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Champagne Varnier-Fannière

Tasting Year

These samples were sent last summer, but only reached me a week ago. Meanwhile I have visited Valérie at the domain and tasted what I think are more recent disgorgements, and certainly one updated vintage wine – the extraordinary 2014. I’ll append those sketchy notes to this report so you needn’t go digging.

 

On my visit I only tasted the wines I would have worked with, in the interests of time, and because I wanted less time for “tasting” and more time for conversing. Ms. Varnier is an interesting and maybe even an amazing woman.

 

Her decision to maintain the domain after the abrupt and unexpected death of her husband Denis is stirring in many ways. She wished to carry on the legacy of the estate and the personal legacy of her departed husband. She did not come to the work naturally, and had to learn much of it on the fly. Her people, including neighbors and the small crew of estate workers, rallied around her. Meanwhile she was also raising two children, teenagers now. And then of course – covid. There is love in every single gesture here, not least because doing the work is a way of connecting herself to Denis. That alone is moving. 

 

Yet as the years have passed, Valérie has come to understand the work better, and now she is disgorging wines she made from the ground up, rather than wines Denis had placed into tirage. She hopes they are good, she wants them to be good, but the secret I think is that she knows they are good and is proud of it. As well she might be. I had many powerful and meaningful moments visiting my friends last month, after a 3-year absence, but none was more meaningful than to tell Valérie Varnier that her Champagnes were superb, and that they tasted so much like Denis’ that no one could suppose he himself hadn’t made them.

 

A final point/reminder: these wines are on the creamy side due to a lower pressurage, typically 4.5 (about 15-20% less than the standard), they never see malo, and they micro-oxygenate the still wines in order to encourage tertiary development, and to use less sulfur.

 

To the wines:

2022

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Varnier-Fannière Brut Zero, N.V.                                                +

Deg. May 10th 2021, so likely based on 2018. It’s the same assemblage as (what was) “my” NV, which had the higher dosage I felt that wine needed.

 

Not surprisingly, this smells good. And very much surprisingly, it tastes good too. This is maybe the rampant fruit of ’18 mitigating the austere “zero” thing, but the wine avoids the grotesque imbalance of so many such wines. It’s intensely graphite-y and salty, and the somewhat raspy texture should mellow with time on the cork. The wine is balanced on a shrill beam of energy and a direct, even obtuse attack. Dosage would not have conferred balance here, but it would (and will) have added complexity, dialectic and nuance.

 

But I can sincerely recommend this to lovers of the ascetic who’d prefer not to be bludgeoned by sourness. It’s even nicer from the MacNeil Fresh & Crisp stem, which was designed in part for sparkling wines. And remember, no dosage zero wine is actually free of residual sugar, because there is always RS left over from tirage, so if you want to banish sugar from your wine-drinking life,  say buh-bye to Champagne.

 

Tasted for the third time now, this just gets better and better. I’m using a narrower flûte this time, to preserve the faltering mousse, and even with the fruit suppressed it’s an almost elegant and definitely balanced Champagne. Only the finish is rather stark and exposed – almost always the case with zero-dosage wines – but this is forgivable in view of the basic achievement of making a pointedly mineral and vertically structured wine that tastes this good.

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Varnier-Fannière Rosé Zero, NV                                                      +

Deg April 20 2021, an assemblage with 5% PN from Ambonnay (from Paul Dethune if memory serves).

 

I must confess – and I have no idea what’s gotten into me – that this is excellent wine. I have no issues with it! Balance, fruit, fragrance, texture, all proportioned and expressive. Everything about the wine is admirable and tasty.

 

“A lot of fruit” and “no RS” make for a challenge in terms of use, and I suspect the answer is to ignore the fruit and use it as you would any super-dry Champagne. You have the nature of Côte des Blancs Rosés to contend with, and this wine shows all the spice and fir-needle and lead pencil and apple-skin you expect from this domain, yet even 5% of Ambonnay rouge adds an evanescent echo of “sweetness” creating an ethereal yet positive delicacy.

 

Finally, note the lingering finish, where every nuance of the wine is recapitulated in a slowly fading coda where the word delicious might appear.

