Champagne Peu-Simmonet, Verzenay
There’s a lot of paradox in Pehu-Simmonet Champagnes. They are both earthy and refined. They have a lot of gloss and sheen but they’re also analogue and warm. Much of the time they lead with umami. They are decidedly grower Champagnes but they skate clear of the rustic. Sometimes just. At the NV level they’re often delightful (and delicious) while at the single-vineyard level they are rather earnestly adamant. What redeems them is the superb terroirs from which they hail. That, and a basic classicism. Pehu is something of a seeker; he started out firmly opposed to malolactic fermentation but has modified that position. He never wanted to “dilute” his offering with a Premier Cru, preferring to stay all-Grande-all-the-time. That too has changed, and beautifully. His wines are very dry but it doesn’t seem like he’s trying to prove a point as many of the young lions seem to be. He’s basically sensible, though he can present as scatterbrained at times.
I’m listing these in the sequence in which I tasted them, and that sequence could appear counter-intuitive, as it doesn’t place the lightest wines first. I’m tasting in ascending order of residual sugar, and having uttered the unutterable, I am constrained to insist that none of the wines are “sweet,” all of them qualify for Extra-Brut (easily) though none of them are “zero.”
David Pehu is located in the Grand Cru Verzenay, one of the great-rouge terroirs of Champagne. Virtually all his holdings are in GC, except for one in 1er-Cru Villers Marmery (best known for the wines of A. Margaine) that he used to sell off, until my colleagues and I prevailed on him to reconsider, arguing that the doings of bureaucrats/classifiers was less significant than the highly interesting terroir in this “mere” 1er-Cru. I’m thankful that he agreed.
Pehu had more than his share of issues both with vintage 2005 and 2011, exacerbated by his Champagnes being generally older than many of those of his fellow growers, which meant that the “dubious” ones seemed never to disappear. This resulted in his being underrated for a long time, which perhaps he’s in a position to remedy. One hopes!
I questioned whether I needed a second grower in Verzenay, especially as the one I had – Lallement – was stellar, and still is. But Pehu’s Champagnes were texturally apart from the pixilated detail of his neighbor, more plush, “warmer,” more overt and generous. Not to mention – those terroirs.
As is usually the case, the wines presented differently according to contexts, how long they’d been opened (and its effect on the mousse) and as is always the case I wonder which is the truth of any given wine. It’s the wrong question, of course, because all the “truths” are equally valid, which makes a tasting note somewhat otiose. I opt to share my “process” in detail in order to be transparent, to respect the wine, and to identify the through-lines for each wine, as it emerges and becomes evident only with repeated and thoughtful attention. Thus into the fray….
Pehu-Simonnet “Face Nord” Millésimé Grand Cru, 2009
He still offers 2009! 50 % PN from Verzenay, lieu dit les Crayères de la voie de Reims (a small climat near the village) in oak, 25 % chardonnay from Mesnil (!) in stainless steel, 25 % chardonnay from Verzenay les Basses Correttes in stainless steel. Disgorged 10/2021
Aromas at first are a little papery (as low-dosage wines can be with age) and rugged, woodsy. But the palate is dramatically chalky and adamant. I’d have clamored for a less-low dosage, but not by much. From the smaller-newer Juhlin there’s more savor and what passes for “fruit” in these parts, and a lot more of the exotic musky twang of Verzenay. If you told me the vineyards sat on the surface of an ancient mink farm, I could believe you.
I am coming to the hypothesis that much of that character derives not from PN, but from Chardonnay. The Pinots seem to be more a matter of brooding and body and dark flavors. In the fresh air a hawthorn and honeysuckle element emerges, along with a kind of sting of whiteness from the Mesnil. The finish is vinous and deliberate, a little bit sour (needlessly, but that’s what happens with excessively low dosage Champagnes), and while I find much to appreciate and even admire here, I don’t find much to adore.
It’s an expressive wine! But it’s also, perhaps, another instance of 2009 being misconstrued by both its makers and its tasters. It’s a sort of classic when properly balanced and it can seem loutish when it’s too dry. Absent sufficient RS, its fruit searches fruitlessly for something to attach to, and failing to find it, it expires more quickly than necessary. Lest I seem too harsh, this is a good Champagne one can drink for pleasure, if not for joy. That said, it became more comme il faut as the bottle empties; meyer-lemon and ginger emerge. I’ve been too hard on it.
Pehu-Simonnet fins lieux no. 1, Verzenay Millésimé Grand Cru, 2014 +
2014 appears only on the back label, and the wine is PN of Verzenay les Perthois (right up against the village on the border to Verzy, and highly regarded) done in oak (partly in barriques) with malo, disgorged 01/2022.
So, PN from Verzenay! And it is remarkable. And it is very dry, and it works. The wine is dark, singed, crusty, like it was brushed with hoisin sauce and broiled. It’s explosively alive in the “little” Juhlin, and is a Grower-Champagne to the Nth degree. It’s far from hedonic, but here the wine offers so much sheer craziness of material and ornery individuality that one (more) easily meets it on its own terms.
