Besides, the many different angles of this Twitter-controversy were more than covered by Robert Joseph, Esther Mobley, and W. Blake Gray‘s excellent summaries. I’ve never been a fan of regurgitating “hot takes” that’s already been aptly taken by folks more talented than me.
So I wasn’t going to write anything unless I could move the conversation forward, or maybe in a slightly different direction.
Then a recent cab ride took me by surprise.
Asking to go to St. Pancras for my train home, my cabbie responded by offering his congrats. In a split-second of paranoia, I wondered if he somehow worked part-time on the WSET Awards Panel, but no.
Instead, he was impressed that, despite my very clear American accent, I didn’t ask to go to St. Pancreas–a daily occurrence for him. (Though, apparently, this is not a mistake made by only Americans.)
The linguistic compliment was out of the blue because, usually, I am that American who horrendously mispronounces everything.
Ah, GRAV-oize Park–or GRAV-oy if you’re fancy. Definitely not how the French (or most anyone else) would say it.
Growing up in Missouri, my tongue was certainly not taught the Queen’s English. It took many years of living in other areas, such as Washington State and Paris, to learn to stop “warshing the dishes” or that places like Creve Coeur and Carondelet are not pronounced as Creeve Core and Cah-ron-duh-let.
Lord knows that I’ve baffled more than a few London cabbies asking to go to the WSET School on Beer-mond-see. But eventually, I started getting the hang of Bermondsey (Berm-zee) and those interactions got easier.
Beyond pronunciations, I also got used to standing in a queue, instead of a line, and asking where the toilets are instead of the restroom, ladies’ room or bathroom. I learned that an entrée is only a bite or two, not the main course as it is in the US.
When someone in Europe tells me something is on the second floor, I know that’s a bloody lie because it’s actually on the third floor. But if I need help with my bags, I should use the lift instead of the elevator. While seeing dates like February 1st written as 1-2-2020 will still have me backtracking to January, I’m slowly starting to adopt those habits too.
All of these things are the “jargon” of everyday life.
And while it is embarrassing, intimidating and even shame-inducing to make mistakes, those moments are fleeting. Just because I’m not familiar with Britishisms and European quirks of language, doesn’t mean that they’re wrong.
The important thing is whether or not the interaction produced results. Did I get my cab to Bermondsey? Was I directed to the bathroom? Do I have the right ticket for next Saturday’s train ride or do I need a time machine back to January 2nd?
Now, yes, a dickish cabbie, waiter or ticket attendant could amplify the shame, panning my ignorance of the local jargon and customs. But they’re probably going to be a dick anyways even if I had perfect pronunciations and total acclimation. That’s just how some people are.
It’s not the jargon or customs that are wrong. Sometimes an asshole is just an asshole.
And sometimes a crappy wine list is just a crappy wine list.
Bold typeface is your friend.
Going back to the Helen Rosner tweet, many people noted that simple design fixes like bolding keywords and a better layout would have helped.
Folks like Robert Joseph brought up that the thread was a good reminder that we shouldn’t forget what the purpose of a wine list is.
Ultimately, it’s to sell wine. It’s a tool to communicate.
On the sales floor, I actively listened for jargon from my customers. Because it clued me in on what level of familiarity they might already have with wine. This better focused my questions and gave me a good idea of how I should proceed.
In this way, jargon is like shorthand or a schema.
Someone coming in and telling me that they don’t like “bretty wines” gives me a completely different starting point than someone telling me that they don’t like wines that “smell weird.” Or they use terms like acidic and sour compared to bright, fresh or “crunchy.” (That last one provoked another interesting Twitter thread which eventually won me over to the value of “crunchy wines.”)
It’s the same thing when people tell me that they love “Burgs.” Their shorthand familiarity lets me know that I probably don’t need to insult their intelligence by making sure they know that Pinot noir and Chardonnay are the grapes of Burgundy.
However, if someone says they’re a Chard fan, I may still need to feel around more to see where they’re coming from. Here too, peppering my words with a measured amount of jargon (minerally, malo, oaky) could help in seeing how they respond.
But the onus on me, as the salesperson, is ultimately to understand and communicate with my customer. Especially if I want to actually make a sale. Just as it doesn’t help the London cabbie wanting the fare to get dickish or “play dumb” over St. Pancreas or Beer-mond-see, there’s no value in a sommelier or wine steward belittling a customer who isn’t familiar with our language and customs.
Yes, wine is complicated.
If you want the perfect example of a “crunchy wine” seek this out. A crazy delicious Pinot noir, Pinot Meunier and Pinot gris (yes, really!) blend from the Adelaide Hills.
We should be mindful of the language we use and whether or not we’re communicating effectively. But that doesn’t mean we have to ditch the jargon completely to be able to talk to less wine-savvy folks. Likewise, Europeans don’t need to “Americanize” the pronunciations of places or change their terminology to accommodate tourists and transplants.
Instead, we should be like cabbies–trying to understand just enough so we can get our consumers to their wine destinations. Eventually, if they keep coming back, they may pick up a bit of our jargon–making future interactions easier.
And who knows? Maybe someday they’ll even enjoy a Burg on Bermondsey.
A few quick thoughts on the 2012 Lindstrom SLD Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley.
The tiny 4-acre Nicali Vineyard of Greg and Carol Lindstrom is literally above it all. Perched on a hilltop overlooking the vineyards of Shafer, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Odette and Joseph Phelps’ SLD vineyard, the Lindstroms have some of the steepest slopes in the district. Because of this steepness, everything is done by hand with meager yields of sustainably farmed grapes.
Despite being 100% Cab, the uniqueness of the Lindstrom’s vineyard gives them ample opportunity to make a complex and characterful wine. Taking a very Bordelais approach, the Lindstroms identified 11 distinct blocks with vastly different exposures and soil types. With vineyard manager Michael Wolf (of Araujo, Harlan, Duckhorn and Scarecrow fame), they matched each to specific rootstocks and clones.
Since 2005, winemaker Celia Welch (Scarecrow, D.R. Stephens, Staglin and Corra) harvests, ferments and ages the blocks separately to use as blending components. What doesn’t make the cut goes to their second wine, Nicali, or is sold off. Each year only around 250-600 cases are produced.
The wide array of spices, like star anise, adds Old World complexity to this very ripe, full-bodied SLD Cab.
Medium-plus intensity nose. Lots of rich dark fruits–plums, cassis. But most intriguing is the melange of spices–anise, black pepper, clove, cinnamon.
On the palate, the dark fruit still leads the way with a very full-bodied mouthfeel. Medium-plus acidity keeps it fresh and with its high, ripe tannins suggest that this wine has a lot of aging potential. A little tertiary tobacco is starting to emerge but the long finish is very spice-driven–particularly with the black pepper and anise.
At around $131 (WS Ave), this is very much in line with its SLD peers. It probably should be closer to $150 as the new releases are.
While it’s hard to find deals in Napa, this small family estate is definitely under the radar.
Just a quick post today as I’ll be traveling and studying over the next few days. I’m heading to London for my Sparkling and Fortified wine exams on the 22nd. (Wish me luck!) While I might be able to sneak in a 60 Second Review, I’ll wrap up my series on the superlatives and exceptions of Champagne when I get back.
However, as part of my studies, I’ve been reviewing several of my favorite podcasts on blind tasting that I thought I’ll share. If you know of anyone having blind tasting exams coming up, this is a great list to email them.
Interpreting Wine with Lawrence Francis
I haven’t written a full review of an Interpreting Wine episode yet. But after being recommended this podcast by Noelle Harman of Outwines, I’ve been really digging it.
