George Lepre, chief sommelier of the Ritz Hotel in Paris, believes French Champagne is often misunderstood by American wine consumers. "To truly appreciate Champagne," he said, "is to discern its individual style ordinarily glossed over by palate-tingling effervescence frequently confused with the bubbles in the millions of bottles of soda pop Americans drink daily."
To prove his point, Lepre recently organized a Champagne dinner at La Couronne restaurant in Pasadena, where he once presided as maitre d'.
Lepre, a 20-year veteran sommelier and acknowledged to be one of France's best, is not given to Champagne lecturing. "But in all honesty," he said, "Americans, among the biggest buyers of Champagne, appear to enjoy its bubbles more than its taste and neglect to scrupulously experience and enjoy its style.
"After all, our wine can be scandalously expensive and it is indeed a dissipation of effort and money if style refinements go unnoticed and disappear into the air. To buy a bottle of a big-name Grande Marque Champagne is not an everyday occurrence, it is more a big-ticket luxury made with costly grapes and time-consuming techniques.
'A Task Which I Avoid'
"Cheaper Champagnes are of lower quality produced with second-rate grapes and methods. What's more, it's practically impossible to find fine Champagne at a cheap price. Much of my time in Paris is spent searching for a little-known, low-cost Burgundy or Bordeaux of relatively high quality, but to do the same with Champagne is a task which I avoid simply because I believe it cannot be done."
With the assistance of Daniel Juriens, La Couronne chef, Lepre presented 10 famous-brand Champagnes and a dinner of salmon, ragout of lotte , quail in a nest of zucchini, finishing with goat cheese and a dessert of raspberries with raspberry sauce. As is the French custom, each Champagne, beginning with the driest and finishing with the sweetest, was appropriately matched to each course.
Lepre selected two of Champagne's driest as dinner starters, but questioned whether his choices, Laurent-Perrier, Ultra Brut, and Piper Heidsieck, Brut, Sauvage, would find favor since he and most French producers believe Americans dislike their bone-dry Champagne character in lieu of a touch of sweetness.
The overall reaction was quite the opposite and served as a gentle rebuke of the French wine trade notion that the American palate leans to sweeter-style tastes.
The Sauvage, meaning wild for extreme dryness, was more austere (conforming to the term) wherein the wine displayed no fruity taste nor hint of sweetness. Leaner than the Ultra Brut, it is more aggressive in effervescence, finely clean and with the expected dryness of a no dosage bottle.
Champagnes to Fit Buyer's Taste
The Ultra Brut, showing more nose yeastiness and a rounder, lusher, fatter style, reflected an older, so-called maderise, but agreeable, taste sometimes characterized as toasty. Whichever the choice, both showed the breed and taste of unrelenting dryness, rarely found even in fine Champagne.
If dry, tingling, crisp flavors are your preference, then these styles are calculated to always fill the bill. That's exactly what Lepre was saying. These high-priced Champagnes will not be enjoyed unless the style fits the buyer's taste. Since most buy by brand or proprietor's names and do not cellar age, it is the initial taste upon a Champagne's release that counts.
For wines with assertive yeasty aromas and rounder, fuller styles, Lepre offered two prototypes, Deutz, Blanc de Blanc, 1979, and Charbaut, Blanc de Blanc, 1979, which are well made substantially if not completely with Chardonnay grapes. Sometimes described as racy, Chardonnay-derived Champagnes lack the body and flesh for meat or fowl dishes and are better reserved for fish as was done here.
Generally not as big in structure as Pinot Noir-made (the other classic Champagne grape) Champagnes, Blanc de Blancs are also handsome choices as aperitifs. The Deutz showed youthful spirited bubbles that will require some age refining. Indeed, most '79s to my palate will need a year or so, although the Charbaut offered an older taste with softer, less aggressive effervescence and a rounder, fatter style.
Two mature offerings from the great vintage of 1976, served with the quail, were Bollinger, Grand Annee, and Krug. Developing superbly, the Krug suggested flower-like aromas in an elegantly refined, lovely flavor style representing a magnificent bottle and match.
The Bollinger was not far behind in an older, fatter style, still very elegant, with a delicate attractive lingering maderise finish. Bollinger prefers the use of Pinot Noir to Chardonnay, and as a house policy does not produce a Blanc de Blanc. For fowl or meat, even if highly sauced, both are perfect choices.