Just a quick post today as I’ll be traveling and studying over the next few days. I’m heading to London for my Sparkling and Fortified wine exams on the 22nd. (Wish me luck!) While I might be able to sneak in a 60 Second Review, I’ll wrap up my series on the superlatives and exceptions of Champagne when I get back.
However, as part of my studies, I’ve been reviewing several of my favorite podcasts on blind tasting that I thought I’ll share. If you know of anyone having blind tasting exams coming up, this is a great list to email them.
Interpreting Wine with Lawrence Francis
I haven’t written a full review of an Interpreting Wine episode yet. But after being recommended this podcast by Noelle Harman of Outwines, I’ve been really digging it.
Francis conducted an excellent series of interviews on blind tasting sparkling and fortified wines with (now) Master of Wine Christine Marsiglio and Jim Gore of the Global Wine Academy. They are absolute “must-listen” for anyone taking WSET Diploma exams.
I did a feature on the UK Wine Show covering episode 111 with Ian D’Agata. Chris Scott is a WSET educator for Levels 1-3, so his episodes give a good idea of what examiners are looking for. While not speaking to the Diploma level, these podcasts are still a very useful review of the WSET’s systematic approach to tasting.
I’ve featured the Guildsomm podcast on a couple of Geek Notes about Champagne. For wine students, it’s truly one of the best wine podcasts you could subscribe to.
The episodes below tend to take a very technical approach. While there are notable differences between the blind tasting exams for the Court of Master Sommeliers and those of the WSET/MW programs, piecing together the underlying theory is still the same.
As I mentioned in my post on the Top 5 YouTube Videos on Sherry Wine, GuildSomm also has a YouTube channel. This is another tremendous resource which often has videos on blind tasting. I’ll share below the first part (7:05) of a great series on playing 20 questions with blind tasting.
We’ve covered the exceptions of the Montagne de Reims and Vallée de la Marne in parts I and II of this series. Now we turn our focus to the Côte des Blancs, the “hill of whites.”
Coat of Arms of the Grand Cru village of Avize. Note the color of the grapes.
It’s almost an understatement to say that this region is universally known for world-class Chardonnay. Of all the superlatives in Champagne, this is one you can absolutely take to the bank.
So pretty short article today, eh?
Well, not quite.
I’ve still got a few geeky tricks up my sleeve–including one notable exception. But more importantly, we’re going to look at the why behind the superlative.
Why Chardonnay? And why does no one talk about planting Pinot noir here? After all, it’s also a highly prized noble variety. So why is the entire Côte des Blancs region planted to 85% Chardonnay with only 7% Pinot noir?
To answer that, we need to cut deep as we look at the sub-regions of the Côte des Blancs.
That last one, Montgueux, is a bit of a wild card. I can see why it is officially grouped with the Côte des Blancs. But it’s in the Aube department, just west of Troyes. In comparison to the other subregions, Montgueux is 60 km away from Sézanne and over 100km away from Avize. So I’m going to put this one aside till Part IV.
In Part I & II, I gave a few recommendations of helpful wine books and study tools. Today, I’ll add two more that I’ll be relying heavily on for this article.
Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay’s The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste – This is the perfect companion to Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson’s World Atlas of Wine. While the latter goes into geeky encyclopedic detail, The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste ties those details back to how they directly influence what ends up in your glass. Great book for blind tasting exams.
James E. Wilson’s Terroir: The Role of Geology, Climate, and Culture in the Making of French Wines – Not going to lie. This is not a bedtime read. Well, it is if you want a melatonin boost. While chockful of tremendous insight, this is a very dense and technical book. You want to treat this more as an encyclopedia–looking up a particular region–rather than something you go cover to cover with. But if you want to sharpen your understanding of French wine regions, it’s worth a spot on your bookcase. (Especially with used copies on Amazon available for less than $10)
When you think of the Côte des Blancs, think about the Côte d’Or.
Vineyards in the northern Grand Cru of Chouilly with the Butte de Saran in the background.
The Côte des Blancs is essentially Champagne’s extension of the Brie plateau (yes, like the cheese). Over time it has eroded and brought the deep chalky bedrock to the surface. Like the Côte d’Or, both the heart of the Côte des Blancs and Cote de Sézanne have east-facing slopes capped by forests with a fertile plain at the bottom.
This prime exposure is the first to receive warmth from the early morning sun. During the cold spring nights of flowering (after bud break), Chardonnay is most vulnerable as the earliest bloomer. It needs to get to that warmth quickly for successful pollination.
It’s a similar reason why growers in the Côte des Blancs avoid planting near the very top of the slope where there is more clay. The soils here are cooler and don’t heat up as quickly. Plus, being so close to the misty forest cap encourages wetter conditions that promote botrytis. As we covered in Part II, both Chardonnay and Pinot noir are quite sensitive to this ignoble rot.
Echoing back to Burgundy, we see that the most prized plantings of Chardonnay (notably the Grand Cru villages) in the Côte des Blancs are midslope. In the sparse areas where we do find Pinot noir and Pinot Meunier, it’s usually the flatter, fertile plains that have deeper topsoils.
The Tiny Exceptions.
This is the case with the premier cru village of Vertus. While still 90% Chardonnay, the southern end of the village sees more clay and deeper topsoils as the slope flattens and turns westward. This encourages a little red grape planting with fruit from the village going to houses like Duval-Leroy, Larmandier-Bernier, Delamotte, Louis Roederer, Moët & Chandon and Veuve Clicquot.
The village of Grauves is also an interesting case. In his book, Champagne, Peter Liem argues that this premier cru should actually be part of the Côteaux Sud d’Épernay. Looking at a good wine map, you can easily see why. It’s on the other side of the forest cap from the rest of the Côte des Blancs villages–opposite Cramant and Avize. Here most all the vineyards face westward. While Chardonnay still dominates (92%), we see a tiny amount of Meunier (7%) and Pinot noir (1%) creep in.
Likewise, in Cuis–where vineyards make an almost 180 arch from Cramant and Chouilly to Grauves–we see a range of exposures that adds some variety to the plantings (4% red grapes). The home village of Pierre Gimonnet, Cuis is still thoroughly Chardonnay country as a fruit source for Billecart-Salmon, Bollinger and Moët & Chandon.
This video (3:08) from Champagne Pierre Domi in Grauves has several great aerial drone shots of the area.
So you could say, why bother planting Pinot noir when you have such great Chardonnay terroir?
But there are other viticultural reasons for the Côte des Blancs to flavor Chardonnay over Pinot noir. For one, despite the topographical similarities to the Côte d’Or (and Côte de Nuits), the soil is much chalkier in the Côte des Blancs. While Pinot noir likes chalk, it is possible to have too much of a good thing.
Chalk has many benefits, but it also has a significant negative.
It’s high calcium content and alkaline nature encourages reactions in the soil that make vital nutrients like iron and magnesium scarce. Both are needed for chlorophyll production and photosynthesis. A lack of these nutrients can lead to chlorosis–of which Pinot noir is particularly susceptible.
The effects of chlorosis can be seen in the yellowing of leaves due to lack of chlorophyll. Considering that all the sugars that go into ripening grapes come from the energy production of photosynthesis, this isn’t great for a wine region that often teeters on the edge of ripeness–especially with Pinot noir.
There is also more lignitic clay down in the Val du Petit Morin and Marne Valley. This picture is from the website of Champagne Oudiette who has vineyards in both areas.
As James Wilson notes in Terroir, the “magical ingredient” to help balance these soils is lignite. In Champagne, lignitic clays are known as cendres noires or “black ashes.” Essentially compressed peat mixed with clay, the cendres noires helps hold these critical nutrients in the soil.
The Montagne de Reims, particularly around Bouzy and Ambonnay (which are home to quarries of cendres noires), naturally has more of this “magical ingredient.” While chlorosis can be an issue for Chardonnay as well–requiring the use of fertilizers or cendres noires to supplement the soil–the risk isn’t as grave.
However, there is one red grape stronghold in the Côte des Blancs.
While still paced by Chardonnay (52%), this is the one area of the Côte des Blancs where you’ll find villages dominated by something else. If you have a good wine map (and read Part II of our series), you’ll see why.
Cutting between the Côte des Blancs and Côte de Sézanne, the Petit Morin is an east-west river that brings with it a fair amount of frost danger. Also, like the Marne, we see more diversity in soils with alluvial sand and clay joining the chalk party.
The Petit Morin also flows through the marshes of Saint-Gond–which played a key role in the First Battle of the Marne during World War I. Swampy marshland (and the threat of botrytis) frustrates Chardonnay and Pinot noir just as much as it frustrated the Germans.
Among the notable villages here:
Congy– (50% Pinot Meunier/28% Chardonnay) The home village of the renowned grower Ulysse Collin. This estate was one of the first to bring attention to the Val du Petit Morin.
Étréchy – The only premier cru outside of the heart of the Côte des Blancs. Neighboring both Vertus and Bergères-lès-Vertus (so away from the river), this follows the narrative of many of its 1er and Grand Cru peers by being 100% Chardonnay.
Villevenard – (53% Pinot Meunier/37% Chardonnay) Along with Sainte-Gemme in the Vallée de la Marne Rive Droite, Leuvrigny in the Rive Gauche and Courmas in the Vesle et Ardre of the Montagne de Reims, this autre cru is a source of Meunier for Krug. It’s also the home of Champagne Nominé Renard whose relatives help pioneer Champagne production in the village.
The video below (6:15) tells a little bit about their story with views of the vineyards starting at the 2:14 mark. You can see here how different the soils look compared to the heart of the Côte des Blancs with the Grand Crus.
Côte de Sézanne
Just about every wine book will describe the Côte de Sézanne as a “warmer, southern extension of the Côte des Blancs.” The region certainly upholds the Chardonnay banner with the grape accounting for more than 75% of plantings.
But most of those wine books are going to ignore the Val du Petit Morin mentioned above. And they’re certainly going to ignore the influence that the swampy Marais Saint-Gond has on the northern villages of the Côte de Sézanne. Here we see villages like Allemant and Broyes, which, while still Chardonnay dominant, have more diversity than the near monovarietal heart of the Côte des Blancs.
