The Insider Family Champagne House: AR Lenoble

Ar Lenoble and glassChampagne is big business, and today most Champagne houses – producers who make their own sparkling wine from fruit they grow and purchase from neighbors – are either very large or owned by bigger houses, insurance companies or global luxury goods firms.

AR Lenoble is different. Although they are one of the smallest houses remaining in Champagne, they have remained independent and family owned and run for more than 100 years. The brother and sister team of Antoine and Anne Malssagne (grandchildren of the founder) head a team of just 11 employees that’s building, as JancisRobinson.com wrote, “probably the most admired boutique family house right now.”

A Clear Focus
Anne and Antoine of LenobleSince taking over the house in 2001, Antoine and Anne have focused not on making “consistent” Champagnes in a static “house style,” but instead on making better and better Champagne every year. They started with a clear focus on their most important vineyard holding, 10 hectares of pure, chalky soils planted to Chardonnay in the Grand Cru village of Chouilly. As they’ve written:

“The expression of Chouilly defines who we are and what we do at AR Lenoble. Chouilly is one of only 17 Grand Cru villages in Champagne and one of only 6 known for Chardonnay. AR Lenoble is one of few producers to use 100% Grand Cru Chardonnay from Chouilly in every single one of our wines.”

To strengthen the quality of their fruit in Chouilly and also in the 1er Cru village of Bisseuil (Pinot Noir) and their Marne holdings in Damery (Pinot Meunier), the Malssagne’s launched an intensive farming improvement program. Using strict pruning, green harvests (cutting off bunches before ripening begins), and allowing cover crops to grow in competition with the vines, AR Lenoble boasts some of the lowest yields in Champagne.

The quality commitment continues in the winery. AR Lenoble uses only juice from the first pressing of the grapes – the “Cuvee” – and never uses any of the permitted second pressing – the Taille. After fermentation, about 30% of each vintage’s wine is held back and added to a “perpetual reserve” that mixes wines from 2001/2002 onward. Some of the reserve ages in tank, but most spends time in either small (225 liter) or large (5,000 liter) neutral French oak for more complexity still.

Retaining Champagne Character in the Face of Global Warming
Over the past 10 years, Antoine and Anne have faced a new challenge – how to retain Champagne’s classic balance, purity and freshness in the face of a warming climate, higher grape ripeness levels, and earlier and earlier harvests.

In the vineyards, AR Lenoble became one of the early adopters of HVE (Haute Valeur Environnementale) farming standards. HVE farming was pioneered by Ambonnay’s Eric Rodez and moves growing as close to organic standards as possible in Champagne’s difficult growing conditions. Using extensive cover crops, reducing sprays, and promoting greater biodiversity in the soil and vineyard forces the vines to work harder and dig deeper to ripen grapes. This lengthens the growing season (more flavor!) and brings grapes to harvest readiness at lower sugar levels and higher acidity (more freshness!).

More Radical Still
And, in the winery, Antoine and Anne did something more radical still. In 2010, they withdrew a portion of their perpetual reserve, bottled it in magnum bottles, added enough sugar and yeast to develop about 1.5 bars of pressure (vs 4 bars for finished Champagne) and then closed the magnums with natural cork.

By holding in magnum under light pressure, AR Lenoble has been able to add even more complexity (from aging on the light lees) while locking in even more vibrancy and freshness in their reserves. As Anne has explained,

“Climate change is a reality. The challenge for the future is to be able to bring as much freshness as possible to our reserve wines. At the end of each harvest, we observe that acidity levels are much lower than they used to be. Reserve wines now need to add complexity and richness but also freshness.”

Following the 2014 harvest, Antoine decided the reserves in magnum were ready to use. He began by blending 40% reserve wines into the 2014 vintage base wines destined for the Brut Intense and Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs NV bottlings. That blend then went into bottle for secondary fermentation and spent three full years resting on the lees to integrate and develop even more complexity.

