Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Doing it Right

By Samantha Dugan
The Wine Country’s Champagne Buyer

 “I don’t drink Champagne very often, not really my thing, but I need a bottle for a special occasion tonight”
I’ve heard that same sentence at least 100 times in my many years as The Wine Country’s champagne buyer, and while I am always happy to hear that someone is looking to buy a bottle of one of my beloved bubblies, that first part….hard to wrap my head around.  I know what the words all mean but strung together like that, “I don’t drink Champagne very often, it’s not really my thing” well, I am not only baffled, I’m saddened by it. 
I get that people don’t like certain things, hell you just try and get me to enjoy a glass of Zinfandel, but I can’t help but wonder, do you not like it or have you been doing it wrong?
 “I love the wines from Coutier and Agrapart for their purity and astounding value; if you want to go higher end I don’t think you can miss with Camille Saves, Coquillette, Jose Dhondt and Billiot”
These are my standard recommendations when walking a customer through my lesser-known grower champagnes.
“Okay, so which one would be best with cake?”
Oh damn it.
The problem with celebratory bubbles is they are often being purchased to accompany desserts like cake, simply one of the worst pairings in the world for true champagne.  The other two oft-paired items (and always bad ideas) with bubbly—chocolate and caviar. 
Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know, you’re celebrating or trying to get your romantic swerve on.  Go for it, but don’t expect much from the wine.  I understand the whole caviar and champagne deal; it’s decadent, regal and carries with it the cache of luxury which is something we all crave from time to time…I guess..  Truth be told, the fruit in the champagne does in fact make the caviar pop and intensify but what do those briny little eggs do to that wine?  Um, yeah.

With chocolate there is an indulgence aspect that I know people dig and that whole cake nightmare, have not a clue where that came from, maybe weddings with André?  No idea who started this horrid “tradition”, but just as in the case of the fish eggs, the champagne can make those sweet treats taste even sweeter, but what does a mouthful of rich chocolate or butter cream do to the champagne?  Makes it taste sour and robs the wine of any and all complexity is what.

I’m never going to tell anyone what they can and cannot do with their wine, like I could stop them anyhow, but don’t expect to ever become a true lover of champagne if you’re going to trash it with your mood food.  Sorry.
Just as I would never tell someone to buy a $60 champagne for their mimosas, if you are going to be pairing your bubbles with any of the three aforementioned, spend less.  No reason to throw down for grower bubbles in that situation because everything that makes them worth the price will be decimated by the pairing. Would you pair your high-end Chardonnays or Pinot Noirs with those foods? Not too likely, (and if your answer was yes, stop reading, I’m not talking to you).
This is where your grumbly champagne specialist has a duty to point out, just what you think those bubbles are made from?!  Yeah, that’s right, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.  With Coutier, Savès and Pierre Peters, you are wasting your money, but might I recommend Moet Imperial Ice? (You’ll have to go to Rite-Aid for that one.)
Last month 33 people sat down in our cozy little tasting room, all paying $60 each, on a Wednesday night, a school night, to taste my beloved grower champagnes with a food that is not only perfectly suited to them, but kinda fills that, “I am a decadent badass and I’m so doing this!” thing as well. 
Had the usual baskets of potato chips at each table, those chips another harmonious partner to the bubbles, but the star, the reason I (aside from the wines of course) that all those folks turned out on a school night, handing me their $60?  Fried chicken!  Oh yeah…..

Savory, salty, crispy…these three things not only love champagne, they actually do what every wine lover wants, they make the wine taste even better.  The true key to any successful food and wine pairing is to have both things taste as good, or if you’re lucky, even better when put together, and there are few finer and more harmonious pairings than champagne and fried chicken. The bubbles in the wine lifting and lightening the heaviness of the food, and the salty, meaty, crispiness of the chicken frames drawing out and magnifying the serious complexity and nuances in the wines.   Success.
We poured the first flight before giving everyone their Muggie’s fried chicken.  Two reasons for this, the first to get some bubbles in their glass, making the wait just a tad more comfortable, and second, the first flight of wines were of a more delicate nature and structure, so while still tasty, not quite as perfect with the chicken. 
Had we been doing lacy tempura battered shrimp and scallops….drool…this would have been the flight that sang with that.  (Something truly magical about delicately battered, plump and ocean sweet shrimp and scallops with Blanc de Blancs of the more feminine style.  If you ever wanted to understand what ethereal “tastes” like, that pairing will make it very clear.)
But seeing as we didn’t have shrimp or scallops, dammit, I opted to let the salty potato chips do their thing with that flight.

