Aye, if there's a place in the wine world I'd most like to have been today, though getting there might have been tough given the current airspace restrictions in Europe, it's Aÿ. (Never could resist leading off with a horrible pun....)
Aÿ was indeed the place to be today for the 2nd annual tasting conducted by Terres et Vins de Champagne, a group of young, natural-leaning Champagne growers that was first conceptualized and organized by Raphaël Bérèche and Aurélien Laherte. I won't go into any more detail about it here, as you can read all about last year's inaugural event at Peter Liem's now defunct blog, Besotted Ramblings.
What I will do is take today's event, even if it was 3,000+ miles away, as impetus to finally share some of my impressions from a relatively recent event much closer to home – the Boutique Wine Collection national portfolio tasting, held back in early March in Center City Philly. The lineup at this year's tasting was quite similar to last year's, with one notable exception that was, at least for this taster, an exciting new entry in the Boutique portfolio.
It didn't take long for me to find it, as two steps into the room I was greeted by Mélanie Tarlant, who asked if I'd like to taste through what turned out to be pretty close to the full range of wines produced at her family's estate, Champagne Tarlant. Mélanie's brother Benoit just happens to be one of the seventeen participating members of Terres et Vins de Champagne, so there's today's tie-in (just in case you were wondering).
Though Tarlant's wines have theoretically been available in the Pennsylvania market in the past, actual appearances in shops or restaurants have been less than few and far between. While their Champagnes are most likely still destined to be special liquor order (SLO, in PLCB parlance) items, I'm hoping that the estate's recent leap into the Boutique camp will at least land their wines on a few of the better restaurant wine lists around town.
Champagne Tarlant's history dates back to 1687. Representing the 12th generation of the family business, Melanie's brother Benoit recently joined his father Jean-Mary at the winemaking helm. Benoit has already established his mark, adding two non-dosage bottlings as well as two terroir-driven cuvées to an otherwise more traditional yet already low-dosage (averaging about 6g) house style.
The family's holdings comprise 14 hectares, with 55 separate parcels of vines located in the villages of Oeuilly, Boursault, St-Agnan and Celles-les-Condé, all in the Vallée de la Marne. Plantings include Pinot Noir, Meunier and Chardonnay, along with small amounts of Arbanne, Petit Meslier and Pinot Blanc. Across the entire range, Benoit and Jean-Mary conduct approximately 60% of their base fermentations in barrel, with the other 40% fermented in small steel tanks. None of the wines go through malolactic fermentation, sulfur use is kept to a bare minimum and, as I mentioned above, all of the wines see very low (if any) dosage.
Benoit's Brut Nature "Zéro," the first pour in the lineup, was regrettably suffering from low-level cork taint (Mélanie mentioned that she'd had a bad run of subtly TCA-affected bottles on this trip). It's an equal part blend of Pinot Noir, Meunier and Chardonnay, by the way, the current release being based primarily on the 2005 harvest with a small addition of reserve wines.
The Brut Nature "Zéro" Rosé was suffering no such problems and was indeed delicious, bracingly dry and mineral, full of bright, wild red-fruit aromas. Mélanie explained that non-dosage rosés are quite rare, as it can be tough to balance the tannins that come from the red wine (this is a rosé d'assemblage, 85% Chardonnay with a 15% addition of still, red Pinot Noir) without the aid of a few grams of sugar in the final bottling. Benoit has achieved balance nonetheless, working hard in the vineyards to ensure ample ripeness and selecting only the best vintages of the family's own red wine, again with ample ripeness, for blending.
Can you say "cu-vée"? The "QV Discobitch" bottling is another of Benoit's special projects, made at the request of Paris-based DJs Laurent Konrad and Kylian Mash. Again, there's a detailed write-up of its origins at Besotted, so I won't belabor things by repeating the details. I will say, though, that while Mr. Liem reports that Discobitch is an early disgorgement of the "Cuvée Louis," Mélanie told me that it is actually the same as the Brut Nature "Zéro," but with the addition of a six-gram dosage, just enough to nudge it into Brut designation territory. It very well could be that both are correct if the recipe Mélanie referred to is a change that occurred between the original bottling and the current release. I'll see if I can't entice Benoit to provide full elucidation of the details.... Assuming Mélanie is correct, I'm curious as to how the wine manages to find its balance in both versions.
Last poured among the "Classic" entries in the Tarland portfolio was the "Tradition," a blend of 55% Pinot Noir, 35% Meunier and 10% Chardonnay. Based primarily on wines from the 2002 vintage and aged sur-latte for five years prior to release, the resulting wine was broader and more richly structured than the Brut Nature offerings. Quite delicious, too. And at $37 retail in PA, $10 less per/bottle than what Big Yellow fetches in the Keystone State, a really solid value.
On to bin number two, Mélanie again poured from our right to left, beginning with the 1998 Prestige Extra Brut. From a blend of 65% Chardonnay and 35% Pinot Noir planted in chalk and limestone rich terroirs, the '98 was drinking well, still taut, fresh and well-defined, and still showing the potential for further development in the cellar.
The 1999 Prestige Rosé, on the other hand, had reached what struck me as its full maturity and potential, showing pretty, dried red floral characteristics and orange-peel fruit along with an ever-so-slightly oxidative character. 85% Chardonnay blended with 15% red wine of Pinot Noir, from two single plots of sand and limestone based soils.
As should be the case, the show stoppers were saved for last. "La Vigne d'Antan" Extra Brut Non-greffée Chardonnay was intensely soil expressive, the most compelling of the wines for the individuality and minerality of its palate impact. Though not vintage dated, "La Vigne d'Antan" ("the vine of yesteryear") was produced entirely from the 2000 harvest and based entirely on Chardonnay planted on its native rootstock ("non-greffée" means ungrafted) in a single plot of sandy soil called, if I'm not mistaken, "Îlot des Sables," located in Oeuilly. The wine was aged sur latte for six-and-a-half years before being hand-disgorged in October 2007 and was finished with a very modest two-gram dosage. It ain't cheap – Boutique specs it at around $150 retail – and it's not even available as a special order item in PA, so I was happy for the opportunity to taste it, something I'll look forward to doing again. Not surprisingly, it's also among the wines Benoit was scheduled to pour at Terres et Vins today.
"Cuvée Louis," the tête de cuvée at Champagne Tarlant, is named in homage to Louis Tarlant, the great-great-grandfather of Benoit and Mélanie who was the first member of the family to estate bottle Champagne under the Tarlant name. A 50/50 blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from 60-year-old vines in the "Les Crayons" vineyard in Oeuilly, the wine was sublime – not as muscular and earthy as "d'Antan" but long, delicate yet full-flavored and very, very fine. We tasted the current release, based primarily on the 1998 harvest with reserve wines from both 1997 and 1996.
In closing, I leave you with a little something for your listening and viewing pleasure. To paraphrase my buddy Neil, disco may suck... but at least Benoit can have a little fun while making some excellent Champagnes.
51480 Oeuilly / Epernay