The Russians drank Champagne as death settled in. Okay, that was before the Reds took over a century ago, when the Motherland was still being ruled by stylish Tsars, impeccably dressed warlords and yummy countesses smelling like Beluga caviar and rosé wine. Attending to a dying Russian, the physician would summon a bottle of Champagne and have the patient drink a glass or two in the hope the fizzy liquid would kick-start the ailing heart.
Anton Chekov, the revered Russian writer, has had some brilliant bits of prose penned about his death-bed when a bottle of Cristal was popped, poured and sipped. He did not survive, sadly so – but what a way to go.
Champagne, the most life-affirming of all wines.
I have taken a week to give words to a recent Champagne experience because it was one that left me breathless, dazed and zombie-like. For seven days and seven nights I walked empty streets and wind-swept fields, sailed calm seas and climbed mountains high and rugged trying to get to grips with an evening that had blessed me with such utter joy. Bestowed upon me such edgy vitality. Given me such hope for all of mankind and our symbiotic relationship with all that this world has to offer.
Le Lude, the Cap Classique producer in Franschhoek, was the venue for a tasting of Champagnes, a quality line-up complemented with a couple of wines from Le Lude’s own cellar.
This event served as another reminder to those interested in the royal sparkling stuff, that Le Lude is fast becoming a premier player on the Cap Classique scene. The focus and driven energy of owner Nic Barrow and the craftsmanship of cellar master Paul Gerber have punted Le Lude into the top level of Cap Classique boutiques in two short years. Not only due to the quality of their own offering, but the style of the venue, the light and grace of it all, underscoring a love and commitment to Cap Classique and the joy of the bubble.
Nine fine Champagnes and two Le Lude Cap Classiques formed the line-up in a tasting that provided the joy and inspiration, the state of bliss and romance that Dom Pérignon could only have hoped his discovery would have provided centuries later.
The introductory side of the line-up brought together the category going under the name of grower Champagnes: Hubert Soreau Clos L’Abbe, Bonnaire Ver Sacrum, Maillart Franc de Pied and Duval Leroy Authentis.
All were non-vintage wines, but astounding in the diversity offered under the undisputed quality that any items bottled under the label of Champagne should be known for.
The most brilliant wines were the Hubert Soreau Clos L’Abbe and Bonnaire Ver Sacrum, both Blanc de Blancs from the steely, austere Chardonnay originating out of those famous rocky chalk soils of the Champagne region.
Fruit wise, these two wines are brutally restrained with a cool vigour and flavour profile that can be described as suppressed, but pregnant with promise. Rapier-like with sharp, swishes of tempered steel, the Chardonnay carries the Champagnes’ arrival on the palate. The stay is brief as the warmth of the mouth allows the bubbles to expand and burst, crashing onto the palate like a winter wave on a desolate Normandy beach.
The Hubert Soreau Clos L’Abbe offered a more varied degree of flavour than the Bonnaire Ver Sacrum. Iced green plums led the taste, with hints of meadow saffron, honey-suckle and a slight kelpiness.
Bonnaire was lean and shy, but I loved the shell and salt that fox-trotted with a sharp zest of lime-peel.
Of course, Champagne is as much about texture as flavour. And on these two Champagnes the feel was breezy, yet gentle. Like that Andrew Wyeth painting of a curtain gently blowing in a breath of autumn air.
But at the end of the day, of the talk, the dissection it must be said these were mind-blowingly delicious wines.
On the other side of the line-up were the vintage numbers: Agrapart Venus 2010, Les Mesnil Cuvée Prestige 1996, Bereche Extra Brut 2010, Bollinger 2002 and Dom Pérignon Oenotèque 1996. And it was here where things became a bit over-whelming, one treasure after the other right here before you. Your hosts having given you the right to access each one of the jewels, the masterpiece and do with it what you like. It is all yours.
The Bollinger 2002 foamed with shards of crystallised blood orange and sprinkles of crushed hazelnuts, a clean, brisk line of sherbet and lots of wild wet splashing. Les Mesnil Cuvée Prestige, another 100% Chardonnay Champagne, was definitely the best 20 year-old I had ever grabbed by the glass.
Here was Champagne purity, probably my highlight of the night if I had to pick one. It had everything: jaw-sucking freshness, a creamy, lively foam and a flavour profile dancing between maritime mineral and tugs of floral fruitiness. The perfume was gorgeous, all succulent flowers and the roar of mousse came to the mouth with broken fennel, ripped wild strawberry and pounded Israeli kumquat. Cold and fizzing, the wine was played with in the mouth, before being sucked into a welcoming void.
Of course, the Dom Pérignon. The Oenotèque 1996, the wine of lees contact exceeding the minimum Dom requirements of seven years.
Yes, it stood apart, and majestically so. The lees management, which is the obsession at Dom, leads to more traditional Champagne flavours. Unashamedly dense and full, this wine clouted the palate with sweet citrus and honeyed figs, while exuding the typical Champagne brioche character that were not evident in the rest of the line-up. Still far from its best, Dom Pérignon hit the heart with its statuesque structure, its veiled air of supremacy and its sparkling, golden-hued loveliness.
Champagne is, truly, the last drink I would want if there was only one day left. Borne on the wings of French angels, or even from Russia with love.
- Emile Joubert