Grower Champagnes have displaced big house wines in our Boston blind tasting group’s annual Champagne tasting lineups for the last few years. As the keeper of these lineups, I am reporting this with nagging self awareness that I may have allowed us New Englanders to become victimized by trend. If the tradition of Champagne and its longstanding houses should persevere, one would think stuck-in-the-iconic-mud wine communities like Boston, or London for example, would carry this sparkling French region’s old line baton most proudly.
Call it curiosity, or assign my disloyalty to education’s cause, our latest Champagne tasting was once again dominated by twelve different Champagnes made by the same people that raised the grapes. We tucked in one Champagne inspired bottle from Italy’s Trento based dominant sparkling wine producer Cantine Ferrari, and a Peter Lauer 1991 Riesling Sekt as kickers just to keep everyone honest and guessing. Here are the wines we tasted blind.
Georges Laval NV Cumieres Brut Nature $82
Jacques Lassaigne NV Montgueux Blanc de Blanc $50
Raphael Bereche NV Brut Reserve $46
Andre Beaufort NV Polisy Brut $44
Benoit Lahaye ‘09 Violaine ‘sans soufre’ $122
Roland Piollot NV Extra Brut Reserve $37
Camille Saves Carte Blanche Brut $49
Laherte Freres Les Clos Extra Brut $79
Pierre Peters Blanc de Blanc Brut $59
Jose Dhondt Blanc de Blancs Brut $45
Rene Geoffroy Expression Brut $45
Tarlant BAM! Brut Nature $?
Giulio Ferrari 1997 Riserva $75
1991 Peter Lauer Sket Reserve Riesling $70
There was a clear group favorite. There were three wines I preferred above the others. But before that, more perplexed questions on why we taste grower Champagne. Shunning the thought of trend induced accusations, I began to convince myself that I prefered to learn about wine from a terroir perspective. Growers bottle the fruit from their specific vineyards while big Champagne houses acquire grapes from myriad sources and blend to achieve a predictable house style. There is both intellectual learning and romance in terroir focused wines for me. But in this flight, the multiple extra brut and brut nature wines made by growers involves minimal to no dosage. This tasting took the grower Champagne trend to a new place. In one sense, this minimal to no addition of sugared wine syrup can be interpreted as a way to protect natural terroir and to not unnaturally compensate for the cool region’s climatic propensity for unripe fruit. On the other hand, as we evidenced with these lower residual sugar wines we tasted, minimizing dosage creates a certain style of extra dry, austere, shrill, and tart like wine. If you caught Eric Asimov’s recent Champagne column about leaving the sweetness behind, believing that minimizing residual sugars is a new style trend becomes unavoidable.
A while back, Tyler Colman published a conversation with Peter Liem where Peter said. “There’s a certain sector of champagne where non-dosed wines are extremely popular right now….The trend is definitely towards drier or even bone-dry wines among the hipster community, who see the reduction or the absence of dosage as just another component in natural winemaking. These are generally growers, usually younger, who are farming organically or biodynamically, avoiding chaptalization, picking at very mature levels, fermenting with natural yeasts, decreasing the use of sulfur, et cetera….They’re creating a whole new style of champagne….You either like it or you don’t. (I do.) But this is hardly mainstream.” So much for sidestepping hipsterism in Boston.
Although the deck was stacked, the group preferred a mild dosage wine above all others; the NV Jacques Lassaigne Montgueux Blanc de Blanc. While the wine showed crispness and minerality, it also was a fuller, richer wine that rendered caramel aromas. It is a very sexy wine, and it was stylistically distinct from the field. I am happy to drink it, but others rose to the top for me.
My favorite wine was made without any dosage; the BAM! from Tarlant. It had distinctive orange pith and biscuit aromatics that followed through with great crispy zing; a wine to make saliva flow. Also at the top of my picks was another zero dosage wine; Laherte Freres Les Clos Extra Brut. Yeast aromas lead into a light, fresh, and pretty wine whose daintiness is completely alluring. The wine is so complex and compact, it is the type of Champagne that reminds me to think about sparklers like I do with still wines. Both of these wines, unlike the rest, also blend fruit that extends beyond the most popular and traditional varieties that do well in the slow ripening Champagne climate. The Tarlant includes Pinot Blanc, Arbanne and Petit Meslier (you can stop wondering now where the name BAM! orignates) and the Laherte Freres blends Fromenteau, Arbanne, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Meunier, Petit Meslier.
A completely distinct wine, that I loved drinking for different reasons, was the Andre Beaufort wine. I have been so impressed exploring Beaufort Champagne this year. The wine has a detectable pink hue to it, and tastes from red berries and crisp bright citrus fruit. Compared to others it seems dressed up, in a classy and magnetic fashion, for a night out on the town. It called out to me like a movie star walking the red carpet.
The tasting was just another confirmation of the benefits to comparing peer group wines blind. It helped me get over my fears of trend induced preference. I love when these wines are made well with minimal addition of sugar. So, while blind tasting’s redemptive qualities doused my concerns with hipster labeling, I reconfirmed that I can’t avoid falling for a well dressed, pretty standout. For me, though, that’s the better of two evils.