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Celebrate Champagne Day With Champagne Lanson

October 28, 2022 Leave a comment

Ooh, another wine holiday I almost missed – Champagne Day, celebrated on the 4th Friday in October. Not that I need a reason to open a bottle of wine, but a wine holiday offers an opportunity to reflect on a specific wine subject, which is always a fun exercise.

My personal Champagne journey was long and rocky (still going). Growing up on a sweet concoction called “sovertskoe shampanskoe” (still have no idea if it is made out of grapes), the profound acidity with no sweetness is not something that one can quickly and gleefully embrace. And the price… And then the French obnoxiously insisting that Champagne can only come from Champagne, phew… Lots of things to get over…

I had a few key learning experiences along the way. First, about 20 years ago, there was a blind tasting of the Champagnes during Windows on the World wine classes, where I learned that liking Dom Perignon, or any other vintage Champagne when you are not influenced by the label is not obvious. Then about 12 years ago, there was PJ Wine Grand tasting in New York, where the first taste of vintage (and even non-vintage) Krug became a proverbial nail on the head and a pivotal moment of discovering the true pleasure of Champagne. And I have to mention an encounter with 2002 Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill Champagne about 6 years ago (the wine ended up being my 2016 wine of the year) – I spent about 10 minutes simply enjoying the aroma of the wine before even daring to take a sip. Yes, I can safely say that I love Champagne.

Okay, let me be careful here. I love Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. I love Rioja. Yes, I love Champagne. However, this is not a blanket statement. I love the category but within the category, the “love” concept is very particular. There are 10-12 specific Rioja producers and brands that I love, and the rest of the Riojas don’t excite me even for a second. It is the same story with Champagne – there are a few producers that I love and respect, and then there are quite a few I don’t care for. But I’m always willing to learn, taste, and discover something new.

Talking about discovery, I need to share with you my latest Champagne discovery – Champagne Lanson.

Founded in 1760, Champagne Lanson is one of the oldest Champagne Houses. From the moment it was created, Lanson’s focus was always on foreign markets. By the late 19th century, Lanson was supplying champagne by royal appointment to the courts of the United Kingdom, Sweden, and Japan. It still remains the main Champagne supplier to the British royal family. It is also official champagne of Wimbledon tennis tournaments since 2001. Today, Lanson Champagne is exported to 80 countries.

Lanson has close relationships with the growers, having access to more than 100 vineyards throughout Champagne, 50% of which are Grand Crus and Premier Crus. Lanson also cultivates more than 140 acres of its own vineyards, out of which 40 acres are farmed organically and biodynamically.

What I’m looking for in Champagne is precision. My ideal champagne has perfectly persistent energetic bubbles, toasted bread aromas on the nose maybe with a touch of yeast and even gunflint, the same toasted bread notes on the palate, maybe a hint of an apple, and a perfect balance of fruit, acidity, and structure on the palate. Balance is a king for any wine, Champagne not excluded.

I had an opportunity to try 3 of the Lanson Champagnes, and they all didn’t disappoint.

NV Lanson Le Black Label Brut Champagne (12.5% ABV, $50, 50% Pinot Noir, 35% Chardonnay and 15% Pinot Meunier) had perfectly persistent fine mousse, toasted bread aromas on the nose, and crisp, precise and refreshing palate. Some of the best bubbles have this captivating effect – once you take a sip, you can’t wait to take another – this was this Champagne Lanson.

NV Lanson Le Rosé Champagne (12.5% ABV, $70, 50% Pinot Noir, 35% Chardonnay and 15% Pinot Meunier) showed very similarly on the nose, with toasted notes and a hint of floral undertones. On the palate, it was a bit more feminine than the previous wine, still crispy, but softer and more round, with the addition of a touch of strawberry. Absolutely delightful.

And yet NV Lanson Le Green Label Organic Champagne (12.5% ABV, $75, 50% Pinot Noir, 30% Pinot Meunier and 20% Chardonnay) was my favorite of the 3. Precision and energy. Vibrant and raw, this Champagne simply over-delivered – ultra-precise bubbles, energy, finesse and balance. Superb.

Talking about precision – Champagne Lanson eliminates the need for you to guess. Take a look at these back labels:

Harvest year, disgorgement date, all the technical details if you care to know them – everything is presented, simply and clearly. You don’t need to guess for how long that bottle of Champagne had been waiting for you on the shelf? With Lanson, just take a look at the back label, and you already know.

Here is my offering to you – beautiful Lanson champagne which now will join my “favorites” ranks. The Champagne that will make any celebration seem brighter.

Have you had Champagne Lanson before? What are your favorite Champagnes? Happy Champagne Day! Cheers!

Sparkle Every Day

December 19, 2021 Leave a comment

Ohh, festive times… Bubbles, laughter, smiles, more bubbles, and more laughter and smiles.

We still think of bubbles as a holiday or otherwise celebratory wine, but it doesn’t have to be like this – every day is worth celebrating, and good bubbles bring something special – they have a magic power to make things better.

But now the bubbles are on everyone’s mind – the last two weeks before the New Year celebration, bubbles need to be consumed and gifted. Very appropriately, I’m inviting you on a trip around the world, to taste some sparkling wines, and maybe even find new favorites or discuss the old and familiar.

You can’t beat the classics, so let’s start in the place which started it all (I know it is contested, like everything else nowadays, but let’s just skip that discussion) – the Champagne, of course.

I’m starting today with Champagne which is unique and different, and in reality should warrant a full post, as this is Champagne with the story. In 1975, Bruno Paillard, tracing his family grower and negociant heritage back to 1704, started working as a Champagne negociant. In 1981, at 27 years of age, Bruno sold his old collectible Jaguar and started his own Champagne company with the vision of producing a different style of Champagne. In 1984, he designed a unique above-ground cellar to be able to fully control temperature during the production of Champagne. By 1988, he already was collecting raving reviews from the critics such as Hugh Johnson, and others.

Bruno Paillard calls his approach to Champagne production Multi-Vintage, as even non-vintage-designated wines still have known proportions of reserve (vintage) still wines used during production. Also, every bottle of Bruno Paillard Champagne carries a disgorgement date on its back label. I had an opportunity to taste Bruno Paillard Premiere Cuvee Champagne, which comprises 35 out of 320 Champagne crus, with up to 50% of the wine coming from 25 reserve vintage wines since 1985:

MV Bruno Paillard Premiere Cuvée Champagne (12% ABV, $60, 45% Pinot Noir, 33% Chardonnay, 22% Pinot Meunier, 36 months on the lees, 5 months in the bottle, disgorged in June 2020)
Fine mousse, crisp
Classic nose – toasted bread, very clean, delicate
Classic palate – toasted bread, minerality, a hint of apples, fresh, round, great energy, cut-through acidity, delicious overall
8+, superb. If you can drink it every day, more power to you – but it is well worth at least an occasional celebration.

As we are in Europe, let make another stop along the way – all the way down to the South of Italy – in Sicily.