Francis conducted an excellent series of interviews on blind tasting sparkling and fortified wines with (now) Master of Wine Christine Marsiglio and Jim Gore of the Global Wine Academy. They are absolute “must-listen” for anyone taking WSET Diploma exams.
I did a feature on the UK Wine Show covering episode 111 with Ian D’Agata. Chris Scott is a WSET educator for Levels 1-3, so his episodes give a good idea of what examiners are looking for. While not speaking to the Diploma level, these podcasts are still a very useful review of the WSET’s systematic approach to tasting.
I’ve featured the Guildsomm podcast on a couple of Geek Notes about Champagne. For wine students, it’s truly one of the best wine podcasts you could subscribe to.
The episodes below tend to take a very technical approach. While there are notable differences between the blind tasting exams for the Court of Master Sommeliers and those of the WSET/MW programs, piecing together the underlying theory is still the same.
As I mentioned in my post on the Top 5 YouTube Videos on Sherry Wine, GuildSomm also has a YouTube channel. This is another tremendous resource which often has videos on blind tasting. I’ll share below the first part (7:05) of a great series on playing 20 questions with blind tasting.
We’ve covered the exceptions of the Montagne de Reims and Vallée de la Marne in parts I and II of this series. Now we turn our focus to the Côte des Blancs, the “hill of whites.”
Coat of Arms of the Grand Cru village of Avize. Note the color of the grapes.
It’s almost an understatement to say that this region is universally known for world-class Chardonnay. Of all the superlatives in Champagne, this is one you can absolutely take to the bank.
So pretty short article today, eh?
Well, not quite.
I’ve still got a few geeky tricks up my sleeve–including one notable exception. But more importantly, we’re going to look at the why behind the superlative.
Why Chardonnay? And why does no one talk about planting Pinot noir here? After all, it’s also a highly prized noble variety. So why is the entire Côte des Blancs region planted to 85% Chardonnay with only 7% Pinot noir?
To answer that, we need to cut deep as we look at the sub-regions of the Côte des Blancs.
That last one, Montgueux, is a bit of a wild card. I can see why it is officially grouped with the Côte des Blancs. But it’s in the Aube department, just west of Troyes. In comparison to the other subregions, Montgueux is 60 km away from Sézanne and over 100km away from Avize. So I’m going to put this one aside till Part IV.
In Part I & II, I gave a few recommendations of helpful wine books and study tools. Today, I’ll add two more that I’ll be relying heavily on for this article.
Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay’s The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste – This is the perfect companion to Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson’s World Atlas of Wine. While the latter goes into geeky encyclopedic detail, The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste ties those details back to how they directly influence what ends up in your glass. Great book for blind tasting exams.
James E. Wilson’s Terroir: The Role of Geology, Climate, and Culture in the Making of French Wines – Not going to lie. This is not a bedtime read. Well, it is if you want a melatonin boost. While chockful of tremendous insight, this is a very dense and technical book. You want to treat this more as an encyclopedia–looking up a particular region–rather than something you go cover to cover with. But if you want to sharpen your understanding of French wine regions, it’s worth a spot on your bookcase. (Especially with used copies on Amazon available for less than $10)
When you think of the Côte des Blancs, think about the Côte d’Or.
Vineyards in the northern Grand Cru of Chouilly with the Butte de Saran in the background.
The Côte des Blancs is essentially Champagne’s extension of the Brie plateau (yes, like the cheese). Over time it has eroded and brought the deep chalky bedrock to the surface. Like the Côte d’Or, both the heart of the Côte des Blancs and Cote de Sézanne have east-facing slopes capped by forests with a fertile plain at the bottom.
This prime exposure is the first to receive warmth from the early morning sun. During the cold spring nights of flowering (after bud break), Chardonnay is most vulnerable as the earliest bloomer. It needs to get to that warmth quickly for successful pollination.
It’s a similar reason why growers in the Côte des Blancs avoid planting near the very top of the slope where there is more clay. The soils here are cooler and don’t heat up as quickly. Plus, being so close to the misty forest cap encourages wetter conditions that promote botrytis. As we covered in Part II, both Chardonnay and Pinot noir are quite sensitive to this ignoble rot.
Echoing back to Burgundy, we see that the most prized plantings of Chardonnay (notably the Grand Cru villages) in the Côte des Blancs are midslope. In the sparse areas where we do find Pinot noir and Pinot Meunier, it’s usually the flatter, fertile plains that have deeper topsoils.
The Tiny Exceptions.
This is the case with the premier cru village of Vertus. While still 90% Chardonnay, the southern end of the village sees more clay and deeper topsoils as the slope flattens and turns westward. This encourages a little red grape planting with fruit from the village going to houses like Duval-Leroy, Larmandier-Bernier, Delamotte, Louis Roederer, Moët & Chandon and Veuve Clicquot.
The village of Grauves is also an interesting case. In his book, Champagne, Peter Liem argues that this premier cru should actually be part of the Côteaux Sud d’Épernay. Looking at a good wine map, you can easily see why. It’s on the other side of the forest cap from the rest of the Côte des Blancs villages–opposite Cramant and Avize. Here most all the vineyards face westward. While Chardonnay still dominates (92%), we see a tiny amount of Meunier (7%) and Pinot noir (1%) creep in.
Likewise, in Cuis–where vineyards make an almost 180 arch from Cramant and Chouilly to Grauves–we see a range of exposures that adds some variety to the plantings (4% red grapes). The home village of Pierre Gimonnet, Cuis is still thoroughly Chardonnay country as a fruit source for Billecart-Salmon, Bollinger and Moët & Chandon.
This video (3:08) from Champagne Pierre Domi in Grauves has several great aerial drone shots of the area.
So you could say, why bother planting Pinot noir when you have such great Chardonnay terroir?
But there are other viticultural reasons for the Côte des Blancs to flavor Chardonnay over Pinot noir. For one, despite the topographical similarities to the Côte d’Or (and Côte de Nuits), the soil is much chalkier in the Côte des Blancs. While Pinot noir likes chalk, it is possible to have too much of a good thing.
Chalk has many benefits, but it also has a significant negative.
It’s high calcium content and alkaline nature encourages reactions in the soil that make vital nutrients like iron and magnesium scarce. Both are needed for chlorophyll production and photosynthesis. A lack of these nutrients can lead to chlorosis–of which Pinot noir is particularly susceptible.
The effects of chlorosis can be seen in the yellowing of leaves due to lack of chlorophyll. Considering that all the sugars that go into ripening grapes come from the energy production of photosynthesis, this isn’t great for a wine region that often teeters on the edge of ripeness–especially with Pinot noir.
There is also more lignitic clay down in the Val du Petit Morin and Marne Valley. This picture is from the website of Champagne Oudiette who has vineyards in both areas.
As James Wilson notes in Terroir, the “magical ingredient” to help balance these soils is lignite. In Champagne, lignitic clays are known as cendres noires or “black ashes.” Essentially compressed peat mixed with clay, the cendres noires helps hold these critical nutrients in the soil.
The Montagne de Reims, particularly around Bouzy and Ambonnay (which are home to quarries of cendres noires), naturally has more of this “magical ingredient.” While chlorosis can be an issue for Chardonnay as well–requiring the use of fertilizers or cendres noires to supplement the soil–the risk isn’t as grave.
However, there is one red grape stronghold in the Côte des Blancs.
While still paced by Chardonnay (52%), this is the one area of the Côte des Blancs where you’ll find villages dominated by something else. If you have a good wine map (and read Part II of our series), you’ll see why.
Cutting between the Côte des Blancs and Côte de Sézanne, the Petit Morin is an east-west river that brings with it a fair amount of frost danger. Also, like the Marne, we see more diversity in soils with alluvial sand and clay joining the chalk party.
