML ($119.95) $99 special
Wine Advocate 93 points. “Sourced from Le Cotet, La Grande Cote and Les Paluets – which last-named is southeast-facing and arguably the top site in Montgueux, opines Lassaigne – his 2006 Brut Nature is intriguingly and alluringly scented with fresh lemon and apricot, peony and narcissus, rowan and pistachio, along with sea breeze intimations and a pungency of struck flint. Startlingly silken and creamy, yet focused and vibrantly juicy, this adds a sort of shimmering, crystalline sense of stoniness to an almost kaleidoscopically interactive finish. It ought to merit following for 6-8 years. Incidentally, Lassaigne believes that a purer expression of vintage character will always be achieved by maturing this cuvee in tank.” DS

There’s more: It goes on from here, but I already don’t know where to start on this stylistic and logical atrocity. Any teacher of Freshman English would cut it to ribbons for verbosity, pomposity, and redundancy, not to mention near-fatal infatuation with adverbs. “Intriguingly and alluringly”? What’s the difference, pray tell? Startlingly, vibrantly, kaleidoscopically? A light show for sure. This Champagne is credited with smelling of six not particularly compatible floral and vegetal scents, plus sea breeze (“intimations” thereof) and “struck flint” – struck, mind you, not merely inert – (“a pungency” thereof). Those last two amount to Manzanilla plus Chablis, while the former six are a whole farmer’s market. And we haven’t even gotten to what the wine tastes like. Can anyone tell me what a “kaleidoscopically interactive finish” means, much less tastes like? And what, please, is the “this” that adds the “sort of shimmering, crystalline sense of stoniness” to that finish?

You see why I inveigh so often about the uselessness of tasting notes? The only thing a farrago like this wants to accomplish is establish the exquisite sensitivity of the writer’s palate – that, and make every reader who has never perceived any of those components in a wine feel hopelessly inadequate and desperately in need of expert guidance. Members of the jury, we seem to have made no progress at all from the days when gentlemen reviewers (there were all gentlemen back then) would solemnly tell us that wine A reminded them of Mozart, while wine B suggested Beethoven.

Until consumers work up their gumption to denounce such purple prose for the impressionistic twaddle it is, we seem to be fated to endure it. I don’t think what Truman Capote said — “That’s not writing, it’s typing” — was true of Jack Kerouac’s prose, but I sure think it fits here. It appalls me to think that subscribers to any publication shell out good money to be so swanked, but apparently the con works. As one of P.T. Barnum’s critics remarked, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

And, by the way, this inconceivably fabulous bottle is available elsewhere for $20 less than the “special” price quoted above.

 

 

Let’s Have More Champagne

January 23, 2015

The New York Wine Press’s annual Champagne luncheon was held last December, as it always is, in a private room at The Brasserie. This year’s event was a standout even among those normally fine tastings, however, both because of the selection of Champagnes – all Rosé – and because of the sheer pleasure of the dishes that The Brasserie matched with them: Kudos to everyone involved. Here is the menu.

Wine Press Holiday Menu

Once again, Maestro Ed McCarthy chose and introduced the wines – and make no mistake about it, these were wines in every sense, not Ed___Vietti__Dec_08_400x400just pretty party bubbles. Rosé Champagne usually has more body – more substance – than most other Champagnes, and because of the importance of Pinot noir in its blend, it can often show more complexity and depth than other Champagnes. As Ed pointed out, Rosé has had a terrific growth in popularity here in the US (which may lead the world in its consumption), from a mere 5% of the total Champagne market about a decade ago to 15% of it now. Once regarded by the great houses as almost a novelty, Rosé is now taken seriously indeed and produced with steadily increasing care and quality.

As you can see from the menu above, Ed and The Brasserie carefully matched the wines with their food and their role in the meal, starting from the lightest-bodied as aperitifs and working up to the heftiest (at least in price) – the vintage Champagnes – with that beautifully rare Beef Wellington. The interplay of the wines and their accompanying dishes was a good part of the pleasure of the day, and I enjoyed all the Champagnes and was impressed by the quality of every single one, even though a few of them caused me sticker shock. Most, however, fell comfortably into the range of very fair price for the quality of the wine.

So: to specifics. I’m not going to comment on every bottle, since all fell into the good-to-very-good range, but I’ll concentrate on the wines that I found most appealing. (Regular readers will understand that that means on this particular day in these particular circumstances:  As I’ve said repeatedly, no tasting note by anybody about any wine is engraved in stone and forever true.)

Among the aperitif Champagnes, I was most impressed by the Ruinart, which showed a greater liveliness on the palate and complexity in its attack and finish than the others. Note that this is not Dom Ruinart, which is a much more expensive cuvée than this reasonably priced bottle.

The next flight had to face the challenge of the lushness of fresh foie gras and its accompanying poached pear. All performed admirably: The sweetness of the flesh and the fruit called up all the wines’ Pinot noir subtlety. These are all very reasonably priced wines for their quality: roughly $65 to $75, which is certainly not extravagant for Champagnes of this caliber. The Laurent-Perrier, by the way, was the only 100% Pinot noir wine of the entire line-up, and very good it was. For all that, my favorite of this group was the Henriot Brut Rosé, which had a restraint and elegance that greatly pleased me. Ed thought it “a bit too young,” and he is probably right: It certainly seems to have the stuff to develop well for a few years yet.

The next course presented a very different sort of challenge to the wines, to integrate with the lushness of buttery lobster and chanterelles. It rarely occurs to me to match chanterelles with seafood, but they went together very well, presenting two different yet complementary kinds of intensity for the Champagnes to partner with – which they did quite superbly. This was my favorite flight of the day, both for the wines in themselves and for the way they married with the lobster and mushrooms.

Ed said that the Pascal Doquet – a Premier Cru – had been blended of four different vintages. This was a big wine, almost gutty. Not quite as big but equally fine, and elegant and complex to boot, the Charles Heidsieck didn’t so much challenge the intensity of the food as merge with it almost seamlessly. My favorite wine, however, was the Gosset Grand Rosé, which, while still a big wine, had the lightest body of these three but also extreme elegance and poise. For me, it was in fact the single best wine of the day, even though Ed thought it too “a bit young,” and even though he may well once again be right.

The final flight had to deal with the woodsy flavor of morels paired with the richness of a rare and juicy beef filet, encased in the thinnest possible pastry crust that had been smeared inside with foie gras pâté. All four of the wines that Ed matched with those flavors were vintage Champagnes, and all were very good, quite substantial enough to deal very pleasurably with the meat and mushrooms. Because they were vintage bottlings, these were – with the exception of the Louis Roederer, which is quite modestly priced – the most expensive wines of the day. Nevertheless, I have to say I found them less complex and intriguing than the flight that preceded them. I think Rosé may be one case in which the blended, non-vintage wine surpasses the usually more prestigeous vintage bottlings. For the record, my favorite of this flight was the Pol Roger Extra Cuvée de Reserve.

It’s not often one experiences so utterly unmitigated a set of pleasures as this occasion presented – not a dull wine or bland dish in the array. Would that we – all of us – should always be so lucky!

Bah! Humbug! Let’s Have Some Champagne

January 9, 2015

Regular readers of this blog probably noticed a one-hundred-percent absence of any mention of Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanza, or any other  opportunity for retail recently loudly proffered by what seems to have been the entire universe. This was not an accident, but deeply felt revulsion against a commercialism to which I don’t want to contribute any more than absolutely necessary.

However, contribute I must. I love wine – drinking it, talking about it, writing about it – and wine is of necessity as much a commercial venture as it is a craft, and so unfortunately is wine writing. Alas, that two and two make four!  This makes me something of a commercial quisling or fifth columnist (I guess as a writer the latter is all too appropriate) and I’m stuck with it: As the Borg told Picard, “Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.”

So: I give up. Here – belatedly – is all the stuff about Champagne that I held back during the frenzied shopping/holiday season. If you love Champagne, you don’t need holidays to justify drinking it.

Ed___Vietti__Dec_08_400x400The first major event I want to talk about was the Wine Media Guild’s annual Champagne luncheon, held at Felidia Ristorante. The wines for the day – all Blanc de Blancs Champagnes – were selected and commented on by Champagne connoisseur extraordinaire Ed McCarthy, who probably loves the fizz more than any other human being I know. Here is the full slate of the day’s wines:

  • NV Marion-Bosser Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut
  • NV A. R. Lenoble Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru
  • 2007 Ayala Blanc de Blancs
  • NV Bruno Paillard Réserve Privée Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs
  • NV Mumm de Cramant
  • NV Ruinart Blanc de Blancs
  • NV Henriot Blanc de Blancs
  • 2002 Pascal Doquet Le Mesnil sur Oger Grand Cru
  • 2007 Deutz Blanc de Blancs
  • NV Lanson Extra Age Blanc de Blancs
  • 2004 Pol Roger Blanc de Blancs
  • 2005 Taittinger Comptes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs
  • 2002 Perrier-Jouët Belle Époque Blanc de Blancs
  • NV Gosset Célébris Blanc de Blancs
  • 1995 Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires

There were also two non-Blanc de Blancs wines: NV Leclerc Briant Les Chèvres Pierreuses 1er Cru, a producer new to this market, and an unscheduled but very welcome magnum of 1999 Henriot Cuvée des Enchanteleurs.

An impressive lineup indeed, especially since, as Ed pointed out, Blanc de Blancs constitutes in volume by far the smallest fraction of Champagne production. He explained that that is because of Champagne’s three main grape varieties, Chardonnay is the most expensive and least widely planted, because, in turn, of the variety’s demands about soil, exposure, and care. Some large houses just don’t have enough Chardonnay to spare from their blends to make a Blanc de Blancs, and others – because of its cost – simply opt not to. Consequently, many of the most interesting Blanc de Blancs Champagnes on the market come from small grower-producers, who don’t face the volume demands of the grandes marques.

This is not to imply that all Blanc de Blancs Champagne is great. Far from it: A lot of it can be pretty ordinary fizz, though “ordinary” in the rarefied world of Champagne can still be very good. In fact, several of these Blanc de Blancs struck me as run-of-the-mill – bearing in mind that the mill in question is a fine one. Blanc de Blancs all tend toward greater dryness than most other Champagnes, and most also have a comparative lightness of body and liveliness on the palate that make them, for many drinkers, the ideal aperitif Champagnes. A few have the heft and authority of the red-grape-blended Champagnes, but they are exceptions to the usual Blanc de Blancs style.

I’ll confine my remarks here to the wines that I enjoyed most and that the others at my table cast their votes for – the latter by emptying the bottles, the surest sign that a wine has been enjoyed.

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These included both Henriot wines, the NV Blanc de Blancs and the 1999 Cuvée des Enchanteleurs. Henriot is not as well known here in the states as many other of the grandes marques, but it is much esteemed in France, and consistently produces Champagnes of great elegance, as were both these examples.

Henriots

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The 2007 Deutz was relished with the largely fish menu:  Ed says the 2008 will be even better, and no more expensive. The 2004 Pol Roger and the 1995 Charles Heidsieck were among the fullest-bodied of all these wines, as well as among the earliest bottles to be finished – which tells you a great deal about the palates of the WMG members and guests.

deutz pol henriot

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For me, the stand-out wine of the day was the Gosset Célébris, a Champagne that combined Blanc de Blancs suppleness with both great muscularity and great elegance. I admit I’m partial: Gosset and Pol Roger are probably my two favorite Champagne houses. Neither has ever let me down.

gosset 2

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This post is already long enough: My next one will take up the season’s other key Champagne event, The New York Wine Press’s annual Champagne lunch, this year featuring Rosé Champagne.

“The Boar’s Head, as I Understand, Is the Rarest Dish in all the Land”

December 30, 2013

Equally repulsed as Diane and I are by super-sentimental and hyper-commercial Christmases, we usually opt for a quiet dinner with a few close friends and a few choice wines, with a menu more or less traditional and background music eclectic. This year was typical in all respects, and especially pleasing to me because the match between wine and food worked out very well for each course.

[The music wasn’t shabby either: It started with a CD called Une Fête Chez Rabelais (you will see why that was chosen) to set the mood, and followed for the rest of the evening with discs featuring the late, great guitarist Jim Hall playing with musicians like Bill Evans, Ron Carter, and Jimmy Giuffre. Jim – as I thought of him, though I always addressed him as Mr. Hall – lived just down the block from us, and Diane and I always used to see him walking his dog, J.J. He died earlier this month, and we miss him; so I privately thought of this not just as a Christmas dinner but as a personal Jim Hall memorial. I admire elegance in music as much as in wine, and Hall’s playing was always a model of elegance.]

pol rogerWe strove for some elegance in the meal too. We began with Champagne, of course: It’s almost obligatory at this time of year, and Pol Roger never lets us down.

