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.
Social media feeds are about to get flooded with #NewYearNewYou hashtags and selfies of self-determination. For those who frequently comment about wine and other beverage issues, the algorithm gods have a special treat in store for us.
But what I can’t get behind is sanctimonious virtue-signaling–especially for something that the science is far from conclusive about.
Yes, reducing overall alcohol intake is a good thing. But that is only good if it is sustained and habitual–not if it’s a temporary “binge” of abstinence. Just as detox diets don’t work, the idea of giving up alcohol for a month to “give your liver a rest” is similarly fraught with issues.
Bingeing during the holidays and then giving your liver “a rest” for January before bingeing again come February is like trying to catch up on sleep. It just doesn’t work. Overcompensating with sleep on Saturday and Sunday isn’t going to change the effects of your Monday-Friday sleeping habits.
Now I don’t think that everyone who scales back in January is a sanctimonious virtue-signaller.
Nor do I doubt the sincerity and good intent of folk who want to make more mindful choices in their lives. However, these usually aren’t the people plastering their IG with #DryJanuary selfies.
The problem I have is that making “Binge Sobriety” a hashtag fad distracts from the seriousness of actual alcoholism. To make matters worse, it’s often counterproductive. As Dr. Niall Campbell of Priory Hospital in London notes, many of the folks who feel compelled to try Dry January because of problematic drinking are setting themselves up for failure.
I know compulsive drinkers who have stopped for several Januarys in years gone by, but just counted the days until February…
They think ‘because I have stopped, I can stop anytime’. It’s rarely the case. — Dr. Niall Campbell, January 4th, 2019.
He tried binge sobriety for many years. While he got some short term benefits, Dry January ultimately “provided just enough proof that I could continue on with my life unchanged, trapped in the delusion that I could quit drinking any time I wanted.”
People who need help with alcohol addiction are not going to get it from a hashtag.
The road to hell is paved with #GoodIntentions.
The flexing and selfies of strangers on the internet are never going to replace genuine support from family, friends and trained health professionals.
But what about the rest of us?
On the website of the UK group Alcohol Change, which actively promotes Dry January, they describe their “fun challenge” as a way for folks to “reset their relationship” with booze.
However, for many people, binge sobriety doesn’t even pause–much less reset–that relationship. To truly “reset” anything, you can’t avoid the item in question. You have to reframe your thinking about it.
If alcohol is just a means to get drunk–a buzz, a “social lubricant”–then your relationship is always going to be a challenging one. It’s like if you value your partner only because he’s “so good-looking” or she’s “great in bed” and never move beyond those superficial reasons.
If you think that the sum total and benefit of a glass of wine, a bottle of beer, a shot of whiskey or a cocktail is just as an alcohol-delivery vehicle then, yeah, that’s not healthy. It will always be difficult for folks with that mindset to follow guidelines of moderate consumption–up to 1 drink per day for women and 2 for men.
But moderation is much easier when you practice mindful consumption.
Another tactic of moderation and mindful consumption is to limit your alcohol intake to mealtime.
With alcohol, it’s especially important to think about what you’re drinking.
Who made it?
Where did it come?
What makes this drink different from anything else I could have ordered?
Frequent readers of the blog know that there is a story behind every bottle. However, the reality is that the story for some bottles is simply that they exist.
That mass-marketed Sauvignon blanc produced in an anonymous factory and shipped by the tanker? That patio-pounder Prosecco that always tastes the same every time you get it? Yeah, I’ll admit that their stories are pretty lame.
But these are essentially the fast-food versions of wine and it’s pretty hard to mindfully consume stuff like that. This is why mass-produced and anonymous wines should frankly be avoided.
That’s hard, no doubt. It’s so easy to order the house red or pick up that recognizable bottle that you see everywhere. Instead, you have to ask questions.
You have to actively seek out the bottles that have genuine stories behind them driven by real people. At its core, wine is an agricultural product. It’s made by folks who shepherded it along from grapes to glass. Find wines that talk about those people.
His comment came up during an interesting thread that pointed out how independent wine shops and restaurants often bear the brunt of Dry January. The big grocery store chains and mega-corps behind mass-produced brands can weather a month of binge sobriety till February. However, small local businesses–the ones that employ your neighbors and support the community–keenly feel the pain of four weeks of lost sales.
Hubbard’s advice to spend January trying new things works hand in hand with becoming a moderate, more mindful drinker.
Break out of your rut. Try something different. Visit your local shop or wine bar and talk to the people there about wine. Ask about its story.
