The soul of champagne

by Michael Alderete on 11/13/2003

Almost two years ago, Rochelle and I attended a champagne tasting held at Absinthe, and hosted by Terry Theise, a specialty wine importer. We had gone to a couple other champagne tasting events, but this was a smaller setting, and Theise had a different agenda.

He introduced us to “grower producers,” or, champagnes made by the same people who grow the grapes, in very small quantities. It was eye opening, and we immediately decided our next big vacation would be to the Champagne region of France. That trip was in September of 2002, and will probably remain our best vacation for many years.

Yesterday’s New York Times has an excellent article about champagne grower producers, and also provides a fine introduction to some of the subtleties of champagne. I’ve been meaning to write up my own introduction, but for now, I’ll just point you at the Times.

I will add one thing to the NYT article, that Rochelle and I thought was the key lesson we learned at our tasting with Theise. Grower producers don’t have any money for marketing, and don’t make enough product where marketing would actually help them. So when you buy a bottle of their wine, you’re paying for the wine, not the marketing budget.

By contrast, the largest champagne houses spend zillions on marketing and distribution. That’s what puts them on supermarket shelves across the US, and what drives people to buy them off those shelves. A substantial piece of the price tag for that wine is the marketing and other costs which are not reflected in the quality of the wine.

So, if you’re drinking a well-made $40 champagne from a grower producer, it compares favorably to a $80-100 champagne from, say, Moët & Chandon. Dom Perignon, the premium label of Moët, is $80 at Costco. While in France we paid 30€ for bottles we liked better.

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Champagne tasting

by Michael Alderete on 2/11/2003

Yesterday we hosted a comparative champagne tasting. We selected six bottles of wine, three pairs, and put them in paper bags to serve them blind. We tasted and compared each pair, paused to collect ourselves, and then moved to the next.

Since Rochelle and I knew which wines we’d chosen, and I knew which was which from opening the bottles (in spite of the bags, the caps told all), it wasn’t a completely blind tasting for us. But even so, there was quite a bit we didn’t know, and had to really go on taste, rather than knowing the label, or how expensive the wine was.

This was a once-in-a-blue-moon event, because the wines were all outstanding (most were received as gifts); we’ll not hold such an orgy for a long time, I’m sure!

The wines we tasted were:

A: Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé
B: Gosset Grand Rosé
C: Dom Pérignon 1995
D: Dom Pérignon 1993
E: Veuve Clicquot Brut (yellow label)
F: Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame 1995

I won’t attempt to post tasting notes, because my palate vocabulary isn’t that developed. As a group we were disappointed with the rosés, we theorize because they would have gone better with different food. In the middle pair, the Dom Pérignon 1993 was preferred over the younger vintage by most, but the aspiring Master of Wine who attended said that 1993 was not a very good year, and felt the 1995 was better.

In the final pair, and for the tasting as a whole, people were very happy with the standard Veuve Clicquot which was, at $30, the least expensive wine in the group by more than $20.

I was partial to La Grande Dame, but again, I knew which it was, and so I don’t trust my judgment. I am looking forward to someone stepping forward, and hosting a similar tasting where I can be a guest, and prove my choice wasn’t a fluke. Still, at $120 or more a bottle, I don’t know how I could justify drinking La Dame over her country cousin.

Viva la Veuve!

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