Italy is no stranger to spectacular classical style (method Champenoise) bubbles – powerful Ferrari and others up north in the Trentodoc, majestic Franciacorta in Lombardy, and more classic sparkling wines everywhere in between. However, this was my first encounter with the classic-style bubbles from Sicily.

Not to be overdone, this wine comes from Planeta, which is one of the most famous and best producers in Sicily – still, I never heard of their sparkling wines. This wine was made out of the local white grape called Carricante, but if you would try it blind, it would be very hard to distinguish this wine from an actual classic Champagne.

NV Planeta Carricante Brut Methodo Classico Sicilia DOC (12% ABV, $42, 100% Carricante)
Light Golden color
Beautiful intense nose, minerality, a touch of gunflint, toasted notes
A touch of green apple, minerality, toasted bread, good acidity, medium to full body.
8+, outstanding. Mostly available in restaurants, but you still can find it in a few liquor stores.

Now, let’s cross the Atlantic all the way and then some, going to the west side of North America – we are stopping by in California, to be precise. Here I have two wines to offer to your attention.

If you like California sparkling wines, then you don’t need an introduction to Scharffenberger. Found in 1981 by John Scharffenberger, the winery was built from the get-go for sparkling wine production, showcasing the terroir of Mendocino country.

In 2004, the winery became a part of the Roeder Collection. Overall, it continues the same traditions as 40 years ago, and today the 120 acres estate is sustainably farmed and Fish Friendly Farming certified.

Scharffenberger produces a range of Non-Vintage sparkling wines, all made using the classic method, all made from various proportions of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The wine I want to offer for your holiday festivities and casual daily life celebrations is Brut Rosé:

NV Scharffenberger Brut Rosé Excellence (12.5% ABV, $26, 55% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot Noir)
Salmon pink
Toasted bread, brioche, a touch of strawberries
Tart strawberries, hazelnut, freshly baked bread, crisp, generous, invigorating
8+, excellent bubbles for any day

Now, we are still staying in California, but moving about 2 hours south and east from Mendocino to the Russian River Valley. Here, in 1984, Judy Jordan started her J Vineyards and Winery (at the age of 25). Throughout the years, Judy acquired 9 vineyards, managing 300 acres of vines around the area. Her brother John Jordan manages the eponymous Jordan winery in Sonoma, producing “Chardonnay, Cabernet, and Hospitality” (I really love this quote of his as I had an opportunity to experience all three at the wine bloggers conference 2017).

During my first wine bloggers conference in 2014 in Santa Barbara, I attended joint Jordan reception, hosted by J Vineyards and Jordan Winery, creating the most magnificent experience between delicious J Vineyards bubbles and Jordan Cabernet verticals.

Why am I telling you all of this and how is it relevant to the J sparkling wine I tasted? Actually, there is no real connection, except the sad feeling of the loss of true authenticity, after J Vineyards was sold to E and J Gallo in 2015. If you visit the J Vineyards website today, it is all about selling the wine. There is no “about” section. There is no history of the estate. Just buy, buy, buy. Buy this or buy that. Okay, okay – I get it – wine is a business. But it can be a business with soul – sadly, I don’t think E and J Gallo know how to operate one.

This J Vineyards Cuvée 20 was originally produced to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the winery but then became a standard feature in the sparkling wine lineup.

NV J Vineyards Cuvée 20 Russian River Valley (12.5% ABV, $38)
Straw pale, fine mousse
Gunflint is a primary element
Toasted bread, gunflint, a touch of lemon, crisp, energetic, perfect cleansing acidity
8/8+, needs food – oysters, cheese, steak – any food.

Let’s now take a long flight down south, to the Argentinian desert, to visit Domaine Bousquet in Tupungato.

Actually, I already wrote a long post about Domaine Bosquet sparkling wines, at the beginning of this year. These are essentially the same wines I tasted before, only with the new labels. If you are interested in learning more about Domaine Bousquet, please refer to the post above, and I will just share my latest tasting notes here:

NV Domaine Bousquet Brut Tupungato Argentina (12% ABV, $13, 75% Chardonnay, 25% Pinot Noir, Charmat method, organic grapes, vegan)
A yellowish tint in the glass
A hint of apple, fresh, clean
Perfectly round, good acidity, a touch of toasted notes, apples, easy to drink
8-, very good

NV Domaine Bousquet Brut Tupungato Argentina (12% ABV, $13, 75% Pinot Noir, 25% Chardonnay, Charmat method, organic grapes, vegan)
beautiful salmon pink
fresh, a touch of strawberries
more strawberries on the palate, fresh, clean, good acidity, nice body
8-, perfect for every day

And we are done. I’m leaving you here with a few of the options for your festive and daily bubbles – different prices, different wines, but all worthy of a life celebration as it happens. Cheers!

Celebrate Life! Celebrate Champagne!

October 22, 2021 Leave a comment

Is it only me or did the time accelerate for everyone? How come the store shelves are full of baking supplies and turkey condiments? It is still really warm here in Connecticut – did the summer end already? Does it mean that the holidays are coming?

Oh yes, the holidays!

I’m ashamed to admit but I believe I missed all or most of the wine holidays this year. Surprised with a large number of references to Champagne on social media, I decided to check the calendar, and yes – I almost missed yet another wine holiday – Champagne Day!

In victory you deserve it, in defeat you need it

It doesn’t matter who really said that (Napoleon, Churchill, or anyone else), but whoever said it, was right – in life, there is always a place for a glass of Champagne.

There are lots and lots of praise-worthy bubbles produced around the world – the rest of France outside of Champagne, Italy, Spain, Australia, California, Oregon, Georgia, and every place in between – but today it is all about Champagne.

Champagne had a tough time with the pandemic and other events, such as absolutely moronic labeling laws introduced in Russia, but nevertheless, people around the world are ready to celebrate, and Champagne sales are getting back to the pre-pandemic levels.

My celebratory Champagne of choice today is NV Marquis de la Mysteriale Brut Cuvée Grand Espirit (12.5% ABV) – perfectly suitable for every day, showing toasted bread notes on the nose, and crisp and refreshing on the palate. There is nothing spectacular about this wine, but for $20 (WTSO price), it is perfectly “good enough” to simply celebrate life, one day at a time. This was also the first time (I think) I had Champagne designated as MA – “Marque d’ Acheteur – A brand name owned by the purchaser, such as a restaurant, supermarket or wine merchant.”

A big part of Champagne fun is the process of opening the bottle using typically a special sword – so-called sabrage. Last year, I shared with you a little compilation of the sabrage gone wrong – very wrong. This year, I have a video collection of the amazing success of sabrage done with absolutely random objects, including tablespoon, iPhone, teaspoon, and even the high-heel shoe (and many others – see for yourself):

Here you are, my friends. Open a bottle of Champagne and celebrate life! Cheers!

Champagne, Champagne, Champagne for Everyone!

October 23, 2020 1 comment

Yes, I issued the call for Champagne. And no, it is not because of the Friday night, lottery winning, huge job promotion, or an official ending of the COVID-19. Today, October 23rd, 2020 is the official celebration of the bubbles that became synonymous with success and life’s happy moments – today we celebrate Champagne, a quintessential celebration itself.

