Of Houses and Growers: A Holiday Champagne Tasting
Some experiences in life are layered with such dense geometry that any attempt to gaze the essence of the thing is as light reflected through a prism. The singular focus is fractured and bent, the concentrated purity of voice is rendered multivalent.
Champagne is the most branded wine in the world. Perhaps it is apt to compare it to theatre, for it is certainly the most theatrical of wines. But, it is also a wine that is robed and masked and one that can be as opulent as the rococo or as bare and stripped down as Beckett. Maquillage. It is, in many ways, the only way in which most of the world has experienced Champagne.
Makeup is easily criticized as a flaw in wine, a distortion of the land and an attempt to please many by taking the safe, middle path. With Champagne, though, there are two sides to Maquillage.
The Spectacle and The Exposed
There is, first, Maquillage as spectacle. In Champagne, brand sells. The association with high living, from the world of the super rich business moguls to the hip hop star, drives most Champagne sales. Under the hood, you have dosage (the addition of sugar), which masks the acid of a wine, oak (which adds richness and volume), and extended lees aging. You also have the assemblage – the combining of fruit from all over Champagne and from several vintages in order to maintain a consistent style from year to year. And of course, you can’t forget sabering. This is the dominant model of Champagne and the one which most people know and understand.
Second, there is Maquillage as exposure. The greatest theatre presents its actors not as distractions or as illusions, but as reflections. The best way to the heart of a thing is round about. Exaggerate the unnoticed. Throw away the obvious. Invert.
There is this strange movement in wine education that focuses on “objective” analysis of wine. The greatest problem with this approach is that such an analysis is entirely possible. The notion that wine is purely subjective is but a product of politically correct relativism. Wine does have objective elements that we can detect and understand with our senses and intellect.
But the “objective” is not the answer. Formal methodologies fail to provide insight when adhered to too closely. At one level, everything can be objectively identical in “quality” – but that says nothing of the meaning of a wine. It fails to understand. Such methodology is akin to reading five poems side by side to determine which has the most superior use of language – an obviously ridiculous exercise.
Of course, the great advantage to an “objective” approach is that it provides an entry point. The “pleasures of comparison” Jancis Robinson calls it. And that, of course, must be true. We learn only from perspective, and as we learn, taste and compare, we build constellations of experience that allow us to, finally, sit back and appreciate.
It is only then that you can realize maquillage in its full dialectical form. It can provide pure sensual pleasure, as seems to be the focus in the majority of Champagne: dosage, oak, lees aging. The immediacy of spectacle. Represented in our tasting by Pol Roger, Billiot, Roederer and Villmart.
But maquillage can also expose the indigence of place in most Champagne. Thus comes a producer like Cedric Bouchard – a true rediscovery of how to paint the face of Champagne: zero dosage, no oak, biodynamic vineyards, always single vintage, grown in a disrespected region known as the Cote des Bar. This isn’t “purer” or “more real” Champagne. It is, rather, a use of maquillage as exposure, of challenging drinkers and pointing them towards something that almost no-one has experienced in Champagne – its terroir.
But you can’t pretend a producer like Bouchard isn’t using makeup. 0 dosage is a form of extremism – biodynamics an exaggeration. By minimizing what we have become so used to in Champagne, producers like Bouchard expose us to another side of the truth. This is why anyone truly into wine needs to find such producers.
House and Grower
Grower Champagne has only started to become relevant in the international market, which has until now always been entirely dominated by the big Champagne houses. The big mistake now being made is lumping all growers in the latter category of maquillage that I called exposure. It is simply not true that all growers have taken the risks necessary to ask different questions in Champagne. They may all profess to express place, but many, while making delicious good value wines, are only half taking up the challenge.
I think it is fairly clear that the majority of houses have completely ignored the other side of Champagne, but they are yet wines worthy of drink and spectacle, and some even come close to overcoming the spectacle by sheer magnitude: house style in a top cuvee can be exceeded by the sheer purity of raw material forming the base of the wine.
While the answers are not yet clear, to me it is the fact that more growers than houses are starting to take risks and expose one of the most complex geologies in all of France that makes grower Champagne the Champagne of the future. Does this mean they will dominate the market? No, not even close. What it does mean is that Champagne is on the threshold of something truly exciting, and we have only started gazing into the prism.
