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Forty-five minutes from Paris

Arturo's Grades—All New!

I now use the five-star system that dates back generations and has had a special appeal to me as suggested in The Great Vintage Wine Book by English writer Michael Broadbent. My take on the system works as follows:

Don't bother

Not very good

Fair to moderately good


Extremely good


A star (or stars) in parentheses means what the wine promises to achieve with further aging. For example:

() = fair now but should become extremely good with bottle age.

click to enlarge A small village in the midst of Champagne country - PHOTO BY ARTURO CIOMPI

Go to the Eastern Train Station in Paris, hop on the TGV (France's high-speed rail line) and in 45 minutes you'll be in Reims. Famous for its inspiring 13th-century Gothic cathedral, it is, along with sister city Epernay, at the very heart of the Champagne region. Trucking along, Paris quickly melts into long flat fields, country roads and the odd feeling of being in northern Minnesota. The countryside then slowly begins to undulate increasingly with hills and valleys most pronounced as we reach our destination.

The Champagne house of Besserat De Bellefon has always been my favorite small producer, with wines that are the epitome of food-friendly. While recently vacationing with my wife Ellen, I decided to take a one-day busman's holiday to visit this terrific property. In Reims, we met up with Anton Hobbs, export director for Lanson Champagne (Besserat's bigger brother) in Pacific Asia and the Middle East.

We commenced with a grand luncheon, joined by a group of New Zealand wine brokers and store owners. This sassy bunch, full of panache and exuberance—especially during these salad days when all things New Zealand are selling like gangbusters—made for great fun and companionship. We talked about the ancient tradition of clinking glasses, begun in the Middle Ages, when metal goblets were struck together, causing some of the wine from each vessel to spill over into the other—a sure-fire way to prevent being poisoned. (Even if apocryphal, it's a grand yarn.) As the "mates" packed in the foie gras, we tasted two Champagnes from Lanson:

Lanson Black Label Brut, $40
Fresh, very smooth and soft textured. Lovable, easy bubbles but lip-smacking, high-toned firmness on the finish. A bit brusque but so very quaffable.

Lanson Gold Label 1997 Brut, $N/A ()
Full, with a more croissant brulée-like nose. Well-balanced but rather lean, focused and not terribly caressing. This is a wine with a long life ahead. Intense, pointed and not ready. Drink in 2010-12.

We had the "bisquit de rosé" with our coffee. This dipping cookie, made with grape pressings after the harvest, is a classic dessert but a strange bird. It tastes like Holland Rusk with a winey aftertaste. Oh well, when in Champagne ... .

After lunch, we met up with Olivier Cril, export manager for the United States, our day's guide. He comes from an extended family of growers, both in Champagne and the Loire Valley. His instincts are closely tied to the land, to tradition and to the unique situation that Champagne finds itself in today: a wine that cannot keep up with the demand. Cril was extremely honest about the battles that occur for a producer like Besserat to keep their long-term growers from taking their product to a higher bidder. Friendships are strong here, but the increasing value of prime properties seems to have everyone thinking twice about the value within. It's all part of a vineyard checkerboard game.

click to enlarge 10.17-winebeatlabel.jpg

Besserat is not open to the public and there are no old-fashioned displays of wine presses or people constantly "riddling," or turning, the bottles by hand, to keep the sediment from sticking. You'll find no human riddlers here. All is mechanized, from the first press through the 40-deep racks of aging bottles; from the mechanical freezing and disgorging of the sediment to the psychotic-looking yet precise bottling line. All is new and never stops trying to be smarter. Improved corks are the most recent development, with new interior glues producing a one-piece capsule that virtually eliminates the possibility of taint or mustiness.

So how is Besserat so different from most other producers? Three ways, I think. First, the wines never go through malolactic fermentation, a process that smoothes the texture. They retain their nerve and edge, and only extended aging can reduce this grip. Second, the wines are produced exclusively using the crémant process. This means less added sugar for refermenting the still wine into sparkling. The result is a creamier wine, so sensual in the mouth, less brightness and fizz, more deep aromas, an understated bead and a lingering soft mouth texture. This is why these wines are so perfect with food.

