Salon: The Secret "Cult Champagne"

Have you ever heard of cult champagne? When wine lovers rhapsodize about “cult wine,” they are typically talking about ultra-high quality, small-production California cabernet sauvignon blends like Screaming Eagle or Araujo Estate or a few other rare reds from around the world, such as Le Pin from Bordeaux or Pingus from Spain.

cult champagne

But who has ever heard of “cult Champagne”?

Prestige cuvées like Taittinger’s Comte de Champagne, Veuve Clicquot’s La Grand Dame, and Moet & Chandon’s Dom Perignon, despite their exalted reputations, are hardly produced in the microscopic quantities that qualify for cult status; indeed, DP is rumored to have a production run exceeding 100,000 cases annually.

And then there’s Champagne Salon, which sees an annual trickle of just 6,000 six-bottle cases, released only three or four times each decade.  Rap songs don’t refer to it.  Its packaging is far from bling-y, unlike, for example, Cristal’s gloriously translucent bottle or Dom Perignon’s sexy black curves. In fact, the “S” marking Salon’s label symbolizes, for me, the notion of singularity: there is but one version, made from a single grape (Chardonnay) and a single vineyard, the fabled Le Mesnil.  There is no rosé bottling, no non-vintage cuvée, no sweet version – as all of Salon’s eggs are in one basket.

And what a fine creature these eggs make. Because Salon originates from 100% white wine grapes that are grown in uniquely chalky soil, it typically enters the world with a lean, citrusy, sometimes steely quality – refreshing for sure, but hardly the nirvana of nuance it will be capable of achieving down the road.

Indeed, Salon needs time to strut its stuff, even though it ages at the winery for a minimum of eight years before release. Whereas many cult Champagnes are at or near their peak when young, Salon invariably improves with at least a decade or more of bottle age. When I visited the winery last year, the 1996 Salon ($225-275/bottle) proved itself just this kind of monument in the making: appealingly crisp and pure, but not yet showing the sublime subtleties that age will bring.  In contrast, when I tasted the 1990 ($400-$450) a few years ago in California, it displayed a complex nose of almonds and baked bread and honey, balanced beautifully by an apply goodness and a racy vein of acidity – the essence of cult Champagne at its shimmery best.

cult champagne cult champagne cult champagne

Published in the October issue of Number Wine, a terrific new wine magazine distributed in Europe.

A Splendid Spin in Aspen

Report from the 25th annual FOOD & WINE Classic in Aspen.

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The old airplane’s propellers groaned and wheezed like a wounded beast.  While my seatmate (a chef from the Midwest) and I tried to distract ourselves by talking about much we were looking forward to this year’s Food & Wine Classic, I couldn’t help wondering why a blue-chip airline like United was flying such a shanty prop plane from Denver to Aspen.  Shouldn’t an illustrious destination like Aspen merit the airline’s best commuter jets, or at least ones with engines?—not a rickety propeller job, the kind of 70’s jungle jumper you’d have seen ferrying Jim Jones’ disciples on a one-way trip to Guyana.  There wasn’t even toilet paper in this jalopy’s bathroom – just a lonely, half-used box of Kleenex lying next to an outhouse potty hole.

The turbulence intensified as we started our initial approach into Aspen.  As the nose of the plane pitched down in a Kamikaze dive, my seatmate and I slid down in our seats, stretching our legs under the seats in front of us as if trying to reach an invisible break pedal.  And then, in an unexpected and poignant moment of primal desperation, she and I – two total strangers – clutched each other’s hands, waiting for the final death plunge.

It didn’t happen, of course, and comic relief came in the form of a preternaturally relaxed Drew Nieporent, stretched out behind us like the cool kid in the back seat of a school bus.

“Ah, this is nothing,” the insouciant and kingly restaurant impresario declared, “I’ve been on far worse flights to Aspen.”

His words helped a bit, as did the thought that with Todd English, Marcus Samuelson, and other super-chefs on board, an unplanned “forest landing” would have made one hell of an obit.

We survived – sweaty, shaky, and grateful to be on terra firma — in a paradisiacal place of azure skies, verdant hills, and bountiful wine, no less.  And things only got better from there. Speaking at the Food & Wine Classic was an unalloyed pleasure.  I developed two new seminars for the Classic – “Sparkling Substitutes” (i.e., non-Champagne bubbly) and “Looks like Red Wine, Acts Like White” (light reds), each taught twice.