 

Second “tasting” (not counting a glass we had at dinner) and it’s more adamantly dry than the above. It is a bit diminished on revisiting, simply because the fruit has retreated. This hardly matters if you open and finish the bottle, but as counterintuitive as it is (assuming the basic assemblage is the same) this feels drier as it takes on oxygen.

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Varnier-Fannière “Esprit de Craie”  Extra Brut,  NV

Deg April 21st 2004, thus I infer a 2018 base once again. 

 

The “spirit of the chalk” is in effect a second-label, in which 1er-Cru fruit (in this case from Mancy) can be used, and which splits the dosage difference between the Grand Cru NV zero and the…”normal” one. I do not recall whether there’s a price difference between this and the GC wines – there should be.

 

This is a thoroughly good Champagne. It feels rustic after the Grand Cru wines, but it really isn’t, because the GC wines are exceptional. One can nit-pick about certain infelicities of structure and a couple off-notes in the chord, but in fact if this were the regular NV Brut from a “new” Champagne grower, (s)he’d pick up a proud American importer in a flash.

 

It bears mentioning that the GC sources here are Avize and Oger, (as opposed to Cramant) suggesting that the vision for this cuvée is for a certain robustness. As a reviewer I note what I note, but as a drinker I’d be well pleased to share a bottle of this with sundry vagabonds, knaves, and poltroons I also suspect this will improve over the days, as it’s already blooming kindly in the glass.

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Varnier-Fannière “Esprit de Craie” Rosé Extra Brut, NV

Deg April 19 2021; assemblage of Mancy and Avize (in that order on the label) with 5% Ambonnay PN. It might bear mentioning that this  (Diamant, like the others) cork is a little less “springy” than its colleagues.

 

Following the blossoming of the foregoing, I’m aware that my first impression – it’s kind of obvious, maybe a bit too gushing, a little sour on the finish – may be subject to change. From the MacNeil glass it smells just like the (first) wild sockeye salmon we cooked two nights ago – there’s a happy herald of summer.

 

(In fact I’m a summer hater who’d happily decamp to somewhere 10,000 feet up to escape, but then what about wild salmon, 2nd-flush Darjeelings, in-season tomatoes, peaches????) (Oh, and also baseball. Summer does have its compensations.)

 

But this doesn’t seem to be as deft as its sibling. It serves its purpose, assuming I understand its purpose, but it’s like a person who’s a bit too made-up, a bit too gaudy and blatant. I feel churlish fussing over a perfectly nice wine. But they set a high bar, and this worthy wine doesn’t quite clear it.

 

I’m also wondering about the dosage. It’s 6g/l and if I were some high-paid consultant – though if it were me I doubt they’d pay my ass at all – I’d suggest trying it with 4g/l, and also with 7g/l. Six feels betwixt, but seven could be heaven, and four could open the door.

 

The days await, and if I have to eat my words when I taste this again, I know what I’ll pour to accompany all them words I’ll be eating. In fact we drank the rest of it last night, on its 6th day after opening and having tasted or drank it three timed previously. It was entirely pleasurable and none of my “taster” cavils came to mind.

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Varnier-Fannière “Cuvée Jean Fannière Origine” Extra Brut NV

 

Deg. May 11 2021, so almost certainly one disgorgement earlier than what I tasted last month. To remind you, this is an homage to Denis’ grandfather, who in the 50s decided to quit selling his grapes and to make his own Champagne. It used to come from a Cramant lieu-dit called Chemins de Chalons but is now made from the oldest vines in Oger and Avize. I’m guessing this is a blend of 2017-16, both from the logistics and from the flavors. It’s also the first among the wines I typically selected to offer.

 

There’s simply more vinosity here than in anything up to now. This is a complex, introverted, sophisticated wine, with an implosive power and with the searching quality that makes you ask interesting questions. Indeed, the wine is so redolent and so cellar-y that you almost think it could be corked – but it isn’t. It’s an “inside” wine whose skin you need to penetrate, but when you do you’ll be rewarded by a stunningly intricate and deliberate chalky finish that’ll make you feel you’re not tasting “a” Champagne; you’re tasting Champagne itself.

