Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Barons de Rothschild Champagnes: A "Drops of God" Rave

"Champagne is something to enjoy."
--Philippe Sereys de Rothschild, Chairman of Champagne Barons de Rothschild.

There is more evidence of the significant impact on wine sales from The Drops of God, a Japanese manga (comic) about wine. I have written several prior posts about this compelling manga, which has a weekly readership in Japan of approximately 500,000! It is currently being translated into English, with three volumes already out, and a new volume is due out later this month. When the manga mentions a wine, it often leads to increased sales, sometimes quite significantly. That is exactly what happened to a new Champagne I recently got to taste.

On Monday, I attended a media luncheon at L'Espalier, hosted by Pasternak Wine Imports, which showcased the new Champagnes from Champagne Barons de Rothschild. This was the first time these wines were being officially tasted in Boston. They have previously been available, on a very limited basis, in New York City and Los Angeles, but are now poised to hit many of the major U.S. markets. In Boston, they are being distributed by Classic Wines Imports and representatives of some local wine stores and restaurants also attended the lunch.

Philippe Sereys de Rothschild, the Chairman of Champagne Barons de Rothschild, presided over the lunch, talking about their new project, discussing the Champagnes and answering questions. Philippe has roots in the Boston area, having graduated from Harvard Business School in 1991. His last visit to Boston was back in 2001, and now he has returned to showcase his family's latest wine project. Philippe was very personable and unassuming, as well as very open about their endeavor.

The Rothschild family has long been involved in numerous wine projects around the world, including their namesake Bordeaux. Yet until recently, they had not produced a Champagne and the family thought it was time to do so. Thus, the three branches of their family, including Baron Eric de Rothschild (Château Lafite Rothschild), Baroness Philippine de Rothschild (Château Mouton Rothschild) and Baron Benjamin de Rothschild (Château Clarke), united behind a single project instead of working on separate ones.

Creating a Champagne was not an easy task, and Philippe stated it was a  "Balance of what they know and don't know." They certainly understood how to produce wine, from viticulture to viniculture, but they knew little about producing Champagne. Thus, there was a learning curve, and they also needed to hire experienced and knowledgeable individuals to assist them with the processes, such as the art of blending Champagne.

One of their important first steps was to try to locate an adequate supply of quality grapes, especially Chardonnay, which is what they wanted for the primary base of their Champagnes. Eventually, they discovered what they sought in the Côtes des Blanc region, in the southern section of Champagne. Many of their grapes come from Grand Crus in this region, and they had no difficulty in obtaining suppliers. In fact, some suppliers now seek them out. They eventually would like to purchase their own vineyards, but they need to find a sufficiently large vineyard, at least 10-15 acres. They have found some very small plots, but they don't want a collection of tiny plots scattered about.

Their next important step was to find a Champagne producer and their search ended with the Caves de Vertus. They needed an experienced Champagne maker and found what they desired there. They now possess eight years of supply, and are in it for the long term. With their long history of involvement in the wine industry, they feel that time is on their side. Their goal is to produce the best quality Champagne they can, and are willing to take the necessary time to do so. They have plenty of future plans to expand their portfolio, such as maybe to include vintage Champagnes or a tête de cuvée.

Getting everyone in the Rothschild family to agree on all of the elements of this endeavor was not always easy, the typical problems any family would have in such a massive project. There was a lengthy discussion over what to call their Champagne. They knew that most of the major producers put their own names on the labels so they eventually decided to do the same. That was not a simple decision though as they realized the import of placing their name on the label, that the Champagne had to reflect their reputation and be a high quality product.

As part of this, they have chosen to serve their champagne at all of their formal events and functions, worldwide, to stand behind their product. They would not be good role models if they chose to drink other Champagnes rather than their own. Baroness Philippine designed the bottle and label, and there was actually lots of debate over the size of the logo, whether it was too small or too big.

Their portfolio now includes a Brut, Blanc de Blancs and Rosé. These Champagnes share some similarities, such as all being Chardonnay dominant, even the Rosé. The blends include about 40% of reserve wine and have a low dosage, about 6-8 grams of sugar. Philippe stated they would probably never create a "no dosage" Champagne as he feels it needs at least a little bit of sugar to be palatable. Their Champagnes also are aged for about 6-9 months after disgorgement and their alcohol content is around 12%.

They first began selling their Champagnes in 2009, selecting Japan as their initial market. This was more a matter of convenience and expediency as all three branches of the family had connections in Japan. That proved a fortunate and successful endeavor, and their Brut was featured in The Drops of God manga. Philippe learned of this when he received an order for an additional 12,000 cases of Champagne, and was told that the reason for the great demand was the mention in the manga. That is especially significant considering the high price of these Champagnes, from $100-$125. Who would have thought that a comic book could be so influential in selling wine?

After Japan, the Rothschilds began selling their Champagne in Switzerland and Belgium, both which proved very good markets. They are continuing to expand their distribution, though still being select, and sell about 250,000 bottles annually. They are now trying to expand into the U.S., and Boston was Philippe's first stop in his tour of the U.S. At our lunch, he presented his three Champagnes, each paired with a different course of food.

Our first dish was Georges Bank scallops with fava bean-ham ragout and Ben's wild mushrooms. The scallops were tender and nicely seared and went very well with the Brut ($100). The Brut is a blend of about 60% Chardonnay, mostly Grand Crus from Côtes des Blancs, and 40% Pinot Noir with a tiny addition of Pinot Meunier. With a pleasant aroma of green apple and pear, the Brut was crisp, dry and elegant. It had an appealing and prominent taste of apple, with subtle toasty elements, and plenty of tiny bubbles. No "frog eyes" here. Philippe stated the Brut would go very well with lobster and cheese. I would certainly agree it would be excellent with seafood, chicken or other light dishes.

The second course was a Hay-braised spring rabbit shoulder with sunchoke puree and ASF spring onions. I am a huge fan of rabbit and this was moist, tender and delicious. It too made a nice pairing with the Blanc de Blancs ($125). This wine is made from 100% Chardonnay from the Côtes des Blancs crus of Avize, Cramant, Mesnil-sur-Oger, Oger and Vertus. Like the Brut, it was crisp, dry and elegant with a lengthy finish. It also had green apple notes, as well as hints of citrus, floral notes and some minerality. Another good choice for seafood, chicken or light dishes.

Our last course was a slice of Brillat-Savarin, a triple cream cow's milk cheese, that was creamy and delectable. This was paired with the Rosé ($125), a blend of over 85% Chardonnay, from Côtes des Blancs crus, and 15% Pinot Noir, from Montagne de Reims. The blend includes 5-6% which is vinified as a red wine. This was a superb Rosé Champagne with a compelling aroma, subtle red fruit and citrus notes. On the palate, it was crisp, dry and elegant with flavors of red fruits, especially strawberry, and a little orange peel. Complex, a lengthy finish and an excellent balance. I would love to drink this on a warm, summer's day and I think it is very food friendly as well. I wish I had another glass right now.

The Champagnes of Barons de Rothschild do justice to the reputation of this esteemed family. They are quality Champagnes, which can stand head and shoulders next to comparable Champagnes from any of the major Houses. My favorite was their Rosé, which is especially unique due to the large amount of Chardonnay in the blend. Yes, it needs to be acknowledged that these Champagnes are expensive, more for when you want to splurge for some special occasion. But they are priced commensurately with quality Champagnes from other major Houses.

I wish I had a glass of the Rosé right now.

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