The Petit Morin also flows through the marshes of Saint-Gond–which played a key role in the First Battle of the Marne during World War I. Swampy marshland (and the threat of botrytis) frustrates Chardonnay and Pinot noir just as much as it frustrated the Germans.
Among the notable villages here:
Congy– (50% Pinot Meunier/28% Chardonnay) The home village of the renowned grower Ulysse Collin. This estate was one of the first to bring attention to the Val du Petit Morin.
Étréchy – The only premier cru outside of the heart of the Côte des Blancs. Neighboring both Vertus and Bergères-lès-Vertus (so away from the river), this follows the narrative of many of its 1er and Grand Cru peers by being 100% Chardonnay.
Villevenard – (53% Pinot Meunier/37% Chardonnay) Along with Sainte-Gemme in the Vallée de la Marne Rive Droite, Leuvrigny in the Rive Gauche and Courmas in the Vesle et Ardre of the Montagne de Reims, this autre cru is a source of Meunier for Krug. It’s also the home of Champagne Nominé Renard whose relatives help pioneer Champagne production in the village.
The video below (6:15) tells a little bit about their story with views of the vineyards starting at the 2:14 mark. You can see here how different the soils look compared to the heart of the Côte des Blancs with the Grand Crus.
Côte de Sézanne
Just about every wine book will describe the Côte de Sézanne as a “warmer, southern extension of the Côte des Blancs.” The region certainly upholds the Chardonnay banner with the grape accounting for more than 75% of plantings.
But most of those wine books are going to ignore the Val du Petit Morin mentioned above. And they’re certainly going to ignore the influence that the swampy Marais Saint-Gond has on the northern villages of the Côte de Sézanne. Here we see villages like Allemant and Broyes, which, while still Chardonnay dominant, have more diversity than the near monovarietal heart of the Côte des Blancs.
Even going south to the namesake autre cru of Sézanne, we see nearly a third of the vineyards devoted to red grapes. Here, further away from the Val du Petit Morin, we still have a fair amount of clay in the soil. This, combined with the warmer climate, shapes not only the Chardonnays of the Côte de Sézanne (riper, more tropical) but also paves the way for red grape plantings.
In the village of Montgenost, south of Sézanne, we get firmly back to Chardonnay country (94%). This is the home turf of the excellent grower Benoît Cocteaux. While the video below (2:12) is in French, it does have some great images of the area.
If the Côte de Sézanne is the southern extension of the Côte des Blancs, then the Vitryat is its southeastern arm. And it’s even more of a “mini-me” than the Sézannais.
Of the 15 autre crus here, four are 100% Chardonnay-Changy, Loisy-sur-Marne, Merlaut and Saint-Amand-sur-Fion. Another four have 99% of their vineyards exclusive to the grape with no village having less than 95% Chardonnay. Yeah, it’s pretty much a white-out here.
Among the teeniest, tiniest of exceptions worth noting are:
Glannes – 97% Chardonnay/3% Pinot noir with fruit going to Moët & Chandon.
Vanault-le-Châtel – 99.1% Chardonnay, 0.3% Pinot noir with 0.6% other (Pinot gris, Pinot blanc, Arbane and/or Petit Meslier). Louis Roederer purchases fruit from here.
Vavray-le-Grand – 99% Chardonnay/1% Pinot noir. A source of fruit for Billecart-Salmon.
The village of Montgueux (which we’ll cover in Part 4) shares the same Turonian era chalk as the Vitryat sub-region. Both are different from the Campanian chalk of the Côte des Blancs and Côte de Sézanne.
Even as the Côte des Blancs exhibits the supreme superlative in its Chardonnay-dominance, looking under the covers always reveals more.
But the biggest takeaway that I hope folks are getting from this series is that both the exceptions and superlatives make sense. The combination of soils, climate and topography lend themselves more to some grape varieties over the other.
This is the story of terroir. The problems come when we start thinking of regions as monolithic and accepting, prima facie, the butter knife narrative about them. Even when the superlatives are overwhelmingly true (i.e., the Côte des Blancs is known for outstanding Chardonnay), the reasons why cut deeper.
We’ll wrap up this series with a look at the Côte des Bar.
A few quick thoughts on the 1985 Graham’s Vintage Port.
William and John Graham founded their eponymous Port house in 1820. Since 1970, it’s been part of the Symington family’s extensive portfolio along with Dow’s, Warre’s, Cockburn’s and Quinta do Vesuvio.
Five vineyards provided fruit for this vintage. The most notable is Quinta dos Malvedos, located on the border of the Cima Corgo and Douro Superior regions. Acquired in 1890, this was Graham’s first estate vineyard.
Peter Symington, widely considered one of the all-time great master blenders, crafted the 1985 as part of a 45-year career that lasted till his retirement in 2009. Still involved in winemaking, Symington tends to his estate, Quinta da Fonte Branca in the Baixo Corgo.
I couldn’t find the exact blend of this wine. Looking at the plantings of the vineyards gives some clue. It’s going to be primarily Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Barroca and Tinta Roriz–as most Ports are. But there are varieties like Sousão and Tinta Amarela (from Malvedos and Quinta do Tua) as well as Alicante Bouschet (Malvedos)–along with assorted “old mixed vines”–that could be in here.
Not sure if the black pepper note is from grapes or fortifying spirit. Since Port uses a 77% abv grape spirit (as opposed to 95% abv used for Sherry and Madeira), you pick up more of the spirit’s influence.
High-intensity nose. An intriguing mix of fresh black fruit–plums and cherries–with dried spices like anise and cinnamon.
On the palate, the fresh fruit is still lively with medium-plus acidity. But there are more concentrated fig flavors. The medium tannins are incredibly soft, wrapping around your tongue like velvet. Still quite full-bodied with the concentrated fruit. The spices from the nose carry through but are accompanied by very distinctive black pepper. Long finish lingers on the spice.
Remarkable freshness and life for something approaching its 35th birthday this year. But that’s vintage Port for you.
In the US, this is averaging around $108 and is worth every penny.
Welcome back! To get the lowdown on the series check out Part I where we explore the exceptions of the Montagne de Reims. In Part III and IV, we’ll check out the Côte des Blancs and the Aube/Côte des Bar.
As for today, we’re heading to the Vallée de la Marne.
The Marne river flowing past Épernay in the early 20th century.
If you’re one of those folks who “know enough to be dangerous” about Champagne, you’ll peg the Vallée de la Marne as the Pinot Meunier corner of the holy triumvirate of Champagne. However, as we noted in part one, neatly pigeonholing these regions with a single variety cuts about as deep as a butter knife.
Having good wine maps is an absolute must for any wine student.
Yes, you can find some online. For today’s journey through the Vallée de la Marne,this interactive mapfrom Château Loisel will be useful. But sometimes clicking between computer tabs is annoying compared to a physical map in front of you.
I mentioned the Louis Larmat maps yesterday. But let me give you two more excellent options.
Map of the Vallée de la Marne from the UMC website. In the lower-right, you can see the start of the Côte des Blancs with the Grand Cru village of Avize noted.
Unfortunately, these maps are mostly only available in France. However, I was able to buy several when I lived in the US through Amazon for around $11-13 each. You will still need to pay international shipping. But buying multiples at once helps offset that a little.
Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson’s World Atlas of Wine is always a reliable resource. It will list many of the villages and show topographical details. The only negative is that it doesn’t highlight the 17 subregions within Champagne.
Across the 103 villages of the Vallée de la Marne, it’s no shock that Pinot Meunier reigns supreme. The grape accounts for nearly 60% of all plantings.
The Marne river meandering by the premier cru village of Hautvillers.
As with many river valleys, frost is always going to be a hazard as cold air sinks and follows the rivers. Compared to larger bodies of waters such as lakes or estuaries, the relatively narrow and low-lying Marne doesn’t moderate the climate as dramatically.