That bubbly accompanied hors d’oeuvre of a mousseline of smoked sturgeon, a mousseline of asparagus, and almond-stuffed dates wrapped in bacon, the latter served hot out of the oven, all three playing nicely with the effervescence and acidity of the Champagne.

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???????????????????????????????Aloxe-CortonAt table, our first course was morilles à la crème en croûte. The morels were fresh, not dried. We had bought them during their brief season, sautéed them in butter, and, after eating as many as we could hold at the time, froze the rest for just such a festive occasion as this.

They were delicious in their indescribably earthy, woodsy way. Swaddled in crème fraiche and cushioned on the world’s richest short pastry crust, they partnered beautifully with a medium-bodied, suave 2005 Aloxe Corton Premier Cru Les Vercots from Antonin Guyon.

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???????????????????????????????The pièce de résistance – this was definitely a French-accented dinner – was not a boar’s head (we’re not that traditional) but a long-cooked braised shoulder of wild boar, accompanied by French green beans and a puree of potato and celery root.

Lafon RochetThose in turn accompanied a very well-structured and deeply flavored 1998 Lafon Rochet in magnum. Maybe because it was in magnum, maybe because of the vintage, and certainly because of what the Tesseron family has been doing with this property for a few decades now, this wine could have easily been cellared for another decade.

Lafon Rochet is a fourth growth St Estèphe estate that the Tesserons have transformed as thoroughly as they have their more famous Pauillac fifth growth, Pontet Canet. This Lafon drank most enjoyably, to be sure, but it still showed so much in reserve that it was almost a shame to have it now. But it was a fine wine with the boar. It had the strength and intensity to match the richness of the meat, and the polish and complexity to play intriguingly with the sauce.

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Then came the cheese course.

???????????????????????????????At this point in the meal, I always rejoice in living just a ten-minute walk from Murray’s. We had:

  • a Colston-Bassett Stilton (Great Britain), which is as fine a blue cheese as exists anywhere,
  • a lovely, ash-grey-outside-chalk-white-inside Valençay (France),
  • a slightly pungent and very rich Grayson (Virginia),
  • a creamy and even richer Fromage d’Affinois (France),
  • and a great slab of Roomano (Holland), a sort of aged Gouda that simply loved the wine.

CornasThe wine was my very final bottle of Auguste Clape’s 1988 Cornas, which I served with equal parts of hope and trepidation – the hope because some previous bottles of this wine had been glorious, the trepidation because the last one I had opened had been dead.

Hope triumphed, I am happy to say: This was one of the glorious ones. In fact, it still showed some youth and vigor, and in addition its classic Cornas robustness made it a wonderful match for all the cheeses.

I am deeply sorry now for all the bottles of this now-priced-out-of-my-league Rhône beauty that I drank before what-I-now-understand-to-be their peak. Of such simultaneous heights and depths is the wino’s life made.

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???????????????????????????????Riesling VTMichele Scicolone had brought dessert, so we next consumed (yes, we could still eat!) her luscious pine-nut-and-apricot-jam tart. I matched that with a 2001 Trimbach Riesling Vendange Tardive, a wine with some sweetness of its own but plenty of acidity and real heft.

This was a shot in the dark, but it worked out well. The sweetness and savoriness of the tart meshed nicely with the lesser sweetness, acidity, and steely body of the Alsace wine. Of course, either would have been completely enjoyable on its own, but together they created one more dimension of pleasure and provided the final touch to what was for Diane and myself – and we certainly hope for our guests – a classic and only slightly Rabelaisian holiday feast.

Rest in peace, Mr. Hall.

Blanc de Blancs Christmas

December 19, 2013

I would probably have my epaulets ripped off and be drummed ceremonially out of The Ancient and Honorable Company of Wine Journalists if I let the holidays go by without writing at least once about Champagne. So to avert that disgrace, here is my report on the New York Wine Press’s annual holiday luncheon at The Brasserie.

This year’s fete featured 11 Blanc de Blancs Champagnes – i.e., 100% Chardonnay bubblies – in 4 flights, each complemented by a lovely menu prepared by the Brasserie’s executive chef Luc Dimnet. As you could no doubt guess, the occasion very quickly became the essence of the merry holiday lunch. The food was – as always – delicious, and the sparklers – as always – drank easily and delightfully. While all were enjoyable, for my palate one wine stood out in each flight.

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We began with passed hors d’oeuvre of escargots in gougère puffs and spoonsful of sesame-crusted tuna. The aperitif wines were H. Blin Blanc de Blancs Brut nv and Barons de Rothschild Blanc de Blancs nv.

Flight 1

My choice here was the Blin. This is a Champagne from a co-op on the Marne, not one of the grandes marques, which will probably make it difficult to find but well worth the effort, since Champagne expert Ed McCarthy pronounced it, at approximately $35 a bottle, the best value of the afternoon.

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The first seated course was foie gras, and the Champagnes were Henriot Blanc de Blancs nv, Mumm de Cramant Blanc de Blancs Brut nv, and Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Chardonnay 2005.

Flight 2

Of these, I enjoyed most the Mumm Cramant. Note that the word is Cramant, not crémant. Cramant is a village – one of the Champagne area’s most important Chardonnay growing villages – not a half-pressure style. I was very impressed by the richness and elegance of this wine; “One of Mumm’s stars” Ed called it. (About $60-$65.)

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The next course was a modest (thank god!) portion of really succulent lobster, accompanied by Gosset Grand Blanc de Blancs Brut nv, Deutz Blanc de Blancs 2007, and Alfred Gratien Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Brut 2007.

Flight 3.2

In this flight, the Alfred Gratien stole the show for me. A great old house that is not very well known here in the States, Gratien makes top-flight Champagnes. This one was biggish but still elegant, with lots of berry and bread aromas and flavors – very fine, especially with the lobster. (About $79.)

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Finally we were served a tournedos of beef, with leeks, truffled Mornay, and parsnip crisps. With this course came the biggest wines of the day: Perrier-Jouet Belle Epoque Blanc de Blancs Brut 2002, Pol Roger Extra Cuvee de Reserve Blanc de Blancs 2002, and Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millenaires 1995.

Flight 4.2

This final flight was harder to judge, since all three wines showed very well indeed. But my old favorite Pol Roger edged out the others for me, with just a little more richness, a little more elegance, and a sense of underlying power that I find typical of the whole Pol Roger line. As most wine drinkers know, Pol Roger was Winston Churchill’s favorite Champagne, and I can’t fault his taste. I’ve always found Pol Roger consistently enjoyable and utterly reliable: for me, it epitomizes the idea of “house style” in Champagne. (About $116.)

Happy holidays, everyone!

All Things Bright and Bubbly

December 28, 2012

I had been eagerly looking forward to this year’s New York Wine Press Champagne Gala at The Brasserie, in part because Luc Dimnet, the chef there, always prepares a fine lunch for us and in part because the featured bubblies this time would be vintage Champagnes. I expected that they would all be spectacular. Well, the lunch fully lived up to my expectations, as the menu suggests.

menu 2

But perhaps it was the memory of the very distinguished range of rosés that I had tasted at the WMG Champagne event ten days earlier, or maybe my palate was just off a bit, but for me some of this group of Champagnes seemed a little lackluster. Not that they were bad: far from it. Of the dozen bottles we tasted, all were enjoyable, and several considerably more than that. But most of them failed to offer the special magic that I look for in vintage Champagne, the combination of classic Champagne charm and the distinguishing inflection of a single, above-average vintage – that hard-to-define extra element that tells you simultaneously “Wow, this is a great Champagne” and “Wow, this is different.”

Ed McCarthy 2Here are all the wines we tasted, accompanied by the comments of the man who selected them, Ed McCarthy (for those who don’t know by now, Ed is the author of the deservedly much esteemed Champagne for Dummies).

“Vintage Champagne,” Ed said by way of preface, “is always rarer and better than non-vintage, because it is made in small quantities exclusively from the best wines of exceptional years. Probably less than 3% of all Champagne made is straight (i.e., not rosé, not blanc de blancs, not prestige cuvée) vintage Champagne.”

