On the Trail

Bordeaux or Bust!

On the Trail

With Air France planning a strike and a French rail workers strike already underway, one might think our buying team’s trip to Bordeaux this week is in peril. But have no fear! The indefatigable Clyde Beffa has devised a clever plan requiring little more than the MacGyver-like combination of a piece of cardboard and a Sharpie to successfully make the trek from Paris to Bordeaux.

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Let’s just hope there’s a lorry driver out there with enough room in his truck (and his heart) to get them there.  

Blindsided

On the Trail

For the past few months each Friday night a member of staff opens a bottle of wine of their choosing for a blind tasting. We have grid sheets, a point system, and a tracker that keeps the overall score.  It is a friendly competition where we all enjoy guessing as well as stumping our fellow colleagues. 

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Two weeks ago when my turn rolled around, I brought in a mysterious bottle of white wine I found at home. Now, often, when you blind taste a wine your mind can start to trick you. One aroma or scent can trigger a memory of another wine, and then you start to believe you smell other characteristics! Sometimes this trick can help you to be very successful, but other times it can make you dizzy. 

While we allowed the aromas to challenge our knowledge and senses, we all took a moment to notice the wine's intricate nuances and were surprised about the amazing quality of the wine! We couldn't stop commenting on how exceptional it was. "Do we carry this?" "Why don't we carry this?!" were among the questions that puzzled our little wine gathering.

The first whiff of a white wine can be very blunt. There are five varietals that are commonly known as the aromatic varietals. They include Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Muscat and Torrontes. While the blind wine had a beautiful nose, it was clear it was not one of the five aromatic varietals. This made all our brains and palates annoyed at the struggle to decipher the delicious liquid's true nature!

Jeff, one of our most seasoned staff members, thought "the finesse of the wine means Chardonnay, but a new world Chardonnay that did not come from California." It had a fresh and lively character with a hint of finesse, but lacked any oak character.  A few other staff members thought Chardonnay as well. Lilia, our Burgundy liaison, thought it could be Burgundy due the fresh acidity laced throughout the wine. A good guess as its parent grape is a Burgundy native. Elsa, our Loire liaison, thought that the finesse could mean a California Chardonnay, but from the Russian River to match the brightness of the wine. 

Two great guesses came from our NZ liaison, Stefanie, and our Champagne and Spirits liaison, Alex. Stefanie came to the conclusion of a dry Malvasia from Sicily based on the liveliness, gentle but prominent minerality, and ripe citrus fruit. A great guess as it is another native varietal from the Mediterranean region. Alex was a bit closer guessing that it was Kerner from the Alto Adige. This would account for most of the wine's characteristics: the color, the acidity and the minerality. However, Kerner is a cross between Riesling and the red varietal, Trollinger, so it would be much more aromatic. This wine was so elusive!

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Our Champagne buyer, Gary, and our Rhone liaison, Thomas, both made excellent guesses! They hit the nose on the head with the varietal, but guessed Friuli as the region. Friuli has a very similar climate and wine making style as this wine's region. Both use very little or no oak, but do have lees contact. 

Are you able to guess what it is? 

I can give you one more hint. All staff got the correct vintage - 2016. A young white wine. 

One last guess? 

It is the 2016 Cantina Andrian "Finado" Pinot Bianco from the Alto Adige! 

A stainless steel fermented Pinot Bianco that is hand harvested in mid September to ensure full ripeness in the Alpine climate. It then spends 6 months on the lees to add a fantastic texture to the wine. 

After the tasting, we were all excited to ask Greg to bring some in and we are very happy he did! You can come and ask about this great Pinot Bianco that had us all truly mesmerized. 

- Rachel Alcarraz

 

The Unrivaled Artistry of Ruinart

Alex Schroeder

As far as influential people in the history of Champagne go, perhaps none had a larger impact than Nicolas Ruinart. He was the first person to sell the bubbly libation as magic-in-a-bottle back in 1729. His long line of successors perfected this creation and its marketing, and today this colorful history is told at their stunning chateau in Reims — as Gary Westby and I were delighted to discover.

