Ame Restaurant, San Francisco, California
Tasted Tuesday, October 18, 2011 by Richard Jennings with 1,332 views
Nothing goes better with the mood, and the food, of the holiday season than sparkling wine. Most of us think Champagne when we think sparkling wine, and there are many fine and complex sparkling wines produced by large and small producers in Champagne, nearly all of which are exceptionally food friendly. Very good sparkling wines are made all over the winemaking world, however. Some of my favorite non-Champagne sparkling wines come from Spain, Italy and the Loire region of France.
I taste a lot of sparkling wines, as I think it's a very important category of wine that deserves more recognition, and because they pair terrifically with a wide range of food. I recently wrote about this year's somewhat disappointing crop of major house Champagnes, and many from grower producers as well, here: http://www.rjonwine.com/champagne/disappointing-non-vintage-2011/. I also recently had an opportunity to taste through most of the greatest grower producer Champagnes, as well as tasty sparkling wines from Austria, Germany, Greece, Burgundy, the Loire and Spain, at the annual tasting of the lineup from an importer who is the man most responsible for promoting grower Champagnes (and Austrian and German wines) in this country--Terry Theise.
Terry Theise, right, with Rare Wine Co.'s Mannie Berk
The great houses of Champagne--household names like Veuve Clicquot, Moet & Chandon and Krug-- produce huge volumes of wine. While they may own some vineyards, they purchase the bulk of the grapes they need from dozens of the Champagne region's 19,000 growers. They typically blend wines from different vintages, and vineyards, to produce house style wines that consumers can be confident will be virtually the same from year to year. In contrast to these major brands are the much smaller grower producers who make Champagne exclusively, or almost exclusively, from their own estate vineyards. (French laws allow such grower-producers--who can be identified by the initials RM, for Récoltant-Manipulant, before the number on the wine label--to use up to 5% purchased grapes.)
Because of their much smaller production levels, based on the yield of their own vineyards, the Champagnes produced by growers tend to vary more dramatically from vintage to vintage, although many such producers do hold back a certain quantity of wine each year for blending, to minimize vintage distinctions in their non-vintage wines. They can also be quite distinctive, owing to the particular vineyards such growers are working with, and their unique terroirs. Until very recently, only a small portion of the more than 3500 grower Champagnes available in France were imported to the U.S., less than 5%. They still make up only a tiny percentage of the overall Champagne market--about 3% as of 2008.
Terry Theise is a very articulate proponent for terroir--wines that speak of a particular place. It is therefore natural that along with the great wines of Austria and Germany that have long gone relatively unappreciated in this country, Terry became a promoter and importer of grower Champagnes, as distinctive wines of place. Terry's Estate Selections and the sparkling wines and Champagnes from the WineWise Portfolio that were presented at the tasting event I attended in mid-October include most of the great grower producers: Vilmart, Pierre Péters, H. Billiot, Chartogne-Taillet, Gaston Chiquet, Henri Goutorbe, Jean Milan, Marc Hébrart, A. Margaine and Pierre Gimonnet. These great Champagnes, represented in many cases by the winemaker or a member of the family that owns and runs the domaine, were poured alongside a variety of other sparkling wines. In all, I tasted 87 sparkling wines from 25 producers at this event. These were impressive wines across the board, and a very strong group of producers. Virtually all of the wines listed below would work well with a variety of foods--the flavor components that dominate in particular wines are identified in my tasting notes that follow.
