Monday, December 31, 2012

Two Nights Of Champagne & The Winners Be?

Oh please. As if I could pick a “winner” or “winners” even among my much adored little grower Champagnes. Unlike children, of which I do have an actual favorites, I simply cannot pick one Champagne over another, (in our store that is) and proclaim it “better”. Can’t and won’t do it. I can however share my impressions, talk sales figures and go over what wines blew me away….and which ones I felt didn’t quite show their stuff in that kind of setting, which always makes me sad but is part of the whole tasting thing/problem as some wines, many in fact, just aren’t made to be flashy and for that they can suffer the crush of rounder, louder and more showy wines. Subtlety and grace are kind of enemies of the side by side, or comparison tasting….of which I try and remind our customers not to do, not to compare glass A to glass B in the “Oh this is better” fashion, but rather explore and appreciate each wine for what it has, and what it has not in some cases. It was while taking in the subtle, or profound, differences in a couple of the flights that it occurred to me once again, applying a numerical score to a wine, while tasting them in a one after the other sort of setting is not only stupid, it’s flat-out inaccurate.

Because I had to add a second evening class, which ended up being arranged for the night before the original class, as confusing as that is, I had a decision to make, do I pour the same wines both nights and risk running out of the wines I originally wanted to pour, which might kind of punish, (should anything sell out) the people that were savvy, and dedicated enough to act quickly and sign up right away for the event the second they saw it announced, or do I use that opportunity to showcase more than ten wines, saving the first selections for the ones that filled the reservation book to overflowing which caused us to book the second event…for the night before? See?! Confusing. I made a few adjustments but for the most part I stuck with the same wines, using that first (but second) class as a trial run and making mental notes to tweak the order if need be.

 It was on the second (which was actually the first) night while tasting a Blanc de Blancs that had been moved, but only one spot down, noting how different it was showing compared to the night before, getting my grubby paws on another open bottle of the same Champagne just to make sure it wasn’t bottle variation, that was when I looked at my coworker and remarked, “Last night this wine would have gotten a much, much higher score. It was elevated by the wine that went before it. Tonight, well it is showing way more savory notes…more interesting maybe but a tad lower on the deliciousness scale” and I spent the entirety of the night totally geeked out on just how much the wine before and after can change your perception of any given wine. How the hell can scores be accurate then? Fuck, just think about all those long, wordy, flowery tasting notes you read, wonder what wine they had before that brought out the hibiscus nectar? Fascinating really and a valuable reminder for me about context and how I want to write my tasting notes. 

On the whole both nights were successful. The first, (second) night showed way fewer sales and attendees that were almost scary quiet. Intent on listening and learning, a much greener group of people many of which were tasting their very first grower Champagnes that night. The second, (first) night was packed, loud, one of my favorite couples actually stopped and bought fried chicken, for the entire group of forty people, the dump buckets were dry….these grower Champagne veterans were closing out a year of fantastic Champagne experiences with a bang, and fried chicken! Those were the people that come to every one of my Champagne events, have been for years now and are now people that drink Champagne, or our little Champagnes I should say, like it should be, like a wine and not some twice a year bubbly treat. Reflecting back on both I have high hopes that maybe a couple of those second, (first) night people will be inspired to continue exploring the wines I so adore and have devoted over ten years to sharing with others…in fact I know at least a couple will, (one dude in particular, saw it all over him, he was bitten, and good) and now I wonder, if I had poured the wines in the order I did on the second, (first) night, would that have made a difference in sales? Like I said, confusing but aside from being super beat and having the skin on my palms feel as if it was on fire while opening even more bubbles Saturday afternoon, (think my last count as to number of bottles I opened, with my hands and not a corkscrew, in less than 36 hours, 99 bottles. Pass that around my friends…ouch) I had so much fun, learned even more and found myself enraptured and seduced by a wine that had somewhat fallen out of my favor. If I were forced to give the whole experience a numerical score….I wouldn’t, it deserves more.

