As you may have noticed, I’ve been on a pregnancy-induced blogging sabbatical. It’s been harder to keep up with STBNY during pregnancy than I would have hoped. (In fact, it’s been harder to do everything during pregnancy than I would have hoped, but that’s another matter.) I have made a few exceptions. Late last year I went to a tasting of Tom Seaver’s wines, where I got to meet the great man himself. (Yes, that Tom Seaver. More on him soon, I promise.) And last week I went to a dinner/”sensory experience” for Ruinart champagne. Given that most of my sensory experiences lately have involved discomfort, heart palpitations, back pain, and nausea, a night of champagne tasting seemed like an excellent alternative.
The experience went something like this: following a very pleasant half-hour of chatting with fellow invitees/bloggers and the supremely charming Jean-Marc Gallot, president of Ruinart, we took our places, which were set thusly:
Each of the 8 vials in the box contained a different scent, which, according to the brain trust (nose trust?) over at International Flavors + Fragrances, was present in Ruinart’s Blanc de Blanc champagne. It was our job to identify each of the smells and match them to the correct answer on a pre-printed list of 16 different aromas. Of course, we each had a glass of the Blanc de Blanc to help us along.
With Gallot teasing/encouraging us, we sniffed and scribbled away. Was #2 lemon…or grapefruit? The table arrangements held clues — like this little pot of pink peppercorns:
You’ve heard of blind tastings? This was more of a “blind smelling,” which put our collective olfactory skills to the test.
1. The folks over at LVMH are some damn fine marketers. Ruinart is the oldest continuous champagne house, and one with a slightly below-the-radar profile here in the U.S. This event was the perfect way to position Ruinart as a “boutique” brand, less mainstream than Moët or Veuve-Clicquot, but more accessible than Dom Pérignon or Krug. Gallot is the perfect guy to lead the charge. He has that all-too-rare combination (at least in the wine business) of American openness and French, well, Frenchiness. When I asked him what he liked to drink when he wasn’t drinking champagne he said he loved Bordeaux but…was beginning to really enjoy Burgundy. In New York, where obscurity is often touted as a virtue, and it’s nearly impossible to keep up with whatever the wine hipsters are drinking (“What you mean you’ve never had Grolleau? That was so 2010!”) it’s refreshing to remember that one can very happily stick to the classics. (If one has the budget for it, that is.)
2. Delicacy and simplicity are not the same thing. The chief virtue of Ruinart’s Blanc de Blanc is its finesse. Made from 100% Chardonnay — that’s what “Blanc de Blanc” means — this champagne is definitely on the lighter, crisper, end of the spectrum, which is the style I prefer. I think of champagnes like this as “lacy,” although I’m not sure how helpful that comparison is for anyone else. Nonetheless, it’s fair to argue that most of the smells they gave us were somehow present in the wine itself. I might take issue with the white peach, and I definitely wasn’t buying the pineapple (not coincidentally, the only one I got wrong), but ginger, jasmine, cardamom? Why not? Just because a wine is delicate or subtle, that doesn’t mean it can’t have a lot going on. I think it’s particularly difficult to detect this complexity in champagne, where texture (i.e., those bubbles) rather than aroma/flavor, makes the strongest first impression. Hence my classification of this wine as “lacy.” If that word doesn’t make intuitive sense to you, so be it: but I’d encourage you to pay as much attention to a wine’s texture as to its flavor. This is easiest to do with the extremes — say, sparkling at one end of the continuum and port at the other — but it’s not too hard to detect the silkiness of a good Pinot Noir or the roughness of a too-young Barolo or Bordeaux.
3. Wine bloggers are a competitive bunch. I’ve been to some fancy schools over the years and live in a city filled with Type A personalities, but nothing compares to a roomful of wine writers trying to out-smell and out-taste each other. I’m not sure why that is. Perhaps the subjectivity of wine-tasting makes it all the more important that we state our opinions with authority? Or because an evening of sipping champagne in each other’s pleasant company doesn’t feel enough like work, so we have to be extra-serious in our wine analysis? Whatever the reason, I’ll cop to it as much as the next wine blogger. God knows, I’m still annoyed I only got 7 out of 8 right. Do you think I can turn in an extra-credit assignment?