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Washingtonian Drinks Column


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On page 133 of the December issue of Washingtonian (ironically titled the Best of Washington :lol: ) you will find Rocks' premier article as the new wine columnist for The Washingtonian.

This month he covers artisanal champagnes and we learn that RM stands for more than romance......

Congrats!

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Don - interesting read.  Congrats!

A comment: I was surprised by the mention you made of Gerard's Place.  Didn't you have some negative experiences there in the last year?

All, thank you very much for your kind words. Quite honestly it feels strange being in the public eye, and I'm not entirely comfortable with it. Regarding small-grower champagnes, a friend of mine commented that 'just because it's small doesn't mean it's good, and just because it's big doesn't mean it's bad.' He's right, of course: an RM on the label is not an absolute guarantee of quality - many of the smaller houses can't afford to select from the best parcels and must also hire an oenologue to help them make the wine. The large houses have tons of money, and can afford to to use older wine in their NV champagne and also to hire the best winemakers available. All this to say that anything I write is (and should be) subject to scrutiny and crticism, and I don't want anyone here to hold back when they have suggestions, objections or even complaints. As I've quickly learned, writing for a publication on deadline is difficult - there's neither the time nor space to make things as pefect as I'd like, and it's very different than writing on the internet.

JLK, I had to hunt mightily to find a few good restaurants in the area that serve RM champagnes by the glass, and Gerard's Place is one of the few that does (I also found one at Restaurant Eve the day before final edit and had to scramble to get that into the piece). It's timely you should bring up Gerard's Place - stay tuned...

Cheers,

Rocks

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Regarding small-grower champagnes, a friend of mine commented that 'just because it's small doesn't mean it's good, and just because it's big doesn't mean it's bad.'  He's right, of course:  an RM on the label is not an absolute guarantee of quality - many of the smaller houses can't afford to select from the best parcels and must also hire an oenologue to help them make the wine.  The large houses have tons of money, and can afford to to use older wine in their NV champagne and also to hire the best winemakers available. Cheers,

Rocks

Having been paid to taste more than 300 wines last summer in France, I can assure you that there is still an ocean of terrible wine being produced in all categories, regardless of size of the house and humbleness of origin. Bad winemaking knows no boundary. The best and only solutions are to read a critic who's taste you agree with or taste the wine yourself.

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Having been paid to taste more than 300 wines last summer in France, I can assure you that there is still an ocean of terrible wine being produced in all categories, regardless of size of the house and humbleness of origin. Bad winemaking knows no boundary. The best and only solutions are to read a critic who's taste you agree with or taste the wine yourself.

Each year Brunello's Consorzio hosts a trade tasting with about 80 or so Brunellos available for tasting. Of the 80, I usually find 20 or so really good wines, regardless of vintage. And these are wines that retail for $50 a bottle on up!

There is far more crap on the market than anything else! And the next part of the market is souless, mediocre wine. Good wine is far and few between!

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Each year Brunello's Consorzio hosts a trade tasting with about 80 or so Brunellos available for tasting.  Of the 80, I usually find 20 or so really good wines, regardless of vintage.  And these are wines that retail for $50 a bottle on up!

There is far more crap on the market than anything else!  And the next part of the market is souless, mediocre wine.  Good wine is far and few between!

Luckily, P.T. Barnum's maxim is still working overtime.

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Still waiting for the letter carrier to bring me my copy. You'd think that subscribers would get it before it hits the newsstand. :lol:

At least in a monthly publication you can sometimes print an update. Just think if it were a book in print--there's no turning back then!

Cheers!

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Mine came by mail about 2 weeks ago - you might want to make a call to Washingtonian!

Still waiting for the letter carrier to bring me my copy.  You'd think that subscribers would get it before it hits the newsstand.  :lol:

At least in a monthly publication you can sometimes print an update.  Just think if it were a book in print--there's no turning back then!

Cheers!

