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Our Top Two!

Last night was a celebration of bubbles--a great way for one of our tasting groups to begin the new year! In this case, it was a search for interesting bubbles. There are large production sparkling wines that are good--Bollinger and Pol Roger come to mind. Nothing wrong with them--they're excellent! But they're the norm...the usual suspects when we're looking for a good champagne. You might even say they're "the rut." And this year is about getting out of the rut and finding things that are interesting.

I separated the evening into two parts--the aperitifs and appetizers…and then the main event, dinner.

Our friends brought some lovely appetizers designed to go with bubbles: baked brie, stuffed dates, herbed shrimp and smoked salmon with onion and horseradish. Wonderful! With them, I looked for interesting cremants--bubbles from regions of France outside the borders of the Champagne district. Casual, affordable wines for everyday consumption. We drank two (and watched football).

The first was the 2011 Albert Mann Cremant d'Alsace Brut. I loved their pinot blanc that I had earlier this year (it became our summer "house white") so I had high hopes. This was a blend of pinot blanc, pinot gris, riesling and auxerrois (a cousin of chardonnay). Ripe fruit--perhaps the influence of the riesling--and good balance, with crispness. It met the definition of interesting…and went well with the appetizers.

Then we drank the NV Les Granges Paquenesses Cremant du Jura, from the tiny region tucked in near the Swiss border that has gained favor with sommeliers and wine geeks. The best known wines from the region are probably white still wines made from the savignin grape that are often oxidative in style. But Jura also produces good bubbles. This cremant was made from 100% chardonnay--but had those oxidative hints. It resulted in a wine with good fruit and nutty overtones, laid over a well-defined frame that was sharply acidic. Different. Interesting.

Then on to the dinner table. From the casual to the elegant. Lobster bisque to start. New England lobster pie as the main. And champagne. In this case, five grower champagnes. Most of the production in the Champagne region comes from the grand marques--the big negociants who buy grapes from growers all over the region and blend them to make their house style. But increasingly, folks are turning to smaller production champagnes made by the growers themselves. Once impossible to find, they're now appearing with some regularity. If you aren't sure which are made by the growers, they're marked by a small RM somewhere on the label (for Récoltant-Manipulant). Those made by the negociants have an NM.

There's no guarantee that grower champagnes will be better than those made by the big houses. For example, they're commonly less consistent. And they tend to use low dosage (the amount of sugar in the wine that tops off champagne just before corking) or even no dosage. Dosage not only determines the sweetness of the champagne, it often covers up flaws in the wine in a region where grapes struggle to ripen. Limiting dosage adds an element of risk. But consistency was not our focus. Interesting was our focus.

We led off with NV Champagne Agrapart & FIls 7 Crus. Pascal Agrapart has gained considerable recognition recently. The 7 Crus come from grapes he grows in 7 villages around his home base of Avize. He fermented 25% of the grapes in oak (vice the more common stainless steel) and put it through full malolactic fermentation--resulting in a slightly creamy texture over a minerally frame. The dosage was low: 7 grams per liter (just barely over the dividing line between extra brut and brut). Good. Very good.

Next up: NV Nathalie Falmet Brut Nature. Brut nature means no dosage at all. Falmet's production is tiny. I had not tried it until I read Dave McIntyre's description in the Washington Post. He called it a "wow." And it was. Steely…yet long. More later. Incidentally, her brut is also good--though perhaps not as distinctive.

Then NV Cedric Bouchard Inflorescence Blanc de Noir Val Vilaine. Those who've read this blog over time will know that I'm a huge Bouchard fan. All of his champagnes are single grape, single vineyard, single vintage. No dosage. He makes the wine that nature and his vines give him. This particular bottle came from the 2010 vintage and was disgorged in 2012--thus it did not spend the three years on the lees required to be labeled as vintage champagne. Bouchard recommends decanting. I did…and it--and several others--opened up noticeably.

The only vintage champagne we drank was the 2004 Nicolas Maillart Les Chaillots Gillis Blanc de Blanc Extra Brut. It's 100% chardonnay made from two old vine parcels without any malolactic fermentation and very low dosage--resulting in an intense wine over a minerally frame.

Finally, the NV Pierre Peters Cuvee de Reserve Grand Cru Le Mesnil-sur-Oger. Krug's Clos de Mesnil is one of the world's most famous--and most expensive--champagnes, with a price tag often approaching $1000. Peters makes this blanc de blanc from the same area at less than a tenth of a price. If there is such a thing as a well known grower champagne, it might be Peters. It was perhaps the richest of the evening's wines.

Soooo…overall, how good were they? Very. How interesting? Very. All of the wines showed well both on their own and paired with the lobster dishes. Every one of them is welcome on my table any time. Informal discussion suggested the favorite of the night was the Cedric Bouchard. But that same discussion suggested the most interesting was probably the Nathalie Falmet Brut Nature. It was just a laser beam. Bright and sharply defined…and quivering with energy. Interesting. Really interesting.

A good way to start the year.

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