Champagne


Even though last night was Pizza-and-Movie Night and I had already selected an Italian wine for that occasion, we still needed to mark Bastille Day, if only with a toast — why do we Americans feel compelled to do this? — so I opened a bottle of J. Lassalle Premier Cru Brut and we downed a couple of glasses while nodding in the direction of La Belle France.

The small, family-owned house is named in honor of its founder, Jules Lassalle, who established the firm in 1942 in the village of Chigny-Les-Roses. The patriarch died in 1982, and his wife Olga and her daughter Chantal Decelle-Lassalle took the reins. Chantal Decelle-Lassalle and her daughter, Angeline Templier, now run the house, the latter joining the estate as winemaker in 2006, spanning three generations of mothers and daughters. J. Lassalle produces about 6,000 cases of Champagne annually from its own vineyards. The production is very traditional, all done by hand. Even the non-vintage Brut Champagnes age an extraordinary five years in bottle before release. The wines go through full malolactic fermentation, so they tend to be quite rich.

The non-vintage J. Lassalle Premier Cru Brut — which means a blend of several vintages — is a remarkably robust and fruity Champagne. The color is medium gold; tiny bubbles glint ever-upward in exuberant array. Pungent aromas of roasted lemons and pears open to back-notes of mango and walnuts, ginger and cinnamon toast. It’s a full-bodied, dense and chewy Champagne, very dry and quite earthy, fraught with bastions of limestone-like minerality and yet neither heavy nor obvious; crisp acidity provides a sense of fleetness and raciness to the effect, while the wine’s long-aging in bottle lends a touch of mature toffee-like and almond croissant character. The finish is spicy and stony and slightly austere. 12 percent alcohol. Excellent. I paid about $55.

Imported by Kermit Lynch, Berkeley, Ca.

Ah, here we are, the final day of this series of “Twelve Days of Christmas with Champagne and Sparkling Wine.” I offer three examples, one charming Crémant de Bourgogne and two splendid Champagnes, thus bringing to conclusion this foray into different styles of French sparkling wines from various regions. Twelfth Night is the Eve of the Epiphany, or, that is to say, the earthly manifestation of a deity, specifically, for Christians, marking the baptism of Christ by John in the River Jordan. That falls on January 6, tomorrow, a solemn occasion, while Twelfth Night was traditionally given over to revels and fetes, plays and masquerades and general disorder, the sort of fol-de-rol memorably captured by Shakespeare in his romantic comedy Twelfth Night, or, What You Will, written in 1601 or ’02 intentionally for presentation at the close of the Yuletide season. Tis a fitting night, in other words, for a glass or two of sparkling wine or Champagne, but then what night would not be appropriate for the world’s most festive beverage?

The illustration is a sketch by Orson Welles of the characters Malvolio and Olivia in Twelfth Night, courtesy of hollowaypages.com.
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A charming way to precede or begin a meal would be with the J.J. Vincent Crémant de Bourgogne, non-vintage, made completely from chardonnay grapes from the Côte Chalonnaise, south of Burgundy proper. The color is radiant medium straw-gold, and the mousse is persistent, pinpoint, slightly creamy. Plenty of stones and bones in this dry, crisp, lively sparkling wine, which has an aura of apples and green grapes, as well as hints of pear and peach, and a slightly earthy cast, a little sweet and foresty. Tasty and intriguing, with a lingering finish of spice and limestone. 12 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $23.

Imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons, New York. A sample for review.
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Taittinger introduced musically named Prelude and Nocturne in 2005; I recently tasted both and found Prelude much to my liking. The Taittinger Prelude Brut is made from Grand Cru vineyards and is a blend of half-and-half chardonnay and pinot noir; the chardonnay is from the villages of Avize and Le Mesnil-sur-Ogre in the Côte des Blancs, while the pinot noir is from Bouzy and Ambonnay in Montagne de Reims. The pedigree, you understand, is there. The color is an entrancing pale yet brilliant blond with silver highlights animated, of course, by the millions of glinting bubbles that swirl up in energetic draft. Balance and integration of all elements are impeccable; this is a Champagne in which every aspect is completely evident and neither dominates nor diminishes the others. Notes of cinnamon toast and roasted almonds are woven with hints of camellia and jasmine, candied ginger and lime peel and immense reserves of scintillating limestone minerality. Prelude is a substantial Champagne, delivering unmistakable presence on the palate, yet it also feels deft, fleet-footed, even delicate in some of its appealing dimension; a model of the marriage of power and elegance. 12 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $90.

Imported by Kobrand Corp., New York. Tasted at a wholesaler’s trade event.
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Is there a Champagne, indeed any alcoholic beverage, that possesses a more alluring, festive — and better-known? — package than Perrier-Jouët’s Belle Epoque Brut? The curving bough of anemones, painted in enamel, the deliberately old-fashioned and nostalgic typeface, the way the name Perrier-Jouët is displayed so curvaceously on the capsule: all of these elements speak of a species of gaiety, pleasure and joie de vivre we assume to have existed in the era between 1890 and 1914, as if all of life consisted of dining at Maxim’s on oysters and Champagne. The emblematic flowers were designed in 1902 by Emile Gallé, the greatest of the French Art Nouveau glassmakers, but the product itself was not introduced until 1969, with the vintage of 1964. These wines benefit from a few years’ aging, so when LL and I opened the Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque Brut 2004 on New Year’s Eve, to sip with caviar, it was just seven years beyond the harvest and drinking beautifully. The Champagne opens with biscuity, toasty elements that unfold to hints of roasted lemon and pear, toasted hazelnuts and exotic spices and back-tones of quince and ginger, jasmine and limestone, all of these qualities conveyed with utmost finesse and elegance. This is about brightness, clarity and clean definition, while earthy, almost loamy, coffee-like elements provide ballast and foundation. (The blend, by the way, is 50 percent chardonnay, 45 percent pinot noir and 5 percent pinot meunier.) Great tone and resonance on the palate, crystalline acidity, a kind of fresh, wind-swept feeling, vivacious and tremendously appealing, and at the center a surprising bell-note of spiced grapefruit. 12 percent alcohol. Drink through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $140.

Imported by Pernod Ricard USA, Purchase, NY. A sample for review.
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… a bottle of Michel Turgy. To be specific, a bottle of the Michel Turgy Réserve Sélection Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Brut, non-vintage. This is a grower Champagne produced by a family that founded the house in 1881 and still owns the estate, farming a miniscule 6 hectares — 15.42 acres — in the Grand Cru village of Mesnil-sur-Oger, one of the best sites in all of Champagne. As a blanc de blancs — “white from whites” — this Champagne is 100 percent chardonnay. The color is pale gold; the glass foams with myriad tiny, glinting bubbles. In the nose: apples, pears and limestone, cinnamon toast and biscuits, and hints of candied ginger and quince paste; just lovely but also a signal, in its toasty and expansive nature, of how substantial the wine is. Sizable, even dense on the palate, yes, but paradoxically elegant and steely, with roasted lemon and baked pear flavors cleanly etched by vivid acidity and burgeoning limestone-like minerality, all leading to a high-toned, somewhat austere finish. There’s dignity here, perhaps even nobility, as well as fine detail and sensual appeal. 12 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $52, though as always prices vary widely around the country.

December 3, by the way, is the Holy Day of Genevieve, patron saint of Paris; she is typically invoked as protection against drought and flood and has served, since 1962 and approved by Pope John XXIII, as patron of French security forces.

North Berkeley Imports, Berkeley, Cal.

