Category Archives: Champagne

60 Second Wine Review — Bruno Paillard Première Cuvée NV Brut

A few quick thoughts on the Bruno Paillard Première Cuvée NV Brut Champagne.

Note: This wine was a sample.

The Geekery
Bruno Paillard NV

Bruno Paillard founded his eponymous house in 1981 when he was just 27 years old. Right away, Paillard forged his own path, pioneering the use of back label disgorgement dates in 1983.

He also took a considerable gamble for a young house by forgoing the tricky 1984 vintage because the quality didn’t meet Paillard’s standards. In her book, Champagne, Master of Wine Serena Sutcliffe noted that this hard decision cost Paillard over 1 million francs but solidified his quality-minded reputation.

Today, Bruno Paillard owns 32 ha (79 acres) of vineyards, which covers about 60% of their production. These include choice plots in the Grand Cru villages of Oger, Le Mesnil and Verzenay as well as highly esteemed Premier Cru vineyards in Cumières. All estate vineyards are farmed sustainably, with many plots organic and biodynamic.

The Première Cuvée is 45% Pinot noir, 33% Chardonnay and 22% Meunier, partially fermented in oak barrels with MLF allowed. The blend includes up to 50% reserve wines aged in a modified solera system that Paillard developed in 1985. This is impressive considering many NV usually only have 20-40% reserve wine.

Paillard treats his NV like a vintage Champagne with 3 years on the lees before disgorgement and dosage of 6 g/l.

The Wine

Lemon custard pie photo by Prayitno. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

The zesty citrus nose morphs into a round custardy mouthfeel.


High-intensity nose. Ripe apple with zesty lemon rind. Roasted almonds add a smokey note.

On the palate, the ripeness of the apple comes through. But the creaminess of the mouthfeel makes the lemon more custardy. Very well balanced with the dosage and lively high acidity. Long finish keeps the smokey notes and adds a little ginger spice.

The Verdict

This is truly an NV that over-delivers at vintage Champagne level. Exceptionally well made with excellent complexity. It’s averaging around 46 euros ($51), but if you can find this in the US for under $70, you’re getting a steal.

BONUS GEEKERY

Really enjoyed this Bruno Paillard interview with Lisa Denning of Grape Collective about organic viticulture in Champagne.

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60 Second Wine Review — Gonet-Médeville Extra Brut Rosé

A few quick thoughts on the Gonet-Médeville Premier Cru Rosé Champagne.

The Geekery

Gonet-Medeville rose Champagne

In 2000, Xavier Gonet started the Champagne house with his wife, Julie Médeville, in the premier cru village of Bisseuil in the Grande Vallée de la Marne.

Gonet hails from the notable Champagne family of Philippe Gonet in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger with that house now run by Xavier’s siblings. Médeville comes from Bordeaux where her family owns several estates in Graves and Sauternes including Ch. Respide Médeville, Ch. Les Justice and Ch. Gilette.

Gonet-Médeville farms all 10 ha (25 acres) of their vineyards sustainably. The vines are located entirely in premier and Grand Cru villages and include the Champ Alouette and Louvière vineyards in Le Mesnil as well as La Grande Ruelle in Ambonnay.

For many years, Champagne Gonet-Médeville has been brought to the US by legendary importer Martine Saunier. The 2014 documentary film, A Year in Champagne, features Xavier Gonet prominently along with other Saunier clients–Stephane Coquilette, Saint-Chamant and Diebolt-Vallois.

The Extra Brut Rosé is 70% Chardonnay and 27% Pinot noir with 3% still red wine added for color. The wine was aged for seven months after primary fermentation in neutral oak barrels before bottling. Gonet then matured the wine three years on its lees with around 8000 bottles produced.

The Wine

Photo by 4028mdk09. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

The rich pomegranate adds some savory complexity to this Champagne.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Tart cherries and pomegranate with an interesting ginger spice note.

On the palate, the red fruits carry through and add some ruby red grapefruit as well. Here, the spice morphs into a toasty gingerbread note. The medium-weight of the fruit balances well with the silky mousse. But what’s most remarkable is the long saline/minerally finish that is almost lip-smacking.

The Verdict

This is a charming Rosé that’s very solid for around $65-75 retail. The restaurant I enjoyed this at had it marked up to $130 which is still a good value for its quality.

BTW, if you want to check out the trailer for A Year in Champagne, I highly recommend it!

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60 Second Wine Review — 2007 Vilmart Coeur de Cuvee

A few quick thoughts on the 2007 Vilmart & Cie Coeur de Cuvee Champagne.
Vilmart 2007 Coeur de Cuvee Champagne

The Geekery

Laurent Champs is the 5th generation vigneron running his family’s estate in the premier cru village of Rilly-la-Montagne in the Montagne de Reims. Despite this region being world-renown for Pinot noir, the 11 ha (27 acres) of Vilmart are majority Chardonnay.

While his father, René, experimented with biodynamics, Laurent practices sustainable and organic viticulture with AMPELOS certification.

The Coeur de Cuvee is 80% Chardonnay and 20% Pinot noir sourced from a single parcel of 55+ year-old vines. Vilmart uses only the first 14 hl of pressing (the “coeur/heart”) instead of the full 20.5 hl allowed. The vin clair is aged in white Burgundy barrels for ten months with no malolactic fermentation taking place.

The wine then spends six years aging on the lees before being disgorged with a 7-9 g/l dosage. For the 2007, only 150 cases were imported into the US.

The Wine

Photo by Brisbane Falling. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Lots of apple pastry action going on with this Champagne with some almond marzipan making as well.

High-intensity nose–lots of apple pastry and vanilla notes with racy citrus peel. A little air lets a white floral note come out that’s a mix of lilies and acacia.

On the palate, those pastry notes come through and are very creamy with an almond marzipan note. Noticeable oak spice is also present, but it complements the spice pear that emerges adding another layer of depth. Very full-bodied mouthfeel but ample acidity keeps it balanced and fresh. Long finish ends with the oak spice and the creamy marzipan.

The Verdict

This is a bloody gorgeous Champagne that is worth every penny as a prestige cuvee in the $140-150 range. Truthfully, it blows many more expensive bottles out of the water.

However, I do suspect with the strong lingering oak notes–even after 10+ years in the bottle–that younger vintages (like their current 2011 release) will be more overtly oaky. While this 2007 was in a beautiful spot right now, this may be a Champagne worth focusing more on older vintages.

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60 Second Wine Review — Canard-Duchêne Brut

A few quick thoughts on the non-vintage Canard-Duchêne Brut Champagne.

The Geekery
Canard Duchene Champagne

The origins of Canard-Duchêne is a love story. Léonie Duchêne was a winemaker and daughter of a grower in Ludes, a premier cru village in the Montagne de Reims. In 1860, she married the local barrel marker, Victor Canard, convincing him to start a Champagne house together in 1868.

Rather than move to the big cities of Reims and Epernay, Léonie and Victor stayed in Ludes. Their son, Edmond, took over the estate in 1890 and greatly expanded the house’s presence in Russia. He soon acquired the rights to be the official Champagne of Tsar Nicolas II.

