Farmer Fizz? An exploration of Grower Champagne with the French #Winophiles

Pierre Péters Champagne Rosé for Albane

Grower Champagne, Farmer Fizz it’s been called. Why do we want to drink it? Why would I prefer “a dirt to glass story” to go with my bubbly? Who wouldn’t?

Quick breakdown on Champagne

You are probably already aware that just because it is fizzy wine, doesn’t mean you can call it Champagne. That title is reserved for sparkling wines made in the Methode Champenois in the Champagne region of France. (for more on what makes Champagne different dive into our piece “Sparkling Wine or Champagne“.)In the US in California they labeled bubbly as Champagne for a bit, (something to do we us not ratifying the Treaty of Versailles, back in 1919. When we then signed the wine trade agreement with France in 2006, Korbel was grandfathered in to be allowed to use the name Champagne) and France put the kibosh on that.

So to be called Champagne you must come from the Champagne Region in France. Now within that there are more distinctions and here is where “Grower Champagne” comes in.

Most Champagnes come from large Champagne Houses or Maisons.  These houses may have estate vineyards, but they also source from all over the region, pulling grapes from small growers.  They then blend the juice and often blend in some previous vintages.  The goal?  To create a uniform wine NV (non vintage) that will have consistent flavor and quality from year to year.  A noble pursuit!  And many fine Champagnes come from these houses.

 

The Champagne AOC is one of the largest in France covering 340,000 hectares with over 300 Villages. 

80% of the wine coming out of this AOC is produced by Négociants and Coopératives.

They can pull from anywhere in the AOC AND they can purchase not only grapes, but pressed juice or in some cases sur-lattes (that is pre-made sparkling wine).

 

Grower Champagne

Picture the small winery, one that has maybe been in the family for generations, growing grapes and now, rather than selling those grapes to someone else to blend, they keep those grapes and make their own wine.  This is a wine that speaks of their land, their soil and their style.  We love this in wineries, don’t we?  It’s tougher to do in Champagne, because the bubbly, well… the equipment is expensive and the process is time consuming.

For those who don’t have the money to invest in the equipment you find Cooperatives, places where smaller vineyard owners can get together and make a Champagne from a village. These vineyards bring their grapes together and one winemaker will often make a cuvée.  These are often vintage Champagnes. These are noted on the bottle with “CM” for Coopérative Manipulant.

True Grower Champagne comes from a Vigneron.  Someone who owns the land, farms the land, harvests the grapes and makes the wine.  They are typically vintage Champagnes and the best part about this (IMHO) is that they taste different from year to year.  As with good still wines, you are able to taste the terroir.  It makes tasting much more exciting in my opinion.

Types of Champagne Producers

So a quick breakdown on the one set of codes that you will find in fine print on the Champagne Bottle that can help you determine the origin of your Champagne.

ND Négociant Distributeur

  • These guys are the labeler/marketers.  They buy a Champagne, label it and sell it.

MA Marque d’Acheteur

  • Kinda like ND’s, they just buy a wine and private label it with their brand.

(So I don’t have alot of use for these top two.  If you need to buy a whole bunch of Champagne for a celebration and no one is going to notice quality…well maybe then.  I mean bubbles are bubbles, but if you have a choice…look for the codes below)

NM Négociant Manipulant

  • They may buy all or some of their grapes from others.  Deal is that anything under 94% estate fruit puts you in this category.  While big houses are typically in this class, it’s easy for others other to get lopped in also.

CM Coopérative Manipulant

  • These are the Co-ops we talked about above.  This is a group of growers that work together to make a single wine or brand.

RC Récoltant Coopérateur

  • This is a small grower, who rather that purchasing their own equipment, has it made at a co-op facility (we see lots of this style of co-op popping up in California for wineries)

SR Sociéty de Récolants

  • This is a group of growers who get together to buy the equipment to share and then each produce their own wine.  (These spots are popping up in California too for still wines.  The Buellton Bodegas that Michael Larner started is a great example, they have separate warehouses for each winery, but they share the larger more expensive equipment)

RM Récolant Manipulant

  • This is where it’s at in my book.  They grow the grapes (a minimum of 95% must be estate)

Where do you find this on the label?  Well, it varies, but typically it is in small print on the back label.

RM Récolant Manipulant

RM Récolant Manipulant

Vintage Champagne

Just because you are a grower, doesn’t necessarily mean that you are making “Vintage” Champagne.  You can be a grower and still blend previous vintages and make a cuvée.  And truth be told, if you want to sell a Vintage Champagne, there are a few more hoops for you to jump through regulation wise.  Vintage Champagnes must spend a minimum of 3 years aging on the lees in bottle, where as non-vintage only need 15 months.

Some Growers choose to put the vintage on the label.  Others, while adhering to the standards for a vintage, prefer to focus on the vineyard and site.  You will see this below with the Chartogne-Taillet I tasted.

Regions within the Champagne AOC

Within the Champagne AOC there are Montagne de Reims, Vallée de la Marne, Côte des Blancs, Côte de Sézanne and Côte des Bars.