As is the case with the history of the Martini, the progress of Champagne has been from sweet to dry, which is why a Champagne termed Extra Sec (“extra dry”) is actually sweeter, technically, than Brut (“raw”). Imbibers of bubbly in the 19th Century assumed that Champagne would be sweet, but gradually tastes changed — dare one say, became more sophisticated — the amount of sugar in the dosage (remember, the dosage helps start the second fermentation in the bottle) was reduced, and Champagne became drier. Even Brut Champagne can have a quality of sweetness, though it’s usually masked by acidity and the essential element of minerality. The rarely encountered actually sweet Champagne is called Doux. A moderately sweet Champagne is called, paradoxically, Demi-Sec, “half-dry,” and is typically served as a compliment to uncomplicated desserts, like a plain apple tart.

I don’t drink or even taste many Demi-Sec Champagnes, but I was delighted by the Piper-Heidsieck Cuvée Sublime Demi-Sec, non-vintage. “Sublime” is pure marketing, of course; I would call it Cuvée Really Damned Pretty.

Heidsieck & Co Monopole, Charles Heidsieck and Piper-Heidsieck all trace their origins to Florens-Louis Heidsieck, who established the company in 1785. I won’t delve into the multi-tangled history of the three houses and how they became separated by reasons of birth and marriage and other familial and non-familial relationships. It’s sufficient to say that Charles Heidsieck and Piper-Heidsieck are owned by Remy-Cointreau, while Heidsieck & Co. Monopole is owned by Vranken Pommery.

The Piper-Heidsieck Cuvée Sublime Demi-Sec, a blend of 55 percent pinot noir, 30 percent pinot meunier and 15 percent chardonnay, offers a radiant pale gold-straw color and a flourish of frothy blond bubbles, the sort of bubbles that make great posters and photographs; one imagines Jeanne Avril and Toulouse-Lautrec with glasses giddily held aloft, while gas-lamps flare and the orchestra stirs in overture. At first, this feels dry, elegant and high-toned, even a touch austere; the sense of sweetness (or half-sweetness) develops after a few moments as the red currant, peach and pear flavors, with a hint of marzipan, become soft and ripe and macerated, and the texture, while rightly organized around crisp acidity and limestone, turns lush and almost viscous. I don’t mean that this is some kissy-face pushover of a date; no, the Piper-Heidsieck Cuvée Sublime Demi-Sec is well-knit, meticulously balanced and precisely integrated, which is to say, that the elegance holds true from start to finish. Come on, we know that Americans, like magpies, adore bright, shiny things; what’s not to adore about this? 12 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $42, though as is usually the case, prices vary widely throughout the country.

Tasted at a wholesaler’s trade event.

… and of course New Year’s Eve means celebrating with Champagne or some other form of sparkling wine. I could make tons of recommendations for inexpensive sparkling wines to serve tonight, especially if you’re hosting a soiree with a cast of thousands, but since the emphasis in this sequence of “The Twelve Days of Christmas with Champagne and Sparkling Wine” is on France, I’ll put my money on the Simonnet-Febvre Brut Blanc, a Crémant de Bourgogne from Chablis. From Chablis? Mais oui, mes amis, Chablis is nominally considered part of Burgundy, though its climate is far different and it lies some distance to the northwest of the Côte d’Or. Simonnet-Febvre has been producing Champagne method sparkling wine in Chablis since it was founded in 1840 and is the only firm in Chablis still doing so. Simonnet-Febvre also makes excellent Chablis still wines at every level and sells them for reasonable prices. The company was acquired by Louis Latour in 2003. The Simonnet-Febvre Brut Blanc is a blend of 60 percent chardonnay and 40 percent pinot noir. The wine is exuberantly outfitted with bubbles and conveys a racy, nervy note of effervescent combined with fleet acidity and a keen limestone edge. This is clean and fresh, almost tangy with apple and slightly roasted citrus flavors ensconced in a crisp, lively texture. 12 percent alcohol. A crowd-pleaser. Very Good+. Prices countrywide range from about $14 to $19.

