I'm sitting in L'Etoile Restaurant's elegant second-floor dining room, watching the snow swirl around the state Capitol. My place is set with six gleaming crystal wine glasses. The tables around me are crowded with an equally excessive number of wine glasses, silver buckets (for spitting in) and a lot of people who know a hell of a lot more about wine than I do.
I'm here for a champagne seminar hosted by L'Eft Bank Wine Company, the Madison-based distributor, to promote some of the new French artisanal, or small, champagnes. So far, it's a lot more like a graduate course than a wine tasting.
Kevin Pike, from the importer Terry Theise Selections, lectures arcanely (and seemingly without breathing) about Cretaceous chalk deposits and Ice Age weather patterns in the Paris Basin - the geological formation that underlies most of France's champagne-growing region. The people on either side of me are taking notes and referring to the geologic maps in our handouts. Personally, I'm beginning to worry there may be a pop quiz.
Small-grower champagnes are getting a lot of press these days. The New York Times' Eric Asimov calls them "utterly distinct" and points out that far from being about bubbles and fizz, many are wonderful food wines. "Almost any," he suggests "will go well with sushi, not to mention fried chicken." I hadn't gotten quite that far in my imagination yet, but a family friend recently confessed that he's so in love with these champagnes, he drinks one every night, no matter what he's eating.
"The point is to think of champagne as wine again," says Pike. "Not as a luxury product sold at a discount, not as bubbles - but as an artisanally made product, from a single family and a single terroir."
A little background: Champagne is dominated by a handful of brand-names - Perrier-Jouët, Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Pommery, etc. These big houses, or grandes marques, produce 80% of French champagne. Unlike the top wine producers in just about every other wine-producing region, however, they don't grow their own grapes. They buy them - in some cases, from as many as 1,000 different vineyard sites - and blend them to match their house style.
At the big champagne houses, blending is a high art. Krug, for example, whose champagnes begin at more than $100 a bottle, might combine up to 50 different wines from six to 10 different years, to make a single great champagne. In contrast, the small houses that produce champagnes from their own grapes aim to express the character and individuality of a particular vineyard or village, rather than a house style. Their champagnes, as a result, are quirkier.
When we get around to tasting, I begin to see what all the fuss is about. There's a yeasty, toasty Chartogne-Taillet "Cuvée Sainte-Anne" Brut ($39) that I'd happily drink again. The tart acidic (think green apples) punch of Pierre Gimmonet's "Special Club" Brut (around $50), made from 100% chardonnay, would enliven any occasion. And there's a fascinating Henri Billiot Brut Rosé ($49), which manages to be both very sweet and crisply dry at the same time, with lots of raspberry and strawberry flavor. (All are available at independent wine stores in Madison.)
Unfortunately, it seems I have to swallow a fairly heavy dose of spin along with the wine. Importers like Terry Theise are shrewdly marketing small champagnes as Davids in a world of grandes marques Goliaths. Theise (who is, incidentally, married to former L'Etoile proprietor Odessa Piper) handles most of the small-grower champagnes sold in the U.S.
"The small, family estates I represent are not owned by multinational conglomerates," he writes in a handout. "They don't sell scarves, wristwatches, leopard-skin jackets or monogrammed ballpoint pens. Champagne for them is a wine with which they live, and live solely." He also adds, as advice to retailers, "Call it what you will: artisanal champagnes, grower-champagnes, family-fizz, small-batch, microbrew...whatever you think is the sexiest term. Then watch it take off!"
Ouch. Have we really become such knee-jerk anti-establishment consumers that we'll buy anything labeled "artisanal"? When did calling something "mass-market" become the equivalent of putting a big red circle with a slash through it?
As I listen to the some of the most celebrated makers of champagne being dissed (we're even told their vineyards are polluted with landfill trash), servers appear with a new set of bottles. Time for the blind tasting (a.k.a. pop quiz).
We sip and critique and I manage not to embarrass myself, and then we get to Wine Number Three, my Waterloo. It's wonderful. "Amazing bouquet, tropical flavors, crisp finish," I scribble in my notes. "This is great!" I whisper to my neighbor.
"Who likes this wine?" asks Kevin Pike. My hand shoots up - but humiliatingly, no one else's does. Barely masking his satisfaction, Pike reveals the label on the champagne everyone else seems to scorn: Veuve Clicquot, one of the big bad grandes marques. I sink lower in my chair.
After the shame wears off, I realize that I shouldn't have been surprised. In my family, Veuve Clicquot has been part of every important celebration for 30 years: graduations, weddings, births, Christmases, birthdays, promotions. Probably there are better champagnes - maybe even some of the others we tasted today. But after a lifetime of celebrations, Veuve Clicquot has acquired, for me at least, one element no other champagne can match: the taste of joy.
So this holiday season, I'll look forward to introducing friends and family to some of the new small-grower champagnes. But I'll also, unrepentantly, keep a bottle of Veuve Clicquot on hand. For special occasions. Because there's nothing I'm happier to drink.