A tasting of the importer's bubblies
by Thor Iverson
Were it not for genius importer Terry Theise, many Americans would have no idea that there were Champagnes other than the biggest, most heavily-marketed names. He was certainly, many years ago, the majority of my introduction to the concept of grower-producer bubbly. And yet, despite his efforts, most people still don’t know these wines, and continue to slog through underperforming industrial sparklers best-known for the color of their labels or their low, low holiday pricing (though in my opinion, such wines are still grossly overpriced for what they are; someone has to pay for those flashy promotions, after all). I don’t mean to damn all major-label Champagne, because some of it is very, very good. But far too much of it isn’t, and one pays for name, reputation, and global availability rather than what’s in the bottle.
These wines – all sparkling, mostly Champagne, but with two foreign interlopers from another of Theise’s favored locales – draw plenty of critical acclaim, and are of regularly high quality, but what’s always most interesting to me is their individuality and their difference. Champagne – at least the non-vintage sort – has (as its major marketers would have us believe) long been about consistency, and the big producers, whether industrial or not, achieve this with careful blending of young and older stocks. Smaller growers can rarely afford the sources, the expense, or the storage capacity to do the same, and the result is greater site-specificity and a variation more akin to that of vintage Champagne. For those who value a wine’s ability to surprise as much as it’s ability to satisfy, for those who value terroir as much as the winemaker’s art, this is an incalculable benefit. And here’s another: by exploring such wines, you’re not only upping both the quality and value of your bubbly, but you’re supporting a wine culture more connected to its land than its advertising budget.
Schloss Gobelsburg Brut “Reserve” (Austria) – A blend of pinot noir, riesling, and grüner veltliner. Wet and sour with green pear and apple. Finely beaded, with hints of gunshot. Leafy. Powdery, ground-level dust and extremely sour watermelon come to dominate the finish, like a too-old Jolly Rancher (but dry). Fairly complex, long, and very tart. (12/08)
Bründlmayer Brut Rosé (Austria) – Pink and soft, with electrified crystal flowers that re-soften on the finish. A bit girly in its pinkish Hello Kitty-ness. Spun candy on the finish. Frothy. I’m not a fan. (12/08)
Pierre Gimonnet Champagne Cuis “1er Cru” Brut Blanc de Blancs (Champagne) – Striking nose of rainforest rocks and humidity. Huge lemon brioche (sprinkled with grapefruit shavings) on the palate. There’s excellent balance between bitterness and acidity. Massively long and frankly gorgeous, with skins dominating right now, and a very trebly midpalate that I expect to mellow with a little age. (12/08)
Pierre Peters Champagne à Le Mesnil-sur-Oger “Grand Cru” Brut Blanc de Blancs “Cuvée Réserve” (Champagne) – Heady toast and pastry, ripe lemon, and Granny Smith apple. Very powerful with a fine baring of its minerality on the finish. The nose is just a little weird…an odd mix of youthful and advanced characteristics that don’t quite gel. Perhaps in time. (12/08)
Goutorbe Champagne à Aÿ Brut “Cuvée Prestige” (Champagne) – Granadilla, crustacean cream, and paper over a chalky bedrock. Very spare and cylindrical in form, with a wall of minerality. Unfortunately, it never fills in, and never achieves any suggestion of grace. (12/08)
Jean Milan Champagne Oger “Grand Cru” Brut Blanc de Blancs “Spécial” (Champagne) – Delicate, with fine-grained crystals. Crisp but fullish acidity, ripe lime, and lots of molten metal…which hardens on the finish, driven through like a ramrod. Long and in need of time, despite the presence of lovely hints of maturity dancing around the aromas. (12/08)
Jean Milan 2002 Champagne Oger “Grand Cru” Brut Blanc de Blanc “Sélection Terres de Noël” (Champagne) – Beautiful. Soft golden complexity, with a hint of curry dusting exotic flowers and heirloom apples. Very pure and gentle. Extremely long, eventually getting around to showing apples in every possible form, from flower to juice. Gorgeous. (12/08)
Gaston Chiquet Champagne “1er Cru” Brut “Tradition” (Champagne) – Wind-swept and cold, with rinds and hard-edged quarts. Frothy. Unconvincing in this company, and I’m surprised, because this is a wine I usually like. (12/08)
Marc Hebrart Champagne à Mareuil-sur-Aÿ “1er Cru” Brut “Cuvée de Réserve” (Champagne) – Brioche, yeast, mixed apples, and hints of stone fruit over paper. A bit frothy. Persistent. Just OK. (12/08)
A. Margaine Champagne à Villers-Marmery “1er Cru” Brut (Champagne) – At first, a perfect blend of fresh apple, grape, and sweaty yeast, with sharper slashes of lime sorbet later on. And then, it turns into a cherry-lime rickey. Vivid to the extent that it suggests neon, but clean, strong, and exceptionally long. One for the cellar, for sure. (12/08)
A. Margaine Champagne Brut Rosé (Champagne) – Ripe red cherry and cereal. Very balanced. Laser-like purity that softens just a touch more than I’d like as the wine lingers. Long, though. Steady-state. There’s potential here, but probably not enough to reach the pinnacle. (12/08)
Chartogne-Taillet Champagne Brut “Cuvée Sainte-Anne” (Champagne) – Very red-influenced, with ripe strawberries, rose hips, and leaves. Simple-seeming fruit is quickly followed up by waves of complex minerality (chalk seems to be the dominant component), and the finish is abundant with jewels and glitter. Very nice. (12/08)
René Goeffroy Champagne “1er Cru” Brut “Expression” (Champagne) – Almost minty, but at least herbal. Buzzes with electrically-charged freshness and static. Full of lovely gentility. Red-tinged fruit, but sprightly rather than deep. Fun. (12/08)
René Geoffroy Champagne “1er Cru” Brut Rosé “de Saignée” (Champagne) – Sweet-glazed biscuit, fresh red fruit (strawberry, mostly…including the seeds). Pure and complex. There’s a fine foundation of stones ground into gravel, and a lovely, drying, mineral component to the finish. Very, very good, but far from its peak. (12/08)
Jean Lallement Champagne Verzenay “Grand Cru” Brut (Champagne) – Mist-shrouded but heady, with suggestions of animalistic wildness. Sauvage, perhaps, and that’s not something I’ve ever said about a Champagne not made by Selosse. Intense lemon-loam (as opposed to lemon-lime), clementine. Turns a bit unctuous as it broadens, and the finish is a bit of a disappointment in its lack of length. (12/08)
Jean Lallement Champagne Verzenay “Grand Cru” Brut “Cuvée Réserve” (Champagne) – Crushed strawberry and rather bodacious red cherry, leaves, and thyme. Smells fruit-sweet. Sizeable. Rolling watermelon rock candy on the finish, and then the tactile sensation of frozen metal to which one has unwisely stuck their tongue. I can’t quite figure this one out. (12/08)
Aubry Champagne à Jouy-les-Reims “Grand Cru” Brut Rosé (Champagne) – Tart cranberry somewhat overwhelms a core that leans more towards red and black cherry; this is a wine that leads with its acidity, and never takes its foot off the sour pedal. And is that hollyberry? Sharp and linear. Not really my thing; it’s more like an intermezzo that it is a beverage, though I suppose with the right accompaniment it could sing. Maybe an edgy berry dessert? (12/08)
Copyright © Thor Iverson.