- Through a Glass Happily: Champagne
- by Erik d'Azevedo
The three grape varietals used in Champagne making are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. In the Champagne appellation, 27% of the vineyards are planted with Chardonnay, 38% with Pinot Noir, and 35% with Pinot Meunier. Pinot Meunier is the easiest of three varietals to grow and contributes fruitiness and body to the finished wine. Many undistinguished Champagnes are predominantly Pinot Meunier, while in the best Champagnes it serves as a blending partner to the other two, more noble grapes. Pinot Noir generally contributes body, aroma, and texture to the wine, while Chardonnay gives great Champagne its unrivaled finesse.
Because of the Champagne region's cool climate and less frequent sunshine, grapes rarely reach the ripeness levels that they do in other French appellations. That the fruit is able to ripen adequately at all is largely the responsibility of Champagne's white, chalky hills. The hills better expose the vines to the sun, while the white soil reflects what sunlight is available and keeps the grapevine roots moist and warm. As a bonus, chalky hills are easy to carve caves into, which is pretty handy when you need to age thousands of bottles of Champagne in a cool, dark place.
Champagne lies approximately 90 miles northeast of Paris and extends from near Chablis almost to Belgium. The appellation itself is essentially a huge, chalky hill, carved in two by the Marne River. The five major vineyard areas are these:
The Montagne de Reims, or the mountain of Reims, is planted mostly with the red grapes Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. The vineyards in this area produce fruit that gives good backbone, aroma, and acidity to wines.
The Côte des Blancs, or white slope, is planted exclusively with Chardonnay grapes. The east-facing slopes of this area south of Epernay produce the finest Blanc de Blancs (Champagne made entirely from Chardonnay, unblended with red grapes). The villages of Cramant, Avize, and Le Mesnil produce some of the most memorable and profound wines in Champagne - and some of the greatest expressions of the Chardonnay varietal in the world. Perhaps the best of the best come from Le Mesnil producer Salon.
The Vallée de la Marne is where Pinot Meunier thrives. This is the third most important area in Champagne, after the Montagne de Reims and Côte des Blancs. The valley's south-facing slopes produce fruit with the roundest, fullest, and ripest quality, with great aromatic character.
The Côte de Sézanne is geographically a southern extension of the Côte des Blancs, and like it is planted mostly with Chardonnay.
The Aube, well south of the other regions, is planted mostly with Pinot Noir and makes up about 15% of Champagne's total production.
Styles and classifications of Champagne The traditional style of Champagne is called non-vintage (or NV), because it's a blend of wines made from grapes grown in different years. Each producer in Champagne has developed a "house style" for its non-vintage Champagne. These wines, like all Champagnes, are blends of dozens of separate still - that is, not yet sparkling - wines. (The sparkle in the finished wine is carbon dioxide from the secondary fermentation that takes place in the bottle after the primary fermentation in cask.) The producer blends different vintages and vineyard parcels to create a wine that remains relatively consistent from year to year and that generally determines the reputation of the house. In a good non-vintage Champagne, most of the blend comes from grapes grown in good (rather than great) vineyards, with a small percentage of superior juice blended in. Non-vintage Champagne must spend at least 15 months in the bottle prior to release.
Good producers make a vintage Champagne only in the finest years and only from vineyards with historically great or very good ratings. As the name implies, vintage Champagne is blended from exceptional still wines made from grapes all grown in a single year. As a result, the finished wine will reflect the characteristics of the vintage at least as much as it reflects the producer's house style. Vintage Champagne must age for at least three years in the bottle before release.
Many producers also create a prestige cuvée - also called a tête de cuvée - a Champagne made from only the best vineyards the producer has access to. A prestige cuvée usually is a blend of multiple vintages and usually is aged in bottle for four to seven years before release (although there is no specific legal requirement to do so).
Champagnes can be light bodied to full bodied, depending on the producer's house style. In addition, the producer decides how dry or sweet to make the wine during a process called disgorgement: After the secondary fermentation and aging in bottle, the winemaker removes the layer of leftover yeast cells and tops off the bottle with a small amount of fresh wine mixed with a sugar solution. This addition is called dosage, and its sweetness determines how sweet the finished wine will be. The official sweetness levels are:
Extra Brut: contains 0 to 0.6% sugar. Extremely dry.
Brut: contains less than 1.5% sugar. Very dry. This is by far the most common sweetness level for Champagne.
Extra Dry: contains 1.2 to 2.0% sugar. Despite the name, "Extra Dry" really means off-dry - that is, with barely perceptible sweetness.
Sec: contains 1.7 to 3.5% sugar. Lightly sweet.