Even going south to the namesake autre cru of Sézanne, we see nearly a third of the vineyards devoted to red grapes. Here, further away from the Val du Petit Morin, we still have a fair amount of clay in the soil. This, combined with the warmer climate, shapes not only the Chardonnays of the Côte de Sézanne (riper, more tropical) but also paves the way for red grape plantings.
In the village of Montgenost, south of Sézanne, we get firmly back to Chardonnay country (94%). This is the home turf of the excellent grower Benoît Cocteaux. While the video below (2:12) is in French, it does have some great images of the area.
If the Côte de Sézanne is the southern extension of the Côte des Blancs, then the Vitryat is its southeastern arm. And it’s even more of a “mini-me” than the Sézannais.
Of the 15 autre crus here, four are 100% Chardonnay-Changy, Loisy-sur-Marne, Merlaut and Saint-Amand-sur-Fion. Another four have 99% of their vineyards exclusive to the grape with no village having less than 95% Chardonnay. Yeah, it’s pretty much a white-out here.
Among the teeniest, tiniest of exceptions worth noting are:
Glannes – 97% Chardonnay/3% Pinot noir with fruit going to Moët & Chandon.
Vanault-le-Châtel – 99.1% Chardonnay, 0.3% Pinot noir with 0.6% other (Pinot gris, Pinot blanc, Arbane and/or Petit Meslier). Louis Roederer purchases fruit from here.
Vavray-le-Grand – 99% Chardonnay/1% Pinot noir. A source of fruit for Billecart-Salmon.
The village of Montgueux (which we’ll cover in Part 4) shares the same Turonian era chalk as the Vitryat sub-region. Both are different from the Campanian chalk of the Côte des Blancs and Côte de Sézanne.
Even as the Côte des Blancs exhibits the supreme superlative in its Chardonnay-dominance, looking under the covers always reveals more.
But the biggest takeaway that I hope folks are getting from this series is that both the exceptions and superlatives make sense. The combination of soils, climate and topography lend themselves more to some grape varieties over the other.
This is the story of terroir. The problems come when we start thinking of regions as monolithic and accepting, prima facie, the butter knife narrative about them. Even when the superlatives are overwhelmingly true (i.e., the Côte des Blancs is known for outstanding Chardonnay), the reasons why cut deeper.
We’ll wrap up this series with a look at the Côte des Bar.
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.
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.
When it comes to studying wine, I’m a fan of taking a multi-prong approach to learning. Reading wine books and crafting flashcards are great, but your goal should be more than just rote memorization.
To have the info really stick with you, you need to make it meaningful. That involves connecting the concepts to something else that you’ve already learned or experience. For me, that “experience” part is vital. Of course, the very best way to learn about a wine region is to actually visit the place and talk to the people who make it.
But that’s not always possible to do. So I find the next best thing is to seek connections between the material I’m learning to other audio and visual experiences. I’ve talked before about how useful I find wine podcasts to be in supplementing book learning. Often these podcasts feature interviews with people intimately connected to the wine I’m studying. I find that hearing, in their own voice, key insights will solidify these details more in my mind.
That takes care of the audio component, but what about the visual? What’s a good way to get a feel for a wine region and the culture that shapes its wines? This is where the oodles of free content on YouTube steps in.
Now not everything on YouTube is great.
While I’ve found tons of useful stuff, a lot of it is just “meh.” It takes a bit of effort to find the videos (especially in English) that have truly educational content. One of the things that you’re going to have to wade through is promotional material done by wineries, retailers & distributors. These aren’t necessarily bad (though I’ve found plenty of errors in many retailer & distributor videos). But you have to remember that the goal of these vids is more about selling wine than teaching.
I also recommend having some chamomile tea while studying Manzanilla. Not only is it a trademark tasting note but also the word “Manzanilla” is the Spanish name of chamomile.
There is also a lot of wine video content that focuses on wine reviews (a la Gary Vaynerchuck’s old WLTV format). Again, these aren’t bad but, from a wine student’s POV, there’s minimal value in the tasting notes of other people. You can read reviews if you want. Watching someone sniff, sip and spit on camera to tell you the same thing isn’t going to help you understand the influence of biological aging under flor any better.
But having a glass of Manzanilla yourself, though, can make a world of difference. Especially if you’re pairing that glass with watching aerial drone shots of just how close Sanlúcar de Barrameda is to the Atlantic’s influences while listening to a winemaker describe the conditions they need to maintain flor.
That will go much further in hammering home those fundamental concepts than any wine review ever will.
In compiling this list below, I focused on the videos that I think put a “face” on the Sherry wine region beyond pictures & descriptions in wine books. Not all of these videos will have stellar production value. But I do believe that everything here delivers enough meaningful content to warrant the time to watch them.
Of course, this list won’t be exhaustive. So if you know of another great Sherry wine video, please post them in the comments!
GuildSomm’s The Wines of Sherry (11:01)
By far, GuildSomm produces some of the best content that any wine student can find. Well worth subscribing to their channel!
At the (5:40) mark, there is an excellent demonstration of how the fractional blending of the solera system takes place. However, the narration and explanation of the tools used for this process is better in Jamie Goode’s short (2:39) video.
The Gastro Traveler’s All About Sherry! || The secrets behind Spain’s misunderstood wine! (10:09)
A great video to help you get a “feel” of the Jerez region with several worthwhile interviews. I also enjoyed paying attention to the writings and markings on the barrels during the bodega visits–spotting even a rare vintage Añada barrel at Tio Pepe at the (4:09) mark.