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Flight One
Gosset Excellence Brut NV
Nicolas Feuillatte Blanc de Blancs 2004
Ferrari Perlé 2006 Brut

This was the aperitif flight, at least in theory the lightest and most delicate of the day’s Champagnes. They accompanied oysters and foie gras. Here’s Ed: “Gosset is a great small house. The Excellence, along with the Ferrari Perlé, is the least expensive Champagne we’ll taste today. Feuillatte always makes a lovely blanc de blancs, and 2004 is an excellent vintage.”

flight 1

I like the light aperitif style in Champagnes, so two of these wines – not vintage Champagnes at all – were among my favorite wines of the day. Gosset Excellence Brut is non-vintage, and Ferrari Perlé Brut 2006 is an Italian metodo classico sparkler, a blanc de blancs from what is probably Italy’s finest maker of champagne-style wines. Maybe price had something to do with that judgment, but I loved the classic, wheaty, toasty aroma of the Ferrari. And Gosset just makes great Champagnes, all up and down its line. Both these wines were able to stand out even among the day’s field of vintage sparklers.

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Flight Two
Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Millésime 2004
Henriot Millésime 2005
G. H. Mumm Cuvée René Lalou Brut 1998

Ed again: “The Feuillate is mainly black grapes: 40% each of Pinot noir and meunier, and only 20% Chardonnay. Henriot is one of my favorite small houses. They’re known as a Chardonnay house, and this wine is 52% Chardonnay and 48% Pinot noir. The Mumm René Lalou is one of our few prestige cuvées today, as well as our oldest wine. Very approachable, very easy drinking: 50% Chardonnay, 50% Pinot noir.”

I thought the Henriot showed excellent fruit. The René Lalou needed time to open in the glass and still seems to have years of life before it. All three wines, a little fuller-bodied than the first flight, matched beautifully with the moist, lightly smoked Arctic char.

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Flight Three
Laurent Perrier Millésime 2002
Moet & Chandon Grand Vintage Brut 2002
Gosset Grand Millésime Brut 2000

gosset 2Ed once more: “The Laurent Perrier follows a very typical formula for vintage Champagnes: 50% Chardonnay, 50% Pinot noir. Very good price for a Champagne from a very great vintage (around $55). From the same fine 2002 vintage, the Mumm is blended of 50% Chardonnay, 35% Pinot noir, and 15% Pinot meunier. The Gosset is fuller bodied than the other two, even though it is more than half Chardonnay. The 2000 is the youngest vintage of Gosset available in the United States.”

This flight was another step up in body and authority, and the rich poached lobster and the assertive mushroom crepes elicited their best qualities. I liked best the Moet & Chandon, which was simply a lovely wine, and the Gosset 2000, which had fine body coupled with real elegance.

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Flight Four
Louis Roederer Brut 2005
Perrier-Jouet Belle Epoque Brut 2004
Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill 1999

pol roger 2Ed again: “Roederer is a fantastic house that makes big, full-bodied Champagnes, dominated by Pinot noir. This 2005 is 66% Pinot noir, 34% Chardonnay. Perrier-Jouet’s prestige cuvée Belle Epoque is usually placed among the lighter-bodied, more elegant styles of Champagne (P-J is known as a Chardonnay house), but in 2004 it seems to have more authority: 50% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot noir, 5% meunier. Finally, another great prestige cuvée, Pol Roger’s Sir Winston Churchill. Pol Roger is thought of as a Pinot noir house – bigger, fuller-bodied wines – and it’s estimated that Sir Winston Churchill is about 70% Pinot noir and 30% Chardonnay. That’s a guess, because Pol Roger doesn’t give out that information. Probably the most expensive Champagne we have here today.”

The delicious braised veal cheeks of this course succeeded even better than the fish dishes in showing the wines to advantage – a very pleasant surprise. I liked best the Roederer, which was in a style similar to that of the preceding flight’s Gosset, and the Sir Winston Churchill, a very fine wine, although not from the top tier of vintages, and probably – Ed’s estimate – not going to be terribly long-lived.

new year bells

That brings to a conclusion not only the NYWP luncheon but also calendar year 2012. To all, best wishes for a happy, prosperous, gentle new year, and to all, a good night: Ubriaco is going to settle in for a long winter’s nap. My next post will appear around the middle of January.