My appreciation for Champagne came long after wine became an obsession. I grew up drinking sweet bubbles of unknown pedigree under the name of “Soviet Champagne” – who would care about naming rights back then. So the first encounter with crisp, tiny, and ultra-acidic bubbles was not love at first sight. It is interesting that how I can’t name a pivotal wine, but I can easily name a pivotal Champagne – Krug Vintage, I don’t remember if it was 2002, 2003, or 2004, but that encounter with greatness during PJ Wine grand tasting in New York absolutely changed my perspective on the Champagne. And if you care to know, I even have my favorite Champagne of all times – 2002 Pol Roger Cuvee Sir Winston Churchill – pure magic.

Today, sparkling wines are produced everywhere. All countries, all types of grape (sparkling Tannat? no problems. Sparkling Shiraz? of course!), and literally all wineries. There are absolutely stunning bubbles produced in Italy (Franciacorta, Trentodoc), Spain, and the USA (if you ever had Roederer L’Ermitage or late disgorged Gloria Ferrer, you know what I’m talking about). But today, it is all about Champagne, in its pure form.

Champagne also has the capability of bonding the memories – as it is often linked to the special moments, just seeing that bottle of Perrier-Jouët, Cristal, Dom Perignon, or Bollinger can trigger the onslaught of happy thoughts. True, any wine can do this, but Champagne has some special powers.

In recognition of the holiday, I’m offering you a collage of some of my Champagne experiences:

I also can’t miss an opportunity to mention the sabering – opening of the Champagne bottle with a special sword, the saber (hence the name). Sabering has some ground rules and requires basic skills – it can be done with the saber, but it is even more fun to use a random object, such as a wine glass, a stapler, or an iPhone – but this should be a conversation for another time. Sabering or not, but the opening of the Champagne bottle often goes wrong – and I want to leave you today with a little compilation of such, well, accidents.

One of my favorite quotes of all times is not about Champagne, but about life – in the words of the singer Pitbull, “every day above ground is a great day”. Don’t wait for a special occasion – open that Champagne bottle today – as the present should always be celebrated.

Cheers!

An Evening With Friends

January 7, 2020 Leave a comment

What is your favorite part about wine? Is it the taste? The buzz? The sheer appearance of the bottle sometimes resembling the work of art? The joy of owning an exclusive object? The coveted status symbol?

My answer will be simple. My favorite part about wine is the ability to share it. Take a sip, reflect, have a conversation, preferably a slow-paced one. Friends are the best pairing for wine. Opportunity to share the experience, pleasure, and joy. Sharing makes it all worth it.

New Year celebration (the main holiday for anyone with the Russian upbringing) is a multi-step process for us. We like to celebrate the arrival of the New Year as many times as possible – the evening before the New Year, a midnight Champagne toast, the New Year’s day dinner, and more dinners shortly after (this is when the bathroom scales are the worst nemesis). Some or all of these dinners have to include friends – and it is the best when friends share your wine passion.

Such was our dinner on Saturday, bringing together a group of friends who truly enjoy what the wine world has to offer. We all contributed to the evening, both with food and wines, to make it fun and interesting. Below is the transcript of our wine extravaganza, with highs, lows, and surprises.

While we were getting ready to start our dinner, our first wine was something unique and different – how many of you know what Piquette means? It appears that Piquette is yet another type of sparkling wines. The story of Piquette goes back to 18th century France when the whole wine industry was in full disarray. Piquette is literally made by converting water into the wine – using water to rehydrate grape skins left after the wine production. We had 2019 Field Recordings Tang Piquette Central Coast (7.1% ABV, Rehydrated skins of Pinot Gris and Chenin Blanc) which was made using this exact process – grape skins were hydrated in well water for a week, then pressed, after which a little bit of the table wine was added, and the wine was bottled with leftover yeast and sugar to continue fermenting right in the bottle. To me, the wine was reminiscent of cider – light fizz, fresh apple notes, cloudy appearance of a nice unfiltered cider. Would I drink this wine again? On a hot summer day – yes, why not, but this is not the wine I would actively seek.

It is difficult to assess the “uniqueness” of the wines. There can be many reasons for the “unique” wine designation – small production, wine not produced every vintage, the wine which is no longer produced. There are, of course, many other reasons. How about spending 10 years to finally make about 200 (!) bottles of a drinkable wine? Don’t know about you, but this is unquestionably unique in my book. And so there was 2017 Olivier Pittet Les Temps Passés Vin de Pays Romand Switzerland (14.2% ABV, Arvine Grosso). Petite Arvine is a popular white grape in Switzerland, producing nice, approachable white wines. On another hand, Petite Arvine’s sibling, nearly extinct thick-skinned Arvine Grosso (or Gross Arvine), is a nightmare to grow and to work with. This was the Arvine Grosso which took about 10 years to restore the plantings and achieve a drinkable result. The wine needed a few minutes to open up – then it was delicious, fresh, with a touch of underripe white plums, bright acidity and full-body, similar to Marsanne/Roussanne. I wish this wine would be a bit easier to procure and not just through a friend who lives in Switzerland…

I was happy that Stefano brought a bottle of 2008 Berlucchi Palazzo Lana Satèn Riserva Franciacorta (12% ABV) – I love Franciacorta sparkling wines, they always offer a playful variation of the classic Champagne. Berlucchi is the founder of the Franciacorta sparkling wine movement. This wine was also a Satèn, a unique Franciacorta creation, which is specifically made to be a bit gentler than a typical Champagne with the lesser pressure in the bottle. The wine was soft, fresh, delicate, and admired by the whole table enough to disappear literally in the instance.

The next wine was as unique as only inaugural vintage can be. Christophe Baron is best known as Washington Syrah master, with his Cayuse, No Girls, and Horsepower lines. But Christophe’s roots are actually in Champagne, so it shouldn’t be terribly surprising that he decided to embrace his heritage. The first bottling, with a promise of many more, was as unique as all Christophe Baron’s wines are – pure Pinot Meunier, vintage, and bottled only in magnums – 2014 Champagne Christophe Baron Brut Nature Les Hautes Blanches Vignes Charly-Sur-Marne (12.5% ABV, 100% Pinot Meunier, 1613 1.5L bottles produced). I made a mistake of slightly overchilling the wine, but it came to its senses shortly after it was opened. The wine was nicely sublime, with all the Champagne traits present – the acidity, brioche, apples – everything balanced and elegant. This was definitely an excellent rendition of Champagne, but to be entirely honest, at around $300 it costs considering tax and shipping, I’m not sure it was unique enough to justify the price. Oh well… definitely was an experience.

