By Jim Campanini
Is that former NBA Hall of Fame great Isiah Thomas now wearing the Cheurlin Champagne polo jersey?
Yes, it is. And why not?
Thomas, 57, is no stranger to the French bubbly – even if in an odd way.
For years during his illustrious career with the Detroit Pistons (1981-94), Thomas said he enjoyed his share of wet, wild and elegant championship celebrations when “champagne was poured all over my head” – even if he didn’t drink it back them.
Later, however, Thomas learned to appreciate the refined, exquisite taste of champagne, as well as where it comes from, the people farming the vineyards, and the meticulous work it takes to craft a quality product.
It helped that his wife Lynn, who he married in 1985, liked the taste of sparkling wine.
“It wasn’t until after I retired from playing ball that I really discovered it and started to enjoy drinking it,” said Thomas, whose collaboration with the prestigious Cheurlin Champagne winery of Aube, France has elevated his wine game to a whole new level of performance.
“I admire the quality of this champagne and the dedication of the people (at Cheurlin) who make it,” he added. “I was glad to become a part of the group when I was offered the chance.”
I interviewed Thomas recently at the Fortitude Health and Training Center in Manchester, N.H. He was there to introduce Cheurlin’s Brut Speciale Champagne ($39.49) and Rose de Saignee Champagne ($49.99) at a public tasting sponsored by the N.H. Liquor & Wine Outlet Stores.
Thomas was trim and fit and absolutely charming. He patiently answered questions from the gathered media, a majority of them sports writers who knew their basketball stats but couldn’t tell a birdcage from a Barolo if the latter was left decanting on the foul line. Then the Wine Novice took over.
I said, “Mr. Thomas, I promise I won’t ask you a single basketball question. What I want to know is how did you get into the champagne business and why should we buy Cheurlin?”
The legend broke out into a wide grin and graciously replied, “Please, call me Isiah” … and from there we were off on an adventure leaving the sports guys yapping about whether “chardonnay” was the name of a grape or a resort city in France.
Thomas said he was looking for a new business venture when his agent told him about Cheurlin. The winery wanted to expand its global business to the United States and was looking for a representative and potential partner. After several meetings with Cheurlin family members,Thomas launched an import business, Isiah Imports, and became the exclusive U.S. distributor of Cheurlin Champagne.
The family-run farming and wine operation extends back to 1788 in Aube, which is located a few miles southeast of France’s historic champagne capital, Reims. The original Cheurlin was a Catholic priest who settled in the area, grew grapes and made the wine. Nine generations later, winemaker Tom Cheurlin and his siblings manage 200 acres of vines that sit in unique Kimmeridgian Ridge marl soils of limestone and fossilized marine deposits. These comma-shaped oyster shells lend French champagne its classic – an unequalled – minerality.
Cheurlin specializes in champagne only, so there’s no distraction from producing still wine for other revenue streams. They grow Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc, using the latter in place of the more traditional Pinot Muenierin the winery’s champagne cuvee. What also sets Cheurlin apart from other champagne producers is its commitment to make low dosage (sugar) and zero dosage bottlings that capture the purest, natural essence of the wine, plus it’s healthier for those counting calories.
“Lower sugar levels mean no headaches. I guarantee it,” said Thomas, who takes pride in two no-dosage premium champagnes that bear his name on the label: Cheurlin Thomas Celebrite ($99) and Cheurlin Thomas Le Champion ($249).
The Wine Butler, my friend Mike Pigeon, joined me for the champagne tasting. He also got a chance to ask Thomas one important question: What would Boston-born bruiser Bill Laimbeer, who played on back-to-back NBA title teams (1989-90) with Thomas, think of the champagne? After breaking into a broad grin, Isiah said, “Bill and I remain close friends, but I think he’d take a sip, spit it out and say, ‘OK, where’s the beer.'”
We tasted two champagnes, the Brut Speciale and the Rose de Saignee, and both were very appealing.
- Cheurlin Brut Speciale, $39.99 – This is a blend of Pinot Noir (70 percent) and Chardonnay (30 percent) and it contains about 5 grams of sugar dosage, less than half of what is normally added to champagne in the production process. Cheurlin deems this its “flagship” wine and it is distinctly flavorful in lemon peel and other citrusy notes. The color is bright sunshine with tiny amber beads. Aged for 48 months, the champagne is medium-bodied, uplifting on the palate and impressionable on the dry finish. It’s an excellent buy for holiday festivities, and the winemaker suggests it be paired with fish and sushi, chicken, buttered cream sauces and fruit-based desserts.
- Cheurlin Rose de Saignee, $49.99 – Made from 100 percent Pinot Noir, this champagne features a stunning color – shaded pink and peach – that lights up in the glass with starbursts of luminous beads. You could just hold a glass in your hand and enjoy it, but then you’d miss out on its delicate, candied red fruit flavors and velvety texture. It’s aged for 30 months, which is 15 months longer than required for champagne of this type, and the patience pays off with its persistent quality. Only 8 grams of dosage. This champagne is as good fit for most appetizers and good dishes, even grilled meats. Here’s an interesting fact: The Aube, in Champagne’s Cotes de Bar sub-region, is the home of the great artist Renoir. In my book, he would have loved the color – and everything else – about Rose de Saignee.
- All Cheurlin Champagnes are available in New Hampshire wine outlets at the above listed prices and in Massachusetts at Burlington Wine & Spirits, J&M Convenience Store in North Andover, Vinodivino in Brookline, Newton and Needham, and The Wine Emporium in Boston.