Monday, June 21, 2010

Diebolt-Vallois Brut "Tradition"

When last I wrote about one of the wines of Jacques Diebolt, I brought attention to something I'd only recently taken notice of: a lot number of sorts that now appears in the lower right corner of the front label on all of the cuvées sans années that Jacques produces at his Cramant-based estate, Diebolt-Vallois. (You'll find another example in the picture at right.) At the time, I hypothesized that the code was most likely a reference either to the primary vintage included in the blend or to the year in which the bottle was disgorged.

This time around I didn't want to take a guess, so I went straight to the source. Not to Monsieur Diebolt, no my French just isn't that good and I hate to rely on Google Translate unless I really have to, but rather to Peter Liem.

In addition to authoring the invaluable site, Peter is a big fan of Diebolt-Vallois and, I believe, a good friend of Jacques. My gut didn't let me down (even though both of my guesses turned out to be wrong), as Peter responded to my query post-haste, letting me know that the code in fact refers to the date of tirage — when the finished still wine is placed in bottle, along with the addition of the liqueur de tirage, for commencement of its in-bottle second fermentation. Using just a year for the code may seem a bit vague but, in this case, it's enough to indicate that the wine in the bottle is most likely based primarily on the previous year's vintage. I'd still love to see a disgorgement date printed on the label as well, but the tirage info is certainly better than none at all.

Champagne Brut "Tradition," Diebolt-Vallois NV
$43. 12% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.
Delicately creamy and bursting with fresh red fruits (cherry, raspberry and plum). As with all of the wines from Diebolt-Vallois, this bottle was defined by its elegance, focus and, above all, drinkability. Even though its price has crept into the $40s in the last few years, it still represents excellent value.

My notes from a 2004 visit at Diebolt-Vallois indicate that the cuvée "Tradition" we tasted from vat at that time was a black fruit dominated blend of 40% Pinot Noir, 40% Pinot Meunier and 20% Chardonnay. The wine had a distinct richness and creaminess of texture, perhaps unsurprising given that the wine we tasted from tank on that trip was based largely on the hot, dry 2003 growing season. That creaminess has been a continuous hallmark of the wine, even in many of the subsequent releases that contained a more "typical" blend featuring a higher percentage of Chardonnay and lower quantity of Meunier.

As it happens, the '07 tirage that I enjoyed recently actually marked a return of sorts to a blend like that I'd tasted in 2004, as it is only 25% Chardonnay against 75% Pinots N and M. Thanks to Peter's site (Thanks, Peter!), I can also tell you that the '07 tirage was based entirely on wine from the 2006 vintage. The '08 tirage, which is already available on the European market, apparently marks a return to a more typical blend of grapes (approximately 50PN/40C/10PM) and utilization of reserve wines from vintages in addition to the 2007 base.

The real reason I'm loading you up with all of this technical detail and incantation of encépagement is to point out that I was wrong. And that I am happy to have found myself wrong. When I wrote up that 2004 trip to see Diebolt (it was among the first posts I wrote here at MFWT), I had this to say:

Like at the big Champagne houses, the non-vintage cuvées at Diebolt are made according to a house style. Consistency of flavor is sought from year to year, from bottling to bottling, making the job of the master blender – Jacques himself in this case – of utmost importance.

I'd already been a wine connoisseur for the better part of two decades, and worked in the trade for the better part of one, and I still believed in this widely held principle, one that I now know to be very much not the case. Producers like Diebolt may and do indeed strive to maintain consistency of quality and expression of terroir, but there's no question that their non-vintage cuvées change and morph over time in respect to their unspoken contents.

One of the great joys of wine is that its exploration represents a continuous learning process. There's always a beginning to the journey but, unless you choose to stop it intentionally, there's never an end, at least not short of the grave. One of my coworkers likes to say, and I heartily concur, "There's no such thing as a wine expert. Only beginners and amateurs."

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