When ready to ship, the wines were given their usual cuvee names plus a new, special, designation. “Mag 14” on the bottle tells you that the wines are based on vintage 2014 and include reserve wines aged in magnum. And one taste will tell you that all the extra work and time was worth it!

 

What’s Ramato? A Short Primer on … Pinot Grigio!

Palazzone Ramato labelIf it looks like rosé, why is the wine we’re featuring this week called “Ramato?” The Italian means “copper,” and that’s a great description for the slightly orange, onion-skin coppery color you’ll find here.

Most modern rosé wine is made from black grapes – Grenache, Pinot Noir, Tempranillo, etc. – that are allowed to bleed some of their purple color into fermenting juice. Those purple-skinned grapes would turn the wine what we call “red” if left in the juice, but leave behind the various shades of pure pink we’ve come to love in rosé when removed after a few hours.

Not Black or White
Ramato is made from a grape that’s not really “black,” but isn’t really “white” either. It’s “Gris” in French or “Grigio” in Italian – a grape showing a dusky light purple color when ripe on the vine but that has much less pigment trapped in its skin than most black grapes.

Pinot Grigio Grapes
Pinot Gris (in France) or Grigio (in Italy) is the most famous of these gray grapes, and for centuries wineries in northeastern Italy made an orangey/pink wine from them – but not because that’s what winemakers were after! Until modern white wine production methods, including artificial chilling and use of stainless steel, were introduced in the 1950s, there was no way to keep the color out of wine made from Pinot Grigio.
It wasn’t until the 1960s when Santa Margherita began shipping pure white Pinot Grigio to the US and started doing a land-office business that most Italian wineries ditched Ramato and began making the white Pinot Grigio we know today.
And then it wasn’t until about 5-10 years ago that they realized pink wine could sell and returned to the old Ramato style.
While most Pinot Grigio Ramato comes from the low hills of Italy’s Friuli, this is from a touch further south and the cellars of the outstanding Orvieto producer Palazzone. We’ve been enjoying their Umbrian white Vignarco Orvieto for years and featuring their great value Sangiovese/Cabernet/Merlot Umbria Rosso Ross for a few months now. But we’re especially excited by this new addition to the line and – especially given the great introductory price – we think you will be, too!
Palazzone Ramato bottle

Update on Chain Bridge Cellars and “Reopening”

store is open but you can't come inLike you, we’re eager to get back to our pre-pandemic way of life and routines. I have photographs to prove that I looked pretty stupid with long hair when I was 14. Nearly 45 years later, it’s still not a good look on me. A haircut would be very welcome!

As Governor Northam has begun moving the Commonwealth towards more relaxed personal and business restrictions, we’ve been getting lots of questions about when we’ll return to more normal operations and allow customers to enter the store. While the calculus is complex, our current answer is simple: Chain Bridge Cellars will remain closed to in-store shopping for at least another 30 days and, quite likely, longer.

The Risk-Reward Tradeoff
Every family and business owner has to make their own decisions about direct customer contact while the novel coronavirus remains active. We sympathize with our neighbors in Northern Virginia and the wine industry who’ve been unable to earn the money they need to provide for families and staff during the crisis. We support those who feel the need to trade off increased risk of infection against the threat of financial ruin.

Our situation is different: We sell a product that people can buy without trying on for fit or receiving any personal contact from a service provider. Our product is one that people continue to want to have during the crisis, and one we’re able to sell effectively online, via email and over the phone and get to you through curbside pick-up and local delivery. And it’s one that people can no longer purchase and enjoy in the comfort of a sit-down restaurant.

Most of all, we have been incredibly fortunate in the amazing support we’ve received from you, our customers. In the early days of the crisis, more than a few of you essentially manufactured reasons to buy wine from us to help us out. But since then, you’ve continued to support us by putting up with the awkwardness of online/phone shopping, contactless pick-ups, and local delivery.