The Wines That Made Me Swoon

2005 Agrapart Pere et Fils Grand Cru Mineral Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs ($72.99)

I went on a limb and even though priced higher than many of the wines later on in the class I started with this delicate and mineral-rich wine from Agrapart. Still quite young the wine needs some time to gain some fat, fill out and settle the hell down, but even now you can get an idea of what remarkable base wine this is made from. The purity of cool climate Chardonnay on the nose, almost Chablis like in that salty, kind of briny way. Cold river stones, green apple, seashells and just a hint of faintly toasted brioche.

N.V. Jose Dhondt Blanc de Blancs ($56.99)

Remember when Blanc de Blanc was more reserved and sort of austere? Well Jose Dhondt doesn’t. Rich, weighty, bursting with salted caramel and citrus. A big, busty wine that begs for gulping. 

2004 Marcel Moineaux Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs, ($62.99)

One of my heart-stoppers of the evening. I’ve loved this wine for years now but right now, it is in the sexiest, most complex spot, so much so that it killed me to pull my nose from the glass. Deeply nutty aromatics, like hazelnuts that have been roasted in warm butter, crushed oyster shells, sea spray and the long, achingly long finish is all warm honey on toast. A brilliant wine that evolves in the glass, changing a few minutes and defying you to ignore it. Wild, it drove me wild.

N.V. H. Billiot Grand Cru Brut Reserve, ($58.99)

Over the years I’ve had an on-again-off-again relationship with the wines from Billiot. Sometimes finding the wines clumsy, sloppy, shut down or just plain dull. Right now, Billiot and I, we are SO on again. All three wines from this estate were rock stars at our events but it was this wine that captivated me, seduced me and reminded me why I fell in love with Champagne in the first place. Power, regality, deep concentration, staining texture and a finish that won’t stop. Get some, now. Damn…

N.V. R.H. Coutier Grand Cru Brut Rose, ($57.99)

Always cracks me up, the N.V. Brut from Coutier is all showy, flashy and full of junk in the trunk but this Rose, delicate and restrained in a way that draws you in and refuses to let go. Just the prettiest pale pink, a nose of sweet black cherries and wild strawberries, lemon curd and warmed cream. Just pretty, supple, generous without being overpowering, pure and polished. Delightful.

2004 Camille Saves Grand Cru Brut, ($73.99)

You like bubbly wine? Step away from this bottle. You like the flavor of small production wines grown in France’s famous region of Champagne, that just so happen to have super-fine bubbles in them? Pick this bottle up, go straight home, pop it in the fridge and pull out some cured meat and cheeses, get out the potato chips, pop the cork and find out why the wines from Camille Saves take home our Champagne of the Year awards year in and year out.  Gobs and gobs of sexy red fruit, berries and black cherries sprinkled with holiday spices and tossed in a buttery pie crust. Unbelievably rich, palate staining and long the bubbles here are the thing that keep the wine perfectly in balance. Insane how stunning this wine is.   


Thomas said...

Your observation about one wine being influenced by the taste of a wine right beforehand gives away the fallacy of seeming accuracy by anyone evaluating wine, including the trained among us.

Samantha Dugan said...

Absolutely, which is why I pointed to my own tasting notes in this post. It's the same reason I loathe trade events, (among other things to hate them for) and that whole taste, spit and shuffle malarkey. That and when a supplier comes in with 25 wines in their notes will be inaccurate. Like everyone I have known this for a long time, and I've never been afraid to call it out, even on myself when I pop open a bottle of something I thought was awesome enough to buy 3 cases of, (while tasting it at a trade event of course....which is why I don't buy anything from those anymore) and end up not liking it and blowing it out. It happens, to all of us. Now when I order a wine 9 times out of ten I will take that wine home and have it over the course of an evening before I write it up. Can't do that with everything, especially wines not in my departments, but I can assure you that when I do spend more time my notes are far more accurate and in turn, I sell more of that wine. Plus being on this end of the business I start thinking of which of my customers are going to dig it, start making a mental...sometimes a physical, list of who to sell it to.

