Wednesday, January 21, 2009
A Day in Champagne
There are many nice things about being in Paris. But one of the best is being only an hour or so by car or TGV from that winemaking region so close to my heart, Champagne. Yes, Champagne... Swoon...
It's a large area, with various terrains and terroirs. In the winter, and in fact for most of the year, the weather is grey and damp, which means the grapes struggle to ripen. But it is this struggle which allows them to retain the high acidity necessary for good Champagne. The soils are mainly chalk with some limestone thrown in for good measure, and each geological feature affects the grapes differently. Limestone usually leads to bigger, brawnier wines, while chalk gives more minerality and precision to the wines.
If you're into vintage Champagne, then you should know that they are comparing 2008 to 1996: lots of acidity but lots of power, and from the few '08 vins clairs (still wines) I tasted, I have to agree. This is going to be a very nice vintage.
Our first stop was cancelled due to a death in the family, so we headed over to our second appointment, at Champagne Veuve Fourny. Located in the small town of Vertus, in the Cotes des Blancs, the family has been making Champagne since the 1930s. However, they were growing grapes as far back as the 1870s. Nowadays, two brothers, Emmanuel and Charlie, run the place. I had heard of them but had never tasted their wines so I was looking forward to this.
They also fully own the tiny plot of land known as the Clos du Faubourg Notre Dame. They make a bottling from the grapes grown in the Clos, and to say it was good would be an understatement. It was fantastic! They also own the only plot of Pinot Noir in the Cotes des Blancs (only white grapes are allowed in this area), which they use to make their rosé (both in saignée and assemblage styles).
We also got a tour of the cellars, where thousands of bottles sit at a 45 degree angle upside down, their lees collecting in their necks. Anyone remember the Charlie Chaplin movie "Modern Times"? His character's hand-twitches after a day on the assembly line would be perfect here. Riddlers, as they were called, used to turn each bottle a tiny bit by hand each day, though now of course there are machines to do this.
Some of the wines are finished in oak, and we saw the malolactic fermentation (where tart malic acid is turned into softer lactic acid) taking place in one cellar. Those are bubbles frothing from the bung.
Emmanuel generously poured all their cuvées for us while we sat in their sun-dappled atrium. The wines were all quite nice, some verging on absolutely fantastic (especially the R and the Rosé). But to me the best part was hanging out with the winemaker and chatting with him, he was both gracious and generous.
My friend Nicos, who drove us to Champagne, liked the wines so much he bought a few, perhaps too many, cases, stuffing them into the trunk of his car. Eventually, we squeezed in and said our good-byes.
We met up with a Champagne writer for Wine & Spirits magazine, Peter Liem, at Champagne Diebolt Vallois. He and the owner, Jacques Diebolt, gave us an expansive tour and tasting. I thought the wines were OK, a bit on the sweet side (his dosage is relatively high compared to Veuve Fourny's). Maybe I was tired and cold and damp, but I seem to recall liking these wines a lot more in the US. Still, it was interesting to meet Jacques, he is quite the character.
All in all it was a good day, despite Nicos' bout of gastro-enteritis and the cold, damp weather. We met some great people, had some great tastings, and came home with a few new wines to share among friends and family.