And, even more importantly, you’ve been sending us your friends and neighbors by the boatload. We are humbled – and sometimes staggered – by the number of new customers we’ve met over the past weeks who have told us, “My neighbor/friend/cousin/work colleague told me Chain Bridge Cellars would help me find wines I’d like and make it easy to get them.” We are now serving around ten times the number of new customers each week we’d see during normal times, and you are the reason why.

Staff Pictures-1

Continuing to Thrive
As a result, while so many good businesses and great people are struggling during the crisis, we are thriving. But we’re only able to continue to thrive if our staff stay well. We are five people who work in close contact with each other all day long and then head our separate ways to families who are doing their best to stay safe and well, too. If any of our team contracts the coronavirus, it seems a dead lock certainty that it will spread across the staff and to our families in very short order.

And, if that happens, the best case we can hope for is that we’ll have to shut down – and earn no revenue at all – for two to three weeks. The worst case doesn’t bear discussion.

So, as long as we’re able to continue earning enough to pay the staff and our bills, we’re going to take the maximum steps we can to prevent infection of our staff through customer contact. The shop is too small to maintain six feet of separation between customers and staff at all times, and it would be all but impossible for us to disinfect every surface you touch that we might, or every surface we’ve touched that you might.

We know this is frustrating to many customers and would-be customers. Every day, we watch people approach our door, read the signs, and then walk-away. And this frustration can be extreme: We read with horror the stories last week of shootings in fast food restaurants and dollar stores by customers angered at being asked to honor safety requirements.

The Best Balance
But, despite all that, we feel the best balance for us, our staff, and our business is to continue to keep the sales floor closed to customer traffic for the immediate future. We’ll keep re-evaluating this position based on the status of the virus in our community and how our business is doing. Hopefully, we’ll see positive changes in transmission rates and/or improved treatments soon and will be able to move back to “normal” more quickly than we currently expect.

Thanks so much for your ongoing support and understanding. If you have any questions, concerns, suggestions, whatever, please let us know. You can email me directly or call us at 703.356.6500. We welcome hearing from you.

Doug in Mask

Patricia Green Cellars 2018 Pinots

Jim Anderson2Jim and winery co-founder, the late Patricia Green, have always had a knack for connecting with great grapes and identifying vineyard blocks, bunches of clones, and individual barrels of bubbling juice that have something special to say.

Jim – with partner Patty Green and on his own since her untimely death – has been exploring the nuances of Oregon’s Pinot Noir Vineyards, the impact on those grapes of destemming vs whole cluster fermentation, new versus used wood, different coopers, even some kooky sounding stuff like adding lees back into barrels (don’t knock it – it’s how he make Notorious!).

For the past four to five vintages, it’s become abundantly clear to me that Jim is now 100% dialed in to what Willamette Valley Pinot Noir wants to be, and especially what it wants to be in each of the 30+ bottlings he makes. As Jim will freely admit, it’s probably not smart to make 30+ bottlings of Pinot Noir in one winery. But when each has something deliciously wonderful to say, what are you going to do?

Patricia Green 2018sThe 2018 Pinots from Jim and the team at PGC are pretty breathtaking. They show the character of the vintage, the unique elements of each plot of dirt where the grapes grow we call terroir, and the light imprint of impeccable, precise, and low-intervention winemaking.

But here’s the thing you really need to know: Jim Anderson’s 2018 Pinot Noirs are stupid delicious, vividly exciting, and deeply satisfying to drink right this very minute and will (hard as it is to believe) get better over the next 10-15 years (even the Reserve!).

For this, which we hope is only our first offering of Patricia Green Cellars Pinots, we’ve selected four wines that highlight something unique about Jim’s work in the winery and vineyards.

