Champagne Marc Hebrart

Well this isn’t gonna be the least bit fun…….

It is Christmas Eve today, and it’s a low dull day in Roslindale, MA. We had a tiny glaze of snow this morning that wasn’t enough to be lyrical. I’ve held on to these samples for some months now, hoping (for no reason) I might get a bottle to replace the one that smashed in transit – the Sélection Brut, always a favorite, and one without which the portrait of the range isn’t complete. But it was not to be.

Meanwhile Covid cases are through the roof and my wife’s out driving a friend’s dachshund to his vet appointment, as the friend doesn’t drive. So I am alone in my silent kitchen, kept company by the ticking of a wall clock. It’s one of those sounds that makes the silence more silent. I’m sure that when I pour the first sample, the mousse will sound like a marching band.

I enjoyed the good fortune of close acquaintance with many wonderful Champagnes over the years. Péters with its vinous solidity and rampant mineral authority; Vilmart with its soft-lighted gleam and loving welcome; Gimonnet with the articulation with which they limned the very place where fruit and mineral and herbs and citrus intersected.

And then there was Hébrart.

Come back with me, way way back, to the early 1980s when I was a wee fledgling of wine. I was employed as a “civilian component” of the Defense Department in Munich, Germany, and lest you suppose that my tasks were as lofty as that title, please understand that they involved many cleanings of toilets, makings of beds and vacuuming of floors. But one of my “privileges” as a bona-fide NATO component was access to the McGraw Kaserne “Class VI Store,” which was the liquor and wine retailer on the base. The wine selection was, charitably, quotidian, but they had to have at least one Champagne, and for a while the one they had was Laurent-Perrier. Now don’t laugh; the NV Brut sold for $8, and the Grand Siecle for $14, and while $14 was a sum back then, it was one I could afford a few times a year.

So I drank a decent share of that wine, and it formed my paradigm of what Champagne could be – even should be. It was a precise sort of wine, with a focused florality and a curious white spine of energy and bite, and while it was certainly a briskly refreshing being it also offered a clemency of fruit in the manner of a mercy. I wasn’t thinking in terms of “sweetness” but instead of a jolt of exquisiteness my beginner’s palate couldn’t quite figure out. Champagne didn’t really add up, conceptually, but I was in thrall to its deliciousness. An image of beauty had formed in my mind.

Jean Paul Hébrart’s Champagnes return it to me. I can’t explain the nature of the thing that connects me to that vision. I don’t know how I came to hold the frayed end of that rope again. I can only say that the place was unspoiled when I found it today.

There is a kind of beauty that enfolds tragedy, a dark broody sort of loveliness, an uneasy wonder. This is the other kind. It is Edenic, incorruptible, curiously pure. Not many wines can bring me to it; fewer and fewer as I spend more days on the earth. But these wines can, and do. They remind me of how it felt to taste Hans-Günter Schwarz’s wines at Müller-Catoir – in fact I’ve sometimes felt that these are the Champagnes HGS would make, or would have made. My fellow silverback readers will know what I’m describing.

To the wines.  (Sorry for the missing ones.)

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Cuvée de Réserve, Brut, NV                                                     ++

Deg 15 Sept 2020 – 82/18 PN/CH – based on 2017 (45%) with the balance being 2016-2015-2014 with 30% of the ’14 – I can give you the commune details (or you can get them from the importer’s website) but suffice to say it’s a blend of 1er Crus.

The wine is staggeringly good. It vastly exceeds any expectation anyone could have for the “basic” NV-Brut. It offers the most delicate ethereal gesture of Pinot Noir you could ever conjure – aromatically. On the palate it lands with a positive weight, a weight that starts to express on the aromas with time in the glass. How can something be this aerial and racy and still breathe the earth of the fields?

The dosage, as always with Hébrart, is ideal.

The finish is a parfait of fruits and froth. It’s like those Japanese white strawberries mixed with ginger and lemon grass. The associations will pile on as the wine sits in the glass. But I rather think the meaning of this wine – and please excuse “meaning” but I find it necessary – isn’t in whatever intricacies it presents but rather in the equipoise of energy and serenity, something we find in very few wines, and for that matter, in very few people.

Five days later, second time the bottle’s opened, from a (wide) flûte: the wine is more vinous now, a little more studious, but this time I have tasted it after the Noces de Craie and the Rosé, on purpose, to question whether it’s really as amazing as it seemed.

Well, it is a little less amazing in one way and somewhat more amazing in another. It has yielded some rapture, but has gained transparency and etching, so that you stand mute before the clarity of its flavors. Again it is much more than you ever expected from “just” an NV Brut. If that wasn’t enough, the most seductive saltiness comes on near the end.

No one’s going to examine this wine that way I have. No one should. Open, drink, be happy and delighted. You bought arguably the best NV Brut in all of Champagne.

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Rosé Brut, 1er Cru Brut NV                                                             +

Deg.15 Sept 2020 – complicated assemblage: 57% Mareuil CH from 2017, 36% Mareuil PN from 2018, 7% Mareuil Rouge, vinified in cask – only cuvée (i.e. free-run)

If I deployed my usual image-tone for this wine I’d incur the wrath of the language police. I can say it is a less delicate and more adamant wine than I’ve come to know (which I assume is due to the contributing vintages), and it leads with fruit.

