Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

CHAMPAGNE – THE MOST AURAL OF WINES

April 2016. The pressure inside a bottle of champagne, we’re told, is about the same as that inside the tyre of a London bus.

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Champagne, like all wines, starts out as fermenting juice, suffused with bubbles. But – unlike still wines – it retains those bubbles, cherishing them even. Over time, by mysterious alchemy, they’re refined, reduced to near-invisibility (the smaller the bubbles the finer the champagne), before being gently incorporated into the flavour and texture of the wine. That thrilling energy, trapped inside the bottle, can sometimes persist for decades, growing ever gentler as the years roll by – a storm within calm.

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The greatest of all sparkling wines (as I see it), champagne can be made from one or all of a trinity of noble grapes Chardonnay (Chard.), Pinot Noir (PN), and Pinot Meunier (PM). Each of them behaves differently, and confers different traits, according to their own nature, to the terroir, the microclimate, the vintage, and the exposure, as well as the vinification and maturation. The proportions of that blend, and the way the blend is handled, can be varied to infinity.

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When the bottle is eventually broached, the whole process is reversed. Liberation at last! If the champagne itself were a genie released from the bottle, it would surely grant you three wishes (one wish IS always granted: having a glass of champagne in your hand!). The resultant explosion can be noisy or muted – the latter when the champagne has some age. There’s always a bit of theatre about the uncorking of champagne: nobody turns the other way when it happens.

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But the event is uniquely aural too. The pop of the cork, sometimes as loud as a pistol shot, is followed by the fizz and susurration of the seething wine. It’s not just a sonic happening but also an arrestingly visual one: wine’s version of son et lumière. And it’s tactile too. When a shivering column of champagne bursts inside your mouth, delivering a Catherine wheel of taste sensations, you feel a beneficent dynamism that stimulates and thrills.

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Anselme Selosse, of Champagne Jacques Selosse, is a very special person. The Selosse name is one of the most prestigious in Champagne. Yet M. Selosse is one of its very smallest producers – just 60,000 bottles a year. And that in a region where a house that produces “only” one or two million bottles is looked upon as small! (the biggest brands produce tens of millions of bottles per annum).

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But small is definitely big in this instance: Selosse champagnes are among the most prestigious and sought-after of all – and command some of the very highest prices.

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The reason for his success? A passion for perfection, a unique style, and wines of great ageability.

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I dropped in one evening when Anselme Selosse was also receiving a couple of dozen other wine tasters from all over the world. A warm and spontaneous person, he looks more like a humane poet or, say, a sculptor, with his craggy features and mop of frizzy hair. Brimming over with enthusiasm, a fount of ideas, he addressed us from the heart, jumping impulsively from one idea to another, correcting himself, interrupting himself, revealing his innermost thoughts – often very allusively. “Sap… terroir…indigenous… All our tools are the same but the places are not the same… when a slope’s of more than 15 degrees the rain brings the clay down to the bottom of the slope… When I plant vines in a particular spot, that spot’s different from anywhere else. It’s like when you pick mushrooms…

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”Nothing is sterile, everything’s seething with microorganisms…”

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He continues, thinking aloud, always searching for the mot juste, and often interrupting himself when a new angle presents itself. At one point, when he tries to find a particularly apposite word that escapes him – a French word – a kindly Japanese lady supplies it for him… in French! Everybody present knows he’s uttering noble truths, nobody is entirely sure of what he means, yet all eagerly respond to what are clearly deeply felt emotions, revealing insights, about a subject he knows as intimately as anybody else on earth.

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He continues: “Transparency is crucial…One is like a midwife…Ah!… Where a wine is born… And when… and why…

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“Low acidity is no problem for me. The mineral salts in the soil correct the balance. The calcium here is different from in Burgundy. There, it’s crystalline. Here it’s plankton-infused…. All good wines – like people – are different.”

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We all agree emphatically.

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JACQUES SELOSSE BLANC DE BLANCS “INITIAL” (blend of several recent vintages)

The full, grapy aroma emits whiffs of apricot, toasted almond, chocolate, and pistachio. In the mouth it seethes satisfyingly, persistently, releasing all manner of mineral notes while also making one aware, in a revelatory way, of the extraordinary nature of Champagne’s terroir. Now it’s very appley, but more the cooking than eating kind (the malic acid is insistent) with a distinctly salty aspect and an iodine nuance.

