Sophie's Glass

I am a lucky gal. I work in an industry I love, full of interesting, smart people, many of whom are erstwhile musicians, artists, or academics, the majority of whom love to cook and eat great food; these are people who care immensely about the cultures and landscapes that produce wine, etc… This is only the tip of the iceberg. I get to use my voice and the reach of the shop I work for to support small farmers in France, Italy, Germany, etc… I get to tell their stories and share their craft with (for the most part) sympathetic and curious enthusiasts in the US. And as if this weren’t enough, I really only curate sections of the wine shop that excite me. I can avoid the entire categories of Argentine Malbec and California Chardonnay if I want to. This is not to say that there are not good examples of these wines floating around, bottles I’d be happy to spend an evening with, but let’s face it: the wines I love are high acid, usually low alcohol, often either white, pink, or low-tannin red wines. Yep. I’ve got it made.

I consider one of the greatest perks of my work life to be that I taste a lot Champagne. This past week two excellent Champagnes crossed my path and they were so different from one another that I began freshly to ponder what constitutes a good bottle of this finest of bubbly wines. I have a confession to make, namely that I’m a bit of a Champagne hipster. I don’t drink from the big houses, although I’m gearing up to drink a bottle of 2004 Roederer Crystal that came my way recently. And I’m ready to be open minded about this bottle of wine as many reliable Champagne lovers, amongst them Peter Liem of Champagneguide.net, have told me that Roederer is a superior Champagne house. Also, I’ve never tasted Crystal! I might don my leather booty shorts for the occasion. (Clearly, I’ll let you know what I think… about the wine, that it.) For the most part, I drink wines from small grower producers, the smaller the better, the more organic the better, the lower the dosage the better. I’m not particularly enamored with wines from the Côtes des Bars and I don’t have a preference for Pinot Meunier, but in essentially all other respects, I’m a Champagne hipster.

The first great bottle that recently came my way was 2004 Franck Pascal Blanc des Noirs “Harmonie,” one of the few remaining bottles on the shelf at Chambers Street. This was recommended by my very good friend, AR, whom I have had several occasions to mention. AR is not a Champagne (or any other kind of) hipster, but as open-minded a drinker as you’ll find working in the business. She may have more of a penchant for Meunier than I do, but I can’t swear it. I hadn’t had Harmonie in some time and AR reported that it was drinking very well right now. Time to find out…A couple of years ago I visited Franck Pascal and though he made quite an impression on me, his wines made less of an impression. Franck is intensely passionate about organic and biodynamic viticulture. He was an industrial engineer until he decided to return to his own village of Baslieux-sur-Châtillon to make wine. Franck did a brief stint in the army, where he learned to hate chemicals. He says that learning the effects of chemicals on the human body made him detest the use of them in the vines. This hatred of chemicals has been born out in the kind of viticulture he practices; he stopped using pesticides in ’98 and beginning to convert to organics in 2000. Pascal has also experimented with biodynamics, which he says changes the texture of the grape and the resultant wine as well, giving more structure, minerality, and a longer finish to the wine. For him biodynamics gives life back to the soil.  Pascal’s Domaine is north of the Marne River in the western part of Champagne. The soil is mostly clay with “calcaire dur” (hard limestone). This is Pinot Meunier country and 60% of Pascal’s Domaine is planted to Meunier.In the cellar, Pascal does not use wood, preferring the cut imparted to base wines fermented in stainless steel. If you think about it, this makes sense. Pinot Meunier grown on clay soil has a much riper, heavier presence inherently than, for example, Chardonnay grown on chalk. While someone like Pascal Agrapart in Avize might like the roundness wood gives to his Chardonnay, the same treatment applied to Meunier could result in a ponderous wine lacking liveliness, which is essential in Champagne. However Pascal’s base wines do go through malolactic fermentation, which could be due to a desire to minimize sulfur use, but this is speculation.

It’s hard to put my finger on what I didn’t love about Pascal’s wines at the time of our visit. Certainly then I had not consumed remotely as much Champagne as I now have, but I think the terroir is, frankly, not my favorite. While I like Champagne grown on clay, sand, sandstone, and limestone, I prefer Champagne grown on chalk. It’s a bit difficult to put into words what chalk gives to Champagne – an intensely powdery and shelly note to the nose, a porous and mouth-coating quality to the finish. It’s addictive; I swear. Anyway, wines from the Marne are less chalky and rounder as a general rule, as are wines from north of Reims such as the wines of Chartogne-Taillet and Francis Boulard. These are all commendable Champagnes, but they don’t quite send me the way my favorites from chalkier soils do.

I find Pascal’s wines to be subtle, though distinct, attaining their depth and resonance from good vineyard work. I approve of this entirely, but at the time of the visit, the wines didn’t thrill me. I’ve had good, though not transcendental (until now) experiences with the wines since then. Last summer we had a Meunier tasting at the wine store and I showed Pascal’s Sagesse, which is in fact only 57% Meunier. It was such a rustic, manly Champagne, offering ample earth and funk and dark-toned, burnished fruit (though not much of it…) It had some commonalities with the wines of Tarlant, another Marne Valley grower making unapologetically dry, terroir-driven Champagnes. Who knows what I wanted… more elegance and more chalk? What a silly thought – like wanting red wines from the Jura to taste like Burgundies.

