Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Champagne, Revisited.

Once again, I am reminded that it takes several experiences, at least, in order to understand a wine. Subtlety can get lost even when drinking a wine calmly with friends over a meal, especially if other wines are present. I had dinner with a few friends on a recent night and one of them very generously brought along a bottle of Cedric Bouchard's Blanc de Blancs called La Bolorée. Here is what I wrote about this wine in August of 2011:

La Bolorée is an unusual wine. It is an old vines Pinot Blanc grown on chalky soils in the Aube, there's nothing else like it. It was very smokey and mineral, and quite rich with honeyed flavors on the finish. I appreciated the quality of this wine but it was my first time drinking it and I must say that I didn't really understand the wine, it was simply too far away from what I know of the aromas and flavors of Champagne. I'd love to drink it again, but this is not an easy thing to do as quantities are small and the wine retails for about $175.
I've since had the wine twice, and it is a curiosity, for sure. The only pure Pinot Blanc Champagne that I know of, it is quintessentially Bouchard in its clear expression of terroir and its purity of fruit. That time I drank it in August, 2011 at the Bouchard dinner, for me it got lost among the other wines. It is a wine that I imagine would show terribly at a tasting - people would be left shaking their heads at how a wine like that could cost so much money, at how capricious the Champagne hipsters are.

But the thing is, La Bolorée is a great wine. It's also an unusual wine, a Champagne that shows aromas and flavors that have no bearing on what we think of as "normal." It is herbal and green. Not green as in under ripe, green as in tarragon and chervil, green as in the forest in springtime. The wine thrives on its almost impossible fineness of texture and flavor, not on fruit or anything else that's expected or easy for us to latch onto. Honestly, the wine just doesn't taste like any other Champagne. And so, it is easy to miss why this is a great wine.

Peter Liem, a huge proponent of Bouchard and of this wine before it was introduced to the US,  generously opened a bottle this past xmas. Drinking it over a few hours without other wines next to it that would speak louder, I think I understood it. And then on this recent evening even though a few other wines were present, I appreciated it even more, the way its vibrant herbal flavors were layered on a gossamer old vines frame. It seems to me that if one were to draw a large rectangle that contains the world of Champagne, one of the corners of the rectangle would be occupied by this wine - it represents one extreme possibility.

On another recent evening I was in New Orleans at the wonderful Bacchanal, a wine store and bar/restaurant where one can buy a bottle and take it out to the garden in back, order some good food, listen to some shockingly good jazz, and feel happy to be alive. I wandered through the shelves and came upon a bottle of wine I hadn't had in quite some time, René Geoffroy's Champagne Brut Expression. I really like Geoffroy's wines from top to bottom - they are so expressive and joyous and generally offer a great value dollar for dollar. This one was disgorged in 2010, so I figure the base wine is 2008. I was charmed immediately by the harmony of fruit, earth, and vivid chalkiness on the nose and the complexity, particularly on the finish. So much so that I snapped a picture and sent it to Peter, bragging about my outdoor wine affair. 

I thought about this wine over the next few days and resolved to buy some. I mean really - a wine with such such a pure chalky expression of such lovely Pinot fruit, for under $50? I asked Peter if the 2010 disgorgement indicates 2008 as the base wine, and he said that it might be but that there is always a lot of reserve wine here too. Wait a minute! Reserve wine? I thought that Expression is made from a single vintage, but not aged long enough to be labeled as a vintage wine. That's when I realized that the wine I thought I was drinking was an entirely different wine! I mixed up Empriente, the almost purely Pinot Noir single vintage wine, with Expression, the wine that is typically comprised of about 50% Meunier, and perhaps 40% Pinot Noir, the rest Chardonnay.

One explanation here is that I have no idea what I'm drinking, and cannot tell Pinot Noir from Meunier, or my a$$ from my elbow. This is entirely possible, perhaps likely. But I prefer to think that the undeniably chalky essence of both wines renders moot the particular cépage. And that the richness and complexity conferred by the high proportion of reserve wines in Expression allows it to feel just as grand of a wine as Empriente. Seriously, this wine is all about chalk, richness of fruit notwithstanding. This is something that I didn't understand about either wine until now.

If there is a lesson here, aside from the fact that I can be an absent minded schmendrik sometimes, it's that no matter who we are, no matter how often or how grand the wines we drink, it's all too easy to miss the point, to be off-base about things sometimes. Best to allow for that possibility and not to shout too loudly about opinions, and to try to find value, even, in being wrong.

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