When Kevin Pike of Michael Skurnik Wines told me the date that had been selected for the Terry Theise Champagne portfolio tasting, that was essentially the first thing that crossed my mind. The horror. It was the same date that had already been announced for the Louis/Dressner tasting. Not just the same date; it was also at exactly the same time. The only saving grace was an invite from Kevin to Theise’s VIP Champagne session, which started one hour earlier than the main Theise and Dressner events. Thanks, Kevin! I figured that one extra hour might just buy enough time to make it to both.
In retrospect, the sensible thing would have been to forego one in favor of the other. Which one, though? In the moment, there was no way I was going to miss either. In the end, that meant each received slightly short shrift in terms of the amount (and focus) of attention I was able to provide. But I’m not sorry. It was a blast, even if I was worn out by the end of the day. And I tasted some great (and not so great) wines at both events.
The biggest issue at the Theise event was time management, which by nature included figuring out what to taste and what to skip. In a room full of grower Champagnes, not to mention a couple of tables of other sparkling wines and even some Burgundy, that was tough work. Here are some highlights, in slightly random order.
A great start – Pierre Gimmonet et Fils:
Overall, the order of producer placement in the room was very well done. The extremely delicate, finessed wines of Pierre Gimmonet et Fils made for a great starting point. Didier Gimmonet was on hand pouring his collection of Blanc de Blancs from the Côtes des Blancs. From a very fine, floral Premier Cru Blanc de Blancs to the creamy, marzipan-laced “Cuvée Gastronome” done in low-pressure Crémant style, and on to the 2002 “Fleuron” that showed notes of fino sherry on a sweet-fruited front end, the entire range was very appealing, showcasing a broad spectrum of what’s possible on the Côtes des Blancs. The real stand-out was their 2000 “Spécial Club” bottling from a selection of old vines in Cramant – dense and loaded with aromas of brioche. The 1999 version, poured from magnum, was higher-toned but suffered in comparison due to its sulfurous nose.
The showstopper – René Geoffroy:
The affable Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy was stationed at Table 6, just shy of mid-point in the room. His collection was the most hedonistic and perhaps the most memorable of the event. And it had the breed and substance to back up the show. None of Geoffroy’s wines undergo malolactic fermentation, thus retaining the requisite spine of acidity for barrel fermentation, which is applied at least in part to most if not all of the wines made at the estate. Their “Expression” Brut NV was the most complete basic cuvée I tasted that day. The “Rosé de Saignée,” 100% Pinot Noir macerated on the skins for about eight hours, showed even better than when I last tasted it – bright and fruity. Jean-Baptiste explained that he wants it to be recognizable even when tasted blind. “Cuvée Volupté,” a Blanc de Blancs purely from the 2004 vintage though not vintage dated, was dense and muscular yet cut across the palate with tensile, laser beam focus. The 2000 “Millésime” Brut, a blend of 30% Pinot Noir and 70% Chardonnay, had a huge nose of spiced apple cake, crème brulée and concentrated minerality. The top bottling, “Cuvée de René Geoffroy,” was just decadent, with a nose of cocoa and chalk followed by rich, creamy textures.
Bring the funk – Aubry:
Aubry is an estate with a long history. Their approach always keeps an eye toward the old school but they’re not afraid to push the envelope. They’ve become best known for championing all but forgotten rarities, once indigenous to Champagne, like Arbanne, Petit Meslier, Pinot Gris (sometimes called Fromenteau) and Pinot Blanc. Their classic wines tend toward broad, rich textures, as evidenced by the basic Brut NV and their 2002 “Aubry de Humbert.” I found “Ivoire et Ebène,” a cuvée of 70% Chardonnay and 30% Pinot Noir aged for nine months in small barrels, to be more curious than compelling, completely dominated by wood. It’s in their “Nombre d’Or” series that the funk comes out to play. “La Nombre d’Or Sablé Blanc des Blancs” in particular smells and tastes akin to a Belgian Lambic ale – wild, sour and full of mineral funk – while “La Nombre d’Or Campanae Veteres Vites” is earthy and stony. Both include Petit Meslier and Arbanne while the “Veteres Vites” also includes Pinot Gris along with all three classic Champagne varieties.
Other houses that showed well:
I was very pleased with the Blanc des Blancs of Varnier-Fannière, all very feminine and cleanly fruit-driven in style. At the same table, the Champagnes of Marc Hébrart also showed well, particularly the “Sélection” Brut NV that displayed cascading layers of fallen leaves and baking spices on its finish.
The Gaston Chiquet table was situated just after Geoffroy in the lineup. Nicolas Chiquet’s wines may have been overshadowed a bit by his neighbor’s but they weren’t far off in their overall consistency and impact. I really liked their “Blanc de Blancs d’Aÿ” NV with its precise nose, linear texture and lovely nose of apples and white flowers. Even though Nicolas was clearly very proud of the 1999 vintage version of the same wine, being poured from magnum, I found it to be in an odd spot, very tight and slightly musty. Very subtly corked, perhaps. His “Cuvée de Réserve” more than made up for it though, with a wonderful nose of potpourri followed by hazelnut torte on the palate and an extremely sapid, gripping texture.
Tasting through the offerings from Jean Lallement et Fils, I was reminded how delicious and complete they are. Their “Réserve” Brut, built on the same blend as their base Brut cuvée but based on a single vintage in most years, is intensely red fruited and sappy. And their rosé, an assemblage of 100% Pinot Noir with 9% still red wine, was truly lovely.
The offerings from Chartogne-Taillet, too, were solid across the board, particularly their generous, creamy Blanc de Blancs Brut and their “Cuvée Fiacre” 2002, which exuded the natural warmth and sensuality of a beautiful woman just waking up after a good night’s sleep.
A few that didn’t impress:
As pleasurable as it was to taste and chat with the lovely Caroline Milan, the wines of her Côtes de Blancs based house, Jean Milan, left me flat. Too many of the wines seemed driven more by commercial positioning than by natural expression.
Moving on to Verzenay, the wines of Pehu-Simonet came across as coarse and rather two-dimensional, especially in comparison to those of their neighbors at Jean Lallement.
And as much as I liked Vilmart & Cie’s 2001 “Grand Cellier d’Or” when last I tasted it, I just couldn’t get my arms around their wines on this day. They came across as confectionery in nature, a sweetness I was assured originated from phenolic ripeness but which my gut told me was just as much the result of high levels of dosage. Certainly well crafted wines, particularly the Burgundian, concentrated 1997 “Coeur de Cuvée,” but in an overall style that had me scratching my head.
A few that got lost in the shuffle:
I was left with generally good impressions of the wines of Henri Goutorbe and A. Margaine but their wines were just a little too subtle to make themselves known in the context of such a grand tasting. Both are at least worthy of further investigation.
Worst of all, a few that I missed entirely:
With all due apologies and regrets, I never managed to visit a few of the tables. I passed by Rudolphe Peters of Pierre Peters, as I’ve tasted their wines often enough that I wanted to focus on lesser known entries. Likewise, I missed Laetitia Billiot at the Henri Billiot table, as the crowd was just too deep on first pass and, much to my chagrin, I never made it back around. And as for Paul Laurent and Egly-Ouriet, all I can say is that the clock was ticking and the Dressner tasting was calling. Details on that should be forthcoming in the near future.
Thursday, October 23, 2008