Thursday, January 13, 2011

A Coteaux Champenois Tasting

Not all Champagne is sparkling wine. Peter Liem, many of whose comments and ideas are paraphrased within this post, told me that the modern history of sparkling Champagne is only 300 or so years old, and that Champagne used to be a still wine. Many Champagne producers continue to make small amounts of still wine, called Coteaux Champenois. If you've never heard of these wines or never tasted one, you are most certainly not alone. Not a lot is made, and most of what is made is consumed in Champagne. The grapes used to make Coteaux Champenois are the same highly valuable grapes that could be used to make Champagne - it just doesn't make good financial sense to divert production from a highly profitable wine that is in demand all over the world to a little known wine that is harder to sell at the same prices.

So why is Coteaux Champenois made at all, given that logic? Well, producers need still red wine if they make a rosé of Champagne by blending still red wine into sparkling wine. Also, people in Champagne enjoy drinking red wine from time to time and from what I gather, in much of France, you drink the local wine. Perhaps most importantly, Coteaux Champenois continues to be made because some producers want to honor the tradition and history of Champagne. "Take Larmandier-Bernier, for example," Peter said. "Pierre Larmandier wants to make red wine from Vertus Pinot Noir because he wants to preserve the history of Vertus."

Coteaux Champenois can be red, white, or rosé, although the red wines are by far the most common. The wines can be released as vintage wines or non-vintage wines, and do not need to be aged in bottle for three years, as sparkling Champagne does, in order to be labeled as vintage wines. The villages where Pinot Noir thrives are also the villages that make highly regarded Coteaux Champenois. Bouzy and Ambonnay are perhaps considered as the sources of the finest wines, but there are excellent wines made elsewhere too.

There are very few examples of Coteaux Champenois available at retail stores. Importers have trouble selling the wines, and so they don't bring them in. "I have trouble selling them, especially a non-vintage still red wine from Champagne that would retail for $50," said Kevin Pike, Director of National Sales and Marketing at Michael Skurnik Wines. There are retailers, however, who believe in these wines enough to keep them in stock. Joe Salamone at Crush in Manhattan, for example, has been selling Coteaux Champenois for years, when he can get his hands on it.

Last summer I drank a bottle of 2002 Larmandier-Bernier Coteaux Champenois with a few friends and absolutely loved it. I knew I needed to try more. A few friends agreed, and we decided to buy whatever we could and to hit up a few importers for bottles that are not (yet?) available in stores. We recently got together over a completely fantastic dinner at Prune and drank the wines. It was quite a crew, including the aforementioned Peter Liem, Joe Salamone, and Kevin Pike, and also Levi Dalton of Alto (where at least one Coteaux Champenois is on the wine list), Dan Melia, Clarke Boehling, and Keith Levenberg.

The results were mixed, I would say. The two wines that I have previously loved didn't show well on this night. Other wines were disconcertingly big and concentrated - stylistic decisions by top quality wine makers. But there were a few true gems. Here are the wines we drank in the order in which we drank them, along with a few notes:

2008 Roger Coulon Coteaux Champenois Blanc, $40-50, Rosenthal Wine Merchant. I found myself saying "this wine smells just like Champagne!" It really does, just like a Blanc de Blancs. Tastes just like one too. Feels entirely different, obviously, and it was a strange sensation. This was the very first Coteaux Champenois Blanc I've ever tasted, I think I need more experience before saying much.

2008 Léclapart Coteaux Champenois Trépail Rouge, $55, Imported by Jandell Selections. Very fragrant, fresh red berries and flowers with woodsy undertones, very persistent. There is a "natural streak" here, as there often is in Thierry Puzelat's wines, for example. Bottle variation is significantwith this wine, apparently. This was a good bottle, the one I drank a few months ago was not as good.

2008 Egly-Ouriet Coteaux Champenois Ambonnay Rouge, $95, Imported by Michael Skurnik Wines. The nose is dominated by oak right now, and I found it hard to enjoy at this early stage, even harder to evaluate. Peter Liem told us that among many people in Champagne, this wine is considered to be the best Coteaux Champenois. I'd love to taste the '08 again in 5 or 10 years.

2001 Marie-Noëlle Ledru Coteaux Champenois Ambonnay Rouge, not imported (kindly donated for this tasting by Charlie Woods, whose company Bonhomie Wine imports Ledru's sparkling Champagnes). Still shows freshness, there is complexity on the nose, which becomes more layered and detailed with air, perfectly harmonious on the palate. Delicious, and one of my favorites of the tasting.

