Friday, June 1, 2012

A Dazzling Biodynamic Champagne

Over the past half-dozen or so years, my drinking habits have changed, as I now consume more white and sparkling wines than reds. Perhaps my palate has been assaulted enough by big tannins and high alcohol, but I find whites and sparkling wines not only so much more refreshing, but also more vibrant. At dinner time, these wines can actually pick me up as well as stimulate my senses.

I love Champagne and I've been enchanted, especially over the past few years, by the Champagnes of the small growers, the ones made by recoltant-manipulant (RM), individuals that grow grapes and then produce the wines themselves. There are hundreds of these firms and while not every one of these can be counted on for greatness, more often than not a small grower Champagne is quite special, offering excellent complexity as well as individual style, a trait that defines notoriety in any wine.

One of my favorite small growers is the firm of Larmandier-Bernier, managed by Pierre Larmandier and his wife Sophie. They own a fifteen-hectare (thirty-seven acre) vineyard in the town of Vertus, on the edge of the Cote des Blancs. I first tasted their non-vintage Blanc de Blancs in Piemonte a few years ago and was taken by its delicacy and finesse as well as its beautiful varietal character. As it was 32 Euro on the wine list we were at that night in Serralunga, I alos loved it for its value.

I immediately wanted to learn more about this firm, so went to the website, which is one of the finest sites I've seen from any Champagne producer. This is an estate in which Pierre and Sophie farm according to biodynamic principles. "It is not for reasons of tradition that our approach to viticulture is completely natural; it is just because it makes sense," writes Pierre. "We are fortunate enough to work on superb terriors; it would be a shame if we didn't 'bring them to your glass.'" Pierre goes on to describe the biodynamic approach he favors; combined with beautiful graphics, this is an extremely educational and beautiful looking website.

Their most famous cuvée is the Terre de Vertus Premier Cru Non Dosé. Non dosé means there is no dosage in this wine; thus the wine is extremely dry. Dosage - the adding of a small amount of base wine and sucrose - is carried out for most Champagnes, as it yields a rounder, less austere wine, so for Pierre to not add a dosage shows you the quality of the wine, as well as the grapes he farms. This is fermented and aged in oak casks and is produced entirely from Chardonnay from the estate vineyards.

I finally had the chance to enjoy this wine - the 2007 vintage - at a lovely restaurant in Castiglione della Pescaia in Tuscany called Votapentole. This is clearly one of the finest seafood restaurants in all of Italy, so this seemed like the ideal situation to try this wine. I noted the intense aromas, rich mid-palate and its excellent depth of fruit. The bubbles are quite small and the finish goes on and on; there is a distinct chalkiness along with a striking mineral character. The wine is a great example of finesse, complexity and purity and is a superb Champagne.

One note - this is made entirely from grapes from Vertus, a Premier Cru village. Thus the wine does not have the power of a Grand Cru Champagne, but I certainly had no problem with that, as I am generally more of a fan of finesse and purity than forcefulness. It may not be as intense as the biggest examples of Grand Cru, but given its complexity, balance and remarkable flavors, it rates just as highly for my tastes. This is an outstanding Champagne that will drink well for the next 5-7 years.

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