The Culinary Institute of America’s Sherry Wine of Andalucía (9:49)
It’s no surprise that a video from the CIA would focus a lot on the food pairing qualities of Sherry. But I found this immensely useful in developing blind tasting strategies for the various styles of Sherry by connecting them to food pairing concepts. Now when tasting a Sherry blind, I’ll let my mind wander towards what kind of food I want to pair it with–matching intensity & weight, bridge ingredients, etc. It’s been helping.
Paul Gormley & Antonio Souto’s Discovering Jerez/Sherry (25:28)
The Gormley video is not on the same scale when it comes to production quality as the previous three videos. It looks like a travel video from the early 1990s. But there is still some good content here with interviews and visuals of the region and winemaking.
In particular, I like where César Saldaña, the director of the Consejo Regulador, goes into more details about Sherry food pairings than he did in the CIA video above. For instance, I sometimes have difficulties distinguishing Amontillados from Olorosos. But at (5:23), Saldaña talks about pairing Amontillado with strong tuna and poultry while Oloroso is more for robust red meats. With Amontillados having more salinity and aldehydes from its partial time under flor, I can see those flavors going towards seared tuna much better than they would for a sirloin.
Vinos de Jerez TV’s Sherry Wines (6:58)
The dramatic music and narration of this video is hilariously hokey. However, even if you mute the audio, there are still a lot of great visuals of the vineyards and winemaking of Sherry. Starting at the 2:09 mark to 3:09, there is some cool “History Channel” type footage of Sherry’s history that I’ve not seen from other sources. It’s pretty much that one single minute of content as to why this video made the list.
But I will say, after a couple glasses of Sherry (and not spitting), the groan-worthiness of the over-the-top narration becomes immensely amusing.
BONUS: The Unknown Winecaster
This falls outside of my criteria of highlighting YouTube videos that give a “feel” for a wine region. But the Unknown Winecaster is a channel that every wine student should subscribe to. He did a four-part series on Sherry that is broken down into very manageable bites.
Screenshot from Part 2 of the Unknown Winecaster’s series on Sherry (July 20th, 2018)
Essentially these are free wine classes with high-level content delivered on Powerpoint that the Winecaster narrates. If you’ve ever taken an online university course, these winecasts will give you déjà vu. But I mean that as a compliment and testament to the academic quality of the material.
In my opinion, the best way to use these winecasts is as a review after you’ve done the bulk of your studying and just before you take your exam. If you start with these in the beginning, you’re going to get bogged down in taking notes instead of really listening or absorbing the content.
By using these winecasts as a review tool, you can sit back and focus only on the material that jumps out to you as unfamiliar. And, believe me, no matter how much you’ve studied or think that you have a region down pat, I guarantee you that the Unknown Winecaster will drop a little nugget of knowledge that you haven’t stumbled upon yet.
This triggered a light bulb moment in how the reflectiveness of the white Albariza soils helps with water retention.
It’s particularly crucial for wine students pursuing WSET certifications to be able to move beyond listing facts towards connecting those concepts to how it impacts the vine & wine.
Every wine student will memorize the advantages of Albariza.
It’s not very fertile.
It retains water.
The clay and silica mixed with the limestone form a crust to reduce evaporation.
It’s very crumbly and allows roots to penetrate deep.
It stays cool but reflects heat on the canopy to aid ripening.
That last part on reflectiveness is almost always connected in rote memorization to the impact on the grapes (staying cool to maintain what little acidity Palomino has as well as allowing leafier canopies for shading without jeopardizing ripeness). Yet, that albedo effect cooling also plays a key role in limiting the evaporation of the water in the soils. It makes perfect sense when you stop and think about it so I feel silly that it hadn’t clicked earlier. But it’s one of those connections that you often overlook when you’re memorizing flashcards.
This is the value in taking a multi-prong approach to your wine studies. You never know what’s going to flip that light switch.
Those are my picks. What’s your favorite wine video about Sherry?
A lot of my writings the past few months have been focusing on wine business and marketing topics. That’s always been an interest of mine that I’ve enjoyed exploring. But it’s also an area that I need to stay up on as part of my WSET Diploma studies and eventual attempt towards getting a Master of Wine.
All the images used in this post will come from a recent Mystery Grape. Can you figure out the grape?
The Wine & Spirit Education Trust and the Institute of Masters of Wine were both founded by figures in the wine trade and while their certifications require a broad depth of knowledge on grape varieties, wine styles, regions, winemaking and viticulture–the nature of the business of wine is always in the backdrop.
In fact, it is this inclusion of the global business of wine that most separates WSET and MW certifications from those of the Court of Master Sommeliers–which focuses instead on service topics.
There’s really not much online in a game format to help high-level wine students. A lot of wine games are tailored more towards newbie wine lovers. For myself, I was looking for a game to help with both blind tasting as well as deep-level wine knowledge of grape varieties.
I didn’t find what I was looking for, so I created it.
Be sure to look for secondary & tertiary aroma clues as well as primary notes.
Using photos featured on IG, I’ll post up to 10 clues relating to the identity of a particular wine grape. Players can answer by replying to the IG story or on a specific IG post that I do when the second batch of clues are live.
