A Champagne Dinner of Contrasting Styles
Champagne’s diversity is far greater than many drinkers realize. This is as true for food pairing possibilities as it is for style. So it was that I hosted a Champagne dinner with friends where I selected a broad range of Champagne types, paired across multiple courses of dinner.
Where Doth Diversity Lie?
The diversity in Champagne is surprising given that it is only quite recently that some producers have started embracing and exploring terroir. These tend to be growers, producing Champagne from land they own and tend. Even so, the greatest diversity still lies in stylistic difference. I think this will change as more growers embrace a truly terroir-focused mindset. Now, however, consumers have to know about house and vinification more than region in order to understand what they’re getting into.
There is also great debate about value in Champagne. Are the best QPR wines from growers or houses? Despite multiple tastings, I’ve yet to find a definitive answer to this question as blind tasting results often surprise. However, one thing I can guarantee is that you won’t be finding any deal gems amongst the houses given that their prestige and greater brand recognition generally preclude them from bargain bins. Obscure growers, on the other hand, oftentimes sell their wines for excellent prices simply because it is hard to get the message out.
Our dinner ranged from terroir focused wines to blended solera style Champagne and an older bottle, pairing the courses as we went. The results were insightful and the side by side contrasts served a great educational tool. The ultimate take away was that Champagne offers choices, choices that many consumers don’t realize are there. The variations in style and vinification provide fertile ground for considerable exploration. However, it was the terroir focused wines that offered the greatest interest and, in my opinion, represent the most exciting possible future for Champagne.
Terroir Focused Wines
Wine 1: Jean Milan Transparence Blanc de Blancs 2006
Region: Oger, Cote des Blancs
Soil Type: Vegetative earth with chalky subsoil
Grapes: Chardonnay, from Grand Cru Vineyards
Sweetness: Brut Nature (3g/l)
Vinification: Steel and Oak
Producer Type: Grower (mostly) but some Negocient
Pairing: Raw Oysters
Notes: The first wine of the night, this had salinity and minerality but was less austere than other blanc de blancs despite being very dry. Hints of lemon curd told stories of things to come, but the standout quality was the long, very complex finish. A superb pairing with oysters.
Price: $90 at Kitsilano Wine Cellar
Wine 2: Cedric Bouchard Roses Jeanne Blanc de Noirs 2008
Region: Aube, Cote de Bar
Vineyard: Les Ursules
Soil Type: very very old chalk soils
Grapes: Pinot Noir
Producer Type: Grower
Pairing: Lamb Liver Pate
Notes: Bouchard is atypical for Champagne, not only because he grows his grapes in the much maligned Aube region, but also because he defies traditional Champagne methdologies. Instead, he prefers to focus on terroir, vintage and neutral vinifications that allow the fruit to speak for itself. He succeeded with tremendous aplomb with this wine, which had a purity of fruit unobscured by yeast or oak flavours that is a revelation in Champagne. This wine also improved more than any other over the course of the evening and while many were off-put somewhat when first drinking the wine, when they came back to it most recognized its tremendous complexity. The pairing with lamb liver pate was a surprising success.
Price: $100 at Kits Wine Cellar
Style Focused Wines
Wine 3: Bruno Paillard Premiere Cuvee Rose Non-Vintage
Region: Blended: Verzenay, Bouzy, Mailly, Les Riceys
Vineyard: Blended from 12 vineyards
Soil Type: Varied, but mostly chalk
Grapes: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay
Sweetness: Brut (8-9g/l)
Producer Type: House (Negocient)
Pairing: Smoked Salmon Quiche
Notes: Much sweeter than the previous two wines, the Paillard nonetheless exemplified quality traditional rose and is actually on the dry side for this style. This wine is a strawberry feast, very fruity and immediately likeable. The classic pairing with smoked salmon was perfect. However, in the end this was my least favourite Champagne of the evening because it lacked the depth and complexity of all the other wines, instead being a little more innocuous. Pleasurable but nothing to seek out.
Rating: Very Good+
Price: $110 at Kits Wine Cellar
Wine 4: H. Billiot Cuvee Laetitia Non-Vintage
Region: Ambonnay, south side of Montagne de Reims
Vineyard: Various, Grand Cru
Soil Type: Clay, Limestone, Chalk
Grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir
Vinification: oak (new and old)
Producer Type: Grower
Pairing: Mac and Cheese; Truffled Popcorn
Notes: An interesting study in contrasts. When I first had this wine I loved its opulence and sheer decadent hedonism. Sitting side by side the terroir focused wines, this almost tasted a bit blousy and sweet (despite entirely reasonable dosage). Once we dug into the food – mac and cheese and truffled popcorn – the wine really started to sing. The more austere first two wines would never have worked so well with such rich, palate dominating dishes. The Billiot struck through them with its freshness but also billowed layers of custardy goodness to put this course into glutton territory.
Price: $140 at Kits Wine Cellar
Wine 5: Yann Alexandre Grande Cuvee Non-Vintage (1996 and 1998 blended)
Region: Courmas, Montagne de Reims
Vineyard: Varied (used to be source for Krug)
Soil Type: Varied
Grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier
Producer Type: Grower
Notes: Only aged Champagne tastes like this. Butterscotch and baked apple, this is yet quite dry. Fully developed and with layers of complexity far more stratified and nuanced as compared to all the other wines, which were definitively less delineated. This wine is from a very small almost unknown grower who used to supply fruit to Krug. The family decided to start making their own Champagne and, if this is any indication, have been very successful. A blend of predominantly 1996 (one of the best Champagne vintages of the later 20th century) and a lesser quantity of 1998. The value here is shocking. Aged Champagne of this quality for this price is unheard of. Lucky us.
Rating: Excellent to Excellent+
Price: $37 at Garagiste