Monday, February 28, 2011

A Conversation with Jean-Marie Fourrier - Part 3

This is the final post about my conversation with Jean-Marie Fourrier. It was an honor and a pleasure to interview him, and I hope that you've enjoyed reading about it.

BG: I want to ask you about farming. You have plots in more than 10 different vineyards, some of them not within walking distance of each other. I read about wine makers who say "My primary job is in the vineyard," and things like that. And I've been wondering, you cannot be every where in one day. How do you decide which vineyard you're going to work in on a given day?

JMF: During harvest I look at the forecast and I decide where to pick based on the weather. Chambolle might be three days less ripe than Gevrey, so I'll wait there. Also, it depends on the age of the vines - young vines are very energetic and grow faster. You cannot plan your whole week. I adapt my planning day by day with the weather. I can plan only what I'll do tomorrow. Now I have 4 people assisting me in the vineyards, which helps.

BG: What about during the rest of the year, before harvest, on a sunny day in June, for example?

JMF: I have 10 hectares, 100 thousand vines to look after. What people don't realize is that I will come to each individual vine 15-17 times every year. For pruning, pulling the canes, tying the Guyot on the wires, two or three times for debudding, three times or so during the growing season, checking wooden sticks and wires, and more. And that's not including the tractor or harvest. 15-17 times for every vine - that's a lot of manual labor. I just work with my team to make sure that every vine gets the right attention and work.

BG: Of those kinds of work, which is your favorite?

JMF: I still love all of those jobs. It's a cycle, every year begins with pruning and ends with harvest. I love being in New York like this, but I love going back to farming, being in my vineyards.

BG: Which of the jobs is your least favorite?

JMF: I guess pruning. It's the most difficult job. You are bending very low all day long in cold weather and fog, you go home frozen for lunch, but it's the first job of every vintage and you have to do it.

BG: Do your hands get scratched up?

JMF: Sometimes, but it's not so bad. The cellar work can be dangerous. In 2001 I fell off a vat while I was punching the cap and I broke discs in my back. That's how my grandfather died - they found him in the morning after he had fallen into a vat. He was on his own, punching the cap at 4:00 AM. It's a very dangerous job. One vat produces 10 times it's volume in carbon dioxide.

BG: That's really awful.

JMF: My grandfather isn't the only one. There are more than 10 people who have died that way in the past 10 years.

BG: Let's talk about something happier. Among your vineyards, which is the most beautiful spot?

JMF: For me it is Combes aux Moines, in the northern part of Gevrey, near Clos St. Jacques. There is a 180 degree view. You can see to Dijon and almost to Beaune. It is a rock amphitheater that was planted in 1928. In the summer it keeps the heat and you must work it in the morning because there are snakes sleeping there in the mid day. I've seen foxes there in the morning, and in winter sometimes boar.

BG: Is there a vineyard that you don't currently have, where you'd really love to be working?

JMF: Chambertin is a place I would love to make wine, the terroir is fantastic. The soils are very different from Griotte. Griotte is lower on the slope. The etymology of the word Griotte is crais, meaning chalk. Griotte-Chambertin, Criots-Bâtard-Montrachet, Les Cras in Chambolle - it's all from the same word.

BG: Do you read magazines or blogs? What type of wine criticism is meaningful to you?

JMF: I read what the critics write because I'm curious. I'm always honest with them. French critics, you know, do not visit cellars. We're supposed to send them sample bottles and then they have 100 wines on the table. That's not a good way to taste. I never give bottles for that, I prefer to receive people in the cellar. I export 99% of my wine because I'm unknown in France - I don't submit bottles. The way they taste, I won't do it. It's like going to a restaurant and trying 100 beef Bourgignon - the one you like the best is the one with chili peppers in the recipe.

BG: Wait a minute - no one buys your wine in France?

JMF: It's true, no one knows my wines there. I export almost all of it.

BG: Amazing. Do you personally drink wines from other places? What do you like to drink?

JMF: I love Oregon wines, particularly Drouhin, Ponzi, and Adelsheim - all of the pioneers, really. If you age those wines 10-15 years and serve them blind, they'll really surprise you. I also drink Austrian Riesling a lot, and of course Chassagne Montrachet too.

BG (flipping through notebook, looking for questions he meant to ask): What about climate change - do you think it is an issue in Burgundy?

JMF: My grandmother said that nature has a cycle of 60-80 years. We judge the world today in very short terms. Last December in Burgundy it was -10 degrees Celsius. This winter it was -15 degrees. Winters now are closer to the 1970's when I was a kid. Another thing that's changed is the temperature during the growing season - it is 1.3 degrees higher than it was when I was a kid. That's like moving Burgundy 180 kilometers further south to Lyon, north of the Rhône. The consequence is that there is no spring frost, as there used to be. There has been no spring frost in Chablis for the last 15 years. But there are more hailstorms in the summer, the summer weather is more unpredictable. Is it global warming? Cannot tell in this short of a time. You have to ask in 100 years, not three or four years.

BG: Do you hope that your kids take over Domaine Fourrier one day?

JMF: It's a job of passion. You cannot do things well without passion. I want them to travel the world, and if they want to come back and make wine because they love making wine, then great. But what's the point of giving something to children that really is a chore?

Thanks for reading.

Friday, February 25, 2011

A Conversation with Jean-Marie Fourrier - Part 2

When I left off, Jean-Marie Fourrier was about to describe what he changed about the Domaine Fourrier wines, since the days when his father made the wine. He said that it began with the 1997 vintage...

JMF: It was 1998 and I'm tasting my 1997 wines and I thought the wines were fragile, with such purity and beauty. In the 1997 vintage everyone racked after malolactic fermentation. I didn't want to rack the wines. My father, who always watched what I was doing, said "No one else is doing that, I never did that."

BG: He was worried. Were you worried too?

JMF: Yes, a bit. Wine school teaches you all the fears of what can go wrong. Take filtering and fining, for example. The wine school definition of filtration that I learned is this - 'filtration is the acceleration of the process of sedimentation.' To me, that meant that if I do nothing, sedimentation will happen anyway. There are two sides to everything - tradition is great and I do a lot of things like my dad did them, but sometimes I don't know why I do it that way. I do things differently if I think there is a better way.

BG: So, what did you say to your father when he didn't like your idea about not racking the 1997's?

JMF: I said that I thought racking might do them more harm than good. I would leave them on the sediment, and if they start to taste wrong, I'll rack them. If not, I'll continue to leave them on the sediment.

BG: What happened?

JMF: They tasted fine, we left the wines on the sediment, and the wines have held up very well. I learned that carbon dioxide, a byproduct of malolactic fermentation, protects the wines against oxidation and I didn't need to add much sulfites. The balance of the protection can come from CO2. And something happened that made me wonder. When you rack a barrel of wine after after 9 months, after malo, you remove 7-9 liters of sediment. But when I racked my wines in 1998 after not disturbing them at all for 18 months, I had only 4-5 liters of sediment to remove. Where had the rest gone? It's as though the wine re-absorbed the sediment!

BG: Was this a theory of yours, a philosophy that you wanted to enact with wine?

JMF: No, no, no. I just thought the '97s seemed perfect without racking. I was not sure what would happen and I tried it. Even with the 1998's when I did the same thing, I was not sure what would happen and was not operating with a new philosophy. I was trying to make the best wine that I could. I tasted the wines and thought "that's what I want to drink myself, that's the wine that I want to share." And by the way, 1998 was a much different vintage, warmer than 1997, riper, the tannins sometimes were overripe and could dominate the purity and the elegance of Pinot. Today I prefer the 1997's, they have amazing freshness. Even after the 1998's were made, I didn't say that I had a new philosophy. I was just seeing what works.

BG: Was there anyone in Burgundy that you could talk to as you were thinking about this? In retrospect you know it was a great decision and your wines are defined by this amazing purity. But it must have been nerve-wracking back then. Was there someone you could ask for advice?

JMF: Really, no. There was only my father's generation to talk to and for the reasons I talked about earlier, they didn't share information like that. My generation went to school together. We were friends, we tasted in each others' cellars, we opened bottles together, we really got to know each other. I would bring a friend over and my father would take me aside and say "What are you doing with him here? Isn't he such and such a wine maker's son?" I would say "Yes dad, and now we help each other and it's good for everyone." No one is copying their neighbor, wine making in Gevrey-Chambertin is still very personal. We still swap bottles, still see each other for tastings.

BG: So you were kind of on your own in 1998, making those decisions.

JMF: Yes. Well, I was reading Jules Chauvet when I started to age wine on the lees. He said that it is not the free sulfites that are dangerous in wine, but the total sulfites. The cumulative effect of all of the sulfites from the day the fruit comes into the fermenting room. You put sulfites in the fermentation room, and then a bit more for the long, cold maceration, which is something you do to extract more from the fruit (the sulfites break the skins), and at the end, you have increased levels of sulfites in the wine. Sulfites for wine are like drugs for people. If you start with big doses, the addiction comes faster. The free sulfites combine with polyphenols and stop protecting the wine against oxidation.

BG: Phenols, like in tannins from skins and pits?

JMF: Yes, the free sulfites combine with them and stop protecting the wine. Then, during elevage, the wine requests more sulfites for protection. If you start with a very small dose, the need stays very small. Chauvet said that the combined phenol/sulfites in your glass are broken up by your stomach acids and become free sulfites again! This is when sulfite levels become quite high and you get a headache.

BG: So what's the best way to do it?

JMF: The best way to use less sulfites is to do it like our grandfathers did it. Use older casks, don't rack the wines or stir the lees, let the natural CO2 protect the wines. It's the new wood, by the way, that needs the sulfites first, as new wood is more porous.

BG: So do you add sulfites to your wines?

JMF: I use a tiny bit in the fermenting room and a tiny bit at bottling, that's it. I don't rack my wines and I don't stir the lees. But to do that, you need a cold and humid cellar. You know, there are people now who say "I rack my wines but I keep the fine lees." They're racking the clear wine and then pouring the fine lees on top of the racked wine, into the new barrel. That mixes the lees, the same as stirring. I never mix, never rack. My wines spend 16-18 months with no disturbing them. The more you are a biologist, the less you have to be an oenologist.

BG: So in with time and success, it's become a philosophy for you.

JMF: Yes. And I'm still thinking about it and still learning.

To be continued...

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A Conversation with Jean-Marie Fourrier - Part 1

Jean-Marie Fourrier of Domaine Fourrier was in town recently for the big La Paulée event and I was honored to spend a few hours talking with him one morning. Fourrier makes wine mostly in Gevrey-Chambertin, and also owns plots in Chambolle and Morey St. Denis. His wines are prized for their incredible purity and transparency, and also for their combination of intensity and grace. I've noticed that when I ask a Burgundy lover to name their favorite producers, Fourrier is on everyone's short list. And this is interesting because although the Domaine is quite old, it is only in the last 15 years or so that the wines have experienced a resurgence in the United States.

I did my very best to record everything faithfully during this interview. I did not use a tape recorder, instead taking careful notes. What follows is a paraphrasing of Jean-Marie's comments during our conversation (and sometimes a paraphrasing of myself, for the sake of condensation).