The next day I’ll highlight who got the correct answer first as well as other folks who got it right. I’ll also explain in the congratulation post many of the clues and often highlight a particular wine that exhibits a lot of the notable traits of the Mystery Grape.
It’s meant to be challenging. For the first batch of clues, I’m aiming for WSET Diploma/Advance Sommelier level knowledge with easier WSET 2 & 3/Certified Sommelier clues coming towards the end.
If you don’t get it, that’s alright. A lot of folks won’t. But I guarantee that you will learn something regardless.
Below I’ll give you some tips as I explain the game.
Here’s How It Goes.
Monday through Friday I’ll launch the game with the first clue being a wine map. This is going to be our starting base and is often an area that folks will encounter blind tasting examples from.
I’m going to feature plenty of grapes that aren’t included in blind tastings, but I do regularly reference the Court of Master Sommeliers’ list of Probable Red Grape Varieties and Probable White Grape Varieties. If you’re a wine student and don’t already have those pages bookmarked, you should bookmark them now.
The next 3 to 4 clues will be aroma and flavor clues.
It’s crazy how many white grape varieties have apples as a primary flavor.
Here is where I’m often going to get a little tricky because I’m not going to give you the dead-giveaway notes right away. I’m not going to post pictures of black currant, tobacco leaf, anise and cedar off the bat if I’m talking about Cabernet Sauvignon. Nor am I going to show you a map of Piedmont and then post pics of cherry, roses and tar for Nebbiolo.
Those items might come later on when I get to the WSET 2/3 level clues. But here I’m going to focus on some of the important but less obvious notes including young primary and secondary flavors as well as tertiary notes that come with age. I might also skip around the globe a bit. Many of these grapes are grown in multiple places and Diploma/Advance Sommelier candidates need to know those different notes.
However, the majority of the clues will pertain to the map region with other flavor notes being connected to regions that get brought up in subsequent clues.
The last clue (#6) of the first batch is usually a context clue.
This pic actually contained two clues that were fairly specific to a particular white Australian wine grape. It referenced both the nature of the grape and an unique aging note.
Many grapes within a wine region will have similar flavor profiles. I can have a map of France with notes of red plum, blackberry, tobacco, pepper and chocolate and it could refer to dozens of grapes. So I need to narrow the focus a bit. I’ll do that by tossing in a clue that is relatively specific to the Mystery Grape–such as that this grape can also be found in the Veneto, Abruzzo and Puglia regions as well. (If you have an idea of what grape I’m talking about, post it in the comments).
Now sometimes from this first batch, there will still be multiple contenders even with the context clue. Folks can take a stab at it, trying to be first. It depends on how generous I’m feeling with what kind of feedback I’ll give you if you’re wrong. Sometimes you might just have to wait for the next batch of clues.
Second Batch of Clues
Clues 7-10 will be more context clues hitting on history, wine styles and additional regions that our Mystery Grape is associated with. These often will tie back to the first batch of clues in some way.
I’ve been testing this game over the last month and found that I have players in the US, Europe and Australia. That pretty much makes a perfect time impossible. So I’m going to err on the sake of my sanity and go with the timing that works best for my schedule.
I’m in Paris so I will launch the game with the first batch of clues between 11 am to Noon CET. That will be 5-6am New York, 2-3am Seattle and 7-8 pm Sydney.
I know that kind of sucks for the Americans. But take solace in knowing that the first batch of clues is usually difficult enough that the Mystery Grape is often not solved until the second batch is posted.
The second batch will be released between 6-9 pm Paris time. That will be Noon-3 pm New York, 9 am to Noon Seattle and 2-5 am Sydney. Here is where it kind of sucks for the Australians but there have been some savvy Australians who have gotten the Mystery Grape with the first batch.
Again, my apologies that outside of Europeans, there is always going to be time zone issues for someone. But, hey, in the end, it’s all about having fun and learning something. The IG stories last up to 24 hours before they’re deleted so anyone can play at any time.
The best way to approach it is to set a personal goal of trying to guess the grape with as few clues as possible. Then try to beat your best the next day.
A Few More Tips
At first blush you might think this is a clue for a blue floral note. But the other clues are referencing a white grape. However, look at the user name from the image @saffron.tabuma. That and clicking on the image to look at the tags, should help you realize that this is saffron. This note come out in certain white wines that have been “influenced” by something.
If you don’t understand a clue, it’s always a good idea to click on the picture and go to the original image page. Often the caption and #hashtags will give more context. I’m very deliberate in which image I choose and usually I will select images with specific hashtags.
Plus, sometimes the image I select is from an album of pictures taken by the Instagram user. I don’t consider those other album photos when I choose the clue image. But I have seen many times where they provide insight into wine regions that the Mystery Grape is associated with. Plus, they are usually cool images to look at too.
It’s okay to Google. Especially with the second batch, there is almost always a google-able detail that will lead you to the Mystery Grape. It’s not cheating if it helps you learn something.
Don’t expect the obvious, but also don’t overthink it. Yes, this game is meant to be challenging. But sometimes your gut from the first batch of clues turns out to be right. The same thing often happens with blind tasting. You never want to lock yourself in on one answer too early before you’ve fully evaluated the wine. However, you should always take note of what your gut instinct was.