Map of the regions within the Champagne AOC

Map of the regions within the Champagne AOC

Overall, the Paris Basin is Jurassic sediment covered in Cretaceous Chalk and the Chalk is the key to the terroir in this region.  Chalk can hold water, so the roots struggle to dig down up to 30 meters to tap into this moisture.  The average precipitation in the Champagne region is just 26 inches each year, so this moisture stored in the soil is critical to keeping the vines going.

Each of the regions within the Champagne AOC have slightly different soil breakdowns and each grow a slightly different mix of wine grapes.

Montagne de Reims

This region in the Northwest of Champagne has cretaceous chalk with clay and sand for soil.  The breakdown for grapes in the region is 56% Pinot Noir, 28% Chardonnay and 16% Pinot Meunier.  You might see village names on the label also.  The Grand Cru Villages include: Ambonnay, Beaumont-sur-Vesle, Bouzy, Louvois, Mailly-Champagne, Puisieulx, Sillery, Verzenay and Verzy.  Premier Cru Villages include: Bezzanes, Billy-la-Grand, Chamery, Chigny-les-Roses, Eceuil, Jouy les Reims, Les Mesneux, Ludes, Montebré, Pargny les Reims, Rilly-la-Montagne, Sacy,Taissy, Tauxières-Mutry, Trépail, Troi Puits, Vaudemanges, Villiers-Allernad, Villier-aux-Noeuds, Ville-Dommange and Villiers Marmery.  Vineyards here face multiple directions (northeast, southeast, southwest and west). The tops of the hills have deposits of lignite that nourishes the chalk soils below.

Vallée de la Marne

South West of Montagne de Reims along the Marne River you find the Vallée de la Marne region.  Here Pinot Meunier is king, with 63% of the grapes grown.  Pinot Noir comes in at 27% and Chardonnay at 10%.  The sub soil is Cretaceous chalk with a top soil mix of clay, flint, limestone, marl and sand.  There are 2 Grand Cru Villages: Aÿ, and Tours-sur Marne.  Premier Cru Villages include: Bisseuil, Champillon, Cumières, Dizy, Huatvillers, Mareuil-sur-Aÿ and Mutigny.  The best vineayrds here face south.

Côte des Blancs

South of the Vallé de la Marne you find the Côte des Blancs.  There is a reason for the name, 96% of the grapes grown here are Chardonnay with a mere 3% Pinot Noir and 1% Pinot Meunier.  The soil here is Cretaceous Chalk.  There is a bit of clay and sand, but really it is overwhelmingly chalk.  Vineyards are typically east or southeast facing.  Grand Cru Villages include: Avize, Chouilly, Cramant, le Mesnil-sur-Oger, Oger and Oiry.  Premier Cru Villages include: Bergèrese-les-Vertus, Coligny, Cuis, Etréchy, Vertus, Villeneuve-Renneville and Voipreux.

Côte des Sézzane

Step a little further south of Côte des Blancs and you find Côte des Sézzane.  Like Côte des Blancs, it is mostly Chardonnay that is grown here.  The vineyards here are about 64% Chardonnay and tend to face southeast which allows them to get a little riper than the grapes of the Côte des Blancs. The soils here are clay and clay silk with pockets of chalk.

Côte des Bars or The Aube

The furthest south you find The Aube or Côte des Bars.  Here the grapes are primarily Pinot Noir (83%) and the soil is marl. Almost half of the PInot Noir grown in the Champagne AOC is grown in this region. While not as well known, this area has some of the prettiest country side.  It includes the 3 communes that make up Les Riceys; Ricey-Bas, Ricey-Haut and Ricey-Haut-Rive.

How does this all affect the flavor?

For the most part you will notice the wines of Côtes des Sézzane and Côte de Bars are more aromatic and have less acidity.  The wines of the Vallée de la Marne are unctuous and fruity (due to the pinot meunier) and the Côtes des Blancs are higher in acidity and racy.

As I was researching I found that the big wine mega shops don’t typically have staff that will recognize the term “Grower Champagne”.  I had a couple of less than pleasant phone and face to face conversations that left me frustrated.  I reached out to the smaller wine shops that, sadly, are all the way on the other side of the valley from me (45 minute to an hour one way trip).  Incredibly, I missed out on a tasting event with Jean-Remy Rapeneau, who’s family owns Chateau Bligny at Khoury’s.  I found out about it too late to manage to go.  I did also contact Valley Cheese and Wine in Henderson.  They had over 20 different grower Champagnes in stock.  We went to look and picked up one bottle and found that they were doing a Champagne Class.  So…you will get to hear about that at the bottom of this piece.

When in Vegas…my go to wine shops are Khoury’s and Valley Cheese and Wine.

From our trek across the valley to Valley Cheese and Wine we picked up a bottle of Grower Champagne from Pierre Péters.  This was their Rosé for Albane Brut NV.  This comes through the Terry Thiese Estate Selection.

