At Champagne Lallement, they were enjoying the robust business everyone was enjoying in Champagne. Their first-born, Victor, was grown up and was speaking some English, thanks to a six-month sojourn in Miami last winter. If you didn’t know, these were always my subjective favorites among (what was) my Champagne portfolio, though they had their ups and downs over the years. A few vintages (2005, 2010, especially 2011) were unkind to them, and what was thrillingly idiosyncratic when the wines were at their best became just unpleasantly weird when nature wasn’t cooperating.
This time the wines were excellent, thanks to the serendipity of three great blending vintages (18-19-20). It remains a teensy domain, making just four wines (with a fifth to come, a single-site 100% PN from Les Pertois, done in cask, and only just disgorged). The basic NV which they call “Tradition” and which I always called “Green” after the color of its label, was a candidate for the best NV Brut in my portfolio, and the wine is at its stellar best with this disgorgement. I know of no other Champagne that so deftly squares the circle between the utmost crystalline polish and the utmost originality, and this one made me moist-eyed, such was its beauty. Ostensibly the next step up, the Reserve (or “Blue” in my parlance) is always older and more vinous, and sometimes it’s only a little different and every bit as good. This time, though, it’s very different and seems a bit earthbound after the celestial miracle of the “Green.” That’s a privileged cavil though, as “Blue” is an excellent Champagne by any standards except those of its sibling. Leather, cloves, shiitakes, simply more rugged. Their Rosé is all PN and all 2016, disgorged 11/2020, and I loved it, and am still not sure how a wine can have such a mass of fruit yet not taste “fruity.” The vintage-wine is 2013, and it slipped off the rails, into a level of animality some (e.g. me) could find off putting. As I wrote “mead, cider, aldehydes…” I realized these were common elements in a number of “natural wines,” so if your palate’s at home in that idiom, you’ll think my judgments are prissy.
My former associates let go of this agency. I’m doing a teensy bit of business with them, just to stay connected. Full-disclosure and all that. I am not their “national importer,” nor do I wish to be.
Addendum to VILMART (from handwritten notes) entails the two top Rosés, always among the greatest in Champagne. They’re called “Emotion” now, and the first was a 2014, disg. 3/2021, and I admired its uncommonly sedate nature, its herbal edge – its overall contours, in fact – and its minerality from the Juhlin glass and its summer savory notes from the Lehmann. It was complex in all the different glasses. We also tasted the Emotion 2013, disg. 4/2020, and this is clearly a masterpiece in full command of its dignity and intricacy. If the ’14 is “emerging” then this ’13 is simply there; porcini powder, cardamom, the caramelized end-cap of a spice-rubbed roast, yet for all that there’s a coniferous top note that’s a little paradox of PN at times. If this one’s available Stateside, hurry and grab it. Finally there’s a new release (based on everyone telling Laurent that his “Grand Cellier” gets a million times better with 4-5 years on the cork) called Grand Cellier Oenotheque “T-15” which is that cuvée in the 2014/13-12 blend, aged at the estate. Let’s just say it realizes the highest destiny for this wine.
We made a somewhat hurried visit to CHARTOGNE-TAILLET which was more to exchange hugs than to taste systematically. That said, a few wines were poured…. Les Couarres (2017) was exceptional, balanced, loaded with fruit and PN savor and a lovely chalky texture. We tasted two wines under the name Hors Siri, one of which is a Grand Cru no. 082/796; it is all Avize 2015, and smells precisely like both the vintage and the terroir; the palate is thrilling, strong and incisive and expressive. Disg 10/2021, made in wood but barely indicates it. Superb! The other wine contains 10% fruit from Merfy (no. 2804/3170), and it’s richer, mouth-filling, juicier – more satisfying but less fascinating, except perhaps as a blending study, but it’s salty, brashly chalky, really comes on in the glass. Also superb. Finally the Heurtebise 2017 disg 4/2022 is a marvelous BdB; expressive, vetiver and exotic fruits, basmati and ginger and white violets – excellent.
