Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Sahara Champagne

If Mercedes Benz made Champagne, I’d want to drink the BMW. Mercedes used to make exciting cars. Once they were established as the world’s best, they then turned to hanging onto that reputation by making cars that reassure the owner of his worth rather than exciting him. The Big Brand Champagne houses must have a similar marketing plan. Having spent fortunes on advertising and good solid wine-making over the years, their labels reassure the purchaser that he must indeed be a person with good taste and spare change. The reassurance is nice, of course. If your girlfriend picks you up in a Mercedes with a bottle of Moet et Chandon Champagne, you have a lot to look forward to. To achieve this stable luxury, the big brands buy Champagne from hundreds of farmers and blend the wines of different years over time. The wine tastes the same, you can relax. A little sweet, no surprises, nothing exaggerated.

But in recent years, some individual farmers in Champagne have begun to bypass the highly advertised conglomerate owned brands – all the brands you see advertised in the New Yorker – in favor of selling their own wines, unblended and made with a minimum of manipulation. These are wines that taste different from one batch to the next, wines designed to thrill you with racy flavors and vibrant textures, wines that do not speak with the polite hush of a gentleman’s club. But, also, wines you might not like and that will not simply invoke expensive comforts. Less than three percent of the total crop is sold in this way as artisanal Champagne, often called “farmer fizz” or, with slightly more formality, “grower Champagne.” Basic big brand Champagne sells for thirty to forty dollars and the grower wines are usually ten to twenty dollars more. This step up to farmer fizz is the biggest bang you can get in the wine market for ten or twenty bucks. All the famous brands also make very expensive bottles as well, typically selling for one or two hundred dollars. These pricey bottles can be first-rate and individualistic too, of course. For myself, though, the price is simply too much, given the thrills available from good grower Champagnes. [Except maybe Krug, the one important Champagne house that makes only the best and most expensive – if Mumm is a Mercedes, Krug is the Bentley.]

The importer Terry Theise has made it his life’s work to bring farmer fizz to the US and Sahara Mart has newly found a spot in his distribution chain. In February, Sahara Mart and Farm Restaurant held a tasting for nine different examples of these wines and the wines are, in general, available at the Mart. I had three favorites. These three were also the least expensive (never happened that way to me before):
1) Margaine, Cuvee Traditionelle, Brut Nonvintage. $48. Champagne can be made from a mixture of grapes, pinot noir and chardonnay typically predominating. This one is 90% chardonnay, with a bouquet of delicate flowers, maybe honeysuckle, and fruity flavors somewhat like peach. The result is very pleasant with food – something fresh and bright, like melon with prosciutto.
2) Hebrart, Selection, Brut Nonvintage $52. This is a little tangier than the Margaine. There are flowers in the bouquet but also a more serious note, spices perhaps. The taste definitely evokes lemons and the whole would be a lively aperitif or good company for some smoked salmon.
3) Aubry, Brut Nonvintage, $47. This is a big boy, unusual in that a full 50% is neither pinot noir nor chardonnay, but a red grape called pinot meunier. The result is richer than the first two, with flavors less of fruit and more of something like bread and butter. This actually tastes wonderful with popcorn but don’t tell the luxury police, who will bust you for not using caviar. I’m sure caviar would be swell.