Before we move to the reds, a few words about the food. The New Year celebration is a special occasion, which is asking for a special menu. Our typical New Year dinner menu is heavy with appetizers and salads. Our staple salads are “traditional” – Olivie and “Herring under the fur coat”. For the appetizers, we had red caviar, bacon-wrapped dates, stuffed Belgium endives, different kinds of cold cuts and cheeses, tiny prosciutto/pecorino sandwiches, and I’m sure some other stuff. Tea-smoked duck and delicious lasagna comprised the main course, then finishing with loads of baked goods and candies. Yeah, don’t even think about dragging me onto a bathroom scale.

Let’s get back to wine.

The next wine belongs to the “interesting” category. NV Channing Daughters Over and Over Variation Twelve Long Island (12.5% ABV, Merlot, Dornfelder, Syrah, 208 cases produced), a multi-vintage wine which is produced using Ripasso and Solera methods. The name “Over and Over” is emblematic of the production method of this wine – there are many manipulations which I will not even try to describe – you better read it here. I’m all for the fun and complexity, but my problem is that I tasted the standard vintage Channing Daughters red wines which were literally identical to this Over and Over wine. It is great to play with your wine, no questions – but only if the end result is different, and better than the individual parts. The wine showed very youthful, with fresh crunchy fruit and cut through acidity – but it was lacking complexity. It is not a bad wine, but I was not moved by it.

Next up – 1996 Château Sociando-Mallet Haut-Médoc AOC (12.5% ABV) – this was a happy wine. The cork came out easily in one piece, and the wine was perfect from the get-go. The perfect minty nose of Bordeaux with a touch of cassis, some hints of mature fruit on the palate, but only the hints – still good acidity, solid core, excellent balance – the wine to enjoy. Yep, was gone in no time.

Of course, the duck on the menu is calling for the Pinot Noir, and what can be better than the Burgundy? 2007 Louis Jadot Grands Echézeaux Grand Cru AOC (13.5% ABV) was our designated match for the duck. The wine opened up beautifully, with succulent plums and a touch of smoke, a delicious, classic Burgundy. However, the joy lasted in the glass for about 10 minutes or so – next, all the fruit was gone, and while you know you are drinking wine, this wine had no sense of place of origin. I don’t know what happened – the wine closed up, needed more time, or was already at the last stretch of its life? Don’t know, and don’t think I will ever find out. Well, there is always another bottle, right?

Now, let’s talk about surprises. No, not the Chateau d’Yquem, which you would assume should qualify as a surprise – the 1999 Finca Villacreces Crianza Ribera Del Duero (13% ABV) was a real surprise. I heard the name of Finca Villacreces as one of the venerable Ribera del Duero producers, but I never had it before. When I was able to score this wine at the Benchmark Wine, I was very excited. The New Year’s celebration seemed to be a perfect opportunity to open it, especially as nobody had it before and we were all looking forward to getting acquainted.

The cork came out easily, in one piece with no sign of any issues. Once I poured the wine into the glass, on the first whiff, the scary thought instantly showed up – the wine might be corked. I tasted the wine, and it seemed just a touch off – it didn’t feel unquestionably corked, but the fruit was not coherent and the wine had sharp, raspy undertones which in my experience are associated with the corked wine. We moved the wine into the decanter and continued tasting it throughout the evening – it stayed practically unchanged.

This was not some random bottle I can get replaced at any store, so I really couldn’t just pour it out. And I’m an eternal optimist. So I used plastic wrap to cover the top of the decanter and left the wine standing there overnight. The next day, about 22-23 hours since the wine was opened, I decided to check on it. Oh my god. The wine completely changed. The hint of the musty cellar was gone. The mighty fruit appeared on the palate, layered, present, velvety and powerful, covering your whole mouth and making you extort “ohh, this is good”. I thoroughly enjoyed the wine after 24 hours in the decanter, and even the next day the tiny leftover was still drinkable. How is this possible? What has happened? I don’t have any answers, but if you have any ideas, please share.

We finished the dinner on the high note – 1988 Château d’Yquem Lur-Saluces Sauternes AOC (13.5% ABV). I’m you sure you don’t need any introductions here – Château d’Yquem is the Bordeaux legend, an absolute hallmark of the Sauternes region, with every other Sauternes wine simply measured against the Château d’Yquem. A perfect pop of the cork from this bottle was music to my ears. The nose and the palate of this wine were in full harmony – it was all about apricots. Fresh apricots, dried apricots, candied apricots – the taste kept moving round and round. The apricots were supported by clean acidity, which became more noticeable as the wine had an opportunity to breathe. Well, this was a short time window in any case, as this half bottle was simply gone in the instance. This 32 years old wine was truly an experience and a perfect finish to our great evening with friends.

That’s all I have for you, my friends. How 2020 started for you? What did you have a chance to discover over the last few days? Cheers!

Bubbles for the New Year 2019

January 9, 2019 2 comments

I pride myself with not discriminating against any type of wine – white, red, sparkling, Rosé, dessert, fortified, $2, $10, $100 – doesn’t matter.

In theory.

In reality, most of the days, I drink red. And wish that I would drink more white and bubbles. Especially bubbles.

But luckily, we have at least a few holidays in the year, where the only appropriate choice of wine [for me] is bubbles. New Year’s Eve is absolutely The One – bubbles all the way.

As with all the holidays, a little prep is involved – the word “little” is a clear exaggeration, as deciding about the wine is mission impossible around here. However, this year it was easier than usual. Shortly before the New Year day, I received a special etched bottle of Ferrari Trento, the oldest Italian traditional method sparkling wine and one of my absolute favorites (I wrote about Ferrari many times in the past), so it was an easy decision regarding the bubbles to ring the New Year in with. I also wanted to start the evening with some vintage Champagne but considering that nobody was thoughtful enough to send me the gift of Krug Vintage, I had to settle for whatever I already had in the cellar. And then there was a bottle of generic French sparkler (non-Champagne) “just in case”.

2008 Philippe Fourrier Cuvée Millésime Brut Champagne (12% ABV, $29.99 WTSO) was outstanding, just a perfect sip to start the holiday evening right. It had just the right amount of yeast and toasted bread notes on the nose, just enough to enjoy without going overboard. Apple and lemon notes on the palate, round, fresh, elegant, perfect balance – just a beautiful wine (Drinkability:  8+). It was also a steal at the price (seems that the wine is no longer available at WTSO).

The vintage Champagne disappeared in no time, it was still long before the apple would start its slide down in the Times Square, so the generic French sparkling wine was next. The weather outside was far from ideal for the New Year’s Eve (non-stop heavy rain) but it didn’t stop me from the pleasure of sabering the bottle into the darkness – worked like a charm even with the wine glass, unlike the #$%^ (insert your favorite expletive) with the saber at the French Laundry.

The NV Prince d’Estivac Blanc de Blancs Brut Vin Mousseux de Qualite (12% ABV, $13.99 WTSO, Melon de Bourgogne 50%, Ugni Blanc 25%, Chardonnay 25%) was excellent in its own right – fresh and vibrant, with rich mouthfeel, touch of a fresh apple, a bit bigger body than a typical Champagne – delicious in every drop (Drinkability: 8). It was also interesting learning for me as I’m not really familiar with “Vin Mousseux de Qualite” designation. It can be used for any French sparkling wine made with the traditional method. I’m assuming with the Vin Mousseux de Qualite designation the grapes can come from anywhere in France, where all of the Cremant wines (Cremant de Alsace, Cremant de Loire, …) require the grapes to be from the defined geographic area – if I’m wrong, please let me know in the comment.