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As one of the prized properties of LVMH, today Ruinart is a bastion of French culture and style, and there was no shortage of stunning art pieces on display, including this table by Maarten Baas, called “Le Bouquet de Champagne.”

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As we headed towards the underground chalk cellars, we walked past the disgorgement line for one of their champagnes which was in an unrecognizable green bottle. It turned out to be a cuvée only sold on the European market.  I was able to get a shot of the frozen sediment just before disgorgement. 

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There was a certain humbling effect in heading further underground, into the chalk mines created by the Romans millennia ago.  There aren’t too many products available that are the cumulative product of so much work and history, of which Ruinart’s champagne line is the perfect representation. 

We sat down to taste with Caroline Fiot, the assistant winemaker for Ruinart,.  Caroline explained that the Ruinart wines are created in a reductive style that minimizes any contact with oxygen during its creation.  This puts an emphasis on freshness and balance, and they prefer Chardonnay for its natural manifestation of these qualities. A pneumatic grape press is used for the softest extraction of juice possible, and temperature-controlled vats help keep temperatures low during fermentation, increasing the wine’s aromatic expression.  They even use a thinner bottleneck to decrease the amount of air in the bottle during aging. 

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The Ruinart Blanc de Blancs is one of our best selling.  It is made from fruit from the Montagne de Reims and the Cotes de Blancs.  The current release is based on the 2014 vintage, with 25% reserve wines from 2012 and ’13.  It is focused and balanced, with bright flavors of lemon, lychee, and guava, with a roundness on the palate that pairs perfectly with its reductive style.  A hint of ginger makes it absolutely perfect for sushi. 

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The Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs 2006 is 100% Grand Cru, 2/3 from the Cotes de Blancs, 1/3 from the Montagne de Reims, and is aged nine years sur lie.  They’ve only made 24 vintage Blanc de Blancs since 1959 — only producing them in exceptional vintages. 2006 was a richer, more-ample vintage, and it is well represented by this cuvée.  It has rich meyer lemon, green apple, linden flavors with notes of almonds and plenty of toasty brioche.  It would be the perfect pairing for cod with a creamy sauce. 

Ruinart was the first house to make a rosé champagne, and today Ruinart Rosé is among the world’s most prestigious.  It is currently made from 45% Chardonnay and 55% Pinot Noir, based on the 2014 vintage with reserves from ’12 and ’13.  It has a very floral nose with strawberry, cherry, cola berry, great minerals and just a hint of toast.  It has nice silky roundness and delicious weight on the mid palate followed by a light, very long-lasting finish.

The Dom Ruinart Rosé 2004 is also 100% Grand Cru and spends an astounding 11 years aging on its lees.  It is made using the same blend as the Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs, but add 19% red wine from Grand Cru Pinot Noir.  It has a more linear, sharper focus than the 2006.  It is very expressive on the nose, with notes of raspberries, cherries and wild strawberries, and a wonderful chalky texture and subtle toast.  It has a very rich, long lasting, savory finish with dried flowers and a hint of smoke.

If you’re looking for the perfect pairing with your next high-caliber meal experience, be sure to check out the Ruinart

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Krug’s Relentless Pursuit of Perfection

Gary Westby

I feel honored that Alex and I were invited to return to Krug this year. Once again, I was blown away by Krug’s relentless pursuit of perfection. We were shown the facility and guided through a brief tasting by my longtime friend Julie, who, it is hard to believe, I have now known for 12 years. Where does the time go? Afterward, we had dinner with Alice Tetienne at the Krug house and enjoyed a meal prepared by L’Assiette Champenois —  the top restaurant in the region. Alice is part of the winemaking team and has the crucial job of managing the relationships between Krug and their network of growers.

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We learned about some very interesting upcoming releases: the 2002 Clos Ambonnay in June, the 2004 Clos du Mesnil in July, and the 2006 Krug Vintage at the end of 2019. Because of ocean transport and the long path to market in California, I hope to see these products two months after their release. I promise all my readers that I won’t forget, and I will be nagging everyone in the chain of distribution until I get your bottles!

