Brought to you by Unwined
Story & Photography by Brian Acton
To this day, I still remember my first glass of proper Champagne. I was prepping dinner for my girlfriend (she would later become my wife) and it completely stopped me in my tracks. I suppose we had something to celebrate—that part of the memory is long gone, but the wine remains. I tried to get a reprieve from my prep duties so that I could concentrate on the wine. The Champagne had a level of detail and complexity that I didn’t think was possible in sparkling wine: wildflowers, mint, bright orchard fruit, lemon confit and pastry cream. My experience up to that point was with Champagnes made more in an aperitif style by big brands. I use “brands” here quite deliberately. I’m not naming names—some of the large Champagne houses are quite good, perhaps even the best, but the fact that Moët et Chandon, for example, is rumored to make around 30 million bottles each year makes it a completely different beast, than say, a small grower-producer with a few thousand cases per annum.
Given all of the winemaking processes that go into the production of Champagne, it just hadn’t occurred to me that they could be so, well, vinous—that they could be complex, age worthy, convey terroir and pair so well at the table. The Champagne I’m proposing for your consideration today has all of that in spades: Lilbert-Fils Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Perle NV ($112). The Lilbert family has been cultivating vines in the village of Cramant in Champagne’s Côte des Blancs sub-region since at least the mid-1700s. The Côte des Blancs, as the name suggests, is predominantly planted to Chardonnay (approximately 98%), but its historical name, Côte Blanche, is also telling. It is a roughly 12-mile stretch of slope running northeast to southwest from Avize in the north and Vertus in the south, prized for its exposed bedrock of pure white Cretaceous chalk.
The villages of the Côte can be grouped geographically from north to south, based upon the style of wine they produce. Generally, the villages of the north, where the Lilberts are based, like Avize, Chouilly and Cramant, have some clay in their soils, which tends to yield wines with riper notes of citrus and brown spices. Whereas the southern villages of Oger and Les Mesnil-sur-Oger tend to be purely chalk, yielding wines with an intense minerality. The Lilberts own a scant 8.6 acres of vines divided between 15 parcels in the grand cru villages of Oiry (10%), Chouilly (30%) and Cramant (60%). Everything is done by hand at this family-owned and family-run estate. Their total production is less than 2,500 cases. Today’s wine, Perle, is the house’s rarest and most sought-after wine and it taps out at under 500 cases made each year.
Perle is a special selection of the oldest vines from all of their parcels, most of which were planted in 1936. The dosage is kept low (three to four grams per liter), and it is bottled at lower pressure than most Champagnes (four bars of pressure, rather than six), yielding an expressive wine that speaks of its place. It is just the thing to pour for your family to make them feel cherished. Be sure to steal a generous pour for yourself and take a break from your dinner prep to savor it.
This holiday season, I recommend pairing it with gougères, savory choux pastries mixed with salty cheese. They freeze well and are just the thing for entertaining. The recipe hails from The Wine Table by Vickie Reh, chef, sommelier, former colleague and friend. The book is equal parts travelogue, cookbook and wine book. Give it a read!
Other recommendations include: Pierre Gimonnet & Fils Cuis 1er Cru NV ($65), Pierre Péters Grand Cru "Cuvée de Reserve" NV ($70) and Pierre Péters Grand Cru "Réserve Oubliée" ($130).
Makes roughly four dozen small bites
1 cup water
3 oz (3/4 stick) unsalted butter
1 tsp kosher salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
4-5 large eggs + 1 egg beaten for egg wash
1 cup very finely shredded Gruyère cheese + ½ cup for garnish
1. Heat the water, butter and salt in a four-quart sauce pan over high heat until the butter melts and the water boils. Remove the pan from heat and stir in the flour. Using a wooden kitchen spoon, stir until no lumps remain. You may have to mash some down. Then, return the pan to medium heat while stirring for three to four minutes until a thin film begins to form on the bottom of the pan. This film is crucial, as it ensures a dry dough. Transfer the dough to a large kitchen bowl and stir for another minute or so, allowing the dough to cool slightly.
2. Beat the eggs to combine the yolks and whites. Add the beaten eggs to the dough in a quantity approximating one egg at a time, then beat until incorporated before adding the next egg portion. This may be slow going at first. The dough should be roughly the consistency of rich mashed potatoes in the end, plopping back into the bowl when lifted by a spoon. Mix the cup of finely-shredded Gruyère into the dough at this time.
3. Brush each gougère with the egg wash and sprinkle each one with the reserved Gruyère. Bake in a 425-degree oven, preferably on convection, until golden brown, for about 18 to 22 minutes. You should rotate the baking sheets twice during baking. Depending on the size of your baking sheets, you may need to cook them in batches. The dough can be held at room temperature, covered with plastic wrap during this process (up to two hours).
4. Once golden brown, remove the gougères from the oven and use a metal spatula to place them on a cooling rack. Pierce the side of each one with a pairing knife to allow steam to escape. Serve them warm or at room temperature. After they cool, they may be frozen. To reheat, bake them in a 350-degree oven for less than 10 minutes. Do the same to re-crisp if serving the next day, even if not frozen.