Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Champagne in Chicago - Magnifique!

Antonie Songy, Champagne Pascal Doquet (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

On Tuesday, October 29, the Comité Champagne (Champagne Bureau) held a tasting in Chicago with 36 Champagne producers pouring three of their finest cuvées for the trade. Well-organized and attended, this was an outstanding tasting that offered great evidence not only of the amazing quality of Champagne but also the marvelous diversity of these products.

As the USA Champagne Bureau noted, this was their first official tasting in Chicago and only the fourth one held in the United States. As I commented to Sam Heitner, director of the Bureau, they need to come back more often! To be able to taste so many superb wines from a mix of famous and lesser-known producers was not only a treat, but also a great educational experience. I can't imagine that the members of the trade that attended this event are not going to come away with a greater appreciation of Champagne; I also have to believe that many of them are also going to purchase several of these wines for their restaurants or retail outlets.

I could write volumes about this event, but for now, I will comment on some of the finest wines I tasted (of course, I didn't taste everything, so I imagine that I missed quite a few other first-rate wines).

Best Blanc de Blancs: Gosset Grand Blanc de Blancs - Hands down, the finest Blanc de Blancs I tasted at this event. One thinks of Blanc de Blancs as a wine of finesse, not power. Yet here was a 100% Chardonnay that was a wine of deep concentration, perfect ripeness and marvelous structure that was among the most full-bodied of the tasting. Lovely now, this will peak in 7-10 years.

Most Distinctive Cuvée: Drappier "Quattuor": This had to be the most distinctive wine at the tasting, if only for the blend of grapes in this wine, 25% each of four white varieties (yes, you read that correctly, four white varieties): Chardonnay, Petit Meslier, Blanc Vrai (Pinot Blanc) and Arbane. (Please read my recent post about varieties in Champagne; while most people believe there are only three approved varieties for Champagne, there are actually seven). 

This "Quattor" is a Blanc de Blancs - interestingly enough, a Blanc de Blancs that is not 100% Chardonnay; believe me, there are not many others! Offering powerful yeasty aromas as well as notes of apple, pear and honey, this is a rich, very complex wine with excellent persistence and beautiful acidity. This will be at its best in 5-7 years; I imagine this would be especially wonderful with lighter game or many veal preparations.

Best Non-Vintage: Pol Roger "White Label", Bollinger "Special Cuvée" and Lamiable Brut Grand Cru:  Like a treasured friend, the Pol Roger "White Label" is something you can count on again and again; the richness and impeccable balance of this wine are striking. Offering tons of flavor, perfect harmony and beautiful finesse, the "Special Cuvée" from Bollinger is underrated, as everyone looks to their more expensive wines, but this is first-rate, with outstanding depth of fruit. The Lamiable offers dried pear and tropical fruit along with a nice plummy character (this is 80% Pinot Noir). It also has a lovely mineral character in the finish. 

Let's Hear it for the Côte des Bars! - While many of the most famous Champagne producers are from the celebrated zones of the Montagne de Reims or the Côte des Blancs, let's not forget that there are some marvelous Champagnes being produced in the Côte des Bars - aka, the Aube - the most southern of the growing zones in Champagnes. The soils are quite different here, often resulting in expressive wines with a distinct earthiness. At this tasting, the wines of Devaux from this zone were quite notable and definitely among the most harmonious that I experienced. In particular the firm's Millésime "D" 2005 was one of the most memorable of the afternoon. A 50/50 Chardonnay/Pinot Noir blend that spent seven years on its own yeasts, this has a long, long finish that displays great persistence and distinct minerality. This producer should be better known; given the quality here, perhaps the Côte des Bars should be given more consideration by Champagne lovers.

Best Rosés: Duval-Leroy "Prestige" Premier Cru; Pascal Doquet, Premier Cru; Pierre Paillard "Les Maillerettes"and Lamiable Grand Cru: I love Rosé Champagne so much (what's not to like?), so I'm like a kid in a candy store when there are so many excellent versions of Rosé offered at an event such as this one. Each of these wines has power, ideal ripeness and excellent persistence. While the styles differ - expressive minerality in the Paillard, great depth of fruit in the Duval- Leroy, distinctive flavors in the Doquet and a strong plummy character in the Lamiable, these are all first-rate examples of Rosé Champagne (note: the rosés from Thénoit, Taittinger (Prestige Rosé) and Louis Roderer (2008) were also quite lovely).

Best "Great" Producer that is relatively unknown: I do my best to stay current on the finest houses and growers of Champagne but of course, as there are so many producers, there are always going to be some I don't hear of or have the opportunity to taste their wines. Yet even with all that, I'm amazed that I'd never had the wines of Pierre Paillard from the town of Bouzy, home to some of the finest Pinot Noir vineyards in all of Champagne. Each of the three wines of Paillard poured at this tasting - the Bouzy Grand Cru, the Bouzy Grand Cru 2004 and the Rosé "Les Maillerettes" (mentioned above) are all from Grand Cru vineyards. These wines certainly have the power and complexity you would expect given their notable origins, but these cuvées exceed their distinguished breeding, as they display distinct minerality and are exceptional evidence that terroir can exist in Champagne, a notion often dispelled by many observers. This is an outstanding producer!

Arthur Silvente, Duval-Leroy (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Best Wines: Duval-Leroy "Femme de Champagne" 2000; Phillipponat "Grand Blanc" 2004; Nicolas Feuillatte "Palmes d'Or" 2002 - Again, there were dozens of first-rate wines at this event; however, there were three that stood a level above the rest.

The "Palmes d'Or" from Feuillatte is all about power; while this wine needs a lot of time to display its best, it is already a remarkable offering from the finest vintage of the decade in Champagne. The "Grand Blanc" from Phillipponat is a stellar wine, truly one of the finest Champagnes I have ever tasted. Powerful with outstanding complexity and persistence, this is what a great Champagne is all about and it is certainly one that you recall even days after you taste it.

Finally there is the sheer perfection of the Duval-Leroy "Femme", the firm's tête-de-cuvée. The 2000, a blend of 95% Chardonnay and 5% Pinot Noir, was vinified in oak, which gives the wine an added richness on the mid-palate; combined with the tremendous depth of fruit, this results in a flawless wine, one of exceptional power and elegance at the same time; this is a Champagne that is simply unforgettable. Duval-Leroy has become one of my go-to houses for great Champagne; this is certainly one of the finest wine producers in the world.

A big thank you to the Comité Champagne for their skill and hard work in organizing this tasting. Also thanks to the producers that participated and shared their wines and knowledge and finally, thank you also to my friends who attended this event and shared their preferences - many of you alerted me to some great wines I would have otherwise not have tasted. I can't wait until the next Champagne tasting in Chicago - unless I make it to Champagne first!

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