Savage Pleasures: A Night of Grower Champagne
Like most adults who haven’t undergone a recent rhinoplasty or taken a vow of sobriety with a Jesuit order, I happen to adore champagne. Some of the most indelibly joyous moments in my drinking life have happened in its company. Its permutations—consumed with food or without, made both by negociant houses and small growers—only add to its savor. I’m perplexed, then, when I come across a journalist, or a merchant, disparaging one side or the other. In his always-entertaining catalog, farmer-fizz importer Terry Theise quotes François-Roland Billecart, of the respected small house Billecart-Salmon: “A small vigneron will occasionally make very good Champagne, but he won’t know why he did it.” A voluble advocate of grower champagnes, Theise swings back: “The crucial difference between houses and estates is the difference between industrial and artisanal,” he avers. Writing about big-house wines, he continues: “These are merely things, products.” You can feel his indignation. The Howard Zinn of champagne, Theise goes on to weave an irresistible storyline about solitary farmers challenging the hegemony of a bland corporate monolith—a Gallic variation on Bernie Sanders vs. the US Senate, Waylon and Willie vs. Nashville, Stallone vs. Mr. T.
Now I happen to enjoy both Billecart’s and Theise’s champagnes—I can still taste the magnum of the incredible Vilmart Coeur de Cuvée ‘93 that a generous friend opened last New Year’s Eve. And in practice, I’ve found claims about deep qualitative and philosophical rifts between the two camps to be overblown, and largely pointless. In my admittedly limited conversations with Champenois on both sides of the trade, I’ve heard thoughtful and occasionally provocative comments about those differences, but rarely encountered partisan hostility. The houses, after all, depend on the growers for conscientious care of the vines and the ultimate quality of their product, while many growers depend on the houses for a livelihood and heavy expenditures on global marketing. And there’s at least some mutual admiration. “My brother and I have been working very hard over the past 20 years to transform Jacquesson…to an almost grower-like operation,” Jean-Hervé Chiquet, director of the excellent small house, told me about his decision to discontinue its non-vintage blend. And over dinner not long ago, I overheard several champagne growers, loquacious after polishing off a few bottles, rhapsodize about the glories of Clos des Goisses, made by the grand marque Philipponnat.
Yet any committed champagne drinker living in the US today has to admit that the growers, thanks in part to importers like Theise and Joe Dressner, have taken the upper hand in the war of narrative. Here in New York, I can’t think of a genuinely hip retailer or restaurant that offers much space to big-house bottles. Sure, they may bend to the inimitable charms of Krug, but mostly what you will find is a list of farmers. Underlying the vogue for growers is a hunger for authenticity; for incurable champagne geeks like me, the growers offer an opportunity for a close-up with a single grape variety or a particular village—you won’t find an all-Meunier champagne or a wine drawn entirely from Verzenay Pinot Noir from the grandes marques. And therein lies the allure of the growers. The facility for blending boasted about by the houses is a function of mere skill and sophistication. But the growers’ promise of terroir—the timeless signature of a particular plot of land—is irresistible to anyone with imagination and a love of a good story. So, a few weeks ago, I gathered a dozen friends for an immersion course in terroir. With bubbles.
For our hardly-comprehensive experiment we settled on 22 grower wines, the largest number I could conceive of sampling in a single night. To impose some boundaries on the undertaking, most bottles came courtesy of the two largest and most widely available grower champagne portfolios I know of—Terry Theise’s and Becky Wasserman’s—with a couple more from Savio Soares; my request was for wines that showcased a sense of place. To keep things on an even keel, we limited ourselves to champagnes made in a more-or-less traditional style, with no contenders from the sugarless brut-zero camp or the oxidative Selosse school. Joining me were a sommelier/GM, a Master of Wine, a brewmaster/author, an author/blogger, as well as folks working for wine retailers, importers and distributors around the city. We sniffed, swirled, spat, mumbled and took notes. What some of us learned had as much to do with the limitations of the tasting format as with the wines, but more on that later. Below are the champagnes in the order tasted (with what information was made available by the importers. Dollar values are actual retail prices from established shops.)