Demi-Sec: contains 3.3 to 5.0% sugar. Noticeably sweet.
Doux: contains more than 5.0% sugar. Quite sweet.
As with all wine, sweetness per se is not a bad thing. The important questions are whether any sweetness is balanced by the other components in the wine - especially acidity - and what use you intend to put the wine to. For example, Demi-Sec Champagne is a great after-dinner wine and pairs well with fruit desserts.
Most Brut Champagnes contain a blend of the three grape varietals, often dominated by Pinot Noir. A Blanc de Blancs Champagne is one made exclusively from white Chardonnay grapes; the best versions come from the chalky slopes of the Côte des Blancs. Rosé Champagnes get their beguiling color and extra body from the addition of red wine juice made from Pinot Noir grapes.
Here's a list of some excellent Champagne producers in different styles:
Light bodied: Pierre Peters, Jacquesson, Vilmart.
Light to medium bodied: Billecart-Salmon, Agrapart, Laurent-Perrier, Nicolas Feuillate, Perrier-Jouet, Tattinger.
Medium bodied: Salon, Deutz, Charles Heidsieck, Piper-Heidsieck, Moët & Chandon, Mumm, Pol Roger.
Medium to full bodied: Billiot, Jean Milan, Fleury, J. Selosse, Veuve Clicquot.
Full bodied: Krug, Bollinger, Louis Roederer.
We usually stock wines from the producers whose names are in italics. The other names listed here are well-known producers whose Champagnes frequently appear on restaurant lists and in other wine shops.
On November 12th, the New York Times published an article titled "In Small Houses, Champagne Finds Its Soul". This article reveled in the quality of grower-producer Champagnes - wines grown and made by one person or family - and described the role of site specificity (a.k.a. terroir) in determining the complexity and character of these wines.
Champagne comprises over 15,000 growers who work their small vineyards. The large, brand name producers, which make the vast majority of Champagne, own only 10 per cent of these vineyards and buy the rest of their grapes from individual growers. Within the past 15 years or so, more and more growers and their families have been making their own Champagnes from the grapes they grow in their own vineyards rather than selling their fruit to large, corporate producers. The wines from these small, family-run estates in many cases are of better quality and lower cost than the famous houses' wines that we are more familiar with in this country. Champagne from a small grower-producer also tends to exhibit a more distinctive, artisanal character than the mass-market brands.
Many of our customers know that these small, distinctive estates in Champagne are not new at Paul Marcus Wines. We are fortunate enough to carry the portfolio of Champagnes from Terry Theise, the brilliant importer whose producers are the focus of the Times article. Terry sometimes calls his producers' winesmicrobrew Champagnes, or, even more affectionately, farmer fizz. Whatever you call them, these wines come from small villages and local vineyards controlled by the winemaker. Because of their site-specificity and the grower-winemaker's knowledge of his own vineyards, these Champagnes better express their terroir. These are some of the most exciting and interesting wines produced in Champagne.
It is important to understand that good Champagne is not just about bubbles. Champagne is wine, and like any good wine, is only as good as the fruit it is made from. When you're tasting Champagne, keep this fact in mind and look beyond the fizz to find the purity, complexity, and downright deliciousness of the fruit. One guide to fruit quality is the classification of the grower's vineyards. Premier Cru and Grand Cru are legal designations in Champagne for better and best vineyards, respectively. Wine made from these vineyards will be labeled as such.
Excellent Champagnes can be had starting around $25. Here are a few store favorites to try over the holidays - or any other time of the year.
A. Margaine 'Cuvée Traditionelle' Brut non-vintage ($30). This terrific blend of five vintages (2000 back to 1994) comprises 92% Chardonnay and 8% Pinot Noir. Arnaud Margaine farms 6.5 hectares of clay-limestone soil vineyards in the village of Villers-Marmery. As with all grower-producers, his production is tiny - around 4,600 cases. This small section of the Montagne de Reims is unique for the Chardonnay it produces. The wines typically are floral and pale, yet full-bodied, with distinct mineral tones. Monsieur Margaine likes to use a lower dosage and no malolactic fermentation, giving his final wines freshness and a very dry finish. Lovely.
Jean Milan Brut 'Carte Blanche' Blanc de Blancs non-vintage ($32). Thanks to the chalky soils of the Côtes de Blancs, this 100% Chardonnay Champagne is elegant and fairly full-bodied, with aromas of oatmeal, brioche, and buttered apples. It combines rich fruit and minerals on the palate.