The house remained family owned until 1978 when the conglomerate LVMH acquired it. Tom Stevenson and Essi Avellan noted in the Christie’s Encyclopedia that Canard-Duchêne then became a “second label” of Veuve Clicquot.

In 2003, LVMH sold the brand to Alain Thiénot who began a long process of renovating the house and vineyards. He brought in Laurent Fédou as cellar master and introduced an organic line of Champagnes.

The non-vintage Brut is a blend of 40% Pinot noir, 40% Pinot Meunier and 20% Chardonnay. Fédou puts the wine through full malolactic, aging it on the lees 23-26 months before bottling with 9 g/l dosage. Around 10,000 cases are imported to the US each year.

The Wine

Photo by Prayitno. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

The palate has more going on than the nose with a lemon-custardly mouthfeel.

Medium intensity nose–citrus and floral notes.

On the palate, the citrus notes carry through but become weightier and more pronounced. Coupled with the soft mousse and slight toastiness, the Champagne takes on a lemon custard feel. Lively acidity keeps it fresh and well-balanced with the dosage. The acidity also brings to life some spiced pear that lingers on the moderate finish.

The Verdict

This is a solidly made Champagne for $35-40. The simplicity does remind me a bit of Veuve but with more citrus notes and a drier profile.

It’s not worth going out of your way to find, but it’s an enjoyable glass.

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Champagne Mystery — Who makes Drake’s Mod Sélection? And will it be worth it?

Ace of Spades, part II?

Photo by The Come Up Show. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Canadian rapper Drake and Brent Hocking (founder of DeLeón Tequila) are partnering to produce a new high-end Champagne called Mod Sélection. Right off the bat, the line-up will feature a $300 non-vintage Brut and a $400 NV Rosé.

That’s a hefty price tag for a Champagne house that is being created virtually out of thin air.

In comparison, consumers can pay $300-400 and get things like:

1996 Bollinger R.D. (Wine Searcher Average $328) aged ten years on the lees. Only 750 cases imported.

1996 Duval-Leroy Femme de Champagne (WS Ave $346) from 100% Grand Cru fruit that was aged 14 years on the lees. Only 1000 cases made.

Dom Perignon “P2” Brut, 2000 (WS Ave $351) aged 15 years on the lees.

Jacques Selosse Substance Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Brut (WS Ave $312) from a solera that started in 1986. Usually only around 250 cases released at a time.

Pierre Peters L’Etonnant Monsieur Victor (WS Ave $301) from 100% Grand Cru fruit, including the best parcels of Les Chétillons, aged as a perpetual cuvee (similar to solera) that started in 1988. Only around 150 cases imported with each release.

And tons more great Champagnes for a heck of a lot cheaper.

Plus, these are all houses with established track records. We can figure out the grape source and know how long these wines have been aged. We can also get a general sense of how limited and prestigious these wines truly are. Yet, Drake and Hocking want folks to pay an equivalent price for Champagnes that no-one knows anything about?

Even Ace of Spades had a bit of a backstory.

Photo by Wallytraud. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

From $60 to $300, not a bad business deal for Cattier.

Offended by comments by the CEO of his-then favorite Champagne house, Roederer, the American rapper Jay Z began promoting a brand called Armand de Brignac in 2006.

The gold plated bottle, now known as “Ace of Spades”, was made by the Champagne house Cattier. The Champagne was essentially a rebranding of their Antique Gold line which previously sold for around $60.

But once Jay Z got involved, including acquiring partial ownership of the brand in 2014, the price of the Champagne skyrocketed to around $300 for the basic non-vintage brut, $450 for the NV Rosé and approximately $600 for the NV Blanc de Blancs.

Yeah, you can see why Drake would want to follow suit.

But, again, consumers at least know about Cattier’s involvement. The brand is even prominently featured on their website.  Even though they’re a négociant-firm that purchases grapes, the Cattier family does own over 30 ha (74 acres) of vines in the Montagne de Reims including the notable premier cru Clos du Moulin in Chigny-Les-Roses. For their top cuvee from the Clos, the house only produces around 25,000 bottles.

In the Christie’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine, Tom Stevenson & Master of Wine Essi Avellan offer some more details about Armand de Brignac (presumably provided by Cattier). They note that across all the Ace of Spades wines, only around 3200 cases are produced. They also mention that at least the NV Brut is aged for around four years on lees.

Photo by Jsatroc. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Jean-Jacques and Alexandre Cattier who continue to operate their brand in addition to making Jay Z’s “Ace of Spades.”

 

Another Champagne Mystery

Perhaps more details about Mod Sélection will eventually come out. But it is clear right now that its proprietors are purely marketing it based on its association with a celebrity rapper. Still, I’m always down for a good mystery (especially when Champagne is involved), so I decided to see what I could dig up.

Like with Armand de Brignac/Ace of Spades and Cattier, Drake and Hocking are probably partnering with an already established Champagne house. They’re not going to buy vineyards, start aging stock and truly create a brand from scratch.

With a NV Champagne needing a legal minimum of 15 months aging on the lees before release, it’s very likely that the initial release of Mod Sélection is going to be a Champagne that was originally harvested and aged to be labeled as something else. Probably a Champagne that was going to be sold for a much lower price.

That is a big reason why the identity of the house will likely be kept under wraps.  But can we still figure out who makes Drake’s Champagne?

On the Mod Sélection website, details are scarce. However, we do get two solid clues that slip through the marketing flourish.

1.) They’re based in the Vallée de la Marne.
2.) They claim “a legacy” dating back to 1892.

Cracking into some of my Five Essential Books On Champagne, I can eliminate a lot of prospective houses. The Christie’s Encyclopedia is, in particular, really good at noting the location of many houses so I can focus in only on the ones based in the Vallée de la Marne.

Clue #1 – The Vallée de la Marne

Photo by Pline. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Vineyards in the Grand Cru village of Aÿ–the most prestigious in the Vallée de la Marne.

This area is broken into three sub-regions. The most prestigious is the Grande Vallée de la Marne which is home to the Grand Cru village of Aÿ as well as several notable premier cru villages like Hautvillers, Cumières and Dizy.

The other two sub-regions are the Vallée de la Marne Rive Droite and Vallée de la Marne Rive Gauche (Right bank, Left Bank) which are home to autre cru villages that are ranked below premier cru.

Peter Liem’s book, Champagne, does an excellent job of explaining the differences between these sub-regions.

While it is possible that Mod Sélection’s mystery house is in one of the lesser Rive Droite or Rive Gauche villages, I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt and focus on the houses in the nine villages of the Grande Vallée de la Marne.

Clue #2 – Founding date 1892

Photo by Arnaud 25. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Bollinger wouldn’t even give James Bond his own made up Champagne house. It’s not likely that they would partner with Drake and not use their own label.

We can rule out major Champagne houses based in the Vallée de la Marne like Deutz, Jacquesson, Bollinger, Philipponnat and Billecart-Salmon because they have little reason to create a branding apart from their own. Plus, their founding dates don’t match up with Deutz (1838), Jacquesson (1798), Bollinger (1829), Philipponnat (1910) and Billecart (1818).

