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Champagne for the Ages, AR Lenoble
By Robert Whitley
Jul 14, 2015
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One of the most enduring wine myths of our time is the belief that Champagne is not likely to improve with age, that it must be consumed young for maximum pleasure.

Au contraire.

Champagne – the real deal from the Champagne district in northeastern France – is nearly as ageworthy as Bordeaux or Burgundy, two other French wines that collectors prize in their dotage. The chalky soils and cool climate of the Champagne region deserve much of the credit, for they contribute mightily to the firm structure of Champagne.

I have enjoyed the legendary Dom Perignon at more than 40 years old, and more recently the 1985 Charles Heidsieck ‘Champagne Charlie.’ Both exhibited freshness that seemed miraculous given their age.

Of course, some Champagnes have greater potential to age than others. To my short list of Champagnes I deem splendid for additional cellar time I have added the brilliant wines of AR Lenoble, specifically the 2008 Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs, $65, produced from chardonnay grapes grown in the grand cru village of Chouilly.

This is an extremely dry Champagne crafted in the house style preferred by proprietors Anne and Antoine Malassagne. The residual sugar stands at 4 grams per liter, well below the limit of 12 grams permitted for a brut Champagne. Firm and precise, with aromas of brioche and citrus and scintillating minerality, the 2008 grand cru blanc de blancs from AR Lenoble is years, perhaps even decades, away from peak maturity.

The Wine Glass

Once upon a time the wine glass was hardly an object of controversy. Some of a certain age no doubt remember when the delivery system for wine was the water glass. This was common in Italian-American households, where wine was considered food and served at the dinner hour every night. Fine crystal was not necessary.

The Austrian glass maker Georg Riedel altered our perception of the wine glass beginning sometime in the 1980s by offering affordable stemware designed for specific kinds of wine. Other wine-glass manufacturers followed suit and the wine enthusiast is now confronted with a mind-numbing array of sizes and shapes for all manner of wine.

There is one glass shape for Bordeaux, another for Riesling, another for Burgundy, still another for Chardonnay, and so on. This begs the question: Does it matter?

In the technical sense, yes. Tasting the same wine from multiple styles of stemware will illustrate the variability in taste sensation and aromatic impressions that are directly connected to the glass used.

But from a practical point of view, having a special glass for each type of wine you might serve seems a bit of overkill, for the difference are subtle and generally not obvious unless tasting the same wine side by side from different glasses. Besides, who has space for all of those different glasses?

I’m a longtime fan of Riedel stemware, and use it exclusively at the four wine competitions I operate, but I don’t believe Georg’s vision of a different glass shape for every wine works for most people.

Here’s what I look for in a wine glass: Clean lines, a flared mid-section to allow for swirling, and a narrowing at the rim to trap and funnel the aromas. I use larger glasses for big, complex reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Syrah, and slightly smaller glasses for Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and crisp, aromatic whites.

My exception to that rule of thumb is that I generally use what I would consider a red-wine glass for Chardonnay. For the better, i.e., more complex, Champagnes and sparkling wines I use a white wine glass rather than a Champagne flute. This shows off the subtle aromas of the better sparkling wines because it allows for swirling, which aerates the wine and brings up aroma and flavor.

Wine Is Not Gin

The wine-is-not-gin line was first used, so far as I know, by my colleague and friend, Stephen Brook, an editor at Decanter Magazine in London. Stephen penned this obvious observation several years ago at the height of the controversy over rising alcohol levels in wine.

I’ve adopted the saying, with all credit to Mr. Brook, but for a different reason. Wine, unlike gin or whisky or even soda pop, for that matter, has a life after it goes into the bottle.

Hence the popular myth that “wine gets better with age.” Some does, some doesn’t. The larger point is that wine is a living thing and changes in the bottle.

For example, simple wines tend to be better when drunk young because they lose their freshness over time. Better wines do the opposite, evolving as the years pass until they reach peak maturity, which is different for every wine.

It is a little-known fact that white wines get darker with age, while red wines lose color and get lighter. A number of years ago, over dinner with friends in Bordeaux, our host opened two wines from the same vintage in the 1930s. One was red, the other white. After both had been decanted, we discovered they were almost identical in color.

These days fewer and fewer wine enthusiasts are inclined to cellar wines for long periods of time. The conventional wisdom holds that 90 percent of all wine is consumed within 24 hours of purchase.

So I often remind friends and family, wine is not gin. Hold back a few bottles of the better stock for some special event down the road. You might be surprised at what’s in the bottle after just a bit of additional age.

Email Robert at [email protected].