You can mix/match your way to best prices on all:

  • Patricia Green Pinot Noir Reserve 2018 (from $24.98)– The most ridiculous Pinot Noir value in the world? Perhaps. From fruit grown on the Estate, in Durant, Freedom Hill, and other vineyards (including one too famous to name). Raspberry, pomegranate, citrus blossoms, spice and smoke and a stellar finish. 92 points Wine Spectator; 91 points Wine Enthusiast
  • Patricia Green Pinot Noir Estate 2018 (from $29.98)– Ribbon Ridge Pinot is all about full-throttle fruit, bold tannins, and the salty minerality given by marine sedimentary soils. Expressive, full of tart and sweet fruits, and lovely cinnamon and orange peel complexity. 93 points Wine Spectator; 91 points Wine Enthusiast
  • Patricia Green Pinot Noir Balcombe Vyd 2018 (from $36.98)– A classic volcanic soil, Dundee Hills, Pinot Noir with blueberry and black raspberry fruit, deep concentration, and a firm, smoke-and-spice inflected, finish. 92 points Wine Spectator; 94 points Wine Enthusiast.
  • Patricia Green Pinot Noir Lia’s Vyd 2018 (from $31.98)– From a unique site that blends both volcanic and marine sedimentary soils and a range of clones, this is one of the prettiest, most floral, and delightful wines in the PGC portfolio. Consistently one of my personal three favorite wines here and both approachable and hauntingly beautiful in 2018.

Go to CBCwine.com

 

Wine Pairing: Strauss Samling and Scampi!

Recently, our own Greg Glunt enjoyed a bottle from his recently purchased case of Strauss Samling 88 2019. It’s his new “spring house white” he says! And it paired beautifully with shrimp scampi with linguini. See the recipe below.  Looks good to the rest of us too!

Strauss 1

Shrimp Scampi with Linguini

Ingredients:

1 pound linguini
4 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 finely diced shallots
2 minced cloves garlic
Pinch red pepper flakes, optional
1 pound shrimp, peeled and de-veined
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup dry white wine
Juice of 1 lemon
1/4 cup finely chopped parsley leaves

1. Place a large pot of water on the stove to boil for the pasta. Once the water has reached a full boil, add some salt and the pasta. Stir. Cook at boil for 7 minutes (pasta will be just shy of al dente). Drain and stir in a little olive oil to keep pasta from sticking together. Cover and set aside.

2. In a large skillet melt 2 tablespoons butter over medium-high heat. Saute shallots, red pepper flakes and garlic until shallots are clear. Season shrimp with salt & pepper and add them to the pan. Cook shrimp until pink then remove and keep warm (I place them in a bowl with a lid). Add lemon juice and wine to the saute pan and bring to boil. Add two tablespoons butter and 1 tablespoon olive oil. Once the butter has melted, add the shrimp, parsley and cooked pasta. Stir together and season to taste. Drizzle with a little olive oil and serve.

Strauss 2

Distinctive and Delicious Malbecs from Mendoza

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Mendoza winemakers are traveling a road to producing wines that reflect soil and place – and do so deliciously!

When Malbec burst on the American wine scene and pushed aside Aussie Shiraz as the best wine value in the USA 10-15 years ago, paying attention to the terroir of various subregions wasn’t on anyone’s mind.

As Uco Valley winemaker Matías Riccitelli told Wine Enthusiast in late 2018, “In the early days, meaning 15 to 20 years ago, the creativity came from outside,” he says. “You had Michel Rolland and his Bordeaux friends at Clos de los Siete, Paul Hobbs [from California] at Cobos, and Hans Vinding-Diers [a Dane] with Noemia down in Patagonia.”

Those outsiders brought with them an “International” understanding of what made for great red wine. And the wines they made – picked at very full ripeness, softened to smoothness, and given a sheen of spice in new oak – very much fit that international mold. And given the then very low land and farming costs in Argentina, they delivered that polished style at stunningly low prices.

A couple of years ago, we began noticing something new in the Malbecs we tried at our buying tastings.

A New Generation. As second and third generation Mendoza-born winery owners took the reins of their estates, they began looking past the international style to try to discover what was unique about their vines, soils, and locations. To be honest, most of those early attempts reminded us why Malbec traditionally plays a supporting role to Cabernet Sauvignon in most of the world.