Those terms are perhaps not what we’d call friendly. A less austere approach to dosage would have helped – but then it wouldn’t have been this wine, and this wine is excellent and valid. It tastes like Tom Waits’ voice would have tasted if it were Champagne, husky and gravelly. Try to find a glass that will emphasize the fruit, if you can’t find the Juhlin. The fruit will set you free.
Pehu-Simonnet fins lieux no.3, Mailly-Champagne Millésimé Grand Cru 2012 +
Mostly from Les Poules (on the border to Verzenay), certified Organic, 100%PN done in barrique, and assuming the back label on the bottle is correct (it differs from the information he emailed me) it’s disgorged January 2021 – and the next one will be August 2021, and will be (even) drier.
The color is coral. The aromas are elegant and the casks are not prominent. The honeyed character may be Maillly or may be 2012 but either way it’s agreeable, especially in the context of all these rugged and sinewy wines.
We don’t know Mailly that well, partly because it doesn’t have a grower-champion. It does have a good co-op, but we’re often snooty about them. What I’m tasting here is an approach-path to Aÿ, without quite the complexity of fruit and mineral but with much of the stylishness and finesse. In any case it’s both interesting and delicious, and I will go to my demise without understanding why the latter would ever be squandered in service to the former. We can have them both, people!
But first we have to rid ourselves of the idea that deliciousness is somehow simple. It isn’t. It’s our own response that prompts that misunderstanding, because often when we encounter a delicious wine we decide “That’s fun” and stop thinking about it. This wine has grip, contour, nuance and an arc of flavor that ends up elsewhere from its starting point. That it also tastes wonderful doesn’t erase its cerebral joys. I’d argue that it underscores them. And yes, I get that the satisfactions of the “tasty” can veer into sentimentality, but then you’ll need to accept that the satisfactions of the “cerebral” can veer into bloodlessness. I shall continue saving my adorations for wines like this one, wines that are slathered with flavor.
Pehu-Simonnet “Face Nord” Extra Brut Grand Cru, N.V. +
85% PN – 15% CH, all 2017 with malo, stainless steel, disgorged 03/2022
This must have been disgorged days before he put it in the box to send to me. The cork looks fresh, but not that fresh. The wine, on the other hand, is delightful. It indicates all the reasons I selected this producer to begin with. It’s glossy, salty, generous without being sloppy, redolent of PN at its most graceful, and finally it has a lacquered quality that offers a richness decoupled from sweetness. And for all that it’s a dry wine, and lighter than the vintages that I’ve just tasted through, it’s intricate and substantive and everything one could wish a red-grape NV to be, in the extra brut style.
Imagine a brioche that used a small amount of chestnut honey, enough to add savor but not sugar.
David Pehu can (and should) be proud of this wine. Even as an entry-level bottling it offers every kind of pleasure. And it leads me into some speculations he may not agree with.
The truisim in Champagne is usually that the older wines need less dosage because they are smoother and have more tertiary flavors. In my experience this is only sometimes true, and not very often. Why? Here I must guess. I propose that late-disgorged wines have been in an anerobic environment in which (what we call) fruit has subsumed into a prevailing leesiness, and that when the wines are finally disgorged they have been, as it were, embalmed with lees. Whatever “freshness” may appear is perishable, and has come at the cost of both fruit as-such and vinosity. In such cases, the notion of abjuring dosage is precisely the opposite of what those wines need. Without it, there is nothing to preserve them, and they can taste stark and starved. This beautiful wine I have in my glass now is carrying its low dosage because of all the youthful fruit it still offers. Its “material” is (if you will) inferior to the single-parcel older wines that preceded it – but it tastes better.
And so I’d turn the conventional wisdom on its head: it’s the younger wines that can better manage little-or-no dosage, and the older wines that need it.
Pehu-Simonnet fins lieux No. 6, Verzenay Milleesimé Grand Cru, 2014
The vintage appears only on the back label. It’s 100% CH, from Boisses Corettes, disgorged Feb 2022, he writes, but the cork shows otherwise.
So, we can test my theory about Verzenay Chardonnay. Right away it proves itself; the most blatant element of the Verzenay aroma comes not from PN but from CH.
I can’t say more because we have some TCA to contend with. The cork smells fine but the wine is tell-tale. It’s one of the damnable ones where you can taste the underlying wine. Don’t you hate those? I feel like Bill Burr; I want to scream.
Pehu-Simonnet fins lieux No.7, Villers-Marmery Millésimé 1er Cru ++
A Blanc de Blancs done in steel, from the climat Les Chouettes (above the village on the slope), disgorged 1/2021, all 2012. As has happened before, the info on the bottle differs from the info he emailed me, claiming to have disgorged the wine in March 2022 and indicating a higher (but not high) dosage, and an updated (2013) vintage. The shape of the cork indicates the bottle is correct, but beware; you may get a different disgorgement.