This clue is going to require more heavy digging since many Champagne books don’t list founding dates and sometimes even a winery’s website isn’t very forthcoming with details. Still, we can gradually start to eliminate notable Champagne houses and well-regarded growers like:

Gaston Chiquet (founded 1919)
Gonet-Medeville (founded 2000)
A.R. Lenoble (founded 1920)
Mousse Fils (founded 1923)
Bereche & Fils (founded 1847)
Gatinois (founded 1921)
Marc Hebrart (founded 1964)
Laherte-Freres (founded 1889)
Georges Laval (founded 1971)
R. Pouillon & Fils (founded 1947)
Tarlant (founded 1928)

But eventually, with a little bit of online sleuthing, I was able to come across at least one estate that fits our bill.
Photo by 2005 Zubro. Uplaoded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Vineyards in the premier cru village of Cumières in the Grande Vallée de la Marne. Is this the home of Drake’s $300+ Champagne?

Champagne Philippe Martin in Cumières. Founded 1892.  They produce around 12,000 to 80,000 bottles which range in price from 18 to 34 euros ($20-39 US dollars). While they apparently have a healthy enotourism operation, as far as I can tell, the wines of Champagne Philippe Martin have never been exported out of France.

This kinda aligns with the Mod Sélection description of partnering with a house whose “highly sought-after champagne had never been exported for sale to the general public.” Though you have to eye roll at the “highly sought-after” part.

Is this our mystery Mod Sélection house? Perhaps. There are still at least 30 other small growers that I need to investigate. But so far Champagne Philippe Martin is our most solid lead.

Will the Champagne be worth $300+?

I highly doubt it.

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60 Second Wine Review — 2008 Champagne Colin

A few quick thoughts on the 2008 Champagne Colin Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs.

The Geekery
Champagne Colin

Tom Stevenson and Essi Avellan note in the Christie’s Encyclopedia that the origins of Champagne Colin dates back to 1829. Constant Piéton founded the estate with the property eventually being inherited by his great-granddaughter, Geneviève Prieur. She ran the domaine for many years and instilled a tradition of strong female leadership at the house.

Today, her grandchildren–Richard and Romain Colin–run Champagne Colin. The house shouldn’t be confused with the Congy estate Ulysse Collin, located south of the Côte des Blancs in the Coteaux du Morin.

Most of Colin’s 10 ha (25 acres) are in the Côte des Blancs Grand Cru villages of Cramant and Oiry as well as the Premier Cru villages of Vertus and Cuis. Another third of the family’s holdings are located in the southern Côte des Blancs sub-region of the Côte de Sézanne with a few additional parcels in the Vallée de la Marne.

The estate farms all plots sustainably and produces less than 7000 cases a year.

The 2008 vintage is 100% Chardonnay sourced from the Grand Cru villages of Cramant and Oiry. The wine spent at least five years aging on its lees before being bottled with an 8 g/l dosage.

The Wine

Photo by Mararie på Flickr. Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-SA-2.0

The honey roasted almonds add complexity to the racy citrus notes of this Champagne.

High-intensity nose. Roasted almonds with honey. There is also a grilled citrus lemon note.

On the palate, those nutty and toasty notes carry through but the citrus becomes more fresh and lively. Ample medium-plus acidity highlights a racy streak of minerality. Dry and well balanced with a creamy mousse adding softness and weight. Long finish lingers on the citrus and mineral notes.

The Verdict

For around $70-80, this is a very character-driven Champagne. While it’s in a delicious spot now, the oxidative almond notes are steadily starting to take over.

If you want more of those tertiary flavors, this will continue to drink great for another 5+ years. Otherwise, think more 2-3 years.

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Geek Notes — More Champagne with GuildSomm Podcast

This is the second part of our Geek Notes review of the GuildSomm podcasts with Ruinart’s chef de cave Frédéric Panaiotis. To catch up on the first segment, check out Geek Notes — The Process of Champagne GuildSomm Podcast.

GuildSomm podcast

In that post I also highlight why listening to podcasts is an extremely valuable tool for wine students. But not all podcasts are created equal or are worth your time. There have been many podcasts that I’ve picked up only to unsubscribe after a couple of episodes. Sometimes it is the overall production value that steers me away–noticeable mouth breathing, weird audio jumps between loud voices and whispers, distracting background music, etc. But usually, it is because of a lack of credibility in the content and people producing the podcast.

The world of wine is constantly changing and there is a lot of material to cover. Any podcast that is worth its salt needs to be backed up with solid research and commitment to accuracy.

One of the best wine podcasts, in that regard, is the GuildSomm podcast founded by Master Sommelier Geoff Kruth.

Some Background

Kruth founded GuildSomm in 2009 as a nonprofit that promotes education and development opportunities for sommeliers and other wine professionals. Though many people who aspire to be Master Sommeliers join and utilize the website’s materials, GuildSomm is not a part of the Court Of Master Sommeliers.

Podcasts, videos and recent articles are available to anyone for free on the website. However, access to the forums, study guides, maps, master classes and in-depth training material on topics like blind tasting require membership. For wine industry folks, the fee is $100 a year while for non-industry wine lovers it is $150.

Fun Things I Learned From This Podcast

Ruinart Champagne

Ruinart’s non-vintage blanc de blancs and rose.

Like the previous podcast, this episode (44:54) features a highly informative interview with Ruinart’s Frédéric Panaiotis. But the second half is a discussion with the acclaimed grower-producer Rodolphe Péters of Pierre Péters.

(1:29) The podcast starts with a description of the Montagne de Reims region of Champagne. This area, south of the city of Reims, has a unique horseshoe shape.

The topography creates a diversity of exposures in nearly all orientations (south, east, north, west, etc). This makes it hard to generalize the style of wines from its several villages–including 10 Grand Cru (Ambonnay, Beaumont-sur-Vesle, Bouzy, Louvois, Mailly-Champagne, Puisieulx, Sillery, Tours-sur-Marne, Verzenay and Verzy).

Panaiotis gives a nice overview here but for anyone wanting to really dive deep into this diverse terroir, I very highly recommend Peter Liem’s Champagne, one of my 5 essential books on Champagne.

(2:00) Panaiotis does note, however, that the northern side of the Montagne de Reims (which includes the Grand Cru villages of Mailly, Sillery, Verzy and Verzenay) produces wines with more fresh acidity that have great aging potential.

Chardonnay From the Heart of Pinot-country
By Map data (c) OpenStreetMap contributors, CC-BY-SA• derived via osm download geofabrik.de and osm2pgsql, OpenStreetMap contributors.• Data for landuse: OSM - derived wor CC BY 2.0,

The village of Sillery is located southeast of Reims and north of the Grand Crus of Mailly, Verzenay and Verzy.

(2:23) Even though the Montagne de Reims is known for Pinot noir, the eastern villages (mostly premier cru) are esteemed for the quality of their Chardonnay. Panaiotis describes how the gentle eastern exposure of these villages is similar to the Cote d’Or’s east-facing escarpment. Ruinart uses a lot of this fruit for their blanc de blancs Champagne.

(3:49) Sillery is the only Grand Cru of the Montagne de Reims that has more Chardonnay than Pinot noir.

(5:37) Kruth asks Panaiotis how much of Ruinart’s Chardonnay comes from the Montagne de Reims. It is around 30%.

