Monday, August 19, 2013

Rhode Island Wine Weekend, Part I

You know how you have those weekends where you go out of town to a friend's house where a bunch of serious wine lovers gather over a few dinners to open and share truly great old wines?

Yeah, me neither. But this past weekend was exactly that for me. I spent time with old friends, met some excellent new friends, and drank some incredible things. On Sunday, on the way home in the car, I drowsily told Peter that there were three major things I learned about wine during the weekend. And so, dear reader, I will now present part 1 of what I think likely will become a syndicated sensation known as Rhode Island Wine Weekend...

Big House Champagne and Grower Champagne are very Different from one Anther, and Big House Champagne is Good Too. 

We arrived after a long and traffic-filled drive, washed up, and joined forces with our friends at the Hourglass Brasserie in Bristol. We were visiting a friend from our Burgundy Wine Club. He and several of his wine pals set up a 5-course dinner at Hourglass so that we could enjoy good food and wine together.

These gentlemen are an organized bunch. The very first thing we drank was a bottle of recently released NV Pol Roger Brut Réserve Champagne. Smelling and drinking this wine, I had a mini-epiphany about Champagne. It's not so easy to explain why this felt like a deep thought, but it did: big house Champagne and grower Champagne are very different from one another, and big house Champagne is good too. They are trying to do different things, and both types of wine have value. Sure, I prefer one style over the other, in general, but there are great wines made in each style.

Pol Roger is a grand old Champagne house with a rich history, and a cuvée named after a British former head of state. I do not have a lot of experience with the wines - I've had maybe 4 or 5 bottles before this evening. But I drank this wine and I felt as though I finally understood something about the nature of big house Champagne. The wine is not trying to showcase purity of fruit, as do the wines of Cédric Bouchard, for example. The wines are not trying for a uniqueness in expression of character or terroir. When well made, a big house wine like Pol Roger's NV Brut achieves a striking balance, a focused harmony, a fine-ness of construction. The point of the wine is how well made it is, how fine it is, and that it is made in the Pol Roger house style.

Pol Roger NV Brut did not thrill me (and that is a subjective comment), but I understood immediately that this is a well made wine. It was entirely focused and fine in its texture and flow throughout the palate, well balanced, and chalky and long on the finish. The wine had no deficits, it was not lacking in anything, and it was pleasing. And in this way it is successful. It reminded me of the Henriot Blanc de Blancs I drank in San Francisco a few months ago at Hog Island Oyster Company. A delicious, focused, and classic Blanc de Blancs Champagne. It did not thrill me the way certain other Blanc de Blancs wines thrill me, but its quality was unmistakable. It is classic, and speaks the language of Champage in its focus, balance, finesse, and chalky minerality.

If I were at a wine store or restaurant and faced with a broad selection of non-vintage Champagnes, I would not choose Pol Roger's over Bereche's or Chartogne-Taillet's. But that is because I prefer those other wines, not because Pol Roger's is of lesser quality. This is the thing that became crystal clear for me this weekend at Hourglass. Pol Roger is also a very high quality wine. We've been conditioned in the past decade to think otherwise, as grower Champagnes fought for their place in the US market and as supporters of grower Champagne sought to define their niche. Appreciating these very different styles of wine need not be mutually exclusive.

After we drank Pol Roger, we moved onto a bottle of Lanson NV Black Label from the 1960's - we were not certain of the exact vintage of the base wines. Lanson is another big house with a rich (and rocky) history. These are not wines that I would buy today, but older wines from the 60's and 70's are supposed to be of very high quality. This bottle was a great example - the wine was legitimately great. So well put together, so complex, so long, such great poise and charm. To hear Peter talk about it, he wine is was made in an era when grapes were picked at lower levels of ripeness than they are today, and at higher levels of acidity. And they did not go through malolactic fermentation, so the acidity is untamed, if you will. A wine made like this should age well, and this one has, feeling fresh and vibrant, with a mature and potent character. And by the way, this wine paired beautifully with almost everything we ate, from oysters to duck. It's absurd to think that a modern grower NV Brut would show this same character after 40-plus years in the bottle. But it wouldn't be trying to - they are different, and both have value.
The following evening we began our dinner with a magnum of 1981 Lanson Brut Champagne. Initially I found the toasty notes to be distracting and I was not enjoying the wine so much. But an hour or so later, after letting it relax in the glass, the wine was delicious. It was deeply saline, focused and well balanced, and it felt completely harmonious.

There is one thing that I've not said about the 1981 or the NV from the 60's (or the Pol Roger). To my inexperienced palate, neither wine expressed much in the way of terroir, not the way some grower Champagnes can. Peter Liem could make a convincing case for how the Pol Roger and the Lanson wines express terroir, and he is correct. But to my palate, relative to today's grower Champagnes of similar quality, the wines are more about other things and less about terroir expression. They are about fineness of construction, and this is a valuable thing too.

During dinner Peter said "Understanding these wines is part of understanding Champagne. Drinking grower wines without drinking and understanding these wines is like looking at modern art without having seem the classics."

More soon - we drank loads of amazing wine and I learned several other scintillating things, which are sure to titillate you. 

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