You can head over to Instagram now to take a look at today’s game. There you will also see posts from several of the last few games featuring grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Malvasia, Grolleau, Zinfandel, Pinot blanc, Rondo, Petit Verdot, Pinotage, Albarino and more.
You will see both “clue posts” as well as bottle pic congratulation posts. Those latter posts will explain many of the clues along with a featured wine made of the Mystery Grape.
BTW, how did you do?
Could you guess the French grape with some Italian flirting that I used as an example in the “Clue 6” section? Or how about the previous Mystery Grape referenced in the article’s images? Let me know in the comments below.
Yeah, I know. Twitter can be a bunch of noise and nonsense. But like with every social media platform, it’s only as useful or useless as you make it. One way to steer Twitter towards the former is by checking out the wine-themed Twitter chats that happen every week. These chats offer an excellent opportunity to learn more about wine and to connect with other passionate wine geeks.
That latter point is key because the more good wine accounts you follow–and engage with–the less drudge and drivel you’ll find in your feed. I don’t fully understand all the wonkery behind Twitter’s algorithms that decide what you see and when you see it. But I can vouch that my feed got populated with a lot more quality wine content as soon as I started participating in more Twitter wine chats.
What the heck is a Twitter wine chat?
Twitter chats are virtual meet-and-greets centered around a common theme. They are usually hosted by a blogger or someone in the industry who moderates the discussion and may feature a special guest. While they can feel like a free-for-all, there are some etiquette rules and coordination (which I’ll discuss below) that adds structure.
But the biggest thing to remember is that they are open for everyone to participate. You don’t have to be a blogger or someone in the wine industry to share your thoughts or follow the conversation. In fact, these chats are often greatly enriched by the presence of non-industry folks because it helps break the bubble that the wine world is prone to inducing.
Many chats have a primary Twitter account (such as this one for #SommChat) where you can see when the next chat is and who the featured guest will be.
What’s in it for me?
For the regular wine lover, there are several benefits of participating in Twitter wine chats. As we already noted, a significant one is finding more great wine accounts to interact with. But others include:
1.) An escape from the real world to get your geek on for at least an hour.
Cause that’s what social media is all about–an escape. Rather than keep scrolling, hitting like and moving on, you can actually have some real wine convos with other like-minded folks. Often these chats are fun, even silly, little breaks from everyday life.
2.) Learning about new wines and recommendations.
Though I will add one huge caveat here as many wine chats are sponsored by wineries or regional associations. For the most part, blogger participants are upfront in noting that the wines they’re talking about have been sent to them as samples or that a post they’re linking to was paid for. But sometimes that can get hazy.
Keep an open mind but be aware that just like with everything on the internet, there are often other angles at play. That said, there are a lot of independent commentaries in these chats. I’ve seen many bloggers give very blunt and truthful assessments of sample wines. But I’m not going to lie. There can be a little dog & pony show fluffery in some of these sponsored chats. However, I wouldn’t be personally following or interested in any of the ones I listed below if there wasn’t enough substance to keep me satiated.
What’s in it for wine students?
Wine students absolutely need to have a global perspective on what is happening in the wine world. This makes participating in wine chats with users across the globe a sorely-needed benefit. For myself, as an American now living abroad, every week that I check out the #UKWineHour, I’m always startled at how different the UK wine scene is compared to the US. From pricing/discounting to marketing approaches, it’s like a whole other world.
Suddenly it made sense why I struggled my first-go-around with the WSET Diploma unit on the Global Business of Wine. My American-centrism was a huge blind spot for me. Apart from actually going to London, participating in the #UKWineHour chat has been one of the best answers to that blind spot.
Even outside of the chat times, the #ukwinehour hashtag is well worth following.
Most chats will kick off with some housekeeping rules about how the topic of the day is going to be discussed. Often these involve the host asking questions which are usually numbered (Q1, Q2, etc.) with chat followers responding by labeling their answers in a similar fashion (A1 to respond to Q1, A2 for Q2 and so forth).
The key is always to include the hashtag. What I try to do is keep my cursor highlighted on the chat’s page so that I can copy & paste it first into the response box with a couple of clicks. This is important because the hashtag is the lifeblood of the chat and what tethers everything together.
My low-tech solution for remembering to include the hashtag. Just keep a page open with the tag highlighted.
Without it, you’re mainly talking into the void and will be mostly baffling the folks who follow your regular feed. It’s also a courtesy for your followers who may want to mute the hashtag for a short time because, honestly, feeds can get pretty spammy during chat hours.
My secret? Multiple tabs
I’m sure there are more tech-savvy ways to juggle Twitter wine chats, but I take the simple three tab approach.
1.) One tab opened with the #hashtag set on the latest tweets.
2.) One tab on my notifications so I can respond to things personally directed at me.
3.) One tab on my regular Twitter feed where I can type out a message that isn’t a direct response to someone.
My three tab system. Probably not the most elegant solution but, eh, it works.
This works well for me, but anyone that has their own system is welcomed to share their secrets in the comments.
A couple more tips.
Don’t feel like you have to respond to everything or answer every question. However, if someone does tag or responds to you directly, it is polite to at least acknowledge them with a like. But you can do this after the chat is over by going back through your notifications.