And Now to the Champagne
Last week I joined my regular tasting group and tasted through 11 champagnes in various themed flights, looking to detect that conflict between terroir and style; between grower and house; between oak, dosage and lees; between aged and not aged. It was an interesting tasting. All of the Champagnes were ‘good’, but I distance myself from most of the group’s willingness to drink any of these. For me, only a very few were wines worth seeking out. At the price of Champagne, if a wine isn’t worth seeking out, well, then why is it worth drinking? Everything was tasted blind in flights of three.
Louis Roederer Brut Premier (House): Apple and mineral. Higher dosage. Good length but seems sweetish to me. Richer, maybe malo but not overly leezy. 40% chard. Very Good. $68 at BCLDB.
Henriot Brut Souverain (House): medium sweet – rounder but shorter finish. Earthy. No oak. More post disgorgement aging. Seems a little awkward. 8g/l residual sugar. Very Good. $62 spec listed.
Vilmart & C Grand Cellier Brut Premier Cru (Grower): Green Apples. Seems sweet up front but finishes dry. Nice nose, but rich and tight on the palate. Long finish but acid relatively aggressive. More defined. 0 dosage. Some wood. Includes taille (second+ pressed juice) – 1er cru. North facing side of montagne de Reims. Chalk soil. 10 month foudres – 70 chard, 30 Pinot noir. Very Good. $70 at BCLDB.
Blanc de Blancs flight:
Perrot-Batteau & Filles Domaine de St. Leu Cuvee Helixe Blanc de Blancs (Grower): Chalky. Very good, but seems a little tight. Soft acid and excellent mouse and texture. Medium dosage. Some people found it thin but I thought it was delicious and perfect for food. 1er cru. Vertus. Very Good+. $50 USD from importer.
Jose Dhondt Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs 2006 (Grower): Mushrooms, red apple. Candied lemon. Fresh but soft – richness is balanced. Malo. Finish could use more complexity, but probably just needs time to unwind. Lees and age obvious given the richness of the palate. This was stellar wine. Very Good+. $74 at Marquis Wine Cellars.
Pol Roger Blanc de Blancs 1999 (House): Tons of toasty biscuit and candied apple. Some might confuse this with oak, but that bready, biscuity richness in this wine comes from lees and age. There is no oak on this wine. There is delicious richness and wonderful mousse. Blind I thought this was a high end house like Gosset. 10.5g/l residual sugar. Delicious but does not speak of place. I would buy it purely for the spectacle of flavour it delivers, though. Very Good+. $86 at BCLDB.
Pinot Noir Dominant Flight:
Cedric Bouchard Inflorescence Blanc de Noirs Brut 2008 (Grower): All of Bouchard’s wines are single vintage, single vineyard. Earthy, minerals. Funky secondary and not that fruity but long fascinating rooty finish. Tons of minerality. some leesy richness. Very Good+ to Excellent. $95 at Kits Wine.
de Venoge Brut Blanc de Noirs (House): More open fruit. Orchard fruit but excellent quality. Secondary development. Again earthier and darker than any wine in the first two flights. Thicker weight. Sweeter spice. Very Good to Very Good+. 80% Pinot Noir. 4 years on lees. $75 spec listed.
H. Billiot Fils Vintage 2004 (Grower): Funkytown nose: mushrooms, candy and oak. Weird funkiness like the cellar. Higher dosage. Matured in wood. 0 malo. 80% Pinot Noir and 20% chard. I didn’t love it – which I found shocking as I usually love this producer. The oak is extremely prominent right now. Very Good. $95 at Kits Wine.
Paul Bara Brut Grand Rose (Grower): Nice fruit, clean and expressive. Good but not overly exciting. Good acid. Still rich but greater in your face acid. Blending 12% red wine in for the colour (i.e. this is not a saignee rose). From Bouzy. Starting to speak of place. Very Good. $60 at Marquis Wine.
In conclusion, the best grower wines in my order of preference were the Cedric Bouchard, the Jose Dhondt and the Paul Bara. For the houses, in order of preference I enjoyed the Pol Roger, the de Venoge and then the Vilmart. Comparatively, the best grower champagnes beat out the best houses, but the house champanges stood up and surpassed a few of the weaker growers in terms of overall quality. I still think that the grower champagnes provided overall greater interest, but they have not quite separated themselves so starkly from the houses that they are the next coming in Champagne. In time, though, I have no doubt that this will change.