Gaston-Chiquet 'Carte Verte' Brut Tradition non-vintage ($32). This wine is a blend of 45% Pinot Meunier, 35% Chardonnay, and 20% Pinot Noir from two vintages (1999 and 1998) and 25 year old vines. This is a great NV Brut - toasty nose, hints of brown sugar, caramel, baked per-apple fruit. It's full-bodied but with firm acid and makes for a juicy, delicious glass of bubbly.
Pierre Peters Brut 'Millésime' 1997 ($48). Many of you are familiar with the extraordinary Champagnes from this grower-producer, because we frequently recommend his non-vintage Blanc de Blancs. It's a stunning example of how good Chardonnay from this cool climate can be. François Peters (Pierre's son) farms his 17.5 hectares of Chardonnay in the chalky soils in and around Le Mesnil - perhaps the most famous Grand Cru village in all of Champagne, thanks to the reputations of larger producers like Krug and Salon. The 1997 Brut 'Millésime' is another great Champagne from Peters: perfect all-Chardonnay fruit aromas, jasmine blossoms, saturated with minerals. It's even more finesse-full and complex than his non-vintage Brut. This is an amazing value for top-quality vintage Champagne.
Henri Billiot 'Cuvée Laetitia' non-vintage ($64). This special wine, named after Henri Billiot's daughter, is a true tête de cuvée. It's made by the solera method, in which the winemaker puts young wine into a barrel and then, over the course of years, gradually transfers it into barrels of older wine, replenishing the young wine barrels in favorable vintages. The end result is a complex, rich, barrel-aged wine blended from a series of vintages - some dating back decades. Cuvée Laetitia is definitely Billiot's biggest, most full-bodied Champagne. Even though the blend is mostly Chardonnay, you really feel the presence of Pinot Noir in this wine! It is creamy and opulent, not too dry, and a delicious, smoky mouthful. This is a main course Champagne - it would be ideal with salmon, lobster, tuna, and any game bird or chicken.
Note: If you're thirsty for more Champagne information, check out Chad's December 2002 article, CHAMPAGNE: Ten Questions, Some Answers. And if your bubbly budget runs in the teens rather than the 20s and up, check out the descriptions of some of our other sparkling wines in Mark's November 2003 article, Fun With Bubbles.
Great Wines for Holiday Feasts
Bordeaux ($15-50): This is the classic match for prime rib, but it also goes well with many other furry and feathered holiday beasts, including lamb, goose, and pheasant.
White and red Burgundy ($20-150): White Burgundy is a natural partner to all kinds of rich seafood, including lobster, shrimp, and crab. Red Burgundy is our first choice for duck, pork, and venison, and it also accompanies other kinds of meat and lighter game.
Barolo and Barbaresco ($30-110): The great red wines of Piemonte are unparalleled companions to game, including goose, game hens, and boar. (One customer recently bought a bottle of Barolo to accompany moose!) Nebbiolo also is a fine choice for lamb and any braised meat dish.
Brunello and Chianti Classico Riserva ($30-95): Tuscany's best wines complement red meat beautifully. Other good partners to Sangiovese include veal, quail, and rabbit.
These kinds of wines certainly don't exhaust the holiday feast possibilities. We carry other eminently worthy bottles from the Loire, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rioja, Ribera del Duero, and the Napa Valley. We also keep several shelves stocked full of superb dessert wines. Bring us your menu and your ideas, and we'll help you choose a great series of wines that will help make it a meal to remember.
The Gift of Wine
the simple gift of wine,
the gladness of the grape.
- Euripides, The Bacchae
Yes, we're happy to help you choose gifts for your wine-loving friends. These are the main categories:
Wine to drink now: As with the wines that you buy for your own consumption, we'll help you choose a great bottle within your budget and other parameters. Let us know anything you know about the recipient's preferences. And if you don't know, don't worry about it - we'll make something up ... and it will be good! After you've selected the wine, you can choose a gift bag ranging from free to $3.75. We can ship wine within California and to about 15 other states.
Wine to cellar: We carry lots of bottles that are worth holding onto, whether it's for two years or twenty, and whether you want to spend 15 bucks or 150. We'll help you select a suitable wine and give you the lowdown on how long to store it. (And if you're a little uneasy about explaining the whys and hows of cellaring wine to your giftees, just direct them to Paul Courtright's article Cellar It.)
Accessories: We don't sell many wine accessories, partly because we don't have space for them and partly because, happily, you don't need a lot of extra stuff to enjoy wine. A corkscrew, some decent stemware, and a decanter should do it. We do sell corkscrews ($4.99-$20.00), as well as sparkling wine stoppers ($4.99) and Private Preserve ($9.99), an inert gas that you spray into an opened wine bottle in order to slow down oxidation.