Pierre Péters Champagne Rosé for Albane

Pierre Péters Champagne Rosé for Albane

A little about Pierre Péters

So Gaspar Péters, was from Luxembourg.  In 1858 he married Miss Doué who owned vineyards in Le Mesnil.  They started their operation with about 2 hectares. Their son Louis Joseph continued the business.  Louis’ son Camille, was one of the first growers in 1919 to sell bottles under his name.  In 1930 Camille acquired “Le Chétillons” which was 2.5 hectares.  Pierre was Camille’s oldest son.  At the ripe old age of 12 they had him out traveling on his own developing sales.  He evidently took the branding to heart and when his father passed he took over operations and released the first vintage under Pierre Péters.  In 1967 the estate passed to François, his second son who ran the estate until 2008.  In 2007 Rodolphe Péters joined the family estate.  He came with 12 years of experience as an oenologist/winemaker in the wine world. (information from http://champagne-peters.com/en/historical)

This Champagne is from the Côte des Blancs region and within that Le Mesnil-sur-Oger.  This is a 20 hectare vineyard, so around 50 acres and produces 14,000 cases annually.  Soils here are Cretaceous Chalk and they grow 100% Chardonnay.  They are known for their Blanc de Blancs.  So…hmmm how do they make a rosé?  Well, they moved into the rosé market in 2007 adding this “Rosé for Albane” which adds some saignée Pinot Meunier to Chardonnay.  This wine is 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Meunier.

Champagne & Sushi

Sushi with Grower Champagne

Sushi with Grower Champagne

We paired this first with some takeout sushi, we were hungry and it was what was for lunch!  And really, you can’t go wrong with sushi and Champagne.  Rosé Champagne is great against melt in your mouth fish and soy.  We always talk about salt and fat with Champagne (popcorn, potato chips, caviar & créme fraiche) you get that same fat from the fish and salt from the soy.  And for me, the festive atmosphere a sushi platter creates goes great with bubbles.

A selection of cheeses with Grower Champagne

A selection of cheeses with Grower Champagne

I did dive deeper into pairings and later we paired the Champagne with a selection of cheeses.  We visited our friendly Murray’s Cheese counter and picked up a couple cheeses to pair.

Swiss Emmentaler

Swiss Emmentaler cheese

Swiss Emmentaler cheese

I was hoping to pair the buttery and nutty notes of this wine with the Champagne.  It was okay, but I honestly liked the cheese better on it’s own.  This is a raw cow’s milk cheese from the Emmental region of Switzerland.  When you say swiss cheese, this is what you mean.

Grand Margaux

Grand Margaux cheese

Grand Margaux cheese

Brie and Champagne.  No brainer right?  This cheese is double creme and is similar to Brie and leans towards buttery flavors.  It paired as perfectly as expected.

Comte

Comte cheese

Comte cheese

Alpine cheese is a great pairing for Champagne.  We waffled between Comte and Gruyere and thought we were picking up the Gruyere.  No worries, this cheese went very well.  As firm as this cheese can be on it’s own, the Champagne makes it seem lighter in your mouth.  This cheese is cut from 90 pound wheels from the France’s Jura.  It is made from raw, mountain pasture fed cow milk.

Fourme d’Ambert

Fourme d'Ambert cheese

Fourme d’Ambert cheese

Typically I would have chosen this to go with a sweeter wine, but I wanted to see how it would do.  Topped with a bit of honey, it was heaven.  Without the honey, Meh.  Made from pasteurized cows milk in Auvergne, this cheese is made from unpressed curds inoculated with a blue mold.  They start a bit crumbly, but then after 4 months in cave you get a smoother softer blue with notes sweet cream and mushrooms.

We garnished with champagne grapes.  No they are not really the grapes that you make champagne from, but they are cute sweet little grapes that are tasty and look adorable on the cheese plate.  That sweetness was a great offset to the savory cheeses.

We also paired with a fresh cheese bread and quite honestly that was one of my favorite pairing.  All the yeastiness was happy to play together in my mouth.  Bread and Champagne….yeah, I could happily try to live on that.

Bread with Champagne

Bread with Champagne, yeast and more yeast

Now for a brief rundown of my Champagne Class at Valley Cheese and Wine.

A Champagne Tasting

So I spent an evening around a table with a dozen or so people at, Valley Cheese and Wine, tasting through some Champagnes with Bob, who focus’ on the wine here.  We were tasting through 6 Champagnes all but one were Grower Champagnes.

They did provide us pairings for the tasting (after all they are a cheese shop also and Kristin brings in an amazing array of cheeses)  The platter of cheeses included Cremèux de Diteaux with truffle (a cow’s milk cheese from France), Clochette (goat’s milk cheese from France) and Regal de Bourgogne with raisins (cow’s milk from France).  There were blueberries, strawberries, dried apricots, raspberries and bread, plus Jamon Serrano from Spain, Chorizo from Spain and Speck from Italy.  Later in the evening, hot fries and baked macaroni and cheese with crumb topping were served.  The salt the fat the richness, was perfect for the Champagne to cut through.

