Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Before the Bubbles: Still Pinot from Veuve Clicquot

This post first appeared on the daily wine blog Terroirist.

It’s painful to say this, but I’ve never visited Champagne. It’s high on my list but, alas, my Champagne experience comes only from sipping flutes. So I was excited to attend a wine dinner with one of Veuve Clicquot’s winemakers, Pierre Casenave, at
Boss Shepherd in Washington, DC.

Of course, the menu feautured lots of bubbles — the orange label brut, the non-vintage rosé, the 2004 rosé and the tête de cuvée La Grande Dame — but I was most excited by the still red wines. Rarely bottled or sold, these Coteaux Champenois reds offer a unique peek into the terroir-translating power of Pinot Noir.

Pierre, who joined Veuve Clicquot in 2008, is part of a team of winemakers and tasting panelists who work together under chef de caves Dominique Demarville to craft the various house blends. At this tasting, Pierre focused on the different Pinot Noirs that are blended into the higher-end cuvées. These 2013 vintage still reds came from Verzy and Bouzy, both Pinot-heavy Grand Cru vineyards in the Montagne de Reims region. 

I asked Pierre about the difference between Verzy and Bouzy in terms of their terroir imprint for Pinot. He said Verzy is “impacted more by minerality” and provides a fresher, brighter approach. Bouzy is more about depth, structure and spice. But, Pierre cautioned, the vintage is everything. “What’s true one year is completely false the next year.” In addition to the Verzy and Bouzy, we also tasted the Clos Colin. Pierre produced only six barrels of the Clos Colin, a select parcel within Bouzy that is blended into La Grande Dame. 

When it comes to Pinot Noir, Pierre said his job is to avoid bitterness and astringency as the grapes struggle to ripen in the cool Champagne climate. If that’s his goal, I think he succeeded wonderfully in 2013. I found these wines to be fresh, open, inviting and complex, without a trace of anything green or bitter. As I swirled and sniffed the wines extensively, taking in the complex aromas, Pierre chimed in with a disclaimer: “First of all, it’s not meant to be drank as a still wine.” Well, he could’ve fooled me.

The Verzy was brisk, clean and full of fresh red fruit and minerals. The Bouzy had a lot of similar elements, but it was tinged with more floral and tea elements. The Clos Colin was one of the most mineral-centric Pinot Noirs I’ve tasted. It’s an unbelievably stony and complex Pinot with laser-like focus and electric acid, yet an effortless feel on the palate. 

At the end of the night, we were served glasses of Cliquot’s orange label brut, Clicquot’s bread and butter bubbly, along with straws. Diners were encouraged to use the straws to stir some of the still red wine into the bubbly and create our own blends. 

It’s a fun idea, but I pushed the bubbles aside and continued contemplating the beauty and uniqueness of the still reds.

My tasting notes on the Coteaux Champenois reds and the Grande Dame rosé are posted below.

2013 Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Verzy Rouge - Champagne, Coteaux Champenois
A light cherry juice color. Almost Gamay-like on the nose, like a burst of bright strawberries and cherries with exotic flowers, minerals and chunks of rock. So silky and fine on the palate, with light tannins and refreshing acid. Red currants, white cherries, strawberries, the fruit is so bright and gushing. I love the mineral, black tea and rose hips though. This has a long finish with notes of oyster shell and a hint of tobacco leaf. I have no other Pinot Noirs with which to compare this — it is its own thing, a very pretty thing. All stainless steel. (91 points)

2013 Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Bouzy Rouge - France, Champagne, Coteaux ChampenoisJust a tiny bit darker than the Verzy. Nose of pure cherries and wild strawberries, a Morgon-like mineral and granite note along with exotic violets and roses, some lavender and potpourri. Tart and clean on the palate, with smooth and dusty tannins and high acid. The red currants and cranberry fruit is so clean and crisp and crunchy, and it’s laced with rose hips, limestone, black tea and an array of oceanic notes like sea salt and crushed shells. Long, zesty, just a tiny bit more structure than the Verzy. As a lover of lean and high acid Pinots, I find this to be a truly gorgeous wine. (91 points)

2013 Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Bouzy Rouge Clos Colin - France, Champagne, Coteaux ChampenoisCherry juice color. Intoxicating nose of white and red cherries, wild strawberries, dried cranberries, not to mention the fall leaves, violets, nettles and graphite. The palate is incredibly smooth and clean while the acid is electric, well-structured by the dusty tannins. Red cherries and raspberries, so fresh, tangy and pure, backed up by complex notes of loam, truffle, cigar smoke and gravel roads. The minerality in this wine is intense, and the overall package is so complex. More black fruit than the other two wines, this is the most intricate and lasting, at the same time it’s so delicate and elegant wine. I’m stunned. (96 points)

2004 Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Champagne Brut Rosé La Grande Dame - France, Champagne 
Vibrant copper-salmon-orange color, a bit deeper in color than the 2004 Brut Rosé. Such aromatic complexity, it really takes time to open up and show its true stuffing: strawberries, apricot, red apple peel, limestone, oyster shell, sea breeze, biscuits and a hint of smoke. Tart acid on the palate, this is an intense wine but it maintains an elegant posture despite itself. Red cherries, currants and wild strawberries play off of minerals, chalk, oyster shell. Lovely toast and brioche, I get some really interesting notes that I can’t quite place, something like barley and sweet onions, but whatever it is I love it. Time coaxes out all sorts of complexity. A beautiful wine, but decades away from maturity. Fascinating to taste this wine alongside the still 2013 Clos Colin Pinot Noir. (94 points)

Now, on to planning that Champagne trip.

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