The Umami of Champagne

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Champagne's stylistic range is born, in part, from an appellation with nearly 34,000 hectares under vine and from the potential to blend many of those myriad terroirs. However, an important part of the breadth and the particularities of these wines comes from a pivotal step in the Méthode Champenoise : long lees aging.

The same yeast cells that create the limelight bubbles of Champagne also play a role in the less appreciated, but more complex process of sur lie (on the lees) bottle aging. Two to four months after the period of the Prise de Mousse (bubble-forming), the yeast cells begin autolysis, a slow breakdown with absolutely magical effects for the eventual Champagne.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From this crucial stage of bottle aging, which lasts a minimum of 15 months for non-vintage Champagne and at least 3 years for vintage Champagne, arise so many of Champagne’s hallmark aromas and flavors. Among the most characteristic is the fifth primary taste, umami.

Etymologically derived from the Japanese word, umai translated as “delicious”, and mi, translated as “taste”, this fifth taste is closely associated with the savory stock, dashi, delivered from kombu (edible kelp) and kezurikatsuo (large, thick shavings of dried and fermented skipjack tuna). As a flavor and as a descriptor, umami can be closely linked to several savory stocks and broths (as shown below).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Umami has been defined, in peer-reviewed articles, as the specific taste of glutamates and certain nucleotides. Champagne fans are quite correct in finding umami flavors in their wines because naturally occurring glutamic acid and certain nucleotides are released from degrading yeast cell walls during the critical stage of lees-aging.

It should be noted that all Champagne’s characteristic autolytic aromas (biscuits, fresh dough, acacia, baguette, umami) remain finely moderated by the cool temperatures of Champenois cellars and by the relatively low pH of most of Champagne’s base wines (eventual Champagne, prior to the Prise de Mousse and lees-aging). This means that autolysis happens at a noticeably slower rate than under ideal conditions and autolytic aromas develop slowly and in balance with more floral and fruity aromas of the wine. They can be thought of as the savory notes that provide a foil and breathe life into sweeter tones.

Each of the following Champagnes offer the fantastically delicious, savory, umami filigree that has made Champagne a wine of great food-pairing possibilities and attractive to many, nuanced and varied palates.

- David Salinas

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Bérêche, Raphael NV (2011 Base) Champagne Extra Brut Rive Gauche

Rive Gauche shows the adaptive and expressive nature of old vine Meunier, this wine has enough personality to carry the whole of Raphaël's lineup. Light amber in color and offering up a generous mousse, striking aromas of root beer, black tea, freshly baked biscuits give way to McIntosh apples and dark chocolate covered tangerines. The palate is expertly poised, but remains juicy and fun at its core with notes of ripe raspberries, vanilla bean, and Graham crackers before a savory, umami finish. A gastronomic Champagne, from drop to drop, with enough tannic structure to pair with more generously sauced seafood (Disgorged: 11/14, Dosage 3g). -David Salinas

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Brochet, Emmanuel NV Champagne 1er Cru Le Mont Benoit Extra-Brut (10/

Organic vigneron Emanuel Brochet farms makes one of our favorite Champagnes from a meticulously farmed 2.5 hectare plot called 'Le Mont Benoit' in the village of Villers-aux-Noeuds. All three major Champagne grapes are grown in the chalky-clay soils over Cretaceous chalk of the mid-slope vineyard. The 2010/09 base Le Mont Benoit extra-brut  is composed of 50% Pinot Meunier, 25% Pinot Noir, 25%Chardonnay and spent 47 months aging sur lie (Dosage 4g, Disgorged 1/2014). Brochet's Champagnes always show an overt minerality, which expresses itself in a broader earthy character. This is at once nervy, and resonant. The ripeness of the 2009 fruit balances the leaner nature of the 2010 vintage. The tension between the fruit and savory mineral notes is intriguing. The aromatic profile is cool-toned with pear, citrus peel and seashell dominating. The palate is medium-bodied, deep, and rich with a salty dry, savory, lingering finish. This would pair beautifully with crudo or Belon oysters. -John McIlwain

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Collin, Ulysse 2011 Champagne Extra Brut Blanc de Noirs Les Maillons