2004 René Geoffroy Coteaux Champenois Cumières Rouge, $55, imported by Michael Skurnik Wines. The nose is spicy, rich, voluptuous, and also energetic with dark fresh fruit. This is a powerful wine that doesn't lack for concentration, but still offers god detail and balance. I like Geoffroy's wines very much, and this was no exception.

2003 Benoît Lahaye Coteaux Champenois Bouzy Rouge, not imported (kindly donated for this tasting by Jeffrey Alpert, whose company Jeffrey Alpert Selections imports Lahaye's sparkling Champagne). "Bouzy Rouge" has got to be one of the best names in the world of wine. My favorite wine of the tasting. The nose opens slowly (as with all of Lahaye's wines) but shows real elegance, especially in light of the very warm 2003 vintage. Mineral infused spicy red fruit on the nose, and a harmonious palate whose delicate red fruit shows a bit of maturity and although reflects some of the opulence of the vintage, for me didn't cross into over-done territory. Delicious wine, and Lahaye is an absolute star, in my book.

2000 Jean Vesselle Coteaux Champenois Bouzy Rouge, $41, Dionysos Imports. This wine showed a candied aspect that I didn't care for, and I found it to be a bit one-dimensional, uninspiring. But there were others who enjoyed it, so grain of salt here.

2002 Paul Bara Coteaux Champenois Bouzy Rouge, $40, Imported by Jandell Selections, although bara's sparkling Champagne is imported by Kermit Lynch. This wine was corked, which is a shame because in an odd coincidence I happened to drink a glass the night before this tasting, and it is wonderful wine, very intense but also very light in body, a truly excellent Coteaux Champenois.

2002 Larmandier-Bernier Coteaux Champenois Vertus Rouge, $40, Louis/Dressner Selections. This bottle did not show as well as the others that I've had. It was very reduced, even after an hour open, so we decanted it and it was much better. Similar in style to the Bara wine - purity, finesse, freshness, lightness in body. The fruit is rich and vibrant and the wine is well balanced, but it never became as good as other bottles that I've had. This bottle notwithstanding, this particular wine is the finest Coteaux Champenois that I've had.

2002 Bollinger Coteaux Champenois La Cote aux Enfants, $120, Imported by Terlato Wines International. Shows nothing of what makes Coteaux Champenois appealing. Overripe grapes, rasiny, too concentrated, chunky and not graceful, jut not enjoyable wine. I normally wouldn't condemn a wine like that, but I believe that everyone at the table felt approximately the same way, and so it's safe to say that my take on the wine is not an outlier. Bollinger is so great too, so this wine was quite confusing.


Alice said...

I had no idea Leclapart or L-B did a rouge.Great post, Neil and what a great tasting and detective work.

Unknown said...

Just one clarification on my comment regarding Coteaux Champenois NV and sales: I remarked at the event that I felt that selling the NV category of these wines would be difficult and in fact, we do not import them for this reason. However, selling vintage Coteaux Champenois has had a very good response and we are not able to supply the demand for that category. Maybe I should revisit the NV issue, but I think my hunch is accurate. Kevin

Do Bianchi said...

man, this post and the tasting were and are INSANE! I could literally feel my saliva glands revving up as I read this. Chapeau bas... excellent post... amazing, really...

keithlevenberg said...

We don't do the glitziest Champagne tastings, but we definitely do the geekiest.

vinosseur said...

Really great and interesting post!

My only experience in this category is the 1998 (& 1999) Egly-Ouriet Ambonnay Rouge(you can search for the tasting note for this wine on my site), and some Rosé a few years back. I was happy to find out from your post that a lot of my favorite sparkling wine producers were also making still wines. It was especially great to find out that Leclapart was making a still wine. This is a wine I will have to seek out!


imobiliarias alegrete said...

very good

Henri Vasnier said...

The '99 Bollinger is wonderful, with a nose that makes you weak in the knees. I tasted the '02 on release (several years ago) and thought that, unless it moved along its aging arc far faster than Burgundy usually does, I might want to try it again at age 12-15. So, possibly the '02 is just not in a good place right now, which might also be true of the more structured, important red Burgundies.

Bryan Maletis said...

Great post and tasting-- even if I did read it 2+ years later! I'm going to Champagne this week and I'm looking to import a bottle or two if I can find something great. Cheers!