BG: When you were a kid, were your friends the children of wine growers?

JMF: I grew up in Gevrey-Chambertin, village of 3,000 people. Some of my friends were not involved in wine, and some were. But I didn't ask a lot of questions of people. You know, the trauma of World War II was not that far away. My father was born in 1943 and when he grew up he was told not to talk to his neighbors. His parents would say "This one was cooperating with the Germans, that one didn't want to give us a rabbit when we were starving for food." Everyone stayed private and this really affected the people of my father's generation. It remains with them today.

BG: Did your father like being a wine maker?

JMF: Not at all. My dad lost his father when he was 14. He wanted to be a mechanic. At 14, after his father died, he was told "Go make wine with your uncle." All his life he made wine out of obligation, not out of pleasure. He still to this day wished that he could have been a mechanic.

BG: That's hard to imagine.

JMF: He's my tractor driver now, my best employee! He'll be 70 in two years.

BG: So, how did yo get into making wine?

JMF: For my generation, we all had to go to wine school in Beaune in the 1980's. But I wanted to be a pilot, I studied for it. In 1990 there was an economic crisis and the airlines weren't recruiting, so there was no point in continuing. I did one year in the army, it was an obligation in France at the time. I was based in Dijon, I was a truck driver, driving things up north to go to the Air Force during the first Gulf War. When that was finished I worked for my father. He always told me "Do whatever you want, do what you love. Don't come into the wine industry because it's crazy." But I worked for him for two years, and it was a difficult relationship. I decided to work in Oregon for the Drouhins. I wanted to go to the US, to learn English, to get far away from my parents. I stayed for 8 months, lived in Veronique Drouhin's house, used her car, and all that. I was a cellar worker, punching the cap, doing everything like that. I was a trainee. Suddenly, I realized the privilege of having a winery in Burgundy, and it took having some distance from Burgundy for that to happen. I suddenly understood the beauty and the potential of it, I saw where I came from with a different eye.

BG: So you wanted to go back?

JMF: Well, I had become critical of my culture. "The French are always on strike," things like that. I loved the US and I wanted to stay and work here, but if I didn't go back, five generations of business would end, no one would take over. I went home and I wasn't expecting it but my dad really missed me and he said "I've been working here since I was 14 years old. It's your turn now. You are in charge of everything now. Just let me drive my tractor."

BG: So one day you're in Oregon, and the next you've taken over an estate in Burgundy.

JMF: Yes, and it's unusual in Burgundy. Usually the father likes to keep control, and the son inherits the business when he's about 40 years old. I was 23 years old in 1994, my first vintage. I was scared.

BG: How were the Fourrier wines thought of at that point in 1994, when you took over?

JMF: My dad is one of the least diplomatic men you can meet, and the reputation of the wines suffered because of this. Fourrier wines had been imported to the United States for years, but then in 1986 Robert Parker came to visit my father and he said "You should use 100% new oak on your wines." My father kicked him out of the cellar and said to him "My job is to make wine, your job is to taste it, not to tell me how to make it."

BG: That can't have ended well.

JMF: No, it didn't. Parker wrote that Fourrier's is the dirtiest cellar in Burgundy, that the yields are way too high, that the wines are not worth looking at. The reputation suffered and we stopped shipping wines to the US, as no one wanted them. When I took over in 1994 there were five vintages in the cellar! I had to get rid of the stock and make some money, so I sold the wines in supermarkets. I would go in by day and stand there, promoting the wines. I drove to Belgium, a 6 hour drive, tried to sell wine, and drove back the same night to avoid the hotel cost.

BG: You're telling me that you stood in a supermarket next to the cheese and meat displays, probably, pouring Fourrier wine, hoping people would buy it? That is honestly very hard for me to imagine, given the way your wines sell now.

JMF: Yes, but that's exactly what I did in 1994.

BG: So how did things change for you?

JMF: Well, I was good friends with Romain Lignier (wine maker at Domaine Lignier who tragically died of cancer in 2004 at the young age of 34). Romain told me that his US importer was looking for a new supplier in Gevrey-Chambertin, and asked if I would like to receive him. Neal Rosenthal came to visit in 1996 and he tasted the wines and said that the wine was good, but not overly exciting. He was tasting the 1995's. He said that I had potential and that we should start working together with the '95 vintage. This cash allowed me to buy important new equipment, like a cooling system for the vats, better pumps, and I invested in replacing some of the older barrels.

BG: Interesting, why replace old barrels? I thought that you don't use a lot of new oak.

JMF: I don't - I use 20% new oak for all of my wines, from the Villages to the Griottes-Chambertin. But the barrels I replaced were 15 and 16 years old. For each cuvée I try to have one new cask, one 2-year old barrel, one 3-year old barrel, and so on. I like to turnover the casks without imparting oak aromas or flavors to the wine.

BG: Okay, so once you started working with Rosenthal, you invested in new equipment. What happened after that?

JMF: Well, once I could stop worrying about selling my wine, I spent a lot more time making the wine, I did a lot of work in the vineyards. My father always watched what I was doing and noticed any changes I made, and he would ask me about them.

BG: Was there a big change?

JMF: I think so, yes. It started with the 1997 vintage...

To be continued...

Sunday, February 20, 2011

You be the Sommelier

One of my favorite cuts of beef is the hanger steak. The hanger steak, or hanging tender, along with the skirt steak are the muscles that make up the diaphragm of a cow. Both steaks are blood-rich and marbled with fat, and also containing connective tissue and other membranes that can be somewhat chewy if not removed. I love skirt steak too, but I prefer the hanger steak. It is thicker and beefier, and to me is the most satisfying cut in an atavistic sort of way.