But say that your plans tonight include not teeming mobs drunkenly intoning the half-forgotten words of “Auld Lang Syne” but a more intimate gathering, perhaps even only one other person for whom you require something elegant and impressive. Turn, then, to the Perrier-Jouët Grand Brut, the label that defines the house style for Perrier-Jouët (the final “t” is prounounced). The company was founded in 1811 and achieved a high reputation in the 19th Century, especially for supplying Champagne to various royal courts of Europe. In 1959, Perrier-Jouët was acquired by the Mumm Group, which was later taken over by Seagram. In 1999, the latter sold Perrier-Jouët and Mumm to private investors who immediately turned around and, um, unloaded the house to Allied Domecq, which, of course, was subsumed by Pernod Ricard, the present owners. Sometimes you have to keep a score-card. Anyway, Perrier-Jouët Grand Brut, a blend of 40 percent pinot noir, 40 percent pinot meunier and 20 percent chardonnay, offers a bright golden-yellow color and a stately upward procession of tiny bubbles. I was, frankly, surprised at how robust and full-bodied this Champagne is; it’s the real deal when it comes to the toasty, bready fashion, and to match its generous dimension, the details of toffee, sea-salt, roasted lemon and hints of apples, almonds and almond blossom flesh it out considerably. This is quite dry, vibrant and resonant, almost chewy, and its chiming acidity (there are hints of grapefruit and lime peel) and elements of limestone tracery develop power — yet with finesse to match — through the finish. 12 percent alcohol. True class and breeding. Excellent. I paid $52, but realistically prices range from about $40 to $56.

Simonnet-Febvre Brut Blanc imported by Louis Latour Inc., San Rafael, Cal.; Perrier-Jouët Grand Brut imported by Pernod Ricard USA, Purchase, NY.

The bubbles keep on coming! Here’s another grower or farmer Champagne from the village of Bouzy, a blend of 80 percent pinot noir and 20 percent chardonnay from Grand Cru vineyards. The small house of Jean Vesselle — winemaker is Delphine Vesselle — turns out about 7,000 cases of Champagne a year. To make the picture a bit confusing, Bouzy is also home to the houses of Georges Vesselle and Maurice Vesselle. If with your befuddled eyes you can read the small print on the label included here, you’ll see the words Récoltant-Manipulant, indicating that Jean Vesselle grows the grapes and makes the Champagne rather than buying-in grapes from other vineyards.

The pale, pale Jean Vesselle Brut Réserve, non-vintage, is as blond and bracing as a kiss from Jean Harlow followed by a slap from her well-manicured hand. This is very high-toned, very elegant, a tense yet expansive and still whisperingly nuanced profusion of steel, roasted hazelnuts, lime zest, ginger, quince, cloves and limestone. The texture is almost cloud-like in its softness and brisk, exhilarating effervescence, yet the Champagne is also lithe and angular with the authority of crisp acidity and a crystalline mineral character that grows more intense from mid-palate back. A few minutes in the glass bring out shades of biscuits and lightly buttered cinnamon toast. Yeah, we loved this one. 12 percent alcohol. Excellent. Suggested retail price is $44.75; I paid $50 here in town.

According to ancient legend, wood cut on December 30 and 31 or January 1 “shall not rot, or be full of worms, but always wax harder the longer it is kept,” so get out those axes!

North Berkeley Imports, Berkeley, Cal.

