This week, David White launched his new book, But First, Champagne, in a series of dinners in and around the DC area. I attended dinner at Ripple--Top Chef near-winner Marjorie Meek-Bradley's Cleveland Park restaurant (and a favorite of David's). It was a lovely evening. David talked a bit about the background of the book and about the history of Champagne. And we ate and drank well. David introduced each wine with just enough information without dominating our time.
He chose seven champagnes for the evening--showing some of the diversity in wines from the region. And Marjorie designed a menu to be champagne-friendly. I said he chose seven--but in reality it was eight because he brought a bottle of 2011 Marc Hébrart Special Club for us to enjoy casually at the outset. Anyone who is familiar with this blog knows how big a fan I am of Hébrart Special Club. And it certainly didn't disappoint. But the official opening wine of the evening was a bottle of Olivier Horiot Rosé de Riceys, served with herbed focaccia with whipped ricotta. Unique. When I read the menu, I assumed it was a sparkling rosé. Nope. It was still. I've had still reds from Champagne before, and whites, but never still rosé. Turns out, it's only permitted in this region of the Aube. I was learning already!
Then two well regarded champagnes from the Côte des Blancs--Pierre Gimonnet and Pierre Peters--with diver scallop crudo. Lovely match. Elegant with elegant. Then on to the main course. A single vineyard blanc de blanc from Béreche er Fils--Les Beaux Regards--from the Vallée de la Marne led off. While all-chardonnay, like the previous pair, it was a tad less chalky--reflecting the different terroir--and a little racier and more mineral-driven. Also from the Vallée de la Marne is Georges Laval. David had planned on serving Jacques Lassaigne Le Cotet, but it wasn't available in sufficient quantity, so the distributor substituted Laval Rosé. I really like Lassaigne, but was thrilled to have a chance to taste Laval--a producer generating a lot of buzz. It was made from black grapes (pinot noir and meunier)...in the glass, the color was relatively light for a rosé...but the flavor wasn't light--it was just lovely, with quiet power. And what was chosen to accompany these champagnes? Fried chicken, of course. If you've never had that pairing, you owe it to yourself to try good champagne and good fried chicken together. Magic!
A Gaston Chiquet Special Club from the excellent 2008 vintage was served with the cheese and an A. Margaine Cuvée Traditionelle 1er Cru Demi-Sec accompanied the pound cake with marscapone mousse. Lovely way to end the evening--an elegant special club that complimented the gouda and a lightly sweet (30 g/l) champagne that tasted more rich than sweet once paired with dessert.
All of that said, the centerpiece of the evening was the introduction of David's book. Most in attendance were either friends of David's or fellow members of the DC wine community (or both). It wasn't a hard audience to please. But this book doesn't need a friendly audience to succeed. It's really a good book--nicely balanced, with enough background and detail to appeal to those of us who think we know something about Champagne (guilty) without becoming a turgid academic treatise. Part of that is no doubt because he had a good concept: to provide a fast-paced, approachable guide to all things Champagne. But much of it is due to the fact that David writes well. He captures your interest and pulls you into the story.
The first half of David's book is historical. Portions of what he covers I had learned in other books about the region--but he pulls together what I had found in six or seven books in one place crisply and concisely. And he captures the rise of grower champagne better than anyone I've seen. And I believe that rise is important. It's central to the emerging recognition that champagne can be great wine--wine that can reflect a place and a person who made it--and not just a celebratory beverage. From history, he moves into the second half of his book, where he digs deeper into Champagne, providing insight into most of the best producers. Section 1 of that is dedicated to the Grand Marques--the luxury champagne houses that we have known all our lives. Sections 2 through 5 highlight the grower-producers in each of four major regions (Montagne de Reims, Vallée de la Marne, Côte des Blancs and the Aube). And he's right to emphasize the growers. If you know anything about wine, you're already aware of Krug and Dom Perignon. They're global brands--symbols of the ultimate in luxury. But you may not know of Chartogne-Taillet or Ulysses Collin. You should know about them--they're outstanding--as are a number of other grower-producers David highlights. Their wines are really interesting (and generally, better value than the grand marques--growers spend their money making wines, not marketing them).
I'm not completely neutral. David begins the book: "Life is worth celebrating. This profound realization hit me while chatting with Terry Theise, a well-known wine importer. Moments after sitting down for dinner, Theise ordered us a bottle of champagne made by Marc Hébrart...as the sommelier filled our glasses I was momentarily transfixed by the bubbles. And that's when it hit me: life is worth celebrating." There were actually three people at the table that night. I was the third.
I knew the book was coming. I wanted it to be good--and I'm glad it is. But that's the point. It is.