The other day while browsing the meat section of my food coop I saw a Slope Farms hanger steak sitting there and pounced - as far as I know, there is only one hanger steak per animal. And since Slope Farms does not sell cuts of meat, only the whole animal, there aren't many Slope Farms hanger steaks to go around. When I had the steak in my hand I noticed that it felt kind of light, and that it was red, not the deep purple, almost blue that I am used to. It was veal - I had a veal hanger steak in my hands!

I share the same concerns about veal that you do, but as with chicken and pork and fish and everything else, there are good ways to raise animals for food, and bad ways. Slope Farms does things the good way.

Anyway...I watched a skilled butcher prepare a hanger steak once, using a long thin knife to slice both lobes of meat off of the tough central membrane. I tried this at home and failed miserably, losing about a third of my dinner in the process. Now I just accept the membrane as part of the meal. A chewy part of the meal, but I'm fine with that.

I like to keep things very simple with meat of this quality. Salt, pepper, a hot pan, that's it. But I had some good parsley lying around too.

So I made a kind of cross between salsa verde and Chimichurri, chopping parsley and mixing it with garlic that I pounded in the mortar and pestle, the zest of a whole lemon, a bit of dried red chili flakes, good olive oil, and salt.

Some roast broccoli on the side, the last 10 minutes in the oven with some thinly sliced garlic, and dressed simply with lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper.

I let the steak rest for about 10 minutes so the meat would re-absorb the juices.Sliced and topped with my hybrid of a parsley sauce. So that's the dish - veal hanger steak with parsley, lemon zest, garlic and olive oil, and some roast broccoli on the side. Please, you be the sommelier. What would you serve with this dish? Leave your ideas in the comments and in a few days I'll share what I drank and whether or not it was a good match.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Farro Salad

Last summer I had lunch at Al Di La, the Venetian trattoria in my neighborhood and one of things we ate was a delicious farro salad. Farro is the Italian name for wheat berries - whole grain wheat. Al Di La served their Farro salad with cherry tomatoes, black olives, herbs (I don't remember which), lemon juice, and olive oil. Simple, healthy, delicious - I wanted to make it at home. I made several farro salads in the warm weather and found that they are as easy to make as they sound.

It's cold now, but last week I found myself craving farro. Is farro salad only for warm weather? Can I add things like roasted root vegetables to make a savory winter farro salad? Why not, who's going to stop me.

I rinsed the farro and then, following the instructions on the package (which is called Farro Intero), soaked the grains for 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, some small pieces of cauliflower, parsnip, and carrot, salt, pepper, and a bit of olive oil. Toss first to coat the vegetables and into the oven for about 45 minutes at 375 degrees.

After soaking, drain the farro and put it in a pot of boiling water, let it return to a boil, and then simmer for another 25 minutes. The farro should be soft but still offer some resistance, a little chewy. They're strangely tasty on their own, kind of nutty and satisfying. Strained and dressed with lemon or vinegar and olive oil, and whatever else you feel like throwing in - delicious.

I used about a half pound of farro, put in the roasted root vegetables, some fresh young goat cheese (maybe 2 ounces), the juice of a lemon, some olive oil, a handful of chopped parsley, and more salt and pepper. Mix well, and make sure to put in the goat cheese while the farro and root vegetables are still hot so the goat cheese melts and becomes part of the salad dressing.

Farro has a lot of protein. With the proteins in goat cheese, this dish offers a lot of protein, but also a good combination of proteins. There are root vegetables too - this is a complete meal in one bowl, it is not expensive to make, and you will have plenty of leftovers to take for lunch the next day.

But far more importantly, what to drink with this dish? I immediately wanted a Sancerre, or any Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire, as the goat cheese seemed to ask for it. Having none in the house, I waffled back and forth for a while before deciding on another Loire white wine.

Yes, yes, yes, I am aware that this wine is eons away from its apex but it's the new vintage of Huet and I wanted to try a bottle. The 2009 Domaine Huet Vouvray Sec Clos du Bourg, $33, A Rare Wine Company Selection. There is plenty of pleasure here, although the wine is a mere baby and very tightly wound, inward. Based on the warm 2009 vintage, I was expecting a great deal of concentration, but that's not so. The wine definitely has an inner core of energy and power, but the texture is very fine. Its is a detailed, and at times delicate body. The nose is a joy, with lovely orchard fruit and floral aromas, pure and fresh. There is strong acidity and very good balance, and the wine is delicious but not yet very expressive of Clos du Bourg, or of any of the three Huet vineyards, really. It talks instead of very young, expertly made Vouvray. The finish takes on a nice herbal tone on day 2, although there wasn't much movement on the palate. This wine is years away from maturity, but it seems to me as though it will be great. And I loved it over those two days, and it went very well with my savory farro salad.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Champagne - Some Last Tidbits

Some odds and ends to wrap up my recent trip to Champagne:

First of all, I was wrong when I said that Peter Liem hasn't yet written about single-vineyard wines in Champagne. He wrote an article that appeared in the San Fransisco Chronicle a few years back, and like everything he writes, it's worth reading.

And speaking of Peter...he was a great host. Our first night in Dizy, after a day of driving from Paris and through the Marne to visit a couple of growers, Peter whipped up quite a dinner. He likes to cook Japanese food and we ate simmered Sea Bream, age-dashi tofu, bok choy and mushrooms, miso soup with enoki mushrooms, pickles, and rice that he prepared in a clay pot.

