John Corbett embraces a remembrance of fizz past.
[Editor’s note: This article first appeared in GR magazine.]
“Do you remember,” I asked the eminent wine writers seated around the table, “when the French Champagne makers decided to ‘get’ the New Zealand market in the 1980s?”
The writers lifted their noses out of their tasting glasses.
“You could go,” I said, “to the Wineworths shop at the Downtown Bus Terminal and buy Lanson Black Label, Moët & Chandon, Mumm Cordon Rouge, Veuve Clicquot – you name it – for $19.95 a bottle.”
The wine writers looked nostalgic.
“Ah yes,” said one, smiling in a meditative way, “that certainly dates you, mentioning Wineworths.”
Back in the day, the now über-trendy Britomart Precinct in downtown Auckland was a hotchpotch of abandoned and decaying buildings. Smack in the middle of the urban blight, between what are now Cafe Hanoi and Ostro, Wineworths catered equally to toffs bound for the eastern suburbs and battlers heading west to Blockhouse Bay.
The writers looked reflective as they recalled how, once the French had got us well and truly hooked, the prices gradually and inexorably rose. They looked downright sombre when they reflected on how much a good bottle of Champagne costs these days.
We were basically quite happy though because we were ensconced in the elegant private dining room of a restaurant in the posh suburb of St Heliers, tasting our way through some of the finest vintages of the house of Lanson Champagne (founded in 1760).
“It was a wonderful sensory experience to see how great Champagnes, like
beautiful, elegant and well-preserved women, age….”
We started with Lanson’s flagship non-vintage Lanson Black Label Brut, which exhibits some of the classic traits that set Lanson apart from a lot of Champagnes which, we were told by the local Lanson rep running the tasting, are now made sweeter and “softer” for contemporary tastes. For a start, Lanson does not induce malolactic fermentation (a secondary fermentation) in the making of its wines. This way, the company says, the freshness, fruitiness and aroma profile of individual cuvées are preserved and allowed to reach their full, aromatic potential. It also helps the wines keep better.
Drinking this wine was a classic Champagne experience: it tasted just the way it did when I first got “hooked” on it.
Things got even more interesting as we proceeded through a Rosé Brut non-vintage (great with meat courses and desserts made with fresh red fruit) and on to the first of several wonderful vintage Champagnes. These included Lanson Gold Label vintage 1996 – one of the all-time rated vintages; Lanson Noble Cuvée 1995 and Lanson Noble Cuvée Blanc de Blancs 1996. The last was often served on the late and much-missed Concorde. It’s a great aperitif and goes brilliantly with shellfish and fish, but since we are talking stratospheric quality here, I found I preferred the Noble Cuvée 1995: it was a lovely pale yellow colour, had a nice citrusy aroma and tasted faintly of honey, with that crispness that only Champagne provides. I think it would be a great all-rounder, suiting duck and other dishes as well as fish and seafood.
In the keeping with the “Things Past” flavour of the occasion, we went quite a way back, tasting Gold Label and Lanson Brut vintages from 1994 (this got a big tick from me), 1993, 1990, 1988 and 1981. It was a wonderful sensory experience to see how great Champagnes, like beautiful, elegant and well-preserved women, age. The general taste movement is often described as toward notes of petrol/paraffin; it seems an indelicate description but the notes were there, albeit in a very well-mannered way.
After the tasting, waiting in the wind for a cab on an unseasonably cold late-summer day, I reflected on why I love Champagne. Most of the time these days it’s out of my financial reach and of course it will never, ever be $19.95 again.
“We can tell our grandchildren,” one of the writers had said earlier, “that once upon a time we drank Champagne in plenty.”
You could also tell them that Champagne reminds you of why people strive to make rare and beautiful things. And that there is nothing like it in the world.