Friday, February 29, 2008

Grower Bubbles: Tasting Through the Skurnik/Theise Champagne Portfolio

Kevin Pike, Director of National Sales & Marketing for Michael Skurnik Wines, paid a visit at Tria Fermentation School recently to present a double-header look at a goodly portion of the Michael Skurnik/Terry Theise Champagne portfolio. During an afternoon session, he focused on presenting the portfolio to restaurant wine buyers from the Philly area. I headed to the evening session, a public seminar geared primarily at bringing the charms of grower Champagnes to the attention of the students in attendance.

Kevin Pike hard at work.

The welcome wine of the evening was Henri Goutorbe’s “Cuvée Prestige” Brut, a non-vintage blend of 70% Pinot Noir, 5% Pinot Meunier and 25% Chardonnay from various villages in the Vallée de la Marne. Golden and dense, generous in texture and laden with hazelnut and fresh bread notes, it was a solidly centrist starting point. As guests mulled over the first of their many wines of the evening, Kevin blazed through a whirlwind overview of the Méthode Champenoise, followed by an overview of the geography and primary terroirs of the Champagne region.

Following those geographic lines, the tasting portion of the seminar began in earnest with an exploration of a grower Champagne from each of the three primary terroirs being discussed. First up was Pierre Peters’ “Cuvée de Réserve” Brut NV, representing the Cotes des Blancs. Typical of the Cotes and its chalk based soil, this is a Blanc de Blancs, 100% Chardonnay grown in the 100% Grand Cru villages of Oger, Avize, Cramant and Le Mesnil-sur-Oger. With 11 grams of residual sugar, this was well under the Brut cap of 15 grams but one of the most highly dosed of the wines we’d taste from the Skurnik portfolio – non-Brut styles aside – over the course of the evening. That hint of sweetness was well masked and balanced by the wine’s fine acidity as well as by a hint of maturity; the cuvée was based primarily on wine from the 2000 vintage and was fairly recently disgorged. Still, plenty of primary fruit emerged, with suggestions of meyer lemon, winter melon, green apples and a gooseberry twang. I’ve had rough luck with Peters’ Champagnes over the years, encountering far too many bottles that were beat up or tired out; this was showing well.

Representing the Vallée de la Marne, a cool, frost prone region running from outside Chateau Thierry in the west to Epernay in the east, was the Brut “Tradition” NV from Gaston Chiquet. Because of its frost resistance – it’s a late budder and an early ripener – Pinot Meunier is the mainstay of the Marne. That’s reflected in Chiquet’s wine, made up of 45% Meunier, 20% Pinot Noir and 35% Chardonnay, with a dosage of 8.8 grams. This would be a good savory course wine, particularly with white meat and poultry courses, given its firm texture and flavors of red fruits, including fleshy red apples.

One of the evening's tasting lineups.

Though 60% of all Champagne produced originates from the Aube, the southeasternmost district of Champagne, and closer to Chablis than to the rest of Champagne, we would not taste any Aube produce on the evening. The last of the major regions to be represented then was the Montagne de Reims – Pinot Noir country. In spite of the importance of Pinot Noir in the district, the wine we’d taste from Champagne house Aubry, their basic NV Brut, was another Pinot Meunier dominated blend (60%) rounded out by equal parts of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. It was driven by red dominated fruits, with red pear, cherry and cinnamon spice notes on the finish; yeastier than the previous wines, it closed with a distinct flourish of applesauce. Aubry doses their Champagnes using MCR (sterilized, concentrated grape must) rather than cane sugar in the belief that it is a more natural approach.

Moving on to part two of the tasting, Kevin prepped the group on the finer points of blind tasting as Tria staff members made a circuit of the room, pouring four different Champagnes from foil wrapped bottles. Given the theme of the course – Grower Champagnes – and Kevin’s role as a spokesperson for small house bubblies, some of the questions and suggestions he raised began to lead some of the cagier members of the group toward a realization of what was about to ensue.

Tria volunteer staff pouring blind.

  • The first wine of the blind flight showed medium, straw like colors in the glass. Very sulfuric, like over-cooked hard boiled eggs with a touch of smoke, on the nose. Course aromas and coarser texture. Red fruit driven palate. Overall, clumsy. I guessed large production, probably from mostly Aube fruit.

  • Wine two was very pale in color, grapey on the nose, with just a touch of acetyl character. Bright, lively acidity and very fresh, young fruit. This was clearly Blanc de Blancs, I thought, most likely with a fairly brief sur latte aging regime.

  • The third suspect in the blind line-up was clearly the sweetest of the wines on the palate. Like the first, it was sulfuric, this time smelling more like an egg salad sandwich. Low acid, coarse mousse and, sulfur aside, far less aromatic than the first two. Even less redeeming than wine number one.

  • The eye alone gave away a lot about the fourth pour, as it showed ever so slightly pink onion skin color in the glass. Absolutely red fruit, along with cinnamon and baking spice on the nose and blueberry compote on the finish. Pinot Noir dominated wine from the Montagne de Reims was my best guess, Bouzy perhaps.

Counting myself among those cagier members of the crowd, I wasn’t surprised to see what happened next. But it was great fun to see how many jaws dropped when the blind bottles were stripped of their foils, particularly from the first. Wine number one was Veuve Clicquot "Carte Jaune". Two was the NV Blanc de Blancs from Varnier-Fannière, from Skurnik’s portfolio. Third up was Moët White Star. The bottle no longer even indicates dryness level but this was clearly on the sweet end of the Extra Dry spectrum. Rounding out the flight was a NV blend of 80% Pinot Noir and 20% Chardonnay with six grams dosage, from Henri Billiot, a small house in Ambonnay, also a member of the Skurnik book.