And we drank a delicious bottle of 1999 Marie-Noëlle Ledru Brut, and then an absurdly good bottle of 1976 Diebolt-Vallois Blanc de Blancs. Amazing wine - must age more Champagne.

We also drank a fair bit of Brandy de Jerez, including the rich and concentrated Equipo Navazos La Bota de Brandy Nº 13 and the deeply satisfying Gutierrez Colosía Brandy de Jerez Juan Sebastián Elcano Solera Gran Riserva.

Peter and I drank lots of other interesting things in the late evenings, including a pair of rare Amaro that are not imported to the US. With each sip I could feel the growing outrage and resentment from my friend, the writer of the Amari file.

I got a kick out of the lunch that Alexandre Chartogne served after tasting through his wines. The terrine with the aspic ring around it was good - pork head on top, a strip of blood sausage in the middle, and other parts on the bottom. But the one that looks like a loaf of bread, the terrine with fois gras and pastry around it, that one was truly memorable. A glass jar of fois gras too, in case we wanted to sample it without the bothersome pastry around it. There was cheese too. There were no vegetables. Everything was delicious, but I hope that his diet is typically more varied. I was assured that it isn't.

I had my first taste of Bordier butter. And I got to eat it several times, actually. With sea salt, with seaweed, and plain unsalted - each one a special treat with layers of flavor and texture that I didn't know could exist in butter. It reminded me of how simple things are usually not as simple as we think they are.
I listened to Charles Philipponnat talk for a while, and he is as knowledgeable as they come. Friendly and charming, too.

I drank more Georges Laval wine in one sitting than I am likely to in the next few years.

Including his great 2009 Coteaux Champenois, from the tank.

I walked by the old vertical press at Champagne Pierre Peters. It's no longer in use, but it is a beautiful thing.

I stood mid-slope in the Clos des Goisses and looked down at the village of Mareuil-sur-Aÿ.

It was an amazing and unforgettable trip, but beyond the wine and the food and everything else, the best part was that I got to spend so much time with my good friend.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Visiting Champagne Salon in Le Mesnil-Sur-Oger

My final visit of the Champagne trip was also one of the grandest, a visit to Champagne Salon. It was getting dark when we arrived but Export Director Jean-Baptiste (Tista) Cristini walked us out the back of the house and into a vineyard called Le Jardin.

Most of it was replanted in 2003 and none of the grapes have been used in Salon vintages since then. Still, it was a rush to be standing in one of the 20 vineyards that Salon uses to make their wine.

Salon has been around since the early 1900's, but there isn't a lot of wine to be had. They make one wine and one wine only, a vintage Brut Blanc de Blancs made entirely of Le Mesnil Chardonnay. And they don't make it very often. In the years since 1905 there have been only 37 vintages of Salon to come on the market.

For a Champagne house of such stature, it was a bit startling to see how little wine there is in the cellar. All of the Salon wine from the 1999, 2002, and 2004 vintages - all that there is for the whole world, is in this cellar (that looked kind of like a garage). And there are incredibly few bottles that remain of older vintages.

Walking through the cellars and looking at the few bottles of old wine, I had an experience that brought me quite close to forever etching my bad name in the collective memory of the Champenois. I was marveling at how few bottles there were of some old vintage and Tista spoke to me in a tone that I know well, as I use it when I'm trying to keep calm when, for example, asking my two year-old to put the scissors down. "You might want to move forward a little," he said. Calm, cool, collected. But I sensed the unspoken urgency in his voice and stepped forward, slowly. "You almost just knocked over our last 8 bottles of 1943 Salon, the year of the death of Mr. Salon himself." I honestly felt the bottles touching my coat as I stepped away.

Sighs of relief, nervous laughter. Tista decided to offer us a special treat, and picked out a bottle of 1982 Salon to disgorge right then, à la volée. Then we went upstairs to the tasting room.

Tista, by the way, will be married in a matter of two weeks, to his girlfriend of at least ten years. He will not wear the odd hat in this photo, made of white flowers and wire to his wedding. He will, however, be completely charming, as he always is. Congratulations on your wedding Tista, and all the best to you and your soon-to-be wife!

All together we tasted five vintages of Salon, including the 1999 which will be released in May of 2011. I have so little experience drinking Salon wines that my notes are useless, lacking in context. But I will tell you that each of the wines showed a regal presence, amazing depth, and sheer class of raw material. The 1982 was interesting because it was quite reductive at first. I enjoyed it anyway, its richness and class not completely obscured. We drank it hours later at Tista's house with dinner and it opened up beautifully, showing lovely mushroom notes, a palpable chalkiness, and great balance and finesse.

This was a wonderful way to close out my first visit to Champagne, by tasting the storied wines of Salon.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Hung up on Classification, Champagne Style

I think that the lines that distinguish grower Champagne from big house Champagne are too rigidly drawn. If a producer farms their own grapes and makes wine from those grapes, we say that they are making grower Champagne. If a producer like Francis Boulard, for example, buys just over 5% of the grapes he uses to make his wines, do we still say that he makes grower Champagne? Most of us would say yes, and that's probably because his practices in the vineyard and in the cellar reflect the values that are encapsulated within the grower Champagne ethos. We're willing to give a little, in other words, when categorizing producers and their wines.

Entry hall at Champagne Louis Roederer.

