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NV Henri Billiot "Cuvee Laetitia" Grand Cru Brut Champagne, Ambonnay, France

billiot_laetitia.jpgIt seems that this week has me on a sparkling wine kick, and I see no reason to stop. As I often say (to myself and others who bother to listen): it took me a while to get here, but now I realize that we are all drinking far too little Champagne. These days, the whole world isn't drinking much Champagne, which is why the industry is in a bit of a crisis -- at least the really big players are.

But this is not the wine of a big player.

To say that Serge Billiot runs a small winery would be severely understating the case. This family-run winery in the tiny town of Ambonnay produces a mere 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 -- the result of grapes often 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 filters his wines in any way, nor do they go through any secondary, malolactic fermentation.

This 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 with many non-vintage Champagnes 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 importer Terry Theise, goes back to about 1983. This particular bottling is the first to include wine from the 2005 vintage, which may or may not be responsible for the fact that this is the best tasting bottle of this wine I have ever tasted.

This wine, one of two "tete du cuvées" (yes, that makes no sense, as no one has two "top bottlings" but Billiot could care less) is named after his daughter Laetitia who is poised to take over operations from her father at some point. The other top wine is named Cuvee Julie, after his granddaughter.

Great Champagne, to me, always dances between a racy mineral acidity and a savory yeasty goodness, the combination of which, in perfect proportions makes it quite difficult not to drink glass after glass after glass. This wine has that quality in spades, not to mention an alluring and surprising aroma (see the note below).

Only about 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:
Pale gold in the glass, with very fine bubbles, this wine smells staggeringly of seawater and kelp, and a cobblestone street on a rainy day. In the mouth it is gorgeously smooth and velvety soft with flavors of seawater, toasted butter biscuits and/or shortbread cookies, and has a long savory finish that has hints of citrus fruits, but only aromatically, like a perfume barely perceived from afar. Outstanding.

Food Pairing:
Sit me down with a bottle of this wine two dozen fresh oysters, and the best french fries you can find, and I will be one seriously happy camper.

Overall Score: between 9.5 and 10.

How Much?: $80

This wine is available for purchase on the Internet.

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Required Reading for Wine Lovers

The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson Wine Grapes The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson to cork or not to cork by George Taber reading between the vines by Terry Theise adventures on the wine route by Kermit Lynch Love By the Glass by Dorothy Gaiter & John Brecher Noble Rot by William Echikson The Science of Wine by Jamie Goode The Judgement of Paris by George Taber The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud