Growers’ Champagne. Make that wine.
March 4, 2011
I always get excited at the thought of drinking Champagne. Perhaps the greatest memory ever for me was a magnum of Dom Ruinart 1979 Rose. But other great experiences include NV Krug, 1988 Krug, Dom Perignon 1990. So I was happy to have been invited to a lovely tasting at Arrowine in Arlington, Virginia on 3 March 2011 . Owner Doug Rosen does a great job of going to the region and discovering independent growers. This is a trend that has been going for a few years now, at least among people in the know. I recall discovering my first Cedric Bouchard thanks to a friend who works at my favorite Strasbourg wine store, Au Millesime. How many times as a sommelier did I conceal an internal smirk when a customer insisted on Veuve Clicquot? I do not mean to come off as pompous, but Champagne has too often been treated as a branded affair. As something other than wine, only to drink on a special occasion. But it is wine, and anyone serious about enjoying good wine should seek out quality, not just bubbles and fizz for a festive feast.
Over the past several years, on both sides of the Pond, people I know have been discovering the importance of seeking out independent growers who make smaller quantities of… quality wine. They used to sell their grapes to major producers of Champagne but decided to make artisanal wine. Yes, wine. Champagne is wine. I repeat. It is just made differently, with two fermentations: one in the cuve, another in bottle.
Quick digression to explain: The second fermentation is carried out in heavyweight bottles when a fresh dose of yeast and sugar is added. The bottles are capped and placed in the cool chalk cellars so common to the region. This for a minimum of one and a half years, although the more serious non-vintage Champagnes, such as Bollinger, keep the contact for a minimum of three years before disgorging. During this time before disgorging, secondary fermentation takes place and carbon dioxide is created by the second fermentation process in bottle. The gas then dissolves into the liquid, the source of all those bubbles. What happens to the spent yeasts? They could be filtered out, as is done with regular wines, but since that would also remove the bubbles, a process known as remuage is carried out: bottles are gradually moved so that over several weeks they go from horizontal to upside-down positions. The dead yeasts are captured in the neck of the bottle. Some producers still employ a skilled “Remueur” who adjusts each bottle precisely: a time-consuming and rather tedious job. Most of the big producers have machines that do this. After remuage, inverted bottles are dipped into a freezing brine solution, up to the level of the gathered sediment in bottle, which freezes into a solid “plug” of dead yeast cells. In the process of disgorging, the caps are removed and the gas pressure shoots the plug out. The bottles are topped up with a dosage of reserved wine, sweetened according to the desired style (extra brut, brut, demi sec, sweet). The bottles are corked, wired and at that stage the Champagne is complete.
One essential point is the dosage. Some Champagnes hide any faults with more sugar. It is a classic disguise. What is so nice about independent Champagne producers is that they treat their wines as artisans. Tending their gardens, as Doug said in his two hour presentation at Arrowine. Now, not all independents are necessarily good. This has become a trend, so there are those who “jump on the bandwagon” and make swill, too. So informed merchants come in handy: they go there, meet the people, taste and bring the wines to you. Good news for my sister, who just bought a house near Arrowine, where she could walk over to buy her Champagne. I am heading back to France soon and will also meet some of these inspired producers.
Wines in bold I particularly liked, in red and bold I loved.
NV André Jacquart Blanc de Blancs Brut Expérience: In know this producer; the wine is available at the Galeries Lafayette in Strasbourg. While the label has changed – it looks really modern and appealing – and while it was both rather smooth and chalky, pleasing, with good acidity, it did not excite me. It was just a tad too plump, lacking verve. When I get my weekly dose of Champagne in Strasbourg, I prefer others such as Pol Roger Extra Brut, Deutz and Bollinger non-vintage.
2004 André Jacquart Blanc de Blancs Mesnil Expérience: Coming from the greatest region for Chardonnay, this wine from a good vintage has a brighter nose and seems more focused. There is a fine minerality on the palate, even if a hint of sweetness sneaks in on the finish. Good stuff, but better is coming…
NV Jacques Lassaigne Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut Le Cotet: A buttery, rather vanilla nose. Fermentation in cask if I heard correctly. I like the acidity on the palate but there was just some cloying on the palate that detracted. I expected something Extra Brut but it was closer to Brut. A good Champagne, but not that inspiring either.
NV Jacques Lassaigne Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut La Colline Inspirée (just made in magnum). Here we have a shining star. The aromatics are deep and long, exuding stone and chalk with Graham cracker and hints of Brioche and above all freshness. The palate follows up on the nose with superb presence. Only five barrels are made of this, and I would not hesitate to call the store and order it.
2004 Jacques Lassaigne Blanc de Blancs Brut Nature. Very primary, yeasty nose and palate. With honeyed Brioche on the nose – sweeter aromatics. But the palate is rather tight; one can sense much going on but not quite expressing itself at this stage. A quality wine that needs time.
(2007) La Closerie by Jérome Prévost Extra Brut Les Béguines. 100% Pinot Meunier. I have never been a huge fan of pure Pinot Meunier wines including Egly Ouriet but they are somewhat of an acquired taste. And so it goes with this one. The nose is very briny, almost aggressively so. But give the wine time in glass. There is excellent palate presence here, disjointed, but you can tell there is quality. Very mineral aromatics and palate, so I would steer clear if you like your Champagne to be a juicy fruity type (see below). But if you like more serious stuff, try this.
2004 Moutard Cuvee des 6 Cepages. It came as news to me to learn that Champagne actually authorizes six varieties and not just three that we all know (Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay). Here we have also Pinot Blanc, Arbane and Petit Meslier in this fascinating blend. As much as La Closerie, above, was serious and mineral, this wine is – as fellow taster Howard Cooper said – a “puppy dog” wine! I found it more juicy- fruity. The nose is fresh if not all that expressive, but the palate is thirst-quenching and pleasing. This is not a wine to think about too much, dare I say, but to enjoy for certain. Not sure what the other grapes bring to the mix in terms of taste, but I am not a Champagne expert…
(2006) Bereche Extra Brut Reserve (2007 arrives in June). Now you’re talking serious, and seriously tasty. This is the second of three star wines for me in this tasting. Well, perhaps four. Anyway, this is definitely a wine to seek out. Very classy and elegant on the nose, there is a great sense of refinement. Picture a personally tailored Hermes suit. Subtle stone and chalk but also floral aromatics precede a flattering palate that is also complex. Wow! And the price is very good here. We tasted the 2006, not available, but the 2007 may even be a bit better.
(2006) Bereche Brut Nature Chardonnay Les Beaux Regards (2007 arrives in June). Now here we had some disagreements. Some tasters were very impressed by this wine, more so than the preceding one. I disagreed. Although this wine exudes quality, it is not immediately appealing. The nose is promising, very mineral, but then the palate is almost aggressively edgy and acidic. It must certainly be carefully made, and must improve with time in bottle, but I would not reach for this now. A wine to cellar and hope for something better.
(2008) Inflorescence by Cedric Bouchard Blanc de Noirs Val Vilaine. I had this wine already at a recent dinner. While it impressed us – it needed time to improve in glass – it was just a bit hard and drying on the finish. But that is a trifling issue. Chalk it up to its youth. Otherwise, a very vinous nose and palate, a clean aspect that is at once intense and fine. There is much freshness and elegance too!
(2006) Roses de Jeanne Cedric Bouchard Blanc de Noirs Ursules. OK this may be the very best of all the wines tasted. Very refined. Vinous. Mineral. There is a great finesse and corpulence aromatically and on the palate, which seems very dry and yet rich as well. A tremendous wine that is worth every penny.
Many thanks to Doug Rosen for the invitation.