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“No taste of alcohol”, declares M. Selosse. We all taste again, registering that he’s absolutely right, despite the 12.8 ABV.

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JACQUES SELOSSE BLANC DE BLANCS “ORIGINAL”

The nose is more refined and very focused. More complex too, conjuring up apple, orange peel, and grapefruit. It’s a round and fullish aroma, with hints of snuff, nutmeg, orange blossom and apricot. The rich, swirling flavour is long and intense and of rare individuality. The orangy aspect burgeons and there’s also a hint of liquorice. A high clay content of the soil imparts a smooth mineral texture to the finish, with a pleasing flick of bitterness. A wine of great sweep, to enjoy with food rather than as aperitif.

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2003 SELOSSE

2003 was a spectacularly hot year and this shows in the rich, slightly orangey colour and a nose that evokes toffee, brazil nut, and apricot. The flavour is full and assertive too, and my thoughts turn to green fig, tobacco, and apricot. The aftertaste is mildly bitter, with a hint of angostura and bay leaf.

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To our astonishment, M. Selosse comes round with a pipette, giving each of our glasses a tiny squirt of water. The ’03 instantly grows fresher and more vital. By this action he demonstrates the simple fact that the freakishly hot 2003 gave mostly rather heavy wines whose main defect (the good ones, anyway) is that they can be a bit too dense. That tiny squirt of water corrected the balance, instantly making the wine fresher, more appetising.

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2005 SELOSSE

This has a precise, balanced aroma of mirabelle and grapefruit, with a suggestion of mixed herbs and pollen (I think especially of marigold). The luscious flavour brings a reprise of mirabelle and grapefruit, with a gentle orange-peel bitterness on the distinctly mineral finish. Better-balanced than the ’03 and still young, it’s a mouth-filling champagne, that will continue to improve for a long time.

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On to a Champagne address that’s a nest of frivolity. But also a temple of classicism. And classicism of the most solemn and serious kind. How is this strange dichotomy possible? It’s because No 7 rue de la Brèche d’Oge in le Mesnil d’Oger is the joint base of two totally different champagnes. The approach of Delamotte, the larger of the two (and the parent company), is lighthearted and titillating (that doesn’t rule out a certain rigour, but it’s a rigour aimed at giving sensuous pleasure).

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The Salon, by contrast, shows an almost Socratic seriousness, focusing as it does on the eternal verities of Champagne: depth of flavour, longevity, and the unfathomable depths of precious subsoil packed with all manner of minerals. Salon is made solely from Chardonnay grapes harvested in Le Mesnil, one of the very greatest of all Champagne sites. It was created over a century ago by a millionaire obsessed with the notion of absolute perfection. Salon Champagne, he decreed, would be released only in the very greatest vintages (they’ve only produced 37 vintages in a century). If Delamotte champagnes can be relished when very young, Salon’s demand long ageing – sometimes a half-century.

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DELAMOTTE N.V. (Non-Vintage, 9 g dosage. 55% CH, 35% PN, 10% PM)

This has an elegant and precise aroma of greengage, apple, and honey. The flavour is crisp and vital, very clean-cut and extremely appetising, with a hint of rhubarb on the finish. An excellent aperitif. The 2010 vintage accounts for 80% of the blend, the rest being from the two previous years.

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BLANC DE BLANCS N.V. (mostly 2009, from three wine villages)

The nose is broader, grapier, and distinctly vinous. It smells different too: lime peel, apple, greengage, a hint of fig. Medium bodied, with a longish, elegant aftertaste. An excellent wine to drink now and over the next two years.

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2007 BLANC DE BLANCS (6 g dosage, disgorged end 2014)

This wine’s intense green-gold colour signals, and delivers, greater concentration and depth. The nose, of real poise and complexity, evokes russet pear, greengage, honey, with a hint of chlorophyll. The delicious flavour shows real elegance and is beautifully balanced. The aftertaste is long and mineral, with a chalky finish. A lovely champagne to enjoy over the next 2-3 years (why not, I find myself thinking, with John Dory?).