Try to keep your conversations under the chat hashtag on topic. This is where chats can quickly go array. If a great side conversation emerges between you and other users, just drop the hashtag from your replies.
Be considerate of mobile users, especially when replying with gifs and videos. This can make participating in chats brutal when you don’t have the best internet connection. There have been some chats when the gif spam is flying and I just have to check out.
Twitter Wine Chats
The chats below are ones that either I personally participate in or am interested in following because wine folks who I respect have recommended them. Part of the reason why this post exists is to be my own personal cheat sheet of when these chats happen and the relevant hashtags.
I have them ordered based on days on the week they usually happen on–starting with Monday. Times listed will be in PST (West Coast US), EST (East Coast US), BST/GMT (British Standard Time) and CET (Central European Time–where I am).
Weekly chat hosted by three bloggers, Li, Cara & Maggie, who also run the @WiningHourChat account. This is one that I haven’t personally followed or observe much as the time makes it pretty impossible for those of us in Europe to participate in. They cover various topics and will sometimes have featured guests.
Time: 6 pm PST, 9 pm EST, 2 am BST, 3 am CET most Tuesdays.
A weekly chat moderated by the Keeper Collection in Texas (@keepercoll) under the @sommchat account. This is definitely geared more towards sommeliers and other industry folks with featured guests and a geekier bent than a lot of other chats.
Time: 9 am PST, Noon EST, 5 pm BST, 6 pm CET most Wednesdays.
Founded by Dave Razzari (@_drazzari) and moderated by the #PinkSociety Twitter handle (@thepinksociety_) with Lin (@boozychef) and Joe Florez (@jflorez), this is more of a social chat. It’s kind of like a drinking party on Twitter that everyone is invited to. Can be a great source for wine humor and fun accounts to follow. Often sponsored by wineries.
Time: 6 pm PST, 9 pm EST, 2 am BST, 3 am CET every 3rd Thursday, except in the summer when it’s every other Thursday. Next chats will be 5/30/19, 6/20/19 and 7/11/19.
A monthly food and wine pairing event with a different blogger hosting. Often this event is sponsored with bloggers pairing sampled wines with various food dishes. An excellent chat for foodies but, be forewarned–it will make you hungry.
Time: 8 am PST, 11 am EST, 4 pm BST, 6 pm CET on the 2nd Saturday of the month.
Basically the French-themed counterpart to the #ItalianFWT chat. A monthly event with a different blogger hosting. Sometimes they select the topic, but other times it may be sponsored by a winery or regional association.
Time: 8 am PST, 11 am EST, 4 pm BST, 6 pm CET on the 3rd Saturday of the month.
Know of any others?
I’m always looking for good chat recommendations. Post your favorite Twitter wine chat down below in the comments, when it takes place and why you think it’s worth following.
Today was a gorgeous 69 degree (20.6°C) day in Paris. In my old stomping grounds of Seattle, it was mostly sunny and 52°F (11°C). There is no doubt that Spring is on our doorsteps.
I’m going to be apartment hunting over these next few weeks looking for a permanent place to call home. A big priority for the wife and I will be to find a flat with plenty of natural light. My Parisian dream is to curl up on the couch with a good book in the afternoon light with the ambient sounds of the city below.
Even though I’ve got around 20 boxes of books currently on a boat, I’m always on the lookout for more. With that, let’s take a look at a few recent releases that intrigue me.
Now that I’m in the land of a 1000 cheeses, I feel like this is a subject that I need to bone up on.
I already own Steven Jenkins’ Cheese Primer which is kind of like The Wine Bible of cheese. It’s a great book that I wholeheartedly recommend but it is a bit dense (576 pages) and likely outdated (1996).
While Jenkins’ book does touch a little on wine pairing, I’m very intrigued at Jones & Lindsley new work offering more of a pairing focus across a variety of beverages. This could come in handy as I start using the SpitBucket Instagram page to catalog my quest to try as many new cheeses as I can.
Archeological sites where evidence of ancient wine and olive oil making have been found.
I was a history geek long before I was a wine geek, so anything with the words “wine” and “history” in the title is sure to capture my excitement. Two of my all-time favorite wine history books are Hugh Johnson’s Vintage (sadly no longer in print) and Patrick McGovern’s Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture.
Both of those books devote chapters to the viticultural history of the Middle East (more so in McGovern’s work) but as part of a greater overview of wine history.
But don’t let their slim size fool you. These books are chockful of great details that both wine geeks and newbies will find worthwhile. They not only give you a feel for the land and key producers but are particularly invaluable for anyone planning to visit these regions. I got immense use out of the Burgundy book during my trip there last year which sold me on this entire series.
Beyond travel plans, anyone who is studying for French wine certification is well advised to take a look at Lewin’s books. You won’t find a better value among study materials.
Oz Clarke is a legendary wine writer who is highly regarded for his wit and highly personable presentation style. His latest offering tackles the changing dynamics of the wine world today. This includes chapters on Portugal’s growth out of the shadows of Port, the impact of climate change on the “cool climate” regions of Germany, Austria and Switzerland, England’s growing sparkling wine industry and more.
