August 28, 2008

It Takes a Village

Our mad quest for mud resumes.

If you're a newcomer to our work at the Lab, you can brush up on our Dirt Search Mission Statment here.

Today, we'll be searching for that elusive terroir in the Champagne village of Aÿ. With a tiny population of just over 4000, Aÿ is located at the base of the southern slope of the Montagne de Reims just Northeast of Epernay.

Aÿ is renowned for Pinot Noir. Its red wines were said to be the favorite of the French King, Henri IV. So why then, you may soon be wondering, are we drinking a Chardonnay from Aÿ in the Lab today, a Blanc de Blanc from Gaston Chiquet?

Because Peter Liem, in his truly outstanding Champagne blog, recently wrote that he, "found that this Chardonnay helps me to understand Aÿ’s Pinots better, through a commonality of character and personality." He cites fabled importer Terry Thiese as noting, Chiquet's Blanc de Blanc, "isn’t so much a variant on Chardonnay as it is another dialect of Aÿ.”

So we thought it might be illuminating to drink Chiquet's Blanc de Blanc d'Aÿ, NV, alongside a Pinot Noir from the same village. Unfortunately, it's difficult to find still red wine from Champagne in the U.S. But not impossible. There is an odd (some might argue "novelty") wine from Bollinger, La Côte aux Enfants, Coteaux Champenois (1999), that occasionally appears on local shelves. La Côte aux Enfants is produced from a single vineyard in Aÿ, planted exclusively with Pinot. The wine is only produced in what some Frenchie deems an "exceptional year."

This Chiquet is one of my favorite non-vintage Champagnes. This bottle has a yeasty, slightly sourdough, nose mixed with almond butter and lemon verbena. Beautifully complex and linear. A nervy, citric acid highlights the attack, then cherry-apple fruit swirls around a serious mineral core. This finish is beautiful, crisp and chalky. (Disgorged 5/1/07).

As I'm actually one of those who would argue the Bollinger is a novelty wine, I was surprised by how good it was. A nose of plum and cherries and a beguiling earthy quality. On the palate, the fruit was forward, but not over-powering. Plum, black cherry and mineral water. With peppery tannins and a gentle, chalky mineralité. Although the overall impression was that of feminine delicacy, the various elements seemed bound together by an energetic, almost forceful, tension.

Did we find our Grail in these two wines from Aÿ?

Tough to say with any precision. It was hard to avoid discovering some commonality in the mineral aspects of the two wines. Both had an almost sensual, cherry chalkiness to them. Both seemed to possess that alchemical suggestion of a specific place and time.

But were those neighboring places really there?

Or mere projections...

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