(5:52) Instead of keeping the juice from different villages separate, Ruinart blends the wines regionally. The reason for this is logistics and the need to fill up tanks quickly. As I noted in the last Geek Notes on the process of Champagne, this is a significant divergence in the mindset of small growers versus big houses.

An Overview of Vintages

(8:26) Kruth asks about the recent vintages of Champagne. 2007 was a Chardonnay year while rain took a toll on Pinot noir and Meunier. In contrast, 2008 was more of a Pinot year. 2009 was a warmer year producing more rounder wines. While Panaiotis doesn’t elaborate, I’m curious if he was insinuating that he’s not expecting the 2009s to age as long as other vintages. But the trade-off could be more approach-ability when younger.

(9:36) 2010 is similar to 2007 in being a Chardonnay year. Panaiotis seems high on this year for Ruinart Champagnes. He compares it to 2002 regarding power but with more freshness and expects it to be a benchmark year. However, also like 2007, this was more of a difficult year for the Pinots.

Chardonnay Years vs Pinot Years
Photo from INRA, Jean Weber. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Chardonnay harvest in the village of Festigny (an Autre cru) in the Vallée de la Marne.

While it is a bit simplistic to think of years as Chardonnay years or Pinot years, it is a good starting point. Each of the major houses has a distinctive “house style” that tends to lean more on one grape variety or the other. Of course, they are going to try to make the best Champagne they can every year. But it is worthwhile to make a mental note of which years tend to favor a particular house style–especially if you are thinking about splurging for a prestige cuvee.

For instance, other Chardonnay-dominated houses like Ruinart include Perrier-Jouët, Taittinger, Laurent-Perrier and, of course, blanc de blancs specialists like Salon.

Pinot dominated houses include Lanson, Piper-Heidsieck, Mumm, Nicolas Feuillatte, Champagne Mailly, Veuve Clicquot and Moët & Chandon.

(10:11) 2011 was a tough vintage all around because of rain and botrytis infection. There will likely not be many vintage Champagnes produced. 2012 was a puzzling vintage for Panaiotis because the grapes came in so healthy yet the base wine didn’t live up to his exception to make great a prestige cuvee for Ruinart. He suspects that the year will be better for Pinot dominated producers.

The Wrath of the Drosophila suzukii
By Martin Cooper from Ipswich, UK - Spotted-wing Drosophila (Drosophila suzukii) male, CC BY 2.0,

The spotted wing Drosophila suzukii wrecked a lot of havoc throughout Europe during the 2014 vintage.

(11:12) 2013 was an easy year with good wines produced. Meanwhile, 2014 had a lot of rot issues caused by an invasion of a Japanese fruit fly that devastated many vineyards (particularly the Pinots). This hit not only Champagne in 2014 but also Germany, Rhône and Burgundy.

However, the fly had issues “seeing” white grapes so the vintage wasn’t as bad for Chardonnay. Still, Panaiotis describes it mostly as a “non-vintage year”.

(12:12) 2015 was a good year but one characterized by drought and low-nitrogen levels in the must. For Ruinart, 2016 was a non-vintage year but Panaiotis notes that some producers like Villamart will be making very good 2016 vintage Champagnes.

(12:35) The 2017 vintage will be interesting because of how mature the grapes were harvested, even though they were picked relatively early. This is a vintage where the impact of global warming will be felt. The year is tilting towards a Chardonnay year (with the Pinots having some rot issues) but will be good for non-vintages.

The Importance of Primary Fermentation
Photo by Alberto Vaccaro. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Temperature control during primary fermentation is vitally important in maintaining freshness in Champagne. Here in one of the fermenting rooms of Moët & Chandon each tank is outfitted with a cooling jacket.

(14:10) The conversation switches to fermentation. There is a little overlap with the last podcast in the discussion of things like reductive winemaking.

(17:29) Kruth gives a great analogy of how the effects of the first fermentation get amplified in the secondary fermentation of Champagne. This is a really important point to understand because so often this fermentation gets overlooked because it isn’t the step that produces the “magic” of the bubbles. Yet, a Champagne is only as good as its base ingredient–the vin clair.

(18:13) The reasoning above is why Panaiotis is not a fan of using oak in the first fermentation at Ruinart. However, for other producers like Krug, the “amplification” of those flavors is a house style.

(19:24) One unique thing that Panaiotis mentions in his parting comment is that for the 2010 vintage, Ruinart switched to sealing the wine for the secondary fermentation with cork instead of the traditional crown cap. This is an exciting trend that is getting a lot of attention of late. The idea is that cork allows for better interaction with oxygen and the yeast but there seem to be other benefits as well–including more reductive flavors (!?) Certainly something I want to investigate more.

Interview With Rodolphe Péters of Pierre Péters

Photo by Immanuel Giel. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

The chalky limestone of Champagne A fascinating produced at the same time as the White Cliff of Dover.

(20:50) As the interview switches to Peters, the focus shifts to the terroir of the Côte des Blancs. The origins of the region’s soils are similar to the Montagne de Reims–the ancient sea that birthed the Paris Basin as well as the White Cliffs of Dover.

However, the biggest difference between the two regions is the depth of the topsoil with the soil being much thinner in the Côte des Blancs. This is one of the reasons why Chardonnay is favored here since it can deal with shallow top soils easier than Pinot noir.

(22:59) Another comparison between the Côte des Blancs and the Cote d’Or with its north-south band of vineyards that face east. But here Peters points out the favor-ability of east-facing slopes–the gentle early morning heat of the sun instead of the harsher late afternoon heat that hits others exposures.

This is helpful in slowing down the maturation of Chardonnay which can risk losing elegance and flavor if it ripens too much, too quickly.

(23:54) Echoing again some of the sentiments of Frédéric Panaiotis in the first half, Peters calls out the specialness of Chardonnay from the eastern villages of the Montagne de Reims–particularly the Premier Cru villages of Trépail and Villers-Marmery.

The links to the villages above go to one of my favorite blogs on Champagnes. Each profile also includes a list of growers who produce Champagnes from these villages. These will be high on my list of Champagnes to seek out.

The Four Seasons of the Côte des Blancs

(24:21) Kruth asks for an overview of the different villages of the Côte des Blancs. Peters responds with a very poetic comparison of the personality of the main villages to the four seasons. Le Mesnil-sur-Oger is winter, producing tight Champagnes that can be austere in their youth. This is caused by, in Peters’ opinion, the soft and dry chalk that accentuates the wine’s sharp minerality.

Photo by Szeder László. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

The Grand Cru village of Oger is on flatter land and at a lower altitude than neighboring Le Mesnil-sur-Oger.

While Oger has the same soil profile as Le Mesnil, it is a little flatter and lower in altitude. This creates an amphitheater that warms up the micro-climate of the village, producing softer and rounder wines. Peters equates the style of wine from here to spring with an elegant and feminine character.

Avize is also lower altitude with the best sites located on flat terrain. It has a little deeper topsoil with some clay mixed with the chalk. This is unique compared to the other Côte des Blancs villages because it has a higher concentration of organic material in the soil. This produces a richer, juicer more citrus-style of Chardonnay that Peters equate to summer.

Photo by Szeder László. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Vineyards in Cramant tend to have an “oilier” chalk that produces creamier style Champagnes.

