DAY TWO: Hello again from McMinnville, Oregon, where I am attending the 2007 International Pinot Noir Celebration, a conference and celebration of Pinot Noir in all it’s incarnations. The morning of the second day began with the repeat of a session that had been given to half of the attendees the day before. Dubbed “The Secret Life of Pinot Noir” this was pair seminars about Pinot Noir and the role it plays in Champagne.
The first hour and a half was one of the most remarkable and educational sessions I have had the pleasure of attending at any wine related conference. Led by the wisecracking and articulate duo of Rollin Soles founder and winemaker at Oregon’s Argyle winery, and his friend Ghislane de Montgolfier, CEO of La Maison Bollinger, this session provided an incredibly interesting and unique window into the sparkling wine and Champagne making process that one might only have experienced as part of the winemaking team at a winery that produced such wines.
Specifically, in addition to cogent, and at times passionate, explanations of the very complicated sparkling winemaking process, the seminar offered the remarkable opportunity to taste the two base wines that go into making Argyle’s vintage brut sparkling wine and Bollingers Special Cuvee Champagne. In fact, Ghislane confided, we were the first and only members of the public to be able to taste this unfinished wine, which had been carefully shipped to the US in three liter bottles specially for this seminar.
I will share my notes on what these two base wines tasted like in a moment, but first I offer my best attempt to capture some of Rollin and Ghislane’s commentary from the seminar.
ROLLIN (very good naturedly): The first thing I want to do is share a little history with you. We’ve been making sparkling wine from Pinot Noir at Argyle since 1987. For years I have been bringing my sparkling wine to the IPNC selection board asking to pour it at events, and they always turned me down, telling me that it was not red wine. ‘Why don’t you just call it the International RED Pinot Noir Celebration then,’ I said, and usually marched off in a huff to lick my wounds.
When the board called earlier in the year and said they wanted to do a sparkling wine panel, I fell out of my chair.
GHISLANE: I want to tell you something about Champagne that you may not know. Champagne used to be a still wine. It also used to be a red wine. Yes, it’s true, we used to make Pinot Noir in Champagne, but we had a little maturity problem. As you know, it is quite cool in Champagne, and we could just not get the grapes ripe. So what we did to deal with this problem? We changed from red to white, and from still to sparkling wine. And how did this help? Well you see if you are making white wine from red grapes, you have no problem of the color. The color, of course, comes from properly matured skins — remove the need for the red color, and you no longer have the problem of concentrating that color sufficiently to make red wine.
The other problem we needed to solve was that these weak red wines that we used to make, they would not age. But maybe you do not know that carbonic gas protects wine against aging. So here we solved the problem. With sparkling wines Champagne can now age. So. You must always buy two bottles of Champagne. One to drink now, and one to save for later!
ROLLIN: As sparkling wine makers, we drink sparkling wine every day. We’re practically filled with carbonic gas. You don’t know it but Ghislane here is 275 years old and I’m still just a puppy at 150.
GHISLANE: You have to realize that when we harvest our Pinot Noir, we don’t want to make a red wine. Forget red Pinot Noir. Making a white is very different. When the grapes come in we press very fast to “forget” the color. This kind of base wine is supposed to have a very special maturity. When harvest time comes we need less sugar and more acid. We crop early. That’s why we must explain that the base wine is not really a wine. It is very strange, very acid. The real wine comes on y after when you blend the wine and you re-add sugar and the second fermentation in the bottle gives your wine a new life.
ROLLIN: Before you try this “almost” Pinot Noir I want to tell you some of the flavor profiles that we’re looking for in the grapes that make it. As harvest approaches you walk out to a field with fruit that is gradually turning from greenish yellow to blue. If you taste the grapes at this point they taste grassy and acid, even bitter. Some time later, the flavor shifts to something more resembling green apple, with still a sharp acidity. And then at a certain point, perhaps just in a single day, those flavors go from that Granny Smith flavor to the very specific flavor of some other ripe apple. I haven’t yet put my finger on which one yet, and then there is the barest hint of the flavor of plum, yet still with that high acid. When this plum note hits, that is the moment that the grape is ready to pick. Delay beyond this point, and the berry’s flavors go rapidly to strawberry, cherry, and then blackberry in quality. So this apple plum flavor is what you look for in the grape, and it is also what you can look for when tasting my base wine. See if I got it right.
2006 Argyle Pinot Noir Base Wine, destined for Argyle Vintage Brut
Pale blonde in color, this wine has a nose of bright apple cider and warm felt — a comforting aroma that leans towards only the barest hint of yeastiness as the wine warms. In the mouth it tastes of Fuji apples and Chinese green plums with searing acidity that puckers my mouth even thinking about it now after the fact. This acidity lingers for ages in the mouth after swallowing.
NV Bollinger Pinot Noir Reserve Base Wine, destined for Bollinger Special Cuvee
An unusual bronze-gold color in the glass, this wine has an astonishing nose of the caramel, bacon, and burnt toast of a well aged Pinot Noir. In the mouth it is bright with citrus-like acidity that electrifies flavors of red apple skin and a rich bread-like flavor that lingers in a long juicy finish. This wine is remarkable in its richness and the ghostly presence of red wine that it invokes in its weight, texture, and haunting aromas. If I were to taste it blind, it would likely completely confound me.