I was so glad when he opted to do this. Villers is a fascinating commune, the easternmost along the Montagne de Reims and an island of Chardonnay in a sea of Pinot Noir. Margaine is by far the leading name, but the paucity of other interesting producers gives us scant means to see if a through-line of terroir goes among varying growers.
This smells like Margaine in a fainter and less perfumed form. The palate is entirely wonderful, mineral and chalk in abundance and that cool white-lilac florality with faint hints of jasmine and osmanthus. The wine is hauntingly aloof, and while it’s more overt in the smaller Juhlin, I don’t mind it being allusive and oblique because it is so fine-boned and polished, like the best imaginable white dinner china, the stuff you bring out for “company.” I don’t know when David Pehu ever made a more elegant wine, and if Peter Liem is still doing single-variety comparative tastings, this would be an excellent example of a Chard variant.
It has the carriage of Gimonnet’s Gastronome with a different fruit, naturally, but with a similar silky voice. The small Juhlin introduces a discreet note of pyrazine with air – might there be a few drops of 2011 in the mix? – but not sufficient to obtrude upon the wine’s fluid, chalky grace. It’s a sunny walk in new snow, holding your child’s hand, with little need to chatter.
Pehu-Simonnet fins lieux No.2, Verzenay Millésimé Grand Cru
Now 100% PN, from 2013, disgorged 2/2021, from the climat Les Crayères de la voie de Reims, done partly in barrique without malo. The next disgorgement will be 10/2021, and will be less dry. Yet, the cork is so fresh I wonder whether I actually have the more recent disgorgement. David’s a bit of a beatnik about these niceties.
The wine at first is plump, juicy and rich. Only the finish shows chalk, but the finish is the most reliable harbinger of flavor evolution. It’s more broody, less present than the Villers-Marmery, which is hardly surprising. It’s more animate in the little Juhlin – honestly, this glass just rocks – and while it’s rather A Study In Terroir as much as a sensual thing to drink, I can defer the hedonic for a little while.
But let’s go deeper. A little more dosage would have helped these groaning bones to bestir themselves, but that’s a bleak tale of (too) many modern Champagnes. I also wonder how many pure Verzenay Pinot Noirs are actually made; my sense is that many are blended with Mailly or Verzy, which both introduce a counterpoint of fruit. If we’re going to plumb the depths of Verzenay we shouldn’t be surprised if the light’s rather dim down there. We should consider the sheer length of this creature, and a tertiary finish that tastes like you’re drinking red Burgundy.
If I’m correct and this is a newer disgorgement it’s even less surprising for the wine to be inexpressive viz. fruit and to emphasize its demi-glace vinosity. As it sits in the glass it positively hums and growls with saltiness and caramelization. Lots of food images! It’s that kind of wine. It’s also the kind of wine that leads with savor, offering up an umami of spelt flour and einkorn – and even rye. And even teff! And on the finish a kind of ancient honey that isn’t sweet any more, but tastes like the bible of the hive.
Pehu-Simonnet “Face Nord” Brut Grand Cru, N.V. +
An exceptionally long-g-g cork. It’s 70-30 PN-CH, with fruit from all the Grand Crus (including Sillery, Mesnil), 70% 2018, mostly done in steel, and disgorged 5/2022 – at least the one you’ll get. My bottle was disgorged earlier, as he shipped these prior to May of this year.
So, Pehu NV Brut. As I have always felt, this is highly distinctive farmer-fizz, both in texture, gloss and in flavor. Obviously there’s the quince flavor of ’18 to consider, and the nuances of chanterelles and saffron. There’s also lots of complexity here, especially for such a weighty wine – yet it carries its weight elegantly. It isn’t easy to find wines that combine sumptuousness with transparency, but this one does.
It’s a wintertime wine, one you could drink as an aperitif in your kitchen while a pheasant or a duck is roasting in the oven. Synesthesiacs may glean the color of butterscotch. And there are two curious crossovers, gambits-over-the-border; one refers to the vetiver notes of Grüner Veltliner and the other refers to the mimosa-blossom notes of Marsanne or Humagne Blanche. And for all the delight I take in his single-site series, and for all that my geek self loves the delving into micro-terroir, this is the essence of Pehu-Simonnet. I mean, ginger and dried apricot in a wine that’s 70% Pinot Noir?!
Pehu-Simonnet “Face Nord” Rosé Grand Cru
75-25 PN-CH (including 5% still red from cask), with malo, disgorged 3/2022, and he did not provide the base-vintage(s).
The fragrance is pure tomato-water. Then a little Sockeye and clove. In essence, this is everything you hope a PN-based Rosé will be; it’s generous, savory, drinky, ideally balanced, rich without being either banal or enervating. It is also thoroughly delicious without pandering to what it “thinks” is your taste. Like Pehu’s wines at their best, it has both weight and glide. We also have the buttery flavor of a puff pastry crust on a tarte aux quetsch, where a few flecks of plum are in the crunchy bite you just took.
There’s also something ineluctably alfresco about this wine, which feels as if it would suffocate if you drank it indoors.