Cramant is a little higher than Avize in altitude with an “oilier” style of chalk as opposed to the soft and dry chalk of Le Mesnil. This lends itself towards creamier and more approachable Champagnes. Along with the hazelnut and sweet baking spices that they tend to produce, this profile reminds Peters of autumn.

Viticulture and Climate Change

(29:45) Kruth asks about what differences in viticulture that are seen in the Côte des Blancs compared to other regions of Champagne. Peters notes that his personal approach is a little different than his neighbors. One of his priorities is to minimize compaction of the thin topsoil by limiting the amount of disturbance it sees.

For instance, he cultivates grasses between his vines but doesn’t plow it in. The one exception is in Avize, with its deeper topsoil, which can take some light plowing. However, he is also mindful of the character of a vintage with rainier years sometimes requiring a different approach.

Adapting to Change
By Igor Zemljič (IgorvonLenart at sl.wikipedia) - Transferred from sl.wikipedia, Public Domain

While Chardonnay has adjusted to rising temperature, riper Pinot Meunier grapes can create problems with tighter clusters that are more prone to botrytis.

(31:45) Peters notes that Chardonnay growers in the Côte des Blancs have been relatively lucky with a string of good quality and easy vintages. Meanwhile, Pinot producers (particularly Meunier) have had to be on their toes a lot more with the weather change.

One of the challenges for Pinot Meunier that Peters highlights is that the warmer weather is producing bigger, riper berries. While this might seem beneficial on the surface, the stems are not getting any bigger. Therefore, the Pinot Meunier clusters are getting tighter and more compact which increases the risk of botrytis rot, especially in rainy vintages.

(33:09) Chalk is a winemaker’s best friend because of how well it regulates the climate–especially excessive water during rainier vintages. But it also retains water well during drought years. Likewise, the soil is able to deal with hot vintages by absorbing heat and then slowly releasing it later in the night so that the vine is not overwhelmed.

(33:40) Peters notes that over the years, he has seen the major houses gradually increasing the amount of Chardonnay they use due to the grape’s ability to better weather climate change.

A Contrast of Vintages

(34:08) Kruth asks for Peters thoughts on particular vintages. He highlights a few that he thinks are interesting–2013 and 2017.

The 2013 vintage was a long growing season with 104 days of maturation. This allowed the grapes to get perfectly ripe without being excessively mature. In contrast, 2017 was very hot which caused a spike in sugars. Peters noted that growers had to start picking their grapes after 87 days to avoid high alcohol.

However, Peters feels that many of these early harvesters didn’t taste their grapes with the resulting wines still having unripe flavors. He waited till 91 days to get some more maturity. He feels that 2017 is the first vintage that the Champenois really had to face the reality of climate change.

Grand Marque vs Grower
Paul Bara Champagne

Paul Bara, one of the first grower producers to gain traction in the US.

(37:35) The conversation moves to the general impression of grower-producers, especially in the sommelier community. Kruth wonders if it has now become a marketing wedge like Red States vs Blue States, Grand Marque vs. Grower, etc. He particularly calls out sommeliers who only feature grower Champagnes on their wine lists.

Peters response gives some interesting food for thought and is well worth a listen. He does see benefits of the big houses but notes they have some issues. While grower Champagne answer some of those issues, Peters is not a fan of the idea that merely because something is a grower that it must be good.

(40:45) A really interesting discussion follows Kruth describing the “trick of oxidation” that he feels that some growers utilized to make up for the lack of aging and use of reserve wines. He contrasts this with the long, slow reductive aging of many great Champagnes. This is particularly fascinating in the context of Chardonnay-dominant producers because of how much affinity Chardonnay has for reductive winemaking and how awry it can get without a careful hand if treated oxidatively.

A very thought-provoking conversation to end the podcast on.

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60 Second Wine Review — 2006 Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque

A few quick thoughts on the 2006 Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque Champagne.

The Geekery

Perrier Jouet Champagne

Yes, the bottle lights up.


Pierre Nicolas Perrier founded his eponymous estate in 1811, combing his name with that of his wife, Rose Adelaïde (Adèle) Jouët. In 1854, Perrier-Jouët was the first house to release a “Brut” Champagne with the term coming from the wine’s “brutal” dryness.

The 2006 Belle Epoque is a blend of 50% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot noir and 5% Pinot Meunier. Some of the fruit is sourced from Grand Cru vineyards like Avize and Cramant (Chardonnay) as well as Mailly and Aÿ (Pinot noir). The Pinot Meunier comes from the Premier Cru village of Dizy in the Grande Vallée de la Marne.

The wine was aged 6 years on its lees before being bottled with 9 g/l dosage. Around 7000 cases were imported into the US.

Among all their wines, Perrier-Jouët produces around 3 million bottles of Champagne a year. In contrast, a brand like Dom Perignon produces around 5 million.

The Wine

Photo by Bluyten. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

The toasty bread dough and pear reminds me of wood-fire pizza.

High intensity nose. Rich apple and pear with honeyed, almost caramelized, toasty dough notes–like a wood-fire pizza.

On the palate, those tree fruits come through and brings a bit of spicy ginger as well. The silky mousse is very mouth-filling and contributes to the full-bodied weight of this Champagne. Lively acidity balances the weight and highlights minerally notes. Long finish lingers on the pear and ginger.

The Verdict

I first had the 2006 a couple years ago, not long after its release. It was okay then, but not as good as it is now.

While the Belle Epoque doesn’t require as much patience as Cristal does, you usually want to give it at least 12 to 15 years from vintage date to maximize your pleasure.

If you can find this bottle (or the 2004/2005), it’s well worth the $145-165. This is a delicious and well-made prestige cuvee. But for more current releases (like the 2009 and 2011) I might be hesitant about opening it for something like New Years.

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The Hits, Misses and Mehs of Wine Reviews

Earlier this week The Seattle Times published an article about the top Costco Kirkland wines as selected by a local wine blogger.

Kirkland brand Champagne

One of the wines featured was the Kirkland Signature Brut Champagne that I picked up for $19.99. Throughout the month of December, my wife and I like to open up a bottle of sparkling wine each night. That can get expensive with Champagne so we make sure to stock up on plenty of Proseccos, Cavas and Cremants.

Needless to say, I was pretty excited at the idea of trying a true Champagne for the price of a Crémant de Bourgogne.

Reading Owen Bargreen’s review of the wine intrigued me. The Champagne certainly had pedigree with fruit from the Grand Cru village of Verzenay. Also, unusual for Kirkland branded wines, the back label listed who actually made it as Manuel Janisson of the négociant firm Champagne Janisson.

“The Brut Champagne by Kirkland Signature is a blend of pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier sourced from vineyards located in Verzenay. The wine starts off with lovely diatomaceous earth followed by lemon curd and brioche on the nose. The palate shows really nice citrus fruit with kumquat, lemon oil, sourdough bread and a light musty earth flavor. Dense and layered, this is a simply outstanding effort that is a one-of-a-kind value. Drink 2018-2024.” — Owen Bargreen as quoted by Tan Vinh for The Seattle Times 12/7/2018

Unfortunately my experience didn’t quite live up to that glowing review.
label of kirkland champagne

The back label of the Kirkland Brut Champagne.