Over the course of our visit, we tasted the 2004 Vintage, which is now opening up marvelously but has time in hand, as well as the 160th edition Grande Cuvee, which has 2004 as its youngest ingredient. The 160th edition was the top wine of the visit for me, and I found its most serious competitor to be the 158th edition which we had with dinner. Please listen to my advice — Krug Grand Cuvee is the best value in blue chip wine from any region to put in your cellar. It will never disappoint you!

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Throughout dinner, we enjoyed a glass of 2002 Clos du Mesnil with Olivier Krug, who gallantly came to meet us despite only just having stepped off the airplane from the US. As usual, it was electric and exciting to speak with him and drink this super-rare jewel from Champagne’s most famous vineyard. My colleague Alex found the 2002 Vintage Krug, which was paired with an excellent lobster dish, as his favorite. It was easy to see why he loved this rich, complex wine. We also had a chance to pair the Krug Rose with L’Assiette Champenois’s beef wellington. Heightening this experience was the glass, which specifically designed for the Krug Rose by Riedel. I doubt that anyone will feel sorry for us for working so hard.

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Learning about the hands-on way that Krug works with their growers to get the best possible grapes helped me better understand why the finished product is so good. Since everything is vinified plot by plot, they are able to keep the parcels separate and taste with the growers so as to better improve the quality of future vintages. In fact, some growers come and taste a dozen vin clairs from their own land - I can only imagine how much this motivates them to do the best possible job.

It was a great night, and I will never forget it. Thank you Julia and Alice for hosting us at Krug!

- Gary Westby

A Grand Scale for Grand Champagnes — Le Brun de Neuville

Alex Schroeder
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Many customers are surprised to learn that the delicious champagnes of Le Brun de Neuville are actually the product of a rather sizable co-op in the Sezanne area of south Champagne. The wines are made from the fruit of over 160 growers from seven different villages in this very chalky area, but don’t let the large scale fool you. The quality and precision with which they are made is quite stunning with the pristine facility where the magic happens being a wonder in itself.

During harvest time, two enormous 12,000 hectoliter presses run 24 hours a day, producing an enormous amount of juice. Le Brun de Neuville only keeps the tête de cuvée, or first press juice, for their wines, selling the other 2/3s to the large negociants. They vinify and store everything separately depending on the different growing conditions behind the vines, including; which village they come from, whether grass is grown between the rows, their overall age, etc. This way they have as many options as possible when blending to create the perfect champagnes.  

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Gary Westby and I sat down with longtime friend, export director Amandine Volhuer, to try a few of the cuvées.  One of my favorite lines of champagne in the store is the Le Brun de Neuville “Authentique.” The wines are aged entirely on a cork rather than the much more widely used bottle cap. This allows for a tiny amount of micro-oxygenation to occur during aging, lending to richer texture and greater lasting power.

 

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A strong candidate for future importation was the Authentique Blanc de Blancs, made from 100% Sezanne Chardonnay dosed at a modest 6 g/L. It had a beautiful concentration of lemon, white apple, and cream flavors with a very linear structure and great freshness. While not as rich as the Blanc de Blancs of the Côte de Blancs, the balance, freshness, and minerality make this a great candidate for an oyster feast.

Next, we tried the 2009 vintage brut, made from 93% Chardonnay, 7% Pinot Noir, dosed at 8 grams of sugar per liter.  True to the vintage, it had wonderful rich dried apricot, Meyer lemon, acacia flower notes with good salinity and minerals.  It told the story of a vintage that I very much enjoy for its opulence and drinkability, and I plan on picking up at least a few bottles when it arrives.  

-Alex Schroeder

The Inimitable Champagnes of Fallet-Dart

Alex Schroeder
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It was a long drive from Epernay to the western edge of the Marne valley, but it was well worth it to meet the people and see the facility behind the inimitable champagnes of Fallet-Dart.

Paul Fallet, who manages the estate with his cousin Adrien, gave us a warm welcome with his dog Elios, and took us to see the vineyards right outside his estate.  They consist of beautiful, massale-selected vines planted in the 40s and 50s. The vines were hit particularly hard in 2017 by the quadruple whammy of frost, botrytis, pests, and hail.  They lost nearly 40% of their crop.

“We were perhaps too strict when selecting which fruit to keep and which to throw away, but it has to be this way to make great champagne,” said Paul.