Last but not least the time has come for the NV Ferrari Brut Trentodoc Emmys’ Special Edition (12.5% ABV, $24, 100% Chardonnay, 24+ month on the lees). Ferrari wines generally don’t disappoint, and this one was not an exception – crips, bright, bubbly (pun intended), good minerality, cut through acidity – sparkling wine worth any celebration (Drinkability: 8).

Of course, there was more than just the wine – New Year’s Eve is calling for a full table – here is a fragment of ours.

How did you celebrate the arrival of 2019? What were your bubbles of choice? Cheers!

One on One With Winemakers: Tasting The Stars

January 14, 2018 2 comments

“Come quickly, I am tasting the stars!” – whether Dom Perignon said these words or not is not really important – but if you thought that we will be talking about the Champagne, you got it right! Also, plural mention of “winemakers” in the title is not a mistake – today’s “one on one” post is actually a double-feature.

The story of Duval-Leroy Champagne goes almost 160 years back, to 1859, when Edouard Leroy, wine négociant, met Jules Duval, grape grower – the rest is a history which you can read for yourself here. Today Duval-Leroy farms 200 hectares (about 500 acres) of vines, mostly in Premier and Grand Cru appellations, also using sustainable viticulture – Duval-Leroy is known as a pioneer of the sustainable grapegrowing in Champagne.

In 1785, “Heidsieck & Cie” company was founded with one dream – to create a Champagne worthy of a queen. After tasting the stars, Queen Marie Antoinette became the first “brand ambassador” for the Heidsieck Champagne. I don’t want to try to regurgitate here the rich history of Piper-Heidsieck Champagne, you would be far better of reading it for yourself, but for all these years, Piper-Heidsieck story always included royal families, fashion designers, and movies. The bottle of Piper-Heidsieck was the first Champagne to ever appear in the movie in 1933. Since 1993, Piper-Heidsieck is an official supplier of Cannes Film Festival, and many actors and producers were recognized with the special Piper-Heidsieck Award at film festivals around the world.

Now, let’s get to that double-feature interview I promised. I’m running this “one-on-one” series of the interviews for about 3 years now. Until now, there was always a unique set of questions, prepared specifically for the particular winery and the winemaker. This time, I decided to play it a bit differently – ask the same set of questions of two winemakers – however, in this case, there is a great “common space” between the subjects of the interview – they both make Champagne!

I had an opportunity to [yes, virtually] sit down with Sandrine Logette, Cellar Master of Champagne Duval-Leroy, and Séverine Frerson, Chef de Caves at Piper-Heidsieck, and here is what transpired:

[TaV]: What is your approach to the blending of Vins Clairs? How many Vins Clairs are typically comprising your most standard NV house blend?

[DL]: It is necessary to first think about the flavor profile you would like to achieve: the aromatic notes with its intensity and its descriptors, its mouthfeel, its volume, its angles, its power and persistence as well as the volume: number of bottles to produce, volume of reserve wines to use and volume of wine to save for future ‘liqueur d’expédition’. The vins clairs are tasted several times (at least twice) after the malolactic fermentation to familiarize ourselves with their characteristics. The first approach to blending is always a minimal concept; which is what I call it my ‘accounting idea’. It is tasted, assessed and compared to our first and last blends of this wine made in previous years. The vins clairs are then improved by modifying only one character at a time. The same improvement is repeated as many times as necessary to achieve the best result. We use about 45 to 55 vins clairs to produce our Champagne Duval-Leroy Brut Réserve.

[PH]: We blend over 100 crus to make Piper-Heidsieck’s NV cuvée: the Cuvée Brut. I think of the vins clairs (base wines) as spices stored in little boxes in her mind and I know exactly which boxes/spices (and proportions) I need to add to create the same taste every year.

[TaV]: Can you describe your “house style”?

[DL]: Our goal is to maintain the quality of our Brut  Réserve NV vintage after vintage:

  • A complex aromatic profile showing fruity notes of yellow peach, damson and subtle red berries along with notes of cocoa powder and toasted bread
  • An integrated, round and generous mouthfeel but yet elegant and fresh.

[PH]: Piper-Heidsieck’s wine style is fruity, structured and complex, with lots of deepness. It’s a champagne to treat yourself and to share with your loved ones. Champagne serves as a bridge between people. It triggers and enhances moments of sharing, complicity and joy. And we are the ones who strive to create memorable experiences. It is all truly wonderful!

[TaV]: Somewhat of a continuation of the previous question: I don’t know if you ever experimented with this, but I wonder if a panel of wine consumers (non-experts) would be able to identify your standard NV offering in a blind tasting?

[DL]: We have worked with a panel of French consumers who tasted our Brut Réserve NV. This panel was able to detect the fruity nose without going into details and recognize the roundness of the mouthfeel and the integrated acidity.

[PH]: The goal of our Cellar Masters is to maintain Piper-Heidsieck’s style, and make it recognizable. Our wines are fruity, structured and profound but also well balanced, straight and bright. In the case of the Cuvée Brut, it’s a seductive champagne that you can recognize on your palate right away. What gives it away is its notes of almond and fresh hazelnut that are very lively, subtle and light. It’s a very smooth an pure champagne with notes of fresh pear and apple with a delicate hint of citrus fruits (pomelo). You can also taste the blonde grapes and juicy white fruits that create the lightness of the champagne.

[TaV]: Similar question to the second one, only now for the vintage Champagne – can you describe your house style?

[DL]: Our vintage “house style” is given by the characteristics of that specific year which varies according to the weather, therefore, the quality of the grapes (acid-sugar balance – fruit richness). We do not look for our vintage cuvées to be identical year after year. We make the best vintage with what nature has to offer.

[PH]: The Cellar Masters’ goal when creating a vintage champagne is to put a special year in a bottle. They want to take a snapshot of this particularly great year to keep it as a memory and reward the hard work of our vineyard team without forgetting about the Piper-Heidsieck style. Every vintage is different but they all answer to the Piper-Heidsieck style: wines that are fruity, structured with great depth. Our Cellar Masters took the best grapes from 2008 to put it in our current vintage: Vintage 2008 is a precise, elegant and free-spirit wine that showcases the greatest wines 2008 had to offer.

[TaV]: I would assume all (many?) of the Champagne houses have their “secret stash” of Champagnes which had not been disgorged yet – and the wines are disgorged on one by one basis, maybe for the special clients. Do you have such a “secret stash”? What are the oldest, not yet disgorged wines you have in your cellars?

[DL]: Of course, Duval-Leroy has its secret reserve Champagnes that are not disgorged and waiting in the cellar for that special request. Vintages such as 1979, 1982, 1986, 1988, 1990 … are kept in bottles and magnums (not systematically in each cuvée).