That means that drops in temperature during bud break can be devastating for a vintage. A perfect example of this was the 2012 vintage.
This risk is most severe for Pinot noir. It buds the earliest followed soon after by Chardonnay. Then several days later, Pinot Meunier hits bud break–often missing the worst of the frost.
As we saw with many of the exceptions in the Montagne de Reims, the threat of frost in river valleys tilts the favor towards Meunier. It also helps that the grape is a tad more resistant to botrytis than Pinot noir and Chardonnay. This and other mildews thrive in the damp, humid conditions encouraged by the morning fog following the river.
Finally, while there is limestone throughout the Vallée de la Marne, it’s more marl (mixed with sand and clay) rather than chalk. Pinot noir and Chardonnay can do very well in these kinds of soils. However, Pinot Meunier has shown more affinity for dealing with the combination of cooler soils and a cooler, wetter climate.
But, of course, there are always exceptions–none more prominent than the Grande Vallée de la Marne.
In many ways, the Grande Vallée should be thought of as the southern extension of the Montagne de Reims. Its two Grand Crus, Aÿ and Tours-sur-Marne, share many similarities with its neighbors, Bouzy and Ambonnay.
Along with the “super premier cru” of Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, these south-facing slopes produce powerful Pinot noirs with excellent aging potential. Notable vineyards here include Philipponnat’s Clos des Goisses, Billecart-Salmon’s Clos Saint-Hilaire and Bollinger’s Clos St.-Jacques & Clos Chaudes Terres (used for their Vieilles Vignes Françaises).
Jamie Goode has a fantastic short video (1:55) walking through the two Bollinger vineyards. One thing to notice is that the vines are trained to stakes and propagated by layering.
Compared to most of the Montagne de Reims, the vineyards here are slightly steeper. They’re also at lower altitudes as the land slopes towards the river. However, in contrast to most of the Vallée de la Marne west of Cumières (the unofficial end of the Grande Vallée), the climate is warmer here–tempering some of the frost risks.
Also, the topsoils are thinner with the influence of chalky bedrock more keenly felt. This is particularly true in the eastern premier cru village of Bisseuil, which is planted to majority Chardonnay (66%) and only 6% Pinot Meunier. These grapes go into the cuvées of many notable Champagne producers. Among them, AR Lenoble, Deutz, Mumm and Gonet-Médeville.
Though Chardonnay is mostly a backstage player in the Grande Vallée, the premier cru Dizy (37% Chardonnay) joins Bisseuil as notable exceptions. This is the home turf of Jacquesson with Perrier-Jouët and Roederer also getting grapes from here.
Across the Grande Vallée, Pinot noir reigns supreme.
It accounts for nearly 65% of all the plantings among the 12 villages of the region. Here Pinot Meunier is a distant third with only around 15% of vineyard land devoted to it.
Meunier slowly starts to creep up in importance the further west you go. Here the soils get cooler and clay-rich with more sand. In the premier cru of Champillon, Pinot Meunier accounts for 31% of plantings and is an important source for Moët & Chandon.
Likewise, in its neighbor to the west, Hautvillers (the historical home of Dom Perignon), Meunier also accounts for around a third of vineyards. Of course, Moët & Chandon sees a good chunk of Hautvillers’ grapes along with Veuve Clicquot, Roederer, Jacquesson and Joseph Perrier.
The vlogger Ben Slivka has a 2-minute video of the area taken from a vista point near Champagne G.Tribaut.
Côteaux Sud d’Épernay
Across the river from the Grande Vallée is the city of Epernay. The hills extending south and slightly west make up an interesting transition area between the Vallée de la Marne and Côte des Blancs.
The chalky bedrock is closer to the surface, with far less sand than most of the Vallée de la Marne. However, there is considerably more clay (and less east-facing slopes) in the Côteaux Sud d’Épernay than the Côte des Blancs. The area is slightly dominated by Pinot Meunier (45%), with Chardonnay close behind at 43%. The city of Épernay, itself, is an autre cru with considerable Chardonnay plantings (60%).
There is also quite a bit of rocky–even flinty-soil in the Côteaux Sud d’Épernay. This is particularly true around the premier cru village of Pierry which was the home of the influential monk, Frère Jean Oudart.
Dom Perignon likely spent his career trying to get rid of bubbles. However, his near-contemporary Oudart (who outlived Perignon by almost three decades) actually used liqueur de tirage (sugar and yeast mixture) to make his wines sparkle intentionally.
Except for Pierry, all the villages of the Côteaux Sud d’Épernay are autre crus.
Another geeky cool thing about Laherte Frères’ Les 7 Champagne is that it’s made as a perpetual cuvee in a modified solera system.
However, there are many notable villages, including Chavot-Courcourt–home to one of Champagne’s most exciting wine estates, Laherte Frères.
While the plantings of Chavot-Courcourt are slightly tilted towards Pinot Meunier (51% to 44% Chardonnay), in Laherte Frères’ Les Clos vineyard, all seven Champagne grape varieties are planted. Here Aurélien Laherte uses Pinot blanc, Pinot gris, Arbane and Petit Meslier to blend with the traditional big three to make his Les 7 cuvée. This is another “Must Try” wine for any Champagne lover.
Further south, we get closer to the Côte des Blancs with thinner top soils leading to more chalky influences. Here we encounter a string of villages all paced by Chardonnay–Moslins (58%) Mancy (52%), Morangis (52%) and Monthelon (51%).
Going back towards the northwest, the soils get cooler with more marly-clay. We return to Meunier country in villages such as Saint-Martin-d’Ablois (80% Pinot Meunier) and Moussy (61% PM)–home to the acclaimed Meunier-specialist José Michel & Fils and a significant source of grapes for Deutz.
Vallée de la Marne Rive Droite and Rive Gauche
As we move west, the superlatives of the Vallée de la Marne being Pinot Meunier country becomes gospel. The cold, mostly clay, marl and sandy soils lend themselves considerably to the early-ripening Meunier. Accounting for more than 75% of plantings, it’s only slightly more dominant in the Rive Gauche than the Rive Droite (70%).
Because of its location, there are more north-facing slopes on the left bank of the Rive Gauche. Conversely, the right bank of the Rive Droite has mostly south-facing slopes. This topography plays into the narrative that the Meunier from the Rive Gauche tends to be fresher, with higher acidity. In contrast, those from the Rive Droite are often broader and fruit-forward.
However, there are several valleys and folds along tributaries running into the Marne. This leads to a variety of exposures in each area. But with these tributaries comes more prevalence for damp morning fog. Along these narrow river valleys, the risk of botrytis-bunch rot increases. While Pinot Meunier is slightly less susceptible than Pinot noir and Chardonnay, it’s still a significant problem in the Marne Valley. The 2017 vintage is a good example of that.
Though not about Champagne, the Napa Valley Grape Growers has a great short video (3:30) about botrytis. While desirable for some wines, it usually wreaks havoc in the vineyard.
Since there are few exceptions in these areas, I’ll note some villages worth taking stock of.
Damery (Rive Droite) – Located just west of Cumières, Damery is on the border with the Grande Vallée. With over 400 ha of vines, it’s the largest wine-producing village in the Vallée de la Marne. Planted to 61% Meunier, Damery is an important source for many notable Champagne houses. Among them, AR Lenoble, Billecart-Salmon, Joseph Perrier, Taittinger, Roederer, Bollinger and Pol Roger.
Sainte-Gemme (Rive Droite) – With over 92% Pinot Meunier, this autre cru is one of Krug’s leading sources for the grape.