My very top picks from this event for delicious sparkling wines not only for this holiday season, but for the special occasions and meals demanding food friendly wines in the months to come, sparkling wines that I rated 91 points or higher, are:
N.V. Schloss Gobelsburg Brut Réserve - 91+ points
N.V. H. Billiot Brut Réserve - 91 points
N.V. H. Billiot Brut Rosé Grand Cru - 91+ points
N.V. H. Billiot Cuvée Laetitia - 91 points
N.V. Chartogne-Taillet Blanc de Blancs - 91 points
2004 Chartogne-Taillet Brut Millésimé - 91+ points
2004 Chartogne-Taillet Fiacre - 91+ points
N.V. Chartogne-Taillet Brut Rosé - 91 points
N.V. Gaston Chiquet Tradition Brut Premier Cru - 91 points
N.V. Gaston Chiquet Blanc de Blancs d'Aÿ - 91+ points
2003 Gaston Chiquet Millésime Or - 92+ points
2004 Gaston Chiquet Spécial Club 1er Cru - 91+ points
N.V. Gaston Chiquet Cuvée de Réserve Brut - 91+ points
N.V. Gaston Chiquet Brut Rosé - 91+ points
N.V. Henri Goutorbe Rosé Grand Cru - 92+ points
2004 Henri Goutorbe Millésimé Brut - 91 points
2002 Henri Goutorbe Special Club - 91 points
N.V. Jean Milan Grand Cru Reserve Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru - 91+ points
2005 Jean Milan Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Brut Cuvée Symphorine - 91+ points
N.V. Marc Hébrart Sélection Brut Premier Cru - 91 points
N.V. A. Margaine Extra Brut 1er cru - 91 points
2006 A. Margaine Blanc de Blancs Special Club - 91+ points
N.V. A. Margaine Brut Rosé - 91+ points
2006 Pierre Gimonnet Brut 1er Cru Blanc de Blancs Gastronome - 91 points
2004 Pierre Gimonnet Extra-Brut Oenophile 1er cru - 91 points
2002 Pierre Gimonnet Special Club de Collection - 91 points
N.V. Pierre Péters Blanc de Blancs Brut Cuvée de Réserve - 91+ points
2004 Pierre Péters Cuvée Spéciale Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Les Chétillons Le Mesnil - 92 points
2002 René Geoffroy Extra Brut Millésime - 91 points
N.V. Varnier-Fanniere Cuvée Saint Denis Brut - 91 points
N.V. Vilmart Grand Cellier - 91+ points
2000 Vilmart Cuvée Creation - 92+ points
2002 Vilmart Coeur de Cuvée - 93 points
2006 Vilmart Grand Cellier d'Or 1er Cru - 93+ points
Non-Champagne Sparkling Wines
Interesting small producer, currently run by two brothers, that owns 17 hectares in 60 different locations. They have gone back to the historical roots of Champagne to include three long forgotten Champagne grapes: Fromenteau (also known as Beurot, probably an ancestor of Pinot Gris), Arbanne and Petit Meslier. A lot of their vines are also planted “en foule,” i.e., the generation of new vines by laying out a branch from a “mother” plant, and covering it with soil and manure, as was the common practice prior to phylloxera, especially throughout Burgundy. Two cuvees they make from the old varieties are designated Campanae Veteres Vites, meaning “old vines of the countryside.”
This is a very old family-run grower/producer based in the village of Merfy. The Cuvée St. Anne is 60% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot Noir; the Millésimé Brut is from one parcel, based on clay; 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay; the Fiacre vineyard is made up of red sand and silex; the Brut Rosé comes from a vineyard based largely on sandy soils.
This is a family operation that owns four and a half hectares in Verzy, Verzenay and Ludes. Eighty percent is planted to Pinot, and 20% to Chardonnay. They use native yeast and very little dosage.
Another small grower, with roots going back five generations, that owns five hectares of vineyards.
This is a fairly new producer, distributed in the United States by Michael Skurnik.
The Gimonnets have been growers in the village of Cuis since 1750, and started to produce and sell their own Champagne in 1935. They own 26 hectares in Cuis and the Grand Crus of Chouilly and Cramant, all planted to Chardonnay.
This is a tiny producer that owns four hectares of Grand Cru vineyards, entirely planted to Chardonnay. The wines undergo full malolactic. The Cuvée St. Denis is from 70-plus year old vines in the Clos de Grand Père in Avize.
Laurent Champs of Vilmart
Vilmart is a terrific grower Champagne. They practice organic viticulture, ferment in large oak foudres, and avoid malolactic. The Grand Cellier is generally about 70% Chardonnay and 30% Pinot Noir. The terrific 2002 Coeur de Cuvée is 80% Chardonnay and 20% Pinot Noir from the oldest vines in Vilmart’s two best vineyards. It is fermented and raised in new barriques.