My appreciation of “grower” champagne began whilst living in Singapore. Henry Hariyono, Artisan Cellars - http://www.artisan-cellars.com/ introduced me to the wonders of REAL champagne – terrior expression and low/no dosage.
Before then, I had no real interest in champagne, regarding it as sweet and simple fizz – a ladies drink, an OK celebratory toast or a quick aperitif to set up for the good stuff. Henry is a true wine aficionado and show cases some of the best artisanal wines from around the world. After I attended Henry’s first grower champagne tasting there was no going back – there he presented an array of sparkling cuvees that had a place throughout a meal, challenged your palate and raised your drinking experience.
Hence, when I returned to Australia in 2010 I had thoughts of a little business on the side – importing fine grower champagne. However, upon meeting Neville Yates, owner of Eurocentric Wines - http://www.eurocentricwine.com.au/ that was no longer required. Neville had already left his career as a journalist behind and succumbed to his passion of wine, people and travel to establish Eurocentric Wines. Neville has assembled an awesome portfolio of boutique wines from predominantly Europe and with an emphasis on grower champagne (Cedric Bouchard, David Leclapart, Henri Billiot, Vouette et Sorbee, Ulysse Collin inter alia). Neville has done the hard yards building relationships, establishing supply channels and logistics to ensure Australia enjoys some of the vinous treasures of Europe.
Last week I attended Eurocentric’s first Champagne dinner. Neville had convinced vigneron, Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy, from the house of Rene Geoffroy - http://www.champagne-geoffroy.com/-Welcome- to visit Australia and conduct a four-state champagne dinner tour. An awesome idea, but it’s no easy feat persuading someone to leave the sun and tranquillity of Champagne and spend so much time in a tin can in the sky to then be greeted by jet lag; and a cold and wet winter.
Jean-Baptiste maintains the strong traditions of his forebears – little or no dosage and the avoidance of malolactic fermentation to ensure the champagne retains all of its original freshness – quintessential grower champagne. I was excited.
Normally, when I ask my fiancée to attend a wine dinner, she rolls her eyes “not another one” and suggests I go with a wine geek friend. However, when “bubbles” was mentioned, “yes” immediately followed.
The venue - Pei Modern - http://www.peimodern.com.au/ – is by the acclaimed Sydney chef, Mark Best of “Marque” – his first foray into Australia’s food, wine, sport and cultural capital – Melbourne. Recently opened, in the driveway of the Sofitel Hotel at 25 Collins Street; Pei Modern seeks to express what in Paris, is termed “bistronomy” – high quality fresh ingredients presented in a casual uncomplicated modern and elegant setting.
So here we go … 13 champagnes from Rene Geoffroy matched with 7 courses.
His first time in our country, the very affable Jean-Baptiste joins our gathering with immense enthusiasm and pride for his craft. A real gentlemen but with that down to earth farmer character. He pours the wines – we tackle French and English – and he patiently answers our questions and keenly awaits our thoughts. A very pleasurable and educational journey through the mind of a classic champagne vigneron.
1) Canapés of Baccala Croquettes – creamy salted cod and a touch of potato ooze lusciously in the mouth.
The first champagne bracket is a real treat and a sneak peek into the unreleased – the base wine of the 2011 Les Houtrants, a new cuvee, which is a blend of the three traditional champagnes grapes – Pinot Noir (PN), Pinot Meunier (PM) and Chardonnay (CH) – plus two of the three other and forgotten but permitted grapes of champagne – Arbane and Petit Meslier (with the third, not included, being Pinot Blanc). Indeed, some records show, there were once many varieties of the easily mutated “Pinot” grape used in Champagne, as well as Gamay, Sacy, Chasselas, Savagnin Blanc and the extinct varieties Troyen and Morillon.
The base wine is fresh green apples, classic acid cut and raciness. Some thought it too tart, but that’s a necessary starting point of fine champagne. This is paired with essentially the same wine but further along the champagne path, a NV Les Houtrants (predominantly 2010 with a champagne magnum from each of 2000, 2008 and 2009 vintages) where secondary ferment has finished – voilà bubbles – and won’t be released until 2015 – super fine bead, clean fresh acid and again green apples. Both wines show the slate or terroir minerality.
