Top Champagne Tasting of 2013

Joel Butler, MW (left) and Charles Curtis, MW (right)
Another year and another glorious champagne event put together by the Institute of Masters of Wine in the San Francisco's Ferry Building overlooking the Bay. This year marked the first time the grand tasting in the evening was preceded by a super fun and informative seminar in the morning. Two masters of wine (MW's) Charles Curtis and Joel Butler led a presentation entitled "Champagne: House Style or Terroir" accompanied by a terrific set of champagne juxtapositions - blanc de blancs, NV, vintage, Rosé, etc...  Typically a producer of a so-called "grower champagne" (a winery that grows their own grapes) will go after a particular terroir expression of the land they own, because they may not have enough breadth of vineyards or depth of vintages to pull from, in order to blend a consistent "house style" that transcends a specific terroir. However, with many different grower/wine-maker business arrangements common in Champagne, the distinctions between what a grower house and a negociant house will produce are blurry. In general a small grower champagne may make more "interesting / unusual" wines with "freshness, vitality, and zippy energy" as Charles Curtis put it. On the other hand, to my palate, famous houses still reliably produce my favorite champagne of very high quality and consistency, albeit with prices north of $100/bottle. That said, I was impressed by a blanc de blancs from Alfred Gratien (NV brut), a small high-quality negociant. This wine was laser focused with excellent acidity, minerals, and very refined fresh flavor with slight toast and nuts nuances. (Somehow sipping it around 11am felt right to me :) With over 320 million bottles of champagne produced each year, there are a great variety of styles in Champagne, enough to satisfy most palates and price points.

The afternoon tasting was exhausting and exhilarating as usual. Approximately ninety bottles in all categories were tasted, giving me a good outlook at what to buy for the next year.

Here are Iron Chevsky's top picks:

Terrific showing by Veuve Clicquot, culminated by the 1990 "Cave Privee" Brut with no signs of oxidation - fresh, rich, complex and everything one imagines champagne to be. The 2004 "Grande Dame" which I lauded last year continued to show well. Despite being a mass produced and therefore "uncool" brand at their basic NV level, they manage to achieve fantastic quality, particularly in vintage bottlings.

A wine that continues to impress the second year in a row is the 1998 Henriot "Enchanteleurs". I think I like it even better than the 1996. Rich and complex, an ultimate champagne, that (for me) stands out in the company of other great houses.

The 2004 Rosés appealed to my increasing love affair with Pinot Noir, and easily stood out for their stronger red berry flavor and high quality. These three were all terrific and stylistically quite different. The Perrier Jouet 2004 Rosé was all pretty strawberries, while Pol Roger 2004 Rosé seemed to have more structure, and Veuve Clicquot 2004 Rosé showed more raspberry tones, continuing the excellent overall showing by this house.

Blanc de blancs (100% Chardonnay) caught my attention in a big way this time around. De Sousa blanc de blancs NV Brut, a brand I was unfamiliar with, was particularly good. And of course Charles Heidsieck's Blanc des Millenaires 1995 stood out as it did last year for its regal power and refinement - a grand champagne for sure.

A couple of other memorable wines: Piper-Heidsieck Rare 2002 Brut and Ruinart Brut Rosé NV.

In the past, this event took place in both New York and San Francisco, but this year we are luckly to have it solely in the city by the bay. With gorgeous wines and views, and an unprecedented attendance by more masters of wine than I had seen in the past, this continued to be the top champagne event of the year in the Bay Area.


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