Duval-Leroy

Run by a family team of mother Carol and her 3 sons Julien, Charles and Louis, this is a Champagne House, not a Grower Champagne. They produce about 4.5 million bottles annually.  The Duval-Leroy Champagne house was formed in 1859 between two families; the Duval family of Vertus in the Côtes des Blancs and the Leroy family, merchants from Reims.  It has been passed down father to son for 6 generations.  Carol Duval-Leroy took over the company in 1991, when her husband unexpectedly passed at just 39 years of age.

2006 Duval Leroy Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs

2006 Duval Leroy Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs

Duval-Leroy Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru 2006 Prestige

100% Chardonnay, 2,000 cases produced.  This is made from grapes from the Grand Cru Villages that include: Avize, Cramant, Chouilly, le Mesnil sur Oger and Oiry in the Côte des Blancs.   This goes under malolactic ferementation to give it a smoothness and that bit of bready yeastiness on the nose.  These wines age in chalk cellars for a minimum of 6 years.  This wine ages on the lees for 6 years.

This was a good Champagne, but it sat as our control.  It was a bright Blanc de Blanc.  Each of the wines we tasted after this were much more intense both in the nose and in flavor on the palate.

Champagne Doyard

Located in Vertus in the Côte des Blancs, this is a family farm. Champagne Doyard has 10 hectares of Chardonnay spread over Vertus, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, Oger, Cramant and Avize.  They also have 1 hectare of Pinot Noir in Vertus and Aÿ.  The vineyards average 40 years in age.  They can trace their family roots in Champagne to the 17th century. They farm biodynamically and the vineyards are worked by horse rather than tractor to keep the ground in the vineyards from compacting.

2011 Champagne Doyard Clos de l'Abbaye Grower Champagne

2011 Champagne Doyard Clos de l’Abbaye

2011 Champagne Doyard Clos de L’Abbaye Premier Cru Extra Dry

“Clos” indicates wall, and this wine is made from a little walled vineyard behind the winery that was planted in 1956.  It spent 4 years on the lees. This is a vintage champagne and it is 100% Chardonnay.

I found this wine to be more fragrant than the first.  There were fruits and florals on the nose and the flavors floated in my mouth and had a lovely length.

Marc Hébrart

Located in the Vallée de la Marne, Jean-Paul Hébrart took over the reins from his father in 1997. With 15.5 hectares of vineyard they produce 8,750 cases annually.  Calculated in acres that is 37 acres, which is made up of 70 different parcels in 10 villages.  They do 6 or 7 cuvées here.  The soil here is chalk and they grow 75% Pinot Noir and 25% Chardonnay.  Jean-Paul is experimenting with indigenous yeast and barrel fermentation.  Everything here is organic and sustainable and they hand riddle the bottles.

2010 Marc Hébrart Rive Gauche Rive Droite Grower Champagne Extra Brut

2010 Marc Hébrart Rive Gauche Rive Droite Champagne Extra Brut

Rive Gauch Rive Droite 2010 Grand Cru Champagne Hébrart Extra Dry

This wine is named for the vineyards that comprise this blend which sit on both the left and right sides of the Marne River.  This wine is 50% chardonnay and 50% pinot noir, natural yeast, unfiltered and made in barrels. This wine is part of the Skurnik Portfolio.  This aged 6 years on the lees and the pinot noir is old vine.

As we went through the tasting I felt like the aromas in each wine became more intense.  The nose on this wine is intense.  It hit me with notes of apple cider, that type of sweetness, that is tangy on the nose.  This wine was served with the baked macaroni and cheese with a crumb topping.

Champagne Chartogne-Taillet

From the Montagne de Reims region.  This winery has 11.5 hectares of vineyards and produces 7,500 cases of wine annually.  They grow 40% chardonnay, 38% pinot noir, 20% pinot meunier and 2% arbanne.  They are located in the village of Merfy and have been growing wine there for over 500 years.  Alexandre Chartogne now runs things and is delving into biodynamics.  He uses stainless steel, neutral barrique and concrete eggs and allows for natural malolactic fermentation. Another from the Skurnik Portfolio, you can find more information here.

The vines in this vineyard go deep to look for water, some digging down as much as 65 feet.  They are also ungrafted vines (which is risky for phylloxera, an aphid which in the early 1900’s took out over 70% of the vines in France.  Since then most French vines are grafted to American root stock which those little aphids evidently don’t like to eat).  They believe that the ungrafted vines pull more terroir and varietal character into the wines.

We tasted 2 wines from this producer, which were made from a single vintage, but they chose not to label them as vintage Champagnes, but rather to focus on the single vineyards each came from.

*Bob did a follow up to confirm the reasoning for Chartogne-Taillet not releasing as vintage.  The answer was “Chartogne wants to have flexibility and to release them as he wants rather than by regulation. The vintage in which the wines were harvested is on the back label.”