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Fallet-Dart uses no fertilizers, a practice that Paul explained causes the roots to dig deeper into the ground, giving the end product more distinct flavors of the terroir and minerals.  They hold onto their bottles for at least three years before disgorging them, and let them rest for at least six months before shipping them off - all measures that ensure superb levels of quality in their champagne.   We sat down to try the line up with a couple of surprises at the end.

The Cuvée de Reserve is Fallet-Dart’s Blanc de Noirs; it is made out of 70% Pinot Meunier and 30% Pinot Noir.  This edition was based on the 2013 vintage and rested on the lees for three years before being disgorged last year.  It had rich savory fruit flavors of dark cherry and baked apples, with distinct mineral flavors and great lift from the acidity.

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The Grand Selection is based on the 2011 vintage, and uses 50% reserve wine from six previous vintages!  It rests on the lees for four years. 70% of it is Pinot Noir, 15% Meunier, and 15% Chardonnay. It has a nice doughy lees flavor with notes of hazelnuts, citrus, and red berries.  It’s powerful, structured, and complete while showing great finesse. This really is one of the better values in traditional, non-vintage champagne.

We were presented a real treat in the form of a bottle of 1998 Fallet-Dart, disgorged right in front of our eyes, and one of the last three bottles of the 1983 Brut!  Paul’s uncle Gerard explained that the champagnes of yesteryear were usually dosed much higher because they were more often used as dessert than aperitif. This only changed in the 90s with better economic times.  This 1983 was rich with the flavors of honey, creme brulée, baked apples, and lemon, with a deep golden color and almost viscous texture.

 

A grand thank you to the Fallets for the incredible experience!

- Alex Schroeder

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Champagne's One Man Show - Alexandre Le Brun

Gary Westby
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Alexandre Le Brun is a one man show. He describes himself as a “crazy winemaker” and visiting his cellar in Monthelon is a trip that is always full of surprises and great Champagne. This year, we were treated to a great welcome in the little village of Monthelon by Alex and Ninja, his adorable nine month old cat. He took us out to the vineyard, and we visited the plot called Les Chapelles, named for the chapel behind it, where he grows Meunier.

In most vintages, he sells between two-thirds and three-fourths of his production as juice to negociants, but for 2017 he decided to sell almost all of it. He was fortunate enough to be spared from the spring frost that ravaged the vineyards of so many of the producers, but was very unhappy with the rot that set in during an incredibly wet and hot August. Since the big houses always need more juice, it was easy to sell off the production that he did not want, just saving a little bit- one tank of Sezanne and a few barrels of Chouilly and Monthelon.

The wines that he did save clearly benefited from this very strict selection. While most other producers in the region have wines that are finished with their fermentations, Alex’s are still actively going through malo or still have sugar that has not fermented out. He runs some of the slowest fermentations in the region, and just like at Billecart-Salmon believes that going slower gives purer, more expressive wines at the end. This is expensive, because the region does not count any ageing except for the ageing on the lees in the bottle, but for Alex, it doesn’t matter, he does not sell anything that isn’t at least four years old by the time it gets into your glass.

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When we sat down to taste, he opened up the best young vintage Champagne of the trip, his 2012 Revelation, which is entirely Meunier from Monthelon, made from ancient massal selected vines and barrel fermented in his cold cellar. It won’t arrive until the end of the year, as it has just been recently disgorged and needs more time to settle before shipping. This wine exploded from the glass with top-notch aromas of exotic pear and tart crust. In the mouth, it was more focused and energetic than any Meunier I have ever had, without losing the vinous complexity that makes vintage Meunier so interesting. I have not had a Meunier Champagne this exciting since the days of Rene Collard! The cold climate and his meticulous craft have yielded something special here, but with less than 2000 bottles available, I don’t know how much I will be able to talk him out of!

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We have only six bottles left of our five cases of the 2009 Alexandre Le Brun "Cuvée Revelation" Brut Champagne left in stock, and if you love Meunier Champagne, it is the best one in the store by a wide margin. I love this Champagne for pate of all types, but especially for foie gras. It shows the extra energy of this cold climate Meunier with the slow fermentation process perfectly even in such a ripe vintage. Get it before I come back and buy it all for my own cellar!