I was originally planning to share my thoughts about the Kirkland Champagne as a 60 Second Review. But instead I think I need to talk about the risks of buying blindly on the recommendations of critics and wine writers.

At the end of this post I’ll give my take on the Kirkland Champagne. But I’ll blanket it with the same caveats that I’m going to discuss below.

First, let me say that this is not about bashing another blogger.

While I’m going to be disagreeing with a bit of Bargreen’s assessment of the Kirkland Signature Brut Champagne, I’ve been a big fan of his work on the Washington Wine Blog.

Among some of my favorite posts have been his interviews with wine industry insiders like:

Kit Singh of Lauren Ashton
Benjamin Smith of Cadence
Jason Fox of Lagana Cellars
Master of Wine Billo Naravane of Rasa Vineyards
Brooke Robertson of Delmas
Nina Buty of Buty Winery

And many more.

Bargreen has a terrific sense of what’s happening in the world of wine–particularly in Washington. He seeks out the people who are shaping the scene and produces content that is well worth following.

My intent is not to quibble about differences in tasting notes. Taste is highly subjective and personal. From one taster to the next, you are just as likely to agree with someone as you are to disagree.

And that’s precisely the point.

Photo by James Suckling. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

This is especially true with professional critics. It doesn’t matter how esteemed their careers or opinions are. The tastes of critics like James Suckling (pictured) may be quite different than yours.

When you buy a wine based on a newspaper, magazine or blog review, you’re essentially gambling on how likely your tastes will align with the reviewers. And I’m not talking Somm Game gambling here. Because with written reviews (as opposed to personal recommendations from a sommelier or wine steward), you really are going out on a ledge.

The author of a wine review is writing solely from the perspective of their tastes and their opinions. They’re not standing in front of you, listening to you describe the kind of wines that you like or don’t like. They’re not acting like a sommelier or wine steward, piecing together clues to recommend something that they feel confident that you’re going to enjoy.

The reviewer may have a tremendous palate with lots of experience tasting a vast array of wines. But when it comes to recommendations published in articles, blogs, “Best of…” and “Top Whatever” lists, your tastes and your opinions do not enter the reviewer’s equation whatsoever.

Yet it is your wallet that is buying the wine. Plus, either your mouth or your kitchen drain is going to end up with the contents of that bottle.

When you buy off of reviews, what are the odds that you’re going to absolutely love the wine?

I would say about 25% or a quarter of the time. For another quarter, it’s likely to be a complete whiff.

But for the majority of the recommendations you buy, the results will be in the middle of don’t love, but don’t hate or what I call “Meh wines”.

Photo by Katy Warner from Orlando, FL, USA. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD text

And then you got to figure out if it’s worth eating at McDonald’s again to redeem your small fry.

Getting a “Meh wine” is certainly not the end of the world.

It’s kind of like playing McDonald’s Monopoly where you pull off a tab and win a small fry. You didn’t lose per se, but you really didn’t win either. You essentially got a token of a prize and with a “Meh wine” you end up with a token of an experience–something drinkable but not much more.

Now ask yourself. How much money and time do you want to spend on “Meh wines”?

Can You Hedge Your Bets?

You most definitely can. But to do that, you need to think more like a bettor at the horse races.

1.) Do Your Homework. Admittedly, a good chunk of this is trial and error. The only way to increase your odds for successful drinking is to learn how your palate aligns with the reviewers. Paying attention to how many Hits/Misses/Mehs you get with a certain reviewer will key you in on if it’s worth the gamble. Even this is not absolute. There still may be wines that you don’t completely jive with. But, at the very least, you’ll be able to weed out more of the misses and the mehs.

Photo by Ronnie Macdonald from Chelmsford, United Kingdom. Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-2.0

Though there is some truth to the old Will Rogers’ quote: “You know horses are smarter than people. You never heard of a horse going broke betting on people.”

2.) Pay Attention To The Jockeys–i.e. the wineries who made the wine. Often this is even better than betting on the horse. If you’ve had past experiences enjoying a winery’s wines, your bet just got a whole lot better. Because now you’re not really taking a blind recommendation from a reviewer but rather letting your own palate and experience have a say.

3.) Don’t Bet Big On An Unknown. Buying blindly on a review is never an occasion to buy a case. It doesn’t matter what high score or glowing review it got or how killer of a deal it looks like. It could still wind up being a colossal dud. You’re far better off taking a flyer on a single bottle to try first. Even though I really loved the idea of a $20 Champagne to drink all month, I am so grateful that I only spent $20 on the Kirkland Brut instead of a couple hundred.

4.) Spread Out Your Risk. Don’t bet it all on one wine. While I’m a huge supporter of trying new things, it’s always a good strategy to spread your bets out between long-shots mixed with a few favorites. Go ahead and take a chance on that new bottle, but also pick up something that is more of a sure bet just in case.

A Personal Note

Since I do reviews here on the blog, I hope all my readers take the above to heart and apply these strategies to my recommendations as well.

My favorite wines might only hit a 25% jackpot with you–or even less. Our tastes could be polar opposites and that is perfectly fine. My hope is that with the Geekery tidbits and other posts, you’re still finding resources that’ll help you find bottles you enjoy.

In the end, finding great wines that give you pleasure is the only thing that matters. Life is too short to drink “Meh wines”.

Now About That Kirkland Champagne

Photo by Ananda. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Lots of citrus notes in this Champagne but they’re more on the bitter green side like unripe pomelos.

Medium intensity nose. Definitely citrus driven but more bitter green citrus notes like unripe pomelo and Bergamot orange. Noticeable yeasty notes reminds me of raw Pillsbury buttermilk biscuit dough.

On the palate, those green citrus notes carry through but they fade pretty quickly. It’s definitely the dough notes that dominate but they taste much sweeter than the nose would have suggested. I couldn’t find the exact dosage but it’s certainly on the sweeter side of brut–likely 10-12 g/l.

The sweet dough with citrus flavors makes me think they were trying to go for the Veuve Clicquot style. However, the medium-plus acidity and moderate mousse has a tangy edge (like Bargreen’s sourdough) that doesn’t quite match the creamy mouthfeel that trademarks Veuve. The finish does have a hint of dustiness but is very short.

The Verdict

At $20, this isn’t a horrible wine. It’s definitely drinkable. If it’s aiming to be a budget Veuve Yellow Label for half the price then it’s not that far off. But it certainly tastes like a half-price “Meh” version of Veuve.

Levert Freres

While I might slightly give the nod to the regular Brut, the rose Cremant de Bourgogne from Levert Freres is also quite delicious for less than $20.

However, this is not “a one-of-a-kind value” by any stretch of the imagination.

There are so many stronger bottles of sparkling wines under $20–most notably the many available Cremants from Burgundy, Alsace and the Loire. These include wines like Levert Freres, Louis Bouillot, Albrecht, Gratien & Meyer and Champalou. Often these wines are aged as long as nonvintage Champagne (15 months) and many times much longer.

These Cremants may not have the magical “C-word” on the label like the Kirkland Brut but they are far more Champagne-like.

Then in the US, we have producers like Gruet, Jacqueline Leonne, Trevari and Roederer Estate who make very solid bottles in the $15-20 range. And, of course, Cava has some tremendous bangs for the buck with the Insito, Juve & Camps and Anna de Codorniu being highly reliable sparklers.