NV Chartogne Taillet Les Barres GrowerChampagne

NV Chartogne Taillet Les Barres

Champagne Chartogne-Taillet Les Barres Extra Dry

This wine is made from grapes from the 2012 vintage, but they chose not to label it by vintage. The first vintage of this wine was produced in 2010. It is 100% Pinot Meunier.

This wine was fragrant and unctuous. I got an herbal-bramble note lightly on the nose.  This wine felt a little more wild to me.  I had not had a 100% Pinot Meunier Champagne before, and it was exotic to me and I liked it!

NV Chartogne Taillet Couarres Château Grower Champagne

NV Chartogne Taillet Couarres Château

Champagne Chartogne-Taillet Couarres Chateau Extra Dry

They make a Couarres Champagne also, but this is the Couarres Château Champagne, a distinction that indicates the specific vineyard.  This is a single parcel wine with vines planted in 1987.

This wine is 100% Pinot Noir.  It was a lovely wine, but quite honestly, I was so enamoured by the Les Barres….

Champagne Geoffroy

Located in the Vallée de la Marne in Cumières the Champagne Geoffroy vineyards span 14 hectares (just over 34 acres) and they produce 10,400 cases anually.  Soils here are calcareous, sandstone and clay.  The family has been rooted in Cumières since the 17th century, but it was in the 1950’s when Roger and Julienne Geoffroy decided to start making their own wine.  René Geoffroy took the reins when his father passes all to soon and together with his wine Bernadette they continued the brand.  Today, Jean Baptiste Geoffroy runs the estate and they have moved the winemaking facilities to Aÿ.  The vineyards are made up of 35 plots of 24% Chardonnay, 34% Pinot Meunier and 42% Pinot Noir.

NV Geoffroy Rosé Saignée of Pinot Noir Grower Champagne

NV Geoffroy Rosé Saignée

Champagne Geoffroy Rosé de Saignée

The Rosé de Saignée Brut is hand harvested and sorted and they avoid malolactic fermentation.  This wine is 100% Pinot Noir and you get that Pinot funk the minute you dip your nose in the glass.  This is a Saignée, and we have talked about this in terms of rosé before, where a winemaker will bleed off some of the juice of a red wine to intensify the flavors and then use this bled off juice to make a rosé.  In this case they let the juice sit on the skins for about 4 hrs to get this vivid color and intensity and then bled off all of the juice to use to make this Champagne.  It spends 3 years on lees.

You get bright BRIGHT red fruit on this and some savory notes.  It is cheerful in color and intense with flavor.  (Think Tavel intensity with bubbles)

The Grower Champagne Community

As Bob talked about the winemakers, most of whom he has met.  He talked about what a small community they are and how they help each other out.  The Pinot Meunier that is used in the Pierre Péters Rosé that we started with comes from either Geoffroy or Hébrart.  These growers all know each other and work together, sharing knowledge.  It was heartwarming to know that the type of wine community that we have seen in Oregon and Santa Barbara, winemakers working together and supporting each other, exists across the pond.

And I mentioned hand riddling, horses plowing fields, organic and sustainable farming and really all of these producers are doing that.  Most in fact are gravity flow in their winemaking.  They differ in sites, and in styles, but overall growing philosophies are similar.

Global Warming as it impacts Champagne

They are seeing the signs of Global Warming on  a very locale scale.  They and other Champagne makers are finding each year that they are cutting back on the dosage (the sweetness added to the bottle after disgogement that determines the sweetness of the Champagne).  This is because the grapes are getting riper earlier.  Within their lifetime they are watching tremendous change in the climate and ripening times in the vineyards. Bob mentioned that one wine maker had said “If they tell you Global Warming is not happening, send them to my vineyard, they can see.”

How Much?

Now if you are heading out to buy a bottle of Grower Champagne, be aware that these wines are not cheap.  They run from $85 to $175 retail and there are many in the shop that run $200-$300 each.  You can find Grower Champagnes that are less expensive, and you may find a great deal, but keep in mind, that Grower Champagne is all the rage these days, and many people are jumping into the market without proper experience.  Do a tasting if you can, before settling on splurging on a bottle.

The French Winophiles on Grower Champagne

We are lucky enough to get to associate with some wonderful people in the French # Winophiles group and this month we all dove into Grower Champagne.  So if this has wet your whistle, you can dive into more great information and pairings for Grower Champagne.  And…join us on Twitter on Saturday Morning 11 am EST or 8 am PST!  Just follow #Winophiles to join in the conversation!  And it’s Saturday morning, pop a bottle of Grower Champagne while you join us!

Here are the links to all the other great articles the #winophiles have out there on the subject!

 

And don’t forget to check back here with us  at Crushed Grape Chronicles , you can also find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

We will be continuing our journey through Oregon’s Willamette Valley and the winemakers we met there and…next month with the French #Winophiles we will be diving into Cahors!


A harvest vineyard walk at Tablas Creek Vineyards

Tablas Creek Wine Walk

We gathered in the shade just outside the Tablas Creek tasting room.  You could tell why we were here by our sturdy shoes.  Yes it was almost 100 degrees, but we were wine lovers ready to brave the elements to find out more about this wonderful winery with a vineyard walk and tasting.