 

Look, there are wines that leap at you, and of course we adore them, but this is a wine that sits quite still and lets you study it. In effect you consider this kind of wine. You only have to do it once; then you can just get down to drinking it. But then again, the wine is so intricate you may find yourself descending through its layers out of a kind of wondering curiosity, something I find to be noble and even exalted. I mean, I find myself asking how this particular sourness can be so balanced, so expressive, so compelling. It’s like the soil itself is doing some sort of ASMR thing on my palate, unconcerned with “pleasing” me (though it does), only wanting me to hear a truth with a supercharged calm.

 

And wow, this endless finish! The very soul of chalk.

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Varnier-Fannière  Grand Cru, Brut NV                                         ++

Deg. May 10, 2021, and is the same wine as the Brut Zero, only this time with dosage. If you have them côte-a-côte, you get to see what dosage actually does. And remember, I say this as someone who likes the Zero and don’t think it needs to be rescued by RS.

 

This Champagne is superb, and follows the line Denis established; precise, minerally, malic, and both articulate and charming. So, what does the sugar do?

 

First, it appears and then vanishes. Its appearance may seem obtrusive to some palates. I happen to like it. It is quickly erased by the wine’s rampant crush of chalk, until it comes back again on the finish – and here is where it really tells. Because the interaction of dosage with acidity and mineral scree adds a ravishing nuance that simply isn’t attainable without it. The Zero, as fine as it certainly is, misses the one flower that makes the bouquet come alive. Here the RS creates a polyphony in which a floral complexity (and deliciousness) pivots off the mineral grip and suddenly the whole thing is dancing.

 

The Zero – which again I like – feels inert in contrast. Both wines show fervent chalk and heirloom apple, but only this one carries with it a breezy scent of pink lilacs and wisteria. Dosage also stretches out the finish, because as the chalky dust fades the adumbrated echo of the florals persists, and begins to esterize. Finally the dosage allows for a kind of giddiness that isn’t available to the soberer Zero.

 

Tastes vary, obviously, and I know of one taster for whom I have unqualified respect, who finds this wine too sweet. I can only defend the impression it makes on me, and explain why I feel as I do. The Zero tells a worthy story, but this wine sings a lovely song.

 

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Varnier-Fannière Cuvée Saint Denis, Brut NV                          ++

Deg May 11th 2021; not sure whether this is 2018 or ’17 based (the wine I tasted last month was ’18), but the vineyard source is no longer Clos de Grand Pére, which needed replanting due to fan-leaf. At first it was a blend of old-vines parcels in Avize, but this seems to hail from Maladries du Midi, in the ultra-chalky flatlands to the east of the village.

 

In place of the sprightly attack of the regular Brut, this is a wine of depth and silence. You don’t “taste” it so much as cave-crawl through it. It’s oceanic, it has gravitas – and yet it is also quite delicious and accessible. It was always one of the two great values in “my” Champagne portfolio, and that hasn’t changed. Dosage is lower than the Brut (but higher than the hipsters would accept; many of them are fools, sadly) and is perfect for this perennially amazing wine, which has to be counted among the icons of the Côte des Blancs.

 

It’s an heirloom apple from an old tree that gives just a few small fruits. There’s herbs and quince too, and ylang ylang and aloe vera. There is that wonderful paradox of a solid richness, a wine that’s both sumptuous and firm. The finish is gorgeously earthy, not so much “chalky” as the lowest octave of that fruit from the ancient tree. There’s a rare kind of savor. It has persisted over several days’ tastings and is, I think, this domain’s proudest achievement, an exceptionally sophisticated, deeply vinous Champagne. It never ceases to inspire me, and should be sipped with gratefulness and wonder.

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Varnier-Fannière Grand Vintage, Brut 2013                              +

Deg. April 19 2021. This I have not tasted. The last one I offered was the 2012, and I tasted both the 2014 and ’15 last month. It’s a cuvée of Avize-Oger-Cramant, and it’s from a curious vintage in this region; Peters thought it superb, while Gimonnet – a 12-minute drive away – thought it “good NV material.”