No one is saying that you have to become a wine connoisseur, obsessing over terroir and coming up with long, flowery tasting notes. You don’t have to do any of that.
But if you truly want to “reset your relationship” with alcohol, paying attention to what you’re drinking is going to do far more for you than a month of “Binge Sobriety.”
As Jamie Goode notes, each domaine is run mostly independently with the consortium sharing resources and providing marketing support. The exception is La Cuvée Mythique. The wines for this label come from a collaborative project among several growers made at a central location.
The name change to Vinadeis came about in 2015 when the company secured more holdings in the Bordeaux merchant firm Cordier Mestrezat Grands Crus. Between their Cordier interest and own growers, Vinadeis owns over 17,000 ha (42,000 acres) of vineyards throughout southern France. Most all of the vineyards are at least sustainably farmed with a significant portion being certified organic.
La Cuvée Mythique Brut Reserve is 100% Chardonnay sourced from vineyards throughout the Languedoc. It’s fermented in the traditional method with the wine spending at least 12 months aging on the lees.
Very rich and ripe lemon pastry in this sparkler.
Medium-plus intensity nose. Citrus and green fruit driven-lemon, pear and even a little Sauv blanc-like gooseberry. Ripe but not as much as I would expect from a Languedoc sparkler. There’s also some brioche, but overall it’s not very autolytic on the nose.
However, on the palate, the script switches. Full-bodied weight with much riper fruit. It has a lemon tart pastry feel. Very creamy with medium-plus acidity helping but could use some more. Relatively dry but not bone-dry, so guessing a dosage around 8-10 g/l. Moderate finish lingers on the pastry notes.
For $12-15, this is a decent sparkler with some complexity. It’s definitely for folks who like riper and weightier style bubbles.
The wine world has a wicked way of promoting FOMO–a fear of missing out.
From the luxury end, there are cult wines and trophy bottles. In years past, score hounds would scavenge the shelves looking for highly-rated gems before they sold out.
Now for wine geeks and wanderlust Millennials, the entire world of wine is a temptress. But what we fear missing out on is not what the pack is gobbling up. Instead, our minds quiver at the thought of missing out on what’s new and exciting by settling for what’s old and boring.
Why feel content with the same ole Cab and Chardonnay when you could have Touriga Nacional and Grenache blanc?
Yeah, Champagne is charming. Prosecco is perfect for patio sipping. But that’s what everyone else is drinking. It’s what you can find in every wine shop. You can’t have FOMO if there is nothing to be missed.
And that’s the dirty little secret of the human psyche.
Despite the real repercussions when we let FOMO reach anxiety levels, we still crave it. We still crave the thrill of the hunt. But how much thrill is there in shooting ducks in a basket?
In the world of sparkling wine, finding premium Aussie bubbles is a tough unicorn to bag. Unless, of course, you’re one of the 25 million people who call Australia home.
Now yes, we’ll get some sparkling Shiraz exported.
Actually Australia is home to many unicorns. If only I could’ve found a way to keep these frozen for the plane ride home.
Though the ones that make their way to the US tend to be mass-produced and underwhelming. Of course, there is the ubiquitous YellowTail, which has several sparklers in their line up. However, that’s basically the “Fosters of Australian wine”–a well-known ambassador but not really a benchmark.
But only around a fifth of Australia’s sparkling wine production gets exported. That means you need to go down under to even get a hint of what the rest of the world is missing out on. Luckily, I got such a chance this past October during the Wine Media Conference.
There, in both the Hunter Valley and neighboring Mudgee, I was able to try several sparkling wines that I could never find in the States. But I barely scratched the surface. Even spending extra time in Sydney, I found that the highly regarded Tasmanian sparklers were surprisingly difficult to find.
I’ll share my thoughts on many of the sparklers I tasted below. But first a little geeking about Australian sparkling wine.
Australia isn’t an “emerging” sparkling wine producer.
I’d imagine it was quite the scandal having a non-French sparkler served to the French emperor.
Up in the Hunter Valley, James King began producing sparkling wine around 1843. King’s wines would receive great international acclaim–doing particularly well at the 1855 Paris Exposition. Yes, that1855 Paris Exposition. At the end of the event, King’s sparkling Australian wine was selected as one of only two wines that were served to Napoleon III at the closing banquet.
It’s hard to know exactly what these first Aussie sparklers were. King, in particular, was noted for the quality of his Shepherd’s Riesling (Semillon). However, he also had Pinot noir in his vineyard as well.
