This past Tuesday K&L’s whole Champagne team; Scott Beckerley from San Francisco, Diana Turk from Hollywood and Alex Schroeder and myself from Redwood City assembled to taste nearly all the current releases we carry from the grand marque houses. We started off the night before with a dinner at my house featuring Champagnes from the famous clos or walled vineyards of the region… But that is another story entirely! This was the 5th annual K&L Champagne Summit, and the biggest ever- we met 16 producers and tasted 60 Champagnes at a combined retail value of just under $6000! While this was hard work, we were up to the task!
Our first appointment of the day was with Champagnes oldest house- Ruinart, which was founded way back in 1729. They have been shipping Champagne for 47 years more than we have been a country! I thought that their 2004 Ruinart "Dom Ruinart" Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne stood out. It is composed of all Grand Cru Chardonnay with 69% sourced from the Cotes de Blancs and the balance sourced from Sillery and Puisieulx, two sites on the north face of the Mountain of Reims. With ten years of ageing on the lees, the wine has wonderful vanilla cake dough richness, but is still vibrant and fresh. The characteristic chalky drive of the classic 2004 vintage makes for a long, bright finish, and this wine should continue to improve for decades. Unlike many big names, their vintage program, which this Blanc de Blanc is just one part of, represents only 1% of their production. The high degree of selection really shows!
From Dom Perignon we were fortunate enough to taste the 1995 Dom Pérignon "P2" Brut Rosé Champagne which they have held back for 9 more years in the cellar than the current “P1” release of 2004. It still had the signature DP yeastiness, but after 21 years of ageing in perfect conditions, the savory, complex smokiness and delicate red fruit were in perfect harmony with the lees character. It was one of the most elegant, delicate and long finishing Champagnes of the whole day.
We also revisited the 2008 Veuve Clicquot Brut Rosé Champagne which I first had with Mr. DeMarville, chef de cave of Clicquot, paired with a long roasted chicken. The 2008 vintage has rightly been hailed as a great one in Champagne, and this Veuve Clicquot Rose is a great example of this fantastic harvest. The wine has incredible power and a nearly Burgundian savor to it which was very satisfying with the food. It also has the clarity and lift of the highest acid vintage since 1996. This is a wine for the ages... But it will be very difficult to keep my hands off of now!
The Krug Grand Cuvee nearly stole the show- the one we tasted was ID 115003, the 163rd edition of this great wine. It was fabulously rich and showed some barrel spice and Chevalier-Montrachet like lime fruit. This bottle was based on 2007 and composed of 12 vintages going back to 1990. The blend was 37% Pinot Noir, 32% Chardonnay and 31% Meunier- darn near 1/3 each. Of all the great, mature wines in the world, Krug has to be the best deal of all… They do so much of the ageing for us Champagne lovers!
My favorite vintage wine of the day was the 2004 Billecart-Salmon Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne. It epitomized the ideal of elegance in wine, and had a creamy ease and subtle restraint that would leave even the most jaded of palates asking for another glass. The incredible fruit sources in the Grand Cru’s of Chouilly, Mesnil and Avize and the natural balance of the classic 2004 vintage undoubtedly contributed top quality ingredients, but the cold fermentations and judicious use of top quality cooperage at Billecart delivered the wine… This is a bottle I hope to drink again soon.
The most meticulously prepared of all of the presentations was Champagne Laurent-Perrier, and after the tasting and talk I was left with a new appreciation for the history and commitment to quality at this great house in Tours-sur-Marne. I loved the 2006 Laurent-Perrier Brut Champagne for its laid back balance and excellent texture. It is composed of half each Chardonnay and Pinot Noir entirely from Grand Cru sites and aged for eight years on the lees. If you like your Champagne with a great balance between meyer lemon zing and creamy richness, this has it all.
For many years now, Champagne Louis Roederer has been leading the way in progressive practices in the vineyard in the region. This approach showed in the wines at this year’s staff summit, and in a quite spectacular way. The wines of Roederer really have a shine to them, and the soon to be released 2009 Louis Roederer "Cristal" Brut Champagne exemplifies this luminescent style. Roederer has been the largest organic vineyard owner in Champagne for many years, and this is the first year that Critstal has been made exclusively from these organic, mid slope, pure chalk sites. The ripe vintage of 2009 has made for a precocious wine that is already showing much more aroma and giving much more pleasure than Cristal normally does when first released. That being said, this is a chalky, complex, detailed Champagne that has decades and decades of time to shine!
