Updated: Apr 11, 2021
by Clare Tooley, MW
I have a framed photograph in my office taken at the presentation ceremony on the steps of ‘Les Crayeres’. Standing next to a beaming Pierre Emmanuel Taittinger who is sporting a dashing persimmon red jacket, I am also smiling ear to ear. I look like a woman in love.
It should be difficult to remember the details of one week, nearly two decades ago. The years since then have been full and kind to me. A second son and eight years in France that provided memories as solid as the stone walls of the ancient house we renovated there. Seven years in California with fires, earthquakes, rattles snakes, coyotes and surfboards that continue to provide another library of vivid moments. I have worked full time as a buyer since that summer of 2004. There have been eight long years of wine studies culminating in the MW title. I have been fortunate to travel the world and taste thousands of wines as well as sharing countless good bottles with friends and colleagues. There have been so many experiences that a week in Champagne, seventeen years ago, might have been lost to time. And yet that week, that special week, remains as clear as day in my memory. Vivid, visceral, as exciting to remember as it was to experience.
I was a privileged guest of the Academie du Champagne in 2004 and have remained an addict to the bubbles, and their ancestral home, ever since. I can shut my eyes and remember the first lunch, at a table set with flowers. I am basking in bubbles and the gilded anemones of the Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque dining room. Every bubble bead is lifting me higher on life as it travels up the wine glass. I am sitting next to Hamish Martin, a charming fellow candidate, a dear friend to this day. I remember every lunch and dinner of that week. The food was exceptional of course and I have kept the booklet menus that are little works of art framing culinary beauty. I remember the surroundings and the people I was fortunate to sit beside. We talked very little ‘shop’ as I recall, mealtimes were for unadulterated pleasure, pleasure in the company, the wines, the surroundings, and the privilege of the combination. I will never forget Pierre Emmanuel Taittinger managing to bring tears of both laughter and sorrow around the table, in one single sitting, at the Chateau de la Marquetterie. He recounted the antics of the late great Nureyev and his penchant for the delectable Comtes de Champagne Rose, but also spoke movingly of the death of Princess Diana.
I remember the cool cellar half-light and a hologram at Maison Mumm. I remember an uncontrollable fit of giggles at Charles Heidsieck, halfway through the week. Marie-France Beck graciously allowed the hilarity before steering the tasting back on course with her inimitable composure. I remember the cellar masters of Ruinart and Roederer, skilled surgeons of style as well as substance, conveying to us the essence of Champagne winemaking, rendering their profoundly difficult jobs, effortless.
It is not surprising perhaps that I remember the candlelit dinner at the Hautvillers Abbey on Tuesday 6th July 2004, sitting as I was in the shadows of hallowed greatness. I wonder what the monks would have made of our revelry. I hope they felt our awe returning to them down the centuries. I remember we danced every night that week. We prolonged the days and evenings into the small hours. Life was too short, and too effervescent, to sleep.
I particularly remember women’s voices. I still hear Martine Lorson’s silvery tones, one of the most beautiful speaking voices I had ever listened to then, not yet equaled to this day. Also Sara Farnsworth’s clarity and conscientious questions, the deserved winner of the coveted magnums. I will never forget Nicole Snozzi at Laurent Perrier uttering the best vinous advice I have ever been given: ‘Keep your bubble count high’. Words I have taken to heart and strive to live by.
'And of course, I remember the wines'
So many glorious bubbles, so many different nuances. Perrier-Jouët’s light-footed floral sophistication alongside Heidsieck’s reassuring steadiness. Bollinger’s honeyed weight countering Moet’s exuberance and Laurent Perrier’s sheer joy. Pol Roger’s masterful breadth matching Ruinart’s timeless elegance. Charles Heidsieck’s assertiveness meeting Pommery’s flair and Veuve Clicquot’s chic. Lanson’s malic refreshment countering Krug’s powerhouse, while Taittinger’s succulent more-ishness and Mumm’s plump generosity complemented Roederer’s exquisite precision. Remi Krug made us form a circle and challenged us to express in one word our first impression of the vintage in our glass. ‘Explosive’ I said, like a firework in the mouth. I still wish I had found a better descriptor – but how does one capture absolute quality in a single word?
July 2004 - halcyon days indeed. A lesson not just in the rigors and complex nature of a famed wine region, but in vinous hospitality. The Houses and their representatives received us with unrivalled generosity, theirs was the epitome of professional grace. They shared their knowledge, their time, and their exceptional fizz. We lucky students lapped it up and I fell in love. It took me another decade to realize the best way to handle that love was to seek more knowledge. That is why I took up the pursuit of the MW. Champagne has been a staple ever since and has never failed to deliver. It has soothed the disappointments and exam fails along the way, it has lifted blind tasting flights from monotony to pleasure, and ultimately, in February, I have raised it to toast the complete joy and relief of passing.
And so, in true Oscar style, I would like to thank the Academy most sincerely for giving me a week that will last a lifetime. May Champagne always dance in our glass, brighten our eyes, and make the best memories.