Jean Lallement Brut Tradition NV (Verzenay, Montagne de Reims, 80% PN 20% C, Terry Theise/Michael Skurnik Wines, $45): Muscular, with a tightly coiled core of bready, smoky Pinot Noir. Muted on the nose, with excellent balance and persistence, medium-bodied, briny, drinkable. Craggy and raffish, like Avedon’s late portrait of Auden. Key-West-era Hemingway would have enjoyed this, too. The most stylish wine here and one of my favorites.
Le Brun Servenay Blanc de Blancs Brut Selection NV (Avize, Côte de Blancs, 100% C, dosage 8.5 gr., Becky Wasserman Selection/Willette Wines, $46): Shy, charming, smelling of bruised apple and chalk, with a fine mousse and plenty of yeast. Classic Avize, and drinking wonderfully. Became fuller and more honeyed as it took on air. Everything in place. A favorite among many tasters.
Gérard Loriot Brut Tradition NV (Festigny, Vallée de la Marne, 100% PM, dosage 10 gr., Becky Wasserman Selection/Pas Mal Selections, $50): All Meunier from the Marne, the Loriot was rich and spicy, with an aggressive mousse and an abrupt finish. Several tasters wrote “ketchup.” Fascinating, but felt like it needed time in bottle and more air to sort itself out.
Pehu Simonet Brut Blanc de Blancs NV (Mesnil, Côte de Blancs, 100% C, Terry Theise/Michael Skurnik Wines, $54): Chardonnay champagne in the daintiest mold, full of bright lemon and green apple flavors, light in body, finely delicate and mineral, almost reminiscent of rain, though not particularly layered. One taster got all Prousty on this one, saying the whiff of latex paint up front—it quickly blew off—reminded him of his parents painting the house before Christmas.
Demilly de Baere Carte D’Or NV (Bligny, Montagne de Reims, PN+PM= 70% C+Pinot Blanc=30%, dosage 10 gr., Savio Soares Selections, $32): Though not the ultimate in refinement, and a touch sweet for some, this had pinpoint balance and wafted out of the glass; floral yet rich, creamy, chewy, with a hazelnut nose. Serious and yet immediately likable, like a great Buck Owens song. A bargain—more big-house non-vintage blends should be this good.
Henri Billiot Brut Rosé NV (Ambonnay, Montagne de Reims, nearly all PN, Terry Theise/Michael Skurnik Wines, $46): Lauded as one of the region’s top growers by writers like Michael Edwards, Billiot adds taille (juice from the second pressing) to lend fruitiness. Most tasters complained of a confected quality to the wine—sweet cherries giving way to a tart, coarse acidity—writing notes like “candy” and “Schweppes Raspberry Ginger Ale.”
A. Margaine “Special Club” Brut 2004 (Villers-Marmery, Montagne de Reims, nearly 100% C, 22% in oak, dosage 9 gr., Terry Theise/Michael Skurnik Wines, $73): The clear favorite of the tasting. Creamy, refined champagne, with some oak richness adding to a layer of chalk and lemon and terrific length. A little muddled at first, and the dosage seemed a touch too high or too low, but there was a sense of complexity and mystery that suggested a long, interesting life. Would have loved to have spent another hour drinking it.
Godme Rosé Brut NV (Verzenay, Montagne de Reims, 85% PN 15% C, barrel fermented, dosage 7.5 gr., Becky Wasserman Selection/Willette Wines, $55): A 50s Cadillac of a wine. Light salmon in color, vinified in a mellow, slightly oxidized style—like Bollinger’s—that makes it compulsively drinkable and delicious. A pleasure wine, long, with expressive fruit. Laid back, the opposite of sententious. After the hard-boiled Lallement, a different yet equally compelling take on Verzenay Pinot.
Jean Milan “Sélection Terres de Noël Vielle Vignes” Brut 2004 (Oger, Côte de Blancs, 100% C, Terry Theise/Michael Skurnik Wines, $86): A cult single-vineyard Chardonnay that slept through the tasting. Most noted a whiff of sea air or oysters, but the champagne from “Christmas Earth” came across as so massive and backwards that tasters wrote down everything from “buttered bagel” to “Flintstones vitamins.” Great potential. Needed another two hours, if not a year. A hibernating grizzly.
