Kurtis Kolt and Jake Skakun

4
Dec 2009
Lessons Learned in the Realm Of Champagne
Wine by 
Jake
  at 4:44 pm | 7 Comments »

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.

A few more things I took away from the tasting:

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.


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7 Responses:

khristian said:

Jake,

If you get the chance while you are in San Fran please check out Colet Sparkling wines from Spain – really cool guy is Sergi Colet – I met him last year. His family have been grape growers in Pacs del Penedes snce the 1780′s, Sergi did his apprenticeship at Pol Roger and he makes some serious Traditional Method bubble.

He holds the whole Cava designation with a bit of contempt – so much so that he is DO Penedes and not Cava (he feels that the rules are too watered down and that you can basically make Cava just about any where in Spain).

Look out for “A Priori” or “Assemblage”. I am still trying to bring these in to BC.


Shea said:

Any wine called “a priori” deserves to be bought and consumed (coming from a former philosophy graduate student). Bring that stuff in!


Shea said:

Oh, and I’ve felt the exact same compulsion to put down my pen with champagne. Which makes me ask, does great champagne really need a tasting note?


Jake said:

Thanks Khristian, I’ll keep an eye out forsure. From what I’ve seen, the BC market could use some new and interesting Cavas, as it’s almost entirely dominated by the two big guys.

Shea, yes it’s a tough battle. For me, it’s about building a reference, but hopefully after I’ve tried a label once or twice, there will be far less note taking going on. Vintages I suppose are a different story.

Here’s a decent little article about grower Champagnes from the WSJ that I stumbled on this morning:
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704107104574569863095511276.html


khristian said:

Jake

I’m curious about what you think about Growers’ Champagne vs Non-Growers’ Champagne.

There are some fantastic Growers’ Champagnes but does the fact they grow their own grapes and make their own wine make them better? Obviously it doesn’t guarantee that they are either good grape growers or good winemakers.

As well, is big necessarily bad (or worse than Growers’)?


Matt said:

Great post Jake,

Drinking Larmadiers Extra Brut Grand Cru VV Cramant 2004 this morning and it is also a stunner if not a little more expensive than the Terre de Vertus (your pricing is also correct).
Taught and focused with very good raw materials. Warm and flat it reminds me of very young grand cru Chablis, for all the obvious reasons.

Kristian, bring in those bloddy Cava’s, you know I’ll buy ‘em. And nice job stirring up shit about grower Champagne. I knew it would only be a matter of time before it becomes chic to dis growers (not that you’re doing that). The truth is, as it almost always is and that you know, is that there are bad growers and bad negociants. Of course there are great examples of both as well. Liking a Champagne just because it’s a grower does no one any good (its like liking VQA wine just because it’s VQA). There are extremely mediocre growers out there who’d be better off selling the fruit to a house who will make better wine than they will.

Smaller is not better. However, smaller in the case of Chamapgen allows us further insight into the nuances of each village and vineyard with greater ease and exactitude than with big houses. With growers I can (and have this week alone) had chardonnay from Avize, Cramant, Cuis and Oger. That is tres cool and is impossible considering the current focus of the large houses.

Also mediocre NV multi-region Champagne tells me nothing. It’s merely an exercise in mediocre bubbly. BFD. Mediocre grower Champagne should at least tell me something about it’s place and probably grape. If it fails at making me smile at least maybe I can learn something about under ripe chardonnay from Cuis for example – beyond the fact that it’ quality is merely mediocre. A race to the bottom? Maybe. But I think a useful argument for small (or at least more focused) production.

I know you asked Jake what he thought but there you go.

Cheers

Matt


Jake said:

Good points Matt. You guys and your Saturday morning Champagne! How was it that I found out about this little affair the week before I left??

Again, I don’t have a ton of Grower Champagne under my belt, but I agree with Matt in that the sole act of being a Grower Champagne doesn’t qualify it for greatness. And in fact, being a less talented Grower may even further expose these flaws, as there isn’t as much blending happening. That being said, I don’t think I’ve had enough experience to name a Grower I’ve tasted that I would consider outright bad and I doubt that many of these examples are even exported to North America.

When they are done well, with the added dimensions of being able to more easily amplify and express their vineyards and the fact that they are made in smaller productions with more attention from the winemaker can combine to make some extraordinary wines. I’ll take a bottle of Pierre Peters, Larmandier-Bernier, or Paul Bara over a NV bottle of Vueve, Moet, or Mumm 100% of the time.

To clarify, I’ll drink any glass of Champagne offered to me 100% of the time…


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