Levi Glenn, the Tablas Creek Viticulturist gave us some basics on the winery history before we got started.  The Perrin and Haas families joined to find vineyard land here in California to grow the Rhone varieties that the Perrins’ have long grown at Chateau de Beaucastel in France’s Rhone Valley.  The Tablas Creek property is on the same latitude, the climate and soil are both similar and when they bought this 102 acre property in 1989 they began the process of bringing the traditional Rhone varieties grown on the Perrins’ estate to this country.  The cuttings from France had to go through a three year process to be sure that they were virus free.  In order to have enough vines to actually make wine, they started a nursery, bench-grafting vines to plant on the estate and enough to sell to other vineyards.  While they no longer have the nursery, they partner with NovaVine in Sonoma to create Tablas Creek clones from grafted vines and bud wood.  Many wineries are now raising Tablas Creek clones to create their Rhone style wines.

They grow sustainably, organically and use biodynamic practices.  There is a compost tea that they use to fertilize the vines and they plant sections of the vineyard with insectaries to encourage beneficial insects.

We headed down the drive then past the head-pruned Mourvedre by the gate and continued down to the lambing barn and barnyard.  Levi talked about the animals, they have 2 donkeys and 5 alpacas that guard the herd of 40 sheep. The sheep are primarily used to mow down the cover crops.  Over the season they can cover 30-40 acres of vineyard.  In addition they fertilize as they mow.  Once the vineyards are growing the sheep have to be moved elsewhere and still need to be fed.  Typically they grow legumes as cover crops to add nitrogen back into the soil.  They had some vines that were showing a little too much vigor so instead they planted barley as their cover crop.  This works beautifully as they can then harvest the barley to use as feed for the herd.

While here they poured us a cool and refreshing glass of the 2012 Vermentino, one of only 2 non Rhone varieties grown on the estate.  This was the wine that got me hooked on Tablas Creek when I recieved it as a gift from a friend.  Enjoying this wine as the sun came dappled through the poplars, we took in the animals, the view of the cutting shed and the beautifully ripening Grenache.

Refreshed, it was time to move on up the long hill to the top where Chef Jeff Scott waiting under the oak trees.  The vineyard views are beautiful.  At the top of the hill you have a view of the las tablas creek area including Halter Ranch next door.  Reveling in the shade they poured us glasses of the 2011 Estate Rose, a blend of Mourvedre, Grenache and Counoise. We enjoyed the view and Chef brought out a tray of figs topped with goat cheese to pair.

We headed back down the hill to the  head pruned Roussanne block.  We believe these are the only head-pruned Roussanne vines in the state. The 2009 Roussane is a gorgeous golden color.  Rousanne is often very difficult to grow (NovaVine calls it “the princess”).  This is the backbone to the Esprit du Beaucastel Blanc their flagship white wine adding richness, weight  and honey with a nice salinity on the backend.  Chateau du Beaucastel makes their Roussanne Vielles Vignes which is considered one of the greatest white wines in France. “Roux” is the French word for “russet” which describes the color of the grapes when ripe and gives us the base for the name “Roussanne”.  This is the latest ripening white Rhone varieties that are grown at Tablas Creek.  The vines respond highly to sunlight and bunches that get sun on the western side will ripen faster than those on the eastern side.  This is also a wine that will age well, case in point we were drinking a 2009 and it was rich and stunning.  After Levi gave us the run down on the grape, Chef Jeff pulled out the pairing.  This was a crostini with fresh ricotta and thyme roasted golden beets topped with a piece of candied bacon.  Beets and bacon pair well and both were gorgeous with the wine.

Across from the Roussanne there are scattered fruit trees including some Quince.  Levi supplied me with a quick recipe for quince paste.

As we had walked down I noticed a large rack with netting and asked Levi when they netted before harvest.  He said that they no longer net.  There are so many vineyards locally that the birds no longer descend and feast, but rather just stop in here and there for a snack which is not an issue.  They still have air cannons when needed.