Today, though, we’re finding more and more examples of Mendoza Malbec that is both distinctively “Mendoza” and utterly delicious. A wine class a few months ago with Sebastian Zuccardi of the Familia Zuccardi Estate provided a fine introduction to the varied terroirs of Mendoza. And, we are also featuring wines from Bodega Andeluna.

Andeluna WineryAndeluna is a great example of an estate working in the Mendoza subregion of Gualtallary that’s made the transition to wines of delicious distinctiveness. Join us on Saturday from noon-4pm and you can taste through their full line-up of current releases with export manager Nicolás Cricco. Like us, we think you’ll be thrilled with the purity of their Chardonnay, the floral complexity of their Torrentes, and the satisfying richness of both their “everyday” Cabernet and the much more serious Malbec Altutud.

But Andeluna’s Malbec Raices is most likely the wine that will stop you cold. Especially when you look at the price – at $9.98 by the bottle, the best you’ll find in the USA. At $7.98/ea by the case?

This wine showcases the unique blend of alluvial, sandy, and limestone-rich soils of Gualtallary. These free-draining soils give bunches of small berries that achieve full ripeness of flavor and tannin at modest alcohols of 13.8%. And when treated with care, they deliver wines that match their fullness and fruit with amazing freshness and superb drinkability. A can’t miss winning four-season, all-purpose red that could be the finest value you’ll find in all of 2020 to come!

Climb the Hill for Delicious Burgundy Values

Really good, stylish, delicious red and white Burgundy values are still out there – but you have to be willing to explore a bit to find them. So drive the road from Chassagne-Montrachet past St Aubin and climb the hill to the Haute-Cotes village of La Rochepot. That’s where you’ll find Jerome and Elisabeth Billard, sometimes their son Louis, and some of the most compelling white and red Burgundy values we’ve tasted in years!

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On our visit in March, Doug got to meet Jerome and Elisabeth … and Rafael the horse, an important part of Dom Billard’s vineyard care!

Jerome took over the family estate 20 years ago, in 1999, and promptly stopped selling to the local co-op and began bottling wine himself. He quickly converted his vineyards to organic farming and, while raising three children, gradually acquired small vineyard plots in select sites across the Cotes de Beaune.

Today his children are mostly grown and one son, Louis, is a budding winegrower working in the cellars at Domaine Romanee-Conti (on his days off, he helps Jerome work the family’s vineyards and is learning how to use Rafael the horse to reduce the use of tractors within the vines).

Dom Billard signElisabeth and Jerome of BillardBut the winegrowing philosophy has remained constant.

Low-Impact, Meticulous Farming: All of Billard’s vineyards are farmed organically with no chemical insecticides, fertilizers or herbicides. In four vineyards, plowing and mowing are done by horse, rather than tractor, to limit soil compactions. The vines are tightly pruned to limit fruit set and bunches are dropped while green to keep yields low.

Focus on Freshness: Jerome loves ripe fruit – but not over-ripe fruit. He picks each site to achieve fine balance of fruit flavors and acidity and then full destems and sorts grape by grape to ensure that only perfect berries make it into the wine.

Gently, Gently: Chardonnay is pressed slow and gently to extract pure juice with no bitterness from the skins or seeds. Pinot Noir goes into the fermenters as whole berries, and then are trod by foot to release the juice and extract color and structure with soft, supple, tannins. As much as possible, the young wine moves through the winery via gravity or air pressure to minimize harsh pumping.

Judicious Oak: Great Burgundy needs time in barrel and the finest, most concentrated, wines need at least a little new oak to achieve balance, finesse and complexity. But Jerome knows that too much wood flavor means that the unique signature of site and vintage can easily be overwhelmed. The whites all ferment and age in barrel, while the reds all see barrel for aging. But the quality of barrel is very high, the toast levels low, and the percentage of new oak kept down so each wine’s character and fruit can shine through.

Generosity, Drinkability, and Unmistakably Burgundy
Folks, these are seriously good Burgundies that you don’t have to be “serious” to enjoy. Highly recommended. Get ’em.

Billard Justice and santenay les hates