Mardeuil (Rive Gauche) – With 30% Chardonnay, this village has the highest proportion of the variety in the Rive Gauche. Henriot gets a good chunk of this fruit along with Moët & Chandon.
Festigny (Rive Gauche) – A solitary hill within a warm valley, this village reminds Peter Liem, author of Champagne, of the hill of Corton in Burgundy. While there is more chalk here than typical of the Marne, this area is still thoroughly dominated by Meunier (87%). Festigny is noted for its many old vine vineyards–particularly those of Michel Loriot’s Apollonis estate.
Gary Westby of K & L Wine Merchants visited Loriot in Festigny where he made the video below (1:12).
Vallée de la Marne Rive Ouest and the Terroir de Condé
We wrap up our overview of the Vallée de la Marne by looking at the westernmost vineyards in Champagne. I also include the Terroir de Condé here because it seems like the classification of villages is frequently merged between the two.
Saâcy-sur-Marne (Ouest) – One of only three authorized Champagne villages in the Seine-et-Marne department that borders Paris. In fact, Saâcy-sur-Marne is closer to Disneyland Paris (50km) than it is to Epernay (70km). Going this far west, the soils change–bringing up more chalk. Here, in this left bank village, Chardonnay dominates with 60%.
Connigis (Ouest) – This is the only village in the western Marne Valley where Pinot noir leads the way. It just scrapes by with 45% over Meunier (41%). On the left bank of the river, Connigis used to be considered part of the Terroir de Condé. Today, Moët & Chandon is a significant purchaser of grapes from this autre cru.
Trélou-sur-Marne – Like all of the (current) Terroir de Condé, this village is overwhelmingly planted to Pinot Meunier (72%). However, it’s worth a historical note as being the first place where phylloxera was found in the Marne. This right bank village also helps supply the behemoth 30+ million bottle production of Moët & Chandon.
Kristin Noelle Smith has an 8-part series on YouTube where she focuses on notable producers of Champagne.
In episode three on Moët & Chandon (26:35), Smith touches on the impact of phylloxera in Champagne.
Though the Marne flows westward, the best way to think of the Vallée de la Marne is as a river of Pinot Meunier that changes as you go east. In the west, it truly lives up to the superlative of Meunier-dominance. This is because of the influence of the river and abundance of cold, clay and sand-based soils. But as we go east, and the river widens by the city of Épernay, the story changes considerably.
The part that “forks” north, the Grande Vallée, shares similarities with the southern Montagne de Reims. Here the terroir takes on more of the characteristics of the Pinot noir-dominant Grand Crus of Bouzy and Ambonnay. Whereas the south fork of the Côteaux Sud d’Épernay becomes gradually chalkier. This explains why you see more Chardonnay-dominant villages the closer you get to the Côte des Blancs.
Nailing these two big distinctions (as well as understanding why Meunier thrives in the Marne) is truly dangerous knowledge. Especially for your pocketbook!
So drink up and I’ll see you for part III on the Côte des Blancs!
19th-century map of the Montagne de Reims. Most of the Grand Crus are visible on the right side of the map, following the tree line down to the Marne river. Also featured are the villages of the Perle Blanche, Petite Montagne and part of the Vallée de l’Ardre which we’ll talk about below.
Montagne de Reims – Known for Pinot noir
Côte des Blancs – Known for Chardonnay
Vallée de la Marne – Known for Pinot Meunier
If they know a little bit more, they’ll throw in the Côte des Sézanne (known for Chardonnay) and the Côte des Bar in the Aube (known for Pinot noir).
None of that is wrong.
But it’s very incomplete and could certainly use a few whetstones. For one, each of those regions that are known for something all have significant exceptions. There are villages or even entire sub-regions that are dominated by other grape varieties.
Map of the Montagne de Reims from the Union des Maisons de Champagne website.
Many times the exceptions are driven by changes in soils and topography. This will consequentially impact the styles of wines coming from these areas. Understanding the exceptions–and why they are exceptions–is vital to having a sharper knowledge about Champagne.
So lets cut through the haze and geek out a bit. My tools for this journey are:
Tomas’s Wine Blog which is, by far, one of the most extensive and worthwhile resource on the individual villages (all 319 of them) of Champagne. Seriously, if you love Champagne, you need to bookmark this page.
Peter Liem’s Champagne. It’s one of the Five Essential Books On Champagne precisely because it dives deep into the many subregions and exceptions of Champagne–giving you fantastic details on why they are exceptions. The box set also includes reproductions of Louis Larmat’s maps of Champagne which are a wine geek’s wet dream.
I’m not kidding about those Larmat maps. Below is a short YouTube video (2:57) made by someone from K & L wine merchants that got their hands on an old copy of the maps from Moët & Chandon. Liem’s book includes the same seven maps–minus the special Moët vineyard annotations.
Part I-Montagne de Reims
Note: Today we’re just going to cover the exceptions and unique terroir of the Montagne de Reims. Now would be a good time to have a map like this of the villages handy to follow the geekery.
The superlative about the Montagne de Reims is that the area produces powerful Pinot noir-based Champagne. It’s a reputation well earned by wines from the Grand Cru villages of Ambonnay, Bouzy, Louvois, Verzenay, Verzy, Puisieulx, Beaumont-sur-Vesle and Mailly. Here you’ll find some of the most highly regarded Pinot noir vineyards in Champagne. This includes names such as Krug’s Clos du Amobonnay, Egly-Ouriet’s Les Crayères, André Clouet’s Les Clos, Pierre Paillard’s Les Maillerettes and Mumm de Verzenay.
Champagne from the northern Grand Cru of Mailly.
But the Montagne de Reims is far from monolithic. For one thing, it’s not even really a mountain. Rather it’s a broad plateau (the Grande Montagne) with a series of hills and valleys encircling Reims.
The Grand Crus on the north and eastern segment (Mailly, Verzenay, Verzy, Beaumont-sur-Vesle, Puisieulx and Sillery) have mostly north-facing slopes which produce distinctly different Pinots than those from the south-facing slopes of Ambonnay, Bouzy and Louvois.
While the northern Pinots are still powerful, the root of their power comes more from their firm structure. Among their southern brethren, that power comes from the rich depth of fruit. This is why you see more still red Coteaux Champenois coming from these southern Grand Crus.
But it’s those unique north and north-east facing slopes that brings us to our first notable exception in Montagne de Reims. Sillery.
Across the broader Grande Montagne de Reims we have around 57% Pinot noir, 30% Chardonnay and 13% Pinot Meunier planted. However, in Sillery, Chardonnay leads the pack with almost 60% of plantings. The Champagne house Ruinart, which is well known for its Chardonnay-dominant Champagnes makes Sillery Chardonnay a major component of its prestige cuvée, Dom Ruinart.
In this GrapeRadio video with the cellarmaster of Ruinart, Frédéric Panaiotis, they touch on the distinctiveness of Sillery Chardonnay (3:25)–as well as that of nearby Puisieulx and Verzenay–compared to the Côte des Blancs. These Montagne de Reims Chardonnays, grown in prime Pinot noir territory, have more depth and body which puts their own unique imprint on a wine.
BTW, if you want even more hard-core geeking, check out my Geek Notes on GuildSomm’s interviews with Ruinart’s Frédéric Panaiotis about the process of Champagne and follow up.
While not officially recognized as a sub-region of the Montagne de Reims, sandwiched between the northern & southern Grand Crus is a cluster of four premier cru villages known as the Perle Blanche.
Like the Côte des Blancs (as well as Côte de Beaune), the Perle Blanche vineyards face east and southeast. Here they catch the gentle morning sun before the heat of the day. While there is a deep bed of chalk throughout the Montagne de Reims, its influences are felt more keenly in the very thin topsoils of these premier crus. Trépail and Villers-Marmery particularly stand out with more than 90% of their vineyards (nearly 100% in Villers-Marmery) turned over to Chardonnay grapes that are highly prized by producers such as David Léclapart, Pehu-Simonet and Deutz.