We headed back up the hill to the head trained Tannat.  This is the other non Rhone variety grown on property.  Levi said that it has been called Tablas Creek Zin, as it is so rich, deep and flavorful.  This grape thrives in the Tablas Creek climate and soils.  Levi says that it takes almost no work and produces consistently good fruit.  Tannat is found most notably in the Basque country on the Spanish border.  Growing this at Tablas Creek was actually a little bit of an accident.  The Perrins’ French nurseryman included cuttings when he packed up the Rhone varieties in 1990 even though it was not requested.  His instincts told him that this grape would do well in Paso Robles and I for one would like to thank him!  The berries have very thick skins which add to the tannins in the wine.  It is fermented open top to allow more oxygen to soften the tannins and then is aged in small barrels again to introduce more oxygen.  In 2010 most of the 248 acres of Tannat planted in California came from Tablas Creek cuttings.  This wine is beautifully balanced with acid, fruit and tannin.  Chef Jeff Scott then had to figure out a way to do a cold red wine pairing out in the vineyard!  He succeeded overwhelmingly with this small bite, which still makes my mouth water whenever I think of it (and I think of it often!).  He prepared Rillettes in the style of the south of France. The pork is slow cooked for 6 hours in it’s own fat then sits in olive oil, thyme and garlic to soak up some more goodness.  This is placed on crostini topped with caramelized onions, drizzled with a pommerey mustard aioli and sprinkled with fleur de sel and black pepper. The fat in the rillettes paired with the acid and tannins in the wine were perfect.  We enjoyed the wine, watched the sun set, had some great conversations and suddenly turned around to find that only 1/3 of the group was left!  We headed back down to the winery and tasting room in the slowly dimming light, sated and fulfilled.  There’s really nothing like being part of the Tablas Creek family.  The staff was incredible and the other wine club members we met share our love for great wine and fascinating wine facts.  Levi was extremely patient as we all pummeled him with questions, answering and enlightening us.  All in all it was a glorious evening.

Sparkling Wine, Champagne and those tiny bubbles

Champagne-splash

 

I had the opportunity to go to a Sparkling wine tasting last month.  Michael doesn’t do the sparkling wines so off I went on my own.  The tasting was seated and set up like a class and I did my research ahead of time to brush up on sparkling wines and learn a bit more.  I was prepared to travel the globe tasting Espumante from Portugal, Cava from Spain, Franciacorta, Trento and Asti from Italy, some Champagne and Cremant from France and maybe even some Sekt from Germany or Austria!  This tasting however drifted only briefly outside of France with the start being a Cava, the well known Rondel.  Not what I was expecting, but pretty spectacular none-the-less and as a result I probably tasted a great deal more champagne than my ticket price allowed for!

So…some sparkling wine basics to start with.  The bubbles were first looked at as a flaw, but the Brits got a taste and liked it!  During the 17th century the English glass production used coal ovens rather than wood like the French and were able to create a more durable bottle that could better withstand the pressure in sparkling wine.  Prior to this it was not unusual for a cellar to loose 20-90% of their bottles to instability.Champagne splash

How did it get to England and hook the Brits you ask?  Well Champagne is a cold region and sometimes the fermentation process would be prematurely halted due to the cold temperature leaving dormant yeast and some residual sugar in the bottle.  They would box up the wine and ship it to England, where it would warm up and begin a second fermentation in the bottle and thus when opened in jolly old England it would be bubbly!

There are two methods of making Champagne or sparkling wine.  The first is the Methode Traditionnelle and the second is Charmat.  Let’s hit the 2nd first because it is quick and easy to explain.  In this method the Champagne is made in large tanks and CO2 is added to add the bubbles.  This method is used for less expensive sparkling wines.  The bubbles tend to be larger and “rule of thumb”, the larger the bubbles the bigger the headache.  These bubbles tend to disperse quickly also.  Now onto the more complicated method “Methode Traditionnelle”

The Traditional method “Methode Traditionnelle” is much more complicated and time consuming and therefore much more expensive.  After harvest the grapes are put in vats for the first fermentation which can be up to a year.  Then the wines are carefully blended and may be blended with previous years wines to create the house style.  This is known as assemblage.  The idea for French champagne makers is to create a champagne that is consistent from year to year.  After assemblage the liquer de tirage is added.  This mixture of still wine, sugar and yeast is what will trigger the second fermentation.  The wines are then bottled and capped (with simple bottle caps (anyone remember those?).  Then the 2nd fermentation begins and can take 10 days to 3 months.  After the 2nd fermentation the next step is Remuage.  The bottles are transferred to “pupitres” which are rectangular boards where the bottles can rest almost upside down.  This allows the lees and sediment to collect in the neck of the bottle.  A process known as “riddling “ is applied here.  Originally “Riddlers” would slowly turn the bottles, a bit of a turn gently each day to get all the sediment to settle in the neck, now there are machines that assist with this.  After the riddling the wine will be aged again on its lees for a minimum of one year for non-vintage champagnes and at least 3 years for vintage champagnes.  This aging allows the lees to breakdown which is what gives Methode Traditionnelle sparkling wines their bouquet and flavor.  But we are not done yet…you don’t want all that lees clouding up your beautiful sparkling wine!  The next step is Degorgement where the sediment is removed.  The neck of the bottle is put into a nitrogen solution to freeze it.  Then the bottle is opened and the solid frozen plug of lees is removed.  How in the world did they figure out how to do this?  Well for this tradition thanks the Veuve Clicquot.  Veuve in French is widow and Madame Clicquot’s husband died during the bottling process.  Legend says that she could not figure out how to get the lees out of the bottles and in her frustration threw them out into the snow, where….the necks froze first allowing them to easily remove the lees.  The final stage is to add more sugar and still wine to again fill the neck where the lees was removed.  This last “dosage” as it is called, determines the wines sweetness which goes from Brut to Sec.  Strangely enough, Extra dry is not as dry as Brut.  The Brut labels were added later to indicate a dryer wine.  So there you go the quick version of making Champagne.  It is a bit of work!

