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Stunningly Good Champagne


Sometimes a wine is so good that you immediately have to get on a plane and fly to Italy for five days just to calm down, which is apparently what happened to me after I went to the Champagne Jacques Selosse dinner at 11 Madison Park about a week and a half ago. Now that the synapses are back in working order, here are a couple of observations.

Anselme Selosse, the proprietor of this boutique Champagne producer, rarely comes to the US. In the past, the same has been true of his wines. Now, thanks to the combined efforts of the Rare Wine Company and Polaner Selections, they're as here as they're ever likely to get—which is to say, production is miniscule and prices are high, so tracking down a bottle of one of Selosse's Champagnes is still a challenge. But it's at least sort of sub-holy-grail level now.

What does he do that's different? There are technical considerations—only using native yeasts for fermentation, using little or no sulfur dioxide for stabilization, fermenting and aging the base wines (pre-fizz) in barrels rather than stainless steel tanks, rigorous organic farming, and so on. But he's also one of the first and most influential of the grower Champagnes; estate rather than blended wines that focus on the terroir of a distinct parcel of land, and which seem to command ever larger portions of the real estate on many of the top restaurant wine lists around the country.

In one of those gnomic statements that certain French winemakers are so adept at emitting (Marcel Deiss, Jacques Lardiere and Nicolas Joly all come to mind), Selosse the other night said, "I am like a Chinese doctor. I try to keep things in balance, a question of vitality and health." Similarly, "The unifying idea of great wine is like water from stone. Water from stone would be the most pure water." I like both those statements, recondite as they are. But I particularly liked his comment that a great wine should shine from within, just as a beautiful gemstone seems illuminated from within. Describing wine is often the deploying of apt metaphor: that one's a winner.

So, for that matter, were the wines, and so—on par with them, and no small feat, that—was chef Daniel Humm's cooking. Lately, every time I go to 11 Madison, I come away wondering, roughly, how can this guy keep getting better and better? This time, what blew my mind was a perfectly slow-cooked piece of loup de mer, topped with ever-so-slightly-crunchy microcubes of calamaretti (whoever had to brunoise all those calamaretti deserves a big ol' drink), accompanied by an earthy, lusciously creamy matsutake mushroom sabayon. OK. Very fancy. Also, texturally complex, absolutely delicious, playful, and unexpected all at once. Plus, it went extremely well with Selosse's 1999 Millésime, a seductive, full-bodied Champagne with baked bread, green apple, apricot and earthy notes, and what I wrote at the time was a "coppery austerity." Not sure exactly what I meant by that, but it still seems right. 

And that Champagne was modest compared to the Selosse Contraste, a Blanc de Noirs from a single vineyard in Aÿ. Powerful, with an almost saline minerality, it also had stunningly rich apple, raspberry, butter cookie (yep), and red plum nuances. "So immense and graceful," was what I scrawled down. "Like a stone ballerina."

Well! A topic, maybe, for another time: what several glasses of Champagne will do to your prose. Good thing I put my pen down at that point and decided, what the hey, from here on out I might as well just enjoy myself.  


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