Among the hottest items in the hipster world of wine are “grower” or “farmer” Champagnes, that is, Champagnes made by a person or family who also grew the grapes rather than bought the grapes from other sources. The contrast is between that bucolic, artisan’s ideal and the large, established firms that purchase tons of grapes (as well as using their own vineyards) and blend dozens if not hundreds of samples to achieve a recognizable and consistent house style. The grower Champagnes, on the other hand, should, theoretically, reflect a sense of individuality and specific place, though the number of experts who could decipher a region, much less a village or actual vineyard in a glass of Champagne must be rather small. I adore both styles of Champagne, the grower or farmer versions and the house-style of the big firms. To me it’s equally satisfying to open a bottle of Pol Roger Réserve Brut and know that it will be just like all the other bottles I have opened and enjoyed or to pour a glass of a grower Champagne and savor its individual qualities. You can tell if a Champagne was made by a grower if the initials RM appear somewhere on the front or back label; RM stands for Recoltant-Manipulant, literally, “harvester-maker.” You can see that imprint in tiny type at the bottom of this label for the Paul Bara Brut Réserve, my selection for the Fourth Day of Christmas, which is also, incidentally, Childermas or the Day of the Holy Innocents, referring to the children of Bethlehem under the age of two slaughtered by Herod’s soldiers.

The small house of Paul Bara lies in the village of Bouzy, the favorite place-name in all of winedom. In the World Encyclopedia of Champagne and Sparkling Wine (Wine Appreciation Guild, revised and updated edition, 2003), Tom Stevenson calls Paul Bara “one of Bouzy’s greatest Champagne growers.” I call the Paul Bara Brut Réserve “beautiful”; it’s a blend of 80 percent pinot noir and 20 percent chardonnay from Grand Cru vineyards. (Winemaker is Paul Bara’s daughter Chantale.) The color is pale straw gold; a great cloudy dither of bubbles streams forcefully to the surface. This offers real grip and power yet yields lovely generosity and delicacy of detail. Amazingly clean and fresh aromas of acacia, hay and sea-salt, cloves, roasted lemon and lime peel unfold to hints of freshly baked biscuits and almonds. Huge presence and tone, staggering acidity and limestone minerality make for a compelling, dense, chewy structure, while this tensile strength feels adorned by the shimmering tinsel of steel, lemon zest and pear nectar. Deeply savory, impeccably balanced, a seamless marriage of power and elegance. 12.5 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $45 to $50 nationwide, though I paid — ahem — $66 in the Bluff City, as Memphis is jocularly termed.

Imported by Kermit Lynch, Berkeley, Cal.

Here we are, Boxing Day, which features (or used to), in the United Kingdom and related countries, the post Christmas distribution of largesse to servants, customarily not one’s own but the servants of one’s friends. This is also the Feast of Saint Stephen — when the snow lay all about, deep and crisp and even — who was the first Christian martyr, stoned circa 35 AD for preaching that Christ was the Messiah and fulminating, rather impolitely, against the Jews; see Acts 7:51. December 26 is the first day of Kwanzaa, an African-American end-of-the-year festival devised in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, at the time chairman of Black Studies at California State University in Long Beach.

So, for this day, we turn to actual Champagne in the guise of the Comte Audoin de Dampierre Brut Cuvée des Ambassadeurs, a non-vintage blend of 50 percent chardonnay from Grand Cru vineyards and 50 percent pinot noir from Premier Cru vineyards. What does that mean? The vineyards of Champagne are rated village by village on a quality percentage system. Only the vineyards rated 100 percent receive Grand Cru status; vineyards rated between 90 and 99 percent are granted Premier Cru status. There are 17 Grand Cru villages and 43 Premier Cru villages. Labels on bottles of Champagne will often advertise the fact that the product is Grand Cru or Premier Cru, though realistically most Champagnes are blends of many vineyards and several vintages (which is what “non-vintage” means). A classification by individual vineyard rather than overall village would more accurately reflect true quality.

