In his recent book The Gourmands’ Way, Justin Spring recounts the role of six prominent Americans in “the birth of a new gastronomy” by telling how they introduced French cooking and wine to the American public. Spring includes the tale behind what many believe may have been the most indulgent wine dinner ever. Craig Claiborne – then Food Critic at The New York Times – won the dining opportunity at a charity auction for WNET in November 1975, and invited his longtime friend and colleague Chef Pierre Franey to join him. They selected Chez Denis in Paris as the site of the dinner, which was donated to the public television station for their annual fundraiser by American Express. With the help of proprietor Denis Lahana, they developed the menu and Lahana selected its accompanying wines without regard to cost. Chez Denis was already described then as “a ruinously expensive right bank restaurant,” but Claiborne and Franey built their meal into a wine lover’s dream. Without regard to price, they were able to select wines from one of the greatest restaurant cellars in history, and they chose some real show stoppers. It’s most important to me to note that they opted to begin this meal with the 1966 Comtesse Marie de France from Paul Bara. The first course was fresh Beluga caviar, and it speaks volumes that with the entire world of French Champagne available to them, they selected Bara’s Comtesse Marie de France. This extraordinary bottling developed by Paul Bara is aged on its yeast lees for 9 years before release. It’s made from 100% Pinot Noir grown in parcels believed by some to be the best Pinot Noir vineyards in the Champagne region. I’ve begun a few meals with a bottle of Bara Comtesse, and I still can’t imagine a better way.
By the way, the other wines served to Claiborne and Franey that night were:
The Montagne de Reims boasts some of the best Pinot Noir in the region—Bouzy is the capital. The key to its inherent greatness lies in its deep, chalky subsoil which imparts intense expression of fruit and great mineral complexity in its grand cru wines. The village of Bouzy and Champagne Paul Bara are practically synonymous. As the published village historian, Paul is indelibly linked to the lore of his hometown. Many call him their most renowned producer, one of the rare récoltants-manipulants in a region inundated with mass-produced wine. These R.M.s, as they are known, are of the few who still grow their own grapes and make their own wines. Champagne Paul Bara is the quintessential example, everything done with personal touch.
True Champagne must not only sparkle, but also must come from grapes grown in the Champagne region of France and be made using méthode champenoise—a process that involves prolonged aging of the wine as well as a bottle fermentation used to add the sparkle to the finished product. Though wine has been made in this region since at least the 5th century, Champagne as we now know is a relatively new creation. It wasn’t until the 19th century that sparkling wine production took hold on a large scale in much part due to improvements in the strength of glass for bottles and the embrace of French nobility of the sparkling wines of the region.
Only three grape varieties may be used to make Champagne: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. The chalk-heavy soils not only provide complexity and texture to the finished wine, but also act as a natural humidifier thus keeping the vine’s roots warm during colder months of the year. There are grand cru and premier cru designated vineyard areas but unlike Burgundy, there are few lieu-dit vineyards (though in recent years there has been a greater interest in producing vineyard specific Champagnes).
Kermit’s first foray into the region came in 1981 when he began importing the wines of J. Lassalle and Paul Bara—two producers whose wines we still import. In the mid 2000s, Kermit began importing the wines of Veuve Fourny et Fils.
Of Champagne, Kermit says, “You might be surprised to learn that I don’t like a goût de terroir to dominate the taste of Champagnes. If it dominates, you lose finesse. I want some, obviously—but only enough to keep things interesting.”
Trust the great winemakers, trust the great vineyards. Your wine merchant might even be trustworthy. In the long run, that vintage strip may be the least important guide to quality on your bottle of wine.—Kermit Lynch
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