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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.