ORondel Cava Brutkay on to the tasting.  We began as I mentioned with a Rondel Brut Cava.

This is a great sparkling wine from Spain made in the Methode Traditionnelle.  It is lovely on it’s own or in mimosas and is exceedingly affordable at around $7.99 per bottle.  We tasted a Brut which was lovely, but it is also available in a Demi-Sec if you lean toward sweeter wines.  I picked up a Demi-Sec to take home for Michael to mix in Mimosas.

Our next wine was a Cremant de Bourgongne.  So…a little explanation.  As of 1985 the sparkling wine regions outside of Champagne in Loir, Alsace and Burgundy agreed to no longer use the term Champagne.  This would be reserved only for the Champagne region.  Instead they would now use the term “Cremant”.  Cremant de Bourgogne can by law only be made with  Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grown in the Burgundy region and must be aged for a minimum of 9 months.  The Cremant we tasted was a Louis Bouillot Brut NV.  This was creamy yet dry with a nice finish.  At $15.99 it is a great value.

Now we stepped into Champagne.  The first we tasted was a Paul Goerg Premier Cru Blanc de Blancs.  Goerg is names after a respected 19th century Mayor of Vertus.  The chalky soils of Vertus lend a refreshing mineral quality to this wine.  3 years of aging adds to the wine’s complexity.  I loved the bubbles in this.  The bubbles were very fine and refreshing and the bit of minerality made it very refreshing.  It also had a lovely floral note to the nose.  Blanc de Blancs means white from whites in French, and as such this wine is 100% chardonnay (a white grape).  This was the wine I took home with a sensible $29.00 price tag.

Our next venture was into Grower Champagnes.  Now I have been hearing about these and was anxious to taste one!  To give a little perspective on this style of Champagne it’s good to know that there are 261 Champagne houses in Champagne.  There are 19,000 growers.  So for a grower to produce a Champagne is a rare thing.  We tasted a Georges Vesselle Grand Cru Brut.  There are 17 Grand Cru Villages with 100% ratings, 38 Premiere Cru Villages with 90-99% ratings and the remaining villages in Champagne are rated at 80-89%.  The ratings are depended on the Village and the soil type there.  This changed the system from one where price was based on the Champagne house to one based on where the grapes were grown. This wine was a bit toastier and had a nutty creamy quality to it.  This particular grower is in Bouzy and it is a small production with 42 acres planed n 90% Pinot Noir and 10% Chardonnay.  It is a small family production.  This wine sells for around $40 per bottle.

The next wine was by the same grower and was a DeMargeire Grand Cru Burt Rose.  Champagne roses are like regular roses in that they can be made in two ways, you may allow the grapes to have contact with the skins early on to impart the pink color and some additional flavor or you may add pinot noir (or pinot meunier) in the final dosage.  This wine uses the former method and is a light salmon in color.  As with many roses you immediately get strawberry on the nose.  It had a lengthy finish and more than a little toast on the nose.  Roses are only about 3-5% of the Champagne Export so they are a little harder to come by.  This one retails at around $43.

From here we moved on to a Franck Bonville Grand Cru Vintage Brut. (I know there were a lot of wines to taste!).  This estate consists of 50 acres in the  Cremant, Aviz and Oger areas which are all classified as Grand Cru.  It is 100% Chardonnay and was aged for 5 years on it’s lees before release.  This was heavier on the yeast and had more light fruit.  It was medium in body.  More complex than the previous wines.  It goes for $49.99

The last of our dry Champagnes was Mailly Exception Blanche.  This wine is 100% Chardonnay.  This champagne will be great through 2022. It has flavors of tangerine and almond with a hint of minerality.  The bubbles are fine and the texture smooth.  This lovely Champagne will set you back $70.

Our final taste (well of Champagne) was a Mailly Delice Demi-Sec Grand Cru.  As a Demi-Sec it is sweeter so we finished with it.  It is 75% Pinot Noir and 25% Chardonnay.  It is a blend of the latest harvest with 40% being 10 years of reserve wines.  It is aged 2 yeas more on the lees than the Brut NV.  The extra aging makes this a fuller champagne.  It runs around $45 per bottle.

champagne glassesWe finished the night with some Georges Deboeuf As it was the 3rd Thursday of November and officially Beaujolais Nouveau day!  This seasons had hints of grape candy to me.  Reminded me of the tart smell of the Lik a Stik powdered candy.  Fun and fruity it is a gulping wine!  What a down to earth way to end the evening of sipping Champagnes!

So…I have a new understanding of Champagnes.  Time to make some Bellini’s and Caviar!  And Champagne and sparkling wines go with everything, so…If you don’t know what wine to take to that Thanksgiving dinner… pick up something with bubbles (smaller bubbles to make your head happier) it will go with everything and is bound to bring a smile!

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