These early Australian sparklers were made using the traditional method of Champagne.
The 20th century saw more innovation in sparkling wine techniques with producers experimenting with a “twist” on the Champagne method known as the Transfer Method or transvasage. (We’ll geek out more about that down below) The exact date and who was the first to pioneer this technique in Australia is not known though Minchinbury helped popularize its use.
In 1939, Frederick Thomson started using carbonation (or the “soda method”) to make his Claretta sparkling fizz. We should note that while many cheap sparkling wines (including some so-called “California Champagnes”) are made with added carbonation, in Australia these wines can’t be labeled as “sparkling wines.” Only wines that get their effervescence through fermentation (either in a bottle or tank) can use the term.
Speaking of tanks, adoption of the Charmat method took hold in the late 1950s–beginning with Orlando’s Barossa Pearl Fizz. Today, the tank method is gaining in prominence–especially with the strong sparkling Moscato and “Prosecco” market in Australia. (More on both of those a little later too.)
The 1980s saw a spark of French interest in Australia.
Much like in California, the big Champagne houses took an interest in Australia’s growing sparkling wine industry. In 1985, both Roederer and Moët & Chandon invested in new estates.
Roederer help found Heemskerk as a joint-venture in Pipers Brook, Tasmania. But eventually Roederer moved on from the project–selling back their interest in the estate in 1994.
Throughout Australia, sparkling wine accounts for around 6% of production. In Tasmania, that number jumps up to 30%.
Moët’s Domaine Chandon at Green Point in the Yarra Valley of Victoria, though, saw immediate success thanks to the work of the legendary Tony Jordan–who sadly passed away earlier this year.
Like Roederer, LVMH also looked to Tasmania as a potential spot for sparkling wine production. However, they wanted a location more prime for tourism and cellar door sales.
Bollinger was also briefly a player in Australia’s sparkling wine scene through their partnership with Brian Croser in Petaluma. However, the hostile takeover of that brand by the Lion Nathan corporation in 2001 seemed to have ended Bollinger’s involvement.
Today, except for Domaine Chandon (and Pernod Ricard’s Jacob’s Creek), most all of the Australian sparkling wine industry is wholly domestic. This makes me wonder if this is why Aussie sparklers are so hard to find outside of Australia?
Even the most prominent players like Treasury Wine Estates (Wolf Blass, Penfolds, Seppelt, Heemskirk, Yellowglen) and Accolade Wine (Banrock Station, Arras, Bay of Fires, Hardy’s, Croser, Yarra Burn) have their origins as Australian conglomerates before they gained an international presence.
Understanding this is a big part of understanding Australian sparkling wine. Like the traditional method, fermentation happens in the bottle. However, it’s not happening in the bottle that you’re taking home. Instead, after secondary fermentation and aging, the wine is emptied into a pressurized tank at around 0°C where the lees are filtered out. Then the sparkler is bottled anew with its dosage.
The Champenois themselves use transvasage for 187ml airline splits and half bottles as well as large format Champagnes starting with double magnum (3L Jeroboam) in size. This is because these odd formats would be difficult to riddle without excessive breakage.
The Australians were keen to adopt the labor and cost-saving benefits of the transfer method and it’s the most widely used technique. It allows wineries to increase efficiency without sacrificing the quality character of autolysis. Ed Carr of Accolade Wines noted in Christie’s that the difference is as much as $30-40 AUD per case compared to traditional riddling. Plus, winemakers can do one last “tweaking” (such as SO2 and acidity adjustments) before final bottling.
However, many boutique producers stick to using the traditional (instead of transfer) method. These bottles are labeled stating “Methode champenoise,”“Methode traditionnelle” or simply “Fermented in this bottle.”
The sparklers that are made using the transfer method are more likely to state that they are “Bottled Fermented” or “Fermented in the bottle.”
Australian Moscato & “Prosecco”
As elsewhere in the world, Australia has had its own “Moscato Boom.”
Now usually Moscato is associated with the Moscato bianco grape of Asti (Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains). However, in Australia, the term is used to refer to the whole Muscat family when the wine is made in a light, sweet style with low alcohol. So a bottle of sparkling Australian Moscato can be made from Moscato bianco, Muscat of Alexandria, Orange Muscat, Moscato Giallo or a blend of multiple Muscats.
The King Valley in north-east Victoria has a strong Italian heritage. The Glera/Prosecco grape thrives in the cooler southern end of the valley with vineyards planted at higher altitudes.
