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Champagne = Raison d’Etre

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After a week of rainy cloud cover it was a ray of sunshine to walk into the Ritz Carlton Naples Beach Resort for the second in Augustan Wine’s summer series on deconstruction.  This day’s focus is Champagne.  Arranged by the sun drop embodied as Angie Cheatham and moderated by the wealth of information that is Andrew McNamara, Master Sommelier, it’s a world away from the dreary weather outside.

As the champagnes are poured, the rich sound of the foamy wine has a sound like no other.  It sounds wistful and cheesey to say, but if the sensation of warm comforting cashmere had a sound, it would sound like champagne being poured into a glass.  There is a thickness to it and a frothiness that no other sparkler has.  All the wines we are trying today are considered “grower champagnes,” or as hipsters like to refer to it “farmer fizz” (although I wouldn’t suggest using that phrase to try to sound cool because it’s a little past its prime).  Grower champagnes are those made by people who have actually grown the grapes, made the wine, and bottled it for the world’s enjoyment.  Or, at least a bit of the world because they can’t make that much since most are not huge land owners.  On the other side of the market and the flavor spectrum you will find the big producers who make thousands and thousands of cases out of wine grapes they buy from growers throughout the Champagne region.  These enormous champagne makers tend to make wine that tastes the same year after year and by virtue of grape-buying practices are not reflective of any particular terroir.

Andrew McNamara, M.S. is fresh off a trip to Champagne and presents to us two pieces of chalk he picked up from two different villages.  I’d heard the soil there was chalky, but these are really large hunks of chalk; one from the steep slopes of Cramant and the other from Valle de la Marne.  He shows us these to demonstrate how different the chalkiness of the soil is from one village to the next, one is brilliant white and leaves dust everywhere, the other is musty smelling, more grey in color and more porous.  Then we taste the difference in the individual champagnes.  It is remarkable…the Larmandier-Bernier  Cramant (with Chardonnay grapes from their vineyards in Cramant) is indescribably different from the Larmandier-Bernier Terre de Vertus (made with Chardonnay grapes from their vineyards in Vertus).   The key to enjoying and tasting through grower champagnes is the exploration of the varying terroirs.  If you were not a believer in the effect of place and growing conditions on a wine, this exercise would make a convert of anyone with a taste bud.

Still there were other things to consider and discuss and in this group the discussion is always informative.  Dosage swished around the table for about twenty minutes.

This is the practice of adding a little sugar mixture just prior to corking champagne, which many growers try to avoid or keep at a bare minimum.  For them the need is dictated by the growing season- if it’s cold and the grapes have a tough time maturing their own sugar sometimes a little help is needed to take the edge off the acidity and keep the balance.  According to Mr. McNamara, most growers stay in the neighborhood of 8 grams per liter of residual sugar.  The maximum allowed in Champagne by French law is 12 g/ltr with a 3 gram swing in either direction.  “You can pretty much assume that most large production houses are at 15 grams per liter residual sugar,” says McNamara.  “Sugar covers up flaws in champagne just as oak covers up flaws in Chardonnay.”

The Chardonnay discussion gets interesting when McNamara says, “I like to think of Champagne as Chablis with bubbles, and Chablis as Champagne without bubbles.”  I can only speak for myself when I say I blinked in slight disbelief.  Huh?  Obviously, Chardonnay is the white queen bee of both regions and the star of blanc de blancs. But…..really?  McNamara takes us back to the geological formation period of France, and similar to the days when I was in any science class in college, my eyes sort of glossed over.  I think he said something about similar mineral deposits and something about a basin (?).  This is not out of disrespect for the speaker, it is a psychological block on science for which I have paid dearly on test scores throughout life.  I wake up around the time he suggests, “Take a little of the blanc de blancs in your mouth and leave it there for a while, until it goes flat, then think of Chablis and tell me if you sense the similarities.”  I obeyed, hoping no one noticed my catatonic response to science, and he was totally correct.  There is a reason this man is a Master Sommelier.

Other nuggets of learning:

Cramant is a village in the Champagne region not to be confused with “cremant,” the French word for sparkling wines made outside of Champagne.  i.e. Cremant de Bourgogne, or (one of my faves) Cremant d’Alsace.

There are more grapes than I thought allowed (and grown) in Champagne.  I always knew about Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.  But there are also Pinot Blanc (white), Petit Arbane (white), Petit Meslier (white), and Fromenteau (pinkish grey relative of pinot gris- also known as Beurot) grapes allowed.  Seven in all.

Rose Champagne gets along very well with lamb chops.

Wines tried (savored):

Vazart-Coquart 1er Cru Blanc de Blancs

Larmandier-Bernier Blanc de Blancs

Larmandier-Bernier Terre de Vertus

Voirin-Jumel 1er Cru Blanc de Blancs

Paul Berthelot 1er Cru Brut Reserve

Jacques Picard Brut Selection

Camille Saves 1er Cru Carte Blanche Brut

Larmandier-Bernier Cramant

Paul Berthelot Cuvee Centenaire

Larmandier-Bernier Rose

Voirin-Jumel Rose

Thank you to Angie Cheatham for hosting this event, Andrew McNamara for sharing his brilliance, and to the Ritz and its staff for putting on an incredibly well-thought out pairing menu which was executed with the charm and great taste for which the Ritz is known.

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About Julie Glenn

I am a graduate of the University of Gastronomic Sciences Master's Graduate who writes about food, wine, and all things enjoyable. I worked in the wine industry for a decade, and in a prior life was a television journalist. Currently I write a wine column for the Fort Myers News-Press and am regularly published in regional and national magazines.

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