“see how it quivers and whispers in the glass”
Those clever English playwrights of the 1600s were, apparently, keenly attuned to the allures of champagne in all of its aspects. Movement and sound, after all, add sensory dimensions to champagne that other wines don’t have, another reason for our fascination with it. That these remarks appear on the stage centuries ago highlights champagne’s ageless appeal.
These observations are prompted by a tasting I attended earlier this season of the luxury cuvée of Perrier-Jouët, the Belle Époque 2004, just recently released. And having begun with a quote from an Englishman, I’ll cite a Frenchman, Voltaire, on the subject of luxury: “le superflu, chose si nécessaire.”
The first thing I’d like to say about Perrier-Jouët is that, yes, you do pronounce the t. Having gotten that rather mundane detail out of the way, we can now proceed to something closer to the sublime, the Belle Époque itself. Vintage champagnes are produced only when there is a vintage of exceptional quality, which is the case with 2004, bottle aged in the unique chalk cellars of the region, and then released after seven years or so.
Held in a reception room at the stately Boston Harbor Hotel, with sunlight reflecting off the water and flooding the room, the tone seemed set for sitting back and savoring this special libation. A complex of aromas, none really dominating but dancing in and out, some toastiness, citrus, mineral, sweet cherry and floral, a creamy texture with elegant mousse, and a delicate balance of restraint and depth had me charmed throughout.
Hosting the tasting was Perrier-Jouët executive Agnès LaPlanche and I don’t think there could be a better advocate for the magic of champagne. Her vivacity and enthusiasm are a match for the wine she represents. Having grown up in Reims and with a degree in oenology, Agnès bears her learning with a graceful ease.
When I asked her what was the single thing she thought most important for people to understand about champagne, she reflected for a bit and then pronounced that it was how well it went with so many types of food. With a slight, but perceptible, glint in her eyes she proceeded to recount some of the dishes prepared earlier in the day by the hotel’s talented chef to accompany a tasting for the sommeliers. She kept being surprised, she said, by how small touches, such as a bit of lemon in a creamy polenta with mushrooms, sparked complementary flavors in the Belle Époque. I, myself, kept getting increasingly hungry as the courses described included a crusted lamb chop, salmon with avocado, scallops with fried sage, and foie gras.
But back to the wine. Since it is the number of intricate steps in the process of making champagne that underlies the expense of a bottle, I make note here of two of them. First, the unique system in champagne of sourcing the grapes (chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier) from vineyards given numerical ratings. And second, the separate vinification of each variety and subsequent blending of the resulting wines.
The vineyards of champagne have been recognized since at least as far back as the middle ages. Evidence ranges from the will of Saint Remi, who died in 533, and bequeathed his vineyards to several persons to the records kept of the wines drunk at the banquets following the coronations of French kings, held for centuries in Reims Cathedral.
The tradition of making champagne from grapes from a number of vineyards became established in the 19th century. In 1941 a commission was created, the C.I.V.C., one of whose duties is establishing guidelines every year for the price of grapes from each commune. The 17 best, designated grand cru, are rated at 100%, the scale for the others descends from there to 80%. These percentages are then used in a formula based on the previous year’s prices for the finished product. Perrier-Jouët works only with grand cru chardonnay in its blends.
Blending, or assemblage as the French would say, is another step. Each of the major champagne houses has a style that they work to maintain with every release. Achieving that consistently is the job of the chef de caves. Dedication, years of experience and, as the chef de caves at Perrier-Jouët, Hervé Deschamps, says, “intuition, sensitivity and skill” guide the process of combining still wines from the dozens each house must stock to insure the result they desire. And as it is only after that blend undergoes a secondary fermentation that the sparkling wine results, the person doing the blending must project beyond what the still wines are like as he tastes them.
And by now, we should taste some too. Another of those English Restoration comedies was entitled She Would if She Could. With the upcoming holidays may we all say, and particularly in regard to Belle Époque 2004, “I can and I will.”