Australian Prosecco is also apparently a big deal–though I didn’t personally encounter any bottles on my trip. The first Australian Prosecco was made by Otto Dal Zotto in King Valley (or “Victoria’s little Italy”) in 2004. The success of that wine and others caught the attention and ire of producers in the Veneto.
This led Italian authorities to take some dramatic steps in 2009. First, they petitioned the EU to change the grape’s name from Prosecco to Glera. Then they expanded the DOC to the province of Trieste, in Friuli Venezia Giulia, where there is a village named Prosecco. This gave them the justification to claim the entire region as a protected geographical area.
Obviously Australian wine producers balked at this with the conflict between the two parties still ongoing. But while Australian Prosecco can be sold domestically, none of these wines can be exported into the EU.
A few of the Australian Sparklers I’ve enjoyed this year.
Amanda and Janet de Beaurepaire at their family estate. Amanda’s parents, Janet and Richard, started planting their 53 hectares of vineyards in 1998.
De Beaurepaire 2018 Blanchefleur Blanc de Blancs – $45 AUD (Purchased additional bottles at winery)
I’ve got a future article planned about the intriguing story of the De Beaurepaire family and the genuinely unique terroir they’ve found in Rylstone, southeast of Mudgee. The family’s name and ancestors come from the Burgundian village of Beaurepaire-en-Bresse in the Côte Chalonnaise. So it’s no surprise that their wines have a French flair to them.
It’s also no surprise that their 2018 Blanchefleur was quite Champagne-like. Indeed, it was the best sparkling wine I had on the trip. A 100% Chardonnay with 15 months on the lees, this wine had incredible minerality. Coupled with the vibrant, pure fruit, it screamed of being something from the Cote de Blancs. I’m not kidding when I say that this bottle would stack up well to a quality NV from a grower-producer like Franck Bonville, Pierre Peters, De Sousa or Pertois-Moriset.
Peter Drayton 2018 Wildstreak sparkling Semillon-Chardonnay – $30 AUD
I had this at an Around the Hermitage dinner that featured many gorgeous wines. But the folks at the Around Hermitage Association started things right with this 80% Semillon/20% Chardonnay blend that spent 18 months on the lees. Hard to say if this was transfer method of not. However, the toasty autolysis notes were quite evident with biscuit and honeycomb. Very Chenin like. In a blind tasting, I’d probably confuse it with good quality sparkling Vouvray from a producer like Francois Pinon or Huet.
BTW, the Around Hermitage folks made a fun short video about the dinner (3:20) which features an interview with me.
With a blend of 63% Chardonnay, 19% Pinot noir and 18% Pinot Meunier, this is another bottle that is following the traditional method and recipe. Sourced from the cool-climate Orange region of NSW, which uses altitude (930m above sea level) to temper the heat, this wine spent almost two years aging on the lees. Lots of toasted brioche with racy citrus notes. It feels like it has a higher Brut dosage in the 10-11 g/l range. But it’s well balanced with ample acidity to keep it fresh.
Hollydene Estate 2008 Juul Blanc de Blancs – $69 AUD
Hollydene Estate Winery in Jerrys Plains is about an hour northwest of the heart of the Hunter Valley in Pokolbin.
Made in the traditional method, this wine is 100% Chardonnay sourced from the cool maritime climate of the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria. It spent over 60 months aging on the lees and, whoa nelly, you can tell. Hugely autolytic with yeasty, doughy notes to go with the lemon custard creaminess of the fruit.
Peterson House 2007 Sparkling Semillon – ($60 AUD)
If you love sparkling wine, make sure you book a trip to Peterson House. Each year they release more than 30 different sparklers. Beyond just the traditional varieties, they push the envelope in creating exciting bubbles. You’ll find sparklers made from Verdelho, Pinot gris and Sauvignon blanc as well as Chambourcin, Petit Verdot and Malbec.
I’m generally not a fan of overly tertiary sparklers. But this wine made a big impression on me during the conference.
Wow! A vintage sparkling traditional method Semillon that spent 11 years on lees. 11 years!
Robert Stein NV Sparkling Chardonnay and Pinot noir – $25 AUD
I raved about the Robert Stein Rieslings in my recent post, Send Roger Morris to Mudgee. But there are so many good reasons to put this winery (and the Pipeclay Pumphouse restaurant) on a “Must Visit Bucket List”. The entire line up is stocked with winners–including this Charmat method sparkler.
