Yesterday my father came over to celebrate the birth of our baby. One of the things I share with my father which I hope to pass on to my daughter is a certain curmudgeonliness when it comes to champagne. Our attitude is that for the price of a reasonable non-vintage one could get a superb Rhone. Some occasions, however, demand champagne. I had been saving a bottle of Billecart-Salmon Sous Bois for when the little one arrived. I’m very fond of this house. A bottle of their 1990 opened my eyes to how champagne could be so much more than fizzy acidic stuff that makes your breath smell. This one, as its name suggests, is fermented and matured in wood just as Krug and Bollinger are.
It certainly smells very special. It brought to mind a passage from Adam Gopnick’s The Table Comes First. He sees tasting notes as entirely subjective and open to suggestion:
‘Wine writing is. . . a series of elaborate plausible compliments paid to wines. When the French wine writer Eric Glatre declares, say, that the aromas of a bottle of Krug “intense empyreumatic fragrances of toasted milk, bread, fresh butter, cafe au lait., and aftethoughts of linden join in a harmonious chorus with generous notes of acacia honey, mocha and vanilla,” he is suggesting that, of all the analogies out there out there, there might be one that expands our minds, opens our horizons, delights imaginations. He is offering a metaphor, not an account book.’
There is a poetic element to Gatre’s writing but he is also describing flavours as precisely as he can (I had to look up empyreumatic in the dictionary – something to do with burnt aromas.) If you read his description without knowing what the wine was, most people with a little tasting experience would recognise that he was talking about a luxurious champagne or perhaps a mature white burgundy. These are evocative descriptions not just because of convention but because the aromas really are there. Back to the Billecart-Salmon, on the nose it smelt of custard – there’s the milk and vanilla that Gatre mentioned. On the palate it tasted of walnuts and fresh coffee. It was not dissimilar to Krug Grande Cuvée, which I was fortunate enough to try a couple of weeks ago, but much lighter, fruitier (don’t ask me which fruits) and more fun. The Sous Bois is a serious wine as it should be for £65 a bottle but it has a gaity that suited the occasion. The Krug would have been too demanding.
My father took a sip and said ‘that’s good’ and then went back to looking adoringly at his granddaughter.