Champagne Dreams With a Budget-Friendly Reality

If you want to go Champagne, paying just a little bit more will give you huge quality dividends above the Kirkland Brut.

Bargreen’s article mentions the Feuillatte Blue Label that is often around $27-29 during holidays. Then there is the Moët & Chandon Brut Imperial ($33-36), Petrois Moriset Cuvee ($30-33), Moutard Grand Cuvee ($30-33) Chanoine Frères Grande Reserve ($33-35), Montaudon Brut ($32-35), Pommery Brut Royal ($33-36) and Laurent Perrier La Cuvee ($33-36).

And if you really want a slightly cheaper Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label, the Heidsieck Monopole Blue Top hits those notes better than the Kirkland Brut does in the $33-36 range.

I’m sure you can find even more under $40 Champagne or under $20 sparkling wine options checking out your local wine shop. Plus, you can talk with a wine steward and let them know what you like or don’t like.

That way you’re more likely to go home with a Secretariat, Justify or American Pharoah than you would betting on “Meh”.

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Geek Notes — The Process of Champagne GuildSomm Podcast

Back in 2013, GuildSomm did a fantastic podcast with Frédéric Panaiotis (39:33) of the Champagne house Ruinart about how Champagne is made. They followed it up with another interview with Panaiotis this year on Champagne (44:54) that also featured Rodolphe Péters of Pierre Péters.

Guildsomm podcast screen

Both shows are chock-full of awesome behind-the-scenes insights about Champagne that are well worth listening to. I’m going to break down the 2013 episode here first and then devote another Geek Notes to the second interview.

But after doing multiple Geek Note reviews of various podcasts (like Grape Radio’s interview with Hubert de Boüard of Ch. Angélus, UK Wine Show episode with Ian D’Agata about Italian wine grapes, Wine For Normal People’s episode on Tuscan wine regions and I’ll Drink To That! interview with Greg Harrington on Washington wine), I realize that I should take a moment to explain the objective of these posts.

Highlighting Learning Tools That I Use

As I mentioned in my post SpitBucket on Social Media, the purpose of my Geek Notes features are to highlight valuable resources for wine students pursuing various certifications.

Wine podcasts are a big focus for me because I think they’re often extremely underutilized. It’s easy for wine students to bury their heads in books and create flash cards. But we shouldn’t discount that nearly a third of individuals are auditory learners. Furthermore, for the 65% who are visual learners, exposing ourselves to audio avenues helps reinforce the material that we’re learning.

However, most people are actually a mix of multiple learning styles so the best approach is to also incorporate kinesthetic (hands-on) learning as well.

This is essentially what I’m doing for myself with these Geek Note reviews of podcasts. I’m primarily a visual learner so I’m always diving into one wine book or another. But when I’m going deep on a topic, I supplement that book learning by listening to related podcasts.

When I come across a podcast with useful information, I go back to listen to it a second time. This time, I take notes. It’s like recording your class lectures back in college. You spend class time actually listening to the instructor and absorbing the material first without distracting scribbling and note taking. But then you solidify the material in your mind by going back to the recorded lecture for notes.

A little bit of a review element.

While I’ll include timestamps, I don’t really intend for these posts to be transcriptions. If I’m doing a review of a podcast, it’s because I feel that it is sincerely worth listening to. There will often be contextual tidbits and stories featured in these episodes that I won’t mention or fully address. You can get more out of these Geek Notes by checking out the podcasts for yourself after reading these posts.

For newer podcasts like my recent reviews of the Decanted podcast and the Weekly Wine Show, I’ll spend more time giving background about the podcast and why I think they’re worth subscribing to.

In many ways, great wine podcasts are like stellar reference books like The Oxford Companion to Wine, The World Atlas of Wine and The Wine Bible. They provide you with an entire library of wine knowledge that you can digest one entry at a time.

In the next Geek Notes, I’ll give a little background about GuildSomm but, right now, let’s dive right into their podcast interview with Frédéric Panaiotis on making Champagne.

Fun Things I Learned From This Podcast

Photo by Petitpeton. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD-self

Statue of Dom Thierry Ruinart (1657-1709) outside the Champagne house Ruinart in Reims.

(0:52) Prior to joining Ruinart, Frédéric Panaiotis also previously worked for Veuve Clicquot, the CIVC as well as the California sparkling wine producer Scharffenberger in the Anderson Valley of Mendocino.

(3:16) Historically, the CIVC used to set one general ban des vendanges for the region. This is the first day that grapes can be legally harvested. Now there are multiple ban des vendanges based not only on the village but also on the individual grape variety. And apparently rootstock in some cases too.

For instance, in the Grand Cru village of Mailly for the 2018 vintage they were allowed to start picking Pinot Meunier on August 25th. However, for Chardonnay and Pinot noir (which the village is most noted for), growers had to wait till August 27th.

I’m curious about the ban des vendanges for other grape varieties–Fromenteau/Pinot gris, Pinot blanc, Petite Meslier and Petite Arbanne. I couldn’t find the answer online but I’ll keep looking.

BTW, August start dates were historically unusual in Champagne but are now becoming much more commonplace. This recent 2018 vintage was the fifth year since 2003 to begin in August.

(5:45) You can get a special allowance from the CIVC to harvest earlier. According to Panaiotis, this may be needed if you are harvesting from a really young vineyard of 3 years or were hit by spring frost which drastically reduced yields. Apparently with less clusters to focus on, the vine will accelerate ripening.

That strikes me a bit curious because wouldn’t the same logic apply to old vines which also produce lower yields. Wouldn’t they also ripen faster? Need to research this more.

Harvest Brix and Ripeness
Photo by ADT Marne. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Chardonnay grapes harvested in the village of Vertus.

(6:21) Panaiotis notes that the Champenois usually aim to harvest grapes at around 10% potential alcohol which is about 18-19° Brix. Compare this to typical still wine production where producers want to harvest Chardonnay more at 20-23° Brix and Pinot noir around 25-27°. But, keep in mind, the secondary fermentation of Champagne (where sugar and yeast are added) adds more alcohol to the finish wine. Most Champagnes finish with an ABV in the 12-12.5% range.

(8:00) A big distinction that GuildSomm’s Geoff Kruth and Panaiotis note about Champagne is that even at these low brix levels, the grapes are still ripe. Panaiotis gives the example of the 1988 vintage which was picked at many estates at around 9.2% potential alcohol (17.5° Brix) in a year that was a late harvest for Champagne. This vintage is still highly regarded for its richness and longevity. Yet harvesting something at so low of a brix level in most any other wine region would produce wines abundant in green, unripe flavors.

This is a quandary that sparkling wine producers from warmer climates like California and Spain have to deal with because acidity is also at play. Not only is it hard to get desired ripeness with such low brix but you need to harvest your grapes with ample acidity. While improvements in viticulture and planting in cooler vineyard sites have helped, historically producers from warm regions have needed to harvest the grapes at lower ripeness levels in order to have enough acid to make their sparkling wines.

The Controversial 1996 Vintage

(8:55) In contrast to 1988, Panaiotis describes the 1996 as an “unripe” year even though the grapes were harvested at 10.5% potential alcohol (20° Brix). This is intriguing because there is a lot of controversy going on now about the 1996 vintage which Jancis Robinson aptly explains in one of her Financial Times articles.