Gift certificates: You choose the amount. One size fits all. Suitable for stocking-stuffing, mailing, or nestling in the branches of your Christmas tree, Chanukah bush, Kwanzaa shrub, or grapevine arbor.
You Gotta Love the Loire: Francois Chidane Vouvray and Montlouis
by Paul Courtright
Here at PMW we're very excited about the 2002 vintage in the Loire valley. The conditions came together to produce excellent wines across the board - wines that are not only delicious but also great values (despite the weak dollar). I'm particularly fanatical about these wines; give me a good bottle of Loire Cabernet Franc and I couldn't be happier. Don't hesitate to ask any of us at PMW to walk you through the exciting worlds of Chinon, Bourgueil, Saumur-Champigny (all reds made from Cab Franc); Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé, Menetou-Salon, Quincy (crisp, lean whites made from Sauvignon Blanc); and of course Vouvray and Montlouis (luscious, richer whites made from Chenin Blanc).
In particular, the new wines from François Chidaine in Montlouis-sur-Loire are worth checking out. Chidaine's Montlouis have been some of our favourite Chenin for years. In 2002 he added some top-notch Vouvray to his cave, and we're just now getting to drink the delicious results. The Clos Baudoin vineyard has been regarded as one of the best fruit sources in Vouvray for quite some time. Chidaine started making wines from this beautiful site in 2002.
We have four Vouvrays from François Chidaine in the shop right now. All are excellent - both in quality and value - and unfortunately fairly limited. Check them out:
2002 Vouvray "Les Argiles" is the first in the line-up. It's a blend of fruit from several different sites (as opposed to the single-vineyard Clos Baudoin described next). It's a dry, medium-light bodied wine with wonderful glossiness on the palate and flavours reminiscent of honeysuckle. Try it with salmon, crab, or turkey.
2002 Vouvray "Clos Baudoin" comes from the prize section of the vineyard. Also dry, it combines the pear and honeysuckle of the Argiles with a wonderful flinty, mineral note. This complex, medium bodied wine will age wonderfully for at least five years. Drink it now with salmon, and roast pork.
2002 Vouvray "Le Bouchet" is my favourite. This is a luscious, layered, medium-to-full bodied wine. It has a touch more fruit than the previous wines, but it's balanced by even more of that fascinating mineral element. This wine has a wonderfully bright acidity that makes if perfect for the table - although it's technically demi-sec (off dry), it drinks drier than many so-called dry wines, such as your average California Chardonnay. I'd drink it with just about anything, but it will shine particularly with spicy Asian flavors. Try it with some Vietnamese shaking beef or a hearty beef stew. (White wine with beef??? I know it sounds crazy, but trust me.)
2002 Vouvray "Moelleux" is the fullest of the bunch. Moelleux means soft or tender and is often used to describe French dessert wines. While this wine would certainly make a wonderful dessert on its own, it's not too sweet to eat with a meal. It's unctuous and rich, but with the characteristic minerality and acidity of the other wines. I'd love to drink this wine with sashimi or seared Ahi tuna.
These wines are remarkable in how they express so distinctly the particular area from which they come. They're delicious and festive, great with an extraordinarily wide variety of food, and all terrific values. Stop in and try one (or more than one) today - before I drink them all!
Wild, Weird, and Wonderful
by Mark Middlebrook
2002 Cantina Produttori Valle Isarco Kerner ($13.99) What, you've never heard of Kerner? It's a cross of Riesling and Schiava (see above). The cross was first bred in 1969 and named "Kerner" after a 19th century German writer of drinking songs and a treatise on animal magnetism. Kerner (the wine) has Riesling's explosively mineral nose, plus a touch of red fruit aromas from the Schiava. The wine is racy, dry, and absolutely enthralling. It will make you want to write your own drinking songs or conduct your own research into animal magnetism. Try it as an aperitif or alongside stuff that you'd normally drink dry Riesling with, such as fish and pork.
2001 Dujac Père et Fils Morey-St-Denis ($44) and Chambolle-Musigny ($46): Domaine Dujac is one of the benchmark red Burgundy producers in the Côte de Nuits. The wines from this domaine consistently exhibit tremendous character, stylishness, and intensity, while remaining true to their appellations. The only difficulty is that Dujac's wines are tremendously difficult to get and expensive. Dujac Père et Fils is a new negoçiant project for Dujac winemaker Jacques Seysses that reduces both difficulties - there is a bit more wine available and it costs a lot less than Dujac's domaine bottlings. Both of these wines manage to be both sophisticated and fun at the same time. Drinking both bottles side-by-side would be delicious way to compare the two appellations: the more earthy and masculine Morey-St-Denis and the more floral and feminine Chambolle.