 

There’s a fine brashness here that seems to follow more from the Brut than from the Cuvée Saint Denis. Indeed we are very snappy and streamlined here. Words like “bright,” and “lift” and even “surge” come to mind. The wine’s a little manic. Minty. It is the thin profile of ’13, tensile and vibrating – but it isn’t brittle and it isn’t scrawny; it just has a kind of wasabi “directness.” A salty/mineral power seems to want to arrive, but it’s the verticality of a person on stilts.

 

It feels like it’ll have more to say over the next couple days, and it limns the distinction between “intensity” and strength – not to mention the Cuvée Saint Denis is a hard act to follow – but it remains to be seen whether it shows a gleaming brightness or an inelegant glare. 

 

Either way it is excellent Champagne. They pay me to be fussy, but still….

 

Second tasting: I’m really micro-examining here, because the wine is a little perplexing. The aroma is hale and expressive (and beautiful) and I am probably in the palate-thickets. Considering the wonderfully searching, deliberate finish, I think this is less a wine to taste obsessively than one to drink pensively. If finish is a preview of development – as I have found it to be – then I am underrating this wine.

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Varnier-Fannière Brut Rosé, NV

Deg April 19 2021, a month before the regular Brut (which is typically the base for this cuvée); it’s 95% Avize/Cramant and 5% Ambonnay PN – as opposed to the former 10%.

 

Whew, this smells beautiful! The palate moves in the rose-hip direction the wine has been tending toward of late – I was writing “rhubarb and rose hips” three years ago. It tastes more like Nicolas Chiquet’s Rosé than like the old style Varnier. Hardly a bad thing, just different than before. My sense is this wasn’t a deliberate stylistic choice, but simply a matter of the nature of the PN coming from Ambonnay.

 

If you’ll permit an essayist diversion, I sometimes think Côte des Blancs Rosé is something of a talking dog. Yes Bowser can talk, but what does he have to say? Are these wines made from a sense of destiny or because everyone wants Rosé “and we’d better have one to give them?” I ask this as someone who has often cherished the gauzy coolness of Chardonnay-based pink Champagne. Gimonnet’s can be awfully fetching. But Péters is discontinuing theirs, and I can’t think of more than a few that one really ought to buy.

 

And that places us here. I suppose the guiding aesthetic is to place a refined PN fruit (Ambonnay, after all) atop the chalky mineral dust of CdB Chardonnay. In theory you’d get the best of both worlds. With this wine you almost do. But I have to ask, do we have a true synergy here, or is each piece removing something desirable from the other? I go back and forth, because I am overthinking it. That in turn is because I’m so wiped out by love for these wines that I want to pick every possible nit. It’s a perversity of mine, one among many…

 

Just what do we have here, then? Is it a Rosé with an unusual icy spine of mineral, or is a mineral wine with a possibly extraneous icing of fruit? Or is it simply a tasty and interesting wine that happens to be pink, and I’m being way too persnickety? Because if I stop thinking and just TASTE, I really like the wine. As the components knit, I find a vigorous spicy, peppery wine with an overlay of “sweet” fruit, balanced and integrated, and just waiting for our next tranche of wild Sockeye.

 

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TASTED IN AVIZE MAY 2022.

The basic Brut Grand Cru is based on 2019 (55% is a perpetual reserve started in 2012), and is the wine I have known, and loved for many years. Incisive, pixilated, incisive, full of graphite.

 

The old-vines Cuvée St Denis was richly satisfying; 2018 based, from the lieu-dit Maladries de Midi; it is exceptionally and finely fragrant, glowing with herbal quince nuances.

 

There are two vintage wines, a 2015 that was muted from disgorgement and a sensational 2014, as good a wine as I’ve ever had from here. Finally the Rosé is steady as she goes, if a bit more rouge than it once was.

2024

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Varnier Fannière Grand Gru, Brut Zero, N.V.

Deg June 27, 2023, Avize-Oger-Cramant. 

A little spiky from disgorgement (but hey, at least I’m up to date for once…), but behind that is her customarily precise aroma and graphite sharpness – a sharpness that’s leavened with surprising warm depth. The grassiness of the ’20 vintage is nowhere to be seen. And like last year, I like this and am surprised how much.

I’ll seek to learn whether this is the same assemblage as the regular Brut. I’ll be surprised if so, because lurking somewhere in these severe chalky depths is a mid-palate suggestive of greater age or older vines or something that greets you with a genial note.