This idea of showing good and bad examples of the same type in a side by side comparison seems to be a growing phenomenon. It’s not exactly rocket science but it is a very convincing way to demonstrate certain truths without relying simply on hyperbole or trust in and “expert’s” opinion. The only downside, of course, is tasting the bad stuff in general, and needing to find room for it in an already crowded tasting slate.

After allowing time for fallout from the nasty little revelations, including some energetic discussion of the large houses’ reliance on sulfur for stability and high levels of dosage for attainment of “house style,” Mr. Pike closed out the regular portion of class by pouring two more wines from important stylistic genres. We tasted Chartogne-Taillet’s Rosé NV, a 50/50 blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay made pink by a 19% addition still Pinot Noir base wine from the 1999 vintage. A classic, understated example of the dried, wild red fruit combined with subtle nuttiness that often results in blended rosé Champagnes.

Rounding out the planned selections for the evening was Jean Milan’s “Cuvée Tendresse,” a non-vintage Sec bottling, 100% Grand Cru Chardonnay grown in Oger. Apparently, it’s produced from the exact same base as used for Milan’s “Cuvée Spéciale” but with the addition of a 24 gram dosage. I would love to have tried it with a simple pâté de foie gras spread on fresh brioche. A sharp-eyed member of the class noticed that this was a NM (Négociant-Manipulant) bottling, the only one of the evening from the Skurnik/Theise portfolio. It was perfectly sound proof, and a good point of discussion, that not all NM Champagne is inherently inferior (just as not all RM Champagne is automatically superior). Many small producers, like Milan and Diebolt-Vallois for instance, have moved to Négociant licenses to allow themselves the flexibility to buy in small quantities of fruit from family members or conscientious neighboring farmers. Given the near impossibility of buying or affording new land in Champagne, it’s a reality driven by economic necessity which is only likely to grow in prevalence in the coming years.

Class would normally have ended at this point. We’d already tasted ten wines, a good two or three more than in the usual Tria seminar. However, Kevin had some leftovers from his afternoon trade tasting and volunteered to share them with the group. It gave us the opportunity to move into another category we’d yet to visit: vintage Champagne. Here’s a quick round-up:

Pierre Peters “Cuvée Spéciale” Brut 1999
Fruit from a single plot called “Chétillon” in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger. Slightly reductive aromatically but delicious in the mouth. Lots of apple cider nuance.

Aubry “La Nombre d’Or Sablé” Blanc des Blancs 2003
A blend including some of the Champenoise rarities cultivated by Aubry: 40% Chardonnay, 30% Arbanne and 30% Petit Meslier, with a miniscule two gram dosage, again using MCR rather than cane sugar. To add to the wacky wine factor, this is also in bottle at a lower pressure than normal, about four atmospheres rather than the usual six, a style Aubry refers to as “Sablé.” Wild aromas of funk, cheese and forest floor goodness. Weird, compelling and very much alive.

Pehu-Simonet “Cuvée Junior” Millésime Brut 2002
A 50/50 Chardonnay/Pinot Noir blend, with the Pinot Noir vinified in wood. All Grand Cru fruit; intensely powerful, loaded with savory minerality.

Marc Hébrart “Spécial Club” Brut 2002
I enjoyed the pleasure of meeting Jean-Paul Hébrart during a visit with Diebolt-Vallois – he’s married to Jacques Diebolt’s daughter, Isabelle – in February 2004 so it was a point of personal interest to get to taste this. It didn’t disappoint. A 60% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay blend showing tons of lime pith and red cherry skin character. Loads of sex appeal and simply delicious. Kevin considers 2002 the finest all around vintage in Champagne since 1996. This would make a great choice for the cellar.

Some of the seminar's dead soldiers. Note the squat bottle at the right; that's the signature bottle of the Spécial Club.

If you’ve carried on to this point, you’ll share the sense of how intense and almost exhausting this tasting was. It was a challenge trying to keep on top of what was what, tasting through a total of 14 wines in about 90 minutes while participating in a full-on presentation, along with Q&A, about the ins and outs of the Champagne industry. Aside from the fun of the blind tasting portion – usually not my favorite thing but quite illuminating in this scenario – standouts for me included the Goutorbe which started the evening, Hébrart’s “Spécial Club” as well as the “Nombre d’Or” from Aubry. It was quite the bubble infused evening.

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Joe M. said...

Sounds like a terrific tasting. Good notes, this post must have taken you a while!

Nombre d'Or is definitely an oddball, one of the stranger bottles of bubbles I have ever tasted.

Joe M. said...

Oh yeah - I meant to comment on Kevin's choices from the big houses. Not the stiffest competition (which I'm guessing is why he chose them, as after all he is in the business of selling grower champagne).

I'd be interested in seeing how better quality marques like Deutz, Bolli's, Henriot, Bellefon Rose, Billecarte and Gosset would show relative to their grower champ counterparts.

David McDuff said...

Hey Joe,
Yep, it took a while. Once I got started though, it flowed along pretty quickly.

You're right, Kevin's choices for the blind tasting were pretty facile. They made perfect sense though. His intention was not so much to point out that there aren't any good NM Champagnes. Rather, he was effectively letting people see for themselves that two of the most popular brands on the market, at least one of them widely promoted as the gold standard, are actually crap. Simply telling people that is not nearly as effective as proving it to them with their own palates as judge and jury.

Brooklynguy said...

just wanted to tell you that i loved this post - great job. i want to do exactly this kind of blind tasting, too.

David McDuff said...

Thanks, Neil. I think that type of good vs. bad blind tasting works well in the context of a classroom type event but might be harder to pull off or justify at home.

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