Cuvee Expression Brut NV (50% PM, 40% PN, 10% CH – 5 gr/l dosage) – is a blend of 2007/08 and shows great acid drive, freshness and minerality.
Our palates are now up and dancing.
2) Almond Gazpacho with Blue Swimmer Crab – a fluffy nutty soup is intermingled with sweet light fresh crab meat, and sliced red grapes.
Pureté Zero Dosage NV is essentially the same wine as Expression except that is has zero dosage and is a blend of 2006/ 07 – intensely mineral and slate, dry acid and a dash of red apple and cherry.
Blanc de Rose Extra Brut 2009 (60% PN, 40% CH – 4 gr/l dosage) – is a unique Rosé style in that it is not created by blending, but rather by co-maceration of the two grape varieties – slate and floral notes precede cherries, red apples and acid.
3) Dutch Creams, Mojama, Coffee & Bone Marrow – my favourite
dish of the evening – dutch cream potatoes naturally exude cream and butter – the mojama (grated salt-cured tuna) and coffee balance out the richness of bone marrow and potato. Awesome.
Rosé de Saignée Brut NV (100% PN – 10 gr/l dosage) – mainly 2009, is a bouquet of floral and fruit, some nuttiness (Jean-Baptiste likes some oxidation) and fine effervescence.
Empriente 2006 ( 76% PN, 14% CH, 10% PM – 4 gr/l dosage) – full oak vinification manifests in broader richness, citrus and spice. I love this wine, a perfect winter meal accompaniment and case straight into the cellar.
Cracking bracket of food and booze!!
4) Spatchcock, Celeriac Puree & Nettle – gamey earthy flavours radiate off the plate.
Extra Brut Millésime 2002 (60% PN, 35% CH, 5% PM – 2 gr/l dosage) – the top cuvee of the house, released with 7 years of bottle age and a significant blend change from 2000 (70% CH, 30% PN), again full oak vinification shows spice, caramel and citrus. Alluring complexity. Sure to be long lived.
Volupté 2006 (80% CH, 20 PN – 2 gr/l dosage) – is the antithesis of the Empriente, whilst also full oak vinification it is more about crème brûlée and white fruits. But the plush butteriness is deftly structured by that characteristic Geoffroy acid and retains the terroir expression
5) Duck, Chard & Turnips – and what goes better with Pinot in winter
then slow cooked (at 60 degree Celsius and then seared) duck with comfy root vegies.
A break from the bubbles has us enjoying the relatively rare “still” red wines of Champagne – and in the champagne bottle!
Cumières Pinot Noir 2006 – is young vines on display, spicy cherry and youthful acid.
Cumières Pinot Meunier 2008 – is more complex and fleshy. Tannin protrudes, spice interlopes, mint pops in and the palate shows lovely length.
6) Ginger Granita – syrupy but cleansing ginger spice with cooling ice.
Elixir NV Demi-Sec – is identical to Expression but with dosage of 35 gr/l and kept in the cellar for one extra year before release – very fine with a tad of sherbet, sweet fruit and nut with a persistent dry finish.
7) Milk Chocolate Sorbet, Quince, Chestnut & Dehydrated Chocolate Sponge – is a superb amalgam of rich chocolate, tart fruit and crunch.
Ratafia de la Champagne (100% PN – 110 gr/l dosage) – take some saignée pressings, add lots of sugar and fortify with fine de champagne – robed in amber shows a touch of confection, brandied cherries and perseverance without cloying.
A wonderful evening concludes – great wine and fine food welded together by interesting chat.
Real champagne is:-
“In victory we deserve it, in defeat we need it.” (Winston Churchill)
“One holds a bottle of red wine by the neck, a woman by the waist, and a bottle of Champagne by the derriere.” (Mark Twain)
“Champagne is the only wine that leaves a woman beautiful after drinking it.” (Madame De Pompadour)