The audiences couldn’t have been more enthusiastic and wine-curious.  We had great fun from start-to-finish, whether it was performing a group chant to pronounce Gewürztraminer (“Guh-vurtz” and “tra-me-ner”) or laughing about rap-star Ludacris’ admonition in my book not to “guzzle one’s Cristal”.

My fellow speakers were the best in the business, including Best Cellars guru Josh Wesson, whose attendance at my red wine seminar was a special treat, as the spirit of his classic tome, Red Wine with Fish, fit perfectly with the subject matter. And how often does one get to the opportunity to exchange sartorial advice with Tony Giglio, as much a maven of pocket squares as he is of the imbibable.  And it is always a delight to visit with the über-talented Lettie Teague, Food & Wine’s executive wine editor, whose new book, Educating Peter, is as scintillating as her columns in the magazine.

To ensure that the wine at my seminars would be well received, months ago I had assembled a “Civilian Tasting Panel” – nine non-wine-pro friends who helped me blind-taste over 70 selections of both non-Champagne bubbly and light reds. This made for two memorable, wine-soaked evenings, where we sat around a long wooden table like a big Tuscan family, slurping and sloshing and giving honest, off-the-cuff reactions to the wines.

The favorites that emerged from these tastings became the line-up for my seminars in Aspen.  They are all fetching sips for summer:

“Looks Like Red Wine, Acts Like White”: Light Reds 

  • Ponzi Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 05
  • Duboeuf Julienas Domaine de la Seigneurie 05
  • Domain Bailly-Reverdy Sancerre Rouge 04
  • Remy Pannier Chinon 05 * Chapoutier Crozes-Hermitage Petite Ruche 04
  • Bodegas Nekeas Vega Sindoa El Chaparral 05

[Note: these light, low-tannin reds are all chillable.]

“Sparkling Substitutes”: Non-Champagne Bubbly

  • Mionetto Sergio Extra Dry NV
  • Schramsberg Blanc De Blancs 04
  • Brüder Dr. Becker Scheurbe Sekt 04
  • Llopart Leopardi Brut Rose 03
  • Hill of Content Sparkling Red NV
  • Ceretto Santo Stefano Moscato D’Asti 05

Scolded by the Secret Service (or Why Haut-Brion is Not Opium)

Cabernet Etiquette: “Don’t EVER say that in this situation!” sneered the Secret Service agent, his neck veins and eyes aflame just long enough to singe a look of terror into my puzzled face.

I was at a political fundraiser in the living room of a wine collector in the leafy suburb of Katona, New York. The host — a genial real estate czar with a craving for collectable Cabernets – had asked me to decant a selection of his vinous thoroughbreds and introduce them to the thirty or so supporters – designer Kenneth Cole among them — waiting to hear former President Clinton speak on behalf of Hillary.

As Bill made his way around the living room greeting donors, a guest who had seen me talk about the night’s wines asked me to pour her some of the ‘95 Lafite Rothchild. I informed her cheerfully that the host wanted the guests to enjoy the wine in a specific order, so by house rules, it was “illegal to pour the Lafitre Rotchshild before the Haut Brion”.

To our incredulity, that was all it took to trigger the venomous eruption — “Don’t EVER say that in this situation!” — from the Secret Service agent planted nearby.

In a flash, I wondered if his sudden imposition of a vinous speech code was compelled by his special knowledge of how first-growth Bordeaux from the 1995 vintage should be served: was this a secret sommelier hiding behind an ear piece and a Glock?

Or, in the heat of the moment, did his oversensitized, reflexes-at-the-ready mind process my utterance of “Haut Brion (Oh Bree-ohn)” as “opium”?

Whatever the case, this overzealous and ill-tempered power tripper – imagine a seething, monster-truck version of Bobby Flay – yanked the words “illegal” and “Haut Brion” out of their benign context and jumped all over them like they were an injured Gipper leaning on a limo.