Unless those producers are operating on a large scale. Consider Louis Roederer, for example. Roederer is a huge estate that owns vineyards all over Champagne, over 200 hectares in total. Roederer's range includes a non-vintage Brut, three vintage wines including a Blanc de Blancs, a blended Brut, and a rosé, and then Cristal and Cristal Rosé. All of these wines are made exclusively from Roederer's own grapes, except for the non-vintage Brut. That's right - Cristal is a grower Champagne. And if you're ready to dispute this, thinking that the farming is Monsanto-style industrial, think again. Listen to what Peter Liem has to say in his overview of the house on
...Roederer has completely stopped using systemic herbicides and is increasingly investigating more environmentally-friendly methods of viticulture, even attempting trials at biodynamics beginning in 2007 (following a seven-year period of “cleaning” the relevant parcels), which has since been expanded to five hectares in all. Another 25 hectares are planted with cover crops, tilled and worked organically, and the house is seeking to gradually expand these practices in the future.
The grapes are estate grown, viticulture and cellar work is conscientious and modern, and yet I do not think that anyone who pays attention to these things would classify Cristal, or any of Roederer's wines as grower Champagnes. Unless I am misunderstanding the definition of grower Champagne, Roederer's wines are grower wines, except for the NV Brut.

The point of this, actually, is not to convince you that Roederer makes grower Champagne. The point is that our thinking about grower Champagne might be a bit too rigid, having been shaped by marketing forces that although more romantic and not as well funded, are still marketing forces, in the end.

Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon pouring 2002 Cristal.

What would you rather drink - Cédric Bouchard's Roses de Jeanne or Roederer's Cristal? Until recently I would have immediately chosen Bouchard's wine, and although I'm not sure right now which I consider to be the finer wine, in the past I would have always chosen Bouchard based on my ideas about the stylistic differences between the two houses. But you know what - Bouchard sells a wine that he didn't farm or make, wine that was made by an old friend of the family, a wine called Inflorescence La Parcelle. If you bought that wine before the 2007 vintage, you are buying wine that Cédric Bouchard selected, not farmed or made.

And there's nothing wrong with that! I love Inflorescence, and the fact that Cédric Bouchard didn't farm the grapes or make the wine himself doesn't make it a lesser wine. The fact that Roederer is huge and a luxury brand doesn't make Cristal a lesser wine. Rappers and bling aside, Cristal is among the greatest wines of Champagne, and if you reject it based on dogma about grower versus big house Champagne, you are shooting yourself in the foot.

2002 and 2004 Cristal, and pretty tasty too.

And here's another thing - I don't see how any Champagne can be considered to be "natural wine." Almost without exception, commercial yeasts are added to the bottle in order to initiate secondary fermentation, and that goes against the "natural wine" formula. So Bouchard, Selosse, Lassaigne, and all of the rest of them, everyone is equal when it comes to not conforming to "natural wine" standards.

Ever find yourself not buying Pierre Peters Champagne because it is too popular, a Terry Theise big house within the world of grower Champagne? Ever find yourself turning up your nose at a glass of Roederer NV Brut in favor of another, perhaps lesser wine because Roederer is a big house? Every find yourself secretly thinking that some or other grower Champagne really doesn't taste so great, or secretly enjoying a glass of big house wine? I have, and it's all pretty silly. Pierre Peters makes utterly fantastic Champagne, truly fine wines, and so does Roederer. The Roederer NV Brut will surprise you if you drink it with an open mind. Actually, I have no idea what you'll think of it. But neither do you, unless you get rid of the presumptions that we both have about big houses and grower wines. These presumptions grew out of noble ideas, but we might not need them anymore, as we become more sophisticated drinkers who can think for ourselves.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Visiting Champagne Marie-Noëlle Ledru in Ambonnay

It was 5 pm and getting dark, and it was raining when we parked in front of Marie-Noëlle Ledru's house in Ambonnay.

We had already made two visits that day and honestly, I was looking forward to relaxing, eating dinner, drinking some wine. Tired, cold, and standing in the rain, we still couldn't help but stop to admire her simple and lovely house.

The walls are made of chalk, just like most of the houses in Ambonnay, she told us. You can see it in the picture above - a spot of wall does not have an outer coating and the chalk is exposed.

We went inside and warmed up by the fireplace before heading next door to her cellars and winery.
Ledru disgorges every bottle she makes by hand. This is a lot of work, very repetitive. A neighbor helps her, she said. There is a little "hutch," if you will, that catches the capsule and yeast plugs.

Then the bottles are inserted into this contraption that dispenses liquor for dosage.

Ledru hand riddles her wines, too. When you drink a bottle of Ledru wine, you know that she handled it at every aspect, from grape to press to tank to bottle, and then she riddled the bottle and disgorged it herself too.

Instead of attempting to piece together a suitable introduction to her wines, I will instead reprint one paragraph from Peter Liem's overview of the estate on

Ledru owns five hectares in Ambonnay and one in Bouzy, with a total of 30 different parcels. All of the vineyards are planted with cover crops and tilled, and she uses no herbicides or insecticides, seeking to work her vines as naturally as possible. The same sensibility extends to the cellar, where she makes the wines without filtration, without cold-stabilization and without any sulfur at disgorgement. Fermentation is all in stainless steel and enameled steel tanks, for their neutrality, and the malolactic is allowed for all wines. “I do the malo because for me it’s natural,” she says. The wines are aged for a respectably long time on their lees, averaging about three years for the brut sans année and five years for the vintage wines, and all disgorgement is done by hand, in a fashion not dissimilar to how it might have been done two or three generations ago. Ledru only bottles about half of her production, meaning that there’s very little wine to go around, and the other half is sold to the négoce, most notably to the houses of Pol Roger and Deutz.
I would add to this only one thing - Ledru's production will be smaller soon, as her family seems to have reclaimed some of the vines they were renting to her.