At any rate, 2004 Harmonie was my first transcendental Pascal wine. How to describe it? The wine is 50/50 Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier and it shows qualities of both grapes, the deeply earthy and almost Sake like notes of Meunier and the pretty, spicy, gingery notes of Noir. The wine clung to its Pascal-ness, the funk of Meunier, the length and minerality of wine grown on living soils. Furthermore just a little bit of age had sweetened the fruit, balancing the wine’s intense acidity. In youth I have found Pascal’s wines to be a trifle austere, but this bottle seemed to have fleshed out and become stately and elegant in a big-boned sort of way. It’s always a question with Extra Brut Champagnes how long they’ll age as dosage helps the aging process. Perhaps the answer is that one needs to catch them about a decade after the vintage date… Thanks to this experience, I’ll turn fresh eyes to Franck Pascal’s roster of wines.

A couple of days later, with Harmonie still on the brain, I opened a bottle of Diebolt-Vallois Cuvée Prestige. Let me back up and say that every once in awhile, and I can count the number of times this has happened to me on the fingers of one hand, a customer gives me a bottle of wine. Though I have carried Diebolt CP at Chambers before, I haven’t carried it in some time, and this particular bottle was a gift from a client in Pennsylvania who is, himself, a wine retailer. He and I have exchanged thoughts about Champagne many times; he’s bought Ledru and Laval from me and was recently blown away by 2008 “Autrefois” from Laherte. (Who could blame him? It’s a great bottle…) He may have been thanking me for letting him snap up quite a bit of my 2008 Ledru Goutle, but I think it’s most likely that he’s just a super nice, generous guy.I have not had the privilege of visiting Diebolt-Vallois though I fully intend to do so. I’ll have to content myself with Peter’s recounting of the history and methods at this Domaine. The estate is based in Cramant and its present incarnation is the result of the marriage between Jacques Diebolt and Nadia Vallois, both with roots in the northern Côte des Blancs. This is an estate with deep family history in one of the most well-known parts of Champagne. I say this to highlight the difference between where Franck Pascal makes wine, a small outlying village in the Vallée de la Marne, and where Jacques Diebolt makes wine, one of the most famous Grand Crus in the Côte des Blancs. There is also, of course, a difference of terroir. Cramant is chalky soil; Baslieux-sur-Châtillon is predominantly clay.

I had my first Diebolt-Vallois wine at Convivio, when Levi Dalton was working as the wine director there. It was delicious in the kind of sleek, polished, and extremely satisfying way that classically made, high quality Champagnes can be. I’ve had the wines on numerous occasions since and I stock the “regular” Blanc des Blancs in half bottles at Chambers Street. I might stock more wines from Diebolt, but it’s not an organic Domaine, rather a traditional Champagne estate that has, in fact, recently become registered as a négociant-manipulant in order to buy grapes from a family member in Cuis to use in the blends. As Peter mentions this on his site, he refers to “RM snobs.” I don’t know that I’m “an RM snob;” as long as the wine is good and the operation small and family run, which Diebolt-Vallois is, I could care less whether there’s a tiny “R” or a tiny “N” on the label. Because of the party line I’m obliged to tow at CSW, I try to stock organic and biodynamic Champagnes. I also believe vines farmed without chemicals produce better wines, but this wine was fantastic, so who am I to judge?

As I read about this edition of Diebolt CP on Champagneguide.net (before actually drinking the bottle, incidentally), there was one thing that confused me. Peter lists this wine as “base 2009” then tells us that it’s 56% 2008. 30% is 2009 juice that would have gone into the Fleur de Passion bottling, which was not made in 2009, and 14% is 2007. I guess I would think that this blend would make it a 2008 base… further research needed. The 2008 and 2007 juice in the blend is foudre-raised and the 2009 is, I assume, tank-raised as is the practice with the various three vintages in CP. As soon as I discovered that this “base 2009” was actually mostly 2008 fruit, I got very excited.  There’s just something about 2008 that transforms otherwise good wines into true things of beauty. Never before have I known a vintage to leave such a clearly perceptible mark (with the exception of 2004 red Burgundy, but in this case the mark is generally thought to be bad rather than good).

Upon first opening, the wine was creamy textured, lemony and almost lemon curd-y in a way I found quite pleasant. The dosage was higher than I’m used to at this point, but it worked given the high acidity and density of 2008 juice. (As an aside, when I mentioned to Brooklynguy that I had thoroughly enjoyed this bottle, his first comment was “isn’t that a bit high dosage for you?” I know why he said this. We have drunk and discussed quite a bit of Champagne together and my tastes seem to run dogmatically drier than his. In defense of my preference for drier-styled Champagnes, I’d say that dosage often masks flaws in not very interesting Champagne. Well-done dosage is a wonderful thing, clearly, but dosage as a form of makeup is not so great. There’s my two cents.) It wasn’t until the bottle had been open for several hours that it began to sing. The dosage receded to the background and the wine’s chalkiness, which I found more on the palate than on the nose shone through like a beacon of light illuminating and enlivening the wine. By the time there was just a glass or two left in the bottle, the wine had become so magnificent that it was virtually impossible to think about anything else. I suppose I paid it the ultimate compliment: the next morning on the way to work, I emailed the person who sells us Diebolt and requested all the rest of their stock. It’s coming Monday, if you want some.

There you have it: two extremely different Champagnes, the mature (ish) and the young, the avant garde and the classic, the Blanc des Noirs and the Blanc des Blancs, the clay and the chalk, the tank and the foudre, the very dry and the not-quite-so-dry. Thank God there are so many styles of Champagne to enjoy, and thank God my chosen path allows me to try so many…