On a magnificent 84-degree August day in Chicago - clearly the most beautiful we have enjoyed during this routinely oppressive summer - I celebrated the variety and brilliance of Champagne along with a few dozen friends at a special outdoor tasting in a private park. Entitled Champagne in the Second City, this was a tasting that combined dazzling wines with great food in a relaxed atmosphere that reminded all of us who attended that Champagne - and life - is not just good, it's great!
This event was the idea of Craig Cooper, wine director for Pop's for Champagne in Chicago, one of the country's finest venues for everything sparkling. Pop's, under the leadership of founder Tom Verhey and his wife Linda, was founded 30 years ago on the north side of Chicago; in 2006, the Verheys moved to their current location in downtown Chicago, where business dramatically grew and has stayed relatively strong ever since.
I wrote about Pop's and Verhey in a post last December (read here), in which he described Cooper as "probably the most Champagne-savvy person in America." High praise, especially if you know Verhey, someone who is down to earth and not given to hyperbole.
Flash forward to this past spring when Cooper invited me to a special tasting celebrating the 30th anniversary of Pop's that was to have been held at the wine bar back in May. To make a long story short, not everything came together as the support from certain individuals did not materialize.
Yet several friends of Cooper and Verhey did come through with a variety of special bottles, many of them very limited production releases, so Cooper did the next best thing and scheduled this event for a summer afternoon when our small group could enjoy these wines amidst the beauty of the Chicago skyline.
Craig Cooper getting ready to pour the 1983 Delamotte at Champagne in the City
Cooper assembled two dozen Champagnes from various small producers, most of them recoltant- manipulant. For most wines, there were two or three bottles of a specific cuvée, while in some instances, we enjoyed the wine from a magnum. The selection was magnificent, ranging from the 1995 Krug (in magnum) to the 1999 Pol Roger Blanc de Blancs along with some sought-after selections such as the 1998 and 1999 Jacques Selosse Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut, the 1999 and 2002 Egly-Ouriet Grand Cru and the 2000 Jacquesson Avize Grand Cru. As I said, what a magnificent group of Champagnes!
An Afternoon Taste Sensation Awaits!
When you've got this many great Champagnes together, how do you choose the best? Well, you don't - what you do is taste and discover the differences in the wines according to a number of reasons, be it the cuvée itself, the time spent on the yeasts or the personal philosophy of the producer. As Cooper told me when he opened the bottles of Jacques Selosse, he admired these wines because of their distinctiveness. "I always find something different with Jacques Selosse as compared with other champagnes."
Those two wines were among my very favorites this day as well; both are deeply concentrated wines with outstanding structure and persistence; the two wines perfectly displayed the vintage differences, with the 1999 being more powerful as compared to the 1998. I preferred the elegance and finesse of the relatively lighter 1998, although there is little doubt that the 1999 will in five to ten years' time become a more subtle wine.
I'm a huge fan of Rosé Champagne and while there were only a few available for tasting, they were first-rate. The 1996 Cuvée William Deutz had lost much of its color, but the wine was full-bodied with a big finish with excellent acidity. I absolutely loved the 1997 Laurent Perrier "Cuvée Alexandra" Rosé (served from magnum), which had a deep copper color, excellent freshness and beautiful finesse. This is a terrific rosé Champagne.
l. to r. Jill Joyce, Illinois Sparkling Company, Tom and Linda Verhey
Other favorites poured this day included the 1995 Krug, an exquisitely balanced, deeply concentrated wine, the 1999 Bruno Paillard, a wine I loved for its focus and balance and the 1983 Delamotte, a wine of great freshness, even after 29 years.
I couldn't stay all five hours, so I missed several glorious wines such as the 2002 Agrapart Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru, the 1999 and 2000 Pierre Peters "Les Chétillons Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru and the 2002 Paul Bara Special Club Grand Cru, but I enjoyed the amazing selection of wines I sampled that day. Thank you to Craig Cooper for his hard work organizing and running this event and thank you to Tom and Linda Verhey for giving us Chicagoans 30 years of sparkling bliss!
Text and photos ©Tom Hyland, 2012