A Memorable Day in Champagne

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A Memorable Day in Champagne
A personal invitation from the Comte Audoin de Dampierre brought me to Chenay late February when I was in Paris. He had read my favorable review of his Champagne “Cuvée des Ambassadeurs” and asked me to visit him to talk and taste Champagne. I had met the dapper, seemingly British Comte six years ago when he visited our wine shop with the representative from his West Coast importer. Jay and I were impressed with his engaging personality and great sense of humor, as well with his family’s 700-year wine history and his passionate, hands-on involvement with his Champagnes. Although I was thrilled at the thought of chatting Champagne with him again, I was not thrilled at the thought of taking a train to Reims and then a taxi to an unexplored part of the Planet Champagne. I got over it, however, and the TGV sped me to a foggy, gray and raining Reims in forty-five minutes. The taxi ride was comparable to the Wild Ride of Mister Toad, and I wondered if I were being kidnapped, as we whipped around freeway entrances and exits, rural roads and suburban villages, seemingly forever.  “No problem”, said the driver.  “Chenay is a small place”. Indeed it was. We stopped at the Dampierre headquarters, in the most charming and quiet village of Chenay. Greeted by Comte Audoin, I was introduced to his staff and led to his spacious and warm back office, with windows facing his Cognac vineyards. Since it was only ten o’clock in the morning, we chatted over cups of tea and coffee until the chimes hit a civilized eleven, and we were off to his home for an aperitif of his most precious and rare Champagne, the 1998 Prestige. Welcomed happily by his three adorable tail-wagging Labradors, I was led to the formally furnished but comfy salon. The Comte made a roaring fire, his wife Roselyn joined us, and glasses were raised in a toast to our mutual good health and the continued success of their Champagnes. Audoin proclaimed this was the perfect “breakfast” Champagne, as the years had made it softer but without entirely losing the brioche nose, or gentle but abundant bubbles, and still with a sense of sublime pear.   We chatted about Champagne, theirs and those of others, and the villages where they buy only Grand Cru and Premier Cru grapes for their blends. In the family tradition, the Comte has always engaged the services of a trusted team of friends and professionals to process the grapes he selects and make his Champagnes to his exact standard. He personally takes charge of the blending and supervision of the bottling processes. The family château is a private and historic family residence, which is not used as a “Champagne House”.  There are no public tastings on the Dampierre premises. Dampierre Champagne parties and dinners are held throughout the year in France, the EU, and the United States, including many Bay Area restaurants and wine shops such as ours, featuring “Cuvée des Ambassadeurs Brut”, a favored selection in the family of Dampierre Champagnes, as well as the beautifully boxed “Family Reserve Grand Cru”. Where does Dampierre stand in the World of Champagne? The Comte mentioned that Wine Spectator writers had ranked his Champagne as 5th of all French Champagnes and has given points from 87 to 91 in past annual reviews, averaging 90, with 90 points in 2010. Since we should care more about the taste than the reading material, Audoin and I revisited the “Cuvée des Ambassadeurs Brut” in a charming little bistro in Reims, where we tasted his renowned Champagne. My first reaction was the one I always have. How absolutely refreshing and delightful is the first scent and taste: a brioche nose, non-aggressive bubbles, and always a well-balanced and lingering mid-palate of honeyed crispness. This you can consistently count on, as well as a comfortable full-mouth feel that begs for another sip. The non-vintage blend of 50% Grand Cru Chardonnay and 50% Premier Cru Pinot Noir gives a light and elegant style to a very versatile Champagne. Over lunch Audoin answered my questions. SRD:      Why do you love Champagne? CAdeD:  As long as I remember, I have been drinking Champagne and loving it. It has always been a part of my life. SRD:      What are your favorite Champagnes other than your own? CAdeD:  At my house, there is Champagne and then there is Champagne. Rodier, Henriot and Taittinger are for me! SRD:      What sets your Champagnes apart from other producers? CAdeD:  I personally buy the grapes, do the blending and sell the bottles. SRD:      Did you always feel that Champagne was your destiny from childhood? CAdeD:  Only that it was a part of my life, as I remember the Champagnes of Charles Heidsieck and Joseph Henriot being poured as a child. SRD:      What was it like growing up in the family business? CAdeD:  I never felt obligated to the family business until I wanted to become a part of it. My parents supported my exploration of life. I celebrate Champagne because I want to. SRD:      What is your favorite food pairing with Champagne? CAdeD:   Everything! Before we parted way, Audoin gave me a quick tour of Reims, dropping me at his beloved Cathedral Notre-Dame de Reims, where he serves the poor and homeless breakfast every Sunday morning. As the train returned to Paris, I reflected on the Comte’s emphasis on the importance of the relationships of family, including not only his but also those of the family of fellow Champagne makers and the family of people within his community. The exceptional boxed bottling of his “Family Reserve” Grand Cru Brut, down to the ancestral “ficelage” hand-tying of the cork to the bottle with twine and the accompanying golden scissors to release it, best expresses his sense of family history and responsibility to carrying on tradition, never to forget putting family first.
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