The range begins with a non-vintage Brut and Extra Brut, the same wine but with longer aging on the lees. I had never had the NV Brut before and I was very impressed. It shows a bit of everything that makes her wines so good - purity and freshness, clean and ripe fruit, refinement and control, and intense vinosity. She disgorged a bottle of the NV Brut for us, based on the great 2008 vintage. It was excellent wine, pure class, and it will be released later this year.

Then we tasted her vintage wines, beginning with the utterly delicious 2002 Brut Nature Grand Cru. This is such a lovely wine, with startling clarity and precision to the dark, dark fruit. There is great acidity and balance, and a layer of chalk runs underneath.

We drank the new release of Ledru's top wine, the Cuvée du Goulté, a Blanc de Noirs made from "the best of the best" parcels in Ambonnay. The 2006 is only the second vintage to make it to the US, I believe, and it is a great wine. Find it and buy it great. The aromas are broad and strikingly diverse, with zesty citrus peel, powerful dark fruit, earth, and salt. Beautifully balanced and just delicious on the palate, and this wine seemed to me that it has a whole lot in store for those who wait.

Ledru's blended rosé is special too, as it is made with her still red wine, which is delicious in its own right. I do not remember the vintage that the rosé we tasted is based on, but it was aromatically alluring, spicy, well balanced, and so very drinkable.

All the time we tasted, by the way, Marie-Noëlle Ledru sat across from us, near the fireplace with her cat on her lap.

We ended our tasting by begging to sample Ledru's Ambonnay Rouge, a wine that she didn't make in 2010 because of low yields. Not enough Pinot to make Coteaux Champenois in 2010, according to several of the producers we visited. Vincent Laval, for example, made a rosé instead (so delicious that it was painful). This is the wine that Ledru uses to make her blended rosé. Ledru's 2008 Ambonnay Rouge was broad and airy on the nose, with spicy and floral nuances that complicated the rich fruit. Elegant and spare, this wine is so perfectly balanced that it will fool those who are not paying attention into thinking that is simple. It is not! It's beauty lies, in part, in its complete harmony and seamlessness.

I've had Ledru's wines before and always enjoyed them, but his visit helped me to understand why Peter has been trumpeting the quality of Ledru's wines for so long. And the amazing thing is that unlike some other small estates making wonderful Champagne, Ledru's wines are not expensive. Cuvée du Goulté, her top wine, a world class Blanc de Noirs, will not run you more than $65 in NYC. If you want to try them and are having trouble finding them, Bonhomie Wine Imports brings them to the east coast and Triage Wines brings (brought?) them to the west coast.

Monday, February 07, 2011

A Trend Toward Single-Vineyard Wine in Champagne?

The hills of Champagne, as in Burgundy, are divided into many individually named vineyards, some containing more than one lieu-dit, or named parcel. In Burgundy the decision was made a long time ago to bottle the wines from each vineyard separately, and we can compare Vosne-Romanée 1er Cru Les Suchots to Vosne-Romanée 1er Cru Les Beaux-Monts, or to any other of the 14 or so 1er Cru vineyards in that village.

Champagne houses, in general, followed a different path. Champagne is a blended wine, mostly. Wines from different vineyards within a village, and from different villages altogether, wines from different vintages are blended. Although this tradition clearly hasn't hurt the quality of the wines, their reputation around the world, or the price they command, it is probably one of the issues that create questions for some people about the degree to which Champagne expresses terroir.

I am certainly not the person you should look to for the latest news in Champagne, but it seems to me as though there is a trend towards single-vineyard wines, particularly among young producers. Makes perfect sense, when you think about it. As grower Champagne continues to gain in popularity, the producers of these wines can offer new products to their expanding audience, especially when those products further extend part of the grower ethos - that of expressing terroir.

I began to think about this during our visit with Alexandre Chartogne of Champagne Chartogne-Taillet. After lots of tasting in the cellar we were back in the comfortable and warm reception room, tasting through the current lineup of wines. I remembered that Chartogne-Taillet makes a Blanc de Blancs, but we weren't drinking it. When I asked if he still makes it, Alexandre said that it is now bottled as Les Heurtebises, the vineyard it comes from.

The next morning I thought of this again with Vincent Laval in the cellars at Champagne Georges Laval, as Vincent told us about the conditions in Les Chênes and Les Hautes-Chèvres, the vineyards that produce his single-vineyard Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Laval's estate is tiny, producing no more than 10,000 bottles per year, and yet he bottles these wines separately. And they command very high prices - at least $150 per bottle.

I thought of this again later that day, tasting with Raphaël Bérèche. Beginning with the 2007 vintage, he makes an old vines Pinot Meunier from the vineyard of Les Misy in Port à Binson. It is called Vallée de la Marne Rive Gauche, and Bérèche's intentions are clearly announced on the wine's label, as the place of origin is far more prominent than the family name. The back label, by the way, contains information on the vineyard, disgorgement date, and everything else that we might want to know.

Around this time I asked Peter what he thinks of this trend, if it is in fact a trend. "I've been meaning to write something about that," he said. That's fine - we can wait together to read whatever it is Peter has to say on this issue.

The next day I thought of this again, but in an entirely different context. At Philipponnat, a larger house, we drank Clos des Goisses, one of the most celebrated wines of Champagne, and also a single-vineyard wine. The house could theoretically blend much of the grapes into non-vintage wines, use some for a vintage wine, and sell many more bottles much more quickly than they do with Clos des Goisses, which ages on its lees for way beyond the required three years. But Charles Philipponnat and the others at the house understand how special the vineyard is, and bottle it separately.

