A Puzzle of a Hundred Pieces
Is there a person in this world who doesn’t like puzzles? You can save the “duh” exclamation for later – I’m sure there are some people who don’t, but an absolute majority enjoys the puzzles of some sort, whether expressed in the form of words, numbers, colorful picture pieces, link chains or whatever else.
So what if I tell you that you will be given a hundred of random pieces – not just you, but a group of people will receive a hundred of totally random pieces, but they all would have to build exactly one and the same picture out of those 100 random pieces – would you like to take part in such a challenge? Do you think you would be up for it?
While you still considering if you are up for a challenge, you are probably also wondering how puzzles relate to the wine and what you are still doing reading this nonsense where you were looking for the information on the wine, plain and simple. Actually, it appears that this type of puzzle with random pieces but the same resulting picture has very direct relationship with the world of wine. Not necessarily with the whole of it, but definitely with one of the most noble parts – the Champagne.
If you ever read the story of Benedictine monk Dom Perignon, often credited with creation of Champagne (”come quickly, I am drinking the stars”), many wine historians agree that major Dom Perignon achievement is not creation of Champagne itself, but perfection of the art of blending. If you think about it, blending resembles the process of putting together puzzle pieces. And to complete the picture, take a look at the description of any of the Champagne made by so called Champagne Houses – Veuve Clicquot, Moèt and Chandon, Bollinger, Perrie-Jouiet and hundreds of others – they all talk about a “signature taste” of their Champagne House, which is painstaking maintained exactly the same through the hundreds of vintages.
While I knew about significance of blending in production of Champagne, I never understood a true scale of an effort. A month ago (almost two month by the time I was able to finish this writing), I was lucky enough to attend a first ever Vins Clairs (give a few seconds – I will explain what this is) tasting hosted by the Champagne House of Piper-Heidsieck and Terlato Imports in the US – well, it was simply first ever Vins Clairs tasting conducted outside of France. The event was led by Régis Camus, Chef de Cave and Winemaker for Piper-Heidsick. And yes, we spent time learning about puzzles.
Let me give you a brief photo report for what was happening at the event first, and then of course we will go back to puzzles. When I arrived (early, to get a seat in front), the room was ready for the tasting:
Bill Terlato welcomed everyone to the tasting:
All grapes used in production of Champagne come from 320 different vineyards, which are also called CRUs. Out of those 320, only 17 have a status of Grand Crus – as they produce distinctly better grapes. Just to give you few more fun numbers – there are about 19,000 grape growers in Champagne, out of which only about 2,100 produce their own wine. There are also about 50,000 Champagne labels – which, of course, explains that it is always possible to come across a champagne bottle you never saw before.
But let’s get to our puzzle, as we still need to solve it. Every year, the grapes are harvested (just a quick reminder – there are 7 grapes allowed to be used in Champagne, but only 3 – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are really used), pressed and fermented into the still wine, same as it would be done with any other wines – with the exception of color – red grapes, such as Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, still produce clear juice if not kept in contact with skins, and this is what typically done in production of Champagne – unless Rosé is in the making. Once fermented, these still wines now become foundation of Champagne, known as Vins Clairs.
As common with any still wines, the year is a year is a year – every year is unique and different. If the year was great, let’s say, for Chardonnay, the Chardonnay Vins Clairs will become a Reserve wine and will rightfully occupy the place in the cellar. If the year was just okay, the wine, of course, will be used, but will not be cellared for long. If the year was terrible, the wine simply might not be produced. But it is okay – remember, we got lots of pieces to play with.
First, we tasted through 5 different Vins Clairs – each one a component in the Piper-Heidsieck Champagne, each one with its own role. Chardonnay brings fruit aroma, citrus, minerality. In reserve wines, Chardonnay will bring more aromas. Pinot Noir provides body and structure, and it is usually main component in Piper-Heidsieck Non-Vintage Champagne. Pinot Meunier brings fresh fruit. Below are my notes, almost verbatim, as I followed explanations and tasted the wines:
2014 Chardonnay Avize – Avize village is in the center of Côtes de Blanc, and it is one of the 17 Grand Crus. Straw pale color. Beautiful nose, minerality, fresh, citrus. Clean acidity on the palate, green apple, nice acidic finish. This wine was mostly used for vintage and reserve wines, and will be a part of non-vintage champagne in 5–6 years down the road.
2014 Pinot Noir Verzy – Verzy is also one of the 17 Grand Crus. Light golden color. Interesting nose, mostly white fruit, very serious acidity, lemon/lime level, very interesting. I would have to agree on structure. In a blind tasting I would say Muscadet.
2014 Pinot Meunier Ecueil (fleshy and fruity, red grape with white juice). Light golden color. Brings in fresh fruit to the blend. White fruit on the nose. Pinot Meunier rarely used for reserve wines. Still acidity, but acidity of the fruit, more of the green apples.
2009 Chardonnay Avize very interesting color – green into golden. Beautiful minerality, classic Chablis gunflint. Delicious. Creamy, medium body, white fruit, restrained acidity, long finish. I would gladly drink this wine by itself.
2008 Pinot Noir Verzy color similar to Chardonnay – green-golden. White fruit on the nose with touch of minerality. A bit more fruit on the palate, but still extremely pronounced acidity.
After we tasted through the 5 Vins Clairs, we were asked to refresh our palates with a sip of Pinot Meunier, and the final wine #6 was poured. Boy, what difference was that – mind boggling, starting from the color:
2014 Assemblage Piper-Heidsieck – blend of 2014 (90%) and reserve wines (10%) – darkest color of all, beautiful nose with yeastiness, and fresh bread, good minerality. One would never guess that you can get that from individual wines. Color came from the fact that the wine was not stabilized yet. Delicious overall, excellent acidity. 55% Pinot Noir, 15% Chardonnay, the rest is Pinot Meunière. There are 100–110 crus in this final assemblage, and the work on it was finished very recently. This wine was bottled in 2015, and will be released in 2018.
Someone asked if it is possible that the puzzle will not be solved in some years. Régis Camus gave us a little smirk, and said that no, this is not possible – the puzzle will be always solved.
What can I tell you? This was definitely an eye-opening experience – we were allowed to touch the magic, the magic of creation of one of the most revered wines in the world, and it definitely exceeded my expectations.
This was the end of the Vins Clairs tasting, but the beginning of “no-holds-barred” Piper-Heidsieck Champagne tasting -we had an opportunity to try all the major Champagne Piper-Heidsieck offers – 2006 Brut Vintage, 2002 Rare Millesime, Rosé Sauvage and Cuvée Sublime (Demi-Sec)
At this point, I was part exhausted, part excited, and stopped taking notes – I can only tell you that 2006 Brut and Rosé Sauvage were two of my favorites, but I would have to leave it only at that.
Here you go, my friends – the magic of Champagne, a puzzle of a hundred pieces – but the puzzle which is always solved. The New Year is almost here, and of course it calls for a perfect bottle of Champagne – but even if not a New Year, we can simply celebrate life, and every day is a good day for that. Pour yourself a glass of sparkles and let’s drink to the magic, and life. Cheers!