On Tuesday I had a once in a lifetime experience. My lovely friend, Holly B, who works for Moët Hennessy, invited me to come to a tasting of Bubbles and BBQ, an unorthodox pairing of luxury with more everyday cuisine. When I arrived, I had no idea that I would be tasting some of Moët Hennessy's best Champagnes and that I would have an experience that I could never have even imagined.
To be a little philosophical, life is made of experiences and memories not of material things for me, so Holly B gave me one of the best gifts I could receive -- a perfect memory of the day that I tried Krug, Dom Ruinart, and Dom Perignon for the first time. I'm so grateful to her!
Although the wine was the centerpiece, I’ve got to say it wasn't the bubbles alone that made the day outstanding. It was also the people with whom I shared it, as I find is always the case with food and wine! Being a normal person in the wine biz means that when you go these trade events, you've got to be careful about where you sit. There can be a lot of lame, snotty, and unsocial people at these events and when they go on for 3 hours, as this did, you can find yourself in a world of hurt. I lucked out by having the best table in the room.
Holly B did me the honor of sitting next to me, Michael O, the fine wine guru from Empire Distributors was there for me to rib (I love him to death but he's fun to tease), Dorine, a lovely native French woman who works at the esteemed BLT Steak here in Atlanta was a great person with whom to discuss the wines and pairing, and David and Sara from the awesome restaurant group, Here to Serve, were a load of fun and a source of great insight on the wines too. (As a total aside, Here to Serve's Restaurants include Shout, the famed place where I watched a Carolina basketball game with Isaiah Thomas, the former coach of the Knicks, and schooled him on what I thought about UNC basketball, having no idea who he was! Typical me.)
When we sat down, the table was excited and curious about the menu and the odd coupling of Champagne and BBQ. Then the Director of Wine Education for Moët Hennessy, Seth Box (left), told us that the idea was to push the envelope and show how Champagne could pair with cuisines outside the norm and not just be a holiday or celebratory sipper.
I get it. It was a cool idea. And although I think we all miss the boat when we don’t have Champagne with food, I have to admit that after this tasting, I’m not sure the food that we should be having it with is barbecue. I guess this builds off my last post and the pledge I made to be more explanatory about food and wine pairing and why certain dishes work with certain wines, in my opinion.
For this tasting, the food was spicy and rich and bold. Since the event was at the Atlanta institution, Rathbun’s, with Kevin Rathbun at the helm, the food was good. But unfortunately it didn't work with the wine. It was so flavorful that it muted the Champagne.
Champagne is delicate, it has subtle flavors and aromas, it's a bowl of minerals and citrus and, as it ages, very fine (almost non-existent) bubbles. Champagne is absolutely delightful with light grilled fish or chicken prepared simply because its gentle flavors and effervescence give the fish or poultry more flavor and more texture. The food tastes more citrusy and fresh. The wine feels fruitier and the smooth texture of the food allows the bubbles to take center stage as they roll across your tongue and mesh with proteins and starches. With pasta and creamy sauces or salads or quiche or egg custards, the Champagne's acid and bubbles make the food softer, lighter, and more refined in flavor. The wine breaks up the heft of the preparation and you're left with fresh flavors, a soft texture, and a clean palate.
So with that opinion in mind, you can imagine that barbecue vinaigrette, barbecue boiled peanuts, and smoke compressed melon (all on the menu) didn't work for a Champagne pairing. I found myself wanting a Zinfandel or Shiraz to highlight the food. To my taste, the food and wine fought and the food won. I don't take anything away from the team at Rathbun's or the folks at
Now to the wine...the tasting included eight wines and seven courses. It was a “Who's Who” of top Champagne houses --
I’ve detailed Champagne making and information on the region in my post on the Veuve Clicquot tasting (also courtesy of Holly B.), so I won’t reiterate that, but I do want to highlight how special these wines are with some quick information on vintage-dated Champagne.
The Champagne that I drink (and I think this goes for most of us) is generally not vintage dated. It's the entry tier bubbly (but still $45!) and that means it's the House Style (literally since in Champagne producers are called “Houses”), blended from wines across different vintages to achieve a consistent flavor in every bottle. Producers do this because the Champagne region is at a really marginal climate for grape growing and some years are better than others. To ensure consistency over time, the wines are blended...except in the case of very fine vintages where a small percentage is made into vintage dated Champagne. These years aren't common -- maybe 2 or 3 in 10 -- but they are extraordinary.
This tasting had five vintage dated Champagnes. It also had rare and phenomenal
Below is the round up. I am not going to write about the Veuve Clicquot wines -- the Vintage
This is the 68th vintage declared by
Color: It was a light platinum color with no visible bubbles (it was in a wine glass and that doesn’t maintain the bubble/bead as well as flutes). Again, really surprising that it wasn’t bolder in color, since the grapes were probably bursting with ripeness. I guess it’s all relative -- it was hot for Champagne, but that doesn’t mean the grapes were California style!
Smell: It smelled very clean -- not with a lot of fruit but yeasty, with a squirt of lemon, and the smell of a waterfall on rocks.
Taste: The bubbles, although not visible in the glass, certainly hit the palate and the wine tasted like tart pear, apricots, grapes, and minerals. As expected in a hot year where the grapes got very mature, the acidity wasn't super high. It stuck around in my mouth for a while and under my tongue wasn't watering much. This was a nice wine, albeit light and not that complex.
Ruinart is the oldest Champagne house (although bubbles have been made for longer, Champagne wasn’t designated to make it until 1728). In 1729 the nephew of Dom Ruinart, a monk in Champagne, started making bubbly. About 50 years later, the house bought the largest system of chalk caves in Champagne from the city of Reims. These caves were deep and long and provide, to this day, a natural temperature and humidity-controlled environment where the wines age on their lees for three to 12 years. Champagne is normally a blend of up to three different grapes -- Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier -- but Dom Ruinart Blanc is 100% Chardonnay and that's a good thing. Chardonnay is the least planted grape in Champagne and Seth told us that it took 40 vineyards to get this level of quality. The wine aged for 6 years too.