It is no surprise that at 10 years old, many of the 2006 Champagnes are really starting to show well. The best I tasted at this year’s staff summit was the 2006 Pol Roger "Extra Cuvée de Réserve" Brut. This is one of the most masculine, vinous, broad and powerful Champagnes of the day. It is composed of about 60% Pinot Noir to 40% Chardonnay, but that Pinot is powerful Mountain of Reims Grand and 1er cru stuff… And it shows! I loved the big, hazelnut and black cherry savor in this rich, yet very dry Champagne. This will be a top recommendation for anyone married in 2006 or with a child born in this year, because while it drinks well now, it will be great for a long, long time.
The best non-vintage of our whole Champagne summit was the Drappier "Carte d'Or" Brut Champagne. That is saying a lot, since we tasted so many greats! This combination of 75% Pinot Noir, 15% Meunier and 10% Chardonnay is made with the lowest sulfur counts of any grand marque Champagne. The fruit for this is all from the Aube and Kimmeridgian clay rather than the chalk of the Marne. It is also mostly estate grown. This gives Champagne not only with the lovely red fruit expression one would expect from so much Pinot, but also layers of nearly Chablis like minerality. If you like dry, yet full flavored Champagne, you it to yourself to try the Drappier!
The historic Ay property Ayala has made quite a comeback since Bollinger purchased and invested in so many upgrades. While they are from a Pinot Noir town, they have always been famous for their Chardonnay driven, lighter style that contrasts with their sister property Bollinger. Their 2008 Ayala Blanc de Blancs Champagne was the star of the lineup for me, and is sourced exclusively from the Grand Crus of Mesnil and Chouilly. While this Champagne has the great chalky drive of the 2008 vintage, I was surprised by how open it showed. I love the creamy, nearly brie like nose that is framed by high quality toast and the medium to full bodied texture. This should last- it you can keep your hands off of it!
Perhaps the most complex wine of the whole staff summit was the 2004 Bollinger "La Grande Année" Rosé Champagne. While Lilly Bollinger refused to make rose at the property during her lifetime, calling it “Champagne for prostitutes” this ultimately classy bottle proves that even the greats of the Champagne world could get it wrong from time to time. The wine has a lovely copper pink color and a beguiling bouquet of savory black truffle, brioche and subtle Corton like dark fruit. On the palate the wine is not nearly as vinous as the Grand Année blanc, and has an amazingly tiny bead. What a treat.
We were very lucky to have Gosset export director Bertrand Verduzier come from Epernay to present his Champagne at the summit this year, and we learned a ton about this very old grand marque. Their flag ship wine is the Gosset "Grande Réserve" Brut Champagne, and it is an exceptional wine. The current batch is composed of 43% Chardonnay, 42% Pinot Noir and 15% Meunier with 20% reserves that are blended in the solera style. They never do any malolactic fermentation for this wine, and as such need to age it for a minimum of 4 years on the lees before disgorgement. It has an almost green color in the glass, and has a great tension between opulent toast and chalky, nearly apple like crunch. If you like this Champagne, be sure to put some in the cellar, I have had them going back 30 years and they are spectacular with age as well as young!
The most decadent bottle of the whole staff summit was the 2005 Charles Heidsieck Brut Champagne. This blend of 11 crus is composed of 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir and aged for 8 years on the lees. It is loaded with buttered toast aromas and is deep, rich and broad. The bead is very precise and fine while the wine itself is full bodied. If you love the full English style of Champagne, this is the best bottle in the store!
Our final appointment of this year’s summit was with Taittinger, and the 2006 Taittinger "Comtes de Champagne" Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne was the perfect bottle to perk up tired mouths. I found the limey, Puligny-like drive of this Champagne compelling and refreshing, and was happy to see this vintage living up to the legend of the Comtes de Champagne. This all Cote de Blancs Grand Cru Champagne is sourced from primarily estate vineyards in Avize, Chouilly, Oger and Mesnil. It is 95% fermented in stainless, but sees 5% small oak to add richness. The combination of toast from 8 years on the lees and lime zest from the top Chardonnay make for an exotic, yet elegant beauty of a Champagne.
It was a long day of tasting, but I came away with the impression that times have never been better for quality in Champagne. It is a tough job- but someone has to do it!