The Comte Audoin de Dampierre Brut Cuvée des Ambassadeurs — there really is such a person, as well-known for his collection of antique automobiles as for his Champagne — offers a radiant pale medium gold color and a surging, twining fountain of tiny bubbles. This is a substantial Champagne, generously proportioned and authoritative, yet a scintillating nervy line of keen acidity runs through and energizes it. Aromas hint at pear, jasmine and toasted almonds, with touches of fresh bread, smoky toffee and sea-salt and underneath a foundation of limestone and steel. This Champagne is spicier in the mouth, with notes of slightly macerated and roasted citrus flavors, but primarily it’s a vessel for conveying intense minerality and a dense, almost chewy texture, all leading to a long, vibrant, limestone-laced finish. 12.5 percent alcohol. I tasted the Comte Audoin de Dampierre Brut Cuvée des Ambassadeurs at a trade event and was impressed enough to purchase a bottle later. We consumed it throughout Christmas Day. Excellent. Prices around the country range from about $36 to $50.

Imported by Frank-Lin International, San Jose, Cal.

… and that means I’m about to launch the annual “Twelve Days of Christmas with Champagne and Sparkling Wine” series. Traditionally, the twelve days of Christmas run from December 25, Christmas Day, to January 5, being Twelfth Night, the Eve of the Epiphany. Tomorrow, I will post the first sparkling, bubbly product and continue to post one each day, though I tend to include a wider selection on New Year’s Eve and Twelfth Night. This year’s series focuses on France, not only Champagne but such alternatives as Cremant de Bourgogne, Cremant de Loire and sparkling wines from other appellations. In the Champagne category, I’ll offer some choices from the established houses as well as from the smaller operations that grow the grapes and make artisan-style products, what we might call farmer Champagnes. As ever in this series, I do not repeat brands or labels from year to year; I have not written about any of the Champagnes or sparking wines included in this segment of “Twelve Days of Christmas” before. Now around the periphery, so to speak, of the “12 Days,” I’ll post about other sparkling wines and Champagnes, some of which I may have covered previously and some of which I have not; the point is, that from tomorrow through January 5, BTYH is all about bubbles.

Festive image from thebeehiveblog.net.

LL said a couple of nights ago, “We have any Champagne around this joint?” Not having any Champagne around the joint, I hopped in the old chariot, scooted to the nearest package store, as liquor stores used to be called, and snatched a bottle of Veuve Clicquot Brut Rosé from the refrigerator case. This gesture was, to be sure, an indulgence, but I had not tasted or written about the product in four years, so I thought it was time.

The mind-set among Champagne devotees nowadays is biased toward small artisan estates — preferably in the same family since 1782 and lying in one of the region’s more obscure patches — often set up as models of individuality and integrity against the large old-line houses that turn out hundreds of thousands or millions of bottles a year in a full roster of types and labels, but leveling everything down to a discernible “house-style.” Well, all right, I go along with that notion to a certain extent, who doesn’t love a dark horse, yet the grand producers sometimes benefit from decades of fine-tuning and a meticulously developed consistency that’s gratifying and comforting. Such is the case with the Veuve Clicquot Brut Rosé. The firm began making a rosé Champagne in 1788 and departed from the region’s tradition of macerating black grapes in white wine to producing a rosé from black and white grapes together, in this contemporary model adding about 12 percent red wine to its typical Yellow Label base of pinot noir grapes (50-55 percent), pinot meunier (15-20 percent) and chardonnay (28-33 percent).

This entirely winsome Brut Rosé displays a lovely pale peach-copper hue vitalized by a constant surging froth of tiny silver bubbles. The ethereal bouquet wreathes hints of raspberry, pear and melon with burgeoning limestone and hints of biscuits and toasted almond. In the mouth, this Champagne offers crisp, resonant acidity and scintillating limestone minerality with touches of dried red fruit, fresh bread and cinnamon toast, all ensconced in a supple, silken texture. Charming and expressive, with a happy conjunction of power and elegance. 12.5 percent alcohol. Excellent. As happens with popular imported Champagnes, the range of prices for the Veuve Clicquot Brut Rosé is astonishing; the East and West coasts will see prices from about $52 to $65, while in the great American heartland the tab can go up to $75 or even $85.

Imported by Moet Hennessy USA, New York

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