At first taste, I had this pegged for transfer method. It wasn’t as aggressively bubbly and frothy as many tank method sparklers can be. However, the considerable apple blossom aromatics should have tipped me off. If this ever made its way to the US for less than $30, I’d recommend buying this by the case.
Gilbert 2019 Pet Nat Rose – $25 AUD (Purchased additional bottles at winery)
Gilbert’s Sangio Pet-Nat was just bloody fantastic. I wish I brought more than one bottle home.
It’s always trippy to have a wine from the same year (2019)–especially a sparkler. Gilbert harvests the Sangiovese in February and bottles before the first fermentation is completed each year. Released in July, this wine was surprisingly dry and is teetering on the Brut line with 12.5 g/l residual sugar. Very clean with no funky flavors, this wine had a beautiful purity of fruit–cherry, strawberries, watermelon and even blood orange.
The Christie’s Encyclopedia notes that Domaine Chandon shot out of the gate partly because of the lessons that Tony Jordan learned at Napa’s Domaine Chandon. In particular, Jordan was well aware of the challenges of dealing with grapes from warm climates. In Australia, Domaine Chandon casts an extensive net by sourcing from cool-climate vineyards in both Victoria and Tasmania. They have vineyards not only in the Yarra Valley but also in the King Valley, Macedon Ranges, Whitlands Plateau and Strathbogie Ranges as well as the Coal River Valley region in Tasmania.
For the fruit that comes from Tasmania, Domaine Chandon follows the tact used by many Australian sparkling wine producers. They press the fruit at local press houses in Tasmania before transporting the must in refrigerated containers to the mainland. This helps maintain freshness and ward off spoilage organisms.
The 2013 vintage Brut is 47% Chardonnay, 50% Pinot noir and 3% Pinot Meunier. As in Champagne, Domaine Chandon ages their vintage sparklers at least 36 months on the lees. Fully fermented in the same bottle, it tastes very similar to other Moët & Chandon sparklers with rich, creamy mouthfeel holding up the ripe apple and citrus notes. An enjoyable bottle priced in line with its peers.
Bleasdale Sparkling Shiraz (tasted in London at the WSET School) – Around 15 euros
I’ll admit that the color of sparkling Shiraz is always very striking.
Admittedly I’m still on the search for a genuinely impressive sparkling Shiraz. But this Bleasdale came close. Like the Paringa I’ve reviewed previously, it’s sweeter than my ideal though I get the winemaking reasons behind that.
Sparkling red wines are notoriously tricky to pull off because you have to balance the tannins. This is why many of these wines often have more than 20 g/l sugar.
Most sparkling reds come from the same regions as premium Australian still reds. Think places like the Barossa, McLaren Vale or the Langhorne Creek (Bleasdale). Interestingly, producers will harvest these grapes at the same time as those for still reds wine. Instead of harvesting early to retain acidity, producers want the extended hang time for riper tannins.
However, these sparklers sorely need acidity to balance both the intense fruit and sweetness. While secondary fermentation does add carbonic acid, I suspect that these wines are routinely acidified.
Still, this Bleasdale had enough balance of acid to go with the dark plum and delicate oak spice. That got me wondering how well this would pair with BBQ pulled pork.
Or, if I’m brave, maybe I’d pair some of these Aussie sparkling unicorns with steak de cheval.
One of my favorite study techniques is to guess potential questions on exams. Even if my guesses are entirely off, the studying that I do to answer these hypothetical questions is always worthwhile.
While prepping for the WSET Diploma sparkling wine exam in January, I’ve been jotting down a few possible topics. One, in particular, I keep coming back to.
What are some things in the vineyard and winery that Champagne producers can do in response to climate change & riper vintages?
Now the viticulture part of this question is fairly straightforward. There are numerous tacts you can take–beginning with seeking cooler sites (particularly north-facing slopes) and exploring new (or rather historic) grape varieties that ripen later with more acidity. Likewise, houses like Pierre Peters are experimenting with new clones as well. Of course, those require replanting with significant time and cost commitments.
A little less expensive would be changing trellising and canopy management approaches. Raising the fruiting zone higher and leaving more leaves encourages shading, which keeps the grapes cooler. Shade screens (that can also function as netting against birds) as well as using kaolin clay as sunscreen for grapes are other options. Champagne Bruno Paillard is doing an intriguing experiment with using straw in the vineyard to block sunlight from impacting the microflora in the soil.
