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Champagne in Winter
By Ed McCarthy
Dec 25, 2018
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During the week of December 10th, I traveled to Champagne.  An unusual time to visit, you might think, but I loved it.  I have often visited the region in June or in the early autumn, along with the many other tourists, but this time we had Champagne to ourselves.  The weather was cold--ranging from the mid-30° to mid-40°--but clear and invigorating. 

Instead of staying in the main city, Reims, my usual destination, I chose a little village, Chigny-les Roses, in the Montagne des Reims--which is located southeast of Reims, just north of the important Champagne town of Épernay.  The Montagne de Reims is an agricultural region, filled with small, quaint villages, lots of vineyards, and many small Champagne houses.

Staying in the Montagne des Reims was a magical experience.  Traveling through the narrow streets made for horses and wagons, and visiting the small but excellent restaurants, gave me a feeling for the region and the people that I never had when staying in Reims.

The main purpose for the visit was to say good-bye to a good friend, Richard Geoffroy, winemaker of Dom Pérignon for twenty-eight years, who is retiring at the end of December.  His next venture will be making saké in Japan.  We had an emotional meeting, and of course we tasted some Champagne Dom Pérignons to mark the occasion.

During the week, I visited four other Champagne houses in addition to Dom Pérignon.  I will mention the highlights of these visits in this column.  But I begin with Champagne Dom Pérignon.

Dom Pérignon is a part of Moët & Chandon, the largest Champagne house by far; it is located in Épernay.  Richard Geoffroy is actually the chief winemaker of Moët, but runs Dom Pérignon as a separate entity.  In fact, Richard conducts his Dom Pérignon tastings in Hautvillers, just outside of Épernay, at the Abbey of the late Dom, and not in Épernay.

We tasted seven Dom Pérignons, including one DP Rosé and two P2s, followed by a look at three Dom Pérignon P2s (to be late-released):

2008 Dom Pérignon:  From a superb vintage in Champagne; I expected greatness, and I received it.  Vibrant and balanced, with great acidity.  Geoffroy says the 2008 has “the magic; we managed to flesh out the vintage with ripe fruit”--a reference to the point that some 2008 Champagnes seem too lean to tasters.  It is 50% Chardonnay and 50% Pinot Noir, and is the current vintage.  It is still very young; I suggest not opening it for four or five years.  98

2009 Dom Pérignon:  From an unusually warm vintage in Champagne; the 2009 was released two years ago, before the 2008, because 2008 needed more time.  It is very drinkable right now; for my palate, a bit low in acidity.  91

2004 Dom Pérignon:  The most surprising of the group in that it still needs more time to reach its peak; 2004 is an underrated vintage in Champagne; fleshy, with good acidity. Drink or hold; I would hold it for one or two years.   94

2003 Dom Pérignon:  Another warmish vintage. Definitely ready to drink; it will not improve; it had the misfortune of following the much better 2004.  90

2006 Dom Pérignon Rosé:  Oh, my!  This 2006 is the greatest Rosé that Geoffroy has produced, in my opinion.  Geoffroy mentioned that the 2000 DPR was the turn-around vintage for DP Rosé, when he began using extra Pinot Noir to make it a more substantial Champagne.  The harmony and purity of the Pinot Noir sings through in this vintage.  With 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay, it is a deep pink color with orange highlights.  It is even better than the great 2000 DPR, and drinking beautifully right now.  99

2002 Dom Pérignon P2:  The first P2 of the tasting.  The success of the later-released Dom Pérignons (P2 and P3), an idea originated by Geoffroy, is evident in this amazing Champagne.  It explodes on the palate; it is very fresh with great ripeness; an outstanding Champagne that will last for decades.  99

1990 Dom Pérignon P2:  Lovely to drink now; perhaps could have used a touch more acidity. Geoffroy says this vintage will be re-released as a P3.  I would like to taste the 1990 when it is freshly released as a P3.  94

We had a discussion of the 1990 vintage versus the 1988 in Champagne.  1990 was more attractive when first released, but the 1988, a cooler, tighter vintage, is the “connoisseur’s vintage,” said Geoffroy, and will outlive the 1990.

We had a brief look at future P2s; the 1998 P2 is excellent, but still young.  I rated it 97 right now; the 1996 P2 is tight and lean;  the 1995 P2 is also tight, but livelier than the 1996 at this point.  I thought the last two P2s were too young to rate now. 

Geoffroy told me that the 2010 would be the next Dom Pérignon to be released.  I was surprised because the 2010 is not considered to be a good vintage, but Geoffroy smiled and said, “You will see.”  He thinks it will be an “outstanding” vintage for Dom Pérignon, “resembling a white Burgundy.”  Geoffroy is also high on 2012, another great vintage coming up.

Geoffroy will remain as a consultant for Dom Pérignon; his successor will be Vincent Chaperon, his assistant winemaker for the last 13 years.  Geoffroy has already established a saké company, called Iwa, outside of Tokyo, and owns rice fields.

My next visit was to Champagne Palmer & Co., our host for the week.  Palmer & Co. is a small, classy co-operative, located in Reims.  The house owns a guest house with five rooms in Chigny-les Roses.  Since it was definitely off-season in December, we had one of the larger suites to ourselves.  But Palmer & Co. rents the rooms during the year at reasonable rates, and they are invariably full.  The innkeeper is a charming young woman, Cecile Jacquier, and there is a chef on the premises.  One evening, Cecile recommended an excellent restaurant in the neighboring village of Rilly, called Chateau de Rilly.  It was superb, with an incredible Champagne list, a place we hope to return to on another trip. 

Palmer & Co.’s Champagnes are fairly new to us because they have just begun to be imported into the U.S.  Palmer & Co. allows its wines to stay in contact with the lees longer than most other Champagne houses, ranging from one year longer to several years longer, depending upon the Champagne, making the Champagnes richer and more developed when they are released.  Even their NV Brut is aged from four to five years.

Of the Champagnes now being imported into the U.S., one of Palmer & Co.’s two standouts is its NV Blanc de Blancs, aged a minimum of five years.  85% of its Chardonnay is grown in Montagne de Reims; it is a rich, substantial Blanc de Blancs that improves with aging.  95

The second standout, Palmer & Co.’s NV Rosé, might be its best Champagne, and one of the top Rosé Champagnes that I have experienced.  It is made 50% from rich, older Pinot Noir vines, many of which grow in Ricey de Rosé, a village in the southern Aube district known for its Pinot Noir.  The remainder is Chardonnay.  Palmer& Co.’s Rosé is a show-stopper, a Champagne to seek out.  97

My third stop was a visit to Champagne Louis Roederer in Reims for a luncheon appointment with Louis Roederer’s winemaker, Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, at the Louis Roederer mansion.  It was a Cristal luncheon; we enjoyed four Cristal Champagnes, including a rare Cristal Rosé. A brief summary of the four Champagnes follow:

2008 Cristal:  So great!  Rich, creamy; its depth resonates; outstanding balance.  It is exceptional even now, in its youth.  It promises to be one of the greatest Cristal Champagnes.    60 percent Pinot Noir, 40 percent Chardonnay.  98/99

2002 Cristal:  A richer Cristal than usual, with a spicy note; excellent acidity balancing the richness; still very youthful, with minerality.  It is a more full-bodied Cristal than usual, a reflection of the vintage.  Although enjoyable now, I would hold the 2002 for four years. 60 percent Pinot Noir, 40 percent Chardonnay.  95

1993 Cristal:  The 1993 is drinking beautifully now.  It aged on its lees for 16 years and was disgorged in 2009.  Very rich aromatically, with mushroom and caramel notes.  Such a pleasure to drink a mature Cristal, and yet from an average vintage at best.  But this is Cristal--never average, always finessed.  96

2008 Cristal Rosé:  Concentrated and pristine; red fruits predominate at this stage; the Chardonnay will develop later.  Cristal Rosé, like all Cristal Champagnes, is a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but Pinot Noir is more dominant in the Rosé.  At this point, the 2008 Rosé tastes younger than the 2008 Cristal blanc.  A good rule is that all Cristal Champagnes need time to mature--10 years minimum, up to 20 years in top vintages.  Only five percent of Cristal is made as a Rosé; this rarity primarily accounts for its price. Cristal Rosé is always at least twice the price of the Blanc, retailing at $500, but can sell up to $600.  At this point, 97, but can go higher.

Jean-Baptiste stated that he has been converting all of Louis Roederer’s vineyards to biodynamic farming.  With the 2012 vintage, all Champagnes (other than its NV Brut Premier, some of which is still made from purchased grapes) will be biodynamically farmed.

I next visited Champagne Deutz, located in the village of Ay (pronounced eye ee), just south and east of Reims.  Deutz is owned by Champagne Louis Roederer, but is independently run by the ebullient, charming Fabrice Rosset.   Generous Fabrice poured ten Champagnes, but I will just mention Deutz’s highlights here:

2008 Amour de Deutz Rosé:  Deutz’s newest prestige cuvée, created by Rosset, the 2008 has excellent concentration, is fresh and minerally; it is rich and textured, with lots of red fruits. I think this is Deutz’s best Amour Champagne yet.  Coming from the excellent 2008 vintage, it should age well for many years.  96

2007 William Deutz:  Deutz’s other prestige cuvée, always reliable, even in a lighter, precocious vintage such as 2007.  Amazingly delicate and floral, but with depth and good acidity.  An outstanding 2007; a tribute to William Deutz’s greatness as a Champagne.  95

2012 Hommage a William Deutz:  The Hommage is Deutz’s newest Champagne, 100% Pinot Noir, which previewed with the 2010 vintage.  This 2012, clearly a better vintage than the 2010, is showing very well, but is still very young.  It is rich, concentrated, and flavorful.  A textured Champagne with aromas and flavors of red fruits and mushrooms, and with a mineral base.  95

My last stop, on Friday morning, was the classic Champagne Henriot. The affable Beatrice Brossier. Henriot’s Public Relations Manager, guided me through a flight of five Henriot Champagnes:

NV Henriot Brut Rosé:  Henriot always begins its tastings with its Rosé, because that is its most delicate Champagne.  Pale pink color, with very good depth; fairly dry and minerally, elegant, with an exceptional finish. Henriot’s Rosé  includes 35% reserve wines, unusually high for a Rosé Champagne.  50% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay, 10% Pinot Meunier.  The perfect apéritif Champagne.  I loved it.  94

NV Henriot Brut Souverain:  Delicate aromas and flavors of fresh white fruits; medium-bodied, delicate texture, but with good concentration.  50% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot Noir, 5% Pinot Meunier.  This Souverain is based on the 2014 vintage, with 30% reserve wines.  It has been aged over three years on its lees.  90

NV Henriot Blanc de Blancs:  Henriot’s outstanding Blanc de Blancs is the centerpiece of its Champagnes.  Chardonnay has always been the calling card of Henriot’s delicately styled Champagnes.  Beatrice served the Blanc de Blancs in an extra-large, wide glass.  The large glass just magnified the exotic aromas and flavors of peach, brioche, and butter.  The Champagne had very good depth and a creamy texture, with a lemony element, and excellent length on the palate. Its 100% Chardonnay included 70% Grand and Premier Cru grapes, with 40% reserve wines.  It is aged up to five years on its lees.  97

2008 Henriot Vintage Brut:  This vintage Brut, from the great 2008 vintage, is made from 100% Grand and Premier Cru grapes.  It is firm and authoritative, with ripe fruit flavors of hazelnuts, coffee, chocolate, caramel, and orange zest.  It is creamy, with high acidity, and with a bitter orange zest finish. Less tha 6 grams residual sugar.  The 2008 has been aged for eight years on its lees, and has 50% Chardonnay, 50% Pinot Noir. It is an appropriate Champagne to celebrate Henriot’s 200th anniversary.  Drink now or hold for up to five years.  97

2005 Henriot Cuvée Hemera:  Henriot’s brand-new prestige cuvée; replaces its former prestige Cuvée, des Enchanteleurs.  The late Joseph Henriot decided that Champagne Henriot needed a prestige cuvée more in keeping with its house style; Cuvée des Enchanteleurs was a firm, full-bodied, brawny Champagne.  In contrast, the Hemera emphasizes delicacy, chalky minerality, and a creamy texture. It has depth, with yellow fruit flavors and almond notes.  Hemera is made from Grand Cru grapes only, 50% Pinot Noir from three Montagne de Reims vineyards (Mailly, Verzy, and Verzenay) and 50% Chardonnay from three Côtes des Blancs vineyards (Mesnil sur Oger, Avize, and Chouilly).  Hemera, with less than 6 gms residual.sugar., has been aged on its lees for 12 years!  It made its debut this year.  98

I left wintry Montagne de Reims Saturday December 15th and headed back to wintry New York, with vivid memories of a week well-spent.