The third thing that sets Besserat apart is the winemaker for the last nine years, Cedric Thiebault. I had the chance to sit down with him one-on-one as we tasted through the entire line of his best Cuvée Des Moines bottlings. His methods may be ultra-modern, but he has a palate for the age-old grace of Champagne. Never heavy, never earthbound, the wines overflow with what these grapes—in this particular climate, in this special soil—can do. He unerringly balances each grape's virtues and always retains an elegant touch throughout. There's a gentleness in the man, soft spoken, youthfully sure of his way yet never a hint of braggadocio. His wines are the same. They don't ever yell, but they encircle you with their suppleness and intense aromas.

Cuvée des Moines Brut $40 ($25 half-bottle)
Bursting with tropicality, minerals, shale and chalk. Crammed with apricot sensations. Very low bubble on this particular bottle. A bit simple. Good, but I've had better examples.

Cuvée des Moines Rosé $50 ($27 half-bottle)
Not a rosé in any normal sense. (A blend of 30 percent pinot noir, 30 percent chardonnay and a whopping 40 percent pinot meunier.) It is this last grape that shapes some of the greatness and irreplaceable qualities of traditional Champagne. To understand pinot meunier, a red grape, to know how it thrives in the region and enhances the balance and complexity of the wines, is one of Thiebault's great gifts.

Perfect color, consistency and balance. So fragrant, berry-fresh with a red wine stamp on it, bursting with luscious, mouth-watering flavors. Tremendous elan and lift.

Cuvée des Moines Blanc De Blanc $65
There are many great 100 percent chardonnay Champagnes such as Salon Le Mesnil. This wine takes its place among the finest. Consistently superb, pure, dramatic and yet with a delicacy and feathery effortlessness that overrides the entire experience. I've said it before: It's all satin, silk and savoir faire. It treads like little cat feet and you feel transported.

Cuvée des Moines Vintage 2000 $75 ()
Tremendous depth and intensity. Like a robe engulfing the deep chalky robust texture. Strength and elegance on the biggest wine I've ever tasted from Besserat. Dark, dense, still brooding but promising grand festivity. I wouldn't touch it for three to four years. (Available next spring.)

Today's clamor for the best, especially in the newly super-wealthy Far East, far surpasses Champagne's ability to provide enough product. There are no winemakers from any other region of the world who face the joy, yet the dilemma, of the Champenois. There are 87,000 acres and 300 villages trying to make as much as they can while still attending to the quality that got them to the top. It's not just winemaking—if it were, bubblies from everywhere and anywhere would fill the gap nicely. Until you've seen for yourself the miles of underground chalk cellars, which look like Halvah pressed together in a moist, paste-like, tightly sealed column, and that unique soil that makes unpleasant still wines but sublime sparkling; until you smell, ingest and compare—it's hard to understand why this is the place for such an inimitable product.

Over the next 10 years, the group known as Comité Interprofessionel du Vin de Champagne is hoping, in site-by-site experimentation, to expand Champagne's growing region by 10 percent—no small amount. The decision will ultimately be made as to which areas are good enough to carry the Champagne designation. It's a proposition fraught with peril. Who's to say that a bottle I try 10 years from now may not disappoint, and in the back of my mind I may wonder if any of the grapes came from these new interloper vineyards? I predict that many labels in the future will clearly state that all their grapes came from "original" Champagne plantings. Or, maybe "This Champagne contains no grapes from the newly approved sites" will be the cry.

The undercurrent of greed naturally raises its ugly head as well. Many growers are against any expansion at all and I can only heartily agree. If I were the mayor of a Champagne village I believe I would say: "No. This is all that we can make and still keep the quality at its best. If it runs out, it runs out." Remember the old silk purse/sow's ear analogy? If this new land were indeed as good, why wasn't it included before now? Just say "no" to more Champagne.

The sad truth is that Champagne prices are headed nowhere but up. Put away some now if you can.


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