Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Human Emotion behind a great Champagne

Jean-Hervé Chiquet, proprietor Champagne Jacquesson (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

At a recent wine tasting in Chicago, I sat down with Jean-Hervé Chiquet, who along with his brother Laurent, has managed the Champagne house since taking over from their father in 1988. Located in the town of Dizy in the Champagne zone known as La Vallée de la Marne; the town of Dizy is just north and east of Epernay. 

Jacquesson currently produces five different Champagnes; four of these are referred to as "lieux-dits" which in French refers to small geographical areas bearing a traditional name. Two of these wines are from plots in Dizy - one pure Chardonnay, one a rosé made only from Pinot Noir - one is from Avize (Chardonnay) and the final one from Ay (Pinot Noir). As these cuvées are vintage-dated, they are only produced in years in which the Chiquet brothers believe the quality of the base wines is up to their standards.

However, the majority of their production is with a wine bearing a number in the 700 series. This is their non-vintage Champagne, a product that is quite different from non-vintage cuvées made by other firms. The brothers have determined that instead of a consistent house style as with the traditional non-vintage Champagne, they would produce a non-vintage bottling that emphasized the character of one particular vintage. They began this project back in 2003 as they produced the wine for the 2000 vintage; they assigned this wine the name Cuvée No. 728. They have produced a cuvée based on each vintage every year since and the number of the particular cuvée increases by one each year, so the wine made from the 2001 vintage was Cuvée 729, for 2002 it was Cuvée 730 and so on. The current release, based on the 2007 vintage is Cuvée 735.

I asked Jean-Hervé about this particular project as well as their particular farming philosophy as well as how global warming is affecting the Champagne region.

Tom Hyland: You produce a non-vintage Champagne that is based upon one vintage. If there is a particularly difficult growing season, would you skip a year?

Jean-Hervé Chiquet: "I’m touching wood here, but we haven’t had to do so thus far. We don’t hesitate to sell a significant part of our production if it isn’t up to our expectation. In 2010, we sold about 15% of our fruit.

We will only keep our best fruit, because today we produce only one blend and four single vineyards, which combined represent only 10% of our production.

The blend represents between 90% and 100% of our production in any given year, as we make between zero and four single vineyards depending on the year. When we make the single vineyards, we make them on two conditions: they have to be good but they have to be not needed in the blend.

The 2002 you will taste (ed. note- the 2002 vintage from Jacquesson was also available at the tasting when I met Jean-Hervé) is the last vintage-dated blend from Jacquesson. When we made the first cuvée 728 in 2003, we began to explain that we were making the best blend possible. So we don’t need to make two anymore – it makes no sense. I thought, “this is the best one, but this one is even better.”

Now today in terms of production, we make one blend and four single vineyards. We can really concentrate on the best. To compensate for the fact that the vintage is not made anymore, we have decided that from the Cuvée 733, which is the 2005-based wine, instead of selling all the cuvée before moving on to the new one, we save some for four additional years of bottling age, so we will have a late disgorgement.

So for the Cuvée 735 (the 2007, released in 2011, a four-year release cycle), that would be our mimimum aging for the cuvée and the second release would be four years later. That means that in 2013, you will have the first 733 late disgorged. So we will have by then two cuvées, the regular plus the late disgorged."

TH: You are located in the town of Dizy, at the 49th parallel, which is pretty far north. Over the last 10-15 years with the climate change, how has that affected your area in Champagne?

JHC: "We are a big fan of the climate change! We may avoid the disasterous vintages we had in the past. Now the only problems in our four villages with south-facing vineyards, Pinot Meunier does not behave well with the climate change. That’s the reason we are slowly replacing our Pinot Meunier with Pinot Noir.

We are not sure why. Even when we have super Meunier like in 2008, it’s still not as good as the Pinot Noir. Again, I’m talking about our little region, I’m not talking about everywhere else."

TH: Do you farm according to organic or biodynamic practices?

JHC: "Organic, yes. As for biodynamic, we will not practice something we do not fully understand."

TH: It sounds like perhaps you're not entirely sold on biodynamic methods.

JHC: "Let's put it this way. Many of the best growers in Champagne are biodynamic. But they were great before they switched over to biodynamic. We don't use a particular method to realize our wines. The final product is what is important."

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Recommended New Releases from Italy

We have a wide selection, including kosher wines.

Notes on some new Italian releases I've tasted recently:

2010 Alois Lageder Muller-Thurgau (IGT Dolomiti)
Alois Lageder is one of Alto Adige's finest and most innovative wine producers and his wine reflect the charm of this gentle, thoughtful man. I've loved his Muller-Thurgau for some years now and the new 2010 release is another gem. This is a medium-bodied wine that's very refreshing with melon, green apple and jasmine aromas and a clean, dry finish with lively acidity. This is exactly the sort of wine you'll want for the warmer temperatures and it's delicious and light as a feather. The $15 price tag makes this a nice value.

2011 Fattoria Ambra Vin Ruspo Rosato di Carmignano
Talk about a perfect summer wine! Here is a first-rate rosé from Fattoria Ambra, one of the top producers in the Carmignano zone of Tuscany. A blend of 80% Sangiovese, 10% Cabernet and 10% Canaiolo, this has one of the deepest colors of any rosé I've ever seen - basically candy apple red - and it's got amazing freshness, as this tastes like the fruit fell off the tree (or vine) last week. It's loaded with ripe red cherry fruit, has very good concentration and lively acidity. Try this with a pasta salad in the days ahead. $13.

2010 Tenuta Luisa Ribolla Gialla (Isonzo DOC)
Ribolla Gialla - or sometimes simply Ribolla - is a white indigenous variety planted in several zones in the Friuli region. This is a medium-bodied version, dry and quite flavorful with interesting aromas of Anjou pear, saffron and kiwi. Nicely balanced with very good complexity and varietal character, this is ideal with vegetable risotto or lighter seafood. It's a subtle white, so go easy on the seasoning in your cooking when pairing dishes with this wine. $21.

2010 Centonze Frappato (IGT Sicilia)
There is a wonderful Sicilian red called Cerasuolo di Vittora that is a blend of Nero d'Avola and Frappato; the former grape gives the wine its richness and color while the latter adds fragrance and acidity. Here is a 100% Frappato with all sorts of charms, displaying fresh strawberry and red currant fruit and a finish with very light tannins and tart acidity. Here is a red that is great chilled (give it 15-20 minutes in the refrigerator); enjoy on its own or with pasta salad, eggplant of even simple fried chicken! $18.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Beautiful Bubblies from South Africa

We've all heard the old saying, "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing" and boy is that ever true when it comes to the subject of wine! We've probably met a few people who have recently started to take some interest in wines from around the world, so of course, they know everything! They'll tell you that of course, for great Cabernet Sauvignon in California you have to go with a wine from Napa Valley or that New Zealand only makes great white wines, just to name a few concepts. Of course, neither is true, but the people that know a little bit want to show you how much they know, when in reality, they are only showing you how little they really have grasped.

No doubt, a better saying when it comes to wine would be "I'm open to some new surprises." This was you can find some gems out there that you never knew existed or thought might not be anything special. I've tried to have that sort of open-minded approach in my 30 years in the industry and it's led me to some wonderful wines, many of which don't receive the type of attention they deserve.

What all of this is leading to are two wonderful sparkling wines from the Graham Beck winery in South Africa. I'll admit to not trying too many South African wines in general, so when these wines were sent to me for my thoughts, I thought to myself that this would be neat, as I've never had any bubblies from this country. I went into this without any great expectations but after my friend Gerhard Eichelmann in Germany who has written books on Champagne told me that South Africa is "making some nice sparkling wines" and when I saw that Champagne authority Tom Stevenson had awarded the Graham Beck sparkling wines with some nice scores, I was more excited about tasting these wines.

I can happily report that the two examples I tasted, the NV Brut and the NV Brut Rosé are very impressive wines. Here are my notes:

Graham Beck NV Brut
Dried pear and lemon peel aromas with a hint of graham cracker biscuits. Medium-full with very good to excellent concentration. Rich finish with very good acidity, excellent persistence and hints of buttered toast. Very good complexity and well made with good overall balance; enjoy over the next 2-3 years. This would be especially good with sea bass, grouper or poultry with a cream sauce. $18- an excellent value!

Graham Beck NV Rosé
Instead of my notes here, this is what is written about this wine on the winery website:

"This finely crafted creation... is destined for those who appreciate a fizz with flair. Flirtatious and fun with pin-prick tiny bubbles that burst gently and exhilaratingly on your tongue, it's a tingle no celebration or sunset should be without."

How can I top that?

I found the Rosé, a blend of 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir, to also be well balanced with aromas of ripe strawberry, dried cherry and orange zest. Medium-bodied, the wine has good acidity and persistence with a clean, charming finish. I'd pair this with a wide variety of foods, from Thai or Oriental cuisine (especially with chicken or pork) to lighter game or red meats. This is nicely priced at $22.

Both of these wines are listed as "Méthode Cap Classique", which is the classic method of sparkling wine production, where the secondary fermentation takes place in the bottle, as in Champagne.

So keep that attitude of having an open mind and be receptive to new things. You may just find some wines you never knew about - like the Graham Beck sparkling wines from South Africa - and love them. That's something the know-it-all will never have the pleasure of discovering!

There are several sources for these wines in the US. Vias Wines represents them in New York and New Jersey; Maritime Wine Trading Collective in San Francisco imports the wines, while Vintage Wines represents these products in the Chicago area.

P.S. I see on the website that there are other Graham Beck sparkling wines, including a vintage Blanc de Blancs, a vintage Rosé and a top vintage-dated offering called Cuvée Clive. Based on the two non-vintage wines I tasted, I hope to have the opportunity to try these wines soon!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Sublime Red from Carso

Fine wine, also great single malt scotch deals!

There are many famous great red wines from Italy, bottlings of Brunello di Montalcino or Barolo or Amarone that even the casual wine drinker knows. But there are so many more hidden gems out there that help you realize the diversity of the Italian wine industry.

Here's a wine that is about as undiscovered a jewel as there is from Italy. It's made from the Terrano grape, an indigenous variety from the small Carso zone, that little strip of land in the extreme southeastern tip of Friuli that runs alongside the Adriatic Sea. Friuli is, of course, known for its vibrant whites so red wines naturally take a back seat to the whites, but when a wine is as enticing as this, you need to learn about how wonderful Friulian reds can be.

This is from the great producer Edi Kante, who produces a mere 4500 cases per year of several varieties - mostly white - including Vitoska (another distinct local variety), Malvasia and Chardonnay. The Terrano is fermented entirely in old barriques, so there's barely any wood influence and then aged for 36 months in large Slavonian oak casks.

This is a charming red wine with deep crimson color and instantly appealing perfumes of cranberry, myrtle and plum - especially plum, as here is a red wine that just screams plum in the aromas! Medium-bodied, this has beautiful ripeness and freshness- this smells and tastes more like a two-year old red than one that is more than six years old. There is tart acidity that cleans the mouth and moderate tannins. It's a beautifully balanced, drinkable wine and perhaps most importantly, it's absolutely delicious!

I tried this wine recently with a friend at a BYOB Thai/ Japanese restaurant and it worked perfectly with varoius dishes, from scallop nuggets with a dipping sauce to chicken with vegetables as well as spring rolls and shumai (shrimp dumplings). I'd also love to pair it with duck with a plum or cherry sauce.

The 2005 Edi Kante Terrano has a suggested retail price of $40. The wine is imported by Domaine Select Wine Estates, New York City, NY.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

An Outstanding Rosé Champagne

Every once in a while, you taste a wine that really makes you sit up and notice. There are many reasons for this- perhaps it's the aromatic profile or maybe it's the balance, persistence or structure. I find it often has to do with another factor - the wine is delicious! I recently tried the Benoit-Lahaye Brut Rosé from a small grower-producer in Champagne and from the first sip, I knew I had found a new favorite.

Benoit-Lahaye is located in Bouzy, a town very famous for its Pinot Noir. In fact, it is so famous that when you start to research other producers of Champagne to discover where the Pinot Noir for their Rosé was sourced, more often than not, it's Bouzy. However, most growers make their rosé with Pinot Noir vinified as a red wine; this is then blended with Chardonnay for the final wine.

Benoit-Lahaye however makes their rosé Champagne according to an approach known as saignée. This process, which is also known as "bleeding," is one in which the rosé is made from free run Pinot Noir juice which has been macerated and bled from the skins after the grapes have been destemmed. This is a more "pure" manner in which to make top-quality Rosé Champagne; it is however, an technique not in use by the majority of producers. Benoit-Lahaye by the way, labels his Rosé Saignée as Rosé de Maceration.

Everything about this wine is impressive, from the deep strawberry color to the beautiful fresh strawberry and currant fruit aromas to the notable richness on the palate and finally to the lengthy finish. The bubbles are ultra-fine and persistent, the mid-palate is quite generous and the acidity is lively and perfectly tuned. The complexity is dazzling and the overall balance is flawless. I basically have run out of words to describe this stunning wine; this is simply one of the very finest Rosé Champagnes I have ever tasted.

I was not familiar with Benoit-Lahaye, so I did a google search and noted that several bloggers who write about Champagne mention him as a grower/producer that everyone is talking about. It's nice to see that confirmation from other Champagne lovers as well. Not that I would have changed my mind about this wine if I had read opposing opinions for some reason, but it's clear that this is one of Champagne's very best!