My first taste of fully ripened wine grapes came in 1998, when I worked the harvest in Burgundy, at the Domaine de l’Arlot. I’m sure I put grapes in my bucket, but the ones I popped in my mouth I remember the most.
What struck me was not that these grapes tasted good, which they did, but how pronounced the identity of terroir was felt even before the grapes were pressed into juice or made into wine. Sure, that expression of identity becomes even more amplified through vinification, but tasting grapes is a reminder of how much of a wine’s character is developed in the vineyard. Tasting in the Domaine’s vineyards, the character of each site was clearly on display: the pinot noir grapes from the Clos des Fôrets in Nuis-St-Georges were bold and darkly flavored, while those from the Clos de l’Arlot were delicately aromatic and redder in their fruit aromas, repeating the character found in their respective wines. The grapes from the grand cru of Romanée-St-Vivant filled my mouth with an extraordinary perfume that lingered on my palate for ages, the likes of which I’ve never experienced since in any other piece of fruit of any kind.
I’ve tasted a lot of wine grapes since then, most recently during the harvest in Champagne, where I live. During the harvest, I spent most of my time visiting winegrowers around the region, which provided plenty of opportunities to wander about the vineyards and divert grapes toward my mouth rather than in the direction of the winepress. Champagne, like Burgundy, grows two of the most terroir-expressive grape varieties in the world—pinot noir and chardonnay—and while the grapes don’t get quite as ripe here, they preserve a keen sense of identity that remains distinct from one place to the next.
In the village of Ambonnay, Krug farms the small, impeccably tended vineyard of Clos d’Ambonnay, from which they produce one of Champagne’s most expensive wines. The inaugural vintage of this single-vineyard champagne, the 1995, was released just last year, so it’ll be another dozen years before the 2009 Clos d’Ambonnay will be on the market. Yet tasting these pinot noir grapes reminded me very much of that 1995: the flavors were taut and clearly delineated, showing a juicy ripeness but also high acidity. The overall feeling was one of focused, streamlined tension.
Ambonnay is in the southern portion of the Montagne de Reims, an area known for producing ripe but highly structured pinot noir. Just a few kilometers to the southwest is the village of Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, which lies on the northern bank of the Marne River. The physical distance between the two villages is not far, but the characters of their wines are worlds apart. Grapes from Ambonnay feel firm and edgy, whereas in Mareuil the fruit, tempered by the warming influence of the river, shows a broader, gentler accessibility. Mareuil’s most renowned site, the steep, south-facing Clos des Goisses, always shows more ripeness than the surrounding vineyards, combined with a more rigid structure as well—tasting the pinot noir grapes in the Clos des Goisses this year revealed a classic juxtaposition of breadth and focus, power and definition, the flavors finishing with wonderful length and dimension.
Beautifully sunny weather in the last few weeks leading up to the harvest produced unusually ripe grapes for the 2009 vintage. In the village of Aÿ, to the west of Mareuil, I walked through the vineyard of Bonotte with Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, chef de cave of Louis Roederer. Roederer’s low-yielding, 60-year-old pinot noir vines in Bonotte are used to make the red wine that is blended into the Cristal Rosé, and since 2007 the house has been farming them biodynamically. Biodynamically-grown grapes can often demonstrate a greater intensity of fruit flavor, and combined with the naturally high ripeness of 2009, these were luscious and seductive, showing a perfumed depth and a vibrant richness of aroma.
Afterward, Lecaillon took me a few kilometers south to Avize in the Côte des Blancs, home to some of the finest chardonnay in the world. Here, in a vineyard called Pierre Vaudon, Roederer has both biodynamic and conventionally farmed parcels, allowing us to sample the two, side by side. We both marveled at how much they differed: the biodynamic grapes were clearly more fragrant and much fuller in flavor, while the conventionally grown ones were downright bland by comparison, emphasizing their acidity over fruit flavors.
“But just because the grapes taste better doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll make better wine,” warned Lecaillon. Having tasted the vin clair, or still wine, from these parcels in previous vintages, I’ve observed firsthand how this biodynamic chardonnay can be alluringly fruity yet sometimes lack finesse, while the conventional wine can develop a subtle complexity after fermentation, driven by that finely elegant acidity. Rather than becoming prematurely prejudiced, I’ll have to wait until the spring, when the vinification is complete, to see how these 2009s turn out.
A little farther south, in the village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, the Pierre Péters estate makes incisive, chalk-driven champagnes from pure chardonnay, and the estate’s top wine, the Cuvée Spéciale, comes entirely from a vineyard called Les Chétillons. Compared to the wines of Avize, which are fuller-bodied and richer in flavor, the wines of Le Mesnil are racy and sleek, possessing a pure, crystalline expression of minerality.
These grapes in Les Chétillons showed that graceful clarity of flavor and mineral-infused liveliness, perhaps enriched by the naturally high ripeness of 2009. “2009 will be an excellent vintage,” says proprietor Rodolphe Péters. “2008 was also very good, but the two are a little different in character: 2008 feels more tense, more pointed and racy, whereas 2009 is rounder and more ample. It’s a bit like ’88 and ’89.” If 2008 and 2009 turn out to be anything like those outstanding vintages of the past, we have something marvelous to look forward to indeed.