The grandest singular symbol of all occasions deemed special
As 2018 comes to a close, one final beginning lurks: winter officially arrives on Friday, December 21st. With the new season and new year ‘round the corner, it’s only fitting that we honor both the farewell and greeting with one last round of special bottles. For it’s worth being reminded that no matter how short the days or long the nights ahead, there’s always a good reason to celebrate, through one of the oldest and most coveted creations of all time: wine.
Certainly since the 17th and 18th century days of Dom Perignon and Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin (Veuve Cliquot), two historic individuals who are synonymous with Champagne (the region), champagne (the wine) has been the grandest singular symbol of all occasions deemed special. Their respective contributions to the process of making champagne are vinification benchmarks that, to this day, are present in numerous sparkling wines of both the old and new world, including Cava from Spain and Franciacorta, from Italy.
For this last issue of the year, I’ve chosen to celebrate a few families who, for generations, have been producing great champagne. These are people who at the end of the day are family farmers, creators of something timeless and magical, born of hard work, shared responsibilities and a collective, generational effort to offer one thing that everyone can experience, enjoy and celebrate.
In Champagne, there are two predominant varietals, chardonnay and pinot noir. If you’ve ever heard of Blanc de Blanc (white wine from white grapes) or Blanc de Noir (white from red), that’s where that comes from. A third varietal, the black grape pinot meunier, is often used as a blending component, mostly in mass-produced wines, adding fruitiness and youthfulness. In the upper and highest quality levels of champagne, you have Premier (1er) Cru and Grand Cru; and these wines come from the most exclusive grape growing sites in the world, producing the best champagnes in the world. More often than not, these tiny plots are owned by families who’ve been there for generations, both as farmers and producers. As I wrote back in May, a grower champagne producer makes wine exclusively and solely grown from their own estate. It’s the best.
I love a great wine at a great price. And when it comes to Blanc de Blanc champagne, my personal favorite, there’s truly no greater value in the world than Chapuy. Champagne Chapuy is a family estate of about 18 acres of vineyards, and they’ve been growing grapes there for over 100 years. Located in the tiny Grand Cru village of Oger, the family is permanently linked to their village’s history, as one of its ancestors was mayor of the village after the French Revolution. Though wine growing is in the family lineage, pre-dating production, it was Serge Chapuy who was the actual brand creator and started to commercialize Chapuy champagne in 1952. Today, his son Arnold runs the estate with his two grandchildren, Elodie and Aurore.
Chapuy Grand Cru BdB is a beautiful wine, 100% chardonnay, matured on its lees in the bottle (“sur lattes”) for over 2 years, with additional aging after disgorging (yeast removal, reserve wine added and re-corking). Yellow-gold in color, with aromas of biscuit, baked apple and citrus, it’s a delicate wine, yet rich and full with boundless fruit and energy. Small, penetrating bubbles that seemingly never end let you know that only the highest quality of fruit is used; and with only 3500 cases produced per year, the exclusivity of it all resonates. What’s really incredible though is the price, an absolute steal at less than $45. And as the family’s estate motto goes, “A premium quality Champagne at an owner price”.
What Oger is to Blanc de Blanc, Verzenay is to Blanc de Noir, champagne that’s made exclusively from pinot noir. Patrick Arnould is a 5th generation winemaker, and his family owns 28 acres of vineyards in Verzenay, planted with 80% pinot noir and 20% chardonnay. The Michel-Arnould Brut Grand Cru NV is pure Blanc de Noir and considered by many the champ of Verzenay. And to speak of the family’s greatness when it comes to grape growing, any extra fruit that Arnould has left, after his wine is produced, is also sold exclusively to Bollinger. They also know greatness when they see it. Production is less than 8500 cases per year, very exclusive.
As for the Michel-Arnould Brut Grand Cru NV wine itself, the pale gold color illuminates a thick stream of creamy bubbles. A rich nose filled with notes of yellow peach, cassis and chalk creates a palate that’s voluminous and resplendent with perfect fruit. The finish is citrusy and times out exceptionally well. This wine is best suited as an aperitif, or an elevated accompaniment to pork tenderloin, with maybe apricots or a fruitcake. And again, like the Chapuy, it’s remarkably priced, at about $45.
And finally, no champagne collection would be complete without rose’. As is sometimes the case, rose’ champagnes are produced with both pinot noir and chardonnay; and my wine of choice here follows suit. Produced by one of the great growers in the Grand Cru village of Ay, Gatinois Champagne Brut Rose Grand Cru NV is a jewel in the crown of grower champagne.
Pierre Cheval Gatinois can trace back his winemaking heritage 11 generations, and he is currently the President of the Grower’s Association in Champagne. He owns 17 acres of vineyards, divided up into 29 different parcels, predominantly pinot noir, with a small plot of chardonnay. As stated, the rose’ is a blend, 90% pinot noir, 10% chardonnay. Total production is just 4200 cases per year. His techniques are timeless, as there’s no inoculation – only naturally occurring yeast starts the fermentation. Also, there is no oak used. As Pierre says, “Oak is an artifice that everyone uses today to make something different, yet they all end up making something very similar!”
And like Michel-Arnould, any remaining fruit that Pierre doesn’t use is sold exclusively to his next-door neighbor, Bollinger (and they only use it for their Tete de Cuvee, Grand Anne’). Starting to see a trend here? Now you know what really makes Bollinger so valued. Rest assured, neither Patrick Arnould nor Pierre Gatinois are selling better fruit to Bollinger. The best is in their champagne only.
Gatinois Champagne Brut Rose Grand Cru NV is a gorgeous wine, with intense salmon-colored hues. Elegant in style, both the nose and palate offer up an abundance of red fruits, strawberries and cherries, and a dash of spice which evolves into lingering notes of blackberries and Morello cherries on the very rich finish. This is a food wine, no doubt, perfect for the holidays, perfect for an end of year toast. Priced closer to $60, this is an exclusive rose’ champagne, worthy of a large and meaningful celebration.
It’s been a wonderful wine year, and I would like to thank all of you who have read my columns and responded with great enthusiasm to the wines I’ve been privileged to present. I’d like to also extend my sincere thanks to my esteemed colleague and friend, Tom Bjornsen, for his contributions to this month’s column.
I look forward to introducing many more new and great wines in 2019, and wish you all a wonderful Holiday season, full of great wines and family traditions…until next year, Happy Vino-ing!