Wine: Singular Sensation

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Thomas Keller, chef of The French Laundry, often says that he finds food boring when each bite is the same as the preceding one. That’s why his meals consist of a succession of small dishes of powerful flavors. Asked when he first felt this way about the palate, Keller says, “I can remember in my late teens enjoying the sip of a beer on the beach at the end of a hot summer’s day, but then thinking: Why would I want to drink the whole bottle? It was redundant.”

The same could be said for most Champagnes. Unlike a Montrachet or another first-rate Burgundy, which surprises and delights the palate with each taste, the initial sip of most Champagnes is exactly the same as the last. Yes, they are delicious, but there is a reason why they are usually served as an aperitif before the real meal, when the heavy-hitting wine will be enjoyed. Quite simply, most oenophiles will attest that Champagne lacks complexity and finesse.

Much of this simplicity can be attributed to the fact that traditionally, Champagne is made up of a Cuvee, or a blend of grapes, from several vineyards. As a result, many Champagnes tend to have the same uniform taste that flattens the distinction between both types of grapes and conditions of vineyards. The only one to break away from the pack has been Krug, receiving much praise for its Clos du Mesnil (“Bubbling Over,” Robb Report, December 2001), a Champagne made solely from the grapes of a single walled vineyard in the village Mesnil-sur-Oger. With no other competition to speak of, Krug has stood alone as the industry leader. Until now.

Just last fall, Moët & Chandon entered the ring of single-vineyard Champagnes by releasing three vintages called La Trilogie des Grands Crus. The Champagne house has long rested on its marketing prowess and the reputation of its premier Cuvee, Dom Pérignon, but even the makers of Dom realized that it was time to develop something for the wine cognoscenti. Each of the rare Champagnes in the trilogy—Les Champs de Romont, Les Sarments d’Ay, and Les Vignes de Saran—has a complexity that produces remarkable structures and long finishes. Unlike Dom Pérignon, each of the three new wines exhibits a unique taste reflecting the microcosm of its single vineyard: the sunshine, the soil, and the rain that fell in the summer before the harvest. As a result, the Moët trilogy has effulgence that remains distinct.

While it is doubtful that the majority of Champagnes will ever be made from single-vineyard properties—it is simply too expensive—the houses that choose to do so recognize the way terroir, or the soul of the land, leads to wines of surprising depth, giving oenophiles a reason to break out the bubbly.

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