Red, White, and Bubble-Free

January 22, 2011

If you follow Brooklynguy’s blog, you’ve seen his notes on a recent tasting we put together of an unusual group of wines from Champagne. Our group gathered at the East Village restaurant Prune and opened ten bottles. Nine of them were red. None of them had bubbles. As I commented there, we may not do the glitziest Champagne tastings, but we definitely do the geekiest. The group included Peter Liem of ChampagneGuide.net, Joe Salamone of Crush Wine & Spirits, Dan Melia of Mosel Wine Merchant, and assorted other industry insiders in addition to the two of us amateur scribes.

The official appellation for these wines is Côteaux Champenois, or “Slopes of Champagne.” Any still wine from the various Champagne zones made from the approved Champagne grapes is entitled to the appellation, whether it’s red, white, or rosé. But we were most interested in the reds.

What makes red Côteaux Champenois interesting is that it is, in a sense, the original Vin de Champagne. Sparkling Champagne is a more recent creation. In their book Champagne: How the World’s Most Glamorous Wine Triumphed Over War and Hard Times, Don and Petie Kladstrup cite a cellar inventory conducted at Champagne’s Abbey de Hautvillers in 1713, which “listed several hundred barrels of red wine, a smaller number of barrels of white wine, but absolutely no sparkling wine.” The cellar-master of Hautvilliers at that time—he died two years later—was (no points for guessing) the monk Dom Pierre Pérignon.

In fact a rivalry had been fomenting since the 1600s between Champagne and Burgundy over which region made the greatest wine. The Sun King Louis XIV (a contemporary of Pérignon) drank Champagne most of his life on the advice of his royal doctor. But when a new doctor assumed the role he blamed Champagne for the king’s constant health problems and decreed that only Burgundy would be served at the royal table. A bitter debate ensued in which doctors from Champagne and Burgundy set out to prove the superior medical benefits of the wines from their respective regions. The dean of the medical school in Beaune, one Jean-Baptiste de Salins, said of Champagne: “Those wines have no strength, none of the vigor people used to call generosity. They are weak, half-hearted and watery; their color is changeable and unreliable, and they cannot withstand transport.”

The man was biased but he wasn’t crazy. Replace de Salins’s pejoratives with similar-meaning words of more favorable connotations and you wind up with a fairly good description of the Côteaux Champenois we tasted in 2011. You most certainly do not drink Côteaux Champenois if you are craving “strength” or “vigor.” These are pinot noirs of feminine waifishness, utterly weightless on the palate by virtue of their gentle fruit concentration and alcohol levels barely exceeding 12 percent (and in many cases likely to have been chaptalized to get that far). People who don’t like that sort of thing might call them watery. But people who prize these qualities will find a graceful touch that even the most elegant red Burgundies would strive in vain to achieve.

Interestingly, it was probably my least favorite wine of the tasting that illustrated these qualities most clearly. According to Peter, the Egly-Ouriet 2008 Ambonnay Rouge is made with a deliberate effort to express rich, ripe fruit. The vineyard is a south-facing amphitheater, which ensures a sun-drenched exposure, and the wine is aged in new oak barrels bought from the Burgundy producer whose name is virtually synonymous with new oak barrels, Dominique Laurent. The wine smelled like sweet cherry sucking candies and tasted just like it smelled, along with a heavy slap of cedar courtesy of Monsieur Laurent. The flavors reminded me of an overdone California pinot noir. But here’s the thing. Even with its overdone, tooty-frooty flavors, it still had a textural elegance and suppleness to it that would make many Burgundy vignerons envious. It had all the fruit of a ripe New World pinot with none of the fat, treacly glycerine, or the alcoholic sting.

One other Ambonnay wine was represented in the tasting, Marie-Noelle Ledru’s 2001 Ambonnay Rouge. It had started to develop some interesting gamey flavors, but for whatever reason seemed to me the least pinor noir-like of any of the wines in the lineup and too reminiscent of generic, ordinary red wine. I had it next-to-last on my scorecard. But Ledru’s wines seem deliberately designed to give a chilly reception in their adolescence. When I had her 2002 Blanc de Noirs Ambonnay Champagne recently it struck me as the single most bare-bones and austere Champagne I’ve had in my life. Maybe what you see is what you get, but sometimes with these things you have to account for the possibility of a chrysalis stage.