N.V. Saint-Chamant Blanc de Blancs
Classic Blanc de Blancs. Light, tangy, body so delicate it comes off nearly fragile.  More citrus than apples and a long snappy finish.
$44.99 per bottle

2005 Agrapart Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Mineral, Avize
Always odd to pour the most expensive wine so early in a tasting but I knew that had I poured it later all the graceful and layered beauty in this wine would have washed away or lost beneath the heavier weightier wines…was a good call as it turns out.  Still quite young, this wine is only showing a bare shoulder of what it will become, but damn, what a gorgeous shoulder it is!  Elegantly spiced, showing citrus rind and tart green apples, cold river stones with a sexy blast of anise.  Mouth coating without being heavy, the wine gives the impression of richness without being dense or over-the-top. The concentration here is astounding and even as the most expensive wine of the night, it was one of the top selling.  Brilliant stuff that will be even more so with a couple years to flesh out.
$72.99 per bottle

While the crowd oozed over the first flight, we got the chicken passed around and I explained that the second flight also happened to be of Blanc de Blancs.  They were of a very different style, bigger and more powerful, therefore much more fried-chicken-friendly.

2006 Stephane Coquillette 1er Cru Brut
I fell in love with this little domaine last year and each time I open a bottle it’s like falling in love all over again.  The 2006 is not labeled as a Blanc de Blancs as the cépage changes with each vintage, but 2006 gave the estate marvelous Chardonnay so Blanc de Blancs it is.  There is some serious base wine at work here, that and masterful assemblage.  Assertive, toasty, warmed butter and cream over baked apples.  Stunning.
$65.99 per bottle

2004 Marcel Moineaux Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs
What an amazing display of just how diverse Blanc de Blancs can be this flight was!  This is a champagne for those with a more English-leaning palate, which is to say, it has lots of toast, yeast and sherried notes.  I adore this wine, the way the nearly salty, savory notes spill across the sides of my tongue followed by cooked citrus and spice.  Damn sexy wine and with the chicken the fruit explodes even more.  One of my favorites.
$62.99 per bottle

About this time, everyone fixated on the mahogany skin and succulent meat of their fried chicken, the first four wines kicking about their bloodstream causing the noise level to increase by, like, a lot.  As much as I tried to regain order, half the room couldn’t hear a single word I was saying but I knew what to do…pour the next flight.

I might not be able to get their attention, but a pair of Pinot-rich champagnes, they could.  Pretty amazing to watch as people deeply engrossed in their food and conversation reached for their glasses, took deep sniffs and thus began the wave of silence that spilled over from one table to the other.  Who needs to holler when I’ve got Camille Savès and Coutier?

N.V. R.H. Coutier Grand Cru Brut, Ambonnay
I’ve said it before and I will say it again, there is no greater value on our champagne racks than this wine.  70% Pinot Noir and swinging all kinds of junk it its trunk.  Deep, mouth filling gobs of red apples and buttered toast and graham cracker.  A knockout wine for this price.
$39.99 per bottle

N.V. Camille Savès 1er Cru Carte Blanche
Top selling wine of the night and I can’t say that I am at all surprised, what with the sexy beast of a bubbly this wine is.  Best part about it, it’s just as intellectual as it is sexy, therefore, even sexier.  Layers upon layers of fruit and complexity that seem to reveal something a little different with each sip.  When a new customer comes up at the end of the night with two bottles in hand to purchase and thanks me, I know the wine is doing its thing.
$58.99 per bottle
I called the next two flights the not for the ‘I like frothy stuff’ set, as the last four wines were clearly remarkable wines first, bubbly stuff second.  These are wines that in some cases drink more like red wines both in body and in flavor, and would be wasted on the flute wielding.

N.V. Stephane Coquillette Grand Cru Blanc de Noirs
This champagne did something nearly impossible; it rendered me speechless.  I could not stop smelling the dark red fruit it was casting, the depth of purity here was simply stunning.  I felt like I was drinking Grand Cru red Burgundy, the flavors staining and heart stopping.  I’m not going to be able to stop thinking about this wine until I have more.
$52.99 per bottle

2004 R.H. Coutier Grand Cru Brut, Ambonnay
A much more restrained and refined offering from this powerhouse estate.  Still, it fills the mouth but with more finesse and grace.  Red fruit is present but you also get some baked citrus and pie crust mixed with a savory, almost herby element that carries through on the persistent and regal finish.  I’ve had top-tiered wines from some very famous Champagne houses that could not come close to offering as much as this wine.
$62.99 per bottle
N.V. H. Billiot Grand Cru Brut Reserve, Ambonnay
Damn, I mean, damn.  I admit to having a bit of an on-again off-again deal going with Billiot, sometimes the wines shutting down or being a tad one dimensional. Not the case now.  Not in the least.  Stewed apples, holiday spice, cherries, barely cooked dough and sweet cream. Sultry, almost slutty, and oh-so-stinking delicious!
$58.99 per bottle

N.V. Camille Saves Grand Cru Carte d’Or Brut, Oger
Who needs chocolate?  This wine is all the decadence one needs.  Opulent, rich, loaded with dark fruit, vanilla custard, butter cookies, caramel and salted almonds.  Really curvy in the mouth, just this side of feeling heavy, and with a finish that goes on, forever.
$67.99 per bottle

It was a tremendously indulgent evening that just my luck, was so popular, each seat so coveted, that we had enough people signed up to do two tastings!  So I got to do it all again a couple nights later! 

Teeth breaking through crunchy, salty skin to be met by tender and oh so juicy meat…washing it all down with those resplendent, hand crafted, mind bending grower champagnes….that right there is doing it right.

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