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DELAMOTTE ROSE N.V.

The salmon-pink colour derives from a 20% Pinot Noir component, which also confers extra body and weight. The charming aroma conjures up rowanberry, strawberry compote, with a fugitive hint of plum. A deliciously round, fruity champagne to enjoy with (say) canapes or why not red mullet?

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All four of these Delamottes are seductive – and thirst-quenching.

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And now for something completely different.

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2002 SALON

This has the kind of rich, nuanced green-gold colour one associates with top white Burgundy. The extremely complex nose conjures up mirabelle, apple, chalk, and white clay. Lovely balance and the promise of great depth. (“Gorgeous, pure, buoyant nose!” I write, in thrall). The flavour takes full charge of the palate, drenching it with the savours of all the above elements, with the addition of sweet almond and russet pear. This is an entrancing champagne of the highest order, so harmonious you can drink it now; yet it’s clearly so structured it will improve for decades.

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1997 SALON

The colour is a rich evolved green-gold, its intense, mature bouquet suggesting greengage, melon, mirabelle, and lime peel – all melded seamlessly into a magnificent whole. It’s a lovely buoyant, unforced scent that energises the brain. The flavour, of great bearing, has a floating quality, taking full possession of the palate and releasing all manner of subsidiary flavours that are tinglingly fresh. A faint bitterness on the finish adds still another dimension. This is too great a wine to set aside. You simply have to go back to it. A fresh sniff shows that its scent is now still more masterly and all-encompassing, with a voluptuous quality that goes hand in hand with a classic, yet understated, rigour. Lovely now but able to improve.

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(Back home, in order to augment this tasting, I sacrificed one of my own precious bottles of the truly great 1996 Salon – a wine that’s been so obdurate that, while clearly of the first order, has not exactly been a joy to drink over its first two decades – and was delighted to find that it’s at last started to open up: firm, intense, very long, but still far from full maturity. Surely one of the greatest Salons ever.)

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At the house of Deutz I’m received by the highly sympathetic Jean-Marc Lallier, a member of the founding family. Yearly production is around two million bottles “which could perhaps rise to about two and a half million,“ he tells me. They make eight different cuvées including a Non-Vintage, a Vintage, a Prestige, and Cuvée William Deutz. They own 42 hectares of vines but also have access to grapes from a total of 235 hectares. Grapes of the finest quality are supplied by thirty families of growers. Quality is the key: Deutz Champagnes are made up of 80% Premier and Grand Cru grapes. No barrels are used and their declared aim, stylistically, is “delicacy and freshness.”

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DEUTZ BRUT CLASSIC (8 g dosage, one-third each PN, PM, CH.)

This pale wine has a fresh, lively nose of grapefruit, greengage, chlorophyll, and lemon sorbet. Harmonious and gently vinous, it’s both elegant and satisfying. No wonder the great Paris restaurant Taillevent uses it as their house champagne. This cuvée represents 80% of Deutz’s total production.

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2009 DEUTZ BLANC DE BLANCS

A hint greener, with still finer bubbles (smaller than pinpricks), this has that special nuanced look that’s a hallmark of all superior wines (like the difference between paste jewellery and real diamonds). As expected, it’s also more complex on the nose, which possesses a Chablis-like depth and precision. A whole range of yellow and green fruits comes to mind, among them grapefruit and lime, and I’m struck by the wine’s buoyancy and grace. The vital flavour, apple and greengage to the fore, is refined, with a faint chalky dryness derived from fossil-flecked subsoil. It leads into a long, stylish finish. Good to drink now, it will however improve markedly over the coming two years, with a good five years’ improvement to follow.

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2008 DEUTZ VINTAGE BRUT (60% PN, 30% Chard., 10% PM)

Of an even richer green-gold, the ’08 has a fuller, denser nose of russet apple, newly-baked bread, greengage, grapefruit, and orange peel. You can feel the weightiness of the noble Pinot Noir at the core of the blend. A voluminous wine of great structure. The lovely rich flavour fills the mouth with fruit, with apricot now showing. A powerhouse of a wine, with underlying finesse, it has the steeliness and tension of a Grand Cru Chablis, but with that special, unique vivacity of fine champagne. Good now, at only 7.5 years, it will improve for at least 6-8 years.