No amount of misplaced malevolence from the Secret Service, however, could dampen the buzz in the room and in the decanters before me. Whether or not you are a Clinton (or Cabernet) supporter, you had to admire the former President’s personal magnetism and intellectual virtuosity.  And the wine was equally arresting, an all-star line-up from the 1995 vintage: a Napa legend, two first-growth red Bordeaux, and a fabled Super Tuscan:

  • Beaulieu Cabernet Sauvignon Georges de Latour Private Reserve 1995
  • Chateau Haut-Brion 1995
  • Chateau Lafite-Rothschild 1995
  • Tenuta San Guido Sassicaia 1995

Two things surprised me.   First, given its critical praise (Wine Spectator had called it “the best Lafite in ages”) and illustrious reputation, I expected the ’95 Lafite to be the top dog, but the ’95 Haut Brion ended up winning the day. While the Lafite showed the building blocks of greatness — blackberries, pencil lead, cigar box – it was edgy and not yet ready for prime-time, like a great soup before its components have melded together.

The Haut Brion, in contrast, was a wine in full – a wholly pleasurable paragon of elegance, medium-bodied with perfectly-integrated essences of blackcurrants and cedar and smoke and a lush, almost Burgundian silkiness. The next week I mentioned my impressions to Patrick Cappiello, a sommelier at New York’s Veritas restaurant, and he confirmed that among the Bordeaux first-growths, Haut Brion is often more approachable in its relative youth, 12 years being still young for these titans. “With more recent vintages, I never steer customers [interested in Bordeaux first-growths] to Lafite,” Cappiello told me. “Haut Brion is more likely to be pleasurable early on.”

The other surprise was, well, with such stunning wines available and his reputation as a man of considerable appetites, Bubba remained a teetotaler that night – sipping on nothing more than a glass of Diet Coke. Perhaps the Secret Service sommelier had rendered another Cabernet intervention.

Buzz Management

“Don’t you get drunk?” Everyone asks this when they discover that I am judging a wine event. And they asked it with conviction after hearing that I was recently required to slurp hundreds of wines for the Bordeaux Wine Bureau’s 2007 “100 Top Bordeaux under $25” competition. (The results of the competition are available here.)

Friends imagine such an event to be an orgiastic feast of Hefnerian proportions: If one bottle gives pleasure, hundreds must yield sensual nirvana. The truth, however, is that the experience was more like taking the SATs — well, the SATs with a buzz.

First, the other judges and I were separated like test-takers, each situated safely out of copying distance of one another. Then there was a sort of proctor who had flown from Bordeaux to New York just to monitor the proceedings.  During the tasting, the weight of her displeased, jet-lagged gaze was enough to instill a chill in our glasses. Excusez-moi: Was I swirling satisfactorily? Did my slurps suffice? Would she confiscate my scorecard and make me put my head down?

This tense mood had a way of manifesting itself on the tablecloths.  Octopusing our arms over a sea of glassware, we did our share of spilling and staining.  At one point, my elbow inadvertently sent my overflowing spit bucket aloft, creating a spill that even ExxonMobil wouldn’t have wanted to clean. Tablecloths ended up looking like the tunic of a defeated gladiator.

Like the SATs, our marathon tasting required constant focus on a torrent of information. In this case, the information, if not carefully managed, could get you tanked. So you spit. You spit for survival. After each wine, you let loose into the shiny bucket at your side. For me it wasn’t pretty. My chin-coating projections displayed not the crisp, laser-line efficiency of my fellow judges but something Danny Bonaduce would muster after chugging a fifth of Smirnoff.

Inelegant expectorating notwithstanding, spitting works. After two days of intensive tasting, hocking a good one — along with intermittent nibbles of bread, washes of water, and occasional leg stretches — kept the palate surprisingly operational. Such buzz management makes wine competitions a breeze, even after your 200th glass.

Written for

Have Coinstar, Will Truffle

Truffle Shuffle: Setting out for the Coinstar machine at the Food Emporium in New York’s Union Square, I had gotten about halfway down 15th Street when the sound of spewing metal prompted me to look back and notice the trail of change snaking out of my roller bag and onto the rainy pavement.