The vlogger, My Man in Champagne, featured David Pehu in an interview (1:54) among his vines in Villers-Marmery. This will give you a good feel for the Perle Blanche.
Pinot Meunier is such an underrated grape variety in Champagne even though it plays an important role in many of Champagne’s most successful non-vintage blends–most notably Krug’s Grande Cuvée and Moët’s Brut Imperial (up to 40% some releases). The calling card of this grape is its ability to bud late but ripen early. This helps it escape the viticultural hazards of bud-killing springtime frost as well as diluting harvest rains.
However, climate change and warmer vintages are stirring up concerns that maybe Meunier ripens a little too early. While blocking MLF may help to retain freshness, it’s likely that the sites with north-facing slopes that have a prolonged growing season will become even more treasured for Pinot Meunier.
Vineyards in Chigny-les-Roses in the northwestern part of the Grande Montagne.
In the Grande Montagne de Reims, Meunier country starts just west of the Grand Cru village of Mailly with the notable premier cru of Ludes. The grape becomes even more important, accounting for almost 60% of plantings, in fellow 1ers Chigny-les-Roses and Trois-Puits.
While these villages don’t often show up on labels, their vineyards (and Meunier) are highly valued by large Champagne houses. Among them, notable names such as Cattier (Armand de Brignac/Ace of Spades), Canard-Duchêne, Laurent-Perrier and Taittinger.
Just a little southwest (heading towards the Vallée de la Marne) is the autre cru village of Germaine. Here Pinot Meunier makes up around 96% of all plantings and is an important source of grapes for Moët & Chandon.
These villages are so under-the-radar that’s it tough to find videos featuring their vineyards.
Instead, I’m going to show you a fun one (1:32) from Benoît Tarlant of Champagne Tarlant. This was filmed in the autre cru village of Œuilly, on the other side of the river from Montagne de Reims in the Vallée de la Marne Rive Gauche.
We’ll talk about the Vallée de la Marne in part II of this series. The north-facing slopes of the Rive Gauche in this frost-prone valley is a natural home for Pinot Meunier. What I love about this video is that you can see how tiny Meunier clusters are. It also gives great insights into what a stressful vintage 2012 was.
Massif de Saint-Thierry
The most northern vineyards in all of Champagne are located northwest of the city of Reims. This is another area of prime Pinot Meunier real estate. The grape makes up around 54% of plantings, followed by Pinot noir (29%) and Chardonnay (17%).
Even the Massif de Saint-Thierry’s most well-known village, the autre cru Merfy, is paced by Pinot Meunier leading the pack with 45% of plantings–trailed by Pinot noir (35%) and Chardonnay (20%). Here the acclaimed grower-producer Chartogne-Taillet makes several highly regarded Champagnes including the vineyard-designated Les Alliées made from 100% old-vine Meunier.
However, the true “heart” of Meunier country in the Montagne Reims is a little further west. Here you’ll find the river valleys of the Vesle et Ardre and the hills of the Petite Montagne. Across this entire region, Meunier holds sway–representing 61% of plantings.
Like the Vallée de la Marne, early spring frost is an issue. Similarly, you tend to see the proportion of Pinot Meunier increase the more west that you go. The grape reaches its apex in the westernmost vineyards of the Vallée de l’Ardre. Also, as in the Massif de Saint-Thierry and Marne Valley, sand plays a considerable role in the terroir.
Les Béguines from Jérôme Prévost’s La Closerie. Such a bloody gorgeous wine. Definitely one of the best Champagnes that I’ve ever had.
The only village of the Vesle et Ardre and Petite Montagne where Pinot noir has any sort of stronghold is the premier cru of Écueil. Planted to 76% Pinot noir, this village is an important source for the houses of Frédéric Savart and Nicolas Maillart.
A common denominator among most of these villages is the prevalence of north and north-east facing slopes.
This is true with the most notable village of the Petite Montagne, the autre cru Gueux. Pinot Meunier-dominant (84.5%), followed by Pinot noir (11.7%) and Chardonnay (3.8%), Gueux is the home of Jérôme Prévost’s La Closerie and his Les Béguines vineyard.
Prévost’s Les Béguines cuvée, almost entirely Meunier (some releases will have a tiny amount Pinot gris or Chardonnay blended in), is widely credited with reigniting interest in the grape variety. It’s certainly a wine that everyone should have on their “Must-Try” list.
We’ll wrap up our overview of the exceptions to Pinot noir’s dominance in the Montagne de Reims by looking at the area’s most overlooked sub-region–the Monts de Berru. This tiny cluster of five villages, located in the hills east of Reims, are the easternmost vineyards of the Montagne de Reims. Only a few villages in the Côte des Bar and the Vitryat sub-region of the Côte des Blancs extend further east.
Located just east of Reims, the Monts de Berru saw a lot of fighting during WWI, particularly during the Battle of the Hills. The 5 Champagne villages are highlighted on this map which notes French offensive gains during April & May of 1917.
Now given their northern and easterly location, you can probably guess which grape variety thrives here.
Across the 5 villages, it represents 92% of all plantings with the autre crus of Pontfaverger-Moronvilliers (100% Chardonnay going almost entirely to Moët & Chandon) and Nogent-l’Abbesse (99% of plantings) virtually exclusive to Chardonnay.
The one outlier is the north-eastern village of Selles that is planted to 94% Pinot Meunier and 6% Chardonnay. Here, too, Moët & Chandon seems to be the most significant purchaser of grapes from this autre cru.
Another Champagne house that source grapes from the Monts de Berru is Pommery as well as Pol Roger which owns vineyards in the namesake village of Berru.
Don’t fret. The next few parts in this series covering the exceptions of the Vallée de la Marne, Côte des Blancs and the Aube won’t be nearly as long. However, the Montagne de Reims was the best starting point to reframe folk’s thinking about the regions of Champagne.
It’s entirely too simplistic to say that the Montagne de Reims is “known for Pinot noir.” This is particularly true when there are notable Grand Cru and premier cru villages that stand out for other varieties.
The biggest reason why this “Butter Knife Knowledge” of Champagne is so pervasive is that, historically, we don’t really think that deeply about the terroir of Champagne. This is largely because the big négociant brands of Champagnes–which dominate the market–rarely talk about terroir at all.
We’re so used to thinking of Champagne as a blend of dozens, if not hundreds of villages, that it doesn’t seem like it’s worth the bother. On back labels and tech sheets, the best you ever get from most large houses is that the Chardonnay came from the Côte des Blancs, the Pinot noir from the Montagne de Reims and the Meunier from the Vallée de la Marne.
Though only from an “autre cru”, the wines of Chartogne-Taillet exploring the terroir of Merfy shows that the Champagnes of the Massif de Saint-Thierry can stand up to any Grand Cru.
That’s a big reason why I wanted to do this series. I wanted to highlight the villages with distinctive terroir that makes them exceptions to the superlatives.
But beyond just reading about these exceptions, you need to taste. I highly encourage Champagne lovers to explore the many growers who produce single cru and single-vineyard wines. This is another area where Tomas’s wine blog is such a fantastic resource. Near the bottom of each village profile, Tomas lists many of the growers and négociants who produce wine from each place.
The Christie’s Encyclopedia of Champagne and Sparkling Wine will also list the villages of most growers in their producer profiles. Additionally, they note many individual growers that tend to be the most expressive of a cru’s terroir. These are all tremendous tools to help sharpen your understanding of Champagne.
