Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Nothing beats Champagne for sparkling wine

It is that time of year again when all of the newspapers start publishing their Champagne stories in time for the New Year celebrations. Both the New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle have gotten in on the action. The NYT piece focused on how the big négociants (they buy grapes from independent growers) are dealing with the push for terroir-driven wine, whereas the Chronicle described how grower-producers have gained ground in the Champagne conversation. Several weeks ago, I was lucky enough to attend a tasting of importer Terry Theise's grower-producer Champagne selections. I think these wines offer some of the best value (not necessarily inexpensive) for sparkling wine from around the world, and I wanted to share the highlights of this tasting with you.

There is a lot of sparkling wine in the world. Unfortunately, only a small portion of it is Champagne. Champagne is sparkling wine from the Champagne region in northeast France. True Champagne is made predominantly from three grapes (chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier) though up to seven cultivars are permissible (more on that later). Sparkling wine from other regions can be made from any number of grapes, and while the style may be similar to Champagne, it is not Champagne. If you're drinking sparkling wine from Germany, it is called Sekt, Spanish bubbly is called Cava, and the most predominant Italian sparkling wine is called Prosecco. Even in other French regions, the term Champagne may not be used. One of the main reasons for the seemingly strict semantics is terroir. Champagne's distinctive natural characteristics are based on its exceptionally northerly location (it is France's most northern viticultural area) and its location in a geologic formation known as the Paris Basin. Here, the grapes take root in Cretaceous chalk, which is key to true Champagne. While the method of production may be duplicated elsewhere, the terroir is unique.

Despite this uniqueness, there is an increasing dichotomy of Champagne. Most of the Champagne that you and I see on retail shelves or on restaurant wine lists is dominated by a few brands. The big luxury négociants produce millions of bottles of wine each year in an industrial process that rivals the biggest wine factories of Modesto, California. These négociants own very little of the vineyards and buy most of their grapes from grape growers and blend grapes from all over the region. Only 3.8% of the Champagne sold in the United States is made by small growers that handcraft their Champagne from individual vineyards and villages. Terry Theise is one of the main U.S. importers of this "farmer fizz," and sells some of the best Champagne that money can buy. After tasting over 50 different wines, I found 6 that should be purchased when spotted on store shelves. I used to think that most bubbly was the same (and still do to some extent), but these 6 wines are well worth their cost and will open your eyes to what Champagne really means.

Pierre Péters Cuvée de Réserve Brut NV

I had an older bottling of this in one of my previous Ben's Bubbly posts, but this wine is much fresher. 100% chardonnay, this wine packs loads of acidity and bright fruit. There is almost a hint of bubblegum that will keep you coming back for more. $55 Excellent

Pierre Péters Cuvée Spéciale Les Chétillons 2004

This is another 100% chardonnay, but from a single vineyard of older vines in the village of Le Mesnil-Sur-Oger. Exceptionally smooth with notes of honey and cinnamon, this wine is a laser beam of flavor with a long finish. Awesome. $100 Excellent

L Aubry Fils La Nombre d'Or 2005

The unique thing about this wine is that it is not made from just the three main grape varieties. Chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier are in the blend, but all in small amounts. Less than 1% of the vineyards in Champagne are planted to the other allowed varieties: pinot gris, pinot blanc, petit meslier and arbanne. This wild bubbly is made from 60% of those "other" varieties and is nothing like you've tasted before. Lots of fruit, dominated by citrus, and toast fill your mouth. $65 Excellent

Henri Billiot Cuvée Laetitia MV

This is another wild and unique Champagne. Sure, most Champagne is a blend of several different vintages, but the Cuvée Laetitia is a perpetual blend composed of vintages from 1983 through 2007. Made in a similar way to Sherry from Spain, this wine shares some characteristics of its fortified (distant) cousin. It has a very unique and salty nose. It tastes like a trail mix of salted nuts and dried fruit, and all I could think was, "Wow..." $100 Excellent

Chartogne-Taillet Cuvée Fiacre Taillet 2004

The top wine from this grower in Merfy, just north of Reims, is more in line with traditional Champagne, yet a stellar example of such wine. It fills your mouth with flowers, lots of fruit, citrus and minerals. Amazing depth and complexity. $70 Excellent

Vilmart & Cie Coeur de Cuvée Brut 2002

This is just a stunning example of what single-vineyard Champagne can be like. I know that the big houses claim that their resources provide consistency, but their industrial scale causes them to miss revelations such as this. The nose is a powerful concoction of pears, toast and citrus. The mouth is exceptionally rich, with a crisp fruitiness that is matched by vibrant acidity and the length of the finish. This is a truly outstanding wine. $140 Excellent

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