Fortunately, most of the wines did not tax the imagination. It was difficult for me to choose a favorite among the David Leclapart 2008 Trépail, René Geoffroy 2004 Cumières, and Larmandier-Bernier 2002 Vertus. The Jean Vesselle 2000 Bouzy followed close behind and a Paul Bara 2002 Bouzy might have contended if it had not been corked. The Leclapart and Geoffroy in particular exemplified for me the ideal qualities of red Côteaux Champenois: elegant and supple but loaded with a crushed-stone minerality. “Picture a mix of Pommard earth and Chambolle texture,” I wrote in my notes. It had plenty of fruit, too, but it was sappy, sticky fruit, a terrific ying to the mineral yang. The Geoffroy managed to ratchet up the stoniness—practically spackling the mouth with the stuff—on a frame that was even more graceful and evanescent. It didn’t finish so much as melt away, rendering almost as much flavor on the back end as the front. A similar sense of evanescence characterized the Vesselle, the oldest wine in the lineup and consequently one of the most amalgamated in terms of both flavor and texture.

The Larmandier-Bernier was probably the most atypical. I’ve had the wine once before, and while its proportions were consistent with Côteaux Champenois it showed so peppery that I remarked that it tasted like Puzelat had made a syrah. The bottle at this event was lighter on the pepper but intensely smoky; the flavor seemed to combine cigar tobacco and savory barbecue smoke.

That leaves two other wines, Benoît Lahaye’s 2003 Bouzy and the Bollinger 2002 Côteaux des Enfants. A few people had the Lahaye down as their favorite, but I found it a little puzzling and I kept coming back to my glass just wondering what to make of it. Like the Egly, it smelled candied and had a lot of up-front fruit, but tasted juicier and fresher. The Bollinger also gushed with fruit while remaining fairly lightweight and elegant with the requisite minerality, but at $120—by far the most expensive wine on the table—it was difficult to think of any good reason for buying it. Some people even found the wine generic and liked it less than I did, but it should be noted that even though it comes from a big Champagne house (and comes packaged in a tacky wood box with gold clasps), it is, like the grower wines, a terroir wine, from the same designated vineyard year after year.

Our sample size was too small for a serious terroir tour, however. For now, if you’re intensely curious about the difference between Ambonnay and Bouzy or Vertus and Cumières, you might be better off consuming the stuff with bubbles. But if the pendulum of fashion swings just a little bit the other way and people make room for virtues other than “strength” and “vigor,” then you’re likely to find more Côteaux Champenois in the market and you’ll see a side of these Champagne villages that the bubbles don’t express.

For further reading:

6 Responses to “Red, White, and Bubble-Free”

  1. Salil said

    Quite the tasting (and a nice read as always). I’m quite keen on exploring this style further, though the prices at times are offputting. Interesting descriptors – some of those sound a bit like Jura reds in terms of that lightness/stoniness.

  2. Great post, Keith – wish I’d been there to taste these wines, too.

    I’ve had 1 of 3 bottles (from Crush) of the 2000 Paul Bara Champagne Bouzy Rouge – and really enjoyed it; definitely a style I like.

  3. What a great read! I found your link from the website Snooth and I’m really glad I did. I am a wine neophyte compared to you, but I’m a huge nerd, and your post tickled exactly the place in my brain where nerdiness and wine-loving converge!

  4. Good call Salil, there are definitely some similarities with Jura reds in terms of density, weight, color, and minerality. The main difference, I think, is in the refinement of the Champenois reds — nothing rustic here. Although maybe that difference is not as great if you limit the field of comparison to only 100% pinot noirs.

    Nicole, thank you!–that’s exactly the goal here.

  5. Paul said

    Very nice post, it’s great to know that the hard work of winemakers to create something that isn’t mainstream is being appreciated and shared on the net.

  6. jason carey said

    Keith as to that Bolly, even though it is a very site specific wine, over interventionist winemaking can shroud and destroy any “terroir” that the wine has.. to much oak, lees stirring , and that kind of stuff.. so it can end up like any other wine..

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