[PH]: We do have old cuvées in our Cellars, our “secret library” contains old NV from 1980 to now and different vintages from 1982 and on.

[TaV]: Are the Champagne styles changing to address the consumer demand? For instance, I would expect that people would like to drink more of Brut Nature/zero dosage and Rosé Champagne. What do you think?

[DL]: The Champagnes’ style may slightly vary depending on consumers demand, but not fundamentally change. Champagne is an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée which defines production rules and style objectives of quality.
We have seen a greater demand for Champagne Rosé and 5 to 10% sales increase over the past 10 years.
Rosé Champagne is an accessible Champagne, more obvious in terms of taste, festive by its color and more enticing.
The growing demand is also linked to the fact that Rosé Champagne has more personality and a specific identity. It is definitely easier to produce due to warmer weather in recent years.
We find an equally interesting demand for low dosage Champagnes. These low dosages are made possible because of a better integrated acidity naturally due to the wines richness and roundness.

[PH]: We do see some trends in the industry, people tend to be more knowledgeable about what they consume and younger generations like to be more informed. They become more and more wine experts so they ask to question about dosage, disgorgement dates … We have our cuvée Essentiel that works really well with wine experts since they have all the information they need on the label (disgorgement date, bottling date, lot number…) and it’s an extra brut. At Piper-Heidsieck we have a wide range of champagnes to please everyone, we have Rosé Sauvage, Essentiel (extra brut) for wine experts and connoisseurs, our Cuvée Brut, a vintage and Cuvée Sublime (a demi-sec). Our range satisfies all consumers, from non-experts to wine lovers and our entire range has complimentary food pairings.

[TaV]: Champagne seems to enjoy higher popularity overall over the last few years. Do you expect that trend to continue? Are the challenges for Champagne which need to be overcome?

[DL]: Of course we want this trend to continue and Champagne to remain the leader sparkling wine out there. In order to overcome any challenges, the Champagne region needs to continue improving.

[PH]: This trend will continue for sure. As mentioned before, the younger generation tends to be more and more knowledgeable about what they consume, especially for wines. They gain interest and want to develop their palate and their knowledge about wine. With more educated consumers that know the quality of champagne and tend to pair champagne with food more and more often we will keep seeing an increasing popularity in champagne consumption in the upcoming years.

The biggest challenge we will be facing is climate change. The Earth is getting warmer and the climate is changing making it even more difficult for us to ensure the quality of grapes as the years go on. With the unpredictable weather, our vineyard team will have to work even harder to protect our vines and ensure a high quality. At Piper-Heidsieck we already took measures to protect the environment as much as we can with recycling measures, reducing our water consumption and gas emissions. It’s a global concern and a challenge that will affect all industries in one way or another.

Another challenge would be the increasing sales of other sparkling wine, but it’s not too concerning as sparkling wines and champagne are very different products consumed for different reasons. As the consumers are getting more knowledgeable they can tell the difference between sparkling wines and champagne and they consume one of the other at different occasions.

[TaV]: What is your most favorite Champagne you personally or your house overall ever produced and why?

[DL]: My favorite is our Femme de Champagne tête de cuvée and specifically the 1995 and 1996 vintages. Very great vintages with beautiful and precise balance and a great aging potential.

[PH]: I actually don’t have a favorite champagne! It all depends on the moment, when I will open it and with whom! I will choose the Cuvée Brut for a festive aperitif with friends. I love the Vintage 2008 for an intimate dinner and the Rosé Sauvage in the summer with a barbecue.

[TaV]: Champagne rules allow using 7 different grape varieties, yet absolute majority only uses 3 from that list. Have you ever experimented with using any of those 4 leftover grapes? If yes, did you get any interesting results?

[DL]: Since 1998, we regularly vinify one of the old grape varietal of Champagne called ‘petit meslier and produce a specific cuvée: Précieuses Parcelles. Petit Meslier is a white grape varietal that grows well in soils rich in clay (a natural cross between Gouais and Savagnin) in the right bank of Vallée de la Marne.
It is a varietal that struggles to ripen, therefore has a mouthfeel marked by sharp acidity and aromatic notes of rhubarb.
I chose to vinify it in barrels to add some fine oak and spicy notes. Currently, we are working on the 2007 vintage with a low dosage of 4 g / l.
It is a cuvée of curiosity, interesting for its rusticity and for an unusual “Taste” of Champagne.

[PH]: Piper-Heidsieck’s Cellar Masters never experienced with the other grapes, because they only focused on those 3 grapes and developed an expertise in those grapes.

[TaV]: Sparkling wines are produced absolutely everywhere in the world today. Have you tried any of the Methode Classique sparkling wines produced outside of France (Italy, Spain, South Africa, USA,…), and if yes, did you find anything you liked? You don’t have to love them, but maybe you liked just a little, tiny bit? 🙂

[DL]: Fifteen years ago, the Duval-Leroy family contemplated purchasing vineyards in England but decided otherwise. They’d rather stay focused on the terroirs of Champagne.

[PH]: Today sparkling wines are developing, but  Champagne stays the luxurious sparkling wine of reference.
It’s always interesting to discover other regions – for example, I tasted high quality sparkling wines from Italy, Spain and Hungary and even if we are in the sparkling wine category they all had they own style and authenticity!

Time top drink some Champagne, isn’t it?

First, I wanted to try NV Duval-Leroy Rosé Prestige Premier Cru (Chardonnay/Pinot Noir blend) and NV Piper-Heidsieck Rosé Sauvage (50-55% Pinot Noir, 30-35% Meunier, 15-20% Chardonnay) side by side, as both are Rosé Champagne. There was a dramatic difference in appearance and taste profile. Duval-Leroy, in a word, was sublime. Delicate pinkish color, just a light salmon pink, whiff of the toasted bread, vibrant acidity on the palate, touch of lemon – seductive, and yes, sublime. Sauvage, on another hand, means “wild” in French – and that exactly how the Piper-Heidsieck was. Strawberry pink in the glass, fresh tart strawberries and a touch of yeast on the nose, and then generous toasted bread, granny smith apples and strawberries on the palate. Truly different and delicious in its own right.

NV Piper-Heidsieck Cuvée Brut (50-55% Pinot Noir, 30-35% Meunier, 15-20% Chardonnay, 10-20% reserve wines) was, in a word, classic – generous, voluptuous, touch of toasted bread and yeast, full mouthfeel, golden delicious apple sweetness, good minerality, very present and excellent overall.

Three Champagnes, three different wines, each delicious in its own right, each worthy to be a star of a special celebratory dinner or a quiet evening for two. And two conversations about the wines, the passion, the style, the stars. We spoke enough today; if you are still reading this, thank you and cheers!

Champagne! Champagne! Conversation with A.J. Ojeda-Pons of The Lambs Club

February 7, 2017 4 comments

While some of us insist that Champagne is an everyday wine, majority treat it as a “special occasion” only. Of course, every day with the name ending in “day” is worthy of a special celebration, but jokes aside, most of us need a good reason to pop the cork on that tickling, gently foaming, playful and refreshing nectar.