Though now part of the Madeira Wine Company (along with Blandy’s and Leacock’s), Cossart Gordon is the oldest Madeira shipper still in existence. Founded in 1747 by Francis Newton, it’s possible that this house originated the Rainwater style of Madeira that was once incredibly popular in the United States.
In his book, Madeira, The Island Vineyard, Noel Cossart claims that Francis and his brother, Andrew Newton, developed the style in the mid-18th century while shipping barrels of Verdelho to Virginia.
During that time, casks of Madeira were transported between boat and shore with strong swimmers floating partially filled barrels in the water. Once the barrels reached shore, they were topped up, resealed, and awaited carriages to take them to the market. Occasionally the barrels were left unbunged sitting on the beach. This made them susceptible to rainfall diluting the wine. The Newtons discovered that their customers liked this lighter, less concentrated style and began deliberately producing it by blending.
While originally Verdelho, today Tinta Negra is most often used–as it is in this Cossart Gordon.
The wine is fortified only 4 days into fermentation to retain 55 g/l sugar. It spends 3 months heated to 45-50°c in estufas. Cossart Gordon then ages the wine 3 years in American oak barrels.
The acidity amplifies the confit, candied orange note and balances the sugar.
Medium intensity nose. A mix of toasted almonds and candied oranges with some salt brine.
On the palate, the oak is more noticeable with vanilla mingling with caramel and some clove baking spice. Medium-plus acidity is not as mouthwatering as many Madeiras but carries the citrus tang well. Medium-plus body balances the sugar and alcohol. Moderate length finish brings back the brine but lingers most on vanilla.
For around $15, this is a tasty bottle with a fun bit of history. But it’s not anything that will particularly blow you away. However, it’s worth trying if you see it.
Now I don’t think that Tom made it up. But it feels like whoever sent it to him was working overtime to come up with the most insane caricature of a feminist Natural Wine zealot they could muster. Right down to the over the top capitalization of “MANipulated” wines.
There’s no way that this could’ve been real, right?
It seems like someone made a New Year’s resolution to do more shit-stirring in 2020–digging up not only the Natural Wine debate but also a good, old fashion row of “cis white men are the root of all evil.”
And, frankly, as both a feminist and wine geek who loves the excitement of natural wines, the sentiments of Wark’s anonymous commentator pisses me off.
Because it doesn’t do jack to move the conversation forward.
Before I go on, I should confess a bias since Tom Wark did write a very positive review of this site. But I’m not writing this post to come to Tom’s defense. What concerns me more is how daft diatribes like those of his anonymous writer distract from important discussions that the industry needs to have.
The wine world has diversity issues. That’s indisputable. It’s gotten better but–particularly in the realm of wine writing–it’s still largely the domaine of heterosexual, cis white males.
I’ve got bookcases full of wine books that are more than 80% authored by old white dudes. Pulling out some of my favorite books written by female authors, I could barely fill one shelf. And a good chunk of that is from Jancis Robinson.
Everywhere I go in my wine journey; I’m following the echos and opinions of old white men. When I’m researching a new region or wine, my first introduction is almost always through the lens of someone who sees and tastes the world quite differently than I do.
A tale of two bookshelves. There are a lot more shelves that look like the top image than there are of the bottom.
And I at least have the privilege of sharing the same western Caucasian heritage as most of these writers.
I can’t imagine what it is like for POC and folks from non-western countries wadding through tasting notes, analogies and descriptors that are entirely foreign to their own.
Pardon Taguzu, a sommelier from Zimbabwe, made this point well noting, “I never grew up eating gooseberries, so I will never taste that in a wine.” For folks like Taguzu, they’re more likely to pick up the flavor of tsubvu in a Napa Cabernet Sauvignon than they would blackcurrant.
Think of all that we lose, as a wine community, when we’re not hearing these diverse voices.
We need these other voices to add depth and inclusiveness to the narrative of wine.
But acknowledging that craving for diversity doesn’t mean we have to demonize the old white men who came before. We don’t need to burn chairs to add more places to the table.
Oz Clarke, salt bae
Tossing aside the contributions of folks like Hugh Johnson, Oz Clarke, Matt Kramer and their ilk is like tossing the salt from your cabinet. It’s not going to make you a better cook. Nor will losing these voices make the world of wine any richer.
Yes, it’s a seasoning that certainly needs to be limited in our diets. Lord knows that too much of salty old white men running amok leads to groanworthy sexism. But those are the ills of using a shovel when a dash will do.
While the flavor of wine writing is enhanced by bringing in more curry, cayenne, ginger and sage, we shouldn’t denigrate the role that salty old white men have had in preserving this passion.
Even though we certainly can (and should) scale back on the amount of salt taking up space on our bookshelves–you can’t replace it. Their opinions and insights still have value next to all the other seasonings that enliven our understanding of wine.
What I love about wine is that I’m never going to master it. Not even going to come close.
Of course, I’m going to work my butt off to finish my WSET Diploma. After that, perhaps I’ll become a Master of Wine candidate and hopefully earned those MW initials. But even then, the kindling that stokes my wine passions will continue to be the vastness of everything I don’t know.
Perhaps that’s why I get a perverse thrill in realizing that I’ve had something wrong for so many years. More logs for the fire.
And boy did I have a lot of things wrong about the solera system used in Sherry!
Or, rather, I had a very simplistic understanding of it. I knew enough to be dangerous. I had a solid idea of what fractional blending was and why it was done.
Like most wine geeks, I could sketch out that familiar pyramid of barrels. I understood–or at least thought I understood–how the bottom of the solera is never wholly emptied. All the wine pulled for bottling is replaced by the layer above it. Then that layer is refilled from what’s above it until we get to the top layer with the new harvest’s wines.
But that knowledge is about as dangerous as a butter knife.
Clearly, I needed a few whetstones. I found them in my Diploma textbook as well as Julian Jeffs’ Sherry and Ruben Luyten’s phenomenal website Sherry Notes.
Mythbusting #1 – There are no pyramids of barrels.
Also, barrels are heavy and it’s not practical to have more than 3-4 layers stacked on top of each other.
Take that classic graphic you see everywhere and chuck it out the window. The reality is that each layer (a criadera or scale), is almost always grouped together and kept separate from the other layers. Sometimes they’re even kept in different bodegas. This is done for several reasons.
One consideration is insurance against a catastrophe. Something like a fire in one part of the barrel room or a bodega could take out a whole solera system. Yes, losing an entire criadera itself would be terrible (especially if it is the oldest solera layer). However, that’s nowhere near as devastating as losing all the scales at once.
But there’s also an overlooked winemaking reason as well.
Wines mature differently in different areas. This is true on a macro scale of one bodega in Sanlúcar de Barrameda and another in El Puerto de Santa María–as well as two bodegas across the street in Jerez. But it’s also exhibited on a micro-level between two corners of the same barrel room.
It can even be seen in the difference within a stack of 4 layers of barrels. The bottom two layers, closest to the floor, are always going to be cooler as heat rises. This means that the upper layers will mature faster and experience more evaporation–increasing the concentration of alcohol, body and flavor.
This variance adds complexity and more color to a master blender’s palette. An experienced capataz (cellarmaster) is always keenly aware of the unique terroir in their bodegas. They will spread out the various scales of their soleras to different areas with the right conditions they’re looking for.
Mythbusting #2 – The solera layer isn’t always on the floor either.
The last or oldest scale of a solera is called, somewhat confusingly, the solera layer. This comes from the Spanish suelo and Latin solum which means “floor”. So, of course, all those pyramid schematics feature this layer at the bottom.
But more often you’re going to find younger criadera of Finos and Manzanilla on the actual bottom floor layer. Here they can take advantage of the cooler temperatures and slower maturation. Stacked on top of them might be criadera from a completely different solera of oxidatively aged Amontillado or Oloroso. It makes more sense to put these barrels here since they will benefit from the warmth.