The Champagnes of Ulysses Collin are among the most distinctive we are lucky enough to taste. From his cellars in Congy, located to the west of the Côte des Blancs, Olivier Collin produces serious, vinous, Champagnes of terroir. His "Les Maillons" bottling is one such wine. From 40+ year-old vines in Barbonne-Fayel in the Sézannais planted in soils of heavy clay and chalk and harvested at low yields "Les Maillons" is ripe, dense, rich, and complex. The 2011 edition (with 20% reserve wine from 2010) is a bit backwards upon opening, but comes into focus with a bit of air. Faintly copper-hued in the glass, Les Maillons has vibrant notes of dark red fruits and crushed herb. The ample palate is dense, stony, and chiseled without any of the greenness that marks many of the 2011-based Champagnes. For a wine of its scale, it is remarkably agile and poised—think Muhammad Ali rather than Larry Holmes. John McIlwain

 

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Fleury NV Champagne Brut Fleur de l'Europe

This is a brilliant Champagne from an estate in the Cotes des Bars that has been biodynamic since 1989. The varietal blend is 85% Pinot Noir and 15% Chardonnay; the wine shows powerful yet pretty aromas of apple, marzipan, mushroom, and earth. There is an almost sake-like note to the nose that I frequently find in Pinot Noir based Champagnes. The wine is raised in stainless steel and bottled with seven grams of dosage, which is barely perceptible due to the wine's incredibly high acidity and bracing minerality. A terrific Champagne, especially for the price. -msb

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Godmé NV Champagne Brut Integral 1er Cru

Sourced entirely from Premier Cru vineyards this blend (50% Chard, 30% Meunier, 20% Pinot Noir) has no sugar added. Faded Gold in color and showing a finely beaded moussse, the nose offers aromas of biscuits, cinnamon, spearmint, and thyme. The palate has an electric opening that develops into a broad, peppery/minty middle before a savory finish of hops and sea salt. Deliciously versatile! (Disgorged 9/2013).

- David Salinas

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Lahaye, Benoît NV Champagne Brut Naturessence

Equal parts Chardonnay from Tauxières and Voipreux and Pinot Noir from Ambonnay and Bouzy from 45-60 year old vines, vinified in barrels from biodynamic master Benoît Lahaye?!? Yes, please! Sign us up. This is the kind of Champagne that we love: vinous, complex, and deserving of time to open up as well as ample contemplation. This rendition of Naturessence shows both roundness of texture from barrel maturation and intense cut from low dosage and absence of malo-lactic fermentation. At a loss for our own words, we'll add a brief note from Champagne expert Peter Liem: "This is a wine of uncommonly subtle refinement and expression, and also one that is easily overlooked—spend some time with it and allow it to reveal its full potential." We certainly could not have said it better ourselves. (Disgorged 4/2014) MSB

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Laval, Georges NV (2010 Base) Champagne Cumières Premier Cru Brut Nature

Domaine Georges Laval is the epitome of a tiny, artisan estate. The estate is just 2.5 hectares in the 1er Cru village of Cumières, close to Ambonnay and Bouzy but with full southern exposition. Vincent Laval makes a miniscule amount of extremely terroir-driven wine (we are one of the few places in NY offering Laval). The estate has been organic since 1971 and is certified with Ecocert. Fermentation takes place in barrel with indigenous yeasts; there is no fining, filtration or cold-stabilization, and minimal use of sulfur. It is 50% Chardonnay and then split between Pinot Noir and Meunier. This edition of the Cumières is based on the steely 2010 vintage. The wine smells like delicate wildflower honey and fresh cut grass. It's extremely mineral-driven and resonant on the palate, and very chalky on the finish. Brut Nature Champagne lovers dream come true... (disgorged April 2013)  MSB

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Laval, Georges 2006 Champagne Brut Nature 1er Cru Cumières Les Chênes 1.5 L

An absolutely towering Blanc de blancs, from a tiny, super-chalky site in Hautvillers. The 2006 Les Chênes Magnum is a wine for the ages, which will cellar with punctilious grace thanks to a vibrant core of minerality. The nose unfolds in stages and bursts of aromas from violets to taragon, mace to lemon verbena. The palate is seamlessly powerful and carries notes of Golden Delicious and thyme through to a lengthy, savory, and smoky finish. Magnificent. (Disgorged 7/2014).