Lucky for all “special occasion” folks, one such special occasion is almost upon us. What can accentuate “love and romance” better than a glass of bubbly? Yes, bring the Champagne as Valentine’s Day is only a week away!

A.J. Ojeda-Pons The Lambs Club SommTo help you celebrate and maybe even answer a question or two which I’m sure you always had, I [virtually] sat down together with A.J. Ojeda-Pons, sommelier at The Lambs Club, one of the popular New York restaurants by the Food Network’s best-dressed star and Iron Chef Geoffrey Zakarian. I need to mention that in addition to being a WSET Advanced Sommelier, A.J. knows a thing or two about style – in 2014, he was the official winner of the U.S. Best Dressed Somm contest by Penfolds and GQ Magazine. And the Champagne? Just take a look at the A.J.’s LinkedIn profile, which says “Drink Champagne Every Day”!

Here is what transpired in our conversation:

[TaV]: Champagne is perfectly appropriate for any celebration, however, it is most often associated with Valentine’s Day – well, after the New Year, of course. When celebrating Valentine’s Day, would you recommend Champagne as the one and only choice of dinner wine, or would you use it just as an opener and then continue with whites and reds?

[A.J.]: Ah! My motto is “Drink Champagne Every Day,” so I often have a whole meal drinking just Champagne. Besides, drinking champagne before a meal is the most civilized thing you could do.

I know that it may be hard for some people to drink bubbles throughout a meal, but if you tailor your menu choices with the champagne that you are drinking, you can have an amazing experience (Think Crudos, Oysters, Fish or Seafood Tartare, Veal, Rabbit or Fish and avoiding red sauces or rich, creamy preparations). Otherwise, if you can’t commit, plan to drink the Champagne for at least half of the dinner and then switch for your main courses. In regards to desserts, champagne could sometimes be a total clash (due to its crispness and acidity) but a nice sorbet or fruit-based dessert will do.

[TaV]: To continue the previous question, just in case you suggested to stay with Champagne all the way, can you make some recommendations for different Champagne or Sparkling wines to complement a three course meal, including dessert? I’m talking not so much about particular producer names, but more about the styles and types of the sparkling wines.

[A.J.]: I like to drink a champagne that has more complexity throughout a full meal, so in that case I would go straight to a vintage champagne, even though it is always more expensive. You will benefit from the extended period of aging, it will have more nuanced layers and complex flavors, and will make it easy to pair with different flavors in various dishes.

[TaV]: Now, let’s actually talk about names. Splitting into three price categories – under $20, $20 to $60 and my favorite, “the sky is the limit”, what are the special Champagne and sparkling wines would you recommend to our readers in each price category?

[A.J.]: For the under $20 category, you won’t find any champagne in the market, unless it is a half bottle, but for that price point you are better off selecting other sparkling wines that are made in the méthode Champenoise. There are not a lot out there, if you can find them, because generally they are not exported or their production is very limited.

For example, from Italy you could try to get Franciacorta from the Lombardy region, from producers like Berlucchi, Il Mosnel or Mirabella. From the Veneto, you could try Il Buglioni spumante, and don’t forget that the Dolomites produce great sparkling, like Castel Noarna and Endrizzi. In Spain you can find great Cava from producers like Gramona, Mestres and Naveran.

If you are really in love with French sparkling, Crémant de [Bourgogne] (Veuve Ambal, Clotilde Davenne), [Jura] (Domaine de la Renardière, Rolet Père & Fils) [Alsace] (Albert Mann, Pierre Sparr or [Limoux] (Tocques et Clochers, Paul Mas) is your answer.

In the $20-60 sweet spot, you’re going to have the majority of Champagne options, from producers like Benoit Lahaye, Laurent Perrier, Dhondt-Grellet, Andre Clouet, Ayala, Billecart-Salmon, Aubry, Deutz, Henriot… open the floodgates!

Sky is the limit… yes, always! Find the Tête de Cuvées from Billecart-Salmon (Le Clos Saint-Hilaire), Pol Roger (Sir Winston Churchill), Charles Heidsieck (Blanc de Millenaires), Krug (Clos de Mesnil) and of course, Moët & Chandon (Cuvée Dom Pérignon).

[TaV]: What do you think of Grower’s Champagne? It is often hard to find, and if you can find it, it usually comes with very little information – is Grower’s Champagne worth seeking?

[A.J.]: Grower Champagne is by far my favorite type of champagne. Yes, they are hard to find at some stores but you can actually purchase quite a few online, if your state allows. Think about it, they ?own the land, they farm it, quite often respecting nature to the T, they produce and sell their own champagne, they don’t sell the fruit to big houses or mass producers. I stock on these a lot.

There are many styles to look forward to and many small producers that just are thrilled to share their farmer love in the language of a great bottle of champagne.

The Lambs Club Mezz Bar NYC

The Club Mezz at The Lambs Club

[TaV]: Over the past few years I had a number of delicious encounters with so-called Pét Nat sparkling wines – what do you think of them? Is this a fad, or will we see more of them? Do you offer Pét Nat at your restaurant?

[A.J.]: These are fun and can be quirky, but really excellent options to explore. I don’t think they are a fad, but you will see them more often in natural wine bars. They’re versatile with food, I must say.

We carry a couple at The Lambs Club and we offer on-and-off a choice by the glass depending on the season. I like them a lot. They are approachable, easy drinking and they also have a variety of styles from different countries. My favorite from California: Birichino, New York State: Channing Daughters, and from France: Chahut et Prodigues and Taille aux Loups!

[TaV]: In your opinion, what is the ideal vessel to serve the Champagne in? Is it the ever so popular flute, or should we rather serve and drink Champagne from the standard white wine glasses?

[A.J.]: Avoid flutes like the Black Plague. They are indeed obsolete, although they are alright for Prosecco. A regular white wine glass will be much better and, in fact, many crystal/glass makers have completely changed the shape of flutes to more white wine glass-shaped. You will be able to experience a lot more of the aromas of the champagne. Great champagne deserves a great glass. I prefer larger Burgundy or Bordeaux glasses for Vintage champagne.

[TaV]: What are your most favorite Champagne producers, if you have any?

[A.J.]: I have so many that I will need an extra page (back to my motto and hashtag, #DrinkChampagneEveryDay) but, here’s a few: Dhondt-Grellet, Billecart-Salmon, Agrapart, Savart, Tarlant, Robert Moncuit, Delamotte, Krug, Guillaume Sergent, Pierre Moncuit, Besserat de Bellefon…

[TaV]: Can you share your most mesmerizing Champagne experience, or most memorable Champagne bottle you ever had?

[A.J.]: It was a Heidsieck Monopole 1945. I was working a collector’s dinner and they had brought so many incredibly old vintage champagnes, but this one was my eye opener. All I could think about was ‘drinking this back then when the war finally ended.’ Seriously.

[TaV]: Last question – do you have a favorite Champagne quote? You know, like the famous [supposedly] Napoleon’s quote “Champagne! In victory one deserves it, in defeat one needs it” – do you have one (or more) which you like the most?

