21 December 2009

NV Gaston Chiquet Tradition

Typically I don't even mention a wine here unless the blessed grape juice has passed my lips, but I'm making an exception in the run-up to New Year's Eve. While I've written about a lot of different wines here, covering many obscure grapes and lesser-known regions, one glaring omission has been proper Champagne. Oh, I pop Prosecco and Cava and Washington sparklers like cans of soda, but I almost never drink real Champagne. Why? Part of it is a cost issue, part of it is that most of my personal friends prefer the more everyday sparkling wines I serve, and the other part comes from the fact that all the wine samples I receive are still, not bubbly.

This shouldn't be taken to imply that I don't like Champagne--on the contrary, I'm quite fond of it. I've had Dom Perignon, Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Mumm, Taittinger, all of the big producers. But this year I wanted to ring in 2010 with something different, and so I turned to a pair of friends who happen to be both wine bloggers and wine retailers: Michael Hughes of Joe's Wines & Liquor in Midtown Memphis, and Samantha Dugan of The Wine Country in Signal Hill/Long Beach, California. Both of them have tasted much more Champagne than I have, so I issued them a challenge: collaborate, pick out an interesting selection for me around $50, and I'd buy a bottle here in town while plugging both stores*.

It didn't work out quite like I expected, but Sam and Michael performed admirably. Turns out that the selections and prices were much different between the two sides of the US, and without an individual bottle to recommend, it was time to switch to a certain category of Champagne.

There's an interesting trend of récoltants-manipulants or harvester-producers: farmers who have historically supplied grapes to the big houses, but have begun making their own small-batch Champagne. In the US, these wines are known as grower Champagnes, or sometimes the more casual "farmer fizz". While I've read quite a bit about this movement and admire it in the broader trend towards small production food and wine, I haven't ever had one myself.

Consensus was reached on the NV Gaston Chiquet Tradition, which I purchased at Joe's on Saturday. $53, 12.5% abv, made from 35% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot Meunier, 20% Pinot Noir. (A plurality of Pinot Meunier? Be still my beating heart!) According to the importer website, it's a blend of the 2004, 2002, 2001, 1998 vintages. I'm really excited about trying this wine, but I have to just stare at it for the next ten days.

Is this my official recommendation for your New Year's celebration? Well, it's what I'll be drinking, but I think I bought Michael's last bottle and Sam doesn't carry it. But if you're looking for my formal advice, I'd say try a grower Champagne. It's going to be something different, something individual, something with personality. I like Veuve Clicquot, but you can find that yellow label anywhere in the world at any time of year. When you buy a grower Champagne, you're one of a select few people who will be enjoying that specific wine as the clock ticks down to midnight. You can brag to your friends, impress that girl you've been dating, and most importantly, you'll be drinking a solidly produced wine rather than just an excuse for breaking out the sparkling wine flutes.

Many thanks to Michael and Sam for their assistance, and I'm sure this will be a New Year's Eve to remember!

*This isn't advertising, and I didn't receive any financial compensation for this project. Basically two good writers happen to be passionate about Champagne and are in the retail business. A knowledgeable wine salesperson who has the bottles on hand in your city is worth more than all of the Top 100 lists ever written. If you stop by Joe's or The Wine Country in search of a great Champagne for New Year's, tell 'em I sent you.


fredric koeppel said...

as you see, the problem w/ recommending grower champagnes is the random nature in which retailers will carry the wines. in Memphis, v. few retailers will; they want to stick with the familiar accepted labels. and once they sell the few bottles they carry, if they do, they tend not to restock. the Gaston Chiquet is lovely.

Samantha Dugan said...

See that was the problem with finding a wine for Benito here, there was just so little grower Champagne to choose from. We ended up settling on an importer rather than a Champagne house...and even then, (and God I hope this does not come off wrong) it seemed as if the Champagnes that were available were not the really good ones, no H. Billiot, Pierre Peters, Jean Milan, ended up being harder than I had thought.

Thank you my dear friend, both for the fun little project and for the mention. So sorry that we could not find you a Rose or one of my beloved Champagnes. One day, one day kid, you and I will share a fantastic bottle of grower Champagne....even if I have to lug a bunch of bottles out there in the new year, (the hubby wants to head out to Memphis next year).

Happy Holidays Ben.

Michael Hughes said...

Hopefully we will get that availability ramped up. Its an uphill battle to get most consumers to realize that Veuve Clic is swill & for 10-15 bucks less they can have an actual wine thats delicious as opposed to some industrial produced pollutant. I'll be sure to get some more Gaston (& my fave Chartogne-Taillet) back on the shelves this week!

Sam-I have to warn you that when we finally get together in person I might just spontaneously combust!

Benito said...

When readers ask me for specific wine recommendations, I always just suggest a generic category or style and suggest they ask for help at their local wine shop. After all, I have no idea what the inventory is like in Wisconsin or Idaho, and while I could rattle of a dozen perfect bottles, there's a chance that none of them are available in that state, much less the reader's city.

So what do I do? I ask for a specific bottle recommendation from someone in California, who is unfamiliar with our local wine distribution.

I barely look at Champagnes when I go into a Memphis wine shop--again, I don't drink a lot of it, but also in many places the bottles are kept locked in a case or behind the register. Certainly understandable, but difficult for browsing purposes.

I might try this again in the future if Sam and Michael are willing. I've got some other blind spots out there, like Burgundy...

Samantha Dugan said...

I'd love to!

Hampers said...

Finally, a resolution I love and really want to keep. Good article. Being a wine lover, I enjoyed going through it.

Big Mike said...

OK here comes the wholesaler!!!

We would love to sell these wines. But the reality is that few Memphis consumers would know them. As well as, Tennesse being a franchise state makes small producers wary of coming here for fear they will be stuck in a house that doesn't support their brand. Also, most of these wines are hand sell items and Michael you know how fast hand sale items fly off the shelves in your store. It is all about the staff, have they been trained properly, and if they like the wine. We, as a wholesaler, have started bringing in small amounts of special things for certain stores, upon request, for them to sell. This seems to be working. We all wished we worked in a market like Sam's.

Maybe one day between Fredric, Benito, Michael and the others working hard trying to educate our consumers we might get there. Please continue the good fight and let me know where I might be able to help.

Ben, great post as always. Sam and Michael you did a great job with very limited resources!!!

Benito said...


Thanks as always for the industry perspective! As I read back over this post I see myself as more indicative of the problem than the solution: I've been heavy into wine over the past six years, but it's taken about two years of suggestions, teasing, and the occasional downright insult about my sparkling wine preferences to get me to try a grower Champagne.

Obviously it's difficult to sell a luxury product that doesn't have a well-known brand association, and I don't think the solution is for rappers to start featuring farmer fizz in videos.

However... I never thought Memphis would be receptive to things like Fresh Market, Whole Foods, and the amazing farmers markets we now have. We're becoming a town where people have serious opinions on different types of goat cheese. Wine is a little harder, since there's not that local connection, but I'm optimistic about the River City.