While not necessarily a buying guide–at 656 pages–Red & White features several of Clarke’s buying tips and favorite producers.
January and February are the doldrums of winter. They don’t feature the festivities of December–only snow, freezing cold and dark gray days. It just plain sucks. But eventually March and spring will be on the horizon.
One of the trademark clues of Gruner Veltliner in a blind tasting is the presence of white pepper. This comes from the compound rotundone that forms naturally in the grapes.
While we’re popping vitamin D supplements and counting down the days till pitchers and catchers report, let’s take a look at a few new and upcoming wine books.
I own the original 2014 edition of Burton’s book that he did with James Flewellen. It is handy but, in all honesty, I’m not sure it’s correctly named.
What I had initially hoped for was a book that would teach you some of the tips and tricks to blind tasting. Like for instance, if you detect black or white pepper in a wine, you should know that is caused by the compound rotundone.
There are only a handful of grape varieties that contain this compound–most notably Syrah, Grüner Veltliner, Mourvèdre, Petite Sirah and Schioppettino. Detecting this during a blind tasting flight is a huge clue. Furthermore, anecdotal and some scientific analysis has shown that cooler climates and vintages increase the concentration of rotundone and “pepperiness” of the wine. This can be another clue in nailing down wine region and vintage.
That was the kind of insight and details that I was hoping for with Burton and Flewellen’s book. You get a little but not quite to the extent I was looking for in a book marketing itself as a blind tasting guide. Instead, The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting tilts more to the “Guide to Wine” side offering a (very well done) overview of the major regions and wines of the world.
Chapter 4 does walk you through the blind tasting process and the Appendix gives a “crib sheet” of common flavors and structure which is very useful. But that’s about it.
However, I’m still buying this new edition
Example of the blind tasting “crib sheets” in the appendix of the first edition of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting.
That’s because it’s an excellent guide to wine that is similar to Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay’s The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste: A Field Guide to the Great Wines of Europe. Burton’s book doesn’t list benchmark producers like Parr’s book does but they both highlight the distinction of terroir that shows up in the wines from various regions. They’re a bit like condensed versions (362 and 352 pages, respectively) of Karen MacNeil’s Wine Bible (1008 pages) with a bit more focus on the taste profiles and terroir of each region.
I’ve gotten plenty of good use out of the first edition of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting to make the new version a worthwhile investment. Plus, it is possible that this updated version will go more into those blind tasting details that I crave.
Back in November, I highlighted Loren Mayshark’s Inside the Chinese Wine Industry which has been a great read. As I noted in that edition of Geek Notes, China is a significant player on the global wine market. While the interest of the industry has been mostly on their buying power, the large size and diverse terroir of mainland China offer exciting potential for production.
A bronze Gu, or ceremonial wine vessel, from the Shang Dynasty dating to the 12th or 11th century.
But both of those were written by non-native writers. That is what make’s Janet Z. Wang’s Chinese Wine Renaissance intriguing. Wang spent her childhood in China before moving to the United Kingdom as a teenager. There she studied Chinese history and culture before developing an interest in wine while at Cambridge.
Now she runs her blog, Winepeek, and contributes to Decanter China. In between her writings, she teaches masterclasses on Chinese wine.
On her blog, she has a slideshow with wine tasting suggestions that gives a sneak peek into what her book covers. With a foreword and endorsement from Oz Clarke, I have a feeling that Wang’s book is going to become the benchmark reference for Chinese wine.
Now granted, Costco doesn’t sell many Cremants. This might explain why the Costco Wine Blog folks were so blown away by this $20 Champagne. But compared to many Cremant de Bourgogne and Alsace in the $15-20 range, it was fairly ho-hum.
While these books aren’t going to be helpful for Diploma students, they are great resources for folks taking WSET Level 1 and Level 2 as well as Certified Specialist of Wine exams. I particularly liked how Decoding Italian Wine went beyond just the big name Italian wine regions such as Chianti, Brunello and Barolo to get into under-the-radar areas like Carmignano, Gavi and Sagrantino di Montefalco.
Plus for $9-10, the books are super cheap as well.
I am a sucker for reprints of classical texts. I especially adore ones featured in the bibliographies of seemingly every great wine history book. Such is the esteem that the British journalist Cyrus Redding holds among Masters of Wines like Hugh Johnson, Jancis Robinson and Clive Coates.
Redding passed in 1870 so he didn’t get a chance to witness the full scale of devastation on French vineyards caused by phylloxera. This cartoon is from an 1890 magazine that describes the pest as “A True Gourmet” that targetted the best vineyards.
First published in 1860, French Wines and Vineyards gives a snapshot of the French wine industry in the mid 19th-century. Written just after the 1855 Bordeaux classification and only a few years before phylloxera would make its appearance in the Languedoc in 1863, Redding documents a hugely influential time in the history of French wines.
Pairing this book with a reading of the 19th-century chapters in Hugh Johnson’s Vintage and Rod Phillips’ French Wine: A History would be a fabulous idea for wine students wanting to understand this key period.
One additional tip. Hardcover editions of classic texts look nice on the shelf. But if you’re a frequent annotator like me then you probably want to go paperback. Forgotten Books released a paperback version of Redding’s work back in 2017 that you can get a new copy of for less than $12 right now.