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(On my return, I bought a dozen bottles of this wine from a UK merchant, but it must have been a different bottling, as it lacks that wonderful concentration, complexity, and length.)

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2006 AMOUR DE DEUTZ (100% CH. from Avize, Le Mesnil)

This gives off gorgeous, swirling scents of mirabelle, white peach, and white truffle. Entrancingly aromatic, as only great wines can be, it has a lovely refined flavour of great precision, (mirabelle, white peach, and honey.) The aftertaste is long and complex, with so much refinement, and so many nuances of flavour, that one could linger over it for half-a-day (they’ll have to drag me away from this, it’s hard not to clasp it protectively to my chest!). The finish is very mineral, with the sweep and exquisite balance of a top white Burgundy. These crystalline champagnes were enjoyed over lunch at Deutz. Living proof not only of their excellence but also of their affinity with good food.

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Now on to Pol Roger, its offices housed in a large mansion inside the city of Epernay. Christian Pol Roger has been the face of Pol Roger for decades. Though this respected company bears his name, he’s only a minor shareholder, control being exercised by the de Billy branch of the family. Now in semi-retirement, he helps out when called upon. His visiting card describes him as “vin de réserve”. A truly magnetic personality, and a great raconteur, he can hold a roomful of people enthralled for hours on end. With all the sincerity and dedication of an artist, he has devoted his entire life to the Pol Roger cause.

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I once saw him identify a Champagne blind. It was a rich, powerful wine with plenty of body and thrust. “That’s from our friends in Reims,” he said without hesitation. “Is it Krug?”. Krug it was.

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He explained how he’d been able to guess correctly. “Reims is close to the best red grape vineyards, which give body and power, while the Epernay houses are close to the finest white vineyards, which give finesse and buoyancy.”

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(Of course, big houses in both cities also have access to vineyards in far-flung parts of the region; but I’ve found, over the years, that Christian’s generalization holds very true. It’s certainly helped me to do well in blind tastings – every now and then!)

In the course of a long tour of the cellars we came upon a team of riddlers who, with gloved hands, were giving countless upended bottles of maturing champagne a tiny twist, gently sending the yeast-rich sludge a fraction closer to the bottles’ necks (that flavour-rich sludge, a kind of vinous transfusion, will be removed just before the final cork is inserted). It’s a process that can go on for years, the bottles starting out horizontal and finally ending up head down against the cork. I asked one of the men how many bottles he riddled per day. “Fifty thousand,” he replied with a modest grin.

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2008 POL ROGER BLANC DE BLANCS

Were it not for the bubbles, the wine’s radiant green-gold colour could be mistaken for that of a top Puligny-Montrachet. The elegant nose, too, is Puligny-like yet remains unmistakeably a champagne of the highest quality, fusing scintillation with classic restraint. It smells like a meld of grapefruit, greengage, and white rose, with a subtle hint of lime. I’m struck by its lift and freshness on the palate, which delivers a reprise of grapefruit and greengage while adding a hint of gooseberry. The long aftertaste is highly mineral, with suggestions of chalk and white clay; micro-bubbles caress the palate. It’s a champagne of great rectitude that will open out like a rose in the years to come.

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2006 POL ROGER ROSE (tinted with red grapes from Bouzy)

The colour is midway between onion skin and rowan while the multi-facetted aroma calls to mind plum jam, strawberry compote, and rose hip. The flavour is crisp and vinous, very round (almost fleshy) with a faint spiciness that surely derives from a touch of Pinot Meunier. It finishes on a note of russet apple and strawberry. Though close on 10 years old, this will still improve for several more years. Would go well with red mullet or salmon.

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2000 POL ROGER CUVEE WINSTON CHURCHILL

A vivid green-gold, this has a noble, complex aroma of grapefruit, Granny Smith apple, and white truffle (the latter I associate with marine fossils). A touch of white rose and lily emerges after a while. It’s a gorgeous aroma, multi-facetted and with great sweep. The flavour, initially medium-full, quickly fills out, and one can register the wine’s great, but as yet held-in, power and weight. Every sniff, every taste, reveals further complexity and depth. Indeed, fresh nuances continue to show every few seconds.