I’ve long felt that Mareuil seems to be more a question of carpentry, structure and muscle than of particular identifying flavors, such as are found in many other Champagne communes. The 57% CH in here is tossing the other flavors in the air like circus acrobats, but you don’t sense “Ah, here’s the Chardonnay…”  Even the minority PN shows as perfect, perfect tomatoes.

The wine has attitude. It is masterly and lovely, and less charming than the NV. More willful, clamorous, without coming anyplace close to clumsiness. It is definitely Rosé, solid, deliberate and vinous. I find it wonderful, but don’t expect the more demure or chiseled editions of the wine from years past.

Is this a harbinger of a change of style, or just a matter of the available material?

Five days later, tasting from (wide) flûte from a three-times open bottle:  red flavors are rampant. The wine doesn’t want to recite, it wants to dance. We trade articulation for strength, and the wine is very good, if missing the miraculous ethereality of Hébrart that I’d come to expect.

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Noces de Craie, 2015, Aÿ Grand Cru                                             ++

Deg 6 May 2020 – 100% Aÿ PN, from the lieu-dits Cheuzelles, Longchamp, Pierre Robert , Pruche, Chauffour  - a Coeur-de-cuvée.

I tasted this still en-tirage a few years ago. Its predecessor in 2012 was the best Blanc de Noir I’d ever had. The “nuptials of chalk” struck me as chalk in the eyes of God, profound, ancient and dignified.

As we know, 2015 is a curious vintage with its underlying grassiness. Some of that is discernible now. And I am a piss-pot about that flavor, but it doesn’t fret me here. If any hint of grassiness bothers you, you may feel differently.

It’s the driest wine I’ve tasted today, yet it’s the one whose sweetness registers most decisively – and in this case, most gorgeously. Aÿ’s signature flavors of malt and blueberries are present, as is the massive swell of ground this wine entails – it’s a quantum of chalk. It has a huge finish. Of course it enacts the crazy miracle of great Champagne, the utmost intensity with the utmost evanescence, but here it’s the intensity that lingers. 

Five days later, third time the bottle is open, tasting from a flûte….and predictably, the wine is more mineral now, and less “green.” And the flavors are (even) more precise from the narrower glass. It remains a superb wine interpreted by a curious vintage, and I remain of two minds about tasting/drinking Champagnes from “wine” glasses.

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Special Club, 2016                                                                        +++

Deg Sept 15 2020 – 50% old vines Mareuil PN (parcels Faubourg D’enfer, Croix Blanche, Pruche, Haut de Varille) – 10% PN Louvois Grand Cru (this is new!) (parcels Le Mont, Les Hauts Berceaux ) – 30% old vines CH from Mareuil (parcels Beauregard, Ramonette, Buisson Saint Loup, Clef) – 4% CH Oiry/Chouilly Grand Cru, and a Coeur-de-cuvée.

 

This takes its place with the ethereal vintages such as ’13, ’10 and even ’14, wines that cruise the dusty galaxies, playing a skein of breathy music. If it’s affect you want, the NV has more of it. This has all the clamor of a distant whistle. But my god, what you hear if you bend your head to the sound.

I’ve been in the mountains hiking, and it’s midday and time to pause, and you’re sweaty and happy and glad to find a spot near a stream, and you spread your repast on whatever flat surface you can find, and the bread is good and the butter is incredibly good and the cheese is fabulous but you don’t really need the cheese, and when you drink the water from the stream you think – you’re deluded in your euphoria – “this tastes like Champagne,” and if it did taste like Champagne, if it somehow could, this is the Champagne it would taste like.

I’m remembering Nicolas Chiquet’s 2013 Club, the elegant haunting melody it sang. Later that afternoon, off in the shade somewhere, a small girl is singing that song she heard earlier, and in a quiet moment we all hear her singing by herself off in the shade, and for an instant there is more beauty and sorrow than we know how to hold in our tiny knotted hearts.

There’s a passage in Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp, in the second movement, where you feel a breath being held, and held, and held….and then wham, all is a melodious clamor, and when I tried to describe it to someone years ago I said “It’s like all the mirabelles jumped off the tree and started dancing,” and this is it – the wine of the dancing mirabelles. It doesn’t hurt that it also tastes like mirabelles, lest you think me merely fanciful.

You need a little quiet. If you can find it, or make it or insist upon it, just wait there, and this wine will find you.

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Rive Gauche Rive Droite, 2013 Grand Cru                               +

Deg 17 March 2020 – all Grand Cru (Aÿ, Avize from Robarts and Coutelas, and yes I am assuming you have Peter Liem’s book, Chouilly from Montaigu, and Oiry from Justice – and it’s half/half CH/PN – and saliently, it is made in wood.

(FWIW, I had the devil of a time getting the cork out. Jean-Paul knows I have “issues” with this cuvée….)

 

But I don’t really have issues. One likes woody Champagnes or one doesn’t, or in my own case, one likes wood to stay in its lane.

The Champagne is very good. Of course it is very good! Hébrart is a master, and the material is impeccable. It’s just hard to know quite when to sample it. It’s earthbound after the celestial Club (let alone the “Mes Favorites” wine he’s been making, alas not included here) but if you taste it earlier the oak lingers on your palate and affects the other wines.

Nor can I say it’s especially redolent of its vintage or its terroirs. Oak sometimes doesn’t know when to STF up. But the wine is far from clumsy and in its way it is admirably expressive. I’ll serve it up this evening with an Xmas-eve dish for which the white-Burgundy type is warranted, and perhaps the fizz shall access its noble purpose.