I am happy to report that we talked Alex into coming back for the tent event this year, so you can meet him in person in LA and San Francisco. More on that later!

A toast to you!

- Gary Westby

A Champagne Trek Continues...to Baron-Fuenté!

Gary Westby

Today we started with a beautiful drive to the far western edge of Champagne, the frontier between the Aisne department and the Paris district. We took the southern route through brie country, as the normal road that follows the Marne is closed for construction here in Epernay. The farm country of Champagne Agricole is scenic and very calm, it is too bad more people don’t go to have a look.

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Our destination was Charly-sur-Marne, and when we dropped back into the Marne valley, the dairy land gave way to vines and even under cold, grey skies it was quite beautiful. The Marne is wider here than in the area around Epernay, and everything seems just a little bit more country. We pulled into the winery at Baron Fuente and were greeted by our old friend Eric de Brissis, who many of you know from our big Champagne tent events that we host every October.

Baron Fuente is a negociant, but most of what we buy from them is estate grown from Charly-sur-Marne. First thing, Eric took us out to the vineyard, and we visited the south facing, mid-slope vineyard called Les Trous aux Renards, or the fox holes, in English. The 2017 harvest was challenging out in Charly, and they suffered a little bit from each of the problems that we have heard about for this vintage. Some vines were affected by frost in spring, some hit with hail in early summer, and a few more suffered from the nasty little Suzuki fly and botrytis in August.

When we came back to the winery, Eric explained that their new centralized site, which is just in the middle of all of the vineyards saved the harvest for them. They have four 8000 kilo bladder presses, at least one more than they normally would need, and employ them for custom crush when they are not working their own production. These presses are fed baskets of grapes on conveyor belts that dump them robotically. With four presses, they can work 24/7, and this ability, along with the central location and strict sorting saved 2017 for them, and has also allowed them to drop the amount of sulfur that they add to the wine.

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We met with the brother and sister team who own and run Champagne Baron Fuente before the tasting, and it was great to catch up with them. Ignace Baron is the chef de cave and oversees all the winemaking operations, while his sister Sophie Baron manages the vineyards. They are hands on owners, and their hard work and commitment to quality show through in the finished product.

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We tasted the entire range of the Champagnes, and four really stood out to me. The Baron-Fuenté "Grande Réserve" Brut Champagne has to stop surprising me one day, but it is so hard to believe that we can sell such a high quality Champagne at under $25. It is aged three years on the lees and has a full 30% of reserves inside, giving it just the right balance between toasty generosity and bracing refreshment. The 2009 Baron-Fuenté "Grand Millesime" Brut Champagne which just arrived is both drier and softer than the 2008 that many of you know so well. It seems like a conundrum, but since the 2009 vintage was so ripe, the dosage was dropped enough to make this finish quite crisply! Any vintage Champagne at under $30 seems like a great deal, but this performs in another realm entirely! Ignace and Sophies tete de cuvee is the Baron-Fuenté "7" Brut Champagne, and although the wine is more than 8 years old, it is the very first release! Champagne of this quality takes a long time, and as the label proudly advertises, this has enjoyed 7 years of ageing on the lees. It has the creamy, nutty, brioche flavors and aromas that only the most patient producers can achieve… I will be drinking more of this when I get home. The big discovery of the tasting was the Baron-Fuenté "Grande Réserve" Demi-Sec Champagne, which we hope to get this fall. I hope to be able to sell this at less than $25, and feature it as our number one recommendation for mixology. Baron Fuente uses only cane sugar for their dosage, and cocktails benefit greatly from having the integrated sugar that six months of post disgorgement resting brings to an excellent quality bottle like this. Time to take my French 75 game up a notch, more on that later!

 

A toast to you!

- Gary Westby

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Visiting Champagne Egrot

Alex Schroeder
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While there is no shortage of excellent wines or personalities in Champagne, a quick visit to Elisabeth and Jean-Marie Egrot in Ay, just east of Epernay, is a great way to find the best of both. The couple has been making top-tier grower champagne for many years, and started bottling under their married name three years ago. Gary Westby and I stopped by yesterday.