Dom Ruinart Blanc 1998
Color: This wine was so damn good and my favorite of the white sparkling wines we had. Much deeper in color -- like a gold or deep straw color -- with fine, fine bubbles, it just looked like it had more going on than the previous wine.
Smell: I could smell this wine for ages. It was so complex and unbelievably fragrant. Lemon, lime, honey, white flowers, and green herbs (like fresh basil or thyme) were prominent. There was a croissant and mineral smell with all that fruit and herb too. Unreal.
Taste: The wine completely delivered on the taste -- it was very effervescent, it tasted just like it smelled, but with a touch of smokiness that went so well with the fruit and mineral flavors. This was a big daddy wine -- very creamy, full-bodied, and stuck around in your mouth.
Food (yes, this pairing is noteworthy!): To my absolute delight, the best pairing of the day went with this exquisite wine. It was a custard-like potato tart with baked and spiced cheddar cheese and a bit of scallion mayonnaise. Just think of it like a creamy quiche. The wine made the food more creamy and buttery. The spice in the cheese and the scallion in the mayo brought out a certain mineral saltiness/chalkiness in the wine that just worked. The acid in the wine lightened up the tart shell and it all tasted more airy yet soft. This was a mouth-watering pairing and was just perfect for the wine. I was thrilled with the combination.
Color: A lovely orangish, salmon color with just a little touch of pink on the rim. Just what I like to see in a
Smell: A light and delicate wine to sniff. There was a vague raspberry, strawberry, lemon-lime smell with some white jasmine flower notes in the background. A second sniff and I got the yeast and mineral, but this was not a blockbuster jumping out of the glass: a good sign.
Taste: A very delicate, pretty wine. There were light berry flavors, some good but not overpowering acid, a creaminess as a counterbalance. I loved the metallic, mineral note as a foil to the fruit and the very light effervescence combined with the acid left my mouth clean and ready for the next sip. All in all a great
Krug Grand Cuvee MV
Krug calls their wine MV -- multi-vintage -- rather than NV or non-vintage. I guess they should have a special name for what they do since this wine is absolutely outstanding and different from anything else we had. Krug is special. This wine is made of all three grapes from six to ten different vintages. The winemakers do a thousand tastings over the course of time to make it taste like Krug. Seth told us that in 2003, they chucked 80% of their vintage because they didn't think the raw material was good enough (we'll let them fight that out with
Color: Krug is masculine. It’s powerful. It is a rich brassy gold. It looks full and rich.
Smell: With nary a sign of bright citrus scents, this wine smells like ripe green and yellow apples and a juicy, ripe pear. It was like green herbs sauteeing in butter and had a toasty, nutty quality that had me going in for more and more sniffs.
Taste: Oh, the taste. Compared to the other Champagnes, this wine is like a dark, wood-paneled bar with a raging fire on a cold night. It was just manly and had low tones, not bright fruitiness. The taste was insanely good to me. It was like over-ripe pears, almonds, and then a metallic, iron-ore essence that sounds weird but just went so well with everything else that was going on in the wine. It was yeasty, like bread, had mellow acidity, and the bubbles were very light.
Ok, before I tell you it really IS that good, I want to clear up a very common myth that seems to go around about Dom P: He did not create Champagne. In today's business dork speak, we could say that he optimized the winemaking process. There are records that show that in Limoux, in southern France, some sort of sparkling wine existed about 100 years before the merry monk took over cellar master duties in Champagne.
What did the Dom do? He showed how white wines could be made out of dark skinned grapes (Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier) so the color remained light but the flavor had more umph. He encouraged blending across different vineyards to get different profiles in the wine. And importantly, the dude introduced stronger glass and cork closures so the bottles didn't shatter under pressure during the second fermentation when the CO2 starts to build atmospheres of pressure. All genius. He gets a gold star, but let's not go overboard and say he created bubbly.
Before I do the final review, I should tell you that Dom Perignon is all vintage dated. They only make wines in good years in Champagne. In other years, they just don't. That's why it's rare, revered, and good. This wine is made mostly of Chardonnay, with 20% Pinot Noir added for flavor, texture, and color.
Color: No bubbles at all but it was an orange salmon color that was beautiful. The dried apricot color showed its 12 years of age. All wines move to an amber color with age (whites, reds, and
Smell: This was unlike any of the other wines in the tasting. There was a familiar red berry, mineral and yeast quality, but there was a distinct dried orange note and a very overwhelming aroma of a muskmelon. The wine was really spicy too -- like chai tea. like hiking in the woods after it rains. Similar to the Ruinart
Taste: This wine was something else. It tasted like it smelled. A bit more strawberry and raspberry flavors but an overwhelming taste of orange rind -- bitterness and all -- was noticeable. Metal, red dirt, and musky, exotic spice were all hanging out in the background. The wine was more spritzy than effervescent -- the effects of time as I said before. Similar to the Krug, this is not a wine for everyone -- it's not big and fruity and bold -- but it's certainly something to contemplate and enjoy alone or with food. This is probably one of the best wines I’ve ever had.
Price: $400 (yup, that's right)
So Champagne is complex, different based on vintage and producer, and vintage dated Champagne is really a different beast. These wines are NOT for New Year's when you're already hammered. This stuff is unbelievable and worthy of contemplation, a good meal, and, most importantly, sobriety.
That’s it. Would love to hear if you've had any of these gems and your thoughts or questions on them. This was a wonderful day and an extraordinary event for a normal wine person for sure!