When the 1996 Champagnes were first released, many Champagne lovers were enthralled. That year was pegged as one of the top vintages of the 20th century. I will admit that, even though I’ve been extremely underwhelmed by their recent offerings, the 1996 Dom Perignon was one of the greatest wines that I’ve tried in my lifetime. But I had that wine soon after release and it seems that as the 1996s across the board have aged, more and more people are re-evaluating how good that vintage really was.

Challenges of Big Houses
Photo by Alberto Vaccaro. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

By law, Champagne grapes have to be harvested whole cluster and by hand.

(9:20) Here Panaiotis talks about the challenges that big houses have versus small growers with harvest–particularly with red grapes like Pinot noir. Because the goal in Champagne most often with Pinot is to make a white wine, time is of the essence as soon as you remove the cluster from the vine. You don’t want any “cold soak” color extraction taking place in the pick bin. With Chardonnay, avoiding oxidation of the juice is also a concern for many houses.

But what do you do when you are a large house whose winery is maybe several miles away from the many vineyards you source from? Well worth listening to see how Ruinart responds to this challenge.

(10:30) Machine harvesting is forbidden in Champagne. Part of the reason is because machine harvesters can only harvest individual berries. They do this by using beater bars to separate the berries from clusters on the vine. If you’re curious, this short (2:18) ad video for a mechanical harvester gives a great inside view into how these harvesters work. Panaiotis thinks that even if someone developed a machine that could somehow harvest grapes whole cluster that it would still probably be outlawed.

Pressing Details
Photo by davitydave. Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-2.0

A modern bladder press.

(11:54) Panaiotis estimates that among the various presses used in Champagne, about half are modern bladder presses with the rest being the traditional Coquard basket press. Piper-Heidsieck has a quick 1 minute video of the Coquard press in action with Pinot noir. Note how the juice, even with the whole clusters, is already being tinted with color. And, yes, leaves and other MOG often gets thrown into these large batches.

(12:15) In Panaiotis’ opinion, 70-80% of the resulting quality of the wine comes from the pressing process. This is an interesting departure from the opinion that a lot of the quality of Champagne comes from the blending and time aging on the lees. From here he goes into a great description of the different cuts (cuvée and taille) that are separated in the pressing process. To explain this he uses a comparison that you can do in a vineyard while sampling a single grape berry.

(14:47) At Ruinart, Panaiotis likes using the taille for their non-vintage Champagnes. Here these cuts add roundness and fruitiness but there is a trade-off in decreased aging potential. In contrast, Ruinart’s vintage wines are almost all cuvée juice since the lower phenolics in this first cut is less prone to oxidation.

This makes me curious about the pressing philosophy of Champagne houses that value more oxidative styles like Krug.

Fermenting as separate lots or as regional blends

(16:10) When Kruth asks how Champagne producers keep the juice from different villages and vineyards separate, Panaiotis explains some of the logistical problems of that. While it is ideal to keep different villages separate, it may take you several days to receive enough lots from those villages to eventually fill an entire tank. That reality favors blending more regionally–like all the Côte des Blancs villages together.

I suspect this is more of an issue for large Champagne houses who presumably have very large tanks with several thousand liter capacities that need to be filled. Additionally, with so many contract growers there is probably a fair amount of variability in what kind of yield you can expect each year from different villages/vineyards, etc. In contrast, smaller growers who have been tending their own vines for generations probably know more precisely what they are getting and accordingly have smaller tanks that are easier to fill up and keep separate.

Another key point specific to Ruinart is that their house’s style is very reductive. If the tanks aren’t filled quickly, there is a risk of the juice oxidizing before fermentation takes off.

Style Differences

(17:14) At Ruinart, they aim for very clean and neutral flavors in their base wines. Along with wanting to avoid oxidation, they use sulfur on the juice to also knock back wild yeast so that they can inoculate with cultured yeast. Kruth notes that the impact of wild or native ferment produces flavors that get amplified during the secondary fermentation, something Panaiotis wants to avoid at Ruinart.

Lanson champagne

Lanson is another house that has historically avoided malolactic fermentation but has recently been experimenting with MLF on a few lots.

(19:30) Panaiotis likes the round mouthfeel that comes from initiating malolactic fermentation in the Champagnes of Ruinart. This is a stylistic decision relating to different Champagne house styles. Some producers, most notably Gosset, historically avoid malolactic fermentation so they can maintain natural acidity and aging potential. But the trade-off is mouthfeel and softness with even Gosset experimenting with having some batches going through MLF.

(20:24) A very interesting discussion on the different philosophy of using reserve wines in the blends of non-vintage Champagnes. Panaiotis describes the impact of using older versus young reserve wines on the resulting style of Champagne. He notes that Ruinart’s precise style favors using younger reserve wines while houses with a more mature style like Charles Heidsieck prefer using older reserve wines of up to 10 years of age.

Secondary Fermentation Issues

(24:18) Probably my biggest surprise was learning about the issues of calcium tartrates in Champagne. If wineries don’t remove these unstable tartrates via cold stabilization, there will be excessive foaming during disgorgement. Worst, this foaming could happen when the wine is opened by consumers–creating a mess. I always thought it was more about aesthetics with consumers mistaking the tartrate crystals for shards of glass.

(25:47) Another completely new thing I learned was that the actual length of time of the secondary fermentation is about 6 to 8 weeks. I always thought it was much quicker like primary fermentation which usually takes several days to a couple weeks. Panaiotis does note that as soon as 3 days after bottling you can start to see the dead lees collecting in the bottle.

(26:52) Panaiotis reveals that recent studies of the Champagne process is showing that oxygen intake through the crown cap or cork is just as impactful on the resulting flavor of the wine as autolysis is.

Oxidative vs Reductive
Bollinger Grande Annee

Bollinger Champagnes have been traditionally associated with an oxidative style of winemaking.

(28:22) Panaiotis goes into an in-depth discussion of oxidative versus reductive winemaking. He details many of the decisions that he has to make throughout the process to promote Ruinart’s reductive style including the unique technique of jetting. Here winemakers add a little bit of water or nitrogen (and sometimes sulfur) to the wine before corking to promote foaming that pushes out the oxygen. This short video (0:52) is in French but shows the process well.

(31:10) Kruth asks for example of major houses who follow the different styles. Panaiotis notes that along with Ruinart, Laurent Perrier, Mumm, Pierre Gimonnet, Pierre Moncuit and Pierre Peters are on the reductive side while Bollinger, Krug, Jacquesson and Jacques Selosse are on the oxidative side. He also notes that Pinot noir favors the more oxidative style. Interestingly, most of the houses he mentions that favor a reductive style tend to be Chardonnay dominant.

(37:40) Panaiotis notes that the CIVC legally limits how many grapes negociants can buy each year. While he didn’t seem completely certain, he estimates that the limit is a maximum of 30% above the equivalent of your previous year’s sales. I’m guessing the CIVC sets these rules to prevent stockpiling? But there is no law on the amount of land you can own. Another tidbit from Panaiotis, growers can buy up 5% of their grapes and still be considered a grower producer.

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