“Oh [expletive]!”  I fell to my hands and knees and tried in vain to scoop up the four years of worth of pocket change now ascatter on the asphalt.  In the street dodging nighttime traffic, my fingers painted with the ashy, urea-rich brand of filth peculiar to New York streets, I felt as defeated as the Santa-suited Dan Ackroyd in Trading Places What have I been reduced to?! I picked myself up and walked off with my depleted bag, disgusted and dejected, leaving this trail of legal tender in the street for the numismatically needy.

That was five years ago.  Having accumulated a new stockpile of spare change, last month I set out on another Coinstar crusade, this time with roller bag fully zipped.  And on this mission I found success, leaving the Food Emporium with $139.83 in cold cash.

What to do with these spoils?  The incurable gastronaut in me could contemplate only one option: invest in one white truffle, the rare, uncultivable fungus that rolls off the Italian tongue mellifluously as tartufo bianco.

With late autumn being the heart of truffle season, I had recently read good things about a specialty store in the East Village called Trufette (also known by its wholesaler title, S.O.S. Chefs).  So off I went to this sliver of a shop, its barely-marked exterior leading to the kind of offbeat boutique your aunt would own – if your aunt were French-Moroccan and lined her shelves with mysteries like argan oil, pimprenelle powder, and geggenbauer vinegar.  I knew I was getting closer to the mark when I spied a blackboard listing fresh mushrooms that were equally Martian-sounding: yellowfoots, ovaly, mousseron, honshimeji.  In back things were lab-like, with metal tables and scales and two workers focused intensely on sorting through these precious specimens.  Then the owner emerged, a pixie clothed like a cat burglar, a black snowcap stretched over her head like a freedom fighter on the mycophilic trail.

“I’d like to buy a truffle,” I informed her, dizzy with a bit of the consumptive pride experienced by purchasers of big cars and small islands.

“Wait here,” she responded, a foreign accent drifting over solemn lips.

Disappearing into the back room, she soon reemerged cradling a plastic container like it was a kitten box.  When the cover came off, there they were: nine knobby balls of pungent gastronomic gold.  Wa-wa-wee-wa!

As she fished one out, I asked whether I could take a picture of this wondrous sight.

“No, no, no…no photos, no photos,” this culinary Che Guevara said with a swagger and finality that one dared not challenge.  (At least to her face: when she wasn’t looking, I snapped a few photos anyway).

She wrapped my truffle in purple tissue paper and placed it in a plastic container, poking a hole in the lid so it “could breathe”.  Surrendering all of my Coinstar winnings and adding a ten-spot, I finally took possession of the contraband and headed for the door.  Was that the chorus of “Smugglers Blues” echoing in the distance?

The question remained: how could I extract as much pleasure as possible from my ounce of Piedmontese perfection?  Lacking chef skills, I resolved to do it the easy way by improvising the concept of “B.Y.O.T.” (Bring Your Own Truffle) to a local eatery.  I figured that smuggling it into any place that actually might serve truffles could earn me a scarlet letter in the restaurant world, so I chose Pizza Gruppo, an East Village dive that serves ethereal brick-oven pizza and levies only a $10 corkage fee on diners who bring along their own wine.

Gruppo never knew what hit ’em.  With friends running interference, I sneaked in a duffle bag that contained the truffle, a truffle grater (resembling a miniature cheese grater with a metal handle), and two bottles of Barolo, which, like white truffles, derives from Italy’s Piedmont region and is often said to resonate with hints of truffles itself.

We ordered the blandest pizza possible and then took turns grating excessive amounts of the truffle on our slices, giddy like school kids chugging chocolate syrup when Mom isn’t looking.  The truffle had an inimitably earthy funk – a musky quality that evoked sautéed garlic, fried walnuts, even decayed leaves.  Lubricated with hearty hits of Barolo, it approached what a poet once described as a truffle’s ability to provide “a foretaste of paradise”.  And for only about two thousand pieces of pocket change, this was paradise at a deep discount.

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baroloProducer: Paolo Scavino
Wine: Barolo Bric dël Fiasc
Vintage: 1998
Cost: $90

If you’re going to B.Y.O.B. while you B.Y.O.T., this is the bottle to do it with.  A wonderful core of ultra-ripe blackberries is joined by notes of leather, tar, licorice, and perhaps some truffle.  Full-bodied with just a trace of tannin in its otherwise smooth, enduring finish, it has the stuff to get even better over the next several years.