And later that day at Salon, when Export Director Jean-Baptiste (Tista) Cristini showed me around the gorgeous house and property. We looked at a picture frame that contained a menu from Maxim's in Paris, from 1928. It reads "Salon 1921 - Mesnil Nature, cuvée pure de raisins blancs." This means "Pure Mesnil, Blanc de Blancs." There were other wines offered on the menu, but none of them mentioned the place of origin. I guess Mesnil has been considered great terroir for a long time, and Salon recognized the power of marketing the single village wine.

My point, I guess, is that perhaps this is nothing new, this trend toward single-vineyard wines in Champagne. If it is, in fact, a trend. Maybe it's a cycle and we're approaching a single-vineyard section of the wheel. The real question, in the end, might be why are there more single-vineyard wines appearing in Champagne, and what impact will they have? As I mentioned before, we can wait together for Peter on those questions.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Storing Champagne

Did you know that there are several types of closures used for secondary fermentation in Champagne? And several closures used by producers to store Champagne as it ages? I suppose this is not shocking, but I hadn't really thought about it until I saw bottles in cellars and started asking questions. Here are some of the things I found out.

Vin clair, the base wine of Champagne, undergoes secondary fermentation in bottle. Typically the bottles are closed with capsules, like with a soda bottle.

The bottles in this photo are Vincent Laval's, of Champagne Georges Laval. Non-vintage wines must be stored on their lees for a minimum of 15 months, vintage wines for a minimum of three years, and then they are disgorged and closed with a cork (and there are several types of corks used here, but that is a different story), and shipped out for the world to drink.

There are producers who prefer to ferment their wines under cork. Raphaël Bérèche of Bérèche Père et Fils is one of them. The cap does not allow for any appreciable exchange of gases, and Bérèche feels that his wines are better when fermented and aged under cork, allowing minute quantities of air to enter the bottle.

I asked him if he has compared cap and cork fermented wines with a decent amount of post-disgorgement aging, and he has. "They evolve differently," he says, and he prefers cork. Fermenting under cork requires much more work in the cellar, however, and Bérèche currently ferments only the top wine created by his father called Reflet D'Antan, and his own new wines called Instant and Vallée de la Marne Rive Gauche. The rest of the range is fermented under capsule.

Champagne producers, like most wine producers anywhere I would imagine, hold back wines for themselves to watch their progression over time. Sometimes these wines are disgorged and then aged as you or I would age Champagne (except our cellars are not underground and cavernous) - in a cool dark place, sealed with a cork and a wire cage. I saw plenty of these bottles as I toured various cellars. Some are really quite old, and preserve the history of their family's work as wine makers. These are bottles made by Marie-Noëlle Ledru's father Michel (I think that was his name) in the 1950's.

Some producers store old wines that have not been disgorged. They are sealed under caps and kept fully inverted, stored sur pointe, as these bottles of 1982 Réserve Millésimée in the Philipponnat cellars.

The interesting thing with bottles stored sur pointe is that the lees remain in the bottle for the length of storage. Think about that - if the wine in question is from the 1982 vintage, the wine has had 28 years of lees contact. That would probably be too much lees contact, except that the bottles are riddled and the lees is collected in the neck before the bottles are stored sur pointe, so that the lees have far less surface area and they simply protect the wine from oxidation.

Drinking a bottle of old Champagne that has been disgorged and stored on cork is as as simple as removing the cork and pouring the wine. On this trip we were lucky enough to drink several old wines that had been stored this way. Rodolphe Péters of Champagne Pierre Péters was absurdly generous and opened several old bottles for us.

The 1990 Pierre Péters Blanc de Blancs Brut Millésimé was delicious and showed intriguing mushroom and sous-bois aromas, and felt young and energetic on the palate. It was perfectly balanced and seemed like it could live on for another decade at least, probably longer. The 1973 Pierre Péters Blanc de Blancs Brut Millésimé was one of the finest old bottles of Champagne that I have ever tasted. The wine had a beautiful orange color, and incredibly vibrant aromas and flavors. Chamomile, mandarin, honey, flowers...but those are just words that don't really do the wine justice. It was a tremendously beautiful old bottle.

Then Rodolphe Péters, for reasons that I still do not comprehend, decided to open a bottle of 1921 Camille Péters Champagne Demi-sec. This was the last bottle in his family's cellars. It was dark amber in color and tasted like the freshest Madeira, which is to say, delicious.

The cork was a work of art.

Drinking a bottle of old Champagne that has been stored sur pointe is a bit more difficult. The wine must be disgorged first, a process made to look simple by the producers, but I have no doubt that I would destroy a wine attempting to disgorge it. A wooden and metal tool that is probably exactly the same as it was 75 years ago is used to pry off the capsule.

First the bottle is held upside down, and obviously it is a good idea not to disturb the lees in the neck.

As the bottle is tilted upward the capsule is pried off and the pressure in the bottle forces the lees plug to fly out of the bottle. A little bit of wine is lost too. This process is called disgorging à la volée. No dosage is added to wines disgorged à la volée and from what I am told, the wine is best when consumed immediately. On this trip we drank several bottles that were disgorged à la volée, including the bottle being disgorged by Charles Philipponnat in the above photos, the 1979 Philipponnat Grand Blanc, a Blanc de Blancs made from Côte de Blancs and Montaigne de Reims grapes. The wine was just delicious, complex and deep, and I don't know if it is because it is a little younger, because the 1979 vintage ages differently, or if storing sur pointe is the reason, but it felt structurally younger than wines that had been disgorged long ago, as if its inner core had not aged as quickly as its outer flavors and aromas.

It would be fascinating to one day drink examples of wines aged on cork compared to the same wines disgorged à la volée. I suppose that means I will have to go back to Champagne some day.