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96 of One and 12 of the Other

By |  December 31 2008

For the most part, of course, cellared wines are not intended to harvest experimental data but merely repay a hopeful investment in pleasure. These bottles were different. This was a case for examination. I bought it at a time when it had only just dawned on me that internal difference was bound and gagged (or rather blended into regional oblivion) in Champagne. A monolithic appellation, combined with domination by large companies rather than individual growers, meant that most of us had no idea how Champagnes from Aÿ, Cramant, Dizy, or Verzenay might differ from one another, varietal composition aside. This was the point at which I realized that growers’ Champagnes might not merely be what they were usually retailed as — namely a cheap alternative to the big names.

They might, in fact, be more precious than the big names themselves, since they could provide drinkers with a map with which to begin differentiating Champagne’s great chalk and sand swells from one another. They could, if you like, Burgundify Champagne.

So it was that, sometime around the turn of the century, I bought a case of Pierre Larmandier’s 1996 Vieilles Vignes de Cramant. The price was less than that of Vintage Champagne from ordinary, unthrusting grandes marques, urbanely marketed and tasting of yeast and dosage rather than soil. Half the case is now gone. I’ve always been careful about who I served it to. It neither looks nor tastes like a brand champion. The look I can live with, but there’s no point in giving singularity of flavor to those who might find themselves wishing for the comfort of crowds. Tonight, though, there are just two of us, celebrating the fact that we are not yet dead, so we can give its atypicality our full attention and search for the place in the glass.

It was once pale; it’s now shading toward gold. The charge of gas is beginning to lose its urgency and idles in the glass, like calm surf melting into sand. The ghost games of dead yeast play little role in its aromas. Nor, though, does fruit, apart from a kind of sullen grapefruit pithiness. Is it stone we’re left with, then? Perhaps; but if so it’s a wintry stone, frost-mute. Even after 12 years, there’s a rawness here. It is bleakly featureless. I keep hoping an aromatic corner will have been turned with each new bottle, but I keep being disappointed. Sometimes older blanc de blancs casts a glance south, and begins to hint at Chassagne or even Meursault; this one is determined to remain midwinter Marne till doomsday.

You’ll not be surprised to hear that this Extra Brut Champagne is a serious mouthful. It’s acidic, searching, more than a little oxidative, deeply and scouringly dry — a bit brutal, in truth.

Despite the fact that it’s unadulterated Chardonnay, it tastes to me rather like the Bollinger backbone — and nothing but the backbone, pecked as clean of flesh as any fossil. The creamy, foamy diversions that prettify much Champagne are absent — but I can’t use the word "mineral" either, since there is none of the tingling, faintly salty residuum on the tongue that I associate with that word. There is, above all, acidity, a great shaft of acidity, boring into your tongue like a screwdriver. Its principal virtue is a concentrated, dour, and powerful purity. Like some grim old monk, that may be its only virtue.

I could keep on waiting. I probably will, since it’s not a bottle that shouts "drink me" when I’m calling the cellar roll. I no longer expect any corner to be turned, though. As an experiment, it’s been a failure. The case has not been made, and I don’t feel any wiser about Cramant than I did before. Perhaps it’s 1996 that’s to blame.

This bottle more convincingly describes a gooseflesh summer dominated by the north wind than it does its village of origin, and taking these high-acid but only tentatively ripe raw materials and giving them the extra-brut treatment was always going to be a daring strategy. Dosage and blending, I have to admit, would probably have been a better idea in this instance. The end of Champagne as we know it is not yet nigh.

One failure, though, does not invalidate the whole exercise. I don’t know what they are yet, but there will be differences between great Chardonnay grown in Cramant and Chouilly, Le Mesnil and Montgueux, and I’m still curious about them. In one way, indeed, the shock value of this bottle is salutary: Single-site Champagne will always be challengingly and sometimes spikily characterful alongside the smoothing, tapering effects that blenders can chisel into their Champagnes. Despite its lack of charm, I’d still rather drink this bottle than a happy-clappy Non-Vintage from Moët, Mumm, or Mercier. It may not ooze Cramant from every pore, but it’s as true to the north as any compass.

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