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Tasting a Unicorn!

Among wine lovers, the term "unicorn" is sometimes used to describe wines that are rare and desirable. In a Food & Wine article, wine columnist Ray Isle laid down some requirements to qualify as a unicorn. "First, it has to exist in extremely small quantities. Second, it has to be hard to find. Third, wine geeks have to get really excited when they come across it." I'm not sure if Cedric Bouchard's Creux d'Enfer would qualify in Ray's eyes, but it certainly does in mine.

I've been a big (BIG) Cedric Bouchard fan for about five years. If you're not familiar with Bouchard, he's considered a wunderkind among producers of grower champagne. He was still in his mid-30s when Gault & Millau named him winemaker of the year in Champagne in 2008. So, let's look at Isle's criteria. Extremely small quantities? Bouchard's total production--of all his wines--is less than 2000 cases a year. Creux d'Enfer? About 300 bottles per year--total! Not sure how many of those make it to the US, but I'm guessing less than half. Hard to find? Bouchard's wines--all of them--sell out in a day or so in most of the wine shops that are lucky enough to get them. New York wine writer Sophie Barrett called Creux d'Enfer "...incredibly rare and extremely expensive..." (I can vouch for the latter). Until a few months ago, I had never seen it for sale--anywhere. Then I happened on a source that had seven bottles. I bought what I could. One. The next day, a couple. And then a couple of more. I saved my pennies for a week or so and was hoping to sneak up on the last two bottles...but they were gone. Have been told by an influential somm that it's becoming very difficult for even the very most prestigious New York restaurants to find any. Do wine geeks get excited about it? This one certainly did. Don't think I'm alone. In his book, But First, Champagne, David White listed Creux d'Enfer as the icon of Cedric Bouchard's wines. Another champagne expert described it as "stunning."

So is that why I was excited to open a bottle of 2011 Creux d'Enfer last night? No. I was excited to be able to share it. My very dear friend got married a week ago. He had tragically lost his wife five years ago. A couple of years later, he chanced into re-connecting with the girl he'd been dating in college when he met his wife. She had also become single...and now they are married. I had the extraordinary honor of being best man at the wedding and they were bringing me a "best man present" (which hadn't been quite ready during the festivities). It turned out to be one of the most thoughtful presents ever--a bound version of the wine notes from our monthly tasting group meetings over ~20 years, accompanied by dozens and dozens of photographs from our trips to wine regions, menus from charity wine dinners and Valentine wine dinners we'd done...and lots and lots of memories.

I didn't know about the book when I chose the wine to serve, but I did know it was our first chance to entertain them as husband and wife and I wanted something special. So I chose the Creux d'Enfer. It's made from three rows of pinot noir vines from the Côtes des Bar region (the Aube) in southern Champagne. The grapes are foot-trod and then macerated briefly, before being bled off in the method called saignée, producing rosé (in Champagne--unlike the rest of France--it's more common to make rosé by blending red wine in with the white base wine). The actual color when I poured it? A fascinating, shimmering coppery color. Those who know Bouchard, know he's actually not a fan of bubbly wines--he bottles at ~25% lower pressure than most producers (4.5 atmospheres versus the common 6.0). And the Creux d'Enfer showed that. It was just gently petillant. It was amazingly light on its feet--yet had well-defined fruit...strawberry, raspberry and apricot notes to go with hints of gentle herbs. Elegant. I was tempted to say delicate...but it had too much quiet strength for me to use that term. So elegant. Long. As I savored the finish, I kept saying out loud: "Interesting. Interesting." And that's a good thing.

What's the point of all this? It's not really the description of the wine. And it's certainly not that I opened a "unicorn" wine. What I"m trying to express is the joy of sharing something special with someone special.

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