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It’s an amazing wine. At first, finesse and fine balance dominate. Then power and body, initially in abeyance, assert themselves. It’s poised and powerful, subtle and extremely long. I find hints of crushed rock, chalk, with something faintly metallic on the very finish.

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As the wine continues to mature over the 12-15 years to come, these elements will fuse into an integrated whole that will constitute a truly great champagne.

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Pol Roger is one of the smaller of the big champagne houses, with a yearly production of close on two million bottles, with 10 million bottles in stock. They own an impressive 185 hectares of vineyards, with a slight preponderance of the two red varieties.

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Like Jacques Selosse, Larmandier-Bernier is a small family-run property. They own a mere 14 hectares of vines, all but ten of them white. They’re located in the hamlet of Vertus, which is remote from any township but on the very doorstep of some of Champagne’s finest vineyard plots. Outside their own commune, they possess vines in the noble climats of Cramant and Chouilly. Their production, which is 100% biodynamic, amounts to a mere 130,000 bottles a year. Every single bottle derives entirely from their own vines. Their approach to maturation is unusual in Champagne, in that most of the wine is vinified in oak foudres. Most producers use stainless steel vats while others – notably Krug – use small oak barrels. The intention is not to produce oaky wines – quite the contrary – but to allow the wood’s countless millions of pores to enable a very slow and gentle aeration. Two ceramic vats are reserved for rose champagne. M. Larmandier, in his forties, owns 55 different plots, all of which have to be tended – and of course harvested – individually.

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LARMANDIER BERNIER LATITUDE (N.V. made wholly from Vertus grapes)

This has a very pure, floating aroma of grapefruit, apple, and chalk and fills the mouth with delicious crisp fruit. The flavour is lush and intense, with a steely structure and lots of vitality. The bubbles are so small as to be almost invisible – but you feel their action on the palate. A delicious, grapy champagne to drink now and over the next few years.

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LARMANDIER BERNIER LONGITUDE (from Cramant, Avize,Vertus, and Oger)

A subtle green-gold, this has a lovely creamy scent of russet apple and grapefruit, soon fused with greengage and lime. The delicious flavour is medium full, balanced, and long. There’s a slight, agreeable saltiness on the faintly dry aftertaste, which carries the most fugitive hint of wood. A lively, refreshing champagne that will be still better in 2-3 years.

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2009 LARMANDIER BERNIER TERRE DE VERTUS

This pure Premier Cru has a richer look and smells like a meld of apricot, russet apple, and orange marmalade. There’s a faintly lactic note too. It’s full and quite rich on the palate, with a fine texture and a slight hint of iodine on an aftertaste that twists towards cooking apple with a touch of orange. This particular sample, however, is faintly oxidative.

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2010 EXTRA BRUT CHEMIN D’AVIZE GRAND CRU

A shiny green-gold, this has a fine, expressive aroma of yellow plum, greengage, and grapefruit, with a subtle, pleasing saltiness. This tallies with the full, expressive flavour, with ample but still incipient fruit that’s superbly balanced. Of optimum concentration, with vigour and depth, it needs at least two years to open and will improve for at least half a decade thereafter. A wine of great poise and individuality.

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2007 EXTRA BRUT GRAND CRU VIEILLE VIGNE DE CRAMANT

This has that special, concentrated look – brilliant colour and noticeable viscosity – of wines made from old vines (they’re between 50-80 years’ old). The tangy aroma – hints of salt again – conjures up apricot, cooked rhubarb, baked apple, and green fig. The fine flowing flavour fills the mouth with noble fruit, mostly russet apple now, and contrives to be both weighty and aerial. Lovely texture. A full and satisfying champagne which will improve for a good five years.

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As we take the open road back towards England – and my 18th-century wine-cellar – I find myself wondering which bottle of Champagne I’ll open to celebrate my return. (as things turn out, it’s the precious 1996 Salon!).

 

 

© Frank Ward 2016

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