It is great to be back to work at the best job in the world. 2014 has had its share of challenges for me and recovering from a broken femur is taking me longer than I would like. But looking back on the year, I certainly have nothing to complain about when it comes to great Champagne experiences. In keeping with a tradition I started a few years ago, I reviewed my notes for my top 10 experiences of 2014. It was hard to get it down to just 10! Don't pay to much attention to the order- these were all incredible experiences!
#10- This July Cinnamon and I traveled to Champagne for vacation with our dear friends Doug Burress, Corey Potter, Anthony Piazza and Jen Piazza (pictured with the Cristal). We were invited by Jean Baptiste Lecaillon to a tutored tasting of the range in Reims, and then to lunch at the pressoir with Charles Fournier. The magnum of 2002 Cristal had what so little of the Cristal consumed in this world ever has- a little bit of time in bottle! At 12 years old, this wine was still young and energetic, but had integrated into a poised, rich, long finishing masterpiece. Cristal must be the most understated of all the world’s great wines, how ironic that it has become so associated with ostentation!
#9- This spring, Scott Beckerley joined me in Champagne for the annual tasting of the vin clair (unfinished Champagne) and our first stop was Loriot. After tasting through the 2013’s and the current releases, Michel and Martine Loriot surprised us with a fantastic treat, their 1975! Michel had disgorged it that very morning and explained that it was made exclusively from selection massal Meunier from their estate vineyards. It reminded me of the 1975 Rene Collard that I have been so fortunate to drink more than my fair share of with its big baked apple and chanterelle flavors. It was medium bodied, had a lively mousse and a fine texture, and best of all had the incredible direct, fresh acidity of the vintage. Our first stop set the bar very, very high!
#8- It was pouring cold rain on July 9th in Epernay, and in classic Californian fashion, Doug, Corey, Cinnamon and I were all completely unprepared. We visited Moet, and the bad weather just added to the magic of touring the abbey where Dom Perignon had worked in the 1600’s. Axelle, one of the winemaking team for Dom Perginon poured this 1970 as a comparison to the current release 2004 Dom Pérignon Brut Champagne. Both vintages had big crops without any extreme weather events, but I suspect the old selection massal vineyards used in this pre-clone bottling and lower total production did a lot for the quality of this fantastic bottle. The 1970 Oenotheque was golden in color and had a bouquet of porcini, apricot and butter. It was very concentrated and rich, with a big texture and plenty of high quality mousse. It had a long chestnut like finish that I won’t soon forget.
#7- The 1985 Rene Collard Brut Rose has always been a favorite of mine, and I have drunk far more that my share of this tiny production wine. The bottle that Jimmy C opened for Kyle Kurrani (a 1985 himself!) on September third of this year was the best one I have had. We had coordinated a boys night at All Spice restaurant in San Mateo and the cusine here was perfect for this all Meunier powerhouse. In Champagne, producers love to talk about “gastronomic” Champagne for spicy, complex food, but this was my only experience with such synergy. The lemongrass pork belly and lamb tongue matignon woke this rich Champagne up and snapped it into refreshing focus. The Collard balanced truffle and strawberry flavor with rare dexterity. What a bottle!
#6- Olivier Bonville takes the last disgorgement of a run of vintage wine and makes his excellent Franck Bonville Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne ($39.99) with it. Cinnamon and I took a trip to Nick’s Cove in Marshall on Tomales Bay this spring and paired this wine with Hog Island Oysters from just two miles down highway one. It doesn’t have to be ancient wine to be a top experience; it is pretty hard to go wrong with the most perfect location, the most perfect company, the most perfect oysters and their most natural Champagne match… A 2008 vintage with only 2g/l of sugar! While many extra brut style Champagnes are made for industry insiders with a masochistic streak, this flinty, dry, focused bottle had lots of charm. Perfect for fresh shucked oysters overlooking the bay that they were born in!
#5- I am a sucker for a big bottle, and for Cinnamon’s 40th birthday we had the right group together to open a Jeroboam of the Ariston Aspasie Blanc de Blancs Brut Champagne. Like most big bottles of Champagne, it isn’t just a better ratio of air to wine in the bottle that accounted for the higher level that this 3L was on. The Ariston’s had aged this more than six extra years than the 750’s!!! It was a gift from them to us for our 10th anniversary, and will go down as one of the best Champagne’s I have ever drunk. This had all of the friendly white fruit and cream of the regular bottling, but had texture and poise on a world class level as well as layers of kirmidgian complexity backing up its easy going charm. It was drained in a hurry.
#4- It is an excellent set up for a great Champagne experience to have just toured the vineyard of the wine you are drinking. Paul Vincent Ariston took all of the ladies in his car, and let Anthony and I rally his little Cirtroen C3 behind him. It was a wild ride trying to keep up with him in the dirt, mud and boulder like chalk of his vineyards! The highlight of the tour was the Walin parcel, where he grows the Arbanne, Meslier and Pinot Blanc that uses for his peerless Ariston Aspasie "Cepages d'Antan" Brut Champagne ($99). It was hot and humid in the fields, and when we got back to the winery, he opened up a chilled bottle. Part exotic beauty, part high voltage hot wire, this wine refreshed in a way that a wine of this complexity and scale just shouldn’t be able to. Unforgettable.
#3- Krug deserves its reputation as one of the best wines of the world. This Christmas, I bribed Cinnamon into posing for a version of Bob Dylan’s “Bringing It All Back Home” album cover for our Christmas photo by opening the 2000 Krug Brut Champagne ($229). I have to ask each time “how do they do it?”- it is like black magic, combining lush toastiness with pin point delicacy and massive complexity with simple refreshment. At 14, this is in a very nice place, and doubtless will be for generations to come!
#2- Every September our Champagne team (Scott Beckerley in SF, Mari Keilman in LA, Kyle Kurrani in RWC and myself) meet to taste all of the big houses current releases. It is an all day affair, and this year we tasted 52 different Champagnes. We were unanimous when it came to the wine of the day- the 2004 Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle Cuvée Alexandra Brut Rosé ($299) blew us all away. I have never put a bottle from a cattle call tasting like this in one of my top 10 lists before, and doubt that I will again, but this was that good! The bouquet of red cherry fruit was so expressive and generous and the presentation so laid back and elegant that it made all of our jaded and abused palates take notice, and pleasure.
#1- I am happy to say that great experiences are not predictable. This year, my favorite Champagne moment was on the last day of our vacation in France, in the IBIS at Charles de Gaulle airport. Everyone else had left for Paris, and I stayed behind to lounge around, and watch all four hours of the 14th stage of the Tour de France on TV. I drank the 2007 Alexandre Le Brun 'Cuvee Fascination' Blanc de Blancs Brut Champagne ($69.99) out of a plastic cup, ate leftover jambon sandwiches and fell asleep a couple of times. This Champagne had a strong Chassagne-Montrachet like character. It had tension and electricity married to clean earth, subtle white fruit and fresh baguette aromas and flavors. The finish was extraordinary with chalk, more white fruit and fine acidity- it seemed to go on forever. I have another one chilled down for tonight!
Happy New Year and a toast to you!