GHISLANE: This wine you are tasting is a wine that the public has never tasted. This is Pinot Noir from 1985. For our base wine, we keep only the best vintages as reserve in magnum. Why a magnum? This is a better size to age wine, in our opinion. That is why all the wines you will taste today are in magnum. Look at the necks of these bottles. We do not use a cap for these wines, we use a special cork for each magnum. With the Special Cuvee that this wine will become, we want to every year give you the same taste for the wine. Our blend is always part of the last harvest, part of the previous harvest, and about 7% of the old base wine in reserve. The blend we make is a balance between different years, and different terroirs. To blend Bollinger Special Cuvee we need about 35 different terroirs. Of these there are six or seven that are iconic. We always keep these separate to age. Each year, we open, by hand, between sixty and one hundred thousand magnums of this old wine you taste today to blend into the special cuvee to give it consistency.
Look at the color of this wine. It is the color of aged wine.
1985 was a difficult year in Champagne. Of course, we are peasants, so we always complain about the weather. But this was a hard year. We had what we call a black frost. When we usually speak of frost as winemakers it is usually in the Spring, when it is dangerous for the young vines. But a black frost is in the winter, when we had temperatures of 35 degrees below zero Celsius. We had about 8000 acres of vines killed by this frost. But after this winter, the year was quite good, and the wine that was made was powerful. This is a powerful wine that helps our Champagne to be the highest style.
If you take most of Champagne, they ferment their base wines in the tank for control of the fermentation, but at Bollinger we do it in the barrel. When the wine is done we then must blend the base wine. We blend around 250 base wines and I must tell you, it’s quite a nightmare. Tiny differences can make a huge effect. And remember that once you blend this wine, you put it into the bottle and then there’s no way to change it. When you have wine in a barrel you can put stuff in, take stuff out. With the bottle you open it up 2 years later, and you have what you have. We have to really really try to understand what we have.
So into the bottle goes the base wine and the yeast, and a very small amount of sugar [known as dosage], and during the time, the first job of the yeast is to make the bubbles. But then after a few months, the bubbles are done, but the yeast is still working, transforming proteins, making different flavors.
ROLLIN: Making sparkling wine is incredibly complicated. One of the trickiest things here is the nature of this dosage, this liqueur of wine and sugar that will feed the yeast. Even one half of a milliliter of difference in dosage per 750 milliliter bottle can change the character of a wine completely. It’s that delicate.
* * *
1997 Argyle Extended Tirage “Knudsen Vineyard” Brut Sparkling Wine, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Light gold in color this wine has a nose of Golden Delicious apples and warm hay. In the mouth it is smooth with flavors of apple and pear, and a simple purity graced with small bubbles, but not a lot of complexity. The wine is dry, but the fruit flavors give it a bit of sweet character that I don’t particularly care for in sparkling wine. 8/8.5
1999 Argyle “Knudsen Vineyard” Brut Sparkling Wine, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Palest gold in the glass, this wine has a pleasing nose of cold cream and other mineral aromas. In the mouth it “pops” with great acidity and a light creamy texture with very fine bubbles. The flavors of the wine are bread-like with hints of orange blossom and citrus on the finish. 8.5
NV Bollinger Special Cuvee Champagne, France
Light yellow-gold in color, this wine smells of ripe, yellow apple skin and chalk dust. In the mouth it is clean and pure in quality with a taut beautiful length that uncoils across the palate with flavors of dried Autumn leaves, bread, lemon zest, and a minerality that crackles in the corner of the mouth. Very nice finish. 9
1999 Bollinger Grand Annee Champagne, France
A light, but rich gold color in the glass, this wine has a classic nose of tart, juicy apples and warm brioche. In the mouth the first sensation is of a mousse of perfect, tiny bubbles that sit creamily and dreamily on the palate with rich flavors of Ranier cherries, green plums, and sea air, al of which linger in a beautiful finish. 9/9.5
After tasting these wines, there was an opportunity to ask questions and one very good one got asked, which was how Bollinger is capable of maintaining the consistency of the flavor of the non-vintage Champagne over time, especially when winemakers can come and go. Ghislane had a lovely answer.
GHISLANE: Ah, this is a very important question, the question of how we catch the memory of the previous wine. We have usually six people around the table to taste. For the last 67 years we have had only three winemakers, so there is some good memory. But the responsibility of the big boss (me) is ultimately to make the final decision in the blend. This is a big decision, because some years we only make one blend, one wine with all our wine. If you are in charge of the company, you need others to help out, but ultimately you have to make the final decision.
But let me tell you something else that is also very important. You know when we have the babies, we take them to be baptized. And after the priest has said his words, we take our finger, and into the Champagne we dip it, and like this, we put a drop of Champagne on the tongue. Why is this? So that they can remember what does it taste like when it is their turn to make the wine!