Thursday, December 22, 2011

Five Farmer Fizzes

Terry Theise, who is almost single-handedly responsible for the presence of Recoltant-Manipulant Champagnes in the Unites States, likes to call them “Farmer Fizz,” which might sound pejorative to some, but that's just Terry trying to cut through the decades of pomp and circumstance that the big Grande Marque houses have laid on with a trowel in their largely successful efforts to present Champagne as a luxury item.

“Recoltant-Manipulant” translates more or less as “Grower-Maker.” This contrasts with “Négociant-Manipulant,” which translates as “Merchant-Maker.” The Grande Marque houses are N/M; the farmer fizz guys are R/M. These letters are usually in microscopic type somewhere on the border of the typical Champagne label. Unlike anywhere else in the world of wine (except Sherry), in Champagne, the people who grow the grapes and the people who make the wine operate separately. The big houses buy fruit, and often finished still wine, from wherever they choose, and then blend to achieve a house style—a wine that will taste the same every year, regardless of vintage. At a time when at least a portion of the wine-drinking public is waking up to the importance of terroir, this arrangement is the world turned upside down. And let's face it, most of the Champagne world is perfectly content with this state of affairs. Farmer fizz, its increasing popularity notwithstanding, still represents a tiny fraction of the U.S. Champagne market.

We, for better or worse, are not most people, so we were very happy when Les Doss of Vinsite announced a tasting of Grower-Maker Champagnes, held this past Tuesday evening. Thus:

Roger Coulon Brut Grande Tradition Premier Cru NV: Eric and Isabelle Coulon, representing the Coulon family's eighth generation, are based in Vrigny, in the Montagne de Reims, a bit more than six miles from Reims (pronounced "Rhhhaams" as though you were clearing your throat). They have just over 27 acres on dozens of tiny parcels in the villages of Vrigny, Pargny les Reims, and Coulommes la Montagne, all on southeast-facing slopes composed of chalk and clay. The assemblage for this wine is 50% Pinot Meunier, 25% Pinot Noir, and 25% Chardonnay. The dosage is quite low at 7 grams per liter, which is feasible thanks to their ability to harvest very ripe fruit.

The wine showed aromas of roasted nuts, brioche, and cocoa powder, followed by a palate of mouthwatering citrus, toffee, vanilla, minerals. Learn more here.

Pierre Peters Brut Cuve de Reserve Grand Cru Blanc De Blancs NV:

The Peters family history in Champagne begins in 1858 with Gaspar Péters, a native of Luxembourg, who married a local girl who owned a few acres of vineyard in Le Mesnil. For many years, they were growers only. Today, the family has 45 acres in the villages of Mesnil sur Oger, Oger, Cramant, and Avize, all on a chalk outcrop in the heart of the Côte des Blancs. Whole bunches are picked by hand, pressed very, very carefully, and fermented in stainless. The assemblage for this Cuvée may contain wines from reserve stock going back 15 years. Click here for more on the wines and their history.

This is a Blanc de Blanc, 100% Chardonnay. It opened with a nose that offered hints of green apple and pear. The palate was very clean, linear, and ended with a burst of citrus. Our friend Jay Murrie at 3Cups compares it favorably to Salon. Our friend Ryan, who sat with (and charmed) The Chef at the tasting, called it “Sushi wine,” and I'm inclined to agree. It is no-nonsense, very focused Champagne, and it is easy to imagine it alongside a few pieces of super-fresh, precisely cut toro. Champagne Peters website.

Jean Lallement Brut Tradition Grand Cru NV: 

 Jean Lallement (pronounced Lall-Mont, it says here) farms 10 acres between the Grand Cru villages of Verzenay and Verzy, in the Montagne de Reims region. The soil is mostly limestone. Made from 80% Pinot Noir and 20% Chardonnay. Terry Theise says this is the favorite wine in his entire Champagne portfolio, and it is easy to understand why. We got wonderfully integrated aromas and flavors of toast, apple, anise, pear, and lemon, all beautifully balanced, with a pleasing texture—not too austere, not too fat, just right. The combined sensations of toastiness, fruit, and minerally spice have a magnetic appeal. This was the bottle I'd most like to take home. Here's a brief meditation from Peter Liem on Lallement.

Francis Boulard Brut Nature Mailly Grand Cru NV:

Boulard's website is a model of clarity; you can read the details of this wine's production here. Boulard is a by-the-book biodynamic grower; he stopped using weedkillers and chemical fertilizers in 2001, and has been guaranteed biodynamic by EcoCert since 2004. Like a very few other courageous vignerons, Boulard does not “green harvest” to keep yields low. Instead he goes out early in the year and prunes his vines short. This is a Brut Nature, so there is no dosage at all; he depends completely on ripe fruit for his sugars. In a tasting of small-production wines, his is the smallest of all: Just 7.5 acres under cultivation—and fruit from his Mailly-Champagne vineyard, used to make this wine, is just a fraction of this! This was made from 90% Pinot Noir and 10% Chardonnay. It offered aromas and flavors of orange blossom, chalky minerals, and lemon cream. Remarkably, it had not a hint of the harshness that is often a feature of non-dosage wines. In my limited experience of non-dosage Champagnes, this has the best balance of fruit and acidity, and the most pleasing texture.  

Guy Larmandier Brut Rosé Premier Cru NV: 

 The Larmandiers have been growers since 1899. Today, François Larmandier farms 22 acres in four villages in the Côte des Blancs: Cramant and Chouilly (for Chardonnay only) are Grand Cru; Vertus and Cuis are Premiere Cru. All parcels are planted to Chardonnay, except for a small portion of the Vertus vineyard, where Pinot Noir is grown. The rosé contains 12% Pinot Noir from Vertus; the balance is Chardonnay blended from all the villages.

The first bottle stank of brett. Fortunately, there was a second bottle: gamey, meaty, grassy, with lots of minerals. Hints of red berry and kiwifruit developed on the palate over time. Don't let the “gamey/meaty” note fool you: This was light, elegant Champagne, showing lots of finesse.

Thanks to Ryan, Parris, and Cara for sharing their knowledge and insights. I listen to them and feel confident that the future of wine in Asheville is in good hands. And, of course, thanks as always to Les and Kathy for making this all possible. All the wines tasted are available, in varying states of limited quantity, at Vinsite.

PS: This Asimov guy is reviewing some of the same wines. You might want to check him out.

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