I often question why a wine like this is needed, and having so often done that, I won’t do it again here. (Last year’s Varnier report goes into detail on the matter.) Clearly there’s a demand, clearly the demand is one I find deeply suspect, and clearly when a wine is as nice as this one is, one is reassured that anyone could prevail over the limitation of the genre, (which I call “sourpuss wines.”)

The etching of terroir flavors is filigree and deft, and the wine will soften with more time on the cork, and that will be good for it. But respect where it is due; it’s not easy to make a tasty “zero” Champagne, and Valérie has done so – again.

Second tasting, two days later – there’s a swell of richness that was hidden behind the disgorgement trauma, and the wine is admirably expressive in the particular key in which it happens to play. It much prefers the larger Juhlin and is actually a good argument for the “serve Champagnes in white-wine glasses” school of thought.

It's naked if you like it and stark if you don’t.

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Varnier Fannière “Cuvée Jean Fannière,” Origine, Extra Brut, N.V.

Deg. Feb 22, 2023, from the site “Clos du Grand Père” which straddles Avize and Oger.

In the old days the Cuvée St Denis came from this site, until a fan-leaf virus required many of the vines to be pulled out. Nice to see it again!

There’s a side of Avize that’s doughier than others – perhaps proximity to Oger brings this about. Some of Agrapart’s wines show it. This one shows it, and it also shows the “influence” of 2020. To refresh your memory, this vintage showed the grassiness we recall from 2015, and opinions will diverge about the results. Tasters insensitive to pyrazine won’t discern it, and tasters who enjoy pyrazine but find it an alien flavor in Champagne will be nonplussed. I’m one of them.

It's on the discreet side in this otherwise attractive wine. You could say it has the “sharply herbal notes of some Cramants” except there’s no Cramant in it. The herbaciousness belongs to the vintage, and it struggles to ascend atop the rich veins of resin and graphite lurking just out of view.

Some drinkers will find it charming! I also think there’s a seriously good Champagne waiting in the wings, as augured by an excellent finish. But you have to baby it along at the moment. If you own it, I suggest indulging a tolerance for a circumspect grassiness, and then waiting another year to drink it. But if you do drink it now, pay heed to that remarkable finish, which is both a paradigm of “minerality” and also of the particular expressions of the Côte des Blancs.

The finish is the predictor of a wine. It’s never played me false. It’s why I made up the proverb “The aroma is the overture, but the finish is the truth.” And this Champagne improved dramatically in the glass. Even the grassiness transmogrified into a fetching herbality I found myself almost craving. That said, give it time, if for no other reason than to remove the scraping phenolics of freshly disgorged fizz.

My next look, again after two days, is a more extreme version of my first impression. The good elements are extremely good, and I’d like to see them prevail, and I don’t know if they will. The smaller Juhlin 2.0 presents a highly polished rendition of its mineral-saturated fruit. As a “taster” I can’t predict how its internal strife might resolve, but as a drinker I’d easily forget all that and enjoy the really excellent features of this potentially thrilling Champagne. 

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Varnier Fannière Grand Cru Brut, N.V.

Same disgorgement date as the zero. 

 

It’s more turbulent, as there’s sweetness to integrate. It’s the same level as the wine has always been, and I’m really glad she didn’t change it. Again, I refer you to last year’s report for a passionate argument for dosage in general and this dosage in particular. Here I’ll just observe that every argument in favor of German Riesling feinherb applies again here.

What you taste conveys an image “It was precisely intended thus.” Or so, obviously, it registers with me. Mind you, I’ll defend my taste, but it’s also just “my taste.”

This is going to be entirely marvelous NV Champagne, when it calms down. When one uses the word cidery it too often denotes either bruised-apple or annoying “farmy” aldehydes, but I’d use it here to refer to a lovely explication of the spicy varieties of heirloom apple. But again, this needs time to become seamless. 

I know well what this will be, and what that is is a wine I have always loved and approved of. Today it is brash. A year or two from today, it will be irresistible.

With a second sampling, and in contrast to its “brother” Brut Zero, this remains blustery and screechy. If you own it, hang on to it; you’ll be glad you did.

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Varnier Fannière Cuvée St. Denis, Brut N.V.

Disg (again) June 26, 2023, all Avize (and I’ll try to learn the sites). 

We have the ’20 grassies to contend with again. 

And I have to say this: Vintage variation is one thing, and this is not that thing. We understand that some vintages are great, some are good, and some are just okay. We like it that way! This, though is different; what we see now is that some vintages are true and some are false, and this, I think, is not acceptable.

But I’m frustrated that one of my perennial favorite Champagnes is suffering under a problem that ought to have been solved by now.

Let’s allow for post-disgorgement tantrums. Most of these wines have blossomed in the glass. The being that is Cuvée S-D is visible, if faintly, beneath the concussion of disgorgement, but he’s wearing a hideous green suit that no one would look good in.

It’s better in the smaller “2.0” Juhlin glass, only because it shows more fruit. But I’m sorry – I’m torn. Maybe subsequent tastings will encourage me, but I doubt it. What’s so irritating is that this is no one’s fault because it is everyone’s fault. Writers ignore it so we can keep getting samples and merchants ignore it so they can keep getting allocations (and maintain market share), but at some point we have to dig in our heels, because this will not do. 

We sipped a glass in the kitchen during prep. It was delicious and intensely frustrating. You can see into what this wine might be, and that is what it has always been – a magnificent Grand Cru from the Côte des Blancs. But you have to pierce through that membrane of grassiness to get there. You can, you shouldn’t have to, and there are rewards on the far side.

What I hope will happen is the wine’s nearly titanic minerality and its tightly bound profundity of fruit will in time surpass the herbal notes. But what are the chances? I can’t say – I can only hope.

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Varnier Fannière “Grand Vintage” 2014, Brut                              ++

Disg. On Valentine’s Day 2023. This wine blew me away at the domain in May 2022.

 

Now, among other impressions, I’m just relieved that it smells like it should.

This is a fabulously sophisticated Champagne. It’s also wonderfully indistinct, in the manner of the 14 Côte des Blancs, and to a lesser extent the whole of Champagne. It’s signature, if you will, is to have no signature, except perhaps for its feverish minerality. This wine is a quivering gorgeous shudder of Chardonnay depth; if you really dig around in it you’ll find flavors a bit more mature than you expected – I wouldn’t urge you to keep it for ten years – but you’ll also find an expression so vehemently chalky, so ardently un-fruity, that all you can do is laugh; it’s like some weird Finnish bread made out of birch bark.

Seriously, how many developments in the world of wine have been better than to enjoy the existence of Champagnes with an almost deranged fidelity to the most obscure depths of terroir?

But to be perfectly fair, when this was opened a third time (having been tasted once and sipped once) a small reduction was apparent. This isn’t unusual inn Champagne, but what’s interesting is that oxygen should “heal” it, not reveal it.

So pop it and drink it empty! Trust me, that won’t be hard to do.

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Varnier Fannière Rosé Brut, N.V.                                                        +

Disg July 3rd 2023, 94% CH (Avize, Cramant) and 6% PN (Ambonnay) 

 

So, a classic CdB Chardonnay-based Rosé, harkening back to a time when this white-wine region thought “We’d better make Rosé too, since everyone wants it.” One could snicker, except that one tastes (many of) the results, and one is persuaded – here is an ethereal gesture of Rosé that we might not have known could exist.

Is it beautiful, or is it just infinitely pretty? Does it matter? The wine is like one of those bisquits de Reims you see throughout the region, as if you’d dipped one into a chalk mixture or eaten it with a meringue du crayères, if such a thing existed. The wine is slight, or “evanescent” if you prefer – it has no great length – but while it’s on the palate it’s the most fetching thing you could imagine.

How? In this case the pieces add up literally. The special PN fruit of Ambonnay is front-and-center but it rides over a crackly spine of minerality as though it were inescapable, becoming more and more grippy and leaving this fruit-driven wine with a chalk-driven finish. Meanwhile you have a flavor that’s like chewing lilacs. How encouraging it is to see the beauty of these wines under Valèrie’s guidance, once we get out from under the “20 thing.”

Later tastings did nothing to change my mind.

2022
2024
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