- David Salinas

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Maison Bérêche 2006 Champagne Extra Brut Grand Cru "Montagne" Disgorged 12/14

Finally, let's climb Maison Bérêche's smoulderingly savory "Montagne", a blend of 70% Pinot Noir from Mailly and 30% Chardonnay from Verzy.This dark-toned beauty is bright brass in color with aromas of mesquite, toffee, candied red apple, and cardamom carried aloft by a discretely beaded mousse. The palate is broad and juicy with a savory core of lemon butter, apple galette, and hickory that extends out lemon/lime edges and a finish of dark chocolate nibs, peppermint, and sun-brewed black tea. Just gorgeous! (Disgorged 12/14, Dosage 3g). -David Salinas

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Selosse NV Champagne Blanc de Noirs Sous le Mont disgorged 2014

Grown from a single 7.5ha Pinot Noir Premier Cru vineyard in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, on the eastern facing slope of the same hill as the venerable Clos des Goisses, Anselme believes that the magnesium carbonate in the soil of this site gives the wine a savory quality. Light copper in color and adorned by a discrete and finely beaded mousse, the nose offers aromas of dried rose petals, cardamom, smoked venison, grilled almonds and hops. The palate is powerful and carried aloft by a mineral frame with notes of black licorice and cloves that shimmer to a bitter mint chocolate finish. (Disgorged 2/2014, Dosage 2g). David Salinas

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Tarlant NV Champagne Extra Brut Cuvée Louis (1999 base)

This wine really stood out at a tasting with Benoit Tarlant this winter. Based on the 1999 vintage with '98, '97, and '96 in the bottle as well, the wine is vinified in barrel, without malolactic fermentation, and is bottled Extra Brut (2 grams of sugar). 50/50 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, this is a toasty, cheesy, nutty, savory bottle of wine that will resonate with mature Champagne lovers. (disgorged February 2013) -msb

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Tarlant NV Champagne Brut Rosé Zero

Tarlant pulls off smart austerity with enough charm, character and nuanced flavor to make for compelling and food-oriented Champagne. The NV Rosé (in this case based on the superb 2008 vintage) shows off red fruits such as currant and raspberry, which are interestingly contrasted by a spicy note that borders on being peppery. Not overtly creamy, this Rosé is extrememly minerally and elegant. (85% Chardonnay, 15% Pinot Noir -- non-dosé -- disgorged 6/13)

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Vouette et Sorbée 2011 Champagne Blanc d'Argile

Made from low-yielding biodynamically-farmed Chardonnay planted in the Kimmeridgian marls in the west-facing vineyard site of Biaunes, Blanc d'Argile is a blanc de blancs any many ways closer in character to Chablis than the chiseled Champagnes of the Marne. The distinction between the two types of chalky soil is palpable in the pungently mineral Blanc d'Argile. The nose is briny and citrus-inflected, with savory herbal notes. This cool-toned fruitiness (indicative of the 2011 vintage) carries over on the palate with a range of yellow fruit, seashell, and flinty sapidity. Typically, the long ripening period afforded by the vineyard manifests itself in a denser, richer, nearly flamboyant fashion; this vintage shows a leaner cut highlighting the Kimmeridgian pedigree. (Disgorged 5/2014).

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Vouette et Sorbée NV (2011) Champagne NV Blanc d'Argile 1.5 L

Made from low-yielding biodynamically-farmed Chardonnay planted in the Kimmeridgian marls in the west-facing vineyard site of Biaunes, Blanc d'Argile is a blanc de blancs any many ways closer in character to Chablis than the chiseled Champagnes of the Marne. The distinction between the two types of chalky soil is palpable in the pungently mineral Blanc d'Argile. The nose is briny and citrus-inflected, with savory herbal notes. This cool-toned fruitiness (indicative of the 2011 vintage) carries over on the palate with a range of yellow fruit, seashell, and flinty sapidity. Typically, the long ripening period afforded by the vineyard manifests itself in a denser, richer, nearly flamboyant fashion; this vintage shows a leaner cut highlighting the Kimmeridgian pedigree. (Disgorged 5/2014).

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