But taking this question into the winery is a little more difficult–at least regarding Champagne.
In many warm regions, the first tools out of the winemaker’s belt for dealing with overripe grapes are watering back and acidification. Technically, these aren’t permitted in cool-climate (Zones A & B) regions of the EU. However, in warm vintages like 2003, special dispensations can be given.
Sweet spotting in wine is highly variable and sensory-driven. Anything done to the vin clair is going to get magnified during the secondary fermentation process–including imbalances with flavor. Plus, it’s important to note that the secondary fermentation adds 1 to 1.5% alcohol to the finished wine as well.
However, as I taste through many Champagnes in preparation for my exam (dreadful work, I know), I find myself being continually drawn to certain bottles. These wines crackle with lively fruit flavors that make an immediate impression on the palate.
Researching further, I found a common link between many of these Champagnes. They all tend to have little or no malolactic fermentation (MLF) done.
How common is MLF in Champagne?
Incredibly common. It’s almost standard protocol for a region that has historically had to battle racy high acidity. Some estimates are that as much as 90% of all Champagnes go through some malolactic fermentation.
While lactic acid formed during MLF is considered a softer acid than malic, it’s important to remember that lactic acid is the critical component in sourdough and turning cabbage into sauerkraut.
Running a wine through MLF can drop the titratable acidity (TA) 1-3 g/l and raise the pH 0.3. This will have a significant effect on the mouthfeel of a Champagne–rounding it out and making it feel less austere. In addition to the tactile characteristics, Champagnes that go through full malo tend to have more dried fruit and nutty aromas to go with the brioche and buttery pastry traits of this style.
But more than just seeking the smoother, rounder mouthfeel that MLF brings is the importance of stability. Beyond consuming malic acid, the Oenococcus bacteria gobble up any residual nutrients left in the wine that could be prey for spoilage organisms. As noted above, secondary fermentation is like a high power magnifying glass that makes every quirk, characteristic or flaw of the vin clair more apparent.
However, running Champagnes through malolactic fermentation hasn’t always been standard in Champagne.
This coincided with the renovation of many wine cellars with modern technology like stainless steel tanks that could regulate temperature better. MLF is inhibited in cold temperatures below 55°F (13°C), so being able to warm the must in winter is critical. Likewise, inoculated cultures that were more predictable and dependable became widely available. Many consumers found the Champagnes that went through full malo were richer and approachable younger–encouraging more experimentation with MLF.
Rebels or Vanguards?
Several houses did buck the trend of adopting MLF though. The most notable of these are Alfred Gratien, Gosset and Lanson. However, in recent years, Lanson introduced some styles with partial malo.
The barrel room at Champagne Lanson
Gosset has also started to take the approach of Krug and Salon in that they don’t encourage MLF, but don’t actively try to prevent it either. This means that some batches may go through malo but, on the whole, the style of house is non-malolactic.
Krug is an interesting case. Because despite the ambivalence towards intentional MLF, their house style is decidedly rich and powerful like many full MLF wines. This is partly because of their use of small (205L) oak barrels to ferment in, extended lees aging and, in the case of their multi-vintage Grande Cuvée, the extensive use of reserve stocks.
As I went through my tasting notes, I found several of the partial-to-no-MLF houses similarly make use of oak barrels. These include Gratien, AR Lenoble, Bérêche, Camille Savès, Eric Rodez, Lanson, Laherte Frères, Nicolas Maillart, Perseval, Savart, Thevenet-Delouvin, Vilmart and Louis Roederer. Most intriguing, though, was that these Champagnes rarely tasted oaky.
Instead, these wines were fresh & vibrant with a searing expression of fruit character that felt lost in many of their “rounder” cousins. In a world of circles, these were wines with edges. They stood out and, in a crowded market place, that’s always a plus.
But the big question is–with rising temperatures and riper vintages pushing down acidity, are we going to see more wineries deliberately blocking malolactic fermentation?
Champagne houses that practice partial and no MLF
While I’ve mentioned several above already, here is the full list of Champagnes that I’ve encountered so far who don’t do full malo on all their wines. If you know of other estates, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll get them added to the list.
To my fellow wine students, I highly recommend making it a priority to taste Champagnes with little to no MLF side by side with their more prevalent malo counterparts. You can definitely pick up the stylistic differences.
BTW, while researching this piece, I found that Tyson Stelzer’s article “Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble” answered my hypothetical WSET question almost perfectly. If you’re a WSET Diploma student, his site is well worth checking out.