Happy New Year Thomas my friend.

Thomas said...

"...being on this end of the business I start thinking of which of my customers are going to dig it..."

The definition of good retailing.

I remember the first time I realized how much of an effect both prior tastes and environment have on perception was waaay back, after visiting a few wineries and then upon arriving home, opening the wines and wondering why I bought even a bottle of some of them and why I hadn't bought more of others.

It annoys me when wine evaluators try to persuade us to believe that they are not influenced by anything external, internal, or right next door.

Marcia Macomber said...

Thomas' observation was the same as mine reading your post. Whether you're drinking a flight as an educator or consumer you cannot escape being influenced by what came before or after the glass you're on.

I'm very grateful for the tastings set up in flight where you're given multiple glasses instead of being forced to dump and move on. At least with more time and glasses you can move back and forth and minimally attempt to focus on evolution of the wine and try to see where one stands solo. Not easy to do.

Samantha Dugan said...

I once bought a bottle of Ferrari Carano Reserve Chardonnay after a visit to the winery. Fucking Reserve Chardonnay from Ferrari Carano!! Yeah, so anytime I hear anyone say they aren't influenced their credibility goes right in the crappy with me. I can still value them, like them, but trust their palate? Not so much. Thing is, for all the, "It makes no difference if the winemaker is there, or I'm tasting at the estate" posturing that writers do, it has been my experience over the years that when I share the story of the winemaker, the dinners at the domaine, the connection I have wit the wines and the people that make them, well my customers feel connected as well and it will actually inspire more sales. Always works that way at my events which is why I never brush over my relationships with these people, the people that makes the wines for my customers to enjoy. Hey, maybe it is the giant factory wine making people that want to squish the personal side to this all.....fuck 'em, I sure as shit won't let that happen on my end.

Marcia, explain how scores make sense? Cannot wrap my mind around that.

Thomas said...

Scores make sense, if you are doing the scoring...this, from a guy who used to be able to score, but has lost his touch.

Oh, wrong subject?

Ron Washam, HMW said...

My Gorgeous Samantha,
I can certainly vouch for that wondrous Rose from Coutier. Actually, I'd vouch for any wine you recommend without even tasting it myself. But the Coutier was my New Year's Eve wine (courtesy of your generous Christmas gift) and it was brilliant and provocative and delicious.

We all taste wines in dozens of different scenarios. Hell, the wine tastes better if the sales person is cute. Context is far too complex to ever take it fully into account. Even tasting alone in a perfectly controlled environment is a fraud because your customer is never going to do that with the same wine.

Scores are crutches for beginners. I dislike them as much as anyone, but the real wine lovers eventually move on from them, learn to ignore them, see through the foolishness of numbers assigned to wines. The rest, those who religiously cling to reviews, well, they're happy in their own strange little way. For them, wine is status. I sort of feel sorry for them.

However, I'd love to have seen the look on your lovely face when you got home and opened that Ferrari-Carano Reserve Chardonnay. It would have probably put your Zin face to shame.

I love You! Sorry I was so late to this party.

Samantha Dugan said...

Ron My Love,
I'm thrilled you like the Coutier. That wine, much like you, holds a very special place in my heart...just made sense to put you two together. "brilliant and provocative and delicious." man if anyone ever wrote a tasting note of me, that would be what I would dream it would read. As for scores, I just think there needs to be better retailers out there, ones that lead their customers to happier drinking. Far too many of them use scores to sell wine and I simply think that it's lazy as fuck. Get to know your customers palates and find wines for them...kinda what our job is no? I can say that I am very proud of Randy in that he never bought wine that way and trained the rest of us to do the same...cannot remember the last time someone came in our store looking for scores or ratings. That is awesome to me. Oh and honey, I love you too!