The reunion was lavishly sentimental, which makes it poignant to observe that the wines were perplexing. It struck me that I always had trouble tasting at the estate; maybe it was the glassware, maybe the brutal freshness of many disgorgements, maybe a phenolic element in the wines that could accumulate into dry-mouth when you tasted a bunch of them. I look forward to tasting them again at home in a few months, when I can baby them and observe them more deliberately.
The wines have gotten drier of late. Jean-Baptiste insists he’s still tasting multiple possible dosage blends and choosing the one he likes best, just as he always did, yet they are trending drier, aligned with the zeitgeist – the awful zeitgeist. But! The wine I liked the most was also the very driest wine in the group, which suggests that the issue isn’t dryness as such – and yes, we already know this – but rather our differing views of balance and style. All of which warrants a deeper tasting before I jump into one of my screeds, but what I can tell you is the Houtirants tirage 2014 is both the best edition yet of this singular Champagne (single vineyard, co-plantation of all the “permitted” varieties) as well as one of the best balanced dosage-zero wines I have ever encountered.
Back in Germany, we spend a lovely half-day with Christian Dautel and family, including parents and also wife and child, the latter a genial boy named Carl, who glowed with the contentment little kids feel when they’re included among the gathered, and Carl had a lot of aplomb for a 1-year old. It was only my second-ever visit, and I wanted Karen Odessa to see the crazy terraces over the Neckar, so we took a little trip and returned home to a lunch I figured I’d skip, as lunch tends to plunge me into a torpor. Well, nothing doing, because lunch was Schnitzel and as if that weren’t enticing enough, there was also a classic Swabian Kartoffelsalat (“Made with no mayonnaise”) from a family recipe. Say no to Schnitzel? Jeez, I ain’t no degenerate.
After lunch we blasted through a bunch of wines. My palate was, let’s say, altered by the food, but I’d taste the wines again at home in a month or two, and this was a chance to discuss the wines in real-time. So, first the REDS, in this case all the Spätburgunders, starting with the estate, a cask sample of 2020, that was everything you could wish; elegant and “sweet,” a perfect intro to Christian’s style. The village-wine Cleebronn 2020 was again delicious, minerals and herbs, perfectly poised tannin, limestony, a big step up from last year’s. The 1er Cru Sonnenberg 2018 has attitude, strength, and needs air. Markedly long, with a dialogue of light and dark tones, a little peony and a bit of char. Less winsome than those ‘20s. GG Schupen 2018 is serious business, earth and smoke and intricacy, dense, minty, shows its wood. This wants to be studied, as the initial clamorousness is probably misleading. GG Forstberg 2018 is the Bonnes Mares of the range, sexy, dusty and sweetly enticing; sun-baked tomatoes and leathery umami; potentially superb.
The WHITES were no less impressive. 2021 Riesling Bönnigheim (Gipskeuper) was all funky iris salts and fennel seed; tactile extract into a tarragon/mineral finish that seems to burrow into the soil. 2020 Riesling GG Wurmberg (from those terraces) spent a year on its gross lees and shows it. Steamed fennel aroma leads into a brashly complex and densely constituted wine with a root-veggie (parsnips) “sweetness.” Finally, and because I am such a damn pill about Chardonnay, I tasted two (!) and liked them both. The 2020 Chardonnay Sonnenberg was all stones and maize and vetiver; has grace and spice; could almost be GrüVe. The 2020 Chardonnay “S” prompted a 1-word note – “Chassagne!”
This wasn’t intended as a tasting visit – I’m still waiting for two cases of 2020s that vanished into some logistical ether last year – but I did want to see a few odds and ends. Mostly I wanted a chance to schmooze with Martin Franzen, who has been there twenty years now, which barely seems possible. (Time’s been collapsing and expanding like that old toy the “Slinky” going down a flight of stairs….) Martin’s still unflappable, as are his wines, and my break in tasting the range in its entirety each year has, if anything, brought them into even clearer focus.
