Wine Colimn June 24, 2009

Clouds parted for Food & Wine Magazine Classic in Aspen

The rains that turned Colorado’s high country into a wildflower paradise took Friday off, just in time for the first day of the three-day 27th annual Food & Wine Magazine Classic in Aspen.

When you live in the mountains long enough you expect the unexpected, whether it’s 50-degree weather in March or snow showers in July.

But even the glitterati of Glamour Gulch found the incessant series of toad-stranglers a bit depressing, as one local remarked while waiting for a cup of coffee, “It’s been 40 days of rain and Noah’s building a boat in my alley.”

The weekend mostly saw brilliant sunshine, a perfect high-country welcome to the much-anticipated weekend of seminars, parties, demonstrations, more parties and high-profile star-gazing.

It’s a world just like that of big-time sports and politics, where everyone who is anyone is known by his or her first name. Walk down an Aspen street or linger in a cafe and you’re bound to encounter (or at least gawk over) Mario or Bobby or Michael or Jacques and Claudine in the food end of things as well as just about every wine writer and blogger you might imagine.

And like the other celebrities who appear in public in this private town, not much is made of their day-to-day wanderings.

You can get plenty of gossip and star-worship at the parties, but while those gatherings certainly are the hottest topics for local chatter and a sort of spirited competition to see how many you can crash, they really aren’t the reason for attending.

Each year I’m amazed at how much knowledge and passion for wine and its many mysteries and attractions is gathered in one small venue. The most difficult decision is which seminar or demonstration to attend.

Do I hear about Italian wines or Spanish? Washington reds, Napa cabernet, great value Burgundies or spicy Rieslings? Do you watch Jacques and Claudine Pepin prepare “Fast Food Our Way” or listen to Michael Chiarello and organic farmer Peter Jacobsen talk about sustainability and the “Farm-to-Fork Connection”?

On that opening morning, bereft of direction on a sea of temptations, a stroke of luck found me in a seminar on vintage champagnes sponsored by the Champagne house Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin of Reims, France. Founded as Clicquot in 1772 by wine merchant Phillipe Clicquot, it became the first Champagne house to ship a rosé Champagne by 1775.

But in 1805, his son Francoise, then head of the company, died prematurely and left the company to his widow, Barbe Nicole Ponsardin, who became the “veuve” (widow) of Veuve Clicquot. Madame Clicquot decided to stay at the company’s reins and in 1810 changed the name of the company to Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin and that same year produced the company’s first vintage Champagne.

She was known as a good businesswoman and innovator. She invented the technique of riddling, hanging bottles upside down and occasionally turning them so the sediments can be removed, leaving a wine that’s clear and sparkling.

Among the selections were two Rare Vintage releases, a 1985 and 1988 rosé (to compare with a recent non-vintage rosé and a 2002 rosé) along with a stunning 1978 rosé.

The seminar was led by renowned wine importer Bartholomew Broadbent, who in 1997 was named one of the 50 “most influential in the wine world.”

Broadbent reminded the audience that older Champagnes, just like older Burgundies and other fine wines, change constantly in the glass and cautioned us that no one knew what to expect, particularly from the 31-year old Champagne.

We weren’t disappointed. The 1985, from a very small vintage due to exceptionally cold weather that killed or damaged many vines, still had fine bubbles and flavors of red fruit, earth and spice.

The 1988 (both wines were disgorged in 2002 after the company decided to sell part of its vast library of wines), carries a nose of dried fruits, flowers and what only can be described as terroir.

And even the 1978, darkened by age to the color of sherry, was rich and earthy, with a hint of what panelist David Schofield described as the land in which the wine was grown.

“Only Champagne can smell like this,” said Schofield, holding the glass deeply to his nose. “You can smell the chalk the vines were rooted in.”

More next time on the Food & Wine Classic and my time with Grand Junction grape growers (and soon to be winemakers) Neil and Diane Guard.

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