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We started by taking a tour of their Grand Cru vines on the steep, south facing slopes of Ay, which has some of the chalkiest for Pinot Noir in Champagne. It lends their wines power, structure and charm. Here we tried the nonvintage Egrot Brut, which is made mostly with Pinot Noir from Ay, with a small amount of Chardonnay from the Grand Cru of Louvois on the Montagne de Reims. It rests for five years sur-lie. 

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Maybe it was the setting, or perhaps the company, but I was blown away by how good it was.  It had delicious flavors of pears, cherries, and apple blossoms with subtle toast and intense minerality.  At just under $35 a bottle, it is a dream come true for Pinot champagne enthusiasts. 

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We headed back to the winery to taste the rest of the line-up, but not before an impromptu visit from Maurice, or MoMo, the beautiful family cat. Momo apparently has a Masters degree in Marketing and knew exactly where to pose for a photo op. 

Back at the winery, we tasted through the single-vintage offerings, which offer customers some of the best value in Grand Cru vintage champagne on the market.

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The 2009 is made from 2/3 Pinot Noir and 1/3 Chardonnay, all Grand Cru from Ay, and is a personal favorite of mine. The ripe vintage required no dosage at all, and the richness of the stone fruit, cherry and lemon flavors are breathtaking. The natural acidity lends perfect balance and the chalky texture is delightful.

The 2011 Egrot Brut offers customers a more savory experience, with rich peach, cherry and lemon citrus-fruit with hints of chantrelle mushrooms and brisk chalky minerals. It was dosed at 4 g/L and is has a beautiful, long, acid-driven finish.

Finally I had the opportunity to watch my first hand-disgorgement, when Jean-Marie pulled a bottle of the highly-anticipated 2008 vintage Brut out of his cellar.  While it hadn’t been dosed yet, it was absolutely stunning and a great preview of the greatness to come. It had rich flavors of apple compote, acacia flowers, and honey with a touch of nutty savoriness, unbelievable acidity and an eternal finish. This is going to be a legendary Grand Cru vintage bottling, and one customers should keep on their radar going forward. 

-Alex Schroeder

At Laurent-Perrier

Gary Westby
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Of all the places to visit in Champagne, no place is more civilized and elegant than Laurent-Perrier in Tours-sur-Marne. Alex and I arrived yesterday afternoon and we were greeted with an unbelievable magnum of Grand Siecle Les Reserves, which will undoubtedly be one of the very best Champagnes of our trip. All though I have been visiting this great house for two decades now, it is always full of good surprises, and this was certainly one of them.

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The ladies of Laurent-Perrier explained that this magnum was disgorged from their private reserves to mark the 200th anniversary of the house back in 2012. It is a combination of 1990, 1993 and 1995 and about half each Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, exclusively from Grand Cru fruit and all stainless steel fermented. We learned that Bernard de Nonancourt who created Grand Siecle in the 1950’s was not satisfied with just one vintage for his best wine, since he didn’t feel that one harvest ever had it all, no matter how good it might be. So instead, he chose one vintage for freshness, one vintage for power and one for finesse and blended them together to make Grand Siecle. In the case of the Les Reserves, the 1995 is power, the 1993 freshness and the 1990 finesse. In the case of the current release Grand Siecle that we have on the shelf, it is 2002, 1999 and 1997. We are always recommending this small production tete de cuvee to Champagne lovers looking for the best of the grand marque experience.

We were also lucky enough to taste the unbelievable 2004 Laurent-Perrier "Cuvée Alexandra" Brut Rosé Champagne, which has been the top bottle from our staff summit two years running. At Tours-sur-Marne it showed no less well! This Champagne is only produced in years when the right grand cru Chardonnay and the right grand cru Pinot Noir ripen at exactly the same time. They wait for this because they co-macerate and co-ferment a blend of 80% Pinot Noir and 20% Chardonnay, a method that I think is unique in Champagne. Usually, the Chardonnay comes in long before the Pinot Noir, so sometimes they have to wait a long time to make it! It is worth the wait, and this bottle had the complexity of the greatest Bordeaux or Burgundy, but the weight and effortlessness of a ballerina.

Thank you Laurent Perrier for the excellent visit!

-Gary Westby