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I watched a fantastic show on Comcast HD In Demand over the weekend on the history of Champagne. It was interesting to learn that the great depression and Russia's political unrest were really at the core of creating small house champagne when local growers couldn't get big producers to either buy grapes or for that matter get a fair price for the grapes. Its a good show check it out if you can.

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Found this in the a one of the local wine-shop newsletters I grabbed while I was out stocking up on bulk Gallo for the holidays.

“I am drinking the stars.”

-- Dom Perignon

Cave Dwellers and other metro-area residents of a certain age and income were treated to the first non-pornographic public work of one of the wine world’s rising stars, Don Rockwell, in this month’s Washingtonian magazine. Writing with the crispness of a just-released Tête de Cuvée, Rockwell explored the world of recoltant-maipulant – small grower – champagnes, kissing the work of obscure winemakers like Henri Billiot French style, on both cheeks, and bitch-slapping larger producers like Moët et Chandon, Veuve Cliquot and other bastard children of the LVMH empire.

“The difference between Grande-Marque and small grower Champagnes is the difference…between Lay’s potato chips and the rustic versions made by locally owned Route 11,” he observes helpfully, before exploring the back roads of Washington’s champagne markets with the help of tour guides like Mark “Syrah goes great with menthols” Slater and Terry “ja, ich habe auch champagne” Theise.

Apparently – perhaps surprisingly – written while sober, the result is a fine introduction to the whys and wheres of small-batch champagne buying, certain to fill you with guilt as, dashing party-ward at 8:30 on New Year’s Eve, you snatch up yet another bottle of Piper because you can’t remember what was in the article.

Long-time fans of Rockwell’s underground work will note the lack of what some saw as defining idiosyncrasies of his oeuvre – thinly-veiled personal attacks, French proverbs, obscure Washingtoniana and smut – but the near-encyclopedic knowledge of wines and of the local scene that have always been the bass notes of his free-form rants shine through.

Rockwell denied, by e-mail, that he had threatened to quit and start his own magazine if he were not granted more editorial freedom.

Rockwell is apparently part of a youth (relatively-speaking) movement begun by new food and wine editor, Todd Kliman, in an attempt to improve Washington’s somewhat fusty readership demographics (in a recent survey, 68% of Washingtonian readers said they would be “very likely” to subscribe to a large-print version of the magazine). The gap between the New Kids’ outlook and that of the Old Guard is perhaps most clearly illuminated in Kliman’s choice of “Busboys and Poets’” impresario Andy Shallal – a man who actually aims to attract gays, African Americans and bike couriers as customers – and the readers’ pick of Auberge Chez Francois as the area’s “best” restaurant for the 89th consecutive year.

Whether Rockwell will be part of the team that bridges that gap, or if the callow, free-spending youth demographic has already been lost to DCStyle -- despite their fucking over some talented and dedicated contributors, not they they’re bitter -- remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, a toast of something obscure and delightful -- something that goes great with a hand-crafted, dill-vinegar crisp -- to Don, and to Todd for bringing him on. Good to see someone get the ink they deserve.

Edited by Waitman
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Any suggestions as to where to puchase some of these small grower Champagnes online?  Shipping to CA, as an fyi.

Any suggestions on which local purveyors have a decent selection of good RMs?

I think these are both ideal questions for Terry Theise's chat next week - why don't you ask him there?

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Because I need to place an order for a client today at the behest of my boss. :)

I just PM'd you about California delivery.

Locally, you can call Doug Rosen at Arrowine, Elliot Staren at Wide World of Wines (they had 5-6 about a month ago, and were also taking pre-orders for Chicquet, Larmandier-Bernier, etc.), Joe Riley at Ace Beverage (who just started stocking some recently, I believe) and Joe Kluchinsky at MacArthur (MacArthur's selection last month was limited, but they can probably order). Also you can call Planet Wine in Alexandria and try Cecile's/FineWine.com in McLean (they have some Rodez for sure). Calvert-Woodley is reputedly not good, and neither is the store in Cleveland Park. I didn't try Paul's or Schneider's or the place by Meiwah. Maryland selection I saw last month was terrible, even at Silesia. Terry will be able to give a more detailed answer, but only for his portfolio (however, his portfolio is by far the most important nationally).

Cheers,

Rocks.

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I just PM'd you about California delivery.

Locally, you can call Doug Rosen at Arrowine, Elliot Staren at Wide World of Wines (they had 5-6 about a month ago, and were also taking pre-orders for Chicquet, Larmandier-Bernier, etc.), Joe Riley at Ace Beverage (who just started stocking some recently, I believe) and Joe Kluchinsky at MacArthur (MacArthur's selection last month was limited, but they can probably order).  Also you can call Planet Wine in Alexandria and definitely try Cecile's/FineWine.com in McLean (they have some Rodez for sure).  Calvert-Woodley is reputedly not good, and neither is the store in Cleveland Park.  I didn't try Paul's or Schneider's or the place by Meiwah.  Maryland selection I saw last month was terrible, even at Silesia.  Terry will be able to give a more detailed answer, but only for his portfolio (however, his portfolio is by far the most important nationally).

Cheers,

Rocks.

Arrowine has the Egly-Ouriet. Definitely worth looking for.

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Don noted in the article that the Pierre Peters Blancs de Blancs can be found at the Trader Joe's in Fairfax. I saw it today at the Trader Joe's in Old Town Alexandria for about $40 a bottle. They had about 8 of them on the floor; not sure if they had any others out back.

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Joe Riley at Ace Beverage (who just started stocking some recently, I believe)

Don,

Thanks for the mention in the Washingtonian, I really appreciate that, and I've had a lot of fun turning folks onto the Aubry Rosé.

Just a correction here though from your quote - We didn't "just" start stocking them, but the marketplace has played havoc with these wines over the years. Let me explain.

If I had my druthers, I'd carry EVERY SINGLE OFFERING from Terry's portfolio of Champagnes. They take me through the entire spectrum of wine enjoyment, from thrilling, shoulder-shaking bottlings to sublime, thoughtful crus and everywhere in between. I could spend all of my time selling them, for they are entirely worth it. When Terry first started with Champagnes, I was on board from day #1, but back then, he was local, and I could call up the Kronheim company and order what I required and have it the following day. Now that he is with Skurnik, I have to seriously consider D.I. (pre-arrival) for some offerings and what I can reasonably sell, and I have to rely upon his distributor (who is doing heroic work in selling thse, by the way) for the rest. The other problem that developed (pre-millenium Champagne hysteria) is that I had to offer many of these Champagnes at prices that consumers inevitably compared with the "big" houses, which control 95-98% of the Champagne sold in the U.S.A., and by and large I find that wine consumers have a very low threshold of confort when it comes to purchasing bubbly. They'd rather go with a label that they've either seen advertised, or heard about, and they are highly suspicious and doubtful of Champagne labels that are completely unfamiliar to them. Forget the fact that there are over, what, 2,000 growers in Champagne who have nothing to do with any of the big houses, it is a great hurdle to get most of these folks to buy Champagne that they don't know about. I also have to believe that, if the Champagne in question is being purchased as a gift, then the prestige factor comes into play, i.e., "See how much money I was willing to spend on you?" versus "What the hell is this stuff?" Regrettably sad, yet all too often true.

Thankfully, from a grower-Champagne enthusiasts point of view, there have been huge price hikes in Champagne since 1999 and coupled with the conversion from francs to euros and the January 2003-present day tanking of the dollar vs. the euro, the big Champagne houses prices have gone way up and the prices of the grower Champagnes, which don't have huge ad campaigns or other such marketing structure to fund, have increased at an almost glacial pace compared with their behemoth bretheren, and these growers bottlings are much more attractive price-wise than before. Oh sure, there were always some basic sans-année bottlings which were MUCH less expensive than, say, Clicquot Yellow Label or Moët Brut Imperial, but the more specialized bottlings, rosés and têtes-de-cuvées were properly priced at a premium (quick aside here - wouldn't Spiro Agnew have been proud of that last turn of phrase? Okay, back to my rant) but the price-gap has changed for the better.

I thank the Internet for providing increased accesability to good Champagne information (and other wine information for that matter) because a new generation of wine drinkers has never read an issue of Wine Spectator and doesn't subscribe to The Wine Advocate of International Wine Review, or Decanter or The Vine, et. al. They get wine information in snipets in U.S.A. Today, or the Friday Wall Street Journal, or the Wednesday Washington Post or New York Times (or their online versions) or any number of other online media, for their computers at home and at work are indispensible. They haven't been bludgeoned into believing that if you aren't "serious" abut wine then you aren't allowed to pursue it as an interest. Many of them will never buy a Bordeaux future, or build a cellar, and I admire their fearlessness and the unbridled joy that they get from simply enjoying the wine drinking experience. Kudos to them, for THEY are the ones who are driving the grower Champagne market and coloring outside the lines of Moët/Mumm/Clicquot/Perrier-Jouët/Piper-Heidsieck/Louis Roederer, etc..

I should also say that Terry Theise is one of my personal heroes and I'm proud to call him a friend, so I am completely partisan where Terry and his portfolios are concerned. He is one of the most important wine personalities in the United States, and his catalogs are more than just promotional sales vessels, they are practically manuals for intelligent living. To the children of the Internet era, I say that Terry was a life-hacker long before such a term ever entered the global lexicon. To read his catalogs in .pdf format, pleae go here: http://www.skurnikwines.com/msw/theise_catalogs.html

I hope to carry many more grower Champagnes in 2006. There are some favorite labels that I'd like to get back into our store.

Having said all of this, here's my single greatest complaint about the big Champagne bottlings, by which I'm largely referring to the non-vintage or sans-année bottlings which drive their sales: They are dull and boring because they are PURPOSELY designed to be inoffensive.

Budweiser is the biggest selling beer in the United States. Is it because it is the best-tasting? No, it's because it offends the fewest number of people. Same with Champagne. If, and I'm taking an educated guess here, the Veuve-Clicquot "Yellow Label" Brut N.V. is the biggest selling Champagne in the U.S.A. is it because IT is the best tasting? Of course not, and for the same reason as I stated about Budweiser. And you wonder why so many people say that they don't even LIKE Champagne? They may drink it when offered, they may even give it as gifts, but I have long heard from so many how they don't even enjoy the stuff. For what you generally have to pay for it, that's not only a shame, it's unacceptable.

Every Champagne grower will tell you that before you make good Champagne, you must first make good WINE. It should have some distinctive taste, preferably reflecting the soil, the terroire from whence it sprung, and the primary fruit of the grapes it is comprised of. These Champagnes are out there, and in D.C. you don't have to look very hard. Whether it is a Bollinger R.D., a vintage Krug, or an Aubry rosé, its primary reason for being is to deliver drinking PLEASURE, first and foremost. Anything else is secondary, or window dressing. You are paying for a particular experience, and it should deliver the goods.

If anyone would like help tracking down a particular Champagne, I'm only too happy to help. Please feel free to drop me a p.m.

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Interesting post, Joe. I well remember buying Theise champagnes from you years ago. BTW, Terry is a true raconteur (sp) of the wine world. I once attended a dinner he hosted which was a hilarious, instructive evening. He ranks with Kacher for educational entertainment in my book. I only wish there was more degorgement info a la Egly on producer's labels. Champagne is a delicate creature. Too long on a warm retailer's shelf spoils the magic, IMO.

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Don noted in the article that the Pierre Peters Blancs de Blancs can be found at the Trader Joe's in Fairfax. I saw it today at the Trader Joe's in Old Town Alexandria for about $40 a bottle. They had about 8 of them on the floor; not sure if they had any others out back.

Bless ya Don, I finally cracked open a bottle of Pierre Peters the other night and it was both delicious, and a steal at $40. The bubbles were seemingly endless too, and managed to keep pace while I slowly nibbled my way through a couple of fruit tartlets for dinner. Magnifique.

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(Santa asked me to post since he's not a member of this site)

Dear Don,

I'm afraid the elves were unable to pick up your present(s) this year. I'm terribly sorry for the disappointment. We do have a lot of accessories for iPods this year, including chef coats and Burburry umbrellas. I am also working with my freinds in Japan to launch Iron Chef for XBox. I hope some of these other options appeal to you.

Happy Holidays,

Santa

Edited by Meaghan
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In the February issue of Washingtonian, which just hit stands, Rockwell talks about the painful trend of expensive white Burgundies aging prematurely and warns of the risk of buying that stuff at retail level for long-term cellaring.

Away from this take the compromise: a list of a handful of affordable white Burgundies, recommended for drinking as soon as today.

Nicely done!

Edited by Meaghan
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I haven't seen Don's article yet, but thanks to Neal Rosenthal, I've come to the conclusion that some white Burgundy ages better than red Burgundy, but I really think that this pertains to a very certain few conscientious growers, some of whom he represents.

The leaner, more minerally, style of white Burgundy has been slowly disappearing, having been replaced by the thick, gloppy, modern white Burgundy, more Californian in style, tasting more like dessert sometimes. I understand that this accounts for Ramonet's popularity, for example.

Granted, if you have a very hot year and acidities are low, this kills their chances for longevity, but in the classic years, with more normal weather and the opportunity for grapes to achieve true physiological ripeness and good acidity, then you really have the potential for greatness.

If you ever get to taste a white Burgundy from a Grand Cru site from a top-tier grower, with a little bit of age on it, then you will be treated to what every chardonnay-grower dreams of. It is a holy grail of sorts.

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After sending my last post, my husband happened to open a 1996 Chablish Grand Cru Valdon. It looks to have been a special bottling, unfiltered from the barrel, for an importer in California.

I tasted it without knowing what it was. I tasted vanilla, but overall the wine tastes old. Not "eww, spit it out and dump the bottle," but not the good wine I would have expected.

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After sending my last post, my husband happened to open a 1996 Chablish Grand Cru Valdon.  It looks to have been a special bottling, unfiltered from the barrel, for an importer in California.

I tasted it without knowing what it was.  I tasted vanilla, but overall the wine tastes old. Not "eww, spit it out and dump the bottle," but not the good wine I would have expected.

Who was the grower?

The 1996 Chablis, especially the Grand Crus, should be aging magnificently, if properly stored. 1996 saw the highest levels of natural acidity in a generation, they were absolutely electric, whippet-racy and zippy. I hope to live long enough to see this vintage duplicated in northern Europe.

If you tasted vanilla, that's a sure sign that the wine saw new oak. Rene & Vincent Dauvissat is the only grower in Chablis that I've ever seen who could pull that off successfully.

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Who was the grower?

The 1996 Chablis, especially the Grand Crus, should be aging magnificently, if properly stored.  1996 saw the highest levels of natural acidity in a generation, they were absolutely electric, whippet-racy and zippy.  I hope to live long enough to see this vintage duplicated in northern Europe.

If you tasted vanilla, that's a sure sign that the wine saw new oak.  Rene & Vincent Dauvissat is the only grower in Chablis that I've ever seen who could pull that off successfully.

Joe, I agree that it should be aging magnificently. Trust me, we have stored it properly, although we can't vouch for how it was handled before we purchased it.

My husband isn't here right now, and he's better at reading labels than I--that's why he's in charge of the cellar and I handle the saute pan. The label says 1996 Chablis Grand Cru, Reserve, Valmur, Appellation Chablis Grand Cru Controllee, G. Robin Proprietaire. The label on the back reads "North Berkeley Wine, Barrel Selection. This wine was Barrel Selected exclusively by North Berkeley Wine and was specially bottled non-filtered." I don't know where my husband purchased this bottle.

I fear that this wine may have fallen victim to the oxidizing that Rocks wrote about in his column. I have not tasted a Chablis that tasted quite this way before.

edited to correct spelling. :)

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Ahhh, North Berkeley Imports. North Berkeley is widely known for its "Cuvee Unique" wines, which pretty much always show more obvious new wood than the "regular" cuvees imported by a given producer's other US agents. It's confusing, and I'm not a big fan of the practice. This sounds like another one in everything but name.

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Ahhh, North Berkeley Imports.  North Berkeley is widely known for its "Cuvee Unique" wines, which pretty much always show more obvious new wood than the "regular" cuvees imported by a given producer's other US agents.  It's confusing, and I'm not a big fan of the practice.  This sounds like another one in everything but name.

Please, tell me more!

I just checked the label and, yes, it does say "Cuvee Unique". Also, is the cork supposed to have the vintage and vineyard name on it? This cork just said "Mis en bouteille a la propriete".

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Cork is not required to have vintage and vineyard name on it.

About the Cuvees Uniques, there's not much more to say.  Just be advised that if NBI and Kermit (or NBI and Louis-Dressner) bring in the same producer, NBI's C.U.s will be different and oakier.

I get that, and, as I said, we did taste oak. That wasn't the bad part. The bad part was that it was darker in color than we expected, and tasted way over the hill.

The bottle was purchased in DC, and, as I said earlier, was cellared properly, just like all the other bottles of wine we have.

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Ahhh, North Berkeley Imports.  North Berkeley is widely known for its "Cuvee Unique" wines, which pretty much always show more obvious new wood than the "regular" cuvees imported by a given producer's other US agents.  It's confusing, and I'm not a big fan of the practice.  This sounds like another one in everything but name.

Bingo.

All I had to see was "North Berkley" and I can pretty much guess what the problem was.

I've had the opportunity in the past to taste bottlings from the same estates imported by North Berkley and by Peter Vezan. Guess which bottlings were more authentic, more true to the grower's intentions, the soil and more varietally correct?

There may be a certain segment of the U.S. wine drinking populace who enjoys these "special" bottlings from North Berkley, but I am most certainly not one of them.

Caveat emptor, indeed.

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Bingo.

All I had to see was "North Berkley" and I can pretty much guess what the problem was.

I've had the opportunity in the past to taste bottlings from the same estates imported by North Berkley and by Peter Vezan.  Guess which bottlings were more authentic, more true to the grower's intentions, the soil and more varietally correct?

There may be a certain segment of the U.S. wine drinking populace who enjoys these "special" bottlings from North Berkley, but I am most certainly not one of them.

Caveat emptor, indeed.

So, Joe, you're saying that the wine was oxidized because it was from North Berkley?

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So, Joe, you're saying that the wine was oxidized because it was from North Berkley?

No, just seconding what jparrot said. North Berkley isn't someone that I'd want to buy from because of their business practices. I think that they do more harm than good, and "their" bottlings are not nearly as interesting or true to character as the same wines via someone such as Peter Vezan, who is non-interventionist.

Perhaps the cork was faulty. To answer your question, corks don't have to say anything on them. "Mis en bouteille a la propriete" is pretty standard for wineries that practice estate bottling.

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Reading Don's article scared me as I have a few bottles sitting in my cellar. I just opened a bottle of Albert Bichot 1998 Corton-Charlemagne. The cork was fine, the color pale. The taste...I am not great at written descriptions, but all I can do is moan, in pleasure. Someone would have to help me here, Tropical fruits? Fresh Apricots, slightest accent of oak. I opened this up for dinner, but I may skip the food and just enjoy this.

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