[A.J.]: Yes!!! Always a current quote from the poet Paul Claudel: “In the little moment that remains to us between the crisis and the catastrophe, we may as well drink a glass of champagne.”

There you have it, my friends. Hope you will find our conversation interesting, but most importantly – you don’t have to wait for the Valentine’s Day to get some fizz on. Pop that cork already, will you? Cheers!

A Puzzle of a Hundred Pieces

December 30, 2015 7 comments
This beautiful artwork is constructed from top wine foils. Picture courtesy of Ryan Sorrellof VinoMosaic.com

This beautiful artwork is constructed from tops of wine foils. Picture courtesy of Ryan Sorrell of VinoMosaic.com

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:

mise en place - glassesAnd the expectations started building as the carts showed up:

Vin Clairs

Piper Heidsieck Vin Clairs BottlesThis is what went into our tasting glasses:

mise en place - Vin Clairs

mise en place vin clairs ready

Bill Terlato welcomed everyone to the tasting:

Bill Terlato opens the eventAnd then we started to learn about puzzle pieces. Of course, first talked about what Champagne is – “Champagne comes only from Champagne”:

About French ChampahneAll 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.

Régis Camus conducts the Vin Clairs tasting

Régis Camus (on the left) explains what does it mean to create a Champagne wine

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:

Vin Clairs and Piper-Heidsieck 2014 Assemblage

2014 Assemblage Piper-Heidsieck is to the right

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!

Valentine’s Day Wine Experiences

February 19, 2015 15 comments

Valentine's Day wine line upLast week I gave you some recommendations for the wines to serve on Valentine’s Day. Now, let’s see if I followed my own recommendations.

Of course the plan was to start the evening with the Champagne – and then there was a … but. I recently got my hands (told you many times before  – I love my friends) on the very interesting sparkling wine from UK. What was the most interesting for me even before I tried the wine is that it contains one of the extremely difficult to find, rare grapes called Schönburger. As I mentioned last time regarding my quest to complete all the grapes in the original Wine Century Club application, Schönburger was one of those “last standing”, extremely difficult to find grapes – and the Carr Taylor Brut was the only wine containing Schönburger, which Wine-Searcher was able to find pretty much anywhere. In case you are curious, Schönburger is a rose grape created in 1979 in Germany as a cross of Pinot Noir, Chasselas and Muscat Hamburg, As an added bonus, the Carr Taylor Brut contained another grape I never heard of, another cross from Germany called Reichensteiner.

Okay, now that I provided a full disclosure, let’s talk about the wines. NV Carr Taylor Brut Sparkling Wine, England (12% ABV, $35) was an excellent start for the evening. Fine bubbles, very intense, very reminiscent of Champagne. Hint of toasted bread on the nose and may be a touch of almonds. The palate had all the toasted and yeasty notes, packaged together in compact but bright way – the wine had no sweetness, but nevertheless was perceived as a fuller body than a typical Champagne. I would gladly drink this wine again any time – if it would be available in US. Drinkability: 8-

Now it was the time for Champagne – Pierre Peters “Cuvée de Réserve” Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne (12% ABV, $55) – very classic, a hint of brioche on the nose, and nice toasted notes on the palate. Quite honestly, after the first sparkling wine, I wanted a bit more life in the glass – this was clean and fine, but more of the usual. Drinkability: 7+

Our next wine was a white Burgundy. Considering my limited experience with Burgundy, I was concerned if 10 years old wine would hold well (all of you, Burgundy buffs, please stop laughing out there – I’m still learning), so the Valentine’s Day seemed to be quite a good occasion to find out. This 2005 Domaine Fontaine-Gagnard La Romanee, Chassagne-Montrachet Premier Cru, France (13.5% ABV, $65) was outright delicious – beautiful nose of fresh apples, and then apples and honey on the palate – full bodied, supple, with perfect lingering weight in the mouth – this was really a treat. Too bad it didn’t last – but this was definitely an excellent wine. Drinkability: 8

Time for the reds, don’t you think? Remembering the pleasure of the Antica Terra Ceras Pinot Noir (here is the post in case you missed it), I wanted to try another Pinot Noir from Antica Terra – this time it was 2011 Antica Terra Botanica Pinot Noir Willamete Valley (13.2% ABV, $75). The nose was very similar to the Ceras – cranberries, touch of forest floor, lavender, bright and intense. On the palate, this wine had much bigger shoulders than Ceras. Ceras Pinot Noir need no breathing time – it was ready to drink from the moment the bottle was opened. Botanica needed a bit of time. After about 20 minutes in the glass, it showed its structure, dark concentrated fruit, touch of coffee, earthiness, all with a perfect balance, and again, finesse. Drinkability: 8

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And then there was Opus One. 2001 Opus One Napa Valley (14.2% ABV, $250). Quite honestly, when I learned that we will be opening Opus One, I was a bit concerned. Yes, this is one of the legendary California Cabernet Sauvignon wines, and yet when I tasted it before, I was not blown away. And when you are not visually excited about $250 bottle of wine, you feel that something is wrong with you, don’t you think? Bottle is opened, and wine is poured in the glass. Based on the color, the wine looks like it was bottled only yesterday – dark, very dark garnet. On the nose, the wine was somewhat muted but pleasant – touch of black fruit and eucalyptus. On the palate, the wine was simply closed – and aggressively tannic, with a touch of green brunches on the finish. Well, to the decanter, of course. After about an hour in decanter, the wine definitely changed for the better, showing touch of cassis and coffee notes on the palate – the tannins still stayed, but reduced, and the finish became spicy, peppery if you will – still not leading to the “wow” which you want to find in the bottle like that. Oh well. Drinkability: 7+

As we were waiting for Opus One to come around, another bottle was pulled out – 1996 Robert Sinskey Vineyards RSV Stag’s Leap District Claret Napa Valley  (13.9% ABV, $55). This wine amply compensated for the Opus One shortcomings – in a word, it was delicious. Perfectly young appearance in the glass was supported by the fresh fruit on the nose. And the palate had cassis, touch of mint, mocha, sweet oak, silky smooth tannins, perfectly layered and perfectly balanced. This was Napa Valley Cabernet at its peak, and it was not afraid to show it. Drinkability: 8

Logically (Valentine’s Day!) we had to finish on a sweet note. This was my first experience with Austrian dessert wine, and it was also a first experience with Kracher – I only heard the name before, but never tasted the wines. 2011 Kracher Auslese Cuvée Burgenland, Austria (12% ABV, $22) had everything you want in the dessert wine and nothing you don’t – delicious light honey notes, lychees, vibrant acidity, lemon peel – it was an outstanding way to finish the evening. Drinkability: 8

That is the story of our Valentine’s Day wine experiences. Well, I can’t leave with the wines alone – the food was delicious too, so let me at least share some pictures – I spent time working on them, you know. Here we go:

And we are done here. So, what were your Valentine’s day wine highlights? Cheers!

 

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