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October 02, 2006

A Hedonist in the Cellar

Cynthia Sin-Yi Cheng

In the celebrated novelist and longtime oenophile Jay McInerney’s new wine book, aptly entitled A Hedonist in the Cellar, the author recounts his personal anecdotes of the world of vino. When I received the galley for review, I hurriedly turned the pages to see what had been covered on champagne. I was tickled to see McInerney’s choice of three champagne subjects that are personally dear to me, as well as great introductions to the elusive world of Champagne.

My favorite of these chapters, “The Maserati of Champagne,” features one of the most coveted champagne houses in the world: Salon. The author builds the first few paragraphs up to why this house “might plausibly claim to be the first cult wine of the twentieth century,” then transports us to a lunch interview he is having with Didier Depond, the present director of Salon. I was especially amused, since I just last November had the luxury of lunching with the very unassuming Didier in Champagne. McInerney points out that the young director of this cult house has “a pretentiousness deficit,” and I can surely attest to that. Funny how we are all conditioned to imagine that a prestigious champagne house must be run by an imposing man of a certain age and attitude.

So why all the fuss about Salon? There are several key factors: 1/It is produced only in the best years in limited quantity; 2/It goes through a longer ageing period than most champagnes; 3/It is a single cru (Le Mesnil-sur=Oger), single grape variety (Chardonnay), single vintage wine; 4/It comes from twenty parcels in the most prestigious blanc de blancs Grand Cru village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger; 5/It has amazing ageing potential; 6/It only produces one champagne (most houses will have several champagnes in its portfolio).

I loved McInerney’s anecdote of how he was expecting the “toro” course Didier ordered to be tuna belly, when in fact it was bull. This was the perfect point to show that a top blanc de blancs (one-hundred-percent Chardonnay) champagne like Salon has the complexity and structure to stand up to meat, the opposite being a common misconception.

The book is also full of insiders’ tips regarding champagne purchases. The author offers — as a Christmas present to the reader — a more affordable version of Salon, Delamotte, which is the adjoining sister champagne house and which produces wines with grapes that don’t make the cut for a Salon vintage. Naturally, Delamotte is available at a fraction of the price of Salon.

The two other chapters dedicated to champagne are on blanc de blancs (my champagne style of choice) and grower producers. Now that I’ve given you a preview of my favorite chapter, I will leave you to discover the other stories on your own. Happy reading!