There are those who think Champagne does not age well. Luckily for me, I don’t know any of them.
My friends and I value the way great Champagne ages. It matures just as well as the mighty Bordeaux or regal Burgundy. In fact, Champagne shares two of the major varieties of Burgundy, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. But the secondary fermentation – Champagne’s essence and being – unlocks something that is incomparable.
One evening, having dinner with friends at Halekulani’s flagship restaurant La Mer, I was reminded of how well Champagnes develop. We drank six Champagnes from 1988; none of them was a slouch.
We began with a magnum of Alain Robert Blanc de Blanc. Drinking a magnum of Champagne (1.5 liters, a size equal to two regular bottles) is the only way you should truly drink Champagne, though it admittedly is a bit too much without friends. This Champagne is made of 100 percent Chardonnay from the village of Le Mesnil, which is a Grand Cru rated village. It had a very “pretty” nose, with sweet citrus, lees, cinnamon and cardamom. Poached apples, hints of pear and buttered toast points make it superbly elegant, offering tons of finesse on the palate. It was still quite fresh (I am certain being in magnum helps with extended aging), with some primary citrus fruits and a creamy finish.
The Dom Perignon (55 percent Pinot Noir and 45 percent Chardonnay) had a completely different attack. It had a biscuit taste, sourdough-like even, with an earthy and chalky note. It showed a deep, darker fruit tone, with lovely and focused entry to the palate. It invited me in with sweet fruit, more baked bread flavors on the palate and an even lengthier finish.
The fabulous Cristal (50/50 blend of Pinot Noir and Char-donnay) from Louis Roederer had some drinkers wondering if it was indeed sound, as it seemed the most developed of all six Champagnes. It jumped from the glass, with huge notes of fruit bread, pineapple, candied citrus, poached melon, even hinting toward tropical fruit. The ripeness didn’t stop on the nose; the palate was more than creamy, being round and almost fat. This was a hugely hedonistic vintage for Cristal, and it was approaching maturity quickly. Yet complexity already was ratcheted up in this amazing drink.
Salon Champagne always has been one of my favorites, and it was a hit on this night as well. This Champagne also was 100 percent Chardonnay from the Grand Cru village of Le Mesnil. It opened up with a slight sulfur odor, which thankfully blew off to reveal a plethora of complex aromas. A gorgeous, flowery component unique to this wine was presented through notes of lemon pie (with a vanilla crust) and hints of glace apricot. The palate was quite feminine and graceful. Along with citrus peels and vanilla cream, there was a taste of Sauternes. None of the sweetness was overtly apparent, but the surrounding flavors were incomparable and reminded me of when I worked in a French kitchen’s dessert station. The aftertaste was clean, yet amazingly long.
The Vintage Krug (50 percent Pinot Noir, 18 percent Pinot Meunier, 32 percent Chardonnay) showed to be the “thumper” of the bunch, with intense, masculine flavors of sweet white fruits, minerality, brioche and an almost rich texture that separated it from all the rest. In the nose it simply sang, with an aria of fruits, flowers and teas. As beautifully complex as it already was, I still believed this Champagne to be quite young. It had more potential to realize, which can only be coaxed out with time in a cold cellar. A dozen more years would not be out of the question. It simply was terrific.
So what could be better than Vintage Krug, you may ask? This evening, it was Krug Clos du Mesnil. This legendary, 100 percent Grand Cru rated vineyard (approximately the same size
as Romanee Conti) is walled completely within the village of Le Mesnil and planted entirely to Chardonnay. It was amazing how this wine stood head and shoulders above the others. It had ineffable clarity, precision, a defined personality and identity. There is no other wine in the world like it. The fruit was amazingly balanced and melded with the minerality. The length was piercing and interminable. It continued to grow in stature and complexity throughout the entire evening. This wine was still far from its apogee, and yet it already distinguished itself as a modern-day legend. With an average production of 250 cases in a “vintage” year, I am privileged to have had some.
Don’t be afraid to stock up your cellar with vintage Champagne, especially with wines such as these. They are some of the greatest vinous experiences you will ever share.