Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Champagne Terroir - Baby Steps

It's not easy to understand terroir in Champagne. I don't understand it. I know that certain areas are better for Pinot Noir, let's say, and that some villages are known for certain characteristics. But it's much easier to understand what I read about terroir than it is to understand it while I'm drinking Champagne. After all, the wines tend to be a blend of grapes from different villages and different vintages. And then there are those distracting bubbles.

One way to learn about terroir is by drinking terroir-expressive wines with some one who really knows Champagne. I was lucky enough to do this a few times last week with Peter Liem, and I want to share a bit:

(1999) Tarlant Champagne La Vigne d'Antan Extra Brut Non-Grefée Chardonnay, $65, Imported by Jon-David Headrick Selections. Benoît Tarlant began as wine maker in 1999 and created this cuvée with that vintage. Here is what Peter writes about this wine on

...a blanc de blancs from a 40-are parcel of ungrafted chardonnay vines in a vineyard called Les Sables, planted between 1951 and 1960. The soil here is very sandy and siliceous, preventing phylloxera from penetrating it, and these vines have thrived on their own rootstocks, although attempts at planting vines in other areas of the same vineyard have failed. The idea of this ungrafted cuvée is to reflect the personality of the terroir as expressed by these special vines, and it’s not necessarily intended to be a vintage wine: “The character of the site is stronger than that of the year,” says Tarlant. “This parcel isn’t always necessarily representative of the vintage.” The first release was based on the 1999 vintage, blended with roughly 25 percent of 1998, while the follow-up version was made entirely from the 2000 vintage.

The back label gives the disgorgement date - February 23, 2006, but not the vintage. We guessed while drinking that it is based on 1999, but we could be wrong. As Peter mentions in the quote above, this wine can be more about the sandy vineyard of Les Sables in the village of Oueilly than it is about vintage or grape variety. With this bottle there is fruit, but it's mostly incidental - it is ripe enough to make a balanced and delicious non-dosed wine, but it honestly fades into the background, more and more so with air time. The wine was delicious immediately, but two hours later it was in a perfect place, vibrant, focused, and completely harmonious. What stood out at that point was soil - a definite earthy, sandy tone that carried throughout the bright and savoury finish. This is a wine to get lost in.

NV Diebolt-Vallois Champagne Cuvée Prestige Brut Blanc de Blancs, $65, Imported by Petit Pois. Fellow blogger David McDuff very kindly gave me the gift of Cuvée Prestige a little over a year ago when my younger daughter was born. As you can see right above the 12.5% alcohol designation, this bottle is marked 'L.05,' which means that it is comprised of about 50% 2004, the rest 2002 and 2000 (but I am not sure of the exact percentages).

This wine comes mostly from old vines in Cramant, one of the best villages for Chardonnay in the entire Côte des Blancs. It is a big and rich wine, full in aromas, texture, and flavor, and it is completely and totally delicious. The wine changes a lot in the glass, and at times the fruit character borders on tropical. But as the wine changed, there was this definite foundation that was always present, this persistently chalky sensation on the finish. And that, Peter said, is one of the hallmarks of Cramant, richness of fruit along with this incisive chalky underpinning.

I woke up the next morning and happily discovered a nice glass of this wine left in the bottle (we had a bit of wine the night before, you see, and I didn't neaten everything up before going to bed). This warm, flat glass was the best of all. Such grace and harmony, such richness with such clarity of fruit (pineapple!), such silky texture. I want more.

One last comment: far be it from me to tell you what to spend your money on, but both of these wines represent incredible value at $65, considering the absolute top quality of the wines.


roger said...

Love the blog. A few years ago, I was very interested to learn more about wine. Feeling terrifically overwhelmed by it all, I simply decided that I would just drink Italian wine until I figured out what I liked. A couple years after that I added Spain to my rotation. My wife and I resolved to tackle France this year (decade?) Being a Brooklynite myself, I was delighted to discover your somewhat French wine centric blog. Do you have any interest in doing a post or series for neophytes? Something like, "Drinking your way through France in 100 bottles?" Or the sure to be impossible, "A French Primer: Case of Red and Case of White from Chambers Street." Either way, I look forward to combing through your old posts. Thanks for taking the time to write.

Director, Lab Outreach said...

Tarlant's wine is beyond good value (you did say incredible, so I'm just underlining the point). A single-vineyard wine made entirely from own-rooted vines and with bubbles! It's simply amazing. It's also a very quirky wine. I've had as much experience with this champagne as any other, and while there is a consistency that one might hope to think is the vineyard but there is also a very interesting variety disgorgement to disgorgement and even some bottle variation. It's never bad, but it does move in interesting ways. For me, the best quality of this wine is that more than many champagnes, it drinks like wine. Really, really good wine.

David McDuff said...

I'm glad you enjoyed the Diebolt, Neil, and that you were able to share it among family and friends. Likewise, I'm sorry your trip last year was cut short of your planned visit with Jacques, as there's nothing quite like standing in his underground cellars, carved into the Cramant chalk, to help in understanding the terroir expression in his wines.

Brooklynguy said...

hi Roger, thanks for your kind words. I'm not sure that I will do the kind of post you're looking for, but luckily there are great retail shops in the area that can help you pick out starter cases. My favorite stores are listed on the left sidebar. Have fun with it!

Hey JD - long time no see, thanks for stopping by. And I agree, this is wine that happens to have bubbles in it.

Thanks again for the generous gift McDee.

Rama Kuchipudi said...

It's great to see someone else love the Diebolt-Vallois. I served this at one of our Haute Cuisine Privée Plumpepper dinne rparties and people were blown away! Blanc de Blancs in general are impressing me greatly these days. I've also loved the Michel Turgy 2000 give it a shot if you can find it....