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09.13.2006

NV Henri Billiot Fils "Cuvee Laetitia" Tete de Cuvee Champagne, Ambonnay, France

I'm not a huge sparkling wine drinker, but many of the wine lovers I know are Champagne nuts. They literally rave about the stuff as if it's the nectar of the gods. Usually the bigger the wine nut, the greater the ravings. I used to detest the stuff, but like many things often go in the wine world, I eventually discovered I had just been drinking the laetitia.label.jpgwrong stuff. Champagne is indeed a wonderful beverage, and the best of them can be transcendent. I've learned to love them with sushi and as the last drink of the evening, something to sip when everyone has left the dinner table and migrated to the living room.

Today is Wine Blogging Wednesday number twenty-five, hosted by my friend Sam over at Becks and Posh, and she has asked us all to drink Champagne today, and I like scores of bloggers everywhere have willingly obliged. Though, oddly, I did not end up drinking the bottle I thought I would. That's because our friends Pim and David came over on Monday night, and they brought with them a lovely bottle that I have continued to nurse for the last two days.

To say that Serge Billiot runs a small winery would, to a certain extent, be understating the case. This family run winery in the tiny town of Ambonnay produces merely 3750 cases of wine per year, eked out of about 12 acres of limestone-rich, exclusively Grand Cru vineyards planted mostly with Pinot Noir.

Like many small producers, or at least the ones I find myself attracted to, Billiot refuses to make wine like everyone else. While his neighbors tend to make heavier sweeter Champagne, Billiot strives for brightness and attack. To this end, he does not use dosage (a standard practice in the production of sparkling wine, and especially Champagne, whereby at the very end of the wine production a small amount of wine mixed with sugar syrup is added to each bottle). Dosage is often used to compensate for unusually high acidity in Champagne -- usually the result of grapes being picked before full ripeness. Billiot seems to get his grapes ripe enough to make a balanced wine, and he seems to value the clarity he gets without the final addition of sugar. Billiot never fines or filters his wines in any way, nor do they go through any secondary, malolactic fermentation.

This wine takes a little explaining since it is not your ordinary production Champagne. First of all it is a Tete de Cuvée, which is a fancy way of saying that it's a flagship or "top" bottling from the estate. Remarkably, for an estate as small as it is, Billiot produces two such wines, of which this is his best.

The wine, unlike the rest of his production which is mostly Pinot Noir based (75%), is made from mostly Chardonnay, and apparently the percentage of Chardonnay keeps increasing every year. As a non-vintage wine it is made solera style, meaning that each year is a blend of wine from the current crop of grapes along with wine from past years. The current mix, according to its importer Terry Theise, goes back to 1983.

Speaking of Theise, I'm not in the habit of including tasting notes from other sources in my wine reviews, least of all from the importers or wineries, who obviously have something to gain by talking up a wine, but Theise is such a character and quite a funny writer, that I couldn't help sharing one of the phrases he uses to describe this particular bottling: "wonderfully direct with ultra-fine diction."

If this wine were a speech, I'd definitely sit through the encore. Thanks David and Pim!

Only 350 cases of Billiot wines make it to the US every year, and of those only a few can be this wine. Grab it where you can find it.

Tasting Notes:
Light gold in the glass with medium-fine bubbles this wine smells of unripe pears and warm sun-drenched fields of wheat. In the mouth it has a soft, plush mousse (foam) and a bright acidity. Perfectly dry, the wine remains aromatic enough as it passes over the palate to give you pause to think it might not be fully dry. The flavors are a light yeasty character, crisp minerality, some pure light green pear fruit, and a fabulous balance with (in the end) no real hint of sweetness (a characteristic I treasure in good Champagne). The finish is pleasant and surprisingly long and deep, resonating through the throat in a soft glow.

Food Pairing:
This wine went incredibly well with a dish that I had actually made to match a brisk rosé of pinot noir: sautéed morel mushrooms and shallots with fresh thyme over goat cheese crisps.

Overall Score: 9/9.5

How Much?: $80

This wine is available for purchase on the internet.

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