Christian Etienne Brut Tradition NV (Meurville, Aube, 80% PN, 20% C, dosage 8 gr, Savio Soares Selections, $32): Etienne has lowered the dosage from 12 to 8 grams, and the wine tasted drier, and better, than I remembered. Good balance and richness, if a little coarse and short. Workmanlike and enjoyable despite its flaws. Like the annoyingly loud friend who still gives you the digits of the best pot dealer.
Henri Billiot Brut 2004 (Ambonnay, Montagne de Reims, 90% PN 10% C, Terry Theise/Michael Skurnik Wines): Rich, the vintage Billiot had plenty of stuffing and fruit but seemed out of balance, the sweetness and borderline-volatile acidity fighting each other, the mid-palate empty as a drum. Hmm.
Demière-Ansiot Blancs de Blancs Brut NV (Oger, Côte de Blancs, 100% C, dosage 7.5 gr., Becky Wasserman Selection/Pas Mal Selections, $57): Vibrantly aromatic, almost tropical upon opening, but then some odd touches of mushroom, cider, and potato peel. The last may or may not be a result of a problem reported by some with the ‘05 harvest, as 60% of the blend comes from that year. A second bottle confirmed a quite elegant champagne marked by a dirty potato-peel flavor. Strange.
Camille Saves Brut Carte Blanche NV (Bouzy, Montagne de Reims, 75% PN 25% C, dosage 7.5 gr., Becky Wasserman Selection/Polaner Selections, $46): Liked by nearly every taster, the Saves did everything well—it was ripe, long, elegant, drinkable. It tasted sweet without being sweet, with firm pinot structure and elegance, too. Terrifically easy to like, like a good Emmylou Harris record from the 70s.
Varnier-Fannière “Cuvée Saint-Denis” Brut NV (Avize, Côte de Blancs, 100% C, Terry Theise/Michael Skurnik Wines, $57): From a vineyard with the poetic name Clos de Grand Père in Avize, the Varnier reminded everyone what the whole terroir deal is about. With pretty aromas of chamomile tea and pencils (I swear), this wine uncoiled a long tail of minerality that smelled of chalk and earth, while the nice balance and a leesy fullness made it delicious rather than excessively austere. One taster wrote: “unvarnished, transparent exposition of place.” Ditto. Another consensus favorite, and a bargain.
Henri Billiot “Cuvée Julie” Brut NV (Ambonnay, Montagne de Reims, mostly PN, oak-aged, Terry Theise/Michael Skurnik Wines, $72): A luxury bottling from Billiot, this tasted disconcertingly oaky; a little bacon and game poked through, some coarse acidity, but the wood wouldn’t relent, strangling the fruit.
Jacques Picard Brut NV (Berru, Montagne de Reims, 5% PN 35% PM 60% C, dosage 7 gr., Becky Wasserman Selection/Willette Wines, $50): Pretty nose, some spice and fruit, nicely judged acidity, but difficult to coax out much personality. Elicited no strong reactions or emphatic notes from anyone. Show your face, Jacques Picard.
A. Margaine “Cuvée Traditionelle” Brut NV (Villers-Marmery, Montagne de Reims, nearly 100% C, Terry Theise/Michael Skurnik Wines, $35): From a patch of Chardonnay in grand-cru Pinot country, this champagne showed loads of competence and finesse, but perhaps at the expense of ultimate pleasure. Impressive, filigreed but a little soulless, at least upon opening. “Technical,” one taster wrote.
Jean Lallement Brut Rosé NV (Verzenay, Montagne de Reims, 100% PN, Terry Theise/Michael Skurnik Wines, $58): The Lallement esthetic, menacing as a 1970 Plymouth Barracuda, is apparent, and the wine is rather firm and tannic for a rosé, but it comes off a little reticent and dilute on the palate. Pretty cherry aromas, with a pleasant austerity.
Guy de Chassey Brut NV (Louvois, Montagne de Reims, 70% PN 30% C, dosage 9 gr., Becky Wasserman Selection/Pas Mal Selections, $53): A really fine champagne that improved considerably with air. Soft mousse, with toast and brioche, classic Pinot warmth and firmness, long finish. Like an underrated leading man from Classical Hollywood—maybe Van Heflin?
Henri Billiot Brut Réserve NV (Ambonnay, Montagne de Reims, 90% PN 10% C, Terry Theise/Michael Skurnik Wines, $42): A nice mousse and a pleasant texture, but nearly everyone complained of a volatile acidity and some chemical-smelling funk. It had the sweet blueberry thing in common with the other wines from the producer, so “confected” made a comeback.
Vazart-Coquart Blancs de Blancs Brut NV (Chouilly, Côte de Blancs, 100% C, dosage 9 gr., Becky Wasserman Selection/Pas Mal Selections, $58): “Elegant, uncomplicated, pleasant,” one taster wrote, and most seemed to agree. A tasty blanc de blancs that perhaps lacked the interest of the more substantial Chardonnays from Servenay and Varnier, but was a distinct pleasure to drink. That chic woman at the dinner party who hasn’t much to say but cheers everyone with her presence.
Jean Lallement Brut Reserve NV (Verzenay, Montagne de Reims, 80% PN 20% C, Terry Theise/Michael Skurnik Wines, $52): Same disgorgement date and blend as the Brut Tradition, but comes from harder-working 30+-year-old vines. Promises more, with the same savage touch, but comes off as diffuse and reductive. Difficult to find the thread. On the second day there was little improvement, just a leaner mouthfeel. Like all wine, a mystery.
Tasting 22 champagnes, with their soaring sugars and acids, turned out surprisingly to resemble work, especially since some of the wines didn’t thrill us as much as we had hoped. A big reason for this is the format of the tasting itself: more than most still wines, champagnes broaden and fill out considerably with some exposure to air in a glass, often as little as ten or fifteen minutes, and unfold even more as their temperature goes up. With a dozen tasters and nearly twice that many champagnes to get through, most got sniffed and swirled before they could open and some of the bottle funk could blow off. In instances when I had an opportunity to retaste a bottle in a less hurried, more casual setting, the impressions of the champagnes improved in nearly every case. In a larger sense, I’m discovering that, for me, marathon tastings are simply not an enjoyable or a particularly meaningful way of relating to a wine. It’s like selecting new friends by having strangers march into your living room, speak to you for 30 seconds, and walk out. I shared this frustration with my Master of Wine friend, who’s sat through and led hundreds of tastings. “Tastings such as these have some utility, but limited utility,” she told me. “Truth be told, sometimes the real test of the wine is at the end of the night, when you see which ones were finished (and presumably gave the greatest pleasure). But it all depends on what it is you’re trying to test.”
Speaking of which, did we learn anything about growers? And terroir? After tasting through nearly as many big-house blends last December, I can offer that the grower champagnes, despite obvious similarities, strike me as a different animal with a different purpose. If big house champagnes focus on—and sometimes excel at—certain classical notions of grace and poise, those of the growers tend to be more emphatic and sometimes savage. At best, these full-throttle wines are a testament to a particular place and the pleasures and experiences it offers, a banquet for terroir-freaks and other adventurous tasters. In this way, they are more like still wines. The color palette of grower champagnes is broader. As a “guardian of tradition,” a negociant may aim for an unchanging house style, while a grower’s champagne embodies the woman or man who made it just as much as a great red burgundy does. To drink, say, Jean Lallement’s champagnes is to feel that you know the man. What I can say with complete certainty is that I look forward to enjoying both types of champagne, all that I can get my hands on, and so should you. Haters be damned.
I asked Champagne expert and resident Peter Liem—of the great, late Besotted Ramblings blog and the Champagneguide.net website—to opine on the alleged rift between growers and houses and on the unique pleasures that grower champagnes bring to the region. Here’s part of what he said: “The best growers are exploring champagne in ways that nobody has before, and this is part of what makes them exciting. The best houses, though, can still do things in terms of blending and style that no grower would ever be able to do, and their technical capability and skill in the cellar is unrivaled. As time goes on, the divergence in style between the traditional houses and the most avant-garde growers is becoming increasingly more pronounced, and I don’t see that I have to choose between the two. I enjoy drinking Krug and I enjoy drinking Jacques Selosse, and I don’t understand why I should have to eliminate either one from my life.”
photo by AtlantaWineGuy
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