I suppose I can now rest comfortably knowing that I’ve experienced the joy of tasting 40 Champagnes (plus 2 Cavas) in one evening. Last night’s annual Champagne tasting at Arlequin in San Francisco did not disappoint. To be honest, I fell victim to some palate fatigue and lost my note-taking discipline before finishing the whole line up, but it was an awesome experience none-the-less.
I definitely wouldn’t place myself in the isolated league of “Avid Champagne Drinkers,” so this tasting provoked some personal challenges. The major one being, how do I articulate the subtitles in so many wines with similar flavour profiles? Throw in the razor sharp acidity that helps to mask and confuse sugar levels, plus the palate cleansing bubbles which add a whole new dimension. Also, part of me is screaming “Put down your pen for once and drink the damn Champagne.” Obviously it all comes with the experience of tasting and thinking about what you’re tasting, but events like this one are few and very far between.
I feel like I was able to compare and grasp the difference between two polar opposite styles. On one end there’s the lean, chalky, minerally, lime and citrus driven style represented by wines such as Pierre Peters Blanc de Blancs NV, Paul Bara Brut Reserve ‘Grand Cru’ NV, Agrapart ‘Terroirs’ Blanc de Blancs NV, or the Larmandier-Bernier ‘Terre de Vertus’ Blanc de Blancs NV. It’s no coincidence that most of these I’ve listed are Blanc de Blancs, meaning that they are made solely from Chardonnay.
I found that wines like Jacquesson ‘Cuvée 733′ NV (and Jacquesson in general), Henriot Brut Souverain NV and Brut Millesime 1998, and Krug ‘Grand Cuvée’ MV (even though Krug is kind of it’s own animal) all fell under the umbrella of a much richer, leesy and toasty profile. If you’re unfamiliar with the term lees or leesy, brush up on autolysis here. Everything else fell somewhere in the middle.
Pol Roger ‘Sir Winston Churchill’ ’98 is damn good, overpriced, but damn good.
Great developed characters including toasted almonds and a french fries component with great lemony acidity. Very good, yet at $270, I’m not sure I can recommend it. If someone offers to buy it for you, take them up on that offer. Strange, but for some reason it’s about $80 cheaper in BC.
Henriot Brut Souverain NV carries great bang-for-your-buck in the Non-Vintage category.
Henriot doubles up on the average release age of their wines over most other Champagne houses. The Souverain spends about 3 years in the bottle before release and the vintage is around 8 years. This explains the richer, yeastier style which comes from longer contact with all those dead yeast cells. I’m happy with the balance between those characters and the dry, green apple notes. As far as Champagne deals go, at $35-$40 in SF, this is a great one.
There are some damn good Cavas out there.
Two Spanish wines snuck their way into a room full of Champagne, and they did a good job of holding their own. They were from biodynamic producer Recaredo and included the Brut Nature ’05 ($37ish) and the Brut de Brut ’02 ($55ish). The Brut de Brut ’02 had especially impressive complexities with a buttery toastiness, and ground coffee balanced by lime, green apple and chalky characters. Very good, with my one finicky complaint being that I would have liked to see a touch more acidity. These are apparently pretty rare in North America, so you should jump on the chance to try them, should it arise.
Overall, I’d prefer to sip on a lean and dry Champagne with chalk and citrus characters before a richer, leesier, doughy style.
I appreciate that different situations call for different styles, but this is my personal preference. Larmandier-Bernier is one of the few biodynamic producers in Champagne. I found the regular label Blanc de Blancs NV a little too bitter, yet the single vineyard, ‘Terre de Vertus’ Blanc de Blancs sung, and was one of my favourites. This is tart and lean with tons of citrus, stone and chalk. Brilliant wine, but you have to know what you’re getting yourself into. It retails for around $70 in SF and is available at Arlequin. If you’re in Vancouver, it’s carried by Kit’s Wine Cellar for around $100 (give or take $10… please correct me if I’m wrong).
I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about Krug ‘Grand Cuvée’ NV.
For a wine with so much hype and a far from modest price tag ($125-$200+ in the US and $255 in BC), I was naïvely expecting fireworks. It’s definitely doing it’s own thing and is quite interesting and complex. Very rich, with red apple skins, granny smith apple, and a slight butterscotch character. Very good and a fun bottle to drink. Again, not sure I’d rush out to buy a bottle, but I’d happily drink it.
The full list of producers poured:
Gosset, Pol Roger, Ruinart, Krug, Henriot, Larmandier-Bernier, Agrapart, Jacquesson, Pierre Peters, Jean Milan, Chartogne-Taillet, Gaston Chiquet, Rene Geoffroy, Merc Herbrart, Ruelle-Pertois, Voirin-Jumel, Pierre Moncuit, Gonet-Medeville, Stephane Coquillette, J. Lassalle, Paul Bara, Veuve Fourny, Paul Berthelot, Jose Dhondt, Camille Saves, Recaredo, Guy Larmandier.
Thanks again to Ian and everyone at Arlequin for another great tasting.