I looked at a few early-bottled 2021s; the “MC Riesling” feinherb that was custom-bottled for me is now discontinued (sadly; that wine was truly outstanding) in favor of its Trocken sibling, which I’m sure is an easier sell. The ’21 is super, limpid and supple, flow-y and flowery, salty and silky. In effect a picture-book ’21. The “MC” Scheurebe was bottle-sick but seems to go in a gooseberry direction; Martin said it wasn’t riotously currant/grapefruity prior to bottling. The Muskateller only seemed delicate; it is actually deep, lucid, rich and lapidary, full of lemon balm and opal basil. I found it wonderful. Thus attuned to Muscat – and Catoir has a genius with this variety – I tasted the 2019 Haardt Muskateller (now the “village-wine” level) which like many ‘19s is more redolent of the vintage than the variety; it’s discreet but I’m not sure how discreet I want my Muscats to be. Then came a masterpiece. 2019 Bürgergarten Muskateller is a high water mark for Muscat in Germany – or anywhere – with extract from wall to wall and floor to ceiling; only the very best vintages of Goldert from Zind Humbrecht have reached this level of depth and articulation. It was one of the last bottles, but “We were saving it for you,” Martin said, adding “The only other taster who really “got” this wine was Stuart (Pigott),” which reminded me how apropos Stuart’s palate so often is. Rather than reverting to Riesling, I asked to taste some Scheurebe. I was in a Borat sort of mood, though Catoir’s Scheurebes are anything but oafish. The 2020 Scheurebe Haardt showed refined and even delicate aromas, highly herbal and complex, but it’s not a rascally Scheu, but rather a demure beauty.
We made the (considerable) detour to ZIEREISEN because tasting those wines in situ is necessary as an adjunct to tasting them at home. It was a Sunday midday, a warm day, not really predestined for tasting a slew of tannic young Pinot Noirs, but when a stork floated overhead I decided to sink into the day, whatever it brought. We had a few whites, though I only wrote notes for the reds – but I did learn a curious thing: you can drink SYRAH with white asparagus, not if you “have to” (because there’s no other wine on the table) but because it actually works.
So – the 2019 Spätburgunder Talrain is gorgeously fragrant, and the palate is classic 2019; sumptuous yet allusive, waiting for the iron flavor to emerge. The 2018 SB Estate (“Oops! Wrong sequence,” said Hanspeter) is a dangerously attractive wine; silky, complex, blueberries and leather in layers; in its class (or any) this is striking. The 2019 SB Schulen is sweetly animal and violet-y. Tannin to spare, as as the case with the tightly wound 2019 SB Rhini. Only at the “Jaspis” level did the tannins relent, and that ’19 is sweet-textured, layered and grippy.
A late release is the 2017 SB Bürgin, planted in 1954-53 with Dijon clones, and this is fantastic, stunning Pinot Noir. The basic 2019 Syrah stood in the very long shadow cast by that amazing wine, but the 2019 Jaspis Syrah (from the site Däublin) was refined and creamy.
We tasted outdoors at a wooden table while they closed up the courtyard; on Sunday mornings they sell their produce (strawberries, asparagus, among other goodies) but they shut down at lunchtime and enjoy a few hours of blissful peace before it all breaks loose again on Monday morning. We took our leave, and drove up into the Vosges to get away from the heat and stretch our legs and think about the journey we’d just concluded, and the people we’d been with. A kind of vapor started to form, which seemed to want to coalesce into some notion of What It All Meant, but I am suspicious of “what things all mean” as a large abstract narrative. I saw my friends again. That’s what it signified, as though I were entitled to demand significance.
But significance arrived unbidden, in small pieces carried by intimate moments and in familiar patterns seen over the distance of our absences from one another. I am restless to tell those stories, but this isn’t quite the time or the place. There are hints in the photographs. And the stories will be told in due time.