Mythbusting #3 – They’re not partially emptying one barrel into another barrel on the next level.
Now while bodegas want complexity, one overarching theme to remember about a solera is that its primary purpose is to ensure consistency. As we noted above, barrels mature differently. So even two barrels right next to each other could develop unique personalities. That variance isn’t a bad thing, but producers need to control it somehow.
For example, if you’re pulling from Barrel A in criadera 4 to refill Barrel B in criadera 3, then any and all barrel variation exhibited by Barrel A will only be shared with just Barrel B. This is going to compound, rather than smooth out, barrel variations. When you’re aiming for consistency, that’s not good. This is why the rocío (replenishing wine) is hardly ever transferred just straight barrel-to-barrel.
Instead, the wine removed from Barrel A is going to be divided up between multiple barrels in criadera 3 (B, C, D, E, F, etc.). The video below (1:29-2:20) shows this old-school method. The more modern, mechanized technique is to remove all the saca (wine being pulled) from the various barrels in one criadera and mix them in a tank. Then this blended rocío is evenly portioned out to refill all the barrels of the older criadera.
Mythbusting #4 – It’s not like racking with just pouring the new wine back into the barrel.
Many wine geeks are familiar with what racking is. It’s an easy image to picture taking place in the solera. But you have to remember that with Sherry–particularly biologically aged Finos and Manzanilla–there’s a hitch. You don’t want to disturb the flor.
This is especially vital since another essential purpose of a solera is to sustain a healthy flor by frequently reintroducing fresh wine and nutrients for the yeast.
Therefore you need specialized tools for both the saca and rocío. These tools, the sifon and rociador, dive underneath the layer of flor–but not too deep to disturb the lees at the bottom of the barrel. I mentioned this Jamie Goode video in my post on the Top 5 YouTube Videos on Sherry Wine, but it’s worth revisiting to see these tools in action.
Mythbusting #5 – The new harvest doesn’t go straight into a solera.
It seems so simple, right? You finish fermentation of the new year’s wine, put it into barrel and boom. You’ve got the new baby wine layer for the solera. Ready to go.
The new harvest, añadas or vintage wine, needs to first go through a waiting period. During this time the wine is monitored to see what style it lends itself too. Most wine geeks are aware of an initial first classification where barrels are chalked up as “palma/palo” for lighter styles designated for biological aging or “raya/gordura” for more robust wines destined for oxidative styles. It is at this stage where fortification happens to either encourage flor (15-15.5% ABV) or prevent it from developing (17%).
But the wines aren’t shuttled off to join a Fino or Oloroso solera just yet. Instead, the barrels continue to be observed as part of the sobretablas. This can last anywhere from 9 months to 2 or 3 years. Sometimes even longer. With Finos and Manzanillas, the development and health of the flor are monitored with some barrels getting diverted towards more oxidative styles like Amontillado. For potential Oloroso and Palo Cortado, the body and texture are evaluated. It is this second classification that ultimately determines which solera the wine will be best suited for.
Mythbusting #6 – Likewise, the new harvest isn’t always what goes into the youngest criadera.
From the Dutch Wikipedia.
Many established soleras, particularly those producing VOS/VORS wines, aren’t replenished by the new year’s wines. Instead, the source for their “new blood” is the already aged products from other soleras.
The reasons for this are quality driven but also quite practical. It requires an immense amount of time to start a solera from scratch with new vintage wines. For very old Sherries, it makes more sense to start and sustain them with wine that has already been significantly aged.
This is also the case with many Amontillados. Producers often will take wine from an established Fino or Manzanilla solera to replenish an Amontillado system. Many Palo Cortados (such as Valdespino’s Viejo C.P.) are made by selecting high-quality barrels from Fino and Amontillado soleras and then feeding them into the Palo Cortado solera. Rarely is a Palo Cortado solera replenished by a new vintage’s wine.
Before busting this myth, I use to wonder why things like a VORS (30+ year aged Sherry) solera didn’t have 30+ scales of barrels. This was driven by my mental-math quandary with the next myth.
Mythbusting #7 – Bottling doesn’t happen once a year.
The input-output of a solera didn’t always add up for me. It especially seemed complicated by the fact that Sherry producers couldn’t legally drain more than 30% of a barrel for bottling. Factoring loses from evaporation helped the mental math a little. In large soleras, 1 to 2 barrels worth of wine could be lost between criadera levels from the angel’s share. But I always knew that there were some puzzle pieces I was missing.
Learning that soleras are dynamic with barrels moving between different soleras filled in a few of those pieces. But I had to divorce my thinking from the traditional winemaking calendar of bottling a particular wine once a year. Unlike many wines, Sherry is bottled on-demand to meet the needs of the market.
In the case of Finos and Manzanillas, there could be 2-4 or even 6+ bottlings a year.
To maintain a healthy amount of flor, Fino and Manzanilla soleras need regular replenishment from more frequent bottlings.
This ensures that the wine that hits the market is fresh. However, it also helps sustain the vital flor with frequent replenishment of new wine being brought in from the sobretabla. Keep in mind, those producers don’t have to bottle the maximum amount they’re legally able to pull. The saca may only be 10-20% of each barrel or even 5%. Again, depending on the demand of the market.
There doesn’t even have to be any bottling in a given year. This is especially pertinent if there aren’t the sales to warrant putting more bottles out in the market. The wine will just sit there chilling in the solera until there is a need to bottle more. This flexibility to weather dips and booms in demand has been critical in Sherry’s survival.
However, the final piece to my mental math puzzle was the realization that I had to throw the math away. Because…
Mythbusting #8 – The oldest solera layer isn’t always the scale that a Sherry is bottled from.
This was my “son of a bitch” light bulb moment while studying. It was at this point when I realized how spectacularly wrong I was with my thinking about how soleras work. Again, I have to blame those classic pyramid illustrations. They evoke the image of Sherry wine flowing through the criaderas of a solera like a river. The wine enters in as headwaters only to eventually exit into the ocean–bottled and sent out into the world.
But the truth is, the layers of criadera are like ports along the river. Here the wine can be diverted away as irrigation channels to meet price points and stylistic demands.
Legally, a Sherry only has to be at least two years old to be bottled and sold as Sherry. Many times, it’s already reached this minimum at the sobretabla phase. So at any point, with any layer of the solera, a producer can selectively pull wine out to blend and bottle. It doesn’t have to be from that oldest solera layer at all.
There is great flexibility in being able to blend and pull from multiple scales of a solera. This allows bodegas to produce Sherry in a variety of styles to meet various price points.
For example, let’s say a producer is making a fairly inexpensive and light Sherry.
The bulk of that wine is likely going to come from young criaderas. It wouldn’t make stylistic or economical sense to pull it from the oldest layer. Though, the producer may pull a little bit from one of the older scales to add complexity. Likewise, even a premium Sherry bottled from older criadera levels may need some wine from younger scales for added freshness.
Of course, there are many Sherries that are bottled exclusively from that oldest solera level. But it doesn’t have to be that way. In many respects, all the various criadera layers are essentially like “reserve wines” in Champagne. Bodegas can selectively pull and blend between them to make multiple Sherries of all different price points and styles.
So, yeah, those pyramid drawings of Sherry that you see everywhere are pretty wrong.
However, they are the most straightforward way of trying to boil down a very complex and dynamic system. It’s not that they’re entirely misleading. They’re just very incomplete.
Realizing how lacking those illustrations are isn’t a